Your Next Favorite YA Author on Loss and Loneliness
Julie Buxbaum’s YA debut is about all the very worst things you can imagine happening to you as a young adult: Your mom dies, your devastated dad meets a stranger on the internet and moves across the country with you and all your life's belongings in tow, you suddenly have an evil step-sibling your very same age, and you don’t have a single friend at your new school. How can a story in which everything goes wrong be so right? How can a book about so much bad stuff bejust so good?
We talked to Buxbaum in hopes of figuring out how she turned a novel of misfortunes into something triumphant and life-affirming. We didn’t learn her secret to writing one of the best books we’ve read all year, but we did learn that Tell Me Three Things manages to be both heartwrenching and heartwarming because the author herself has so much heart.
In what ways is Tell Me Three Things inspired by your life?
Like Jessie, I also lost my mother at fourteen, so a lot of that raw emotion and grief is packed into Tell Me Three Things. Jessie isn’t the teen version of me—unfortunately, I was not nearly that cool or self-composed at that age—but like all my characters, in some way she’s a part of me, and maybe in this case almost an aspirational me. I didn’t want to just write a dead mother book (yuck) but I did want to explore first loss, and I thought the most fun way to do that would be to combine it with a book about first love. It has recently become clear to me that I’m a little obsessed with firsts. Probably something I should talk to my therapist about.
What do you wish you could tell your teen self?
I wish I could go back and tell her that though the fact of my mom dying is never going to be okay, I will be. There was a time in high school when I felt so broken that I didn’t know how to get through the days, and so I counted them exactly like Jessie does in Tell Me Three Things. Now I have the luxury of counting in years, which is my way of recognizing that I survived, that I’m a better and stronger version of myself because of my loss, and that it’s okay to live with grief. I wish my teen self could know that her future, which for a while felt super-bleak, will be filled with almost a ridiculous amount of goodness. Also, while we are delivering messages, maybe we can also gently let teen me know that I should stay away from the perms.
Your book talks a lot about the loneliness of feeling like an outsider. What advice do you have for someone who's dealing with that IRL?
The truth is we all feel lonely from time to time, and in and of itself, loneliness is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an opportunity to connect and learn about yourself, discover and remember why you really are your best company. More than that though, I think the most important thing to remember if you are feeling lonely is that loneliness, like all of our emotions, are temporary and fleeting. So just because you feel that way right now (today, this month, even this year), it doesn’t mean you will feel that way for the rest of your life.
Ironically, the experience of loneliness is one of those rare things we all have in common. There’s real comfort in that thought.
Lastly, I think loneliness—which is just a natural part of being a human being in the world—can easily be amplified by social media. It feels awful to have every party and get-together that we weren’t invited to shoved in our faces on sites like Instagram.