"Boy21" is about Finley, an introspective teenager growing up in Bellmont, a fictional working-class enclave of Philadelphia. His basketball coach introduces him to Russ, an equally damaged teen who refers to himself as Boy21 (a nod to his basketball jersey number) and claims to be from outer space. The boys form a bond not often dramatized in teen fiction that's recently seen more vampires than blue-collar kids.
Q. What's it feel like to know that your first novel is about to become a movie?
A. It's surreal. I was on set one day, and I watched them film for about eight hours and that will be about 15 seconds of the movie. I got to meet David O. Russell. I love his work. To go from an unpublished writer, idolizing storytellers, to having David O. Russell explain what he's doing with the film and treat you as an equal storyteller was surreal. It's amazing how quickly you can make that transition. I wrote for three years in my in-laws' basement without a paycheck. But when I was growing up in Collingswood I never thought that would happen for me.
Q. In "Boy21," Finley is a quiet kid whose inner monologue is sparse. How did you figure out that voice?
A. This book is the hardest I've written so far. It took me much longer to write than "Silver Linings." It's ironic because a lot of people read this book and think Finley talks in this simple way, it must be easy to write . . . It's difficult to write simply. It's a lot harder than you might think. I did a lot of writing, a lot of revision, a lot of thinking about Finley. In some ways, it's like acting when I write in the first person. I have to become that character so for six or seven hours a day, I was Finley, writing in his voice or thinking in his voice.
Q. Six or seven hours of being a teenager is rough. Did you come out of those sessions in a teenage mindset?
A. Whenever I write young-adult lit, I'm kind of rehashing some of the things I was thinking about at 16 or 17 years old and that can be very painful if you're going to be honest about it and it can be painful to take on the psychological burdens of your character, no matter who it is. I graduated from high school and I started teaching teenagers right after college. But even when I was in college, I was working with teenagers, so for a long time I never left that time period. In some ways, I wonder if I got stuck in those teen moments. Maybe I never left. And even now being a writer, most of what I do, I do alone. I'm alone with my characters and they're usually teenagers.
Q. That leads to the broader question: Why young-adult fiction? This is your second YA-focused book. I think most writers go from YA to adult fiction, but you went the other way around.
A. I love young-adult lit. As soon as I started writing it, I found that it was like I was teaching again. I was spending time with high-school kids, which I miss. I miss teaching, I miss coaching. The other thing about the young-adult world is that the other writers are more inclusive. There's a family type feel. It's less competitive. It's a very healthy world. It's a really exciting time be writing young-adult literature, especially realistic fiction because we don't have a lot of that. The books that people think of are "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" or "The Hunger Games." But to see realistic young-adult fiction is really exciting and I'm glad to be a part of it.
Q. Is it difficult to compete against fantasy young-adult lit?
A. The temptation is always "Why not write a vampire book and attempt to cash in?" It's just not something I feel called to do right now. If I ever felt called to write a vampire book or an apocalyptic book, maybe I would write that book, but right now I'm writing the book I feel called to write.
Q. Reality is intrinsic to "Boy21." Where did you place Bellmont?
A. To be honest, it was just around Philly, maybe North Philly. It's funny because people read it and they think it's Fishtown, they think I'm trying to characterize that. I'm flattered they find it authentic but really I tried not to do that specifically. Number one, because I didn't want to limit it. I set "Silver Linings" in Collingswood and I think it was fun for the people of Collingswood but all of a sudden all of these other connotations creep up. So whatever you think about Collingswood, whether you love it or hate it, that affects how you read the book. This time around, I tried to create a neighborhood you could see existing in or around Philly but I tried to be careful to not place it. Ironically there was a section of Philly called Belmont with one L. I think I knew that but in no way meant it to be that place. It's not even close. I thought about what typical towns around here sound like. I just tried to come up with a Philly-sounding name.
Q. You have a scene in the book where Finley goes on a field trip to the Franklin Institute and they describe Center City as if it is this foreign place even though they only live a half-hour away.
A. When I coached at Haddonfield, I was really good friends with the coaches in the other conferences. The Haddon Heights coaches would tell us they would take their kids through Haddonfield for the first time. And these kids had never driven down King's Highway so they're looking at all of the mansions with eyes wide. They could walk there and they had never seen it. That's one of the things I wanted to emphasize. I grew up in Oaklyn and went to Collingswood High School. I never left Oaklyn. We never left Collingswood. Sometimes we would go into Center City for the holidays but we never really strayed away from that five-mile radius.
Q. There's not a ton of literature for kids that looks at the blue-collar experience.
A. There's not. There needs to be more of that. I love classic literature, I taught it. I love "The Catcher in the Rye" but it's hard for a lot of blue-collar kids to relate to Holden Caulfield.
Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog at www.philly.com/entertainment.