“Love Is the Closest Thing We Have to Magic in Real Life”: YA Writer Stephanie Perkins on ‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’

A good romantic comedy is a hard thing to find, and in the span of a few short years, young adult writer Stephanie Perkins has established herself as a wonderful writer of sweet and smart romantic comedies, with a loosely connected triptych of teenage love stories set in fabulous cities: Anna and the French Kiss (Paris), Lola and the Boy Next Door (San Francisco), and her newest book, Isla and the Happily Ever After (New York, Barcelona, Paris). There’s an earnest charm and swooning sincerity to her work, and the characters and cities unfold like a sweet teenage dream. Isla starts out with shy cartoonist Josh falling for the titular unconventional redhead, and the way their relationship unfolds is a delicious surprise — through Paris and New York, beyond the stresses of senior year, and other factors like being a senator’s son or having a best friend with Asperger’s. Isla is an entrancing conclusion to a delightful series, and we were excited to talk to Perkins about her writing process, romance, and her feelings about YA and adults.

Flavorwire: Like the best romantic comedies, some of the world’s great cities are “almost like another character” in your books, to paraphrase David Wain’s They Came Together. How did you do it with Paris, and do you have any recommendations?

isla and the happily ever afterStephanie Perkins: I actually didn’t know anything about Paris when I started writing Anna and the French Kiss. I was an Anglophile, not a Francophile! But to turn a city into a character, yes, you have to know a lot more than what will ever make the written page. I was a librarian at the time, so I was already a good researcher. I read books about France from every section of my library — travel, history, fiction, graphic novels, cookbooks, memoirs. I watched French films and studied the way the actors moved, the way the city looked. I listened to French music. I ate French food. I studied maps and Google Earth. I even took a French language class. Travel wasn’t in my budget, but I was determined to make Anna’s experience as authentic as possible.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re always interacting with our setting. It’s always influencing us. It’s my job as an author to examine this relationship as closely as possible, and it’s something I really enjoy.

My best recommendation is Pain, Vin, Fromages. It’s a restaurant near the Pompidou in Paris, and it’s as delicious as its name — bread, wine, cheeses. Simplicity has never tasted so decadent!

As an author, what YA books have been inspirational to you?

The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot was hugely inspirational and influential, and Lola and the Boy Next Door wouldn’t exist without Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat. Also books by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and JK Rowling.

Did you read Ruth Graham’s Slate piece, “Against YA”? How did you feel about that jeremiad, as a YA author?

I didn’t read it. Any adult who shames another for enjoying a book isn’t worth my time.

What have you gotten from online communities like the Nerdfighters and the wizard rock community?

Yeah, I’m active in both of these communities. They’re so positive and friendly! I don’t think they’ve played a part in my development as a writer, but they’ve certainly had an impact on my life as an author. My earliest readers were people who I’d met through the Harry Potter fandom. Their enthusiasm and support was loud, and it was online. Other people listened. My audience grew.

I was also fortunate in that John Green was an early reader of Anna —we share an editor, and he knew I was a Nerdfighter — and he vlogged about it shortly after its release. For the first year of its publication, 85% of my emails from readers said, “I read your book because John Green recommended it.” What a tremendous gift.

How did you nest your companion novels together? What was it like to have these characters bump into each other?

To be honest, that was the easy part. Everything else (and I mean EVERYTHING ELSE) was hard. But these characters have such a natural overlap — they’re friends who live in the same cities. It makes sense that they’re popping in and out of each other’s stories.

I love that my books are companion novels. It’s a wonderful thing, getting to see old friends again. Getting to see that they’re still happy and well.

What sort of research did you do regarding the character of Kurt and Asperger’s? What do you think of the way that’s portrayed in society? 

ANNA coverI had a lot of help from a friend who has a child with high-functioning autism, and I also read a ton of essays and books. The most helpful were John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye and its follow-up Be Different. Recently, someone asked me where the inspiration for Kurt came from, and I realized that I honestly don’t know! I suspect it has something to do with the show Bones, which I’d been marathoning at the time. Although it’s never outright stated, the protagonist and several of her interns have Aspergian traits. I love those characters. They get to be the heroes.

Your books are swooning romances, and I’m curious about how can you write about romance and longing in an interesting fashion.

Well, I think that love is the closest thing we have to magic in real life. It’s such a powerful force. I’m fascinated by it, and I do feel like it’s an endless source of material. I fell in love with my husband as a teenager, and I still remember the overwhelming intensity of those emotions. How thoughts of him consumed every single moment of my day. Those feelings were as strong and real and valid as any adult’s feelings. Of course they were. I try to honor this.