Tuesday, July 3, 2012

'On Writing' with Author Pamela Ribon...

Pamela Ribon wrote one of my favorite novels of all time. I found “Why Girls Are Weird” a bit late after it was published, but it opened the world of the internet profitability to me in ways that I previously only thought happened to girls in books. Ribon has been a blogger, an author, and a television writer and producer with development deals with two of my favorite studios, which basically makes her the much more successful me, and and with her new novel, “You Take it From Here” just taking her readers by storm, Ribon is the absolute perfect next profilee for ‘On Writing.’

“I started writing novels so I could get into television!” Ribon laughed. “I grew up watching television, and I love that stuff, too, so I suppose that’s how I see a story. I guess that’s why [my novels] come across visually. I also really enjoy writing dialogue. I write pages and pages and then realize ‘You might want to describe what kind of room they’re in’.”

In fact, Ribon, who is currently working with Jerry Weintraub Productions and Warner Brothers on an original series, as well as the Disney Channel on a new TV movie, credits the television industry for her novel career in a bigger way, noting that it was all of her feature and TV meetings that told her “if you have a book that you love and would like to adapt, we’re always looking for material.” She hadn’t been published-- yet-- but when she was, with her first book, “Why Girls Are Weird,” it turned into her first script deal, as well. “Why Girls Are Weird” never got made-- in fact Ribon said the story is still optionable-- but it kick-started her career across mediums. 

“For me the best kind of stories are funny and sad in places; they take you up and down,” Ribon explained. “I have places where I write pure comedy, but for these particular books, there’s a bit of a tone that I think people are expecting, and I write towards that. It took me a while to figure out that balance…I’ve had a few editors who said ‘The books are supposed to be the kind a girl can take them on a plane; she can take them to a beach; she wants to laugh, cry, and then call her mom.’ So I try to write to that-- to keep to that equation.”

But whether she’s working in television or in novel form, Ribon isn’t afraid to tackle the hard topics-- from divorce to death to cancer. She always digs deep in her personal experience to gather knowledge and situations for her characters, calling it a form of “punishment or therapy,” and her newest novel, “You Take It From Here” certainly exemplifies that. “You Take It From Here” tells the story of a woman dying of cancer who asks her best friend to take over her life when she ultimately passes. The friends share this secret, not so successfully at times, and embark on a very specific and emotional journey. But the book is written in a mix of tenses, as ultimately the narrator Danielle is telling this story in a letter to her friend Smidge’s daughter, now all grown up, and finally able to handle the truth of what her mother went through in her final months. It’s a big feat, and one that Ribon shared was difficult between which to bounce back and forth.

“Your reader is somehow being spoken to, but it’s not really to that reader. I’ve read some reviews where people say that took some getting used to, and it’s hard to finesse that. At times I felt if it was just ‘you, you, you’ all the time, it’s harder to talk about a woman as difficult as Smidge realistically because someone really would sugarcoat in that situation,” Ribon shared.

“There are few moments that you have to feel in order for the whole thing to be successful, the first being when they’re in the car on that road trip, and I have to make sure the reader feels Smidge’s request [is] authentic and not ridiculous-- that you could see these people could legitimately be in this situation at the bottom of this huge chair...[But] to feel the right way about Smidge and Danielle’s relationship and this story and this request, it’s got to be that Jenny’s learning what went down.”

Ribon admitted that the story didn’t unfold as you read it today immediately when writing it. In fact, she said she got halfway through the book in a completely different tense before she got the idea in her head to start the novel with a letter to Jenny in order to make the lesson readers learn at the end of the book even more profound.

“She is the thing circling them, even if the readers don’t realize that until the end,” Ribon pointed out. “If you start a book knowing that one of them, at the end, is probably not going to be with you, what is the question that we focus on? We want to know how that person probably won’t be with you, so there needs to be something that you’re learning at the end, and that was what was missing in that first half that I had written.”

To deal with something as serious as cancer and pay it proper justice, Ribon couldn’t toy with the idea of allowing Smidge a miraculous recovery at the end of the book. That would be something reserved for fairy-tales and dreams and even today’s rom-coms have gotten more intense. She couldn’t shy away from the stark realities of the disease, especially because in this instance it was going to be fatal. And that provided a new challenge for the writer, as well: 

“Unfortunately when you’ve had somebody who’s gone through this experience, really, you could shorthand all of that-- the emotion, the way you go through it because you basically know how it goes and want to go through it quickly. It’s never really like that when you’re going through it [though]. Time slows down and everything hurts more, and so being able to talk directly to the reader that way brings you more present.”

Because Smidge’s presence was so heavy in the lives of her family, friends, and the readers by proxy, Ribon never wanted to expand too far past Danielle’s life once Smidge was gone, even if that meant summing up a lot of years in only a few short paragraphs in the closing of the letter to Jenny. 

“For me it’s such a story about Danielle and Smidge that without that driving force and that anchor and that person, without her, I had a hard time feeling like there’s more in there,” Ribon spoke frankly. “I didn’t want to do a story that told what happened to Jenny. If I spend a lot of years talking about Danielle and Jenny and Henry’s life together, then you start thinking ‘Well maybe she did have a new life with this family, and maybe they should be together.’ But it always felt like Danielle knew her place, her job, and she never for a second forgot that she was just doing what she needed to do for Smidge."

Obviously Smidge's big personality filled Ribon while writing-- enough to fill the three hundred and thirty-six pages from cover to cover-- but I can only hope her story is deemed big enough to also take over the screen soon, too. We could certainly use a visionary like Smidge, a good friend like Smidge, and most importantly, an inspiration like Ribon in our lives.


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