Forever in Blue: The Fourth Season of the Sisterhood
Original Airdate: April 5, 2007
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TranscriptRon Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I’m Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Ann Brashares, author of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. The fourth novel, and the last novel in that series, Forever in Blue, has just appeared. It's -- this week it's the number-one New York Times Bestseller. Welcome.
Ann Brashares: Thank you.
Ron Carlson: I’m so glad you're here because you've -- this is the fourth and last book.
Ann Brashares: This is the fourth and last book.
Ron Carlson: And is that good news for you?
Ann Brashares: It's mixed news. I -- I wrote the first book with the intention, I guess you might say, of writing four. That seemed to me like –
Ron Carlson: Oh, you did?
Ann Brashares: -- a natural number. I didn't know that I would have the opportunity to, because if nobody bought the first book, nobody would probably be interested in having me write any more of them, so it was not necessarily a plan, but it was sort of a hope, I guess, or an intention. And I’m not sure exactly why, but that was sort of my idea. And I’ve had a sense of kind of wanting to see that through. And also feeling like -- I feel like my job is -- as a storyteller, and it's what I love to do, and I feel like you don't have a story until you've ended it, and I wanted this to be a story kind of in four installments. And I wanted these characters to grow, and I wanted to take them from kind of that midpoint in adolescence when you're having your first taste of freedom, you're learning – you know, 16, being able to drive, starting to go on your own for the first time -- and then kind of depositing them at sort of the door of adulthood. They're finished their first year of college. So I’ve sort of taken them through the period I wanted to take them through and I’ve ended it in the way that I envisioned ending it. But at the same time, it's been
A wonderful experience for me in terms of, you know, a creative experience, emotional, intellectual. And it's, you know, expanded my life in a lot of ways, so it is hard to draw it to a close just because it's been fun and I feel invested in it, in the characters and in the
experience of writing it, so --
Ron Carlson: But you saw that there might be four books from the get-go?
Ann Brashares: I kind of thought so. I mean, there are four equally weighted protagonists, which is a difficult way to structure a book, in some ways, so – and the writing process was a little bit strange for that. I mean, I write the books very differently than they read.
Ron Carlson: Let's talk about that. So you've got Carmen, Bridget, Lena, and Tibby, and they're all equally weighted. I was going to ask you, which is your favorite? But you -- you're trying to be like a good parent.
Ann Brashares: Yeah, the maternal answer, the good-mother answer, which is, "I love my girls equally."
Ron Carlson: Yeah, I see.
Ann Brashares: And I kind of do, to tell you the truth. But the way that I write them, from the first book through this fourth book, is that I like to write in a very close, third-person point of view. People have different words for that: aligned -- I don't know. But I like to, within any given scene, stay within one character's head, to only know what she knows, see what she sees, feel what she feels, and feeling what she feels is what's most important to me as a writer. So typically what I do is I try and inhabit Carmen, for instance, and I write her whole story from beginning to end.
Ron Carlson: In each of these books, you did it that way?
Ann Brashares: Yeah, I did.
Ron Carlson: I was going to ask this. So --
Ann Brashares: Because I can't jump around like that, do you know what I mean? I sort of need to delve fairly deeply into this one girl.
Ron Carlson: And you have the various vicissitudes -- the people she meets. Carmen, in this book, is in a play, she has this odd friendship with one of her coworkers on the play, and you wrote that whole novella --
Ann Brashares: Straight through, yeah. And then so I -- I feel very connected to her and – you know, I feel like, "oh, she's really -- she's really the one for me, she's the one I can --"
And then I need to end her when I get to the end, and I need to kind of reconnect with another character, say I'll turn to Tibby next.
Ron Carlson: Okay.
Ann Brashares: And then I need to sort of, you know, live with Tibby for a while and let her slowly sort of come back to me and remember who she is and what she loves and what she's afraid of and what she needs to do and how – what her relationship with her mother is and all that stuff. And then I spend a few weeks with her, and I write her story from beginning to end. So I do that with each of the four girls. And then at the end, I try and write the scenes that they appear in together, and often that's the beginning of the book and the end of the book and sometimes a few scenes along the way. And then I tie the whole thing together and figure out certain logistical questions like how to make the pants not be in two places at once.
Ron Carlson: Right, so all of the – all of the continuant.
Ann Brashares: Right.
Ron Carlson: The -- and so is there -- what does your study look like, then? Is it -- I mean, are these -- all these colored cards on the wall and stacks of various papers which you then –
Ann Brashares: Right. It's funny that you say colored cards, because that's exactly what I do, but I don't – my study is fairly neat until that last burst where I actually do get a stack with four colors, and I give each of the girls a color -- I think their colors have remained pretty much true from book to book -- and then I write down every scene in every girl's story, every scene in the book, essentially.
Ron Carlson: So you make -- this is a -- this is an overlist of -- okay.
Ann Brashares: Yeah, each card stands for a scene. I definitely -- I work very much in scenes. I mean, those for me are –
Ron Carlson: Yeah, it's apparent.
Ann Brashares: That's the building block of this book. That's how I arrange point of view and everything else. So -- so I make a card for every scene, and then -- it's often a kind of an all-nighter at the end. This has become almost a ritual for me. I -- I make a trail around the house of my cards to try and arrange how the story is going to unfold. And I try and keep the story sort of building kind of together, you know, so that the book has a sort of a feeling of, you know, the sort of conflicts being introduced one after another. And then you want to sort of, you know, arrive at some kind of climactic situation for each one of them, but not all together because the pants can't be in four places at the same time. And often, the pants are in some way involved with whatever is sort of revelatory. And so -- and then it's a question of concluding and wrapping up each one of these stories in turn and hopefully giving the book as a whole some sort of rhythm. So that's often the sort of grand finale of my writing process, which is making the trail of these cards. And I write a big "p" on the card if the pants play a role in that scene so that I can make sure that -- that I’m structuring that in the right way.
Ron Carlson: Now, is it -- is it a physical process? Do you actually move around?
Ann Brashares: When I’m doing that?
Ron Carlson: Yeah.
Ann Brashares: I do.
Ron Carlson: Back and forth?
Ann Brashares: Yeah.
Ron Carlson: Annie Dillard used to say that when she's finishing a book, sometimes you walk a mile and a half around the same table.
Ann Brashares: Right. Right, right.
Ron Carlson: Let's go back -- I’m not done with that, because that's very interesting to me in terms of the process of writing this book -- but let's go back to the very initial premise, which is kind of quote-unquote "magical," this whole idea of the pants. Now, where does that notion come from? And first of all, explain it for the people who aren't familiar with it, and then let's talk about the genesis.
Ann Brashares: Right, well, the idea is that there is this pair of pants, and they're kind of this totem, in a way. They're this sort of concrete representation of this – of the friendship. A pair of jeans, they fit each of the girls in spite of the fact that they're different sizes and shapes. And -- and, you know, the idea of course -- I mean, I like the idea that these pants, they're a metaphor -- obviously – and a flexible one, as I like to use them. And their role over the course of these four books as the girls have grown up has changed. And I like the fact that, again, they -- these -- as a metaphor, they move with these girls. So they become sort of, you know, a repository of the friendship, of the experiences that these girls have when they're apart and that kind of keep them linked when they're apart. That's the initial idea. And they sort of keep track –
Ron Carlson: Did you have that idea then, you thought, "four friends and a pair of pants"? Was that the get-go, or is it young women or issues or boyfriend or --
Ann Brashares: It started with "four girls, pair of pants." That was -- that was the very beginning of it. And then it was sort of like, "okay, who are these people?" I -- I feel like -- I liked the idea always of trying to, you know -- I mean, this is – The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was my first book, but leading into that, I liked the idea of clothing having kind of transforming power. Not magic -- really "magic" magic, but rather, you know, the idea that our clothes somehow can hold our experiences, our memories –
Ron Carlson: And tradition.
Ann Brashares: And tradition, sure.
Ron Carlson: There's an element of tradition very much in this, especially as they come together at the end of this book, forever in blue. And so you started off -- now, the first novel is – you could've stopped after one. I mean, it's a complete story. You didn't leave any kind of open ends.
Ann Brashares: No, I didn't mean to. I mean, I meant for it to be a complete read.
Ron Carlson: Each of the books.
Ann Brashares: I meant that for each of them. After you get past the first one, it's hard to know whether you succeed in that. I can't necessarily know whether they stand apart because I can't -- you know, I can't take the veil of ignorance to know what it would be like not to know what's happened before or happens after, but I try – I strive to do that.
Ron Carlson: Now, did you -- you have -- one of the problems we talk about in writing classes many times is when you have two characters same age, same sex, the problem of distinguishing them each from each and – so that they don't bleed into each other and get confusing. Now, you have four people same age, same sex, and so did you -- How did you make them each saliently different? Because they're so vivid each, and did you start that from the top, making notes, saying, "oh, Carmen..." and write down the traits and come up with a family history, or does this come along in the writing process?
Ann Brashares: You know, it's funny, I...I think it comes along in the process for me. I never -- and I know every writer works differently. I feel like the creation of character for me is so unconscious that I don't feel like I ever did it, do you know what I mean?
Ron Carlson: Well, then are you saying kind of implicitly that these people were suggested by amalgams of people you knew or...
Ann Brashares: I mean, they have antecedents probably in people I’ve known and experiences I’ve had and friendships and things, but they're pretty -- they're pretty much made up, and I feel like the more I’ve written about them -- you know, four books and some thousand pages later -- the less they're bound to any antecedent in the real world, the more they've become themselves. But I feel like -- I don't -- I’ve never had this idea that you can separate character development and story development. I feel like you don't know a character until you put her in motion, until you see what she does, how she reacts in a situation. But at the same time, you don't know what she's going to do, what situation she's going to be in until you have a sense of who she is.
Ron Carlson: So you're surprised. And I agree, absolutely, that the process of what they're going through will show you who they might be.
Ann Brashares: Yeah, and vice versa.
Ron Carlson: And so you -- you have this plan, four women -- four young women, a pair of pants – and you have a plan for four books.
Ann Brashares: Well, loosely, yeah.
Ron Carlson: But there are surprises.
Ann Brashares: Always.
Ron Carlson: Okay, now that's enough to put someone off their plans. How -- tell -- let's talk about Forever in Blue. And you've got Beatrice at the archaeology – archaeological site -- Bea -- and you've got all the others doing their things, Tibby and her boyfriend, Brian, et cetera. What were some of the surprises that -- where you thought, "oh!"? Do you ever have a surprise that -- sort of think, "oh, that's more than I wanted to take on," or, "no, I wasn't planning to go there," and what do you do about that?
Ann Brashares: I love when that happens. That says to me that I’m doing something right. I like to have an outline. I like to have sort of a road map. It's easier for me to start off on the journey if I know kind of where I’m going because starting for me is always hard. So I like having that in hand, but whenever I’m tempted or certain that a detour is in order -- sometimes even a very elaborate one -- I feel like that's good. That's good. It means that I’m actually interacting with these characters in the way that I want to because…
Ron Carlson: Listening to them, working with your material.
Ann Brashares: And really sinking in to what -- what -- what they need. For instance, in this book, one of the things that surprised me was I knew I wanted to bring this character Kostas back. That's Lena's kind of love, heartbreak; it was a person about whom she's felt passionate in all kinds of ways. And I knew that I was going to bring him back briefly, and I hadn't realized that she was going to be furious at him until he was there. And I thought she was going to, you know, throw her arms around him and kick up her foot and they'd have a movie kiss, and she was furious. She was furious at him. And I was surprised by that. I didn't know she would feel that way.
Ron Carlson: That's a good moment. That's a very credible moment in the book.
Ann Brashares: And she needed to be. I realized later that that was absolutely what needed to happen and that I would've had to be utterly deaf to her not to know that that's what was going to happen, so --
Ron Carlson: So there are lots of those moments with these -- with these young women as you go through that -- that's interesting because the book -- looking at the book, and as you read -- after you're about halfway through the book, one of the things you begin to admire is the pace and the measurement and the syncopated -- as we go from Tibby to Lena. And each of the stories – the Lena and Leo story is very charged, and then we go – and there's always this matter of suspense, but all of the scenes, which are very vivid, are – are short and involving, and so it makes you wonder if the plan was dominant or -- but they're very organic, of course, and believable characters.
Ann Brashares: I hope so. I mean, that's -- that's what I’m -- that's, I guess, what we're all trying for.
Ron Carlson: Let me remind everybody, we're talking with Ann Brashares about her novel, Forever in Blue, which is the fourth and final book in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, a tremendously popular set of novels. The -- so what about – while we're talking about writing and -- let's -- that's the topic Anyway, but what about dialogue? Now, you write a lot of dialogue. These -- these girls -- and, again, having them not blend in and sound alike, but your dialogue is crisp and very realistic. And how do you approach that and how do you get what you get?
Ann Brashares: I -- I guess what I do is I try to...I guess I just try and listen to them. I don't -- sometimes I feel like I’m forcing it, and it always -- I feel like it always turns out badly, but usually if I put two people in a room together and I know what they're – what moment in their lives they're in -- you know, what's gone before, what they're hoping will go after, what their intentions, hopes, expectations, fears are going into the situation, how they're feeling about the person they're talking to, how charged is this moment, how much does it matter, what are the stakes? And I guess once all that has been established and you're right there in that moment of the story with those characters, I just feel like it kind of plays out in your head. That's -- ideally, that's what it does.
Ron Carlson: Right, well --
Ann Brashares: Yeah.
Ron Carlson: They sound like real people, although the scenes are all very charged. Now, let's move to this: did you set out to write these as young adult books, whatever that is? I want to talk about that.
Ann Brashares: Right. I -- I guess I did. I mean, I don't know if you can necessarily write and target your audience at the same time.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Ann Brashares: I knew I was writing about characters who were teenagers, and the way that the business works, I guess -- well, that's not so true. Many people write about teenagers and they're published as adult novels. I think that I kind of knew and imagined when I was writing that the readers would -- the people who would be most interested in this book would probably be girls around the age of 13, 14, 15, so -- but again, I think it's sort of dangerous to look past your characters to who you think is going to read about them.
Ron Carlson: Right. Well, any time you assume audience, I think you take -- you take some of your energy off. And "young adult" is a marketing term, of course. I mean, people have asked me about it, and I said I never met an adult you wasn't, you know, young, and so a lot of the readers of these books, of course, as we all know, are -- are all ages, but I wonder, as a writer, if that offers you any -- does that hinder or limit your approach when you understand that?
Ann Brashares: I think it does a little bit. And actually, getting out into the world a little bit and meeting readers has definitely given me pause in some cases about what --
Ron Carlson: Oh, I’m interested in that.
Ann Brashares: You know, I don't like to think that there's a conflict between my characters and my readers in the sense that my characters have gotten older -- you know, they're 19 by the end of this book -- and that the readers stay, you know, in some -- there are sort of new readers all the time, which is, of course, what you want. But -- but I always want to be very outspoken about the fact that, particularly by the fourth book, these books really aren't for readers under the age of 12 certainly. And I would very much, by the fourth book, recommend them to older readers like 13, 14, and older because I want to be true to the characters and to the age that they are. They're away from home. They're away from their parents, their families. It brings in a whole new set of things. It's a kind of freedom that is quite a heady and strange experience. And I remember that from my own life. But at the same time, I know -- I know in some sense that there are going to be 12-year-olds reading it, and so I do feel a little bit of a -- a little bit of a pull there. You know, how do I be true to these characters and at the same time, I’m a mom, you know. I want it to be suitable in some sense to girls who I -- I sort of know are going to be reading it, so --
Ron Carlson: Are there -- are there external -- is there a stencil? Are there external strictures? Do editors say, "oh, this, but not that"? Are there some issues about the young adult -- I mean, just for our -- just for our viewers in terms of if -- because we need good books for young people. It's obvi-- it's an obvious place, and it's difficult to do without writing down --
Ann Brashares: Right, or being preachy in some way.
Ron Carlson: And -- or being didactic. Or writing something that – I was very impressed when I first went to my first young adult editorial meeting where – how these books seemed very rough, very advanced. I mean, there were teenage drug addicts and there were all kinds of other issues.
Ann Brashares: Right.
Ron Carlson: So I was confused by it.
Ann Brashares: I think -- I haven't heard that there are necessarily constraints, rules, restrictions. Nobody's written any down anywhere so far as I know. I think there are book-club issues, actually. If you want to get your book sold in a book club or a book fair, I think there are certain restrictions, but in the general world of publishing and writing, I -- I mean, for me, I feel like it's more a sense of what my own -- you know, as a writer, I want to -- I kind of want to try and write about these issues and not sidestep issues of, you know, sex and these kinds of relationships, and -- but at the same time, I want to take them seriously. I mean, I really -- I take the lives of these girls – their emotional lives, particularly -- very seriously. So I don't want to be gratuitous, I don't want to be explicit as a writer. This is just sort of more how I feel, what I want to try to accomplish as a writer. And more because I think this is how you write a good and absorbing book that's hopefully, you know, sticks to the ribs a little bit, is to never be dismissive, because these are serious issues, particularly when you're this age.
Ron Carlson: Exactly.
Ann Brashares: You know, you're not going to write about a sexual experience and not have it be utterly consequential.
Ron Carlson: Uh-huh, right.
Ann Brashares: And for me, that's not only realistic, but it's the right way to approach it because it's a big deal, and to portray it as anything but a big deal, I think, is -- is misleading and a little bit irresponsible.
Ron Carlson: Make a game out of it, trivialize it, or -- yeah, exactly.
Ann Brashares: That I won't do. That's one of those --
Ron Carlson: Well, I thought the books -- I just -- speaking to that, it's interesting because when you say “young adult,” all of a sudden you think the substance might float out. But these books seem substantive, and at the center of that substance is the issue of friendship. I mean, you said the pants are a metaphor, and the operable force here is friendship, and in a way, the ideal friendship of these different young women and the way they care for each other and themselves and support each other. And that must be part of the response to this book, right?
Ann Brashares: Yeah, I think it must be. I mean, it is -- it's a great friendship, it really is. I mean, early on, I wanted to write about a great friendship, and I wanted to bring the conflicts in from the outside, meaning they are not born out of the friendship itself but rather, you know, the adversity that they all experience in every one of these books is not coming from within the friendship. I mean, they have their moments and their frustrations and don't always listen as well as they could, and sometimes – you know, and sometimes frustrate one another, but for the most part, it is -- it is there as a means of love and support to sort of get them through, in a way. And -- and so -- I mean, some people say it's totally idealized, but I don't believe that. I think that there really are friendships like this. I think these girls are without rivalry, for the most part. They don't compete with one another. And I think that's probably a somewhat rare thing, but I do think it's -- I do think it's real.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, I wanted to talk about that because I can see a lot of people would say, "Oh, that would be the friendship that I want," and yet I wondered if you're -- in your travels, that you ran into people who said, "oh, this is --" or even adult women or men who said, "I have friends like this" or, "this is what we were like."
Ann Brashares: I do hear that often. I really do, and it's -- I love to hear that. I mean, I hear that in girls who come with their friends, and they'll show me the shirt that they shared, the pair of pants, or the journal that they pass around. So, often I do hear, you know, sort of testimonials to wonderful friendships. But you know, also, a lot of young women, girls, will show up, and they're not the girls who have three best friends and a pair of pants. They're the girls who maybe have no best friends. And I think the book is sustenance in a different way.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, excellent.
Ann Brashares: You know, providing --
Ron Carlson: Well, it's certainly – I mean, I was going to say that it's very clear that not everybody has groups of friends like this, but this book is a sort of source of hope. I don't want you to leave here today without talking about your apprenticeship and training in terms of did you just come out of the chutes and say, "I’m going to write a book," turn around, and type it up? Or what do you consider the major elements of your quote-unquote "apprenticeship"? I know the sisterhood was your first novel, first book.
Ann Brashares: You know, I don't have any real sort of traditional training as a writer. What I did do was I worked -- starting as a sort of receptionist/phone-answering assistant -- at this small company, it was called a book packager, a book producer.
Ron Carlson: Oh, right.
Ann Brashares: And we -- very early on in my career, because I was very eager to take on more, I was fascinated in a way by trying to sort of take an analytic approach to storytelling, to fiction, and so I saw people who were working as editors, and I was fascinated by it and the power, in a way, they had to shape a book. And so I was given a lot of responsibility fairly early on, in my early 20s, and I was given a huge load of books to work on. And often they were kind of fast-paced paperback originals: not literary, not artistic, not -- but it was an incredible education in terms of books being demystified.
Ron Carlson: How they worked.
Ann Brashares: It was totally liberating because there wasn't a thought of, "this is art, this is hallowed ground, this is sanctified," but rather, "how do you get out there and tell a good story?" and, "how do you get it done by tomorrow?" And I did that for years. And it was -- it was fascinating. Again, it wasn't in any way rarified or fine, it wasn't the kind of education that anyone would probably brag about, but I learned so much in doing it.
Ron Carlson: Right, I understand. No, the pragmatic approach of taking the book apart, seeing how it operates, and then coming at your own with some of those tools.
Ann Brashares: Right.
Ron Carlson: Well, you've certainly surpassed those books.
Ann Brashares: Well, in some way I felt, as much as I loved what I did over the course of 10 or 11 years when I was doing it, I began to feel somewhat frustrated with the limitations of what I was doing.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Ann Brashares: And often I would say to myself, "wouldn't it be wonderful if I could just do it this way, if I could tackle certain issues that I’m very much discouraged from tackling, if I could actually spend time in a character's head and really examine her interior life, how much would I enjoy that?" Feeling like -- developing a hunger to do it a little bit differently.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Ann Brashares: Because of time constraints, because of how commercial the books were because they were paperbacks, because they were all due today. I -- I sort of developed this longing to do it a little bit differently, to take everything I'd learned and try and put it into practice in some sense. I mean, not -- not – not consciously, but just sort of, you know -- in some way, you know, we take all the things we learn and they come out eventually in some way. But to try and to use all that I'd learned but at the same time dig a little deeper, do it a little differently, try and take some things from my own life experience. And you know, I did so with the thought that, "okay, commercial restrictions are -- I’m putting them aside. I’m not going to care about what 'sells.' I’m not going to worry about that. I’m not going to worry about, you know, you have to get to the, you know, conflict and the climax by this, it has to be this amount dialogue, you have to --" There are all of these ideas and rules for these sort of – these paperback originals of how fast you had to get in and how little time you were allowed to spend in anybody's head, so I thought, "I’m not going to worry about whether it sells or not. I’m not going to worry about that. I’m just going to worry about doing it the way I want to do it, the way I’ve kind of been -- kind of yearning to do it all these years." And it was funny because, of all the books I’ve worked on, the only thing that's worked commercially has been this. So -- do you know what I mean?
Ron Carlson: Yes, I do.
Ann Brashares: It's sort of a sense of -- it makes me feel like -- I mean, not to say that -- you know, I can't speak for the quality of my own books, but -- but I know what I’m trying for, and I feel like I was trying for so much more and found so much more of a response, and that gives me a feeling of optimism.
Ron Carlson: Well, the books are full of optimism, although there's trials and the girls emerge. We've been talking with Ann Brashares about her novel, Forever in Blue. Congratulations on your success, and this has been a fun talk. I’m Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I hope you join us next time.