Life By Corey: A Love Story

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Corey Ann Haydu Author Headshot: Navdeep Singh Dhillon of Pataka Design

Oh hey there. Welcome to the best Monday ever. Today I’m incredibly honored and thrilled to have one of my new favorite authors on the blog today. Corey, originally from Boston but a New Yorker for almost fifteen years, is the author of OCD Love Story and the most recently released (May 13, 2014) Life By Committee.

In order to prepare for this interview I had a couple YA readers who also happen to be YAs themselves, help me prep the questions. Special shout out to freshman Julianna and senior Meg from the Prudence Island School, a tiny and awesome (like Corey) schoolhouse located on the Island of Prudence in RI. I’ve gatewayed Julianna and Meg into becoming “Hayduists” or “The Third Coreyists” (any preference on what to call your fans?) by sending them a copy of OCD Love Story and also, surprise ladies: Life By Committee is on the way.

And now, madames and monsieurs…*raises fancy red velvet theatre curtain*…the incomparable Fraulein COREY ANN HAYDU.

AMI: Corey, Corey, Corey! I’m so excited to interview you today, so first of all, thank you for your time. I kind of fell in love with your writing with OCD Love Story and then I found you on Twitter and that’s how I realized how cool you are. I’m almost embarrassed to list some of my favorite things about you because if my friends read this, (two might) they’ll think I’m talking about myself but here goes: Lover of Judy Blume, The Bell Jar and Catcher In The Rye, Feminist, Reality TV (Bachelor/Bachelorette junkie), and topping that off with a theatre background. Clearly, you’re easy to love.

COREY: Ami, Ami, Ami! I think you summed me up pretty perfectly! You missed podcast and cheese enthusiast, but otherwise you got it all. *smiles graciously* I’m SO EXCITED to do this with you, and the teen Hayduists (I am going to try that term out and see if it catches on which I am SURE it will. If not, we can try Corey-ites).

And on a side note, I sort of love that I’ve found this very particular type of person on twitter—feminists who love reality TV. It’s a kind of wonderful little clique to be part of.

AMI: Agreed! I can’t get enough of train wrecktacular TV.

So, speaking of entertainment. I’d love to start off with your acting/theatre background and how it’s impacted your relationship with the publishing industry. I’ve loved reading how your training as an actor has helped in your writing, so now I’m quite curious for some insider dish on how you feel (Not sure if it’ll only be of interest to me but I am SO fascinated by how my years in NY trying to break into the biz trained me so well for this–THUS FAR–so I’m curious to hear your take!)

Can you pretty please speak on writing and being in the business of selling a book and how the acting world trained and didn’t train you for it?

COREY: Yes! Like you said, I’ve spoken a lot how my acting training helped me with the actual craft of writing, but I don’t think I’ve been asked how it effected me on the business side. And it definitely did! The thing about being an actor is that it’s hard to even get a response from an agent, let alone a meeting. The kind of rejection you’re experiencing is so intense and relentless, you are rarely even afforded a moment to hope. Sometimes you go to auditions and don’t even get seen. You get “typed out” which means the director sees what you look like (and nothing else!) and says, “yeah, don’t even bother reading these lines. We will never cast you based only on how you look.” That is HARDCORE. And I’m not by nature a negative or super jaded person, but it’s hard to stay optimistic in that environment. It’s also hard to feel like you are a smart and kind and interesting person who is being judged mostly on your appearance. I struggled all through my early and mid-twenties with that reality.

When I left the acting world, the transition into the writing world, therefore, was kind of a breeze. Don’t get me wrong. I faced a LOT of rejection and obstacles still. But even when I was getting turned down my agents or editors, I would hear back from them. By that point in my life, even a FORM rejection seemed like a hopeful and wonderful thing, compared to the radio silence that happens in the acting world. That I sometimes even got actual ENCOURAGEMENT from professionals in the writing world was amazing. To get to know the publishing industry a little better, I took some internships and then jobs for agencies and other publishing people. I was stunned that in that environment, how I looked wasn’t really a concern. I was being respected for being creative and intelligent. It fed my soul, really. I felt more connected to myself and respectful of myself, and aware of who I REALLY was and not what “kind of type” I was.

I played a high class escort no less than three times in my first three years out of college. It sounds funny now, but that does something to you, to your view of yourself. The publishing industry saved me.

AMI: Yes, to all of this. So aside from playing a million versions of an escort, what’ve been some of your favorite roles as an actor? Also: don’t you think callbacks are a lot like manuscript R&Rs and full requests? Or is that just me?

COREY: I loved playing Bette in The Marriage of Bette and Boo—that’s when I sort of learned that I could be a comic actress. I also had a wonderful comedic role written for me by a writer (and technical director) named Brian Smallwood in a show called The Wedding Play. That was a total joy. Ophelia in Hamlet, of course. And my all time favorite acting experience was in college when I played Lady Nijo in Caryl Chuurchill’s TopGirls. Churchill is one of my all time favorite playwrights, and that role is incredible. It’s a strange, chaotic, feminist play. Very emotional. Required a lot of research. And a lot of dedication to the text.

Revise and Resubmit is absolutely the same thing as a callback! In both you have someone who believes in your talent but needs to see what else you are capable, and needs you to go further.

AMI: Those roles sound ahmaaaazing. I want to start a theatre/writing camp and be in all the shows with you. I’ll play the escort, I promise. Everyone who is reading this: you have no callbacks because you’re already cast. You’re all stars.

Speaking of stars, one of my co-interviewers is a writer and graduates from high school this month. She’s completed her first novel and–no pressure–would love some advice as she prepares to take the step into college life with aspirations of being published.

COREY: Well first of all, completing a novel in high school is pretty much the most amazing thing I can imagine anyone doing, so congratulation! I wrote a series of personal essays my senior year, and never could have imagined doing something as complicated as a novel.

My number one advice is always to keep writing. Especially in all the very very many stages of publishing, it’s important to have other projects going on, to never be simply waiting around for news. If you are looking for an agent, do that but start your next project. Make time for it. Give everything to the book you are working on, and then be excited to work on the next thing. And reading is important too. Read books in the genre that you want to publish in, books that are similar to yours that just came out. Read books in other genres to see how storytelling is universal and unique. Read widely and often.

And revise. Take big, huge risks in your revisions. To have a great novel, you have to take leaps off buildings, risk ruining everything, go big and strange.

Also, and this applies to all careers, but publishing in particular: be a good person. Be good to work with. Be collaborative and kind and open. Be willing and flexible and honest. I’ve found that my relationships with people in publishing matter a great deal—from editors and agents to bloggers and booksellers, from librarians to readers to assistants to interns—all these people matter, and have a lot to offer you. So be open and kind to them all, and assume you can learn from all of them, as well.

AMI: Such great advice, for writers in their teens, new writers, and everyone. Even robots and aliens should take note.

So, let’s talk about your books. Can you take me back to getting the call that you’d sold your first book? Feel free to set the scene…you know the piles of dirty laundry, your sad eyed pet goldfish, empty wine bottles and cheese wrappers…and then please, pretty please share the Life By Committee deal story too. 

COREY: I was actually in the worst place ever when I got that call—midtown Manhattan, right near Macy’s, which is a sort of hectic, awful part of the city I love. I had to step out on the sidewalk during my work day, and try to get my head around what was happening before going back upstairs to work some more! I sold OCD LOVE STORY during a very rough time in my personal life, so it was wonderful but because of where I was at in life, I wasn’t able to really sink into the JOY of it. That’s why selling LIFE BY COMMITTEE was the most exciting moment of my career so far. I was in Dublin, celebrating my brother’s wedding and my niece’s first birthday and my boyfriend and I were taking a jetlagged nap after getting off the plane when I got the call. Even BETTER was that we were leaving a day later to head to PARIS for five days. So while I was ironing out the details with my agent, I was also in freaking Paris where it was snowy and beautiful and romantic and perfect. We ate cheese and walked the whole city and drank wine all day and night and I finally got that proud, blissful, life-is-magical feeling in my chest. It was such a special week, between celebrating my family’s accomplishments and then my own. I couldn’t ask for anything better.

AMI: I’m going to pretend that didn’t get me teary eyed. Honestly. This is the dream. *sighs and swoons*

OCD Love Story was one of my favorite reads of 2013. JUST SO freaking GOOD. As you’ve heard from many, it was honest, raw, emotional, and gripping. I read in an article that you called it an “underdog book.” That it started out as a small book and the critical response was somewhat of a surprise/shock. Can you take me into how that whole ride felt for you as a writer? What was the response of your family and close friends?

COREY: Oh Ami thank you so so so much. Man, my debut year was really pretty wonderful. I was blown away with the response to the book. I never really expected it to get much buzz, and when I saw that it was resonating with critics and readers and librarians it was pretty incredible. I think we all worry no one is actually going to READ these books we put our hearts into. I sort of thought, like, my family and friends would buy it and no one else. So when I realized so many other people were finding it—and still are!—it was mind-boggling. I think my friends and family felt the same way. Surprised and excited. I’m lucky to be surrounded with people who are incredibly supportive and wonderful, and they’ve all really come through for me this year. I remember I got one email from someone who had friends with OCD and the book had helped her feel more compassionate toward those friends. When I got that email, I felt like—okay. That’s it. I don’t need anything more than that. That’s the absolute best thing I could hope for.

One of the other huge thrills was being picked as one of PW’s Flying Starts. That came out of nowhere for me, near the holidays, and getting interviewed and seeing my name and picture on the cover of Publisher’s Weekly was an insane moment. I have to keep reminding myself “hey this is really happening” to make sure I’m checking in and engaging with the moment. It’s so easy for me to sort of get overwhelmed and check out and not experience it fully. I keep trying to make sure I really experience the wonderful moments.

AMI: With OCD LS being such a successful debut, what was it like to have Life By Committee come out so soon after? How does one prepare for that? On an emotional level, where were you leading up to release day, actual release day, and today: 1 being “New book out? Oh yeah, that ole thing? and 10 being “I’m seeing my shrink twice today because HOLY CRAP how do you release any book EVER after OCD LS has been out?”

COREY: I’ll be honest, LIFE BY COMMITTEE coming out was about a million times more anxiety-producing than when OCD LOVE STORY did. It’s hard to talk about, but there’s pressure that comes after you’re done being a Debut Author and you are just a Regular Author, and you’re not sure what the response will be. I don’t want to let down people that loved OCD LOVE STORY. I also want to be true to myself and explore what I’m interested in and make sure I’m always in love with the stories I’m telling.

Leading up to the release day I was all over the place. I remember having a lot of terror when LBC first went up on Edelweiss. I finally realized people would read it and judge it and that was hard. I also have a lot of connection to the main character, Tabitha, so something I had to be prepared for was that not everyone would love her or feel for her, and that I would have to find a way to be at peace with that and not let it hold me back as I start work on new projects. On release day I’d say I was about an 8. I saw my therapist extra times that week for SURE. I’m not kidding. This week I turned in my next YA book and had BEA, so I’m still hovering around a 6 or 7, but I think the summer will be full of winding down from all the excitement and focusing on the work again. All the parties and reviews and conferences and everything are super super fun. But I’m in it for the writing. So when I feel the anxiety take over, I like to know I can return to that safe, beautiful space.

AMI: It sounds like you do your best to maintain that balance in our writing life.

My YA sidekicks are so intrigued in your OCD Love Story writing and research process. They’re hoping to hear more about your personal experiences with anxiety and how they shaped the book. What things in life make you anxious? Also, would you say that some anxieties you dealt with in high school are carried over into your writing today? 

COREY: So while I don’t struggle with OCD, I have struggled with anxiety basically my whole life and have gone through some very difficult times with it. When I was learning about anxiety, I came across information about OCD and was intrigued by how anxiety can cause different behaviors, some of which we judge more than others. All mental health issues have stigmas, still, and I think OCD’s is particularly tough, and people don’t understand that it is, at its core, a pretty basic anxiety disorder and that’s it. Compulsions are ways to deal with anxiety, to try to keep it at bay. We all do that.

My anxiety personally has always been relationship-based rather than more tangible things. Although like Bea, I do have a lot of fears around driving and haven’t driven in over ten years. But I tend to get very obsessive about personal relationships and am haunted by the idea of “messing up” and “not doing a good job” when I’m interacting, being a friend, being a girlfriend, etc. I didn’t realize for a very long time that these anxieties had a more significant hold on me than they would on someone who doesn’t struggle with an anxiety disorder. Learning that what I was experiencing wasn’t what EVERYONE was experiencing day to day was absolutely SHOCKING to me. And sad. Because I think when you realize you have something like this and have had it for a decade or so, and have been carrying this extra weight around… it’s great to know you can work on it. But it’s painful to know how long you’ve been accepting something that you didn’t have to accept.

That’s why getting help is really important. Therapy can help you identify problems that ARE workable, that CAN get better, that you CAN get some relief from. And that’s a real gift.

AMI: Agreed. I’m a huge fan of finding a good therapist in times of trouble. Thanks so much for sharing that.  

And now back to Life By Committee. Meg & Julianna (my YA co-interviewers) haven’t read it yet but are incredibly intrigued by the premise. I’ve read it and looooved it.

Tabitha is such a great main character. She may not be making the best choices throughout the book but you can’t help but watch and hope so hard that it’ll work out in her favor. Her struggle and the back and forth is so gripping and rooted in real reasons that I couldn’t get mad at her. I mean, hello: for so many of us: that’s what high school is about. Can you share a little more about how you connect to Tabitha’s experience? 

COREY: Well without getting too in depth about my high school experience (because really, who wants to share THAT with the world, haha) I definitely share a lot in common with Tabitha. I’d say her loneliness and her complicated relationship with her body are things we both relate to. I had friends that stopped being my friends in high school and that was very painful. I also have found throughout my life I’ve been judged based on the way I look, and I’ve struggled to try to reconcile who I think I am, how I feel inside, and how others see me and perceive me.

I was lonely in high school, and maybe didn’t look like the exact kind of girl that we think of as being lonely in high school. And I think that’s what really connects me to Tabitha. Our outsides and insides don’t match. And we were so, so, so alone.

AMI: You’ve shared with me that one of my favorite scenes in Life By Committee was based on a legit event from your high school career. Can you dish that in a way without spoiling? I want everyone to know this so bad. I loved this scene and I really really have a lovely vision of sitting in a movie theatre someday watching it. *sips tea in a fancy/hipster way* I’d like to audition for the role of TeaCozy Patron, please.

COREY: Agh this is so hard to talk about without spoiling BUT! There is a scene in the book that a lot of people talk about, near the end, and it’s a sort of intense climactic scene. And that scene (you’ll know it when you get to it!) was based on something that happened in my school. We had a wonderful headmaster who had very high standards for us, and he played a big role in that moment.

His mantra, that he often shared with us and is honestly the number one thing I believe I took from high school, was – Character is what you do when no one else is watching. I get teary just saying those words. And when this event happened at my high school, I think it had to do with his belief in and passion for those words, and wanting to share that tenant with his students.

That explanation maybe made no sense, but I hope you’ll all read the book and understand better WTF I’m talking about.

I think you would make an extra-cool TeaCozy Patron! Let’s make it happen!

AMI: So, forget about you making a cameo as a TeaCozy patron in the LBC movie someday–would you play Tab’s mom or do you have someone else in mind?

COREY: It’s so hard to me imagine playing Tab’s mom, since I still feel like inside I’m more like Tab! But sadly I am way too old to play her. And I am actually about the right age to play Tab’s mother. (BECAUSE SHE IS VERY VERY YOUNG!) I’m so bad at fake-casting my books. They’re not the right age for it anymore, but I think Cate is someone like Laura Linney or Helen Hunt, except 32. Even a Reese Witherspoon might be perfect!

AMI: Dying to know this answer: Have any of your high school classmates read your books and asked you if a specific character was based on them? 

COREY: Haha great question! No one has actually asked me that yet, although some of them have definitely read it! I wonder if they’ll ask when more of them have read LIFE BY COMMITTEE! But the truth is I don’t base characters on real people, at least not in such a basic way. Sometimes I’ll combine 4 or 5 real people and take bits and pieces from each of them and form them into a new character. But no one that is directly based on anyone else. So not to worry, friends!

AMI: It shouldn’t even be possible that your upcoming books sound as exciting as the ones already under your belt. But they do. Making Pretty (May 12, 2015) AND Rules For Stealing Stars (Fall 2015) sound really REALLY good. Everyone go add these two books to your Goodreads and TBR lists. Making Pretty is a YA novel about the daughter of a plastic surgeon in NYC. While Rules For Stealing Stars is a middle grade novel about four sisters getting through a tough time and includes a touch of magic. I know you can’t tell much about them, and you did give us a generous scoop about them on Dahlia Adler’s blog but perhaps you’d throw us a couple fun book and movie comps that could possible be used to describe them? 

COREY: RULES FOR STEALING STARS is definitely along the lines of Coraline. I even think it has touches of The Secret Garden and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Mandy by Julie Edwards (who is Julie Andrews) and other classic middlegrades, simply because that’s what I read growing up. In terms of more current reads, I was really moved by Waiting for Normal and A Mango Shaped Space, and though they aren’t in any way the same, they inspired me by being powerful MGs that don’t shy away from difficult material but are ultimately about spirit and hope and what we have inside ourselves.

MAKING PRETTY… gosh what’s a good comp title for it? I have no idea. Ask one of my beta readers! I can say that it is also a story about sisters, and about stepmothers and, like LBC, is a bit about loneliness too. I used some moments from when I first moved to NYC 13 years ago. And it’s I think my most romantic book yet. I’m really really happy with the romantic aspects of the book, and the NYC-ness. And it has some BIG twists.

AMI: Sold and sold. I can’t wait for these books. I love that you don’t shy away from tough material and am quite excited about the romance and NYC aspects.

This is a kind of heavy question that deals with writing about difficult material. It came from the high school girls. When you write the kind of books you write, do you have an objective in getting specific messages across? Also, what sort of responsibility do you feel when dealing with issues like mental illness, drinking, drugs, cheating, etc?

COREY: I don’t have a message. I don’t think “message” is a great place to write from.

That said, and I’ve said this in other interviews but it really is always worth repeating and thinking about—I believe in compassion. Like the saying from my headmaster, compassion is something I spend a lot of time thinking about and trying to make sure I’m living up to. So I DO think it is my responsibility to write from a place of compassion. And honesty.

This doesn’t mean “nice” characters. It means that I’m writing about real people, and I, as the AUTHOR, understand and accept their imperfections and try to capture them in a real way, not as a caricature or a more perfect version.

And I hope that readers experience compassion when they read my books, but it’s okay if they don’t. Maybe they will later, if it sticks with them for long enough. Maybe it will make them think. That would be great.

But my concern is with honesty. As someone who has been through some difficult times and has felt very alone, having a place where I can get an honest look at other people’s lives was always really important to me. The sugar-coated versions of life make me feel really bad. Like I’m not doing it right. Like I’m not enough. Like I’m supposed to be better, have a better life, be more perfect. So I don’t have an interest in writing things that perpetuate that myth. That make people feel like they need to be more or do better or have more or think nicer thoughts.

Life has a lot of beauty and a lot of ugliness, and both are really okay. I guess my message is: it’s okay. Whatever it is you’re feeling or going through. It’s okay.

And if you want to read some other books that helped me with this along the way, that showed me messiness and made me feel less alone (some YA, some adult): The Liar’s Club, Fiction Ruined My Family, The Bell Jar, Some Girls Are, Ordinary People, Use Me.

AMI: Great, great answer. Also, love that we get some book recs in this interview. Thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself as a person and as an author. 

I know I’ve asked some tough questions, but let’s get real serious now. Here is a heavy question from me. You like theatre and cheese and you live in NYC. (Sad side story: during my own acting and NYC years, I was a poor college student and a vegan. Good news is, I’m out of college and cheese and I have been reunited). Tell us your fave spots for good theatre and cheese so we can all have The Third Corey experience next time we are in NYC. *buys everyone a round of cheese*

COREY: I am SO relieved you and cheese have been reunited!!!!

What a fun question! I think New York Theatre Workshop always has interesting stuff going on, theatre wise. Plus it’s in a great location, so that helps. I also like MCC, Second Stages, and Signature. If you’re in NYC anytime soon, I highly recommend the interactive, Alice in Wonderland inspired show, Then She Fell. It’s incredible.

As for cheese! One of the best spots is Murray’s Cheese Bar, in the West Village. It is basically an all cheese menu. I love cheese plates at Brookvin, The JakeWalk, and Atrium Dumbo in all Brooklyn. And if you are buying cheese to go or a delicious sandwich, Stinky’s in Brooklyn is one of the coolest foodie shops ever.

AMI: OMG, we are all planning our NYC theatre & cheese-cations right now! *turns on The Bachelorette in the meantime & cries alligator tears onto a can of squeeze cheese*

Finally, the most important question of all: You’re stuck on a deserted island with an endless supply of cheese and a TV that’ll play one reality series on loop until you’re rescued: What kind of cheese and what are you gonna watch?

COREY: I’m going to go with Burrata and maybe The Real World, because then I could rewatch all the old school seasons and watch its demise into drunk party show. I think that would be sort of fascinating to watch on repeat. And I’d get some like, decent, respectable moments on television. And some truly disgusting, shameful ones too.

AMI: Thanks again Corey for making this such an insightful and super fun interview. You have been a joy and you deserve the final rose of the evening. *hands Corey a rose made of, you guessed it, cheese*

Thanks everyone for hanging out! If you’d like to win a copy of Life By Committee (paper or e-book) just comment below, and leave your twitter handle if you have one. I’ll have an unbiased name drawer chose the winner and I’ll announce back here and on my Twitter page next Monday, June 9th! To find out more about Corey Ann Haydu and to buy copies of her books for yourself and your friends, check out  Corey’s website.