One of my favorite books of 2016 was We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun & Susan Mullen, a delightful contemporary romance set in the 1980s and told through alternating letters between two best friends who just may turn out to be more. It’s funny, romantic, heartbreaking, and so so sweet. Today, I’m delighted to have Michael and Susan stop by for a very fun Q&A session:
Michael: Well, I’ve written a couple epistolary novels over the years – The Locklear Letters and Everybody Says Hello. In both of them, the readers only saw one side of the correspondence and had to use their own imaginations to fill in the other side, which I hope was fun for them. I had the idea of writing an epistolary novel where the reader would see both correspondents’ letters, and specifically the idea of having two friends write to each other when one goes off to college and the other stays home. I wanted one of the friends to be a boy and one to be a girl, but I was worried about the authenticity of the girl’s letters. I’ve read a few novels by male writers where they have tried to write in a woman’s voice, and they didn’t ring true to me. So I just kept that in the back of my mind while I worked on other projects.
Susan: And that’s when you called me?
Michael: Yes. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Susan: It was great writing this book together. We got along very well. We would talk through where we were going, what the major plot points were, then I would write Cath’s letters and Mike would write Scott’s. We would swap them back and forth, commenting on them, making proposed revisions. It was collaborative in that we could give each other immediate feedback on the most recent letter, but usually we liked what the other had written and we’d just say “I loved that!” and then move on to the next letter.
Michael: I would agree that it was a great experience, but an unusual one. When I write on my own, it’s not uncommon for me to write 5 or 10 pages in a sitting without even getting up from my chair. Here, the most I could do would be to write one of Scott’s letters, then wait for Susan to send me back the draft of Cath’s response. So there might be days or even weeks when I didn’t write a word because I was waiting for Susan’s contribution. And there were days or weeks when she was waiting for mine.
Susan: Yeah, I forget about that sometimes. I’d sometimes worry that if I didn’t hear back from Michael right away, that meant he must have hated something I’d written. There were times when one of us felt strongly about something the other had written. As a first time writer, I appreciated getting feedback on what I was writing, and I’ve known Michael long enough to respect his opinion and trust it. But at the same time, we did have a few conversations about things that one of us really didn’t like.
Michael: Absolutely, and we worked through them. I do recall there was one of Scott’s letters that Susan felt had painted her in a corner such that it was difficult for Cath to even respond. I reworked it to give her the room she needed. And there were a few things in some of the letters that I thought made Cath less sympathetic than we needed her to be. I suggested revisions to a couple of them as we worked through the book, and we worked on a complete edit of the book at the end.
Susan: I think the secret to our success as a writing duo was that we were very respectful of each other. Mike was very kind and sensitive to the fact that I was a first time writer and he was extremely supportive of me. In return, I tried to be very respectful of Mike’s time by only writing when I had a significant block of time and could put forth my best effort.
Michael: Look, I knew Susan could do this, and I knew she could do it well. I appreciate that she had a lot of trust in me, but it was entirely mutual.
Did you try anything that didn’t work out so well?
Susan: Because Mike lives in Los Angeles, and I live outside of Washington, DC, we spoke on the phone occasionally but wrote the book by email. We got together a few times during the writing process, when one or the other of us happened to be on the other coast, and thought that we would talk about the book. That didn’t work out so well because we never actually talked about the book! We spent the entire time laughing and catching up with friends and family.
Michael: Yeah, that’s true. But in the end just sitting around laughing helped the book, don’t you think?
Michael: In a way it speaks to why I always had confidence that Susan could write if she wanted to, and why it made sense to ask her to work with me on this project instead of another writer. We’ve known each other since 1985, and while there were some long periods of time when we lost touch, writing with someone you know, someone who had some of the same experiences and friends, made it so much more enjoyable of an experience. I can honestly say that I can’t imagine writing this book with anyone else, and I can’t imagine it turning out as well with anyone else.
Susan: What if you’d written it with J.K. Rowling?
Susan: The woman who wrote the Harry Potter books.
Michael: Sorry, not ringing a bell.
Susan: You know that people reading this aren’t going to be able to tell if you’re joking.
Michael: Look, I’m happy to run by the bookstore and check out these Harry Potter books if you think I should.
Susan: Fine, yes, go check out these Harry Potter books.
WE ARE STILL TORNADOES deals a lot with change, especially the change of growing up, leaving high school, becoming adults, etc. What advice would you have for readers experiencing similar changes?
Susan: It’s tough to discuss this without giving away significant plot points, but for me, what I would say to a young person who is going through what Cath encounters during the book is to stay true to who you are. Try your best not to get thrown off track by the actions of others around you, no matter how important those people are in your life. Continue to do what you love, whether it’s music, art, dance, reading, sports, whatever. It’s okay to be angry and sad, and your friends aren’t going to understand everything that you are going through, but try to stay connected with them and give them a chance to help you out. And do your best to reciprocate and still be a good friend, even when you are hurting.
Michael: I like Susan’s response. Can I just say, “Ditto”? It really is the same advice I’d give. Everyone is going to face some adversity, everyone is going to face some challenges, and everyone is going to wrestle with decisions that affect their futures. If you can remember who you are, who is important to you, and what you want to do, you might not always be happy, but you won’t regret anything. And having people in your life who can remind you of those things is important. Really, that’s what We Are Still Tornadoes is all about. It’s about those people in your life who really know who you are and who can remind you of that, sometimes without saying a word.
And what do you hope readers take away from the book, with regard to change?
Susan: I hope that they see that, when it comes to negative change, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that things will get better. It may never be “normal” again, but it is possible to have fun and happiness with a “new normal.” And as far as all of the change and independence that come with going away to college, I hope that the take away is to try lots of different things. Get a job, join a team, rush a sorority, go to concerts, write poetry, whatever it is, make an effort to explore the fun and interesting opportunities that will be available all over campus. If you’ve ever thought, “Hey, I’d like to go hiking” or “I’d like to learn to dance,” you should totally go for it.
Michael: Change can be a very daunting thing, particularly when you are younger. But it can also be the best thing in the world. Every August or September, thousands upon thousands of teenagers show up on college campuses about to go through the biggest change of their lives to that point, and as much as they may try to mask it, most of them are scared witless. I know I was when I went off to college. Are you going to fit in? Are you going to make friends? Are you going to do well in your classes? Ask those same kids three weeks later about that change, and I suspect that most of them will tell you how incredibly happy they are. Whether it’s leaving home, or getting a new job, or getting married, or having children, or moving to a new town, the very idea of change is scary. But when you look back on your life, I suspect that it will be those things that at first scared you that made your life more rewarding.
Why the ’80s?
Susan: Given that the novel is written as an exchange of letters between the characters, it needed to be set during a time before email and texting. Also, from an authenticity standpoint, Mike and I were about the characters’ ages in the early ‘80s, so the setting and cultural references felt familiar to us.
Michael: Exactly. You really couldn’t have an epistolary novel set in 2016 because no one writes letters anymore. And no one wants to read a book made up of exchanges of text messages or Snapchats. At least I wouldn’t. The 1980s might be the last time period where you could realistically set an epistolary novel. Plus, the 1980s had the greatest music.
Susan: Did I tell you I just saw Squeeze and the English Beat in concert?
Michael: You did. I’m very jealous.
Must-have writing snack?
Susan: Diet Coke
Michael: Diet Coke
Favorite Disney movie?
Susan: Toy Story
Michael: The Incredibles
Starbucks beverage of choice?
Susan: A fruit smoothie –sorry, I don’t drink coffee
Michael: I’m afraid I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life, so I’ve got to say iced tea
Susan: Sid from Toy Story, in large part because “I don’t think that man’s ever been to medical school” is the best line ever
Michael: Hmm, would you consider Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby to be a villain?
Book you’d like to read “for the first time” again?
Susan: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Michael: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Thank you, Michael & Susan!
Just like our favorite rock stars, when two visionary authors collaborate, it’s always magic. This fall, don’t miss a dynamic new novel from Michael Kun and Susan Mullen WE ARE STILL TORNADOES (St. Martin’s Griffin; November 1, 2016; Hardcover) – a sharply funny and tender coming-of-age romp through a dreamy decade past, as two best friends figure out their lives—and their love.
Growing up across the street from each other, Scott and Cath have been best friends their entire lives. Cath would help Scott with his English homework, he would make her mix tapes (it’s the 80’s after all), and any fight they had would be forgotten over TV and cookies. But now they’ve graduated high school and Cath is off to college while Scott is at home pursuing his musical dreams.
During their first year apart, Scott and Cath’s letters help them understand heartache, annoying roommates, family drama and the pressure to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. And through it all, they realize that the only person they want to turn to is each other. But does that mean they should be more than friends? The only thing that’s clear is that change is an inescapable part of growing up. And the friends who help us navigate it share an unshakable bond.
This funny yet deeply moving book–set to an awesome 80’s soundtrack–captures all the beautiful confusion and emotional intensity we find on the verge of adulthood.
MICHAEL KUN lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife Amy and their daughter Paige. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and the University Of Virginia School Of Law. He is a partner in Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., specializing in labor and employment law. He is the author of The Locklear Letters and You Poor Monster, among other works of fiction and non-fiction.
We Are Still Tornadoes is SUSAN MULLEN’S first novel and first collaboration with Michael. She is a graduate of Duke University, where she studied English literature, and the University Of Virginia School Of Law. She practices law and lives in Northern Virginia. Sue has been married to her law school classmate Kevin Mullen for 25 years, and they have two daughters.