When It Just Clicks: The Meeting of Teaching and Writing Full-Time (an interview w/ Siobhan Vivian)

By Alyssa Fry

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Siobhan Vivian

Siobhan Vivian is the award-winning author of 2016’s The Last Boy and Girl in the World, 2012’s The List, and the trilogy of novels, Burn for Burn, which she co-wrote with Jenny Han. She graduated from the University of the Arts with a degree in Writing for Film and Television and received her MFA in Creative Writing: Children’s Literature from The New School in NYC. She was an editor at Alloy Entertainment and was a scriptwriter for The Disney Channel. Siobhan currently resides in Pittsburgh, PA, and teaches a Writing Youth Literature course at the University of Pittsburgh.

What was the first story you ever wrote?

It was a piece I had written to get into undergrad. I had done a little creative writing in high school because someone told me the [creative writing] class was easy. I was a terrible student in high school—basically, I was directionless. I took this class and loved it. I felt like, “This is work? This is fun!” And I was getting praise, which I had never really gotten before from high school teachers. So, when my teacher said to me, “You know, there are universities where you can basically go for writing and do what we’re doing in class,” it blew my mind. I did a little research and I ended up applying for two schools. And I did a short story and it was the first thing I ever wrote.

So, what was it about?

It was about me losing a scrabble game to my high-school-drop-out boyfriend and feeling very indignant about my loss.

It was fiction?

It was fictionalized. Mostly, it was a true story. It was funny that [my fictionalized self] ended up being a Young-Adult character. It was right there from the beginning.

So it was natural, writing YA?

My voice just lends itself well to that audience. The media I consume is mostly teen media. Growing up, I watched every episode of Saved By the Bell 150 times. It was the stuff I enjoyed, so it just felt like a good fit for me.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I loved reading as a younger kid, and then I didn’t. I did not enjoy the books that were put in front of me in high school. I read very little. What I did enjoy were magazines. I loved Sassy magazine, which was a sort of 90’s hip, kind of irreverent, teen-girl-focused magazine. People to this day are still obsessed with Sassy magazine, and it’s long defunct. They wrote with such an interesting, very smart, YA voice, so I gobbled it up. Books weren’t really clicking for me in high school.

Was that the period of reading all the Classics?

I remember taking a class called “Great Books,” and it was little bits of the classics. We would have roundtable discussions in class and I really enjoyed that, but it didn’t move me or connect with me on a level that made me like, “ooh, this is writing, I like to write, could I do something like this?” It felt so foreign. But, the other stuff really felt like it was touching my soul. This is my voice, this was written just for me. That was my connection. I’m a big believer in when you have the “click,” follow the click. Looking back, it’s so clear what I was into and how it led me to where I am.

What was the best advice you received as an aspiring author?

“Finish something.” Many people who I have met along the way are incredible talents. and they get in their own way and stop themselves. [They might] need a thing to be perfect before they finish it, and then they never publish anything and give up. Once you finish something, you have something you can share with people. You can get an agent, try to submit it. It takes a butt in the chair, and you have to hate yourself a lot, and not know what you’re doing and be okay with that. Fight your way through to the end.

What was your first rejection?

I was never rejected. I sort have been on a ridiculous streak.

And your first acceptance?

I sold my senior thesis in Grad School, and I didn’t really even have to do anything for that. My thesis advisor, David Levithan, who is also a writer, was a VP at Scholastic, and he basically called me the day before graduation and was like, “I wanna buy your book.” So, it was really quite smooth.

What was your senior thesis on?

It was my first book “A Little Friendly Advice.” And that was 10 years ago this year that I sold it.

How was your time with Disney?

Before I knew that I wanted to write books, I worked in kids’ television. I worked for Sesame Street, several independent animation companies, and my last job before moving into the book-world was at Disney, where I helped develop the preschool programming for the Disney Channel. Then, later, I had the opportunity to write for The Little Einsteins, which was really fun. I like writing screenplays, I like writing for TV. I enjoyed doing that, but the stories and characters that really come to me are more on the upper-end of YA. I shifted gears and left my career in TV and started looking into books.

What led you to teach a class at Pitt?

I was living in NY, working fulltime as an author, and I met my husband there. He was from Pittsburgh, so we decided to move here. I had no friends, I didn’t know anyone, so I did a little bit of research and saw that Pitt had this Children’s Literature Certificate program. I shot the woman who ran it, Marah Gubar, an email, thinking they might want to have me as a guest to talk about writing. I looked at the class list and it was a lot of studies of the classics, not really where I’m coming from. But, they might like talking to a real author. I also did publishing for several years and I missed that, so I thought I could talk about that.

Maura wrote me back that they’d always wanted a creative-writing component to the Certificate program, and she asked, “Would you be interested in doing that?” And I thought, “Totally!” because I always loved work-shopping. Like, I miss being an editor, picking apart somebody’s book, and helping them put it back together. I miss creating with people like that—taking something raw and helping someone execute their vision. That was 7-8 years ago. I only come on Wednesdays; I don’t really know anyone. I do my own thing here and I love it. I always have interesting, super-passionate kids who come into my class and want to write, and this is what they’re interested in. I’m really geeky about it. I just feel really lucky. It’s really my cup of tea.

Do you have any funny teaching memories or stories?

I was very unsupervised. It was like, “Here’s the Cathedral of Learning, you will have an office here and you will teach this class.” And then they left me to my own devices, which was wonderful and nerve-wracking. I was so nervous my first semester. I think I went my first round of workshopping and never gave anyone a grade. I forgot, so I was like, “alright, you’re all getting As!”

How does teaching fit into your writing schedule?

It’s tough. Especially when I’m first-drafting, I can be a lot more flexible with my work day. I’m able to do most of my schoolwork for class on Wednesdays. My whole work schedule has evolved a lot in the last four years because I’ve had kids. I haven’t been able to just work all night and catch up. This book has been a bit painful to deliver on time. I try to be present as much as I can for my kids, but I’m staring down work schedules that might go until two or three in the morning [during the revision stage].

Do you have any advice for aspiring readers who might want to write and publish books, but work other jobs?

You just have to be really protective over your writing time. This is a challenge that I am facing now, so here I am: an author, writing is my full-time job, my only job. I sort of do [the class at Pitt] just for fun. I have life obligations, I have kids, I have a husband, but you have to be really firm. I’m waking up every day one hour earlier and I sit down and I just write for an hour. I can’t let anything intrude upon that time. So, I can’t just hit the snooze button, or go to bed late the night before, cause that’ll just screw me up. Unless you’re really protective of the time you want to dedicate to writing, it’s not gonna happen.

What do you do after that one hour?

You keep going. If it’s something that’s important to you, something you enjoy doing, you’ll make time for it. Then the next thing is to finish something.

Are you working on anything currently?

It’s called “Stay Sweet,” and it is coming out in next April, from Simon & Shuster. It is sort of a teen-workplace comedy about an all-female-run ice cream parlor. It’s very feminist and summer-y. I’m examining the pressures girls face to be likable and how to be a leader and have expectations, and ask people for stuff with conviction. Girls growing into leadership positions and managing other girls.

It feels very timely.

Yes. There’s also a boy who comes in, sort of a young, Trumpian, know-it-all who comes in and wants to change the way things have been run. And the girls are gonna get to take him down. It’s very cathartic to work on that one.

– Alyssa Fry