What if you got to write the sort of books you were desperate for as a teen?
An interview with Camryn Garrett
I’ve been following Camryn Garrett for years now. How did I start? Probably we started talking to each other about celebrity in the replies to a mutual’s tweet. That’s often how this sort of thing happens. What I knew was that as a teen, she’d written a massively popular and truly groundbreaking YA Book about navigating life and sex as a teen who was born HIV+……and that I loved reading her tweets on her media studies and filmmaking classes. In those years since I started following her, she’s published another book (Full Disclosure, which we discuss below), written a third (about a queer teen who wants to have a coming out party instead of a sweet sixteen) that’s coming out next Spring, and is the process of writing yet another (this one with a Black Elle Woods character, also described below). Oh, and she just graduated from college earlier this month.
I don’t think doing things that adults normally do when you’re young makes you special or spectacular. I think Camyrn’s work is special and spectacular because the work, itself, is special and spectacular. I’m so glad she took the time to share some of her thoughts on why fanfic matters, how her college classes have altered her thinking, and her Hall of Fame YA picks. I hope you’ll check out her work — for any teens in your life, but also for yourself.
Who or what first made you think: I can do this?
I think reading The Outsiders in eighth grade and realizing that the author was a teenager when she wrote it really made me feel like there was no reason why I couldn’t publish a book, especially since that was also the year that I was a TIME For Kids reporter. That year I interviewed authors Tim Federle and RJ Palacio and I basically got to talk to two authors I really liked about their process, which was really invaluable, especially as someone so young.
I just finished reading your book Off the Record, which focuses on the story of a young culture writer — still in high school — figuring out how to navigate the world of online writing (and the politics of culture journalism, just generally). You yourself became a reporter at age 13, and have published two books while enrolled in school, and the richness of your own experiences really comes through in the crafting of Josie — she doesn’t feel like, a Teen Phenom Who Figured Everything Out, she feels like an anxious but really insightful writer trying to figure out just how confident she is in her voice and perspective. What feels different between your own experience and Josie’s?
Ah, this means so much to hear! I think what’s different between the two of us is that I had already decided that I wanted to write fiction and go to film school by the time I wrote this book, so it felt like our paths diverged in a big way.
I think Josie is this really internal character and that was a fun part of the challenge. I wanted to make sure that a lot of what we learn about her comes from her inner monologue and not really from things she says to other people. I, on the other hand, think TIME for Kids effectively cured me of my shyness and now I tend to overshare. I’ll tell people things like, “Oh, my dad is dead,” like five minutes into a conversation. If I’m anxious, I go inside my head a lot, but then I try to force it all out. That means I usually send really rambling texts to my poor friends. I think Josie would have to be pushed to share that way while that’s usually my first outlet.
You’ve talked a lot about how your interest (and participation!) in fan fiction helped you envision and write the characters you wanted to see in your own work. I know a lot of Culture Study readers are/have been deep in that world as well, and would love hear more about the communities you’ve been a part of, your first attempts at writing your own, whether you continue to write….and why fanfic matters, just generally.
I’m jealous that Rainbow Rowell wrote the book Fangirl back in 2013 because I would’ve loved to write that exact book. The fic community is so cool because there are people who can write full novels based on someone else’s IP and then they’re, like, a professor or an EMT in real life. The idea of people writing so much and sharing it just because they love it fills me with so much joy, especially since I think we’re constantly fed this idea that you have to monetize every single thing we love.
I used to write fanfic for Disney Channel Original Movies like Lemonade Mouth, which I’m guessing no one knows. It was really bad. I don’t write fic anymore, mostly because I never ever finished my stories… and it’s really embarrassing. But I love to read it. I was really into Captain America/Winter Soldier fanfic, Glee fanfic (alllllll of the queer ships there, it was great), and Hunger Games.
I love that fanfic can “fix” bad characterization or moments fans really wish we’d seen but didn’t get, especially when it comes to Marvel. For me, I think I saw a lot of relationships I didn’t really know I could have. That includes queer relationships, but also, like, I’ve read so much “found family” fanfic where friends are a gigantic part of people’s lives. I grew up sort of assuming that being an adult meant you had a nuclear family and that’s it… and to be told at a young age that your friends could be your family was so powerful for me.
Also I’m obsessed with the Hunger Games fics where Peeta is like… the original male wife. I don’t know if I have to explain that meme, ha. But I’ve read many Hunger Games fanfics where Katniss goes to work and Peeta stays home and bakes bread. I love that. I love that fanfic doesn’t have to be super plot heavy and can just be low stakes between characters. I love the “Five Times Camryn Read Fanfic and One Time She Didn’t” formula. I love that I follow a fic writer I love on Twitter and we’re super friendly now! I love the Glee fanfic writer who was also a social work student and kept an advice blog and helped me realize I was queer. I think fanfic is so important because of the community. It can be whatever you want and I love it.
If I could find an original take on fanfic, I’d write a book about it.
Because I used to be a college professor, I just really really love your tweets about your classes, and your media studies classes in particular. How has being in college textured and changed your writing and thinking? I’m thinking broadly, but also in small ways.
I had an amazing class earlier today where we talked for an hour about how celebrities use fashion to create the illusion of intimacy with fans when they’re really not saying much at all. This was just one part of the class! I’m sad to graduate because I don’t know when I’ll get to have conversations like this again with my super cool professors.
Because I’m in film school, we talk a lot about three-act-structure and beat sheets like Save the Cat. I know it sounds pretentious because we all follow similar structures, but I’ve sort of reached the point where I’m tired of being told that there’s only one way to tell a story. I currently have a professor who is like “you must have an objective correlative exactly three times in this script” and “if there is not a critical choice in the third act it’s not a story, just an anecdote.” That really spurred me to look up other structures like kishōtenketsu, a Japanese four act story structure that Miyazaki uses, or even interviews with filmmakers like Celine Schiamma, who basically said “I’m just going to do what I want” in this New Yorker interview.
I think part of school is pushing back against what your professors have to say, though, so maybe this is part of the whole learning thing. I definitely outline my books and screenplays in a three act structure now whereas it was quite loose before I got to college. I think the plots have gotten tighter, but I also wonder if I’m losing a sense of originality! That’s a really nerdy complaint, though.
I love that I’ve been exposed to so much. I had to take a two semester writing course where we read magazines and more academic writing and consumed art to come up with our essays. Our professor sent us to a museum of our choice to write about and I went to the Guggenheim to see the Hilma Al-Kint show. I also took a photography class where I became really interested in simply capturing moments and really breaking movies down into moments. I watch a lot more foreign cinema and go to readings at bookstores and random performances. Even if I can’t directly use it for a story, I think it’s interesting.
This is probably basic college stuff! But I think I’m much more interested in the world around me and different forms of art whereas before I was like, “I’m a film major who writes books and those are the only two things I care about!” I’d take a million classes about fashion and culture or whatever now. I love reading things and talking about them.
What sort of character would you love to write next?
Right now I’m trying to write a very Elle Woods type character who is generally very positive and thinks, “Well, why wouldn’t I get into Harvard Law School?” It’s hard because I don’t know that this type of disposition would fall naturally to a Black woman in our country — like, even if a Black woman is like that, I’m guessing she’d become more pessimistic rather quickly. But I like the idea of kindness being someone’s superpower.
If you had to pick an MVP team of YA books, older and more recent, that every person and family should have in their home, what would it be?
This took me the longest to answer! I’m going to do two groups: one group of books I think most people know/are more popular and another group of books that are no less important but I don’t think have gotten enough flowers!
Group 1: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Heartstopper series by Alice Oseman, Dumplin' by Julie Murphy, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Group 2: How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown, Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi, Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, and Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera.