Around two years ago, I read a Modern Love column in The New York Times about a psychological study from the 1990s called “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness.” It’s a long, boring title hiding a fascinating idea: could there be a way to artificially create intimacy?
A Canadian psychologist named Dr. Arthur Aron thought there might be. To see if he could make sparks fly in the laboratory, he paired up random strangers and got them to ask each other a series of thirty-six carefully prepared questions. Sessions ended with couples quietly staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes.
(Four very long minutes, I’d imagine. If after forty-five seconds you haven’t seen into the other person’s soul, felt a migraine coming on, or burst out laughing, you must be made of stone. But that’s an aside...)
It seemed like such a brilliant premise. Imagine being able to replace all the headache, heartache, frustration and even boredom of looking for love with a nice, neat little interview.
(So brilliant, it seems to me, that with some technology thrown in, “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness” could be something from an episode of Black Mirror).
I hadn’t even finished the article before I thought: Bingo. There’s my next YA novel!
I figured lots of young people would jump at the chance to sign up for a study like that, especially if they’d already fouled out a few times in the dating game – or, worse, were still sitting on the bench. I decided to use the actual questions as the framework for the book – thank you, Dr. Aron! – but to make sure there was nothing nice and neat about the interview process.
Then I saw the actual questions.
Many seemed random and even kind of silly.
“When was the last time you sang to yourself?”
“Do you ever rehearse before making a phone call?”
“Would you like to be famous and if so, why?”
How could knowing the answers to these questions possibly make you fall in love with anyone?
Other questions from the study seemed repetitive, embarrassing or even kind of cruel. Take this one for example: “What is your most terrible memory?”
Think how traumatic disclosing something that personal to a perfect stranger could be. Most people only tell their best friends secrets like that, and even then, only if they’ve known them since summer camp and/or found them sobbing uncontrollably in a toilet stall at the high school prom.
And, besides, who even wants to know a stranger’s worst memory? I mean, the potential for having to deal with something really icky is huge.
But, that said, the more time I spent working with the questions, the more I came to appreciate the method to their apparent madness. The study does an amazing job of replicating the process of falling in love – or at least parts of the process… (I’ll leave which parts are missing to your imagination.)
Dr. Aron came up with deceptively simple questions to mimic the stages people go through on the way to becoming lovers. The questions cover everything from the seemingly innocent smalltalk of first meetings – the ‘singing-to-yourself’ type questions – to the deep (or hopefully deep) revelations people share as a relationship grows. The study basically takes speed-dating to the next level.
Once I understood that, I realized what kind of story I wanted to write.
I needed two opposing characters (Hildy and Paul) with conflicting feelings for each other (the old love/hate combo) and lots and lots of opportunities to inflame both.
That, of course, is the classic rom/com formula – but I also wanted the book to be a mystery of sorts.
I was suddenly glad for that “terrible memory” question. It would be just the thing to hang a dark secret on. Of course, neither Hildy or Paul would want to divulge something so precious and painful to the irritating stranger sitting across from them – which suited my purposes just fine – so I had to keep coming up with ways to separate them until they would.
They fight. Things are thrown. Hildy storms off midway through the study. They track each other down through social media, tiptoe back together through texting, then resume their awkward attempt at the mating dance.
Weirdly enough, the most fun I had writing the book was not coming up with the comical parts. It was working on the tragedy behind those memories. (Spoiler alert: I’m not going to give anything away here.)
Every book, of course, needs something awful to happen to the main characters. That’s why we have bullies and vampires and mental illness and debilitating disease. All excellent dilemmas around which to build a plot – but those aren’t the kind of stories I’m drawn to.
For whatever reason, my young characters usually have to deal with the fallout of what I call “grown-ups-behaving-badly.”
Most of the adults we gossip about – the drunks, the adulterers, the losers, the felons, the current presidents of major world powers – have kids at home coping with the consequences of their parents’ bad choices. Those situations are as common as divorce and as rare as mass murder. In many cases, too, the young people feel somehow responsible for what happened. And that’s where I get interested.
The kids and teens I write about are often having to come to terms with the fact that one of the people they love most in the world has done something wrong, or shameful, or even cruel. They have to keep trying to build their own lives and become the person they want to be, all the while processing the earth-shattering revelation that their parents are human after all. If anything, it’s that tragedy of those terrible memories that bring Hildy and Paul together.
Or maybe it’s just because they’re both kind of hot.