(In this installment, Che Underground: The Blog talks to San Diego scene documentarian Cynthia Jaynes Omololu about her career in young-adult fiction. If you’d like your story told, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org!)
With the publication of Dirty Little Secrets and the recent release of the first installment of your new Transcendence series, C.J. Omololu is developing a growing reputation as an author of fiction for young adults. How did you get from the San Diego scene of our youth to a writing career in San Francisco?
Aw, thanks, Matthew. I’ll take that kind of reputation. It actually makes a lot of sense – I have to write from the perspective of a 16 or 17 year old and a lot of people say I’m emotionally stunted at around that age. Okay, not totally true, but I started hanging around the San Diego scene at about that age, and it was a pretty influential time for me. We’d moved to Del Mar from Poway in the summer between 9th and 10th grade and I felt like I never fit in there – we were renting an apartment in the land of multimillion dollar beach houses and honestly, I couldn’t compete.
I started working at Sea World one summer and met a bunch of the guys who later started the Secret Society, and it all just snowballed from there. Finally I felt like I fit in somewhere, and I was introduced to some great people and amazing bands along the way. I went to college in Santa Barbara but spent a great summer living in Normal Heights with [John] Murphy and the revolving cast of people who floated through that apartment. I still have two huge photo books from that time and I sometimes look at them for inspiration.
The day after I graduated, I moved to SF, but didn’t even think about writing until after I had my kids. I started writing picture books without any kind of training or clue as to what it was all about and sold one to a publisher basically by accident. I eventually started writing novels and got an agent after a huge learning curve and our goal is to publish at least one book every year. It’s actually kind of an accidental career, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What’s the key to YA fiction? Are there differences in pacing, characters or themes that make a book in this category resonate with the readership?
Writing YA is a totally different animal from writing grown up books – you have to get into the story right away, no spending pages describing how the light changes in a sunset. Younger readers (and the older readers who like reading YA – there is actually a lot of crossover) want a ton of action and a big story with a lot of heart. I love writing this age because it’s a time when you can be anyone and anything can happen – it’s really magical. Painful, but magical.
When we were all last together, many of us were the same age as your current readers. How did your experiences in our little clique inform your writing today?
A lot of my real life finds its way into my books – the girl on the cover of Dirty Little Secrets actually looks a bit like I did at that age, but that’s purely accidental – a lot of the angst from the late teenage years is easy to access still. Unrequited love in the 1980s is basically the same as it is today. One of my characters in my newest book talks about going to an MC5 show in NYC in the seventies and that is totally a product of my teenage years and hanging around people who knew so much about music. I think the free-thinking spirit that was around back then that basically anything goes helps a lot when I’m creating my characters.
I wouldn’t say that any character is based directly on people I knew back then, but I would say that many of them are influenced by people who were hanging around at the time. My newest book is about people who remember their past lives, and while I was writing I remembered the longing I felt when I watched videos of bands from the 60’s – of wanting to be back in that time rather than stuck in the mid 80’s. My kids (I have two boys, 15 and 12) look at photos of me with black hair and way too much eye makeup and laugh that I was Goth, but I tell them that we looked like that before Goth was even thought of. Most of us were misfits in our own time, and that sensibility has really worked for me.
It’s funny, but I read all the time and never really connected authors with books – I’d just randomly pick up whatever was new at the library without too much thought about how they got there. There wasn’t really the category of Young Adult books at the time – we were all reading VC Andrews with the covers cut off in school. I read a bunch of Edgar Allen Poe during the Che years and a lot of Kafka, along with some Anne Rice. So many people in the scene were scary smart and would toss books my way all the time.
When I was in college I discovered the English writer Muriel Spark. and I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I went through a big John Fowles period during a year abroad in Scotland – French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector. Because of what I do, I rarely read grown-up books anymore, and when I do I often find myself frustrated, yelling at the author to get to the point already. There are so many great books coming out every day – my entire office is surrounded by stacks of books I’m trying to read, but I don’t think I’ll ever catch up.
More There to Here:
- There to Here: Paul Kaufman, University of Massachusetts Medical School
- There to Here: Todd Lahman, Sweeney Todd’s Barber Shop
- There to Here: Mark Stern, Soup Nation