A Q&A with Cynthia Hand, New York Times Bestselling YA Author
Cynthia Hand graduated in 2003 with her MFA in Fiction from Boise State University. She is the New York Times bestselling author of several young adult books: The Unearthly trilogy, The Last Time We Say Goodbye, My Lady Jane, My Plain Jane, and The Afterlife of Holly Chase, all with HarperTeen. She lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and two children.
After graduating with your MFA from BSU, your first published short story “The Sugar Shell” appeared in The Iowa Review. Do you think the process of workshopping at BSU helped you to grow as a writer?
My experience at BSU was fundamental to my development as a writer. Before I started the program, I had very little experience with literary fiction in general. I had read only a smattering of literary fiction and written only one literary story—nowadays I probably wouldn’t have gotten accepted to the program with such little experience, but the program was just starting out then. The MFA was a huge shock to my system—after that first graduate workshop I came home totally overwhelmed by the sheer amount I didn't know, and then I resolved to catch up with the other students. I read and wrote constantly, in addition to the teaching I was doing (which also taught me immensely—nothing like teaching to actually teach you) and the courses I was taking. I grew in leaps and bounds in that three years. The Form and Theory course in particular was hugely influential for me. I can see a before and after in my writing as I was taking that class. And, of course, the other MFA students were a constant inspiration and challenge. I just wanted to write as well as I thought they did. By the end of the three years, I felt like I was just catching up, and then I graduated.
Tell us about your first book, Unearthly. How did the story first start to stir your mind? How was the experience of publishing your first novel?
I got my agent because she had read “The Sugar Shell” in The Iowa Review and called me to see if I was working on a novel. I was writing a literary novel about a cemetery caretaker's wife in small town Idaho. My agent was eagerly awaiting that novel, but I never finished it. Life happened. I got married and worked odd jobs and had a baby, and I was very discouraged that my writing life had just seemed to fade away. I thought there was the very real possibility that I was not going to be a writer, after all. I was focused on my son and my domestic life, which involved a lot of diaper changing and watching HGTV. Then one month, our cable was cut. We had been getting free cable for our apartment as part of our rent, but suddenly that ended. It was before streaming, too, so suddenly I was without anything to occupy my mind anymore. I think it’s telling about how creativity works, that within a week of losing cable, I had the sudden urge to write flood back into me and an idea for a new novel hit me. It wasn’t so much an idea, actually, as a narrative voice— this sixteen-year-old girl who was freaked out because her mother had informed her she was part angel. I decided to write the novel; I wanted to see what would happen next. I promised myself that I would write every single day, no matter what, because I did not want to not finish another novel. So, after about six months, I had a draft. I only figured out that I was writing young adult about halfway into the process. When I was finished, I sent the new novel to my agent nervously. She did not represent YA writers and I had not told her I was working on a new novel. But she loved the idea and loved the book, and coincidentally had lunch with a friend of hers—an executive editor at HarperTeen, who told her that they were really looking for novels about angels. So there you go. It was very much a matter of being at the right place at the right time, and lightning striking. It's been a whirlwind of ups and downs with publishing since then, but mostly ups.
You were writing with two other authors, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows, on the series of Jane books. What was it like to write collaboratively?
Writing with the Janies (which is what we call ourselves) had nearly ruined me for writing my solo projects. It is so much fun, such a joyful act of play. We really do write in order to make each other laugh. And it happens so quickly—we produce fifteen chapters, or about half of a book, in a week’s worth of writing together, which never ceases to amaze me. It is also so wonderful to have three brains working to sort out the problems we run into and all working together to make the book better. I am so thrilled that we get to keep writing these books.
What are your future plans for your fiction? What sort of projects do you have in the works?
I have a new book coming in Fall 2019 called THE HOW AND THE WHY, which is about two teenage girls: one a student at a school for pregnant teens, writing a series of letters to the baby she’s about to give up for adoption, and the other the young woman that baby grows up to be, deciding whether or not to search for her birthmother. I am tremendously proud of that book and excited for people to read it. There is also another Jane book coming in Summer 2020, this one about Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley, for which we just finished writing on the first draft. In the meantime I was writing furiously on two other solo young adult novels, tinkering with a book about how to write with co-authors, and considering an idea for a children's chapter book. It’s nice to have so many ideas and someone who is willing to buy them.
To find out more about Cynthia Hand and her books, please go to: http://www.cynthiahandbooks.com/