I've been getting such amazing reader mail lately (thank you!)-- some of it has been from people who read my books years ago, and they got in touch to let me know that the stories have stayed with them over time. This makes me SO happy!
Jihane is one of these wonderful readers (and I just found out that her native language is French, so she has a special connection to The Ruby Notebook!) She asked me some great interview questions about the Notebooks series as part of a school project. I thought I'd post some of her questions and my responses here, in case you're curious, too.
1st in the series
Is there a message in your novels that you wanted readers to grasp?
I don’t usually set out to give a particular message in a novel—I basically start writing a story to explore some issues (or people or places or scenarios) that fascinate me. Once I’m well into a rough draft, I start seeing some themes/ideas pop up in the story. When I’m revising the story (usually at least 10 revisions), I try to bring these themes into relief and weave them throughout the story. These are often things that I’ve struggled with in my own life at some point in time, and writing about them is a way to explore and resolve them to some extent. It makes me happy when readers can relate to these struggles in some way too, and maybe glean some wisdom or useful message in the story.
With the Notebooks series as a whole, I did hope that the books would inspire readers to travel, to want to learn more about other cultures and languages, to approach the world with an adventurous spirit and curiosity. I also remember thinking that I wished I’d been introduced to Rumi as a teen, and I thought it was a kind of cool added bonus that I could introduce his poetry to readers via one of the characters, Layla.
The way I see it, in each of the three books, a different main theme/message emerged. (But of course, every reader is going to have a different interpretation of the messages, and that’s exactly how it should be! I love that readers bring their own perspectives and experiences to my books—essentially, we’re co-creating the story.)
For The Indigo Notebook, it would be something along the lines of: We don’t always want what we think we want—there may be something better and deeper and more meaningful in store for us! Or we might learn to appreciate what we do have in a whole new way.
For The Ruby Notebook, I think the theme involves the complexities of love over time, and the idea that the hard moments are just part of the bigger journey.
For The Jade Notebook, something like: Life is beautiful, but messy, and that’s okay—embrace it all!
2nd in the series
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
Well, the research part is great! It mostly involves me wandering around gorgeous settings with my antennae up for cool stories. The Ecuadorian Andes and southern France and coastal Oaxaca are all bits of paradise, if you ask me. That said, one challenge in writing the second two books was that we’d just adopted our 9-month-old baby (from Guatemala), which was a dream come true… but I was just plopped right in the middle of motherhood. All of a sudden, I had this very active, demanding, (and thoroughly adorable) little guy crawling (and soon toddling) around while I was wondering how on earth I’d meet my tight deadlines for books 2 and 3 of the series.
Working on The Jade Notebook in its setting in Mazunte, Oaxaca, Mexico
You know, I’ve learned more about the marketing aspects of the publishing industry over the years. I think that since most readers are more familiar with (and enamored with!) France than Ecuador, I might have begun the series in southern France, so that a wider audience would’ve initially picked up the book. And then, I could’ve set the second book in Ecuador, assuming that the readers would continue with the series once they’d gotten into the characters and their world. But of course, there are still hardcore adventurous readers like you, who for one reason or another, felt drawn to the Ecuadorian setting. (Thank you!)
3rd and final in the series
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I absolutely loved having books read to me (mostly by my mom) when I was a little kid. And once I learned to read, I devoured books on my own (but my mom continued reading to me at bedtime through middle school.) As a young kid, I found that I loved writing my own little magical stories. I’d write them on notebook paper and illustrate them and staple them together. I got such a huge thrill from the act of creating stories and sharing them. It made me feel so ALIVE!
Cabana where I stayed in Mazunte, where The Jade Notebook is set
How did you develop the notion of Zeeta's wandering life as part of her background? (Living in a different country every year, etc.)
I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) for two years in Oaxaca, Mexico, and did some traveling around Central America and Mexico at that time. I had the chance to meet lots of fascinating people who had chosen to live a wandering, nomadic lifestyle, moving to a new country every year or so. I felt very seduced by this idea—there’s something incredibly stimulating about being in a new culture, speaking a new language… everything feels sparkly and exciting. Part of me wanted to head to South America next and teach ESL there. But there was part of me that craved a long-term home and community… a garden, a house, furniture, etc. In the Notebooks series, Zeeta represented the homebody part of me, and Layla the part of me with wanderlust. (I let them duke it out!)
Street performers in Aix-en-Provence, France, who inspired characters in The Ruby Notebook
6. How much of the books you wrote came from your own experiences?
Quite a bit was inspired by real experiences that happened to me or stories people told me. I love meeting interesting people on my travels and letting them spark new character ideas. For example, during my research in Aix-en-Provence for The Ruby Notebook, there was an old man who loved pigeons and hung out with them by the fountain, an old woman who watched the activities in the main square from her second floor window, and a dazzling troupe of young musicians and dancers who performed in the streets.
To flesh out the settings, also I make good use of the little detailed observations that I record in my own notebooks as I travel. For example, while in Ecuador, my friend’s mom warned me that their shower would give me an electric shock if I didn’t use a washcloth to turn off the faucet—I stuck detail that into The Indigo Notebook. There are hundreds of examples of bits of real-life inspiration for my books—too many to list here! I like to combine real life with a touch of magic and my imagination to create something new.
The Andes mountains of Ecuador, the setting for The Indigo Notebook
These books are filled with in-depth descriptions of Zeeta's surroundings such as the cafes in the streets of Paris and the beach of Punta Cometa, and really seems to give the reader in insight into the world she is currently experiencing. Were the descriptions based off what you were actually seeing when you visited these places? How did they affect the imagery and vibe you wanted to give off?
Yes! I take lots of photos to get the visuals right, but I also bring my spiral notebooks with me everywhere I travel, and I spend time recording the smells, tastes, sounds, and sensations I’m experiencing. I really love weaving all the senses into descriptions, and playing with poetic imagery, too. I want to transport my readers to these incredible places, both as a form of blissful escape, and to inspire them to travel.
Would you say Zeeta's personality mirror yours at all?
Aix-en-Provence, France, the setting of The Ruby Notebook
How long did it take you to write each book?
Probably on average, two years… but there was overlap. So, for example, I might have been revising Indigo while doing a rough draft of Ruby while brainstorming ideas for Jade. (It’s all a blur to me now!)
Out of the three books, The Indigo Notebook, The Ruby Notebook, and the Jade Notebook...which is your favorite. Why?
That’s hard to say. I think the main characters’ emotional dynamics and relationships were my favorite in Indigo. I was getting ready to adopt my son as I wrote that book, so a lot of the psychological research I was doing on adoption issues for the book was also relevant to my personal life. My favorite one in terms of magical elements was probably Ruby, since I was always enchanted by the fountains and springs and ancient history of Aix, even back when I was a college student there. And as far as the setting where I’d most like to be right now (in the middle of winter), Jade wins on that count! The Oaxacan coast is paradise to me.
Speaking of travel, I have some wildly exciting travel coming up soon... and I promise I'll tell you all about when I get back. Hope you're having a happy winter so far...