Alyssa Sheinmel is the author of R.I.P. Eliza Hart, a new YA book that fans of We Were Liars and We Know It Was You will love. With a bold voice and memorable teenage characters, Sheinmel has woven together a story full of intensity and intrigue that teens are guaranteed to enjoy. Check out my conversation with Sheinmel and her inspirations, her thoughts on writing, and her advice for young writers.
What first inspired you to tell Ellie’s story in R.I.P. Eliza Hart?
The idea for this book came to me in bits and pieces, but there were a few pieces I was always certain about: I knew that I wanted to write about two former best friends, one of whom had died under mysterious circumstances. I knew that the surviving girl would have claustrophobia. And, I knew that I wanted to write about burl poaching in the redwood forests in places like Big Sur, California.
I’ve always been fascinated by redwood trees. A few years ago, I saw a story on the evening news about burl-poaching; the intricately patterned wood in redwood burls can weigh hundreds of pounds, and, unfortunately, it can bring in thousands of dollars for poachers. When you see pictures of trees without their burls, they just look butchered. I immediately thought of the line: “Someone is stealing the redwoods” and filed it away, waiting for the right story.
Like Ellie, I moved from California to New York when my parents divorced when I was young. And like Ellie, I had to leave behind my childhood best friend whose name was almost identical to mine; I’m Alyssa, she was Alisa. I always wondered whether Alisa and I would have stayed friends if I hadn’t moved to New York.
When formulating the story, did you start with development of the characters or the plot first?
Even though the story is told mostly from Ellie’s perspective, the story started with Eliza’s voice for me—sharp and biting, acerbic, even funny. Then, when I switched to Ellie, her voice was just as distinct—occasionally second-guessing herself (all those parenthetical asides!), cautious, bright. I think I knew at least the basics of the plot from the start, but the voices came through right away.
What can readers expect from R.I.P. Eliza Hart? How similar is it to your previous work?
I hope that readers of my previous books will be drawn to this story. Even though R.I.P. Eliza Hart is a different story from what I’ve written before, readers who liked Second Star might be drawn to Ellie’s search for the truth about Eliza’s death; readers who enjoyed Faceless might be drawn to Ellie’s struggle to accept and love herself. I have to admit, I find myself revisiting some of the same themes again and again: characters who feel just a bit (if not a lot!) out of place, friendships, self-acceptance…
Who/what were your biggest inspirations during the process of writing the book?
I’m a pretty research-happy writer. As I wrote, I researched claustrophobia and mental illness, Big Sur and burl-poaching—to be honest, research is always a little “which came first, the chicken or the egg” for me. These were topics I’d been interested in and about which I’d read a lot before I ever imagined these characters. I had a whole stack of books on the subjects before I wrote a word, and that stack just kept growing as I wrote, keeping me inspired to tell this story.
What do you hope readers take away from R.I.P. Eliza Hart?
Most of all, I hope they found the story compelling. I hope they’ll have fallen a little bit in love with one or two of the characters and maybe with the setting, too. And, I hope readers also walk away knowing that there’s no shame in asking for help. In fact, sometimes asking for help—from a parent, a teacher, a friend, a mental health professional—is the bravest thing we can do.
If you describe R.I.P. Eliza Hart in three words, which would you choose? Why?
Big Sur, California. Maybe those three words aren’t the most informative; technically, they don’t say anything about the characters or the plot. But Big Sur is my very favorite place, and it felt like the perfect setting for this story—at once otherworldly and magical, beautiful and haunting. For me, it almost feels like another character in the story.
What were some of your favorite books in high school? Favorite writers?
Oh my goodness, where to start?! The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Wasted by Marya Hornbacher; Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel; anything by Ernest Hemingway or Joan Didion. (These are all still among my favorites today.)
If you could live in any book for a single day, which would you choose? Why?
I think I’d choose to live in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on Christmas Day. Christmastime at Hogwarts sounds pretty amazing.
Are you currently working on another book? If so, what details can you share with readers?
Whenever I’m in between deadlines, I’m always working on a few different ideas, hoping that at least one of them will turn into my next book. And rest assured those themes that always seem to find their way into the stories I tell will be in my next book, too: characters who feel just a bit (if not a lot!) out of place, friendships, and self-acceptance.
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
My number one piece of advice is to read. I truly, truly believe that every single thing I read teaches me something about how to write. So, read books that are similar to the book you want to write, and read books in a completely different genre. Read fiction and non-fiction and articles and essays and even textbooks. You never know what might spark an idea: a textbook taught me how to insert humor into a dry topic; the idea for my book Faceless came partly from an article in The New Yorker magazine.