Gossip Girl

2 December 2010

Here’s another interview I conducted with a brilliant author as part of my quest to discover the secrets of writing the perfect teen novel.

After reading Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl I found myself asking whether this book was meant for teens? There’s an awful lot of bad behaviour that goes on like underage drinking, sex and general cattiness.

In the very first chapter, Manhattan teen Blair Waldorf sneaks away from a party to sleep with her boyfriend Nate Archibald, but they’re interrupted in the nick of time by Blair’s best friend Serena van der Woodsen. This encounter sets the scene for the rest of the book which takes place at breakneck speed. I found myself finishing the entire novel in just under two hours.

This was enough to satisfactorily answer my previous question. Gossip Girl is PERFECT for teens. The chapters are short, action packed and dripping with enough sexiness, edginess, bitchiness and glamour to leave the reader desperate for more. It’s exactly how I imagined life as an upper class city teen to be and it’s the perfect read for hiding underneath a textbook during maths class. I’m not surprised that it was picked up for adaptation into a TV series.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condone bad behaviour in the slightest, just the opposite. What I enjoyed most about Gossip Girl was that no matter what the characters got up to, it was done glamorously. For someone like me whose only experience with the world of glitz and glamour is the odd glass of champagne at Christmas, this was pure escapist fun. Yes, they’re bad, but at least they’re doing it in style.

Anybody who thinks teenage girls are nothing more than sweet extensions of their five year old, kitten loving selves are wrong.Gossip Girl tells it like it is.

After It-girl Serena returns unexpectedly from boarding school, Blaire starts to panic that her days at the head of the pack are numbered. She embarks on a slanderous campaign against her estranged best friend while the mysterious blogger known as Gossip Girl keeps tabs on everyone involved. It’s hugely entertaining and I found myself captivated by these distinctly unlikeable characters which tells towards von Ziegesar’s talent with words.

I was lucky enough to chat to the author about her take on writing for teens.

What elements should a young adult novel include?
von Ziegesar: There aren’t any rules when it comes to the content of a young adult novel. I try to create characters that are believable. Readers may not sympathise with my characters at first because they’re so privileged and spoiled, but I go so deeply into the character’s heads that the reader comes to understand what motivates each one. Plus there’s an affectionate sense of humor in my books–I’m laughing at the characters and with them at the same time. If anything, that’s what’s most important in my writing: a sense of irony. As much as you want to hate my characters, you wind up rooting for them and laughing out loud with a sort of vicious empathy.

What do kids like to read?
von Ziegesar: Every kid is different, but I think all readers have a sense of when a story is being told well, when the author has an obvious affection for the characters and for the language she’s using to tell the story. Readers like an adventure, with suspense and some romance thrown in, even when the adventure is taking place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

How do you cope with an aging readership?
von Ziegesar: Every year my characters get a teensy bit older. By the time I’m 60 I might just be writing about them having their mid-life crises–Chuck getting plastic surgery.

How important is sex in young adult literature?
von Ziegesar: The actual act of sex is entirely irrelevant. Romance is what’s most important. When two seventeen year olds have been in love since kindergarten, sex is a natural result, and it’s very romantic when it finally happens. Lust and longing are very important too. What did you think about every five seconds when you were seventeen, whether or not you were doing it–SEX.

Do you as a writer of young adult fiction feel a responsibility to inform teen readers about issues like pregnancy, STDs etc?
von Ziegesar: No. Kids get lectured enough. I’m not going to lecture anyone in my fiction. My characters will make all the same mistakes real people make though, and even get away with it sometimes, the way real people do. But sometimes they have to pay the consequences.

What do you find most enjoyable about writing for teens?
von Ziegesar: It’s funny, but I don’t think about my writing as being ‘for teens.’ I just write the books I want to write and the sort of books I would want to read. I’m aging very slowly. In my head I’m still in my early twenties, although I was born in 1970. Hopefully I will have a long writing career and write all sorts of books that my readers, as they grow older, will continue to enjoy.

Gossip Girl is now a hugely popular television series. How do you feel about seeing your characters on screen?
von Ziegesar: When I was first invited to the set to watch them film the pilot I could not stop giggling. It was just so bizarre to see actors playing the characters I’d created. But the actors are so fantastic–they really embody the characters so entirely that I can’t imagine anyone else playing them. And the wardrobe and music and writing are all so great. I’m just as addicted as everyone else.

Would you ever want to do anything other than write?
von Ziegesar: I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. Recently I was told that I should be “a nose,” because I have a very acute sense of smell. Apparently hotels and hair salons and restaurants hire noses to create exclusive pleasing scents for them to pump through their ventilation systems. It might be good to have something to fall back on in case I get writer’s block. I was also thinking about going to plumbing school. Revising a novel is very much like unclogging a sink.

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