Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Ask an Author: Field Notes on Love’s Jennifer E. Smith [Contributor: Megan Mann]

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For the better part of my almost 30 years on this planet, I have been a complete and total hopeless romantic. I simply love love. Sure, I love the saccharine stickiness that comes with it but I love all of the messy, salty bits too. Because that's what love is: a mix of salty and sweet. So it would come as no surprise when I tell you how much I love a good love story.

This is why I love Jennifer E. Smith's work and am always coming back for more. She writes a good love story that draws you in and keeps you there. Not because there's so much drama, but because she's mastered the will they/won't they theme in the best possible way. This is work written by someone who understands love on a level that has created a loyal fanbase always clamoring for more. It's beautiful storytelling that has you wistful and hopeful and starry-eyed with each turn of the page.

Her newest novel, Field Notes on Love, delivers all of this and more. In fact, it's probably now become my favorite of all of her books. (Which is astonishing since I loved The Geography of You and Me so much.)

Hugo is dumped just a week before his cross-country American train ride, and is obviously sad. Not just because Margaret broke up with him, but because this was a chance to do something on his own, and not as a packaged deal with his sextuplet siblings. When Margaret suggests he still go on his trip, Brit's joy is quickly dashed when he realizes everything is in her name and non-refundable. With the help of his siblings, they hatch a plan to find another girl with the same name willing to go on the adventure with him.

This is where Mae comes in. After her friend sends her the ad, the budding filmmaker responds with a video of her Hudson Valley hometown with its stifling (for her) tranquility. By chance, he ends up picking Mae when someone else falls through and the two meet in New York to embark on an adventure that shows them more than just the countryside. It shows them what they want out of life.

The story is stacked with love, but not in an overwhelming way. The scenes involving Hugo and Mae's families and friends are truly heartwarming and you hotly anticipate the next moment they'll share, leading you to believe that something is happening between these two strangers.

Here's what author Jennifer E. Smith had to say about her latest novel.

Congratulations! Field Notes on Love is finally out! How does it feel?

It feels great! I’m really proud of this book, so it’s fun to finally have it out in the world, and I’ve loved getting such enthusiastic responses from readers so far. It’s by far the best part of the job!

The story takes place primarily on a train. Where did the idea of a cross-country train ride as the center of your story come from?

I’ve always loved trains. There’s something so soothing about the rhythm of them and the way the world passes by out the window. I’ve never taken a train all the way across the country, as Hugo and Mae do in the book, but I’ve been on some long rides, and I wanted to explore what would happen when you took two complete strangers and put them together on a journey like that.

There's a certain nostalgia, and even romance, to rail travel. Did that play a part in your decisions? 

Absolutely. I think there’s something inherently romantic about the idea of train travel. Though I will say, after taking one overnight for research, it’s not quite as dreamy as it might seem. Don’t get me wrong — I loved the experience. And the views were incredible. But those sleeper rooms are tiny. As are the bathrooms!

(Megan's note: This is important to mention because after I, too, traveled overnight on a train and had a "sleeper seat," I realized that sleep was a loosely defined idea and maybe I should have done research first on what that meant.)

I also love that you wrote about the view of a single person among a packaged deal like sextuplets. What made you want to explore that?

Honestly, I’ve just always been fascinated by multiples. When I was dreaming up Hugo, I knew he would be looking for an excuse to escape his life for a bit. At first, I thought maybe he’d just come from a big family. But then I realized he’d feel more boxed in if his siblings were the same age — and if there were a lot of them.

Plus, I just figured it would be fun to write, and it really, really was — especially their group texts, which made me laugh. I feel like I could write a whole book just about the sextuplets. I love them all!

One of my favorite parts about your books is chance. In almost all of them, a chance encounter sets two people off on this epic love story. What makes the idea of two strangers happening on each other at the right moment so appealing for you?

I always say that I love to write about moments in time that act as hinges — days where there’s a clear split between a before and an after. Where yesterday your life was one way, and tomorrow it will be totally different. Fate, timing, chance, serendipity — whatever you want to call it, there’s something really fascinating about the idea that the right person could drop into your life at just the right moment. So I find myself returning to that theme again and again.

One of the things that Mae’s Nana says really struck a chord with me. She said that love is love and it doesn’t have to be for life — it could be for a week. I feel like that’s something that’s missing in books, specifically in YA. Love doesn’t have a timeline. It just is what it is. Why was that important for you to include?

Readers sometimes get frustrated because my books usually end in a way that’s hopeful but unresolved. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a sucker for a great happily ever after But life is long, and that doesn’t always happen when you’re 17 or 18. If it does, that’s amazing. But I also like the idea that life can be full of interesting experiences, and that it’s possible to have more than one great love story. Nana certainly did!

I also loved what Hugo said: “The truth is, love isn’t just one word. It’s different things for different people.” This is so important for readers, specifically teenagers and young adults who believe love is supposed to look a certain way. Am I reading too much into that or would you say the same?

No, I agree. I think it’s helpful to remember that love isn’t one size fits all.

But I think my favorite part about the whole book is that this isn’t just about romantic love. It’s all encompassing in our lives. There’s familial, romantic, platonic love and they’re all represented. Did you set out to showcase all aspects of love or was it a happy coincidence?

I always try to showcase different types of love in my books, and often the family stories are just as important to me as the romantic ones. In this book, in particular, there’s so much heart to the other stories: Mae’s dads and her grandmother, and Hugo’s parents and siblings. I wanted those to feel as real and meaningful as what was happening between the two of them on the train. Their story takes place over the course of a week, but those other relationships have existed their whole lives; they’ve formed the bedrock of who these two people are, and that’s no small thing.

With the book so open-ended, what do you think happens with Mae and Hugo?

I have my own ideas, but of course I’d rather leave it to the reader to decide!

Field Notes on Love is not the first book that involves travel. (See: The Geography of You and Me and The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight.) What makes the transient nature of travel so appealing? Why do so many of your books feature it?

There are so many reasons. On a personal level, travel has always been an important part of my life, and there’s something really fun about getting to revisit the places I love most in the world through the eyes of my characters. More broadly, I think it’s important to break out of your bubble and be a little uncomfortable and experience new things, and it makes me very happy every time I hear from a reader that my books have inspired them to travel too.

And then on a narrative level, there’s something about the forward motion of it all — literally moving the characters from one place to another — that always feels inspiring to me. I realize it’s getting a little ridiculous, how many books I’ve written about travel, but I just really, really love it. So this definitely won’t be the last.

Now to the fun parts! We know that your last release Windfall was optioned for film. (Any information would be so greatly welcomed!) Has there been any talks about Field Notes on Love becoming a film? 

I’m not sure what will happen with Field Notes, but yes, Windfall is still in development, as are several of the others. It’s a long road from the page to the screen, but there are some great people working on them, so we’ll see what happens. Fingers crossed!

Is there anything specific you were listening to while writing the story of Mae and Hugo that inspired you?

You know, I don’t really listen to music while I write. Sometimes I’ll put on the score from a favorite movie, but mostly when I work, I’m just listening to the sound of my beagle snoring beside my desk!

What are you reading right now?

I’ve always got a few books going at once! I’m actually reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for the first time ever, and also The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. I recently finished Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, which was riveting, and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which was so impressive. I also loved Becoming by Michelle Obama, of course.

In terms of YA, my most recent favorite was XL by Scott Brown, which just came out this week. It’s funny and moving and smart, and the voice is just so clever and unique. Next up: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, which I’m so excited to finally read!

I want thank Jennifer for taking the time out to talk to me about her amazing new book. Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith is available now. You can find Jennifer on Twitter for updates on the movies and her next work!


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