Today we have with us the author of Populazzi!Author Chat: Elise Allen
What was the most embarrassing thing that happened to you in high school?
When I was 14, I was invisible. Really – I think I’d have even been medically diagnosed as such. I was in 9th grade, in a class that had doubled in size since the year before, my best friend had dumped me… I was lost.
Then came the winter formal. I had a cute dress, enormous hair, piles of electric blue eyeliner… I looked good (keep in mind it was the 80’s, so all that actually qualified as “good”). I don’t know how the planets aligned that night, but I found a knot of friends, danced like crazy, screamed at the top of my lungs… it was a peak experience, one of those nights I thought would change everything.
The next day my sister and I had an overnight visit at my dad’s. Dad had this massive unfinished basement, with two truly awesome fixtures: a full-size Ms. Pac Man, and a pinball machine. I think there was some kind of bare bulb with a pull cord in the middle of the room, but we didn’t use it because my then-seven-year-old half brother had made a candle in school, and wanted to use it. We played pinball by candlelight, and all was well until I knocked over a bottle, bent down to pick it up, and my little brother helpfully bent down after me, lighting my way… and my still-huge-from-the-night-before-hair.
I smelled more than felt the flames. I couldn’t scream because I’d lost my voice at the dance, so my little sister screamed for me while I ran into the next room (fanning the flames), which had a rug on which I could pound out my head. By the time my dad ran down and doused the last embers, I had a huge round charred spot on the back of my head.
In other words, I was pattern-bald. At fourteen.
There was only one thing to do: stay in my room until my hair grew back. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t agree, though my mom did say I could miss one day of school while we went shopping for something that could turn my trauma into a fashion statement.
Hats. Specifically, berets. I bought three, one to match each pair of stretch pants in my closet. I mentioned it was the 80’s, right? That’s the only reason I could actually pull it off and become Beret Girl instead of Burned Girl.
Three days into my new alter ego, we learned CPR in Health class. I was the first up to perform the exercise on Rescussa-Annie, and as I bent over to breathe into her freshly alcohol-swabbed plastic maw…
…my beret fell off.
Then the high-pitched squeal of horror from the cutest, blondest, most popular girl in ninth grade, “Ewww, what happened to your hair????”
Whispers. Laughter. Gagging noises.
Suddenly being invisible didn’t sound so bad.
Do you wish you could go back and give yourself advice as a teenager? If so, what would you say?
Yes and no. Yes, because I really could have used the advice; no because I’m very happy with where I am now, and I believe in the butterfly effect: change one little thing and you can alter the universe.
That said, if I were to give Teen Elise advice, I’d tell her not to get so hung up about what other people think. I’d say just be true to yourself and you’ll be a lot happier.
Everything I read inspires my work. Great stories teach me to be a better storyteller; great characters drive me to dig deeper for more emotional truth in my own characters… even books I don’t like influence me; once I analyze what doesn’t work for me, I’m that much more careful not to fall into similar traps in my own writing.
All that said, Populazzi is directly inspired by just one novel, Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. When I read about Undine Spragg climbing her way through the very stratified society of turn-of-last-century Manhattan, the setting reminded me of the equally stratified world of high school. Yet before I could write Populazzi, I had to solve a puzzle. In Wharton’s book, Undine is incredibly unlikeable (on purpose – I’m not casting aspersions on Edith Wharton). I wanted to create a character who’d make the choice to climb, but in a way that kept her likable and relatable. It took awhile to crack the nut, but in the end I feel like I succeeded with Cara Leonard.
What is your favorite beverage?
COFFEE!!! Though I’m trying to switch to tea. I’m very fond of a bunch of Teavana flavors, specifically Azteca Fire, Golden Monkey, and a blend of Mate Vana/Rooibos Chai.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
The power to be in two places at once. I’d get so much more done each day!
If you could meet one famous literary character, who would it be?
Thursday Next from the Jasper Fforde series. She’s smart, has a fantastically British sense of humor, leaps from absurdity to absurdity, and we’d have a rollicking time together working with SpecOps to keep those crazy literary characters in their books and behaving.
What books are in your reading pile right now?
In honor of the late Nora Ephron, I’m going through her entire canon. I just finished I Feel Bad About My Neck, and I’m now reading Heartburn. I’ll keep going with her until I finish. I’m like that with an author; if I read something of his/hers and like it, I’ll run through their works until I’ve read them all.
Thanks for the great questions, Amber, and thanks so much for having me on the blog!