E. Katherine Kottaras, author of How to Be Brave, has brought a fresh new take on teen life and romance in the YA genre. With serious issues and plenty of swoon-worthy moments, Kottaras delivers honest and satisfying novels that both male and female readers are sure to be enthralled with. The Best Possible Answer is her latest release and features the shame, humor, and chaos that comes with high school and romantic relationships.
How does The Best Possible Answer compare to that of your previous release, How to Be Brave, in regards to characters, plot, and overall style?
Many writers talk about books that are the “stories of their hearts.” My first book, How to Be Brave, was most definitely that since it is told through the eyes of Georgia, a Greek-American teenager whose mother passes away. I am half-Greek, and my father died when I was seventeen, so much of the story, in terms of its exploration of grief and loss, identity, and love, came directly from my heart and my life.
My second book, The Best Possible Answer, is equally the story of my heart. It’s also a YA contemporary set in Chicago with a female protagonist who is trying to find her voice. Viviana is a driven honors student and the daughter of a Russian-Jewish immigrant mom and an American engineer dad who have extremely high academic expectations for her. As a result of both these expectations and an exposing mistake Viviana made in sharing a nude photo with her boyfriend (who proceeded to send it to the entire school), Viviana suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks. She knows that she didn’t do anything wrong in sending the photo to him – she trusted and loved him at the time – but the world still blames and shames her for it.
What first inspired you to write a novel that is heavily based on school, specifically the college application process (and the stress that comes with it)?
I am both first- and second-generation American (my father immigrated from Greece in 1952; my mother’s parents immigrated from Russia in 1913), so I am always interested in the unique pressures of being the child of immigrants, as I was, as many of my students are, and as Viviana is.
Furthermore, when I was in high school and college, I was in honors classes, including AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (the International Baccalaureate program). While some of the pressure to succeed came from my parents, much of it was simply part of the system. I continuously and secretly suffered from anxiety and paralyzing panic attacks through my twenties, both from the grief of losing my father and from the pressures of success. The thing is, I didn’t really know what was happening – that it was called GAD (general anxiety disorder) or panic attacks, or that it was something I should seek help for. In fact, I’d been told that if I ever sought psychological help via a therapist or group support, I should not use my own medical insurance for fear that my employers would find out that I was “unstable,” and I might therefore lose my job. It took me many years to finally seek support and understand my own mind.
As a teacher at both the high school and community college levels, I’ve met many students who also feel the intense pressures of success, both from their families and from the mere need for financial survival, and who, as a result, suffer from severe (and often secret) anxiety. I teach English, where we focus on creative expression and the makings of an examined life, so students often want to share their inner lives with me, both in writing and in conversation, including their mental health. I remind them that I am not a psychologist or counselor, and I also direct them towards our free psychological services, but many students respond that their parents would – and I quote – “kill” them if they knew they had sought psychological help. Every time I hear this, my heart breaks. There is a stigma attached to the very real experience of GAD and panic attacks, as well as to psychological counseling. I wrote The Best Possible Answer for both myself when I was a teenager and most certainly for my students and readers who are like my students so that they can see their experience represented and also find that there does not have to be that stigma, that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of self-care and beautiful strength.
What books or authors have been the most influential to your writing? Why?
Too many to list! But I’ll try: Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carlos Fuentes, Rudolfo Anaya, Douglas Coupland, Marjane Satrapi, J.D. Salinger; YA writers: Laurie Halse Anderson, E. Lockhart, Matt de la Pena, John Green, Francesca Lia Block.
And I can’t forget the poets! Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Naomi Shihab Nye, Maya Angelou, Amy Lowell, and more!
As a teenager, what was your favorite book or author?
Oddly enough, The Nuclear Age by Tim O’Brien. He’s best known for The Things They Carried, but there was something about The Nuclear Age that spoke to me. I also read and re-read Generation X by Douglas Coupland, and I was obsessed with the poetry of Sylvia Plath. So yeah, I think I had a little bit of angst, lol.
If you could only describe The Best Possible Answer in three words, which would you choose?
Betrayal, truth, trust.
What has been your most interesting, humorous, or awkward moment as an author?
Nothing particularly funny or awkward, but I didn’t realize how many wonderful friends I’d make during the process, and that includes my agent and editor. Everyone is incredibly supportive, and everyone is cheering for your writing. I love meeting readers and hearing from fans. A few weeks ago, I responded to a blogger’s lovely post on The Best Possible Answer by saying, “Thank you for reading!” Her simple response was: “Thank you for writing!” and it made me cry. It also made me want to get back to my current manuscript. Publishing itself is a crazy business, but at its core, writing books is about connecting with other people. That’s why I read, and that’s why I write. I’m grateful to have been published and to have the opportunity to connect with so many readers. It’s an amazing journey, for sure.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I tried pantsing a novel, and it took four years to write, ended up a complete mess of a book, and it will never be read by anyone. Now, I start with a character – I need to have their voice first – and once I’ve written about ten-twenty pages that let me get to know them as a person, I plot out their story. That being said, the final version you read is completely different from that initial plot outline. But I find that a simple plot outline helps me avoid writer’s block, even if I end up taking the character (or rather the character takes me) in a completely unexpected direction.
If you could live in one fictional world for the rest of your life, which would you choose, and why?
Harry Potter, of course! I’m currently reading all of the Harry Potter books to my daughter (we’re in the middle of The Goblet of Fire).
Are you currently working on another novel? If so, what information (if any) can you share with readers?
I am! I can’t share any details, but I just finished a round of revisions on a YA contemporary novel, and I’ve also started a middle grade that I hope to finish in the new year!
In conclusion, what advice do you have for aspiring teen writers?
READ. A lot. Both in the genre/style you want to publish in and ABOUT writing – all aspects – the writing process, the publishing process, etc. There are hundreds of blog posts about the writing life, etc., and I read them obsessively to understand what I had to do to get published.
Also, WRITE a lot, of course. Just keep writing, no matter what, even if it’s a journal for yourself where you write a little bit everyday. And keep submitting; the rejections are difficult at first, but it gets easier.
Writing is hard and fun and frustrating and exhilarating. I can’t imagine not writing. And if you write, you understand this strange demand. It’s not a desire; it’s a necessity. Follow that call, whatever it is inside you that asks you to write — and keep writing, no matter what! We need your stories!