Jennifer E. Smith’s new book might sound like a fairy tale, but it’s actually born of something that happens to the author every day. In This Is What Happy Looks Like, an errant email from a teen heartthrob finds its way to a small-town girl and the two strike up a virtual conversation that’ll have you grinning from ear to ear by the end of the prologue (I promise). Smith’s inbox isn’t filled with love notes from movie stars (much to her chagrin), but emails meant for her often wind up with a different Jennifer Smith. “I have such a such common name that so many of the the emails intended for me end up going astray,” she says. “I wondered, what would happen if the other person wrote back?” We spoke to Jen about her bad boys, Justin Bieber, and a burgeoning trend in YA.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the second YA book I’ve written about in the past month that features a pig. Is this a new trend?
JENNIFER E. SMITH: That’s so funny. Actually, the biggest complaint that I’ve been getting about the book so far is that there’s not enough of the pig in there. When I started writing it, I thought it was going to be a dog. But after typing the words, I was like, a teen movie star would totally have a weird pet. So I kind of threw it in, but I’m getting a lot of requests for extra Wilbur material.
Will we be seeing a Wilbur novella anytime soon?
I’m thinking about it. The book hasn’t even come out yet, but that’s been the focus of so much of the feedback I’ve been getting, so it might have to happen.
What was the idea behind this book? Do have a hot movie-star penpal?
I wish! That would be nice, wouldn’t it? It’s funny, I actually kind of backed into the movie-star thing. The book started because I have such a such common name that so many of the the emails intended for me end up going astray. So I wondered, what would happen if the other person wrote back? What if two people were to connect that way? It would be liberating for anybody because the relationship is sort of anonymous to an extent. But for somebody in the spotlight, it would feel very freeing. So I thought a teen movie star would be the most interesting person to put in this position. I know there are a lot of books out there that do this, but it was fun to come at it from a different angle and make Graham not the stereotypical cookie-cutter person you’d expect.
Most YA novels these days tend to have a bad boy, but Graham was anything but. It was refreshing.
I do feel like there’s this trend towards the edgy bad guy. Maybe I had a nicer experience in high school with the guys I knew. I just feel like I knew so many really nice guys. [Laughs] And once I start writing them, I’m too fond of my characters to make them awful.
Were you surprised by the direction this novel took?
Yeah, I was. I don’t plot out my books ahead of time — it would probably save me a lot of time if I did. [Laughs] I feel like I always tell people this writing quote by E.L. Doctorow, but it completely sums up how I write: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I vaguely knew how Graham and Ellie were going to end up, but I could really only see as far as the next chapter the whole way there.
Without giving away any spoilers, the paparazzi play a big role in this book. What made you focus on them?
It’s something you read about every day. The whole time I was writing this, I was reading about Justin Bieber and the problems he’s having — not that this is based on Justin Bieber. [Laughs] Not even remotely. But it’s something that’s very present, even in a small town like Ellie’s. That’s what happens when a movie set comes to town.
Did you do any research?
I did. I went to [the set of] Person of Interest. A friend of a friend works in production on that show, so I spent a day on the set. It was really interesting because I’d never been on a set before, other than living in New York City and stumbling across Law & Order at every corner. [Laughs]. But spending a day there was really interesting because it’s less exciting than you’d think it would be. They spent six hours filming a guy walking across a park. Also, I’m an editor and I have an author who’s an actress, so I definitely asked her a few questions.
Would you consider writing a book with one of your authors, like David Levithan?
It’s a little bit different for me because I edit on the adult side and write YA. But I guess if my adult authors ever wanted to try YA, I’d certainly be open to it.
Do you ever find it difficult to keep your editor side and your writer side apart?
It can be. It’s helpful to have my writer hat on when I’m being a writer and my editor hat on when I’m being an editor, but I’m much better editor for being a writer and a much better writer for being an editor. You learn so much on both sides. I feel really lucky to get to balance both. A lot of people haven’t found one job they love, but I have two.
NEXT: Jen shares her top five contemporary YA novels.