Over the course of a single month in the autumn of 2010, 15-year-old Amy Zhang wrote Liz Emerson to life. Each morning before school, Zhang rose at 4 a.m. and worked on her novel until 6. “Sometimes, I’d take a 30-minute nap,” she told Refinery29, laughing. Zhang raced through the school day so she could come home and write again.
Looking back on that month, Zhang can barely remember the sentences she wrote. What she does remember is the feeling that drove her, a sophomore in high school, to wake up in the early morning and pound away at a novel. “You know that feeling when you’re stuck on a level of Candy Crush? I had that feeling with writing,” Zhang said. “I remember having this feeling when I first signed with Harper [Collins in 2010]: I hope I never lose this enthusiasm.”
Falling Into Place fell into place with enviable speed. The initial idea for the novel unfurled during the long car rides Zhang took with her family from their small Wisconsin suburb to various spots — Chicago for Chinese groceries; faraway malls. From there, it took Zhang a month to complete the manuscript. Then, from her childhood bedroom at home in the Midwest, Zhang managed to leap through the hoops of publishing, a notoriously opaque industry primarily based worlds away in New York City.
To 15-year-old Zhang, getting published was just the last step in a natural progression: Write good sentences, sell the book. With her finished manuscript saved, Zhang went on the internet and researched what came next. “Publishing is really convoluted and strange, but there are a lot of resources that help you take the steps you need to take,” Zhang recalled.
The internet is teeming with advice regarding each step in the path to publication, from articles promising the steps to perfect plot, or how to land an agent. Entire websites, like Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market, are devoted to the trade of turning aspiring authors into published ones. Nevertheless, it’s one thing to read the articles – and another to actually get the book published. With a little bit of moxie, Zhang had a meteoric progression: It took her a few months to score an agent, and a mere three days for her agent to sell the manuscript to HarperCollins. “I just did it, and it happened to work out,” Zhang said.
But Zhang has a tendency to undersell one huge component of her debut novel’s near-seamless path to publication. Falling Into Place is good. Really, really good. At first, reading the novel, one would never assume it was written by a 15-year-old. Granted, Zhang was a seasoned author for a 15-year-old — by the time she drafted Falling Into Place, she had already completed five (unpublished) novels.
Still, Zhang’s age is key to what makes Falling Into Place work so well. A teenager herself, Zhang was intimately, actively engaged with the teenage experience — the range of full-throttle emotion, the climbing of social ladders that lead to nowhere. She thus makes Liz, an existentially frustrated queen bee, and her friends come to life with authenticity. These are mean girls, as only someone who knew mean girls intimately could design them. When Liz becomes frustrated with the torrents of high school drama (and her own behaviour), she deliberately crashes her car in a failed suicide attempt. The rest of the novel switches between Liz’s coma in the hospital and the tense lead-up to the accident in the characters’ lives.
From page one, Falling Into Place stares right into the darkness of adolescence — the same darkness that Zhang herself was intimate with back then. “I was having a hard time in Wisconsin,” Zhang explains. “I felt like I was in a difficult place that I didn’t know how to get out of. I knew how to write about someone who felt similar.”
When Zhang was 13, her family moved from St. Louis, where she attended a diverse high school, to a town in Wisconsin, where she was one of only a few students of colour. “It felt like I had been dropped into a ‘70s movie. It was so alien to me,” Zhang says. In this new school, Zhang found herself with more free time, which she used for writing. In doing so, she sorted out her own emotional state.
Falling Into Place is infused with the feelings that came from being the new girl in an unfamiliar setting. For Zhang, Liz’s desperation came from reaching a dead end in an already dead-end place. “There’s nowhere to go. It feels like every other town around you is also like this, [and everyone is] living similar lives in this way. People don’t leave very often. I had this feeling of claustrophobia. If you screw up, people are going to remember that forever. The stakes feel so high, even though they obviously weren’t.”
Zhang can say that now, because she’s grown up. She’s a 22-year-old college graduate with two YA books under her belt (her second book, This Is Where the World Ends, came out in 2016) — and a new set of challenges than the ones she faced as a teenager working out plots on the long car rides she’d take with her family. She has the bills of a New Yorker to pay, and the distractions of adulthood keeping her from sinking into a story with ease.
Zhang has been working on her third novel for years. The words aren’t flowing as fluidly as they did when she was 15. As it turns out, turning writing from a side-hobby into a full-time job impacts the actual process. “Writing feels different now. I was writing because I had nothing to do. It was just a game. I’m not living at my parent’s house anymore. I need money to buy groceries!” Zhang laughed.
So while her former classmates are working 9-to-5 jobs, Zhang’s riding the subway from end-to-end, working on her third novel on her phone. Their lifestyles are different. But then, they always had been.
While studying philosophy and poetry at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, Zhang’s author life constantly obstructed her student one. When her friends were studying in the library, Zhang was on a book tour throughout the country, greeting denizens of fans on international tours. While others turned in assignments, Zhang asked for extensions — it was hard for her to finish homework when she was working on an independent novel.
“I definitely got a little resentful. It felt like I had signed away my life, which is so dramatic and ungrateful, but it felt like I wasn’t at college for a lot of important moments,” Zhang says.
Zhang’s balancing act between student and writer reached a head when, on one night out with friends, she tipsily opened up an email from a fan in distress. The fan had connected with Liz Emerson’s suicidal ideation and was writing to Zhang for help.
“I freaked out. I didn’t know what to do,” Zhang recalled. She ended up calling the suicide hotline in the country where the fan lived. But the incident stayed with her. “The next morning, I felt like I’d handled it all wrong. I felt really bad about going out. I was trying to figure out how to live a life while also being a writer — which was a lot harder than I’d anticipated.”
Now a graduate, Zhang can commit to the writing life fully. Her third novel will focus on characters of colour, a step she barely could take when she was younger. All of the characters in Falling Into Place are white. “I remember with Falling Into Place, I wrote with no character descriptions — like, I can’t deal with this. The actual responsibility and implication of writing characters of colour didn’t occur to me,” Zhang says. The book will feature twins of Chinese descent as main characters.
After years of running from the obvious conclusion, she knows she’s a writer. Now, it’s a matter of just doing it.
“I’m living the dream,” she says, “But it feels like I’m in the middle of it.”