The odds of grabbing the interest of a major publishing house as a first-time writer—armed with even the most riveting manuscript—are akin to the odds of a blind mule successfully landing a passenger jet on a monsoon-drenched runway.
But 33-year-old Kristen Orlando pulled it off with her first effort, the young adult thriller You Don’t Know My Name, released last month to some pretty hefty acclaim, both from critics and fans. The Central Ohio native, who’s expecting her first child this month, spoke with (614) about landing the book deal of her dreams, and what it’s like for someone with a day job and an inspired idea to break into the career that’s as exclusive as they come.
I won’t take up too much of your time—I see you’re pretty popular. Have the local media’s interview requests started to annoy you yet?
No, it’s great! I mean, I used to be a journalist, so I get it. I’m comfortable giving interviews and sound bites and stuff, it’s just being on the other side is kind of funny. I’m super flattered that people are interested in it.
I read that you came up with the idea for YDKMN just a few years ago. When did you first decide you wanted to write a book? Was this a lifelong ambition?
I always wanted to be something creative—some type of writer. I think I had dreams of being an author, but I know it’s so hard to do. It’s super, super, super hard to get into the publishing world and, you know, tens and tens of thousands of people will try to do it every year and only a teeny tiny percentage get there. I knew I loved writing, I knew I loved telling stories. As a kid, I’d always be in my room writing stories. I’m the oldest cousin on my dad’s side, and I used to write plays for my cousins and make them perform them and stuff… I never acted in them, I was always the “playwright/director.” But yeah, from there it just really grew into a passion and something I loved to do. I ended up going to Kenyon College, which is a really good writing school, English literature school. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but my parents are both in medicine, so it was sort of like, well, you’ll probably be in medicine too. That was sort of the path that was set for me. But I discovered as I was in college like, oh my gosh, I don’t even like this, this is not my passion. Writing is my passion. It’s a scary path to take, because you’re just like, what are you going to do with this, how am I going to make money? So, from there, I knew I couldn’t just move to New York and write the great American novel and live in squalor. So I really wanted to pick a profession that would make me a better writer—that would allow me to write every day. I did a lot of internships in college. I worked at The Dispatch, I worked at 10TV. My first job out of college was a producer job at NBC4. So I wrote every day, and that definitely made me a better writer. … I knew I always wanted to write a book someday, I just knew I needed to kind of hone my craft a little bit. I couldn’t have written this book 10 years ago.
So the experience you gained writing—even in an entirely different medium like local news—you feel helped prepare you to write something more creative?
Absolutely. I think that I was a very wordy writer in college. My stories—I look back at this now and I’m so embarrassed.
I can relate. I have a hard time reading what I wrote last month.
(Laughs) I think that the two different careers that I had absolutely helped me become a more succinct writer and figure out how to say things in five words instead of ten words, to really focus on the words and make every word count. Which is important when writing a book, for pacing and things like that. I told my husband, “Hey, you know, I really miss writing. I love young adult books. I feel like sometimes I forget that I’m not 17, and that I have a real life and responsibilities …
I know well how that feels too, to be 30-something physically but 16 emotionally.
(Laughs) I said, I feel like I’d love to write a young adult book, I just gotta figure out an idea. The idea for YDKMN was like one of those lightning bolt moments where it all came to me at once—in the shower.
Of course, I mean, where else would you have a life-changing idea?
I still do my best thinking in the shower. I’ll sometimes yell for my husband, “Bring a pen and paper! I have a really good piece of dialog!” So I came up with the idea [for YDKMN] and was so excited, I remember it so clearly. I was dripping wet, wrapped myself in a towel and ran down the hallway where he was and was like, “OK! I think I’ve got it! I think I have an idea!” I started plotting and outlining that night, and wrote it. From the time I started writing to the last word, it took about six months. But I didn’t have a deadline, so I really took my time editing. I let people read it; you know, for the most part it was very secret, It’s such a hard journey, it’s like, you don’t want to tell people and they’re like, “So when’s your book coming out?” Probably never, you know? (Laughs) So I didn’t tell anyone. I kind of found secret readers to read the book and give me feedback. And so I revised, and saw the contest that Swoon Reads was having, which is an imprint at Macmillan, by Jean Feiwel, who’s a legend. She created the Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, she was the publisher behind the Harry Potter series. She came up with the idea for this publishing platform that would let real readers read the manuscripts before the editors did, which is really cool because they could see [what] their readers are really responding to. So you didn’t have to have an agent, which normally you do to get your manuscript out there. So, I put my manuscript up [on Swoon Reads], crossed my fingers and then got the call a month later that changed my life.
What are some misconceptions or stereotypes adult audiences might have about the young adult genre, especially considering the popularity these days of Millennial-bashing? Were you cognizant of something like this while you were writing the manuscript?
I don’t know if there are necessarily stereotypes, but the one thing I did do in this book that I think is different, and maybe why adults like it, is that the family, the parents, are really central to the story. A lot of times with YA books, the parents are very fleeting characters, they’re really in and out, sort of “How was your day, honey?” at dinner. [The protagonist, Reagan’s] parents are very much involved in the book from the beginning to the end, and the story really is about her and her struggle with what to do with her life, whether she wants to be a spy-in-training like her parents or if she wants to live a normal life, but her parents have a huge influence and have a huge presence in the book. Which for me, I really enjoyed writing. I enjoyed writing about family dynamics and struggles and trying to figure out your own path versus what your family wants for you. I think it’s something every teen can relate to because I think every teen has probably faced the “My parents really want me to do this but I want to do something else.” And I definitely drew on my own struggles with that. My parents wanted me to be a doctor versus me wanting to be a writer. So I definitely had to put myself back into 17-year-old Kristen mindset, and figure out, what did I feel like, how did I feel?
Well, you have two more books coming from your deal with your publisher. How far are you into the planning stages for your next title?
The three books are all part of the same series, so, it’s a trilogy. It’s called the Black Angel Chronicles. The next two books are a continuation of the story, which is fun because I really like the characters. The [first book] has a very explosive ending. It’s not a cliffhanger ending by any means, but it still leaves you, I think, kind of wanting more. There are a lot of people Tweeting at me or emailing me, “Oh please, when’s the next book coming out, I want to read it right now!” I’m like, “I’m sorry, it’s coming out next year!”
For more on Kristen Orlando and You Don’t Know My Name, visit us.macmillan.com/youdontknowmyname.