HOW TO BE BRAVE passed my desk long ago as an ARC, and I was immediately intrigued by it. I think we can agree, given what’s happened this week, that these book titles offer much needed inspiration. Have a look:

Reeling from her mother’s death, Georgia has a choice: become lost in her own pain, or enjoy life right now, while she still can. She decides to start really living for the first time and makes a list of fifteen ways to be brave – all the things she’s wanted to do but never had the courage to try. As she begins doing the things she’s always been afraid to do – including pursuing her secret crush, she discovers that life doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes friendships fall apart and love breaks your heart. But once in a while, the right person shows up just when you need them most – and you learn that you’re stronger and braver than you ever imagined.

AP Exams – check
SAT test – check
College Application – check
Date the wrong guy and ruin everything you’ve spent your whole life working for– check

Ultra-high-achiever Viviana Rabinovich-Lowe has always had a plan—and no room to be anything less than perfect. But her quest for perfection comes to a screeching halt when her boyfriend leaks racy pictures of her to the entire school. Making matters worse, her parents are getting divorced and now her perfect family is falling apart. For the first time, Viv feels like a complete and utter failure.

Then she gets a job working at the community pool, where she meets a new group of friends who know nothing about her past. That includes Evan, a gorgeous guy who makes her want to do something she never thought she’d do again: trust. For the first time in her life, Viv realizes she can finally be whoever she wants. But who is that? While she tries to figure it out, she learns something they never covered in her AP courses: that it’s okay to be less than perfect, because it’s our imperfections that make us who we are.

According to your website bio, you are interested in “the stories we tell, the stories we are given, and the ways we can redefine our worlds by discovering which stories are true.” In what ways, if any, has this enhanced your experience as a writer? 

At the core of story is character, and – both as a reader and as a writer – I am most interested in characters who are flawed and who make mistakes, characters who begin with a particular understanding of their world and whose journeys lead them to having those assumptions shattered. As a writer, I continually have to redefine my world, as each new character offers questions that I may not hold the answer to when I begin writing. Even though I’ve been writing for years, it doesn’t mean I have it figured out. Each new story is a new question. Each book is a puzzle. I love the feeling of discovery that writing offers. Sometimes I find answers to my many questions about the world; sometimes I merely uncover many more questions. Either way, I love the process, and it’s that experience of inquiry and discovery that keeps me writing.

Well said. It is my hope that those questions will keep coming–and that we can discover the meaning in their answers. I was instantly drawn into HOW TO BE BRAVE, especially with the list Georgia made for herself. In what ways do you think fear prevents people from becoming their full selves? 

Thank you! My debut novel, HOW TO BE BRAVE, is about a girl named Georgia who has lived her life in fear and who sets out to try new things, despite her insecurities. Before her death, her mom commanded Georgia to live differently—to try everything at least once and to never be ruled by fear.

Ever since the announcement of my book title, HOW TO BE BRAVE, friends, family, and strangers have all responded one of two ways: that they LOVE the title (hooray!) and then, often, they ask, “So, what’s the answer?” In fact, many would whisper in all seriousness, “Please tell me. I’m desperate to know the answer.” At first, I didn’t know how to respond. So, I would laugh nervously and say something like, “If only I knew!”

However, I’ve come to love these questions, for the mere fact that the question of how to live life courageously is something we all ask. I’ve discovered that, yes, many people live in fear – (I still do!) and that yes, this fear prevents people from becoming their full selves. But I also know that people are braver than they give themselves credit for.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be brave, and how there are many different ways to live a life of courage. I have come to understand that being brave does not equate to being fearless. Fear is okay. Fear is good.

I’ve started saying that there’s an invisible question mark at the end of the title and that I think the answer to the question of “how to be brave” lies inside the question itself. It’s in the constant questioning.

The epigraph of HOW TO BE BRAVE is this quote by Georgia O’Keefe: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

I think that if we’re asking ourselves questions about how we can move past the fear and try to live our dreams, then we are more brave than we know.

Thank goodness. And in our bravery, we can work together with others to conquer our fears. In your novel, THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER, you explore the pressures teens face, particularly the constant need for perfection. What do you hope readers will take away from Viviana’s experience?

Many writers talk about books that are the “stories of their hearts.” My first book, HOW TO BE BRAVE, was most definitely that since it is told through the eyes of Georgia, a Greek-American teenager whose mother passes away. I am half-Greek, and my father died when I was seventeen, so much of the story, in terms of its exploration of grief and loss, identity and love, came directly from my heart and my life.

My second book, THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER, is equally the story of my heart. Viviana is a driven honors student and the daughter of a Russian-Jewish immigrant mom and an American engineer dad who have extremely high academic expectations for her. As a result of both these expectations and an exposing mistake Viviana made in sharing a nude photo with her boyfriend (who proceeded to send it to the entire school), Viviana suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks.

I am both first- and second- generation American (my father immigrated from Greece in 1952; my mother’s parents immigrated from Russia in 1913), so I am always interested in the unique pressures of being the child of immigrants, as many of my students are, and as Viviana is.

Furthermore, when I was in high school and college, I was in honors classes, including AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (the International Baccalaureate program). While some of the pressure to succeed came from my parents, much of it was simply part of the system. I continuously and secretly suffered from anxiety and paralyzing panic attacks through my twenties, both from the grief of losing my father and from the pressures of success. The thing is, I didn’t really know what was happening – that it was called GAD (general anxiety disorder) or panic attacks, or that it was something I should seek help for. In fact, I’d been told that if I ever sought psychological help via a therapist or group support, I should not use my own medical insurance for fear that my employers would find out that I was “unstable” and I might therefore lose my job. It took me many years to finally seek support and understand my own mind.

As a teacher at both the high school and community college levels, I’ve met many students who also feel the intense pressures of success, both from their families and from the mere need for financial survival, and who as a result, suffer from severe (and often secret) anxiety. I teach English where we focus on creative expression and the makings of an examined life, so students often want to share their inner lives with me, both in writing and in conversation, including their mental health. I remind them that I am not a psychologist or counselor, and I also direct them towards our free psychological services, but many students respond that their parents would – and I quote – “kill” them if they knew they had sought psychological help. Every time I hear this, my heart breaks. There is a stigma attached to the very real experience of GAD and panic attacks, as well as to psychological counseling. I wrote THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER for both myself when I was a teenager, and most certainly for my students and readers who are like my students, so that they can see their experience represented and also find that there does not have to be that stigma, that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of self-care and beautiful strength.

And by doing that, you will also reach those who feel like they are invisible. If there’s anything you wished you’d known before you became a published writer, what would it be? 

I didn’t realize how many wonderful friends I’d make during the process, and that includes my agent and editor. Everyone is incredibly supportive, and everyone is cheering for your writing. I love meeting readers and hearing from fans. Last week, I responded to a blogger’s lovely post on THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER by saying, “Thank you for reading!” Her simple response was: “Thank you for writing!” and it made me cry. It also made me want to get back to my current manuscript. Publishing itself is a crazy business, but at its core, writing books is about connecting with other people. That’s why I read, and that’s why I write. I’m grateful to have been published and to have the opportunity to connect with so many readers. It’s an amazing journey, for sure.

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

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