Photo by Sigrid Estrada
By Paul Freeman

In Ann Brashares’ new novel for young adult readers, “The Here and Now” [due April 8 from Delacorte Press], 17-year-old Prenna James came to New York at the age of 12. She traveled a long ways to get there... across time. Now she has a chance to save the Earth from the dystopian future in which she was raised - if she doesn’t let falling in love get in the way.

This riveting journey is worlds away from Brashares' phenomenally successful series of books, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

“I was eager to explore some new ideas and new themes,” Brashares tells Pop Culture Classics. “And this one started to seem fun and interesting. And it ended up taking me into directions I hadn’t really gone before. At that point, I was kind of in.

“I think if I had known, at the beginning, how difficult some of the issues with time travel would be, I may have been intimidated, but by the time I had to grapple with all that, I was deeply in with the story and the characters and I just wanted to see it through.”

Brashares hadn’t previously been preoccupied by the notion of time travel. “I needed to think about all the different iterations of the future that are possible here and what the rules for this book are, in terms of how you deal with the paradoxes - Are you changing time when somebody loops back? Is there a new future that’s created? People handle it in different ways. I wanted to have a consistent approach, but also to think about sort of creating the world that she came from, as well as representing the world she goes to, which is our world, or our time. But also to make up a whole, plausible world in between.”

In this genre, Brashares could allow her imagination to soar. But contemplating endless possibilities is a challenge in itself. “Boundlessness is wonderful, on the one hand, paralyzing on the other hand. So I had the pleasure of the one and the pain of the other.

“Time travel is such a cool idea and I’ve loved it in kind of a glancing way. And I definitely have read and enjoyed stories that involved time travel before. But I guess I realized the difficulty of actually getting down to the nitty gritty of trying to tell a story involving time travel and not dragging your readers through the nitty gritty. You want to give them sort of the blossom on the plant, if you will, and not have to worry about all the roots and the soil and the gardening that goes into it. You want that effort to somehow enrich the book, but you don’t want them to necessarily have to see the labors. So I guess I didn’t realize that you have to follow every thread. You have to figure out, ‘Okay, so there’s the version of the future that happened before anybody traveled and then the version of the future after they did and if there are different sort of layers of traveling.’ Then there’s the different iteration for each one. And there naturally are going to be paradoxes of all sorts. So I guess, the complexity, it was kind of a Gordian Knot, The more I thought about it, the harder it felt to unscramble it.

“Once I got in, I was really interested in the perspective of somebody who comes back and also, the inability, even if you’ve seen the future to accept it, really believe in it, much like we are sort of incapable of believing in our own death, our own end. We simply can’t accept it. We can’t believe it, hard as we try, just as we can’t contemplate infinity. Our brains just aren’t made for it. Maybe you just can’t live, if you can imagine your own death, if you can imagine your own nonexistence. But I was fascinated by that idea.”

The themes in Prenna’s time travel tale are timely, indeed. “I don’t want the book to be too much of a message book,” Brashares says, “but at the same time, it’s amazing, the apathy that we all, as a culture, feel toward what are clearly significant changes in our climate. And it’s not so much apathy as, we just seek comfort. And the people who’ve seen all that, who are part of Prenna’s immigration, who’ve experienced all that, they’re all too willing to shroud themselves in all the comfort that we are.”

Brashares had to work to get inside Prenna’s head. “Some characters, I blend into them a little more. Sometimes I have to do a little bit of work to find, like you do with your children almost, to say, ‘Okay, let’s not over-identify here. Let’s keep some boundaries, because it makes for clearer thinking some of the time.’ Her life experience is so different. Maybe the way she processes things feels very human and universal in some sense. But I can’t relate to the things that she’s seen.

There are certain characteristics she has that I aspire to. I feel like so many of the people who’ve been through what she’s been through are so cut off emotionally, just sort of haunted and damaged. She’s so resilient and, in some basic way, optimistic, still trying. She still thinks things can be better. Her will is very strong and her desire to connect to other people, on a human level, is very strong. And those are characteristics that I really do admire.”

While she’s writing, Brashares isn’t thinking about how the reader might react to each passage. “It would be a mistake to try. It’s too hard to be self-conscious. I feel like writing, or maybe the creative process generally, is sort of like the gas and the brakes. The gas tends to be the creative mind, where you’re just trying in that vulnerable way to just put stuff out there, to really immerse yourself in the characters, to imagine to imagine. And then, sometimes, you do need to edit yourself. You need to be more analytical. And that’s when you start thinking about, ‘Okay, I am ultimately communicating with a reader. And how is this communication working? Does it make any sense?

“One of the things that was hard about this book is that there were so many layers of it, in terms of time, but also layers for me working on it. I did a draft and then another draft. So again, with all the overlays of my different drafts and my different efforts, thinking and rethinking the book, sometimes it was hard to say, ‘What have I already said? What have I not said? What does the reader know? What does the reader not know?’ And that’s more the editing process than the writing process. It’s hard when they get all mucky and blurred together. It’s so much easier, when it’s sort of ‘Okay, this is the creative part and this is more the analytic part.’”

Raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Brashares studied philosophy at Barnard College, then worked as an editor.

Of that work experience, Brashares says, “It’s really useful. You can burdened by it. You can get really dragged down, just as deep self-consciousness does, when you’re trying to relate to the world and make things happen. You just need to kind of live authentically and not worry too, too much about exactly how it’s playing. But I think the ability to be a good self-critic, to be able to edit yourself is really good - and also, really difficult. Just because I felt like I had developed a certain amount of skill in trying to edit other people, which I love, I don’t fool myself into thinking I have anything like that same capacity for my own self-editing.”

Many readers will picture “The Here and Now” on a movie screen. It may well happen, but Brashares didn’t let that prospect dwell in her consciousness.

“Again, I think before you start writing something, and maybe after you’re finished writing something, you tend to think about those things. Or I think about those things a little bit. When you’re actually writing, I feel it’s almost like, you stop believing in your characters, if you’re sort of looking past them to how it plays or will anybody want it or will anybody buy it or will it be optioned for film. It almost feels like, when you’re writing, you don’t want to look past your characters, you just want to look at them. So I don’t entertain a lot of those thoughts, because I think it’s distracting and I do think it takes away from the characters and my relationship to them. But I would say, again, after it’s done, or before you begin, when it’s more theoretical, I think about it. I’m not the most visual person in the world and so I like to think that a good story will translate into many different kinds of media. And I like to think that this one will, as well. But I don’t write it with the idea of, ‘How will this scene look on film?’ I’m really a writer, when I’m writing.”

“Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” was made into a movie, then a sequel. Brashares says, “I had some trepidations, but I also had - and maybe this is part of the self-preservation - just the feeling that the book was mine and the book would always be mine and I would suffer for its shortcomings and feel some pride in the things that I felt were good about it. But the movie, I have very little to no control over. So I wanted it to be good and I wanted it to be well received. And, for the most part, I was really happy at the end. But to preserve one’s sanity, you have to feel like, ‘There wasn’t much I could do here.’ Once I had agreed that I wanted it to be made into a movie, I wanted to give this away to be developed creatively by another set of people, I had to think, the movie belongs to them. This does not belong to me. So I built a little bit of an emotional firewall, I think. But I really genuinely wanted it be good. And it’s an analogy to the book. So I wanted it to represent itself and represent the book well.

“There’s no better publicity for a book than a movie. As a writer, you just have to be grateful for that kind of exposure, because it’s just the biggest, best kind of exposure you could hope for. And, if it does drive people back to the book, if they have read it, or to the book, if they haven’t read it, I feel like that’s really lucky. And there are interesting discussions about the differences and what you like better and what you feel works and how the experience of the movie changed your view of the book and vice versa. There’s definitely a lot of interesting play between them.”

The “Sisterhood” books struck striking an immensely responsive chord with readers, “It’s hard to analyze why - and I almost think it’s a mistake to,” Brashares says. “It’s almost like, when you are drawn to another person. It’s just a strange, intuitive combination of things. So, for those books, I think people are really drawn to the idea of friendship and a genuinely loving friendship. Hopefully a reader almost felt included in that circle. And I hope the stories are good and they feel authentic and kind of naturalistic. I really like to write as naturally as I can. I’m powerfully attached to the characters’ emotional lives and I want to provide that for the reader. And I feel like, when I do, that’s the best thing that I do. As a writer, I guess that’s the thing that I care about most.”

Of course, the massive success of the “Sisterhood” books raises expectations for Brashares’ subsequent efforts. “There always is that. Again, it’s one of those things that I sort of trip and stumble over before I actually start, and I worry about a little bit, and it does feel a little bit like a burden, but a high-class burden, if you will. It is hard to have expectations be high. It’s easier to write to low expectations than to high ones. But the fact that I’ve had success with those earlier books is just the luckiest, nicest thing. I just don’t want to take that for granted at any point. So once I’m engaged with a book and engaged with the characters and the stories, those burdens tend to fall away. And then they reemerge again when the process is done and it’s time to publish and there’s expectations again. But I guess the price of success is high expectations and it’s a price I feel kind of lucky to get to pay.”

The transition into adulthood is a backdrop in “Sisterhood” and “The Here and Now.” “I tend to go back to it again and again. It’s not always a conscious choice. I feel like that’s a fascinating time of life. When you’re experiencing the world with some degree of independence, as a kind of an adult, or near adult, experiencing love and loss and responsibility and freedom for the first time, it’s very, very powerful. And novelists, from the beginning of novels, have really focused on that period of life, because it is so consequential. When we’re under the care and protection of our parents, you hope it’s less eventful. But once you’re beginning to be out there on your own, you’re building your life. You’re figuring out who you are and becoming that person. So it’s just this fascinating juncture of life, from every angle.”

During her own adolescence, reading was vital to Brashares. “In the early part of that phase in my life, when I’m just beginning to develop into my own independent thinking person, I would say reading was probably as important to me as it’s ever been. You can’t really see inside another person’s head - except in a book. People can sort of talk you through their experiences, but there’s a kind of a mind meld, an emotional meld, that can happen in fiction. That’s partly why I love books above all. And so, getting into the thoughts of characters and seeing the general irrationality of thought, insecurities and the vulnerabilities in a lot of good YA [Young Adult] literature, that was real sustenance to me, and a real comfort. My reading, as I’ve gotten older, fills other needs, not that one, as much.”

Young adult readers flock to books penned by Brashares, who has written adult novels, as well. Her writing style disarms tweens and teens. “I think you inhabit the character you’re writing. I try to, at least. I try to write a very closely aligned point of view. And although it would be fun to try it sometime, I tend not to write from a more godlike, omniscient height. I tend to be right down in there, trying to see through the character’s eyes and feel the things they’re feeling. So, if that’s a 16-year-old, that’s how I am when I’m writing her. And if it’s a 22-year-old, that’s how I am, when I’m writing her. So I’m not writing from a distance. I’m writing from there.”

Brashares lives in New York with her artist husband, Jacob Collins, and their children - Nathaniel, Samuel, Susannah, and Isaiah. The kids’ age range is 18, 15, 12 and three. All but the toddler have read some of mom’s books.

“There’s some ambivalence about it, which I completely understand,” Brashares says. “I belong to them in such a very particular, mother way. And this is a different side. And I think it’s strange to have your mother talk in a different voice, even a little bit disconcerting, probably. So the older kids have all read my books. Only the 12-year-old has read ‘The Here and Now.’ And I think hey have enjoyed and appreciated them to some extent, but again, it’s almost like, if your mother was a singer and you went to hear her sing, it’s like, ‘Ooh, that’s sort of a public artist person that’s not quite my mother, that doesn’t quite belong to me.’ But they’re all interested in a lot of the things that I’m interested in, get exciting about a lot of the same things. So often I’ll have a new idea and we’ll be in a car or at the dinner table and I’ll bat it around and they’re always so eager for stories. They’re all like addicts to storytelling and narrative, just the way I am. So it’s really fun to have such a group of people that have such clear affinities.”

It would be natural for Brashares to be nervous about her 12-year-old’s reactions to “The Here and Now.” “That’s something I really try to talk myself down from, because I don’t want her, in the case of this book, to have any burden of response. It’s so tough, when somebody’s watching you for your reaction, particularly if it’s your mother. I just hate to have her have that. And, as a parent, particularly with younger kids, you want to mask your vulnerability to a certain extent, because it’s freeing for them to have parents be pretty strong and put-together. And, as they get older, to show them your vulnerabilities is actually very useful to them, because it helps them grow up and know that that’s what it is to be an adult, as well as every other age. But for her, I didn’t want to put any of that on her, so I tried to just be very even about, ‘Oh, you finished it? You liked it? Oh, I’m so glad.’ And not get into it too deeply.”

It’s difficult to write, while raising four children. “I’m so distracted, particularly since we had kind of a late addition to our family, our little one who’s just turned three this month, because my youngest was almost 10, when he came along. So that’s been like time travel, basically. So it is hard to find time. But I find that I kind of will wait until a project comes to me and sometimes attaches and feels like ‘Oh, I really want to do that.’ And then I do it. I wish I could say I was really disciplined and really into a routine, but I’m not. I’m really bad at that. I guess I really do have to feel like ‘Gosh, I really do want to be in that story for a while.’”

It’s healthy to have the family as an escape from the writing and vice versa. “There’s some tension between the two. If I’m really, really deeply in a book, which isn’t a lot of the time, I tend to have these periods of deep immersion, where I write somewhat quickly, because I’m so far in. And it’s one of my very few stretches in my life as a parent where I’m... I had a dream once, that I wanted to go to jail,” Brashares says, laughing. “It’s so funny. Because I just wanted to get to have to be with my book. It was obviously not a very bad, punitive kind of jail. I just wished that I could be in a room and lock the door and I would be allowed to do that. And it’s unusual for me to have a period like that and not be really, really happy to be in the kitchen with everybody, making dinner and doing all the things we do.”

When she hears from young adult readers, telling her how much her books have moved them, Brashares feels well rewarded for all her work. “I love that. I was so attached to reading at that age, I feel like, if I can provide that kind of experience to readers, then I’m happy.”

What’s next for the author? “I’m in that kind phase of trying out different things, turning them over and seeing what feels like it’s really going to grab onto me and what I’m really going to grab onto. And so that’s where I am right now. I have a couple of things. One feels very promising. One feels potentially also promising. And the truth is, though, you can’t just sit around waiting for the muse. The way that the muse comes is by sitting in your chair in front of the computer. So you can’t just wait for something to take you over. You have to work to get to that point, where it takes you over. And that’s what I’m pushing myself to do now.“

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