A conversation with Every Last Word author Tamara Ireland Stone and narrator Amy Rubinate
Amy: Thank you for talking with our listeners today! We are so happy to have recorded the audiobook version of Every Last Word. Congratulations on the success of your book!
Tamara: Thank you for your kind words. And congratulations on all the great feedback you’re getting on your narration of Every Last Word. Listeners really seem to be loving your Sam!
Amy: I’d love to know how you chose young adult as your primary genre when you started writing?
Tamara: I didn’t really consciously think about YA when I first began. I got the story for Time Between Us in my head (and you know that story well since you narrated it), and the main character happened to be a 16-year-old girl when she popped into my head.
But it actually made a lot of sense to me. As you know, that story is really about the choices we make in life… About what it would be like if you could go back and change things. There were many things about my teen years I’d wished I could go back in time and change. But the older I got–the more distance I had–the more I realized that all those things happened for a reason. They made me the person I am today, and I like who I am today. Without those experiences, good and bad, I’d be a different person. I liked writing a story that communicated that idea to young readers.
Amy: I loved Time Between Us so much, and one of the elements that stood out to me was its timeless quality. It felt like a classic love story that could have happened in any era, and that was reflected in the writing style. Every Last Word is written in a very different style – very contemporary and in-the-moment. As I narrated it, I felt like I was with Sam in real time as she went through her journey. In fact, even though I had pre-read and prepped the book, I found myself shocked all over again as I narrated the plot twist. Did you know going in that the story would have a twist?
Tamara: Oh yes… I always planned the twist. You really have to go into a story like this knowing that there will be a surprise for the reader, because it affects how you write every line up to that point.
Amy: For me, one of the most magical parts of the book was Poet’s Corner. It was wish fulfillment for me. High school would have been so much easier if I’d had a Poet’s Corner and been part of a secret poetry society! How did it come to you to make this a big element of the story?
Tamara: Poet’s Corner is my favorite setting in the book. I truly love that room! And yes, I think every high school needs a secret poetry club.
It’s funny, when I was first thinking about this story, I knew the main character would have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since she was inspired by a family friend. I knew she’d have a fantastic therapist and find real help through medication, but I wanted to give her something else, too…something else that she could turn to when her mind got too busy/scary. I gave her the thing that saved me as a teen: writing.
Almost immediately, Poet’s Corner came to me. I saw this room so clearly – filled with mismatched furniture and papers of all different sizes and shapes glued to the walls. A bunch of things that an OCD mind would normally be very troubled by. And Sam finds peace there, not only with the people, but with the room itself.
Amy: That’s beautiful!
Tamara: I got chills just typing that. That room is so special to me. It’s so real to me, even though I know I made it up. 🙂
Amy: I feel that way about it, too! I have heard that your readers/listeners are having the same response – and many have even started a Poet’s Corner in their own schools. Can you tell us more about this grass roots poetry movement?
Tamara: It’s been incredible. I started getting emails from teachers around the country when my publisher first started distributing advance copies of Every Last Word. They began telling me that their students were so excited about the idea of a poetry wall, they dedicated a space in their classrooms for students to write and post their words. Since then, I’ve received even more emails–more recently from students who are hoping their teachers will do the same.
I just love that idea of a giving teens a judgment-free zone where they can speak their minds and raise their voices, knowing their words are safe there.
Amy: Disney-Hyperion put a Word Wall up at the recent American Library Association (ALA) conference. Did they use some of the poems from these real-life teens?
Tamara: No, all the quotes they used on the word wall were from Sam, AJ, Caroline, Sue, Abigail… characters from the book. We wanted plenty of room for ALA attendees to add their own words.
Amy: I added a short poem! It was 6 words long, and I realized later that I should have broken it out into three-word stanzas, like Sam would have! My best friend from childhood met me at ALA for lunch. When we were kids, we used to go into the woods all the time. There was an old rusted-out old car from the 1910’s that sat in the middle of the forest. When we had writer’s block, we would meet me at the jalopy, sit on its old rusted hood and write. So it was meaningful to put our words on the Word Wall at ALA and take a picture!
Tamara: That is the most amazing story. I want to see that picture!
One of the most personally fulfilling parts of this story is hearing how others are tapping into “the writer within” and/or reconnecting with that part of themselves. I love my job.
Amy: The poems that each character wrote in the book were so specific to their personalities. You really developed the characters through their poems. How did that work for you?
Tamara: I actually used a lot of placeholder poems in the first few drafts. Most were poems written by teens that I found on Tumblr (I’ve shared a lot of them over the last few months on my blog. Those early poems gave me a sense of what I thought each of the people in Poet’s Corner might write about, but I didn’t feel like I could write their poetry until really knew each one’s character.
Well–I always knew Sydney would write on fast food wrappers about food. She was the first Poet who came to me. 🙂 — But for the others, it took time. Once I wrote more about Emily and figured out who she was, I knew her poems would be about her mom. Once I wrote Abigail, I knew she’d write about her hidden insecurities. Once I had a solid picture of Chelsea in my mind, I knew she’d be the one who’d been in the kind of relationship Sam was craving.
As it usually is for me, the characters come first. And I love writing dialogue, so once I get my characters talking, they become real people with real emotions and opinions. Everything else flows from there.
Amy: Sydney was one of my stealth favorites! I loved how she knew and loved herself, and how funny her poems were!
Tamara: She’s one of my favorites, too. She has such a strong personality and she’s just so confident. I had the best time writing that Auntie Anne’s poem!
Amy: In all three of your books, Time Between Us, Time After Time (Anna) and Every Last Word (Sam) you have written strong female characters – athletes who know who they are and what they want out of life. But they each struggle with something that rocks them deep at their core and makes them question themselves. However, as a reader I always felt a sense of trust in them – that they would be okay because they were strong. Can you talk about how you developed them in this way?
Tamara: Over the weekend, I found this six-word poem: “In the end, she saved herself.” That’s basically what all my books are about. I like writing stories about young women who are strong to begin with, and through a series of experiences–often both positive and negative–find themselves stronger in the end.
I don’t think girls have to be athletes to be strong, but it’s something I didn’t have when I was young and looking back I wished I had. I discovered running when I was in my early 20s, right after college. I hated it at first, but once I got into it, I realized how mental it is. I needed that–I needed to run with music in my ears, pushing myself to go another mile, patting myself on the back when I did it. It worked for me. I remember telling one of my bosses that I needed to do two things for myself in order to remain sane: Run and write. I made Anna in Time Between Us a runner in honor of those years.
I made Sam in Every Last Word a swimmer for different reasons. I knew early on that water would soothe her mind, so that sport fit perfectly. Plus, my kids used to swim and when I was first drafting this novel, I was spending a lot of time around pools watching these kids and teens push themselves in the water. Their dedication is pretty phenomenal.
But I knew Sam needed to be an athlete because I wanted to address that popular misconception that people who are struggling with their mental health “just need to exercise more.” That’s not true. Elite athletes have depression. Exercise helps a lot of people feel better/stronger, but for many people, it’s only one piece of a very complex puzzle. Sam needs medication, weekly therapy, and her swim routine. It’s no accident that all three pieces are there for Sam. Whatever you need to manage your mental health is what YOU need. If exercise alone works for you, that’s fantastic. If it doesn’t, there’s nothing wrong with adding to the mix.
Amy: Can you talk a little about mental health for teens? I know this issue has reached a crisis point in some places in the Bay Area where you live. Every Last Word gives such an inspiring example of a teenager overcoming her issues, with the support of a great therapist and her mom and new friends. What more would you like to say to a teen who might read and respond to this story but not know what to do next to help themselves?
Tamara: Teens are under so much pressure to be perfect these days. I intentionally played with words like “normal” and “perfect” in this story in an effort to try to take some of the weight off of those words. No one is normal or perfect, and it sounds cliché, but mistakes are part of what being a teen is all about. I often think about how lucky I am that I grew up in a time when my (many) mistakes weren’t so public!
I’ve included a number of websites in the Author’s Note section of the book to give teens a few places to start seeking help. I can’t stress enough how important that is. Through writing this story, I had the opportunity to work with four therapists–several of whom work exclusively with teens – and I gained an even greater level of respect for these individuals. I think it takes patience to find the right therapist – the right fit for each person – but it’s so worth the effort when that connection happens. “C,” the teen who inspired this story, is a great example of that.
If you’re not able to work with a therapist, I encourage you to talk with someone – a friend’s mom or dad, someone at your church, a teacher, a counselor. There are so many people who know how to help; you just have to be brave, take the first step, and ask for it.
Amy: One of the things I have loved about working with you as your audiobook narrator is how much you have included me in the process. Meeting you at your reading before I recorded Time Between Us, and watching how you presented Anna to the world, informed my interpretation of her character. Because you and I discussed Every Last Word before it was published, I came to it feeling like I was already acquainted with Sam and her issues. You should know how rare that is – most narrators don’t ever speak with the author, or if they do, it’s after the recording. I felt that this was so beneficial to the process espagne viagra.
Tamara: I’m sad that it’s a rarity–meeting you and working so closely with you has been such a joy. I’m not sure if all narrators are as open to an author’s involvement as you have been. You’ve always gone out of your way to ask me questions in an effort to truly understand my characters, and I really appreciate that.
I know our collaboration has made the end product better. I think we both just want readers/listeners to have the best possible experience.
Amy: What would you like to say to aspiring poets, or someone considering writing their first poem?
Tamara: Be brave with your words. I started to realize that the books I loved most were written from a place of vulnerability. I now aspire to be that kind of writer. I want to use my writing to speak my mind, move people, make them think.
Write just for yourself. Put words on paper because it makes you feel good to string them together in a way that gives you chills, makes you cry, makes you angry, makes you want to change the world, makes you think. Share them if you want to, but first, write for YOU.
Amy: I think that is something we all need to hear about every creative endeavor…thank you for sharing! And thank you for talking with us today.
Tamara: It was my pleasure, Amy! Thank you.