Many would say that love stories are overplayed by now and that there’s nothing new about them anymore. But you have to admit that you don’t forget the ones that you enjoy, regardless of how cheesy or seemingly unrealistic they are. When I was tasked to interview author Jennifer E. Smith, I suddenly remembered reading The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight way back in college. It was a long time but the story’s main plot felt fresh in my head.
Jennifer is known for writing romantic young adult fiction which mostly play on the concept of serendipity and “what ifs.” Her new book Windfall is no exception. I sat down with her before she started her two-city book signing, and was surprised to find out how she manages to write stories which happen in the span of 24 hours or less. Even more when she said she can write without the help of caffeine. (How?!) Keep scrolling and find out more about her.
Out of all the genres and themes, why did you choose to write love stories?
It’s funny because I never sit down and think that I’m going to write a romantic story. The books usually start with a “what if” question. Like, what if you miss your flight by four minutes and ended up sitting next to the person you’re going to end up with? I’m really obsessed with moments in time which acts as hinges, days where there are before and after scenarios—yesterday your life is different, the next day it’s another thing.
I think love stories are an interesting vehicle to explore that because often there are so many ways your life can be split into two. And meeting the person you’re supposed to meet is one of those ways. I try to balance them out too, like I write family stories and other themes as well so they’re not straight-up love stories. But I’m a romantic and an optimist, and it’s kinda fun to explore young love.
Have you ever tried to write stories of different genres?
I grew up reading mostly realistic stories. That’s just what I was always drawn to as a reader. Some people are just drawn into sci-fi, dystopian, action, thrillers, and whatever they may be. I’m always at awe at writers who can jump from one genre to another. I would like to think one day I’ll try something wildly different. I think it’s more likely that if I try something different it would be in terms of form. I would still write realistic fiction but maybe more for adults, younger kids, or a screenplay. I think there’s enough drama around me that I need to explore. [Laughs]
How did you come with the idea of luck playing into the story of Windfall?
Again, it’s about your life getting bifurcated. There’s not a better example of that happening than someone winning the lottery. It’s something that everyone dreams about and it’s the most amazing thing that’s ever going to happen to them. Often it is, but sometimes it’s not. There’s a lot of not-so-great things that might happen. It also draws a clear line because yesterday, your life was normal, and the day after, everything’s different.
I love the idea of how Allie, who’s in love with her best friend Teddy, buys a ticket as a joke. And then he wins $140 million while they were on the brink of something happening. It’s playing with the moments and the aftermath of their journey.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
After doing a lot of research about it, I don’t think I want to. [Laughs] But if I did, I’d do a lot more traveling. One of my favorite places is Scotland so I want to buy a little cottage there. And I want to give a lot to charity and help my family. I think that’s one of the big themes of the book: doing good deeds, volunteering, grand acts of kindness. The idea that you have the means to make other people’s dreams come true.
Are there specific books that inspired you to become an author?
There’s so many! I was a huge reader as a kid. I [practically] lived in the library. [Laughs] I can’t say any in particular—I mean, I loved books that are sad, sweet, and full of heart. As a kid, I read Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia—a lot of those heartfelt books. I read really widely and I think you take something from every book that you read.
Are there movies or shows that also inspired your work?
Absolutely. My books owe a huge debt to the Before Sunrise trilogy. They take place over a short period of time and there are a lot of conversation in real time. I love reading about short intense time periods [and] books with a lot of banter. I also think my books get inspiration from Nora Ephron movies like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, and other romantic comedies.
That’s why my books like Hello, Goodbye happens in the span of 12 hours. I keep joking that I’m going to keep cut it in half until I manage to write a book that takes place in minutes. [Laughs]
How do you manage to write a whole novel that happens in short periods of time? Do you keep a timeline?
That’s the challenge for me, to make it substantial and meaningful even if it is just a short period. It’s really fun! If I could write every book within 24 hours, I would. [Laughs] But I’m someone who plots her books ahead of time so I just feel my way whenever I write and to have a time marked off in some way.
I also don’t keep a timeline. I know it’s crazy but in the middle of writing a story I’ll know all the sense. In general, I don’t know how it’s going to end. But if you’re writing a story that only happens in one day, you just know where you’re going with the story when you reach it. Often I’m worried with the amount of hours I have left [in the story] so I think, “Oh gosh they need to move faster.” It’s kind of a helpful measuring stick.
Do you base your stories on personal experiences or they’re secondhand?
It’s a combination of both. Often, I use my experiences as a jumping off point. I take something that happened to me and make it more interesting. [Laughs] Like Statistical Probability, for example: I once sat next to an old Irish man on a plane from Chicago to Dublin. We chatted the whole way and he was going through the gate for Irish citizens and I was going the other way. I kinda waited and I wasn’t sure if he had gone through already. I had to go and didn’t see him again. It’s kinda crazy that you chatted with somebody for seven hours and never even know their last name and see them again. So I thought that instead of an old Irish man, I’ll make him a cute boy.
I also try not to base my characters on somebody I know. Just because I do want it to be fiction. But I do borrow from certain aspects of my life.
Do you prefer coffee or tea while writing?
I just drink water. I’m more of a tea person though. I’m never the kind of person who doesn’t need a jumpstart in the morning.
Do you also listen to music when you write?
Very occasionally I listen to instrumental music like movie scores. I can’t listen to music with words because it gets in my head. I only listen to music when I’m working at coffee shops with author friends.
If any of your books were to be made into a movie or show, do you have a dream cast for the characters?
It’s always a hard question to answer because there are younger actors and actresses that are coming out that I don’t know. [Laughs] Several of the books are in development for films and you just have to trust the people behind the process that they will pick the best actors. I don’t think of my characters that distinctly so it leaves a lot of room and I’m fine with a whole range of people [for the roles.] It’s more about the heart of the character for me than the looks.
Aren’t you worried about fans who are so specific with how the characters should look?
I think the process of a book becoming a movie is just letting go in so many respects. As an author, it’s reading the script and it’s different from the book, and it has to be a smooth transition for the screen. It’s about realizing that it’s someone else’s vision on top of your own.
For fans, it’s understanding that it’s a translation of the book and not the book itself. I think it’s flattering when fans pay attention and are that invested that they notice that level of detail. But I think the priority is to preserve the heart of the project. I’m very lucky so far because the people I’ve worked with love the stories and just want to make the best movie possible.