Scarlett Epstein (Really) Hates it Here
I want to be best friends with Anna Breslaw.
Like Breslaw, Scarlett is a writer, and through this characterization, Breslaw provides us with a beautiful depiction of teenage self-identity. Scarlett notes early in the novel that “Writing is just the only thing that makes me feel like a real person, not the tap-dancing reflection of myself that I am around other people.” I fell in love with this quote, and in that moment I also fell in love with this novel.
Breslaw knows what it is to be a young adult, trying and failing and trying again to reconcile what it is to be yourself. Scarlett’s writing outlet is television show forums, where she writes and reads fan fictions with people who are similarly engaged in the fictional show, Lycanthrope High. Scarlett begins writing an original piece of fiction to keep her online community together after the show’s cancellation, and it’s then that Breslaw’s novel begins switching between Scarlett’s narration and her new writing. The book struggled briefly at this point because I was so invested in Scarlett’s first person depiction of her world that, as a reader, I didn’t want to be exploring a second story. However, as the meta-fiction progressed, I realized that Breslaw wants the writing to struggle. This is Scarlett’s first foray into original fiction, and it is slow to develop; it is only through really living her life and venturing out of her comfort zone that Scarlett is able to create anything unique and engaging in her own story..
From fan fiction to television fan service, Breslaw knows what she’s talking about.
ANNA: You open your book with a letter from a TV show creator to his fans, explaining the decision he made to cancel the show. This move felt particularly prescient in the wake of the massive media gaffs occurring with The 100's creator and his seeming manipulation of fans through social media and the show's fan-centered events. While your novel's show didn't end with the same disaster, it still reflected a new era where mainstream media creators are connecting directly with audiences, for better and for worse. Why did you choose to open the novel that way, and what motivated that decision?
Breslaw: That stuff with The 100 was so interesting to me, and it’s funny that the timing would coincide with my book. When I was in high school (I’m 29 now), the fanbases of shows I liked were like islands unto themselves. You’d occasionally hear about interaction with a network in the form of fan letters or whatever, but thanks to social media, creators and fans are interacting on a whole other level, and occasionally fan service is a direct result of that. Considering the point of fanfiction is working within the canon to create the story you want, I kind of wonder what’ll happen if everything on your wishlist becomes canon.
Maybe I got a little off track, haha. I chose to open the novel that way because the landscape is changing, and the showrunner in the book was very conscious of his not-necessarily-mainstream fanbase and how strong of a connection they felt to him and the show—I sort of imagined him as a combination of John Green and Joss Whedon—so it would just feel like this huge loss.
Your novel easily weaves humor into Scarlett's narration; at one point, she notes that she's always had a natural knack for humor. That, in addition to Gideon's love of traditional comedy, got me to wonder what your relationship is to comedy? Did you have training in stand-up or improv, or was your relationship to comedy more like Scarlett's?
Like Scarlett, I always feel weird calling myself funny, even though lots of people have told me I am and I basically write funny stuff for a living. It ends there—I would rather die than do live comedy of any kind. But I watch a lot of it. I have some comedian friends in New York, and tons of friends who are big comedy fans. There’s a specific kind of alternative-comedy fanboy I can picture so clearly (it helps that my boyfriend is one), and it made sense to me that Gideon would be one. And that they’d bond over it.
Who was your inspiration for Scarlett? She is immediately relatable, engaging, and believable, which is not a simple feat.
I guess she’s kind of an antihero version of me in high school—all of my teenage impulses cranked up to 11. Like, I felt terrible about myself but also kind of thought I was better than everyone. It’s been funny seeing people’s reactions to the character. Some people love her right from the beginning of the book, and I’m sort of surprised by that, because my concern has always been that she’ll come off so judgy and annoying that people will put the book down before she gets her comeuppance.
A weird inspiration was the old Taylor Swift song “You Belong With Me,” where this glasses-wearing nerd girl sings about how the guy she likes should be dating her, a girl with substance, rather than his dumb slutty girlfriend. With zero self-awareness whatsoever! I really liked the idea of the nerdy girl realizing she’s actually the mean girl—the villain in the other girl’s story.
At the start of the novel, Scarlett tells us that "Writing is just the only thing that makes me feel like a real person, not the tap-dancing reflection of myself that I am around other people." I think that quote is so important for teens and adults alike to recognize and remember as they are working to find their life's fulfillment. Was that quote reflective of your relationship with writing? When did you decide that you wanted to write a fictional novel?
I’ve wanted to write books forever. I wrote my first “novel” (quotation marks because it was terrible) when I was like fourteen. And I definitely think that quote reflects my relationship with writing, and tons of other people’s. So much of being a teen is performing, for friends or teachers or parents, and it’s so helpful to have one safe zone where you can let your guard down—whether that’s a person, or a place, or a hobby, whatever. A zone where it’s OK to not be OK. For me, it was writing.
With the rise of social media, particularly long-content sites like Tumblr, as well as with the encouragement of major authors like JK Rowling, fan fiction has seen a surge in popularity. What was your motivation for including fan fiction in the novel? What do you think is the significance of fan fiction in the lives of burgeoning writers?
Fanfiction is like a dollhouse. The world is already built for you, the characters are strong—and beloved by tons of people—and you get to play with them without getting bogged down by exposition or world-building or whatever. There’s a great shorthand in fandoms that way. My early experiences with fanfiction was totally good practice for writing my own fiction, and there’s so much awesome fanfiction out there.
I also think fanfiction can be very telling, and including it in the book seemed like a fun way to express Scarlett’s view of her world, and everyone around her.
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here by Anna Breslaw is available now wherever books are sold (Penguin Random House, $17.99)
Feature photo VIA Penguin Teen.