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Author Lauren Kunze on Writing about Harvard in The Ivy

By Leon Neyfakh
Monday, September 20th, 2010
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Lauren Kunze’s The Ivy is a book for teenagers about a Harvard freshman’s tumultuous love life. It is the first in a four-book series being published by the Greenwillow imprint of HarperCollins. Kunze was an English major at Harvard; she graduated in 2008 and has spent the past two years moving from city to city every couple of months trying to figure out where she wants to live. She spent this past summer in New York, and as of this writing she’s back in her hometown of Oakland, California, where she has just completed the manuscript for the second book in her series.

With The Ivy, Kunze enters a proud tradition of Ivy League-themed young adult literature — a mini-genre that includes Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl, which is about a fictionalized version of Yale; Robin Hazelwood’s Model Student, about Columbia; and of course, Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism-ridden How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, the story of a high school girl who is forced to become fun in order to appear well-rounded before Harvard’s admissions board.

It was the appearance — and disappearance — of Viswanathan’s book that inspired Kunze to try to write a novel about Harvard, she told THIRTEEN in a phone interview. “I was sitting around talking with Rina, my roommate, and I was like, ‘Huh, all you have to do is write a young adult book that mentions Harvard and it’ll do really well!’ Obviously, her book didn’t do really well — but it was kind of a ‘how hard could it be’ moment.”

Ms. Kunze and her roommate — Rina Onur, now a financier in Turkey — came up with a rough sketch for what would become The Ivy, in which a clumsy California girl named Callie tries to find happiness on a campus full of ambitious, monied jerks after her high school boyfriend breaks up with her via email. In the process, Callie develops multiple crushes on boys, attends exclusive parties at social clubs, and pursues a spot on the staff of a magazine called Fifteen Minutes, the weekend supplement of the Harvard Crimson, which your blogger happened to work on in college and whose depiction he was thus very curious to read.

Below, a condensed and edited Q&A with Kunze about the origins of her book, her love life at Harvard, and the strange realities of the contemporary publishing industry:

Bookish: Did you figure the entire time you were at school that you’d write a book about Harvard?

Lauren Kunze: No. I definitely had a dream about becoming a writer one day and thought that it would be one of the coolest jobs ever. But it’s kind of a fantasy profession so I almost view this book as an experiment to see if I could actually support myself as a writer.

B: How did you find a publisher?

LK: So, senior year, [Michael Pietsch] from Little, Brown, who published Kaavya’s book, came to give a talk in front of all the English majors. It was supposed to be for people who were potentially interested in going into the publishing industry. I think half of the people in there were trying to figure out how they could get published themselves. Someone asked if he accepted unsolicited manuscripts and he said, ‘No, but if someone gets a hold of my personal email and sends me a very interesting letter, I’ll read it.’ So after the talk I went up to him and said, ‘I’m going to need your personal email address, because I’m going to send you a very interesting letter.’ I think he was really surprised but he gave it to me. Then I drafted with Rena this pitch for the novel and sent it in, and he was interested and passed it on to an editor. None of the book had been written at that point, so I then basically tabled my thesis for a week and wrote the first three chapters and sent them in. Several months later I got a rejection letter from the editor’s assistant saying that the book seemed “YA.” And so I figured that was it. But then a few more weeks later — it was spring break at this point — I got another email from an editor at one of their young adult divisions asking to see the chapters. So I sent them and and got no response again. So finally I emailed her and said, you know, “I’m assuming you’re not interested based on the fact that you haven’t responded, but if you have any feedback that’d be great.” So she actually sent me some very thoughtful feedback on the first few chapters. And this was the first thing I’d ever written creatively, so I had no idea what I was doing. But based on her feedback I felt like I could sort of start over and finish it. And then I did. And after that experience, I wanted to go to the more traditional route of finding an agent first and then having her deal with the publishing houses. So in late November, early December, 2008, I signed with an agent and then she sold it in March 2009. I finished it before querying agents, so it was already done then. It required about three times as much editing in terms of time as it did to write it, but there was a completed manuscript when I got an agent.

B: Did you figure the entire time you’d write a book about Harvard?

LK: No. I definitely had a dream about becoming a writer one day and thought that it would be one of the coolest jobs ever. But it’s kind of a fantasy profession so I almost view this book as an experiment to see if I could actually support myself as a writer.

B: How much of the stuff in the book really happened?

LK: Obviously not all of it, thank goodness. I actually lived in Wigglesworth in a four person suite across from four guys, and so the dynamic of the dorm room is pretty authentic. And the last chapter is based on a real Harvard-Yale incident from sophomore year. I was never on the Crimson or Fifteen Minutes, so a lot of the details about the comp process [what happens when you're trying to join an organization at Harvard] were completely fabricated. And just FM in general — it’s a fictional version. I don’t think it’s similar to the real magazine.

B: Did you really comp FM?

LK: I didn’t. I would have considered possibly comping the Lampoon or the Advocate – a lot of people have asked me why I didn’t do either of those — but the honest truth is I didn’t even really hear about them till the end of sophomore year. I guess I’m not really a joiner.

B: When I was an editor at FM there was a lot of hand-holding and worrying about whether we were hurting the compers’ feelings. It wasn’t the cutthroat, exclusive club you describe in the book, and there was no mean, powerful monster at its helm.

LK: Yeah. When I said the fictional FM is very different from the real FM, I think that’s sort of what I meant. In the world of The Ivy it was necessary to have the magazine be this powerful, widely read, and revered publication that freshmen would want to join and an evil upperclassman character would sort of run. But that doesn’t align with my experience of FM in reality. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — FM was a magazine I knew existed and saw from time to time.

B: Did you read a lot of Ivy League-themed YA literature when you were preparing to write this book?

LK: No. I had actually never read a book that was classified in the young adult genre before. When the editor’s assistant who sent me that first rejection letter told me the book ‘seemed YA’ he abbreviated it and I didn’t even know what it meant. I don’t think I’ve read any Harvard novels. I read Nick McDonell’s first book and I previewed Expensive Education on my mom’s Kindle but I did not download it. I want to read Simon Rich’s book. When I knew that I was going to try to write a young adult novel, that was when I first started reading what were considered successful young adult novels.

B: What’s the reasoning behind identifying your book with the Harvard brand?

LK: The publishing market is so brutal, and there are so many books, that anything that you can use to distinguish yourself as an author or your work helps. I think Harvard is something the public is curious about and it definitely already has huge name recognition. You’re doing anything you can to grab the public’s attention and get them to pick up the book. It wasn’t like I sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write a Harvard novel,’ or, ‘Here’s this girl exploiting the Harvard brand but she messed it up so here’s my chance to exploit it myself.’ That’s not what happened. It’s a small aspect of it, but it was more like I had a sense that a novel can be successful if it has a combination of these features — if it’s YA, if it has these glamorous parties, if it has multiple love interests. I’m worried that I’m sounding calculating, but the point is, I wasn’t trying to sit down and think, ‘I’m going to write a Harvard novel.’ It was, ‘I want to write a novel and I want it to succeed, so this is the type of novel that I’m going to write.’ And so, yes, it takes place at Harvard, but what’s more interesting is I think representing the college experience in general, because it’s a time period in life that’s considered very difficult to market by the publishing industry. There are almost no books or TV shows or anything that take place in college. It’s sort of this off-the-map area — it’s this uncharted territory. So it is unique in its Harvard setting, but I think overall the experience of a young girl going off the college and going into a vastly new environment and encountering all these different people is very universal.

B: Why is college considered off-limits?

LK: I don’t know why. It just sort of seems like one of those rules of the publishing industry. People reference it all the time. This was actually a big conflict with my book because it was straddling the border. I didn’t have an audience in mind. I was just thinking, ‘I’m writing about college,’ but it definitely could have gone either way — adult or young adult — and it was kind of a big decision. I ended up making it younger and that was a conscious decision — it got to be for a younger audience with every rewrite.

B: What happens now that the first book in the series has been published?

LK: I just finished the second one and there’s two more after that.

B: OK, let’s talk about crushes. When Callie first gets to Harvard it seems like every boy who looks at her takes her breath away. Did you have a lot of crushes freshman year?

No, that was not my experience freshman year. I had two serious boyfriends in high school, and for me it was very important to go the first semester of college without having a boyfriend at all. I know some of those couples who coupled up first week of freshman year and I just didn’t want that to be a priority at the beginning. I think a good deal of the romantic aspects of the book have to do with the genre, and my editor, and what my editor thinks young women are interested in.

B: Did you have a high school boyfriend when you started Harvard?

LK: No, I did not. Definitely not.

B: Any advice on that front for girls who have just arrived at Harvard this fall?

LK: Well… I don’t want to advise the entire freshman class to break up with their boyfriends. But that being said, I think there are a lot of experiences to be had when you start college and you shouldn’t close yourself off to anything you might be interested in trying.