A taste of freedom
Gayle Forman, acclaimed author of If I Stay, takes readers on a whirlwind tour of Paris in her latest novel, Just One Day. While on a summer trip to Europe, recent high school graduate Allyson Healey—who has never before considered herself adventurous—meets the attractive actor Willem and decides to take a risk and spend a single day in Paris with him. But one day of sparkling electricity with Willem soon turns into one year of revelations about herself that Allyson could never have predicted.
BookPage joined Forman to talk about Shakespeare, international travel and why the first few months after high school can be such a tumultuous time for a young adult.
Your own extensive travel experiences form part of the basis for Just One Day. Can you tell us a little about the traveling you did when you were Allyson's age?
When I was 16 years old, I decided to be an exchange student in England for a year, a completely uncharacteristic move because at that point, I was hardly what you’d call an adventurous soul. But I did it, and I came home from that year wanting more. So instead of applying to college, I sanctimoniously announced to my (very understanding) parents I would be foregoing college and matriculating at “The University of Life.” Senior year of high school, I got a job, saved money, and a week after graduation, took off with a one-way ticket and a Eurail pass, and some hazy plans involving Barcelona and wine-grape picking. I spent four months traveling through Europe, first with a friend, then on my own. I eventually landed in Amsterdam, where I got a job, made friends, had my heart broken—all mandatory requirements at The University of Life. I stayed for a year and a half, and I traveled off and on (had to refill the coffers) for three years before finally deciding to go a proper college (though even then, I took a semester off to travel some more). Later in life, my husband and I went around the world for a year.
I know I’m over-answering here, but there’s a point to it, because it all tracks back to that first year in England, which 20-20 hindsight has allowed me to see was a major crossroads. That was the year that changed me from the person I was on my way to becoming to the person I did become. Allyson has a very different experience from mine, though some of my travel stories became hers, but travel very much alters her trajectory, just as it did mine.
"When you move out of your comfort zone, you are actually expanding it, and this is how you learn to feel at home in the world."
Just One Day is full of details about international travel, from navigating public transportation to ordering in restaurants when you don't speak the local language. Did events in your own travels inspire these details?
Oh, yes, both directly—some of Allyson’s, and later Willem’s, tales come straight from my travel journals—and indirectly. People love to romanticize travel, because it can be so incredibly romantic. But it can also be enormously discombobulating, and little things—buying a train ticket—can feel enormously intimidating or equally triumphant. I have traveled so much and felt like an idiot so much that I wanted to include the whole spectrum of experience in the book. Not because I want to show the “downside” of travel but because I actually think the downside is often the upside. Delicious meals and famous paintings are wonderful to experience, but there is something about travel that takes you out of your comfort zone, and that’s when the shields come down and you start to see things and feel things you might not otherwise. And of course, when you move out of your comfort zone, you are actually expanding it, and this is how you learn to feel at home in the world.
The sights, sounds, smells and even tastes of Paris that you describe make your readers feel like they're really there. How were you able to translate these sensations into words?
Thank you. It was difficult. A love story in Paris is almost by definition a cliché so how to avoid that? Especially when I don’t know Paris as well as I do New York City (the backdrop for Where She Went) or Oregon (the setting for If I Stay). What made it both more challenging and rewarding was that I immediately knew, for a variety of reasons, my characters would be mostly staying out of central Paris, which was the Paris I knew. So, I took a research trip and spent a lot of time in the 10th, 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements, getting to know areas like Villette and Belleville and Barbès-Rochechouart,and visiting art squats and hospitals and wandering along canals and graffiti-covered parks and endless staircases up to Montmartre. I already loved Paris, but this made me love it more. And this sense of discovery and being a little lost and a little in awe, it was a good reflection for how Allyson was feeling.
Shakespeare's plays—especially Twelfth Night and As You Like It—form an important backdrop for Allyson's story. What makes Shakespeare still so meaningful to today's readers?
What makes Shakespeare so meaningful is that Shakespeare is still so meaningful. I didn’t set out to write these books with lots of Shakespeare in them. I’d already named my Dutch boy Willem before I even knew there’d be a significant Shakespearean component. But then it just kind of happened by degrees. Allyson and Willem meet before a Twelfth Night performance. Allyson has a moment of awakening when she reads out loud during her Shakespeare course, and initially I assumed I would use Twelfth Night for that moment. But as I was “researching” for the book, I went to several plays, including an incredible Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It, which had me with my heart in my throat for the entire play. I loved it so much I thought maybe I should use that play for Allyson’s moment. And then when I sat down and read it, I was shocked by how resonant it was—to the themes of shifting identity, of love and trust—and how perfectly it worked for my (and her) needs. It almost seemed tailor-written for both books. Which sounds incredibly self-centered but it’s really a testament to Shakespeare’s staying power.
If you could hang out with anyone in Allyson's life, who would you choose and why?
Dee is the smartest (as in most intelligent) character I’ve ever written, and hanging with him would be fascinating and fun. Also, his mama makes a really good peach cobbler and I would finagle myself an invitation for dinner.
If you had “just one day” to spend in the city of your choice, where would you go and what would you do there?
I would probably want it to be somewhere I’ve never been before so I could have that total joy of discovery and also a certain amount of surrender. With one day, I would know I couldn’t see it all so I wouldn’t even try. I’d just aimlessly wander, and eat. Ironically, if I returned to a place I already knew, one day would not be enough because I would be aware of what I was missing and I’d want to rush around and see my favorite spots. Ignorance is bliss, right?
Would you plan the details of your trip with color-coded schedules, like Allyson's mother might, or would you rely on spontaneity, like Willem?
I’m a bit of both when I travel. I’m all about having hotels booked when I arrive in places—even when I used to travel for long periods of time, I liked knowing I was arriving somewhere, because there’s nothing worse than showing up and having nowhere to go. But once I’m settled, I turn into Willem. I like to travel with as few plans as possible and make it up as I go along. I’m a big fan of getting lost, or “tooling,” as my husband and I call it. Just wandering and finding things, yes, by accident. That said, when it comes to being a mom, I see the logic of the color-coded calendar, even if I’m not there yet.
Allyson's relationship with Willem catapults her into a journey toward self-discovery that continues throughout her first year of college. Why did you decide to focus on this transitional time in Allyson's life?
This book came to me in a dream. I saw Allyson and Willem in an abandoned art loft type of place (what became the artists’ squat). I knew that these two people were abroad, that they’d just had this really intense day together and in my half-awake state, I started unspooling the story for myself. I remember thinking: “Too bad it’s not YA.” And then I snapped up, wide awake, and realized it was completely YA, that it would take place the summer between high school and college and lead into that first year of college.
That’s a long way of saying, it was automatic. There was no other way to tell this particular story, to take a character who had been shackled, have her in a situation in which she had a modicum of freedom, then give her a taste of true freedom, then take it away and thrust her into a setting where she is nominally independent, but still somehow controlled by her parents and watch her forge true freedom for herself. It had to be college.
Many readers—both teens and adults—will relate to Allyson's struggle to define an independent identity for herself. This struggle is at the heart of many books for people in their late teens and twenties, which have lately been grouped together under the name of “New Adult” literature. Do you think that label fits your books?
I’m not sure what to make of that label. Does it have to do with the amount of sex scenes? How racy they are? Or does it have to do with age of characters? I will let people debate the raciness factor of my sex scenes, but if it’s just an age issue, then many of my books are supposedly New Adult, aren’t they? Even If I Stay dealt with characters trying to figure out how to navigate lives, post-high school. And Where She Went, the same characters are post-college age. That said, I still believe that I write young adult novels. Don’t “young adult” and “new adult” actually mean the same thing? Fledging adults, trying to figure their shit out. It’s what makes these books so fascinating, even to all of us old adults.
Two of your previous books, If I Stay and Where She Went, also focus on the events of a single day in the lives of your main characters. What is it about this focus on a particular day that appeals to you?
It’s just so inherently dramatic, to show those hinge moments in life when everything can change. In If I Stay, this was literally the case. Mia’s life changed that day. But the thing is, life may change overnight, but people don’t, or people need time to catch up to the whiplash of life. That message was implicit in Where She Went. The action took place in a day but it really concerned three years of emotional fallout from what had happened that one day in If I Stay.
In Just One Day (and also Just One Year) I was interested in the day as well. In what can happen to a person in a day, in how life can seem to change overnight. But this time, I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted to examine, on the page, not just the catalyst, the moment it all begins to change, but what it takes to actually change your life. And it takes work. And that can’t be accomplished in a day. So I needed to expand my timeline, to look at a deliberate transformation that takes place over the course of a year.
Willem gets a chance to tell his own story in Just One Year, a companion novel planned for fall 2013. Can you give us any teasers about what to expect in this second book?
The unexpected. And a lot of Willem.