BERKELEY – A hometown author who made it big in the young adult genre took some time out of her busy writing schedule to visit Dr. Kathleen Mueller’s classroom and talk to students about – you guessed it – writing.
Megan McCafferty is no stranger to the Pinelands. She graduated from Central Regional High School in 1991 where she was co-editor of the school newspaper The Eagle’s Voice and wrote for the literary magazine The Looking Glass.
Fast forward to today, she has written 11 novels, three of which were on the New York Times bestseller list. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, which she finds hard to believe. In Japan, the title of her top-selling book Sloppy Firsts roughly translates to “The Sorrows of Jessica Darling.”
The American version works a little better.
McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series chronicles the life of an awkward yet painfully honest teenage girl as she barrels head first through high school and college. Readers might spot quite a few similarities between life in the fictional “Pineville” and the real-life Bayville. Her story is often told diary-style through a series of five books, the first of which was required summer reading for the students in McCafferty’s late September talk.
“There’s something about Jessica Darling that people can identify with,” she said.
Although the book is not an autobiography – it would be boring without all the lying parts, she said – McCafferty shared what it was like growing up here and feeling like a “fish out of water.”
While she was a first grader at Bayville Elementary School, she found herself with too big of an imagination, always making up crazy stories and often disrupting the class. Her teacher Mrs. Mohr knew that she loved to write and gave her a notebook, encouraging her to channel her endless energy in a positive way.
“I filled that notebook with a lot of stories,” said McCafferty, and shared her favorite story from the notebook, “What If All The Vegetables Started To Dance,” with the class.
She soon moved on to journals, which she trusted to write about the things she felt like she couldn’t tell anybody else. She showed students slides with dozens of composition notebooks, traditional black and white marbled ones – but also bright pink and yellow ones – filled with her teenaged words and thoughts.
When Seventeen Magazine published her poem “Linking Verbs” and paid her $15, she read another except from her eight grade journal, confiding that it wasn’t really about the money.
“I would have paid them to publish it,” she shared.
Times have certainly changed since then. The last non-writing job McCafferty held was on the Seaside Heights boardwalk as a token exchange girl at Lucky Leo’s.
She encouraged students, who will be writing their own novels in class, to be very excited about their idea, and find the one scene that makes them want to write the story.
“Write the scene that gets you excited,” said McCafferty, adding that if she worried about perfection when it comes to her writing process, she would never write a word.
“I only write the types of books that I enjoy reading,” she said, adding, “If readers don’t like it, that bothers me.”
She loves when readers tell her that her books got them through high school or made a crappy day better or helped them cope with their lives.
McCafferty also teaches creative writing workshops and sometimes people will say they’re writing about a specific genre just because it’s trendy. She warned that if you write about something you don’t enjoy, it will show through.
That being said, with social media being as rampant as it, especially among young people, she also stressed finding rewards within yourself.
“You have no control over how people are going to react.”
McCafferty also told students they’d be wise to set aside a specific writing block to make sure they stay on track. She typically gets her son off to school, takes the dog for a very long walk around her Princeton neighborhood, and then works from around 9 a.m. to around 1 p.m. She always breaks for lunch, partly because she loves sandwiches.
After a brief lunch break, students asked some seriously insightful questions. Overall they appreciated how McCafferty captured the vulgarity of teens and didn’t portray them as “perfect little angels.” They asked how to write more convincing characters, how she titled the books, how long they took to write, and if you need to know the ending of a book before you write it.
Ironically, Sloppy Firsts is turning about the age of Jessica Darling during the prime of her book series – sweet sixteen.