I originally conducted this interview with Aminah Mae Safi for blog tour promoting the Ontario Teen Book Fest blog, but the event has since been canceled due to the coronavirus. But I still wanted to share this interview, especially since This Is All Your Fault releases on October 13th!
Q&A with Aminah Mae Safi
Tell us about a little bit about your upcoming novel, This Is All Your Fault. What was your inspiration for the story?
I grew up watching so many iconic 90s films. EMPIRE RECORDS was one of them. It’s about a bunch of teenaged workers who try to save their dying independent record store from going under in just one day, during the record retail apocalypse of the late 90s. It’s also got Liv Tyler, Renée Zelleweger, and Robin Tunney, who are all, in my opinion, icons.
I was rewatching EMPIRE RECORDS and I thought about how fitting the overall concept was for independent bookstores today— which to me, are one of my favorite and most beloved community spaces (that and local libraries, in case you were wondering) that are currently under threat. What I noticed particularly during this re-watch was that the point of view characters in the movie are actually the boys. But the through line of the story is largely that of these three young women.
So I kept noodling on that and I wondered. If you translated EMPIRE RECORDS to a bookstore and then you centered the story around three young women, what would happen?
THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT is what happened for me. Three girls. Just one day. All trying to work together to save their dying, Chicago indie. That was the heart of the story.
This Is All Your Fault stars three characters. What was your process like in creating them and making their voices different?
One thing that helps me is that I start my characters out as archetypes. That allows me to delineate who they are and keep their voices separate from the get-go.
Daniella is a cool girl and a poet. Rinn is a bookstagrammer and a try-hard. Imogen is an angry girl and a great observer. These archetypes provide me with the decision making framework. Then I think about what each girl loves, what they value, what they protect. The more I write, the more fleshed out they become.
THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT was particularly fun because I got to introduce each girl and then what they each thought of each other. None of it was flattering, but it all helped me dial in how they thought of themselves, how they thought of their world in this independent bookstore in Chicago, and how they thought of each other.
I always give my characters space to grow and change throughout their plots, because growth is what drives my own interest as I write and as I read fiction. I love watching people change. I love watching people choose to be the next and the better versions of themselves. I love approaching characters without judgement and starting with this kind of framework helps me do that.
Your sophomore novel, Tell Me How You Really Feel, prominently features LA. If someone was to visit the city for the first time, which three places would you recommend they check out?
1. Any of the museums, really, but The Getty is my favorite. It’s got views of all of Los Angeles, a manageable collection, and spectacular gardens. The museum itself is free (though the parking charge now breaks my local heart and has gone up to twenty dollars a car). But it’s the place I go when I want to get away, while still staying right in the heart of the city.
2. Catch a movie! There are tons of outdoor showings, along with old 35mm theaters. There’s Hollywood Forever, Street Food Cinema, The New Beverly, The Aero in Santa Monica. Look up some showtimes and check out a movie— we might be infamous for being a city full of beautiful, fake people but we’re mostly just movie lovers at heart and that love of going to the movies is one of my favorite locals-only things about LA that isn’t the same anywhere else I’ve lived.
3. Late night diners (and delis)! Everyone’s got an opinion on this. The Original Pantry. Fred 62. Langer’s. Swinger’s. Brite Spot. Canter’s. I put Factor’s in my book (it’s only open until 9 pm, rather than all night or late night) not because it’s my favorite, but because everyone has their own opinion and everyone has their own favorite. I think the diners and delis of LA are some of the best kinds of institutions and are worth seeking out when you’re here.
What has changed/stayed the same about your writing process over the course of your three novels?
I’m a very recursive writer and I don’t see that changing. I wrote about it here for PubCrawl more in depth if anyone wants to take a look — http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2019/01/16/plotters-pantsers-and-bill-murray/ — but the long and the short of it is I tend to go in circles, re-read, and move forward as I write. Particularly when I’m starting.
But I have learned to be much, much more efficient with this now. I did not start out as an outliner, but I use them for every project now. This allows me to do my same recursive pattern, but more quickly. Instead of re-writing chapters, I’m re-writing and honing in on sections of the outline. I listened to an episode of First Draft Pod where Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka were being interviewed, and they talked about how their outline is so long it’s almost a short first draft. I think of my outlines in this context— as short first drafts where I’m telling myself the story.
This gives me room to re-write and to circle back. It gives me structure. It also gives me a lot of wiggle room as I’m plotting.
I also still love starting with character because I love characters and I love that I get to hang out with them for months as I write their story.
Which YA books would you recommend to a reader who loves your novels and is looking for something similar?
If you’re looking for queer romance, I love THE SUMMER OF JORDI PEREZ by Amy Spalding and LATE TO THE PARTY by Kelly Quindlen
If you’re looking for YA romance, I love IF IM BEING HONEST by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka, THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL by Maurene Goo, and MY SO-CALLED BOLLYWOOD LIFE by Nisha Sharma
If you’re looking for character driven work, I love both of Bridget Morrissey’s YA books, but most particularly WHEN THE LIGHT WENT OUT which is a beautiful meditation on grief, friendships, and family (both found and given).
I’m personally a huge fan of SAVING FRANCESCA by Melina Marchetta, all of Jane Austen’s books, and an embarrassing amount of Victoriana (hello, Mrs. Gaskell and NORTH AND SOUTH) if you wanna fangirl about any of that with me at the festival!