Q & A with Amanda Sellet

Happy weekend, dear readers! It might not be happy because of the pandemic, but at least we have books to remind us that life can still be beautiful and worthwhile. Today, I want to feature a new author, Amanda Sellet. By the Book, her debut novel, is a recent addition to my shelf of favorites. I haven’t been reading much this year, but this book is one of the best ones I’ve managed to finish. I loved it enough that I wish I had written it myself! So I was delighted when Amanda granted my wish for a blog interview. It was a pleasure to have this brief discussion, and I hope that you will enjoy it, too. 🙂

1. By the Book has excellent family dynamics, which is a bit rare in YA wherein bad parents (particularly bad fathers) abound. Does your book reflect your relationship with your own family members? If so, how?

“Mary’s family is definitely patterned on mine. We weren’t all obsessed with classic lit, but the seven-way dinner table conversations were similarly chaotic. That sense of “I wish my family would pay more attention to me, except when I want them to leave me alone” is also cribbed from my life. Every family has conflicts – especially on long road trips, or if someone eats all the ice cream – but in my experience parents and siblings are an incredible source of laughter and emotional support. For example, if you grow up and publish a book, they will buy a ridiculous number of copies for everyone they know. I think my dad even gave one to his hairdresser.”

2. Gleaning from Mary’s experience in the novel, do you think that it’s helpful to categorize people into fictional archetypes? How has fiction shaped your view on love/romance?

“I can recall a few instances in life where I’ve met someone whose actions only made sense to me vis-à-vis a fictional archetype – Madame Bovary, for example. Usually it’s less a one-to-one correspondence than ‘oh yeah, I recognize that character trait.’ You get a flash of insight, like a human behavior decoder: This person who seems stuck-up may just be shy. He’s angry because he’s embarrassed. Hello passive-aggression, my old friend.   

“On the romantic side, I think reading taught me to place a high premium on finding someone honorable, to use an old-fashioned word. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor, have cheekbones that could cut glass or the bone structure of a marshmallow. What you want is a person who has solid principles and sticks to them.” 

3. If you had the chance to be a character in a Jane Austen novel, what book would you pick and who would you be?

“If we’re talking wish fulfillment, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. I love her quick wit, and she doesn’t have to suffer too much on the way to a happy ending. My second choice is the more mature option of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, though I might have to do a few murders if I were in her shoes. It’s a coin toss between Darcy and Wentworth as swoony love interests go, so basically a win-win scenario.”  

4. Mary and Alex’s interactions were fewer than Mary’s scenes with her female best friends. Was this intentional? How did you ensure that readers would root for Alex?

“As a reader, I tend to glom onto the faintest whiff of a romantic subplot and follow it like a bloodhound, so it doesn’t take much for me to get invested in a ship. With a slow burn, there’s a built-in tension that’s almost a form of suspense. Not will-they or won’t-they (because we know they will) but when will they? Think of Howl’s Moving Castle. To me that’s a delicious love story, even though there’s only the briefest of encounters between Sophie and Howl at the very beginning to set up the romantic arc. 

“For Mary and Alex, I was hoping to create that feeling of waiting and hoping for their paths to cross, and then reveling in their banter when they do, without straying into could-this-be-more-contrived territory. My daughter was 10 or 11 when I was drafting By the Book, and her take as an early reader was very much, “Seriously, Mommy? Why does this guy keep showing up everywhere?” There was a lot of eye-rolling.”

5. If you were Mary, would you fall in love with your high school’s Vronsky? How should girls in real life deal with seemingly bad boys?

“Teen Me would have been more susceptible to the Mysterious Loner Dude type, especially if he was smart and artsy. I had a huge crush on the lone punk at my conservative high school, with his spiked hair and anarchy-lite fashion sense. (Side note: one day he waltzed me through the hall before class, but I was even more oblivious than Mary to romantic subtext.) 

“With real life bad boys, my advice is to look beyond the flirting to see how their actions stack up against their words. Alex may be a smooth talker, but I tried to show through his behavior that he’s also thoughtful and respectful and kind. Someone who doesn’t show up, make an effort, and pay attention to your needs is not the fun kind of bad boy.”  

6. Would By the Book retain its overall theme/message if the main characters were gender-swapped? Or would you rather rewrite the book from Alex’s POV?

“I think you’d face the same issue that crops up with modern retellings of classic stories. How do you translate an entrenched power differential from centuries past in a way that makes sense today? The 19th-century novels riffed on in By the Book are so much about the experience of women at a time when their rights were severely curtailed, you’d have to figure out what circumstances could make a cishet white dude like Alex feel that vulnerable in his world. Which would be an interesting challenge!

“If I were to pull a Midnight Sun on By the Book, one thing’s for sure: Alex would have a lot more fun than Edward Cullen.” 

7. Mary is very fond of classic literature. How would The Scoundrel Survival Guide change if she had been raised with YA novels instead?

“This may be a weird personal quirk, but I find it jarring when the characters in a book mention a relatively contemporaneous novel. It’s like breaking the fourth wall and reminding me of the real world, when I want to be immersed in the fictional realm. So if Mary had been a hardcore YA reader, I would have played with broad tropes rather than naming specific titles, or maybe tried to parody a single YA genre, the way Patrick Ness did in The Rest of Us Just Live Here. I could see myself having a lot of fun writing a send-up of the Chosen-Girl-with-Sword-and-Fancy-Dress fantasy.” 

About the author:

Amanda Sellet (pronounced Sell-ay) is a former journalist who has written book reviews for The Washington Post, personal essays for NPR, and music and movie coverage for VH1. She has an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU. After a mostly coastal childhood, she now lives in Kansas with her husband, daughter, and cats.

Visit Amanda’s website