Skylar Evans and her BFF Chris have a pact: no dating in high school. Love only ties you down, and the last thing Skylar wants is to get stuck in Creek View, a town that’s full of hard drinkers and minimum wage jobs. If she can just get through a summer of working at the kitschy Paradise Motel, she’ll be on her way to art school in San Francisco. But when her mom loses her job, Skylar’s dream starts to feel more and more unattainable.
And then Josh Mitchell shows up. He got out of Creek View by joining the Marines, but he’s back after losing a leg in Afghanistan. As Skylar and Josh work together at the Paradise, she realizes that he’s not the same guy he used to be. Is she falling for him, and will her feelings keep her from her dream? By mixing Skylar’s voice with short chapters from Josh’s point of view, Heather Demetrios paints a vivid portrait of what it’s like to grow up in a small, poor town. She also delves into a military man’s return to civilian life, a topic that isn’t discussed much in YA. Through Josh, she explores what it’s really like to be a young soldier and deal with PTSD. I’ll Meet You There is a beautiful book that is full of a lot of hope, but it also isn’t afraid to show the raw, ugly details of a young Marine grappling with physical and psychological injuries.
I was thrilled when Heather agreed to answer a few questions for HelloGiggles. We talked about high school, writing, and the research she did to make sure she got all the details of Josh’s life just right. Check out her interview below and be sure to buy I’ll Meet You There on February 3rd!
Q: Can you tell us what you were like back in high school? Were you anything like any of your characters?
A: I was a drama geek, so I was always doing something with the school plays—theatre was my life. We’d all hang out in the drama room at lunch, so my friends and I lived in this protected bubble filled with show tunes, everyone hamming it up. We were probably obnoxious, I don’t know.
I was also really serious about school because I desperately wanted to escape the small town we’d moved to from LA and college seemed to be my ticket out of Dodge. I loved AP Comp and did student council and stuff like that. I listened to lots of Radiohead and wrote in my journal and worked at a cookie place in the mall. I was part of my youth group, which gave me the chance to live in the Ukraine for a summer and travel to other countries, and I had a boyfriend in college.
I was most like Skylar in I’ll Meet You There in that I was an artist who longed to live in a cultured, cosmopolitan city. I was sad a lot like her, too, because I came from a broken home and family stuff was so, so messy and complicated. But I had amazing friends who had my back all the time and they kept my spirits up.
Q: You mention in the acknowledgements that the book started out being about a Lindsay Lohan-type character hiding out at the Paradise. How did the book morph into the (very different!) story about Sky & Josh?
A: It was my writer’s group in Boston that steered me in the right direction. Once they read that scene where we first meet Josh (which is now the first chapter of the book), they were immediately drawn to him and wanted to know more. Originally, he was a small character. But when they focused in on him, it was suddenly so obvious. Of course he was a huge part of the story! I think my subconscious put him in that party scene because my family’s military history and my dad’s struggles with PTSD were right there, under the surface. I’m so grateful to my writer’s group—they really saw Josh before I did.
Q: We don’t see characters like Josh–that is, young veterans–very often in YA. What drew you to writing about him, and what sort of research did you do to make sure you got all the details right?
A: Both my parents were Marines and my dad has PTSD (both of them went to boot camp right after high school), so it wasn’t such a huge stretch for me. The military is filled with young adults who have stories to tell. It’s strange to me that this is a topic no one has really explored in YA. I remember recruiters being on my high school campus. My brother, who’s seventeen, has already been recruited for the Army.
When you look at the statistics, the majority of service members who are suffering from war related wounds in Iraq or Afghanistan are males between the ages of 18 and 24. They’re also the group most affected by suicide in the military. Can you imagine—you can die for your country, kill for your country, but you’re not even old enough to legally drink? The more research I did about veterans’ affairs and both the physical and psychological impact of our current warfare on service members, the most passionate I got about it.
I just wanted to tell Josh’s story, without agenda, because he could say everything we needed to know about his experience way better than I could. I wanted people to really see him. I don’t think a lot of Americans realize the extent to which this war is affecting their neighbors, their friends, their community. It was also important for me to show the effect that PTSD has on the family and friends of the service member. That was something I really had to grapple with myself, as I got deeper into the book.
The most important part of my research was interviewing Marines and Soldiers who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were extremely generous and opened up about PTSD, the difficulty of reintegrating when they came home, and what it was like to be deployed in those regions. They also helped with specifics about the military. My dad taught me cadences and told me stories. I found NPR’s journalism on veterans’ affairs to be enormously helpful, as well as David Finkel’s books, which I mention in my author’s note. I did tons of online research, watched YouTube videos and documentaries, and, of course, had to do loads of research regarding prosthetics and amputees. I absolutely had to get it right or I’d be dishonoring the people who’ve experienced what Josh has.
Q: What advice do you have for HelloGiggles readers who want to be (or are) writers?
A: The best writing I’ve ever done has been about things I’m intensely passionate about. So, first, I’d say to write the book you want to write, the one that keeps you up at night. It can be so tempting to write for trends, but that rarely works. The response I’ve gotten from readers about “I’ll Meet You There” has taught me that more than any sales numbers or reviews. I also think it’s really important to improve your craft. Get better, write every day, never settle. And read!
Q: What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
A: The second book in my jinn fantasy series, Blood Passage, comes out in September. I’m really excited about that one because it’s set in Morocco and I traveled there to do research for it. I’m really proud of how it turned out! I have a new fantasy series I’m working on—we’ll see what happens with that. In terms of contemporary, I’m still searching for the book that keeps me up at night. I haven’t hit on anything that gets me as excited as I’ll Meet You There, but I can’t wait to find it. I love writing contemporary YA. Hopefully I’ll have it done by the end of this year.
Q: The most important question I ask everyone: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A: That is an important question! Definitely chips and salsa—like, the really good ones from a proper Mexican restaurant. My favorite chips and salsa can be found at Casita del Campo in Los Angeles.
Thanks again to Heather for answering our questions! I’ll Meet You There will be available on February 3rd.