Saturday, June 5, 2010

Interview with Amanda Howells, author of The Summer of Skinny Dipping

One Book At A Time  welcomes Amanda Howells, the author of The Summer of Skinny Dipping!

Amanda HowellsAMANDA grew up on a small bay on the Atlantic Ocean and spent summer weekends in the Hamptons while a college student in New York City, where she studied creative writing. She has published many stories for teen and adult readers and now lives in the pacific Northwest.

Tell us a little bit about your debut book “The Summer of Skinny Dipping” and its lead character, Mia?
The story takes place over a single summer when a 16-year-old Southerner, Mia, visits her wealthy cousins at their summer house in the Hamptons, New York. Mia idolizes this family, and is crazy about their beach house, but right from the day she arrives, her vacation unfolds in a totally unexpected way. Her cousin Corinne is distant and moody; family secrets simmer under the surface of things; and Mia finds herself an outsider in a world of privileged insiders. Mia resigns herself to being a fish out of water, until she meets a fellow outsider –her summer neighbor, Simon…

So that's the basic teaser of the plot; as for Mia, she's a fairly complex character: she's grounded and unpretentious on the one hand but also unpredictable and impressionable on the other. In other words, she's very human and very much a teenager, with conflicting impulses that make it hard for her to figure out who she is and what she wants. One of the key things she does figure out this summer is that nothing (and no one) is quite what it seems—not the people around her, and not even Mia herself.

The summer in the Hamptons seems to be depicted accurately.  Did you research or are you familiar with the area?
I'm no Hamptonite, but before writing the book I'd spent some summer weekends out there, and I was captivated by the landscape and also by the tension between "new" money and "old" money that exists in these sorts of tony enclaves. So I drew on my own impressions in the writing phase. I was also lucky to come across a fantastic collection of essays about Long Island— Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons by Stephen Gaines. It's a really juicy read about all the crazy scandals regarding real estate in the history of the  Hamptons. One of the essays tells the story of this beach estate, Dragon's Head, which caused an uproar because it was originally a historic home but got remodeled in he 1980s by this tacky, shady new owner into a faux-French castle. This house—and the story behind it—inspired me as the setting for a key scene in the book: Simon and Mia break into a place I called Dragon's Lair, a half-finished McMansion on the beach.

I thought this was more of a coming of age story.  But, I’ve also seen it described a summer beach read.  What do you think?
I think it's both. I wanted it to have the juicy, escapist elements of a "beach read"—with some glamorous characters, a beloved beach house, family secrets and that kind of thing…but I didn't want to write something shallow that you forget when summer is over. Mia does come of age in this story and that's at the heart of the book.

The ending completely caught me by surprise.  Did you have an idea of this when the story was taking shape, or did this idea work its way into the story?
The ending came to me before I wrote the first draft. Actually the book title came first, then the ending, then I worked backwards from there. The ending catches a lot of readers by surprise. Some readers hate it, and I can see why—it's dramatic, unexpected.  I hoped it would work, but that's not for me to decide.
I loved how much of a role the ocean plays in the story.  What is your feeling towards the ocean?
I have a love-hate thing with the ocean. The ocean scares me but it compels me. I grew up on the ocean but I was never very good at being a beach babe. I love swimming but I'm not a good swimmer at all, unlike Mia. I nearly drowned as a child and had to be rescued when I was swept out to sea. Come to think of it, this is probably why I'm somewhat obsessed with the ocean…

Are you a reader?  If so, what the best book you’ve read recently?
The best book I've read recently has nothing to do with YA, or beach reads, or summer romances, or coming-of-age stories. It's called The Little Stranger and is by an English writer named Sarah Waters. It's a ghost story set in a crumbling English mansion in the 1940s. As you can see, I like reading about mansions and Mcmansions.

Thanks for answering some questions Amanda!  It was wonderful to have you as guest!

The Summer of Skinny DippingThe Summer of Skinny Dipping
Available NOW from Sourcebooks Fire
"Sometimes I still wake up shivering in the early hours of the morning, drowning in dreams of being out there in the ocean that summer, of looking up at the moon and feeling as invisible and free as a fish. But I'm jumping ahead, and to tell the story right I have to go back to the very beginning. To a place called Indigo Beach. To a boy with pale skin that glowed against the dark waves. To the start of something neither of us could have predicted, and which would mark us forever, making everything that came after and before seem like it belonged to another life.
My name is Mia Gordon: I was sixteen years old, and I remember everything...."

After getting dumped by her boyfriend, Mia is looking forward to spending a relaxing summer in the Hamptons with her glamorous cousins. But when she arrives she find her cousins distant, moody, and caught up with a fast crowd. Mia finds herself lonelier than ever, until she meets her next-door-neighbor, Simon Ross. And from the very first time he encourages her to go skinny dipping, she's caught in a current impossible to resist.  

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