Editor’s Note: Buzz contributor Mia Gabriella interviewed Hancock Park resident and best-selling author Julie Buxbaum about her newest book, “The Area 51 Files,” available at our beloved local bookstore, Chevalier’s Books. Gabriella, a writer and poet, will be writing for the Buzz about local authors in the Young Adult book genre, in a column she’s calling “Mark My Words.”
From conquering Harvard Law School to publishing two critically-acclaimed adult fiction novels (The Opposite of Love and After You) to earning the coveted a New York Times bestseller title with her young adult debut Tell Me Three Things, Julie has her eyes set on a new mountain to climb – Middle Grade books. Her most recent release, The Area 51 Files, is the first in a three-book series geared toward children (or anyone still young at heart). In the story, filled with aliens and mysteries to uncover, Sky Patel-Baum is joined by her new best friend, Elvis, a pizza-obsessed hedgehog, and the lovable fluffy pup, Pickles, to crack the case.
So what made you, a lawyer, decide to become a young adult and children’s author? That really intrigues me, it’s such a drastic career change.
I was a lawyer, I graduated from law school, went to work at a large law firm for quite a few years and I really hated it. I was just incredibly unfulfilled. And every Sunday night I would cry about having to go to work on Monday morning. And so about, I think about 17 years ago now…as part of a New Year’s resolution, I decided to quit my job and write my first book. It’s literally the only New Year’s resolution I’ve kept my entire life. I make one every year and break it every year, but this one I kept. I quit my job the first Monday after New Year’s, sat down the very next day to start writing my first adult book. And the thought wasn’t, ‘oh, I’m going to become a writer’. The thought was, ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book before I die. I’m going to write this book and then figure out what kind of lawyer I actually want to be. Where I won’t cry on Sunday nights about having to go to work on Monday morning.’ But after maybe two weeks, it occurred to me that I was doing what I always wanted to do with my life, it just felt so natural and so organic in a way I had never anticipated or expected. Then after that, I got ridiculously lucky. I found an agent, who sold it to an editor, who got a deal with Penguin Random House, and within nine months I became a writer with a book deal. I was able to not return to law and I’ve been a full time novelist ever since.
Wow, that’s really amazing.
But I do feel like it’s really important to stress: first of all, I had the privilege to quit my job. And secondly, I got outrageously lucky. I mean, I was very proud of the book I wrote, and I still love that book, but there are plenty of people who write fantastic books and the stars don’t line up like they lined up for me. So when people ask me, ‘should I quit my job to write a book?’ do NOT do that! [Julie laughs.] That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But for me, it happened to work out.
Could you walk me through the genesis of The Area 51 Files? How did Sky come to be?
So during the pandemic, my kid used to ask me all sorts of questions I didn’t have good answers to. And I’m sure a lot of parents felt this way. My kid was asking, ‘When are we going back to school? Are we going to get sick? When should we wear a mask?’ There were a million questions and I didn’t have the right answers to all of them. As a parent there’s nothing more painful than not knowing what to say to your kid. So every time my kid would ask me a question, my heart would sink and it was just a really tough time. So one day we’re sitting at dinner and my kid turns to me and says, ‘Mommy, I have a question!’ and my first thought was ‘Oh my god, what now?’ I started to well up but was like, ‘Of course you can ask me a question, buddy.’ And my kid goes, ‘Mommy, what do you think happens in area 51?’ And a lightbulb went off above my head and it was like ding ding ding, I can answer this question for you! And I decided to write a book to answer his question.
I wanted to know how publishing your first book changed your process of writing. And what have you learned from writing for a younger audience compared to an adult one?
Oh, interesting! I don’t know if it did. I don’t know that my process changed fundamentally from the first book to the second. I definitely became less disciplined. I think when I sat down to write my first book I still had, sort of, the hardcore mentality of a lawyer. Where every minute counts, so there’s this ruthless efficiency that’s applied, and I’ve gotten slower and slower and less efficient the older I’ve gotten.
That’s so funny because I usually hear the opposite of that. Like, ‘Oh, this is my job now so I have to really double down on my craft.’
Yeah, I have two children who keep me very busy, and my life just keeps getting fuller, and the amount of hours in the day remain static so it just becomes harder. I think I was more efficient when I was younger, unfortunately. [She pauses to think.] I think that writing adult and writing young adult is very similar. I don’t find that my process changed dramatically in between. Except for, um, I think a little bit more about how language will be perceived in the teen mind versus the adult one. But otherwise, my process is exactly the same. With my middle grade book, because it’s illustrated, that is different. For me the process of writing is way more visual, where I have to imagine and see things, and then I have to describe the pictures to an illustrator. It’s something I hadn’t done before and turned out to be really fun. And the most fun part about that is trying to be funny in a picture rather than with words.
So was the process for writing Year On Fire somewhat easier or more difficult than The Area 51 Files?
I think it was harder. Technically speaking, writing The Area 51 Files was more like exercising a new muscle, so that might’ve been more difficult. But in terms of joy, not all my books are joys from beginning to end, but with The Area 51 Files, I just smiled the whole way through. Like, it was just pure fun. Partially because I wasn’t even writing necessarily for my career, I was writing for my kid, which is a totally different thing. I think Year On Fire was a little tougher, partially because I put it down to write The Admission and I had to pick it back up again.
Earlier you asked me why I turned to YA, and I answered why I turned to adult. So the answer to why I turned to YA is because most of my adult life, I used to play at being a grown-up. Like, I would get up in the morning, put on my business suit, and go to work, then I’d go home, take off my jacket, put on The Bachelor or something, and be like, ‘haha, I tricked them another day!’ And as I got older and older, I published two books, I moved to London, then New York, then LA, I got married, bought a house, had two kids, and it suddenly became very clear to me that I was a grown-up. You’d think that realization would be a relief because when you’re faking it, when you have that imposter syndrome for so long, you’d feel like when it lifted things would feel lighter. But in fact, I found it really sad. I missed not knowing what my future held. There were no more what-ifs. There were no more big life questions that needed to be answered. I turned to YA because I wanted to write about that time in life where everything was wide open, when all the firsts are in front of you, not behind you.
Okay, so I have some rapid fire questions to wrap things up. I want you to answer as fast as you can. Ready?
Top three things you need on your desk while writing?
Cup of coffee, a pen, laptop.
Plotter or pantser?
Favorite character you’ve ever written?
David from What To Say Next.
Name an underappreciated novel that you love.
Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert.
Name five authors, dead or alive, you’d want to have a dinner party with.
Zadie Smith. Jane Austen. Milan Kundera. Richard Powers. Mo Willems.
Julie’s upcoming book will be the next installment of The Area 51 Files, titled The Flush. Coming next summer of 2023! Mark my words, you won’t want to miss it.
Mia Gabriella is a 20 -year-old student who writes in her free time. You can typically find her with her nose stuck in a book, and she hopes to one day write one of her own. When it comes to her writing process, she says “it’s all done on my phone whenever inspiration strikes. The Notes app is a godsend, haha.”