UFO's, Misfits, and Writing Journeys: An Interview with Julie Buxbaum

Sometimes you pick up a book not knowing what to expect and find yourself absolutely sucked in—that kind of "can’t put it down" feeling that doesn’t always happen but when it does, wow! That’s how I’ve been with Julie Buxbaum’s YA novels, especially her wonderful Hope and Other Punchlines, which is moving and funny, heartwarming and thoughtful, and honestly, everything I want in a YA contemporary novel.

Now, Julie has dipped her toes in middle grade, with The Area 51 Files, which is funny, illustrated, goofy, and delightful. It's all about Sky Patel-Baum who is sent to live with her mysterious uncle on the equally mysterious military base. I was thrilled when Julie had some time for me to chat with her about all this. Here’s what we talked about.

Joy Preble: Area 51 is a bit of a departure from your YA books like Hope and Other Punchlines (which I so very much adored). Can you tell us a little about the process and inspiration for your shift to writing a middle grade with sassy hedgehogs, aliens, and other unusual and goofy elements!  

Julie Buxbaum: A few months into the pandemic, my seven year old son turned to me and said, “Mommy, I have a question.” I steeled myself, as he asked me a lot of difficult questions back then: “When will I be able to go back to school?” “Am I going to get sick?” “Why have you stopped wearing pants with buttons?” But this time, he asked, apropos of nothing, “Mommy, what do you think really happens in Area 51?”
Finally, this was a question I could handle, and I decided right then and there that I’d answer him with a book. So in stolen moments after the groceries had been wiped and we’d washed our hands to multiple rounds of Happy Birthday and my kids were in Zoom school, I started writing The Area 51 Files. Soon this secret project, my very first for middle grade readers, became my happy place. 
I imagined a world full of friendly and sometimes silly aliens, where those who were different weren’t feared but welcomed. A misfit girl who finds her home where everyone is so weird that no one can feel like an outsider. Distant, better, kinder planets. All of this felt like a gift, an amazing world to escape into when the outside world felt uninviting. 

JP: Well, we all need an amazing world to escape to right now, don’t we?  Because I do think that Area 51, like your other books, explores our strange and wonderful universe and the sometimes grand and sometimes awful things that happen to us in it. Do you find yourself drawn to certain questions and philosophical musings and themes in your writing? Having read some of your essays (such as your one about grief for Time), I suspect that you do…
JB: I always joke that I only find out why I wrote a book years after. That I can never see what’s right there in front of me. For example, my second adult book, After You, is about a woman who steps into the life of her best friend after her best friend is murdered and is essentially about how well we truly know the people we love. Later, I realized that I wrote that book just before my husband and I got engaged. Of course that question—how we can never get inside our loved ones' experiences of the world—was at the forefront of my mind. But there are themes I find I return to again and again—those moments in life where there is a before and an after, both the short and long term impact of grief, found family, finding our place in this jumbled world, how to heal after loss.


JP: That’s exactly what draws me to your books for sure! It’s something I explore in my own writing as well—that distinct before and after with loss and displacement. It’s such a profound and universal moment, right?  Jumping topics (at least somewhat), I see that you have a Harvard law degree. What was the journey from law to writing like? Or was it not really much of a leap at all?

JB: What’s most interesting to me about the leap from law to writing was how unintentional it all was. I quit my job as a litigator at a law firm as part of a New Year’s resolution to write my first book. (It was the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept!) But my plan was never to become a writer. It was more about a bucket list item—I always knew I wanted to write a book before I died—and then to figure out what kind of lawyer I wanted to be. And then, I started writing and realized it felt so organic and what I was meant to be doing all along. (I should say there was a huge amount of luck along the way that meant I didn’t have to go back to the law.) 


JP: Back to Area 51, do you have a particular favorite scene that you most loved writing? And in a related question, have you ever seen a UFO? Do you believe there is life on other planets? What are your favorite sci-fi books and movies? (Yeah I know I snuck in a bunch of questions here!) 

JB: My favorite scenes in The Area 51 Files involve the burgeoning friendship/unrequited romance between Pickles the dog and Spike the hedgehog. Those two characters kept me laughing. And yes, I absolutely believe there is life on other planets, though I’ve never personally seen a UFO. I believe it’s impossible that we are alone in this vast and wondrous universe (or possibly multiverse.) As for favorite sci-fi books or movies, I’m going to go with ET, because I love how humane that film is and how rooted in the real world. In writing The Area 51 Files, I never once wanted the reader to feel disoriented by the strange aliens at the heart of the book; I wanted the reader to feel welcomed by them.

JP: And very welcomed indeed!  As you mention with ET, your own writing is so very humane, so very welcoming. What’s coming next for Julie Buxbaum?
JB: There are two more Area 51 Files books coming out! The next one is called The Big Flush, and it’s about a giant space toilet headed toward Area 51 that poses an existential threat to the base! We don’t yet have a title for the third book in the series, but I will say it’s packed with a ton of surprises for our characters and lots and lots of puns. But no more space toilets. 

JP: Puns and space toilets! Honestly, what more do you need? Thanks for a great conversation, Julie!!

The Area 51 Files By Julie Buxbaum, Lavanya Naidu (Illustrator) Cover Image
By Julie Buxbaum, Lavanya Naidu (Illustrator)
ISBN: 9780593429464
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Delacorte Press - September 13th, 2022

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