Michigan author Amy Noelle Parks discusses her debut, YA novel

Amy Noelle Parks is a professor at Michigan State University and author of

https://twitter.com/amynoelleparks

Amy Noelle Parks is a professor at Michigan State University and author of “The Quantum Theory of the Almost Kiss” and “Summer of Brave” (Photo courtesy of @AmyNoelleParks on Twitter).

Alexis Cornett, Assistant Editor

Caleb Covic is certain he and Evie Beckham are meant to fall in love. From childhood neighbors to classmates at Newton Academy, a prestigious STEM boarding school, no one can reach Evie the way Caleb can. And, after all, he has almost kissed her 14 times.

But new-student Leo McGill, with his charming personality and whip-smart equations, has caught Evie’s attention. It may just take quantum particle entanglement for Evie and Caleb to find their way to one another.

In an interview with author Amy Noelle Park, a native Michigander and professor at the Michigan State University College of Education, she discussed how her favorite childhood novels, mental health and the wonderment of math and physics all influenced her writing and her debut novel, The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost Kiss.

What was the inspiration for the Quantum Weirdness of the Almost Kiss, and can you tell us a little bit about the writing process?

So I have always loved romance stories, and I am a math educator in real life at Michigan State University. One of my favorite books growing up was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, which takes math and physics and uses them to tell this fantasy story. I always love reading about those big ideas and fiction, but they don’t show up as much in romance as they do in fantasy and science fiction, so I was really drawn to the idea of putting those together. I started writing the book at a time in my life where I was a little depressed and not feeling great about things but just wanted to do something to cheer myself up, so I wrote it mostly for fun, but then when I finished, I thought I might put it out more widely into the world.

You mentioned this novel focuses heavily on STEM [Evie and Caleb attend Newton, a prestigious STEM high school]. Young Adult (YA) is a genre where math and physics aren’t often touched on, but you made them really accessible for teens. Can you tell us why math and science were perfect for a YA romance? 

Well, I really love thinking about mathematics and physics concepts as sort of metaphors for romance. You know if you’ve read the book, that I pick up entangled particles in there. I think that some of these vague ideas give us ways of thinking about human beings that are a little more distant and I think just as a writer, it’s sort of fun to play with those spaces. I teach prospective elementary school teachers at Michigan State, and a lot of them come in, having had not great experiences with school mathematics. It’s been mostly memorization and having to do things quickly, and they haven’t really been exposed to any of the reasons someone might get really fascinated with mathematics. So, as an educator, I really love the idea of being able to show a different side.

Evie, the main character, struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. Something that resonates with many young adults. Why was that depiction so important to include?

That was really personal for me. Evie is not a carbon copy of me, but in particular, the social anxiety aspects of her anxiety are mine, so it’s something I’ve been struggling with all of my life even as an adult. And Evie, I feel it sort of comes and goes, so there are different times in my life where it’s more intense and a bigger struggle and other times where it’s sort of way in the background. And so in some ways, it wasn’t even an intentional choice, “oh I really want to do positive mental health,” but rather it was more I was writing a character that was really close to me, and so that’s what came out. And I think in revision, one of the things I wanted to be more careful and more intentional about was really taking up the role of therapy, because  that has been helpful for me, and it is something that I want to talk about in a really positive, natural way.

As you noted, Evie attends therapy and one of the things her therapist encouraged her to do was explore different friendships or relationships. And I thought that was so powerful in your novel; even Caleb was a friend first. And as she was implored to explore these new friendships and relationships she really grew. In life, and writing too, why are these friendships so imperative?

For everyone, friendships are imperative. I think for extroverts there’s sort of a taken-for-granted part of their life. They see everyone as a friend. They love talking to people and they draw social energy from all of these others. And I think for introverts, it’s a little bit different. And for us, I think having these fewer but more intense friendships is really important, and having that safe landing space with a couple of people. If every social interaction is a challenge, then you really need to know there are two or three people you can go back to and count on no matter what. You know, I met my husband at 18, so there’s also a lot of personal stuff in the relationship between Evie and Caleb, having that safe space to let you do scary things.

Was there anything you learned from Evie or any part of her that you really see in yourself?

Sometimes people ask me “Oh, what is the advice that you would give Evie?” and I always say, “Well, Evie should be giving me advice.” So when you write fiction, you have to see that character arc over the course of the book. I think she figures things out a lot earlier than I did, that willingness to be brave. I think it’s something that I learned from her. Another thing that I think I got from writing the book that I did not really know or recognize ahead of time was just that it is okay to have a smaller social circle. I think I felt like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have all of these friends, and I didn’t love going to parties and all those things. And maybe even more so in writing Caleb’s perspective seeing her through his eyes and that he doesn’t see her as broken helped me not see myself that way.

You mentioned earlier that A Wrinkle in Time was one of your favorite books as a child. Are there any other books that really stand out as transformative for you or maybe influenced your writing?

I mean another really old one is the Anne of Green Gables series. I love Anne and Gilbert and they very much parallel Evie and Caleb’s relationship. You see it especially with the Caleb and Gilbert dynamic where she is completely oblivious to his feelings and he is of course completely smitten. And then more recently, I just love Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares. It’s a dual point of view, YA romance with two super-smart characters, and it’s super fun. I just adored that book, and I wanted to write a book that gave people that same kind of feeling.

What are the greatest challenges to you as a writer, and do you have any advice for somebody who wants to pursue a career as an author?

I think for me the greatest challenges are always around sharing the writing. When you get feedback, whether it’s from agents or editors or readers and reviewers, not all of it is positive. You have to find a way to process that and work through that and, if you don’t have a healthy way to deal with criticism, it will crush you. And in terms of advice, I mean I think honestly reading widely is the biggest thing. I think that’s how we learn to write and it’s how we learn what kinds of stories we want to tell.

The coronavirus has obviously been such a difficult time for everyone. And I really found books to be a great source of happiness and peace during this time. What are you looking forward to or hopeful for once we are able to return to some sort of normalcy?

For me, my book came out during the pandemic, so I’ve never seen it on a library shelf, and, you know, while I like to put on a mask and jump into the bookstore to go see my novel, you can’t do events or talk to readers. Everything has been, you know, virtual instead of in real life, so just looking forward to working with readers out in the real world.

You had a middle-grade novel that was released at the beginning of March. Can you tell us a little bit about what that novel is going to be about and the differences between writing a middle-grade and YA novel?

The middle-grade novel is Summer of Brave, and it’s about 11-year-old Lilla who is very different from Evie—she is a people pleaser. She wants to make her friends happy, she wants to make her parents happy, but she doesn’t want the same things they want, and so she is learning to speak up to them and sort of realize that it’s okay for her to disagree with people. Making that all the more complicated, she experiences her first crush and also gets catcalled for the first time, and has to sort through all the complicated feelings about that and what speaking up looks like.

The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost Kiss follows best friends Evie and Caleb as they navigate high school, love and physics (Photo courtesy of @AmyNoelleParks on Twitter).

Looking to the future, Parks plans on returning to the YA genre with Lia and Beckett’s Abracadabra. A Romeo-and-Juliet-style love story with warring stage magic families; there’s magic instead of duels and a happy ending.

“I’ve always loved magic and there’s a lot of love between magic and math, so the book picks up some of that,” Parks said. Readers can look forward to Parks’ second novel coming next winter.