Gayle Forman is the author of If I Stay, the source for this week’s movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz as Mia, a talented young cellist in a coma following a car accident. As she hovers between life and death, she remembers incidents from her life with her family and with her rock musician boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley). Ms. Forman wrote a touching essay for the New York Times describing the tragic loss that helped inspire the characters in the book.
It was a great pleasure to talk with Ms. Forman about how she thought about the music in the book and what she learned from her travels around the world.
How did you establish the properties and parameters of what Mia could see and remember while she was in a coma?
To some degree there was this intrinsic sense of how the state would be. At one point I did write myself a list of rules just to make sure I wasn’t violating it. And then I think there are maybe one or two little references to it just so you can kind of clarify it to readers but I really did want to make it clear that this is solitary state that she was in and that this was very particular to her. She was wondering why there were not other people in the hospital because she was not seeing them. She wondered whether other people were experiencing what she was. And she asked those questions and there is no answer because she was alone in this at that moment.
The music is so critical to the story and yet in a book you can’t hear music. You have to describe it. Did you listen to music while you were writing it? Did you have particular songs or musicians in mind?
It’s so funny because it wasn’t until after the book was done and people were reading it and started remarking about how much music was in it that I went back and realized that (a) I had name-dropped a lot of songs and bands and (b) that even the way the characters related was sort of musical I think. There was a part where Mia talked about her feelings for Adam and compared it to a tuning fork. So I think part of it was that when you’re in the mindsets of musical characters that’s what happens because I’ve written other books where the characters are not musicians and it certainly did not have the same amount of music in it.
In terms of listening to music, I had this little Pavlovian trick which was that I would listen the song Falling Slowly from the movie Once. I would listen to it before I start writing and then I would start to cry. I’m not sure why I would start to cry because the movie is not that sad, it’s melancholy but the song is not sad. There was something about that song, it was just like an emotional trigger for me. And it wasn’t even like a sad cry it was like an emotional fullness crying and it would put me the right state of mind to write. It’s almost like your subconscious knows what you need to listen and when you need to listen to stuff and when you don’t.
Why did you chose to set it in the northwest?
You know it’s interesting. Partially it was because it was it was where that part of my life happened. It was like falling in love, I met my husband when we were in Oregon and I met this wonderful group of friends when we were in Oregon, so falling in love and music is all tied up in Oregon. It’s also a part of the world where it snows an inch and everything shuts down and we don’t know what to do about it. So the whole premise of the snow day works there. It’s Oregon and it’s weird because I went to college there and I did not love living there and yet it seems to have stamped itself on my literary DNA because I keep returning to it for novels.
You travelled a lot when you were young. How did that affect you as a writer? How did that inspire you as a writer?
I think traveling made me who I am. When I was 16 I was an exchange student in England and that was the year that I kind of feel like I was on the road going one direction in life and it just kind of shifted me over and I finished high school and I went traveling for three more years instead of going to college. And so it’s impacted me in a lot of different ways. It sort of I think made me probably more of empathetic person than I would otherwise be. Because you kind of learn how it feels to look at things from a different points of view. I think that that served me well when I was a journalist. I think it also made me a little bit more willing to take risk. Every time you sit down to write a novel it’s a leap of faith and think that the willingness to do that sometimes is the scariest part. People always ask me what is the hardest part of traveling around the world. I think they think it’s the saving of the money or the planning and I always see the hardest part as deciding that I would do it. It was such a leap of faith and the rest of that was a matter of meticulous planning and saving.
That question of empathy comes into play because you wrote a sequel to this book that was from the perspective of another character. Why do it that way?
I’ve done it twice now. I think I’ve done a duet of duets, for different reasons and I don’t see doing it again for the foreseeable future. I didn’t have any intention to write a follow up but what happened was I was writing this entire other book which I actually wrote and revised and turned in but all the time that I was writing it I was waking up at four in the morning. The characters from If I Stay were waking me up and yelling at me like, “Where have you left us?” Because even though the book ends on a hopeful note they have really some hardship along the way.
So I didn’t want to contemplate those years along the way. So I kind of just skipped ahead. I kind of saw where they were and it was Adam’s story that started to take shape. I and actually was ready to start revising the other book and it was already scheduled to be published and I told my editor, I said “Nope, I want to hold on to that one.”
But with Just One Day/Just One Year it was more intentional. You’ll read one and you’ll sort of have one half of the story, you’re pretty sure about things and then you read the other and then you’re like, “Oh wait, I had it wrong.” I think that you have this hopefully satisfying experience as a reader being able to see the complete narrative in a way that neither of the characters can. It goes back to that sense of what happens when you travel, an understanding that sometimes it’s the perspective that just changes the narrative completely. It was very interesting in Just One Day/Just One Year just exploring that idea.
Adam is such an endearing character. Tell me a little bit about him.
Adam is inspired by or based on my husband. He was like this sweet bighearted lovely indie rock musician when I met him. He was my first love and I felt hard for him. And so when I was first writing that love story, when I first started writing, I didn’t realize that that relationship was going to be such an important one. I didn’t realize it until I wrote that first date scene and then I was like, “Oh, this is something real,” and then it kind of added a dimension. It created that tug of war in her life before the accident that becomes all the more amplified in the tug of war after. So that’s where the Adam in If I Stay came from and then with Where She Went I really liked writing that Adam so much because it was sort of interesting to look at grief and unconditional love through somebody one degree removed, who maybe didn’t feel like he had the same right to grieve as the people directly affected and what happens when you don’t own your feelings. It’s so caustic. You know no matter what, you feel what you feel but I think sometimes you’re ashamed around your feelings. Sometimes if you feel like “Oh, I don’t have the right to feel that way,” what happens after that is terrible. It was so interesting to see what happens and I felt so terrible for him and then just really grew to love him even more.
So much of the book and movie are Mia’s memories about her wonderful family.
Mia has fights with her parent, she has times when she can’t stand her mom and when her brother is annoying but she’s not thinking about those when she’s in her ghostly state because she knows what she has lost. She is thinking about the beautiful high points which sometimes are just these quiet days in her life but there are the days which really illustrate the love. So that’s why you don’t the typical fights of course she would’ve had with her parents. She’s thinking about these moments that will never be again. I didn’t know what her decision was going to be until halfway about through the book. I didn’t have it in mind. I knew the end of the book would be her decision but not what the decision would be. And people asked me why I made the choice that I did. I don’t necessarily I have an answer for that one. I just think Mia has so much still to live for. As Kim says you still have a family, and she does. There so many way to define a family and she has Adam of course. But she has music which has been a singular force of her life and she’s also steely and strong and through the course of that day I think she has always been strong. And when you see her family and kind of love that she marinated in for 17 years you understand where that strength comes from and she can really harness that. But it could also just be I was too wussy. I just couldn’t bear it because I love her too much.
Does every teenager feel like a Martian born into an Earth family at times?
I think every teenager feels like a Martian in something whether it’s in their family I think or in their school. I think every teenager, every human being has a sense that they don’t belong somewhere. Every human being has a sense when something good happens of them like “Why me? I don’t know that I deserve this? Why do you think I’m special?” I think those are universal, those feelings of insecurity. We all feel that way, so that’s why seeing something in a book or film makes you feel like “Yes” because it’s so nice to know that you’re not alone out there.
Right, we’re all Martians together.
We’re all Martians together, I guess, beautifully put.