If the name Carol Weston sounds familiar, it’s no surprise. Carol published her first article in Seventeen magazine at the age of 19, and she was later dubbed “Teen Dear Abby” by Newsweek, thanks to her popular “Dear Carol” column—which is still going strong—in Girls’ Life magazine. Her critically acclaimed teen-advice book, GIRLTALK: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You, has been translated into a dozen languages and is now in its fourth edition.
Currently, Carol has been enjoying an illustrious career as a middle-grade author. In addition to the beloved Ava and Pip series, as well as the fun and voice-y Melanie Martin books, Carol’s MG novel, Speed of Life was lauded by the New York Times as “perceptive, funny and moving.” The late Newbery medalist Richard Peck concurred, calling Speed of Life “A wonderful book that takes us from loss to laughter.” (I cosign Richard Peck’s praise, having read—and loved—Speed of Life when it first came out in 2017.)
In addition to Carol’s impressive contribution to children’s literature, she has had essays, articles, and interviews appear in such publications as Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Redbook, Glamour, and Parents. On television, Carol has appeared on Today, Oprah, 48 Hours, and The View. She is also a writing instructor at the New York Society Library, where her monthly writing “Prompt!” class, which I’m lucky enough to attend, is hugely popular. Married to playwright Rob Ackerman, Carol is a mother, grandmother, and splits her time between Armonk, New York, and Manhattan. Learn more about Carol on her website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.
And now, without further ado…
MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Carol. I’m so excited to have you here!
CW: Thank you for that fabulous introduction! You’ve got me blushing!
MR: I know you’ve always loved to write, and that both your parents were writers. What is it about writing that appealed to you as a child? What about it appeals to you now? Also, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
CW: Big questions! I think of writing as sharing. I like that if you hear something funny or think something deep, and you’re working on a manuscript, you can usually find a place to put it. As for advice, there’s no getting around it. If you want to be a writer, you have to write! Don’t wring your hands. Just put words on paper. Honor your talent. Leave a pencil and paper by your bed. Keep a journal or writer’s notebook. Don’t fret about the end result. Good writing takes a zillion drafts but if you don’t get your words down, how can you have the fun of editing and revising? (P.S. Keep reading and listening to books too.)
Take My Advice
MR: Speaking of advice, like you, I was an advice columnist for teens. (My weekly column, “Life Sucks,” appeared in the U.K. teen magazine, J17, in the 1990s, and I was a teen-relationships adviser online as well.) How did you get your start as an advice columnist?
CW: Way back in 1993, I was in the waiting room of Cosmopolitan magazine and a man walked in wearing a nice coat. “Nice coat!” I said. We got to chatting and I told him about my book Girltalk, and he told me his girlfriend was starting a magazine, Girls’ Life. The next day she called and offered me the gig. I said a fast yes. Who knew I’d still be “Dear Carol” 28 years later? One lesson here: Do talk to strangers.
MR: Another advice-related question (I can’t help myself). What are some of the most common questions teens ask in your “Dear Carol” column? What about the strangest…? (Be honest. 🙂)
CW: I’ve answered “Should I tell him I like him?” and “How can I tell if he likes me?” and “When will I get my period?” over a thousand times! And Covid was so hard on so many. I really felt for girls who were stuck indoors, sometimes with difficult families or an uncle who was quarantining with them. Much of my tried-and-true advice like “Give a compliment” or “Talk to someone new” or “Join an extra-curricular” or “Talk to your school counselor” went out the window. Actually, I don’t think of any of my Girls’ Life mail as strange, though many letters are over-the-top personal. For instance, girls tell me that their brothers (or dads) are looking at porn, or in some cases that they are. Still, more human than strange. I do my best to help girls navigate the complicated adult world.
Speed of Life: The Backstory
MR: Turning to kidlit, rumor has it that Speed of Life took you ten years to write. Would you mind sharing the backstory with us?
CW: Early one January morning while un-decorating our Christmas tree in Manhattan, I got the idea for a novel that could start on January 1 with a bittersweet scene of a father and daughter putting away holiday ornaments though Christmas had “sucked.” I wanted the book to have 12 chapters, one per month. It would be a year in a life of Sofia, who would go from a grief-stricken 14-year-old kid (her mother has died eight months earlier) to a 15-year-old young woman who is finding her footing. Sofia has supportive friends, but when the novel begins, they’re ready for her to be “okay” again, and of course, she can’t recharge like a cellphone. Desperate, Sofia reaches out to a teen advice columnist (!) – but what she doesn’t know (spoiler alert) is that the advice columnist, Dear Kate, has started dating her widower father. Complications ensue!
Ten years between idea to pub party is not at all speedy. But Speed of Life began with four third-person POVs and ended up first person and just in Sofia’s voice. I sure did get to know my characters! In some ways, the novel began even earlier because it was based on my own grief over losing my father when I was 25. It’s set in New York’s Upper West Side, Spain, and Westchester, New York, three places I’ve called home. And it came straight from the heart.
MR: Unlike Speed of Life, the Ava and Pip series, and the Melanie Martin series, are written in diary form. What made you choose this particular format for these books? Did you keep a diary as a child?
CW: Oh God, yes. I kept diaries before I could really write or spell and before I had anything of note to say. Keeping diaries was a way for me to process my day and become more observant. As a kid, while others read, I scribbled. As a thirtysomething mom, I’d written eight nonfiction books and was desperate to write fiction for adults but just couldn’t make the jump. Finally, the fictional Melanie Martin, 10, sort of showed up and said: Enough with your precious attempts at the Great American Novel. How about a diary for kids? The Diary of Melanie Martin poured out.
It begins: “Dear Diary, You will never in a million years guess where we’re going. Nope. Guess again. Never mind, I’ll tell you. Italy! We’re going to Italy! In Europe!! Across the ocean!!!” I was glad that Melanie got to go to Italy, Spain, and Holland. New York too—and glad that, although several publishers passed, Knopf said yes. So, my first novel came out when I was 43. Don’t give up out there!
Turning a Child into a Reader
MR: Ava and Pip skews younger than Speed of Life (Sofia, the protagonist, is 14). The Melanie Martin books skew younger, too. What is the biggest challenge when writing for kids of different age groups on the MG continuum?
CW: Publishers want us to think about younger kids versus older kids, but I wish they didn’t. Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You was billed as a guidebook for girls 11 to 18, and I loved that! Some kids read it for tips on babysitting and bra-buying; others for tips on safer sex or job interviews. I love writing for young people because sometimes yours really is the book that turns a reluctant reader into a reader, and because when a kid loves your books, she love-love-loves them. And kids don’t just read, they reread.
MR: I know you’re a sucker for palindromes. In Ava and Pip, Ava realizes that the names of her family members—Mom, Dad, Ava Elle, and Pip Hannah—are palindromic. What is it about word play that knocks your socks off?
CW: Great question. I was a French / Spanish literature major at Yale and sure, I love books / livres / libros. But I love thinking about individual words too. When The New York Times called Ava and Pip “a love letter to language,” I basically wept. Because that’s what it is. Words themselves are fun, and if you combine them well, you can make people laugh or cry or think or become more compassionate toward others and themselves. I remember being in kindergarten when I learned the word “I.” One measly letter (one long stick, two short ones) and it was so powerful! I also remember learning to spell “here” and “there” and being baffled that they didn’t rhyme. Yes, I’m a full-fledged word nerd! And proud of it!
Persistence Is Key
MR: You are a prolific writer, Carol. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration? Is there a secret sauce you can share with Mixed-Up Files readers?
CW: No secret sauce and I still get rejection letters—most authors do. So, persistence is key. I don’t force myself to write for a certain number of pages or hours. But when I let myself stay (play?) at the keyboard long enough to find the flow, it can be fun. Okay, here’s an odd tip: I sometimes print out a work on different colored pages so that I feel I’m making progress. Like, I’ll have a yellow draft and much later, a sky-blue draft. Books take so many drafts! Another tip: I have smart friends and family members weigh in too. And smart kids when possible.
Carol’s Writing Routine
MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular rituals?
CW: Some days I don’t get to my work at all. Other days, I’m at my desk from dawn ’til dusk.
MR: What are you working on now, Carol? Enquiring minds want to know!
CW: I’ve been writing a novel about the girl in the painting Las Meninas by Velázquez, though I’m setting it aside for a few months. (It’s always helpful when you can let a work-in-progress marinate and then come back to it with fresh eyes.) I’m mostly focusing on a novel, Zoe and Lucas, about two city kids who get stranded in a small town and start to discover the truth about their parents and themselves. That’s all I can tell you for now!
Let’s be Prompt!
MR: Before I let you go, I need to tell you that your “Prompt!” class at the New York Society Library is the highlight of my month. It’s so joyful, and so freeing. How did you come up with the concept? Also, what can writers gain from prompts in their day-to-day writing practice?
CW: Oh, thank you, it is pretty magical, isn’t it? It’s really all about giving yourself permission to be creative. Instead of saying (as I too sometimes do), “Why should I write this, no one will care, and how will I be able to sell it?” it’s better to just w-r-i-t-e. When I’m teaching that class and I say, “The prompt is ‘my grandmother’s hands,’ you have ten minutes,” it’s amazing, as you know, that everyone just starts writing up a storm. Sometimes at home, when I’m having trouble getting going, I’ll set my cellphone for ten minutes and say, “Just start!” and on a good day, ten minutes later, I often don’t want to stop.
MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred writing snack?
Gum helps me focus.
Coffee or tea?
My husband makes cappuccino every morning. Heaven.
EMME is our daughter’s name. Though I’m big on WOW and YAY and XOX!
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?
I can be charming in four languages! And I’m a Rocky Mountain skier. (But oh dear, I can’t cook or garden and I’m a reluctant driver and I get lost really easily.)
Best piece of advice?
You’re asking an advice giver for her best piece of advice? Oh man…. How about: Be kind to yourself and others.
Favorite place on earth?
If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?
Too hard! How about if I have just one thing—a phone that’s endlessly charged so that I can talk with loved ones and listen to audiobooks? Or else maybe one private jet so I can get off that island?
MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Carol. It was my extreme pleasure, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!
Thank you, Melissa!! See you in class!