Lettuce, milk, bread, cereal…boys? Yes indeed–that’s what’s on the grocery list of Dafina author Nia Stephens in her new young adult series Boy Shopping. Genre Chick Alethea Kontis met Nia at the mall to ask her about this unique, modern, choose-your-own-adventure series–and to try on some fabulous shoes.
Nashville’s Nia Stephens and I stroll down the shiny wood floors of Opry Mills Mall. We pass a gaggle of giggling young girls, and Nia smiles sagely. After reading Nia’s new book Boy Shopping, I know what those girls are really in the market for.
But what if they could try out boyfriends–like so many shoes–and give them back if they weren’t a perfect fit? That’s the crux of Nia’s fabulous modern choose-your-own-adventure series. Three books, three girls, and so many boys to choose from!
Alethea Kontis: What was your label in high school?
Nia Stephens: In high school, I was all about geek pride. In fact, I’m still all about geek pride. Fortunately, geekiness (thanks to groups like Weezer) was pretty hip in the late ’90s. My social life revolved around the geekiest of geek institutions: high school debate. I spent most Friday nights in a hotel room somewhere east of the Mississippi, which led to a very unique dating history to say the least.
AK: What’s your best/worst high school memory?
NS: April of my junior year was awfully cruel: my best friend and I were in a serious car accident, and another friend ran away from home–it was a bad month.
Choosing my best high school memory is harder; I had a lot of fun at my school. Because it was for gifted students, they gave us lots of freedom. (Any freedom they didn’t give us, we were likely to take anyway.) I have lots of memories of playing Frisbee on the roof, frolicking in Centennial Park in the middle of the afternoon, having picnics on the Vanderbilt campus in the middle of the night. It’s ridiculous, really–sometimes I’m amazed that I got into Harvard.
AK: The Boy Shopping series is published by Dafina, Kensington’s African-American fiction line. But with such a multicultural cast of characters, do you feel the series appeals to a wider demographic?
NS: Absolutely. Shakespeare is no more relevant to your average white tenth grader than your average black tenth grader, and the ability to connect with a character has nothing to do with the (wholly imagined) color of that character’s skin. The search for true love is very nearly universal, and I hope that teenagers of all races can identify with Kiki, Gemma, and Bree in their attempt to find that perfect someone–no matter what their ethnic identity might be.
America is wildly multicultural. When I was in high school, I hung out with kids of every race. It would have felt false to me to write books in which a black main character only spent time with characters who looked, talked, and felt exactly like her. I think diversity makes life more interesting, so I would never leave it out of any book I wrote.
AK: Kiki’s a drummer, Gemma’s a basketball player, and Briona’s an actress. Do any of their activities reflect your own experiences?
NS: I was a terrible violinist in high school, I hated sports, and my school didn’t even have a drama program. One of the things I like best about being a writer is being able to say, “What if things were different?” In my fantasy writing, it’s asking questions like: “What if Woodstock was actually a cover for a secret meeting of all of America’s witches?” In the Boy Shopping books, it’s: “What’s the dark side of being gorgeous, popular, and having a million dollar record deal?” Every possible life has its benefits and problems. For each of the heroines–even though their lives may seem perfect–they have a hard time making an authentic romantic connection. That’s why writing them was so much fun.
AK: Who are your favorite bands? Favorite sports teams? Favorite actors and actresses?
NS: I love music, especially live music, and since I’m lucky enough to live in Nashville, I catch a lot of acts. Lately I’ve been listening to Frou Frou, Imogen Heap’s old band; Venus Hum; Butterfly Boucher; Weezer’s old albums; Gotan Project (a Tango Nuevo band); Gipsy Kings; lots of ’80s music, especially David Bowie, Salt’n’ Pepa, Peter Gabriel, and A-Ha–I’ll spare you the rest of the list.
I cheer halfheartedly for Manchester United, for all the worst reasons, but I don’t actually like watching sports much. I generally view televised sports as an opportunity to eat dip, but otherwise I’m just not interested.
There are several actors and actresses I like. I wish Thandie Newton would play me in the movie of my life. I will watch Johnny Depp in just about anything, and I love watching David Bowie on screen. If the three of them are ever in a movie together I might actually die of joy.
AK: How did you go about writing the different possible endings of the books? Was that difficult?
NS: It was tough. Each book has eight different endings. But having that many outcomes forced me to be a lot more creative than a single ending would have. If I were writing a single-ending love story, I probably wouldn’t have written a foot-fetishist mafia type, a blind shipping heir, or a dancer who might be in love with the heroine’s mom–much less all three in one book. But Get More has all that and, well, more.
AK: Did you write these books to thwart the time-honored “last page of the book first” reader? Have you ever done that?
NS: No, I wrote it to delight the last-page-firsters. Eight different last pages–what could be better?
Honestly, I’ve never read the last page first, and never would. I love to watch stories unfold. That said, I once wrote a backwards novel–it began in the present and worked its way back. It was a grad school experiment and completely unpublishable, but it taught me a lot about the construction of narrative, and how far you can stretch even an avid reader. There are limits, apparently.
AK: Have any of the girls’ choices for boys been your personal favorite?
NS: Even though all of Kiki’s friends keep harping on her to find a “fun” guy, I love Lyman. He doesn’t just amuse Kiki–he challenges her. And I say this as someone who considered dumping her boyfriend on the dark day that he beat me at Scrabble. But I think going out with someone who is truly your peer is good for you, even when it’s tough. (I have to admit, though, that I haven’t played Scrabble with my boyfriend since that first loss.) It’s a different kind of fun than the brainless cuties Kiki often meets, but it’s also a better grounding for a relationship. When you trust someone’s brain, it’s easier to trust his heart.
AK: How have libraries helped you and your career?
NS: I was lucky enough to win the Bennett Fellowship from Phillips Exeter a few years ago, and I essentially spent the whole year hanging out in the school library. My office was decorated with signed poems and photographs from every visiting poet–Mary Oliver was my favorite. It was terrifically inspirational.
Since I’ve returned to Nashville, I’ve fallen in love with the new downtown library. It’s so beautiful–all snowy marble and glowing wood. There’s even a café and an outdoor courtyard with rosemary hedges and a fountain. It has lots and lots of books, which means that it is my idea of heaven. And the staff is fantastic. I do a lot of research, some of it rather obscure, and the inter-library loan office and rare books librarians have always been very helpful, even when my schedule forces them to meet me at odd times.
AK: If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?
NS: I’ve always felt a connection to Krang in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Admittedly he’s more of a super-villain, but the tentacled, disembodied alien brain with major ego issues has always appealed to me.
AK: What’s next for Nia Stephens?
NS: I’m currently working on a series of YA novels that reinterpret a few lesser-known fairy tales in a very dark, very modern setting. My agent is shopping the first one, The Dream Palace of Sister Simon, right now, while I’m working on book two: Blood Red Shoes. All of them deal with issues of identity and taking responsibility for your own fate, but otherwise they’re quite wide-ranging. So far, they’ve been a pleasure to write. I love pre-Disney fairy tales: they’re so much stranger, and they demand a lot from their characters. They’re relevant to the lives of modern teenagers in ways you might not expect. I have four planned now, but I might have to write more.
AK: And finally, what do you think of these shoes?
NS: Thigh-high stiletto boots are always a yes, Lee. You look great!