Intentions, Hot Takes, and Forgiveness: Joy Interviews Leila Sales

I’ve been a huge fan of Leila Sales’ writing since I picked up a copy of THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, about about a girl DJ, the power of music, relationships, and more. Sales’ voice grabbed me then and hasn’t let me go since. So what a true pleasure to be able to interview her about writing, life, Twitter-dragging, moral grey areas, and her newest and very timely YA IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY about girl who thoughtlessly says something truly awful on line and has to deal with the public and personal fallout. Here’s what Leila had to say:


Joy: One of the things I really like about IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY is that there are a lot of gray areas. The story touches on all the complexities of the internet and social media, of racism and microaggressions, and more. Can you talk a little about those gray areas and how you see Winter Halperin’s personal journey, especially in light of our current political and social climate, including that within publishing, which has certainly not shied away from social media ‘dragging’ and hot takes of complicated issues.

Leila Sales: We are, generally speaking, TERRIBLE at acknowledging gray areas. Across the board, we desperately want there to be bad guys and good guys. We want there to be perpetrators and victims, and we want to see those perpetrators get their comeuppance. Most of our enduring works of fiction—Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars—reward our hunger for tales defined by good vs. evil.

Unfortunately, in the real world, people are not all good or all bad. In general, people do bad things because they are in difficult situations, or because they’ve been the victims of bad things in the past, or because they are ignorant and did not understand their own ability to cause harm. People are not Voldemort; very rarely are they simply motivated by evil.

When we hear that somebody has behaved in an immoral manner, it is our immediate instinct to tweet or retweet something snarky about them, demand that they be fired, and then forget about them. This is the easiest way to react, because it requires no thought or discomfort from us, but it’s not the right way.

What I hope readers take away from this book is: it matters that this person has lived a whole life, full of all sorts of positive and negative choices. Their intentions matter. Their actions to rectify the situation matter. We can simultaneously acknowledge that they did a bad thing deserving of punishment, while also acknowledging that this one bad thing does not define their entire being, and they can have the potential to be better going forward.

JP: That is such a positive response about such a very complex, nuanced issue. I do agree that ‘hot takes’ often oversimplify matters. And in a follow up, did writing IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY give you any extra insight into our daily love/hate relationship with social media and its impact on society?

LS: Social media is immediate gratification. We are so totally in it at the moment when it’s happening, but as soon as we put down our phones we don’t really bother to remember what we liked on Instagram or what we re-posted on Twitter. Most of the time, that’s not a problem. The issue comes up mostly in situations like Winter’s, where we can be so into destroying somebody’s life for the exact amount of time that it takes us to post something, and then we never think about it after that. We don’t bother to remember what we’ve done online, but the people we’ve done it to can’t ever forget.

JP: I do think that more of us should press delete much more often. But to different matters, Winter is a Jewish character whose thoughtless words result in destroying her relationship with her best friend Jason, an African-American. Did you have any concerns about putting these two minorities in conflict with each other, given some of historic enmity (whether real or perceived) between the two minorities?

LS: I wrote Winter as Jewish for a few reasons. The first is simply that I’m Jewish, and I don’t often see Jewish characters in books unless the story is focused on their Judaism (which this one definitely is not). I want to see more Jewish protagonists, and I can help make that happen by writing them.

The second is that I thought it would help Winter gain some perspective on what she had done if she herself belonged to a marginalized group. She has never stood in Jason’s shoes, but if she tries, she can empathize with him by recalling how she feels when her identity is criticized or generalized about.

There’s also so much fascinating material in Judaism about apologies and forgiveness. I think about that every year around this time, during the High Holidays. We actively pray for evil to be banished from our earth, and as a teenager this was a big worry of mine: What if I am evil? After all, I’ve done some bad things in my life—I’ve disrespected my parents, I’ve betrayed friends, I’ve been selfish. Does that mean that I should be banished from earth? You see Winter grapple with those same questions during the Yom Kippur scene in the book.

JP: Yes,, that was such a compelling aspect to incorporate. And moving on to matters of craft, how do you balance editing and writing? Is your ‘writer’s brain’ different that your ‘editor’s brain’? Does writer Leila ever self-censor because of editor Leila? Are you more able to take editorial direction because of being an editor yourself? Which pulled you first -- writing or editing? Or did they come hand in hand?

LS: I always wanted to be a writer. I submitted my first novel to publishers when I was 11. Maybe I would have wanted to be an editor at the same time, but I didn’t know that was a job until I was older! When I graduated from high school, my school librarian gave me a copy of Ursula Nordstrom’s DEAR GENIUS, and that cemented that ambition for me.

I self-censor a lot more than I want to, but I think that’s true of many writers. No matter how many times you tell yourself, “No one’s going to read your first draft; don’t get it write just get it written; you can’t revise a blank page,” and so on, it’s hard to put words down on paper when you know with certainty that they’re not the words you ultimately want.

JP: Speaking of drafting, what is your personal process like? Is it different for each book, or are there some commonalities?

LS: I write in a very linear way. I can’t move on to chapter five until I have chapters one through four just the way I want them. And if I realize in chapter five that I actually needed some different information presented earlier in the book, then I will stop moving forward and go back to the beginning to insert what I now realize that I need. I’m trying to encourage myself to jump around in the story more—I got Scrivener, and that’s supposed to help with that!—but it’s not my natural instinct.

Otherwise, my process involves eating a lot of chocolate chips and spending too much time trying to figure out credible names and occupations for characters to have. Not every protagonist can be named Charlotte and not every grown-up can work as a teacher, you know?

JP: Ha! So true. I spend way too much time on Nameberry and other baby name sites for my own characters! Anything else you’d like our readers to know about Leila Sales the author, editor, and fabulous human?

LS: This probably goes without saying, but I really hope you’ll read IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY. And I hope it’ll give you something to think about next time you see a comment like “kill yourself” or “you’re cancelled” or “nobody cares what you have to say.” If you use social media, you’re encountering comments like these on a regular basis. They seem so normal that you may not even question them. I hope that when you read this book, it will inspire you to dig a little deeper into what’s motivating this behavior, and what its long-term effects might be—on individuals, and on our society as a whole.

JP: Thanks for these great answers, Leila!

By the time you all read this interview, Leila will have signed some copies of IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY for us. You can order one here or get one when you’re in the store. We usually have some of her other books in stock as well!

Want to know more about Leila Sales? Check out her website here.

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say: A Novel Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780374380991
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) - May 1st, 2018

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