Each year, RWA recognizes excellence in romance writing through the RITAs, considered the top honor in the genre. Though awards are presented in a dozen categories, a writer has just one shot in her career to win the Best First Book award. This interview series focuses on the debut authors nominated in that category.
In Oh. My. Gods., Phoebe Castro faces nearly every nightmare known to adolescence–she gains an unexpected step-family, loses her best friends and a stellar senior year in a thousands-of-miles-away move, and is an instant outcast at her new school. That’s just the opening chapters. The twist in Tera Lynn Childs’ novel (which is also a RITA YA Novel nominee) is that Phoebe’s new high school is on a Greek island, her new step-dad is a descendant of the Greek gods, and her outcast status is because she’s a nothos–an ordinary mortal among the most elite student body ever. Phoebe, however, proves an able heroine–smart, driven, outspoken. As she warns her mean-girl step-sister: I’ve survived beach bunny cheerleaders, a slut-hunting ex-boyfriend, and five years of cross-country camp. I’m not afraid of some throwback to ancient myth with atrocious highlights and a Barbara Streisand nose.
About Oh. My. Gods.-
First, a six-word memoir for your protagonist:
Run fast and don’t get smoted.
What were the original "triggers" or inspiration points for this story?
Organized crime. I was playing around with reality TV show titles, trying to tweak them to make them funny. At the time, Growing Up Gotti (about mob boss John Gotti’s daughter and grandsons) was on A&E. The only title twist I could think of was Growing Up Godly. From that working title I developed the idea of a teenage girl going to a school for the descendants of Greek gods.
Your favorite line, moment, or scene in the book:
My favorite line is when my heroine’s new stepdad reveals the secret of the tiny Greek island where she’s going to spend her senior year. He says, "There is little the Greek gods cannot do when they choose to act."
Phoebe’s sense of self is very much wrapped up in her running, and her devotion to it serves the novel on a number of levels. How did you come to choose that particular aspect of her character?
I think it was my critique partner (Sharie Kohler/Sophie Jordan) who actually first suggested making Phoebe an athlete, giving her something to strive for and potentially lose. That single idea led to so many things: Her dad being an athlete before her, which came into play way more than I ever intended. The conflict of winding up at a school of super-kids where she’s not the best anymore. A motivation for her to be in the path of the unattainable guy.
As the story developed, it became clear that running was more than just a hobby for Phoebe, it was her way of life. Getting dropped into this crazy world of myth-come-to-life, I think she throws herself more and more into running as the one thing that still makes sense.
I chose running in particular because I wanted Phoebe involved in a sport that had it’s roots in ancient times. Wrestling and discus were definitely out, so I put her in the footsteps of the marathon tradition. (Even though I not-so-secretly despise running myself.)
Is there a Griffin vs. Troy debate among your readers?
Some. But, honestly, most fanmail is from girls who are decidedly in favor of Griffin. I have one writing pal who can’t stand him and his bad boy attitude and wishes they would break up so Phoebe can get with Troy. Not likely, but who knows? When I first started writing this story, Griffin was supposed to be the bad guy and Phoebe was supposed to end up with nice boy Troy. Phoebe and Griffin still have some kinks to work out (which you’ll see a bit this summer in the sequel, Goddess Boot Camp). If I get to write a third installment, we’ll just have to see what happens.
Where did you have the most fun with this book?
Since this was my first young adult book, I had fun all over the place. I loved reliving my teenage self (with some definite life improvements) through Phoebe. I loved playing around with the mythology and making the archetypes of the Greek gods completely contemporary and relevant to today’s teens. A lot of the “rules” weren’t present in the first draft (they’re mostly the result of my editor saying, “Um, this world needs rules.”) but I had a blast playing around with the idea of putting an average girl in a world where here arch-enemy could, with just a thought, do far worse than spread a vicious rumor.
Above all, I think the best part was the freedom of writing in a world where anything is possible, where the rules of everyday life don’t necessarily apply, and where you never know what’s going to happen around the next corner. I kept surprising myself throughout the book, and I hope that comes across to readers.
And the best or most unusual fan mail you received about it?
The best fan mail I get is when teens email (or MySpace or Facebook) me to say that one of my characters is just like someone in their life, someone at their school. That tells me that, even though I’m fifteen years removed from high school, teenagers are pretty much still the same.
What’s coming up next?
First, there’s Goddess Boot Camp, the sequel to Oh. My. Gods., and then next summer I begin a new series with Forgive My Fins-about a half-mermaid princess attending high school on the mainland.
Oh. My. Gods. is your first published book, but was it really your first book?
Hahaha. No. I have (filed away in the dark corners of my computer) a Regency historical romance and two chick lit novels. All were victims of the wrong sub-genre at the wrong market time.
From the decision to write for publication to the "sold" call: How long?
How did you find your agent?
I queried her. When I had Oh. My. Gods. ready to submit I started at the top, reaching for my dream agents. She was in my first round of queries.
Your biggest surprise, pleasant or otherwise, about being a published author:
How much time the minutia of the business-’emailing, blogging, interviews, mailings, signings, etc. ad nauseum-‘takes up. Some days I just have to turn it off, give myself permission to slip away to Starbucks and write for a while. Those emails will still be there in the morning.
Your weirdest or most reliable writing ritual/habit:
Going to Starbucks (or Panera or a local coffee house). I can’t write at home-‘too many distractions/chores/shows in the DVR-‘so I pack up my Alphasmart and my iPod and head to somewhere with a comfy chair and a steady stream of caffeinated beverages. That’s where I’ve written every one of my books.
Writing advice you’re glad you followed or ignored:
I’m glad I followed my mentor’s advice to get an agent first and I’m glad I ignored any advice that begins with always or never. There are no absolutes in this business.
Biggest distraction and how you deal with it:
The internet is definitely my biggest time suck-‘whether I get lost in email or social networking or researching, I can waste hours. My solution? Leave it at home. (Confession: I do have internet on my phone, but it’s so difficult to navigate I only use it to check email and do an urgent research hunt.)
As a RITA Nominee-
How did you celebrate the nomination?
By nannying for my critique partner’s 18-month-old. I watch him one morning a week so she can go write and it was our regular day. When I got there she jokingly told me, "Don’t let my kid drown in the toilet because you’re too distracted." Let me tell you, floating high on double RITA nominations definitely made changing a poopy diaper less disgusting.
Wearing or carrying any lucky charms to the awards ceremony?
I’d always fantasized about taking the little chocolate RITA statue RWA gave out at the 25th anniversary ceremony in Reno and, once they handed over the real thing, I’d unwrap the chocolate and take a bite. But … I don’t really like chocolate and I’ve gotten used to that little foil statue sitting the shelf above my computer. So I’ll have to think more about this.
The author who, despite your usual poise and eloquence, would reduce you a blathering fangirl if you found yourself sitting next to her/him at the ceremony:
Besides YA authors who I know won’t be there (Jaclyn Moriarty and Emily Lockhart) I would die to sit anywhere near Julia Quinn. She was one of my main inspirations to become a writer (and the reason for that Regency historical gathering dust in my computer). But I’ll be thrilled just to sit with my fellow YA nominees Tina Ferraro and Rosemary Clement-Moore.
First person you’ll hug/text/call if you win:
My parents. After that, writing pals who won’t be at the conference this year.
A Little More Personal-
Your paying job(s) pre- and post-publication:
Mostly I was a student, but I also did various jobs for my family (cleaning out horse stalls, repairing air conditioners, and doing graphic design) and some temp work (as an assistant in a Frito Lay regional office and doing Medicare data entry for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Missouri-‘fun). Right before I sold I spent one year as a seventh grade science teacher. Um, yeah. One year. That was enough.
An author or book you recommend again and again:
The author I recommend over and over again is Jaclyn Moriarty (she writes hilarious YA in epistolary form-‘memos, journals, notes, transcripts-‘everything but straight prose). The book I can’t recommend enough, especially for anyone wanting to write YA, is Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart. It’s based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis (which I despise) but is a completely amazing book.
Your own "best first":
Best First Book Launch goes to Blue Willow Bookshop, here in Houston, Texas. After reading an ARC of Oh. My. Gods. they contacted me to see if I’d be interested in having them host my book launch party. I was, they did, and it was beyond amazing. They had baklava and Greek wine and music and decorated the shop with Greek columns and pink-pink-pink everywhere! I felt like such a princess. (Want to see how much I love them? Check the acknowledgments page in Goddess Boot Camp.)
RITA winners will be announced at the RWA national conference in July. Tera has free short stories and other goodies at her oh-so-pretty website, www.teralynnchilds.com.