The Penmen Profile: Bestseller Robin Wasserman

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

“Girls on Fire,” Robin Wasserman’s first adult novel, was named an NPR and a BuzzFeed Best Book of the Year in 2016. The book also received praise from the New York Times, the Associated Press, Booklist and Cosmopolitan, among many other positive reviews.

A faculty member of Southern New Hampshire University’s low-residency MFA program, Wasserman is also a New York Times bestselling author for her young adult and middle grade fiction.

Have you always written?
I’m told that at some point in nursery school, I taught myself to write my own name, so I suppose technically, I’ve been writing ever since. But wasn’t until third grade that I decided that I was going to be a writer when I grew up—this is probably around the time I discovered “writer” was a thing one could be. The rest is, if not history, at least cliché: Lots of scribbled journal entries (always a “journal,” of course, never a “diary”), lots of terrible short stories and emo poetry, some very impassioned newspaper columns. Sometimes I find it a little unsettling that I’m basically living the life I designed for myself when I was eight years old; most of the time, though, I find it miraculous.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Complain, a lot. Stare. Think. Complain more. Drink coffee. Give up. Think. Stare. Type, delete, type again. More coffee. Etc.

That’s pretty much where every project begins for me and it takes a long time to dig myself out of that hole. There are writers, I know, who only need an image, a snatch of dialogue, a sentence and then they’re off and running, figuring things out as they go along. While I’m less rigid about planning ahead than I used to be, I still need to have some kind of vague road map before I set out on any project, big or small. Or, if not a map, at least a destination—for me, starting a novel is like driving out of Brooklyn, heading west. I may not be certain of my route, but I’ll be determined to hit Nashville and Route 66 somewhere along the way, and I’ll know that, whatever happens, I eventually need to end at the Pacific Ocean. That means doing a lot of advance work, brainstorming loose plot shapes and working out who the players are, what’s driving them.

A lot of these things change as I go, of course, but for me, this brainstorming is the fun part, the time when the world really comes to life in my head (without, yet, the agony of having to write it down and make it beautiful).

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them? 
These are too numerous to mention, so I’ll stick with the biggest one, which is probably fear. Fear that my ideas aren’t strong enough or interesting enough, fear that if they are, my writing won’t do them justice, fear that even if it does, no one will want to hear what I have to say. Fear that whatever good work I’ve managed to do will be the last good work I’ll ever get done. And, of course, fear of fear itself. I do my best to drown out that insecure voice in the back of my head, or rather, to let her prattle on and then do what I need to do, anyway.

That said: I think a dose of fear is constructive: Fear of settling for good enough, of mediocrity, of never accomplishing any of the things I desperately want to accomplish, this is all a big part of what drives me forward, what makes me try harder, try more. And I’ve recently come to realize that paying attention to fear has one other use: The projects that scare me most tend to be the ones I’m most eager to tackle. The fear almost serves as a beacon. When something scares me, when it seems too big, too ambitious, too risky—that’s how I know it’s right.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
My latest book, “Girls on Fire,” is my first novel for adults, so even though I’d been publishing books for children and teenagers for years, it’s felt like starting an entirely new career, with all the excitement and terror that entails.

A couple years ago, I finished a draft of “Girls on Fire” that seemed ready for human consumption, and sent it out to agents. After talking to a bunch of them—a process which, for me, was very reminiscent of choosing a college, imagining myself into a series of alternate futures—I signed with Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, who has become my guru/pitbull/miracle-worker. After that came another nine months or so of revision, during which I ripped the book apart and stitched it back together in nearly unrecognizable form. That’s the version that landed on my HarperCollins editor’s desk. He applied his own magic touch, I revised again, then revised again…until finally they ripped the book out of my hands. It turns out you can’t just keep tweaking things forever.

How do you market your work?
With great and terrible reluctance.

I find the whole idea of marketing my work to be excruciating. I don’t mind doing whatever the publisher lines up for me—I actually love doing readings, going to conferences and festivals, writing essays, doing interviews, etc. But increasingly these days, authors are also expected to market themselves—exploiting professional connections, social media, etc. etc. (Actually, I’m not even entirely sure what’s contained in that “etc. etc,” because I so hate marketing my own work.)

I’m a big believer that writers should spend the most energy on the marketing efforts they find least onerous. So, for example, I’m on Twitter (@robinwasserman) because I want to be—because I think it’s actually a fascinating (if increasingly fraught) platform and offers an opportunity for community I otherwise wouldn’t have. I try not to use it as just a marketing platform, because people are savvy, and they can tell when you’re doing something out of a sense of obligation or self-promotion. So, on the other hand, I don’t really have a blog or do anything with Goodreads, because those aren’t efforts that come naturally to me.

Maybe a simpler way to explain it is this: No one becomes a writer because they love  talking to people and networking and putting on a show. I do my best!

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I’d known to be more ambitious for myself. A friend asked me, recently, “What would you do if you knew there was no chance of failure?”

This is the question I try to ask myself now, whenever I’m starting something new, and the question I wish I’d been asking all along. I wish I knew then what I understand now, which is that the only real failure is not trying in the first place.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Usually, in answer to this question, I reel off a couple names without thinking too hard about it. But today, I’m in the mood to tell a story: Four years ago, I got a call from the then-director of the SNHU Low-Residency MFA program, asking if I wanted to apply for a job on the faculty. I got the job and set off for the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where we have our residencies (at a crazily luxurious hotel that comes complete with two pools, an ice-skating rink and a hot tub).

It’s no exaggeration to say that, personally and professionally, that job has changed my life. The people I met there—faculty and students—inspired me to think about my writing in a radically new way, to demand more from it. It’s only after that first residency that I began writing “Girls on Fire” in earnest, and it’s only because of those residencies that I could write the book I did. Over the last four years, I’ve worked hard to transform myself as a writer, and at every residency, I find cause to push further, to transform myself yet again.

All of the faculty—but especially Leslie Jamison, Benjamin Nugent, Mark Sundeen, Wiley Cash and Lydia Peelle, who were really instrumental in the birth of “Girls on Fire,” even if they didn’t realize it at the time—inspire me. I respect their work, I love their company and every day I consider myself so incredibly lucky to have gotten that original call.

If you keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
I’m going to widen the scope here from books to all works of narrative. These are my touchstones, the work that reminds me not just why I write, but why I think, why I live and how I should always aspire to do better at all three:

“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace

“Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard

“Stephen Sondheim,” Collected Works (cheating, maybe, but I’m doing it anyway)


Check out Wasserman’s website here.