We've been smitten with Jessica Park since stumbling upon her book, Flat-Out Love, so we were thrilled to get our grabby hands on her newest book. In 180 Seconds, an uber-introvert's life is changed forever when she participates in a social experiment in which she must stare into a stranger's eyes for three minutes. Jessica stopped by our lockers to chat about her new book and her high-school self.
THE ACTUAL BOOK RELATED QUESTIONS
So much of 180 Seconds focuses on relationships and intimacy, both with people you know in real life and those that are formed over social media. What was the inspiration for Esben's 180 second social experiment, and why do you think eye contact has become such a difficult challenge for us these days?
Over the past few years, there seems to have been a rash of uplifting viral videos and posts. Some of them come with very click-baity headlines, which irritate me, but I started clicking anyway. There were a few videos that stuck with me. One was a photographer who paired up people on the streets, posed them (often in a gentle embrace or otherwise including physical contact), and then took their picture. There was a young man who was photographed with an older woman, and after the experience, he emotionally told the interviewer that he found he “cared about” her, a reaction that I found very moving. (View it here.) The second video that really got to me was the now-famous video of performance artist Marina Abramović spending one minute of silence with a stranger. To her surprise, she finds that one of the “strangers” is her former lover Ulay. The wordless exchange between them is just dynamite and totally intoxicating. (View it here.)
These types of videos triggered the idea for Esben’s social experiment and his character in general. I love the idea of so much intensity happening between strangers. Eye contact can be a huge challenge for many people. Staring into someone’s eyes leaves us vulnerable, and vulnerability is often frightening. What’s exciting about a challenge like the one Esben presents Allison is that when pushed into such a situation, walls can come down. Vulnerability is forced, but sometimes we can be braver than we think.
Having grown up in foster care, Allison struggles to let people in and has some serious (yet understandable) trust issues. But her friendship with Steffi has been steadfast.
In 180 Seconds, Alison's forming a new relationship with Esben, navigating a changing relationship with her adoptive father Simon, and facing new struggles in her friendship with Steffi - which was your favorite progression to write?
It’s a tough call for me, but I ultimately wind up particularly loving the way that Allison works to appreciate her adoptive father, Simon. Keeping him at a distance, no matter his kindness, has been a protective shield that stems from having grown up with countless foster families. Trusting stability and permanence is terribly frightening. But emerging from darkness takes bravery, and that’s thrilling to write.
Which was most challenging?
The relationship between Allison and Steffi is a beautiful one, but it’s also a complex one. What initially seems to be such a healthy friendship is, in fact, much more layered, so there were tricky pieces I had to navigate; when to share what, how to show intricacies, and such.
In the book, you show the positive and negative aspects of Esben's online following, and social media also played a big part in your Flat-Out Love books. What is your opinion on social media? Overall, is it making the world a better or worse place? Is it bringing us closer together or further apart?
Oh, gosh...”Both” is the only reasonable answer I can give. The slew of vicious, vile, unconscionable, and deplorable behavior we see online is endless. It is. However, social media has also afforded us so many opportunities to see incredible beauty, generosity, and kindness. I cling to those type of posts these days. At one point, I found myself drenched in online negativity, and I learned to narrow the feeds and posts that I followed. I made filtered lists on FB, Twitter, and IG and started to only follow those.Within days, my life felt brighter. We can choose and sculpt our online world so that we feel closer to people. It’s too easy to engage in online battle, to fall into a downward spiral. So don’t. Build your online experience and surround yourself with people who lift you up. Some of my social media interactions and friendships have been some of the most profound and touching of my life.
You went to social work school - how did that influence your decision to write a character who grew up in the foster care system, and what sort of insight did it give you into a life like Allison's?
It did and it didn’t impact that piece of the storyline. I actually work backwards when I’m planning a book, so one of the places I started was with my heroine, Allison, and who I wanted her to be. I pictured her and her particular anxiety, her fear of connecting with others, her damage, and I had to come up with circumstances that could create that psychological state. The idea of having no real family system for so long fit the bill. Thus, the foster care aspect.
I have had, and surely always will, a deep interest in psychology and emotion. My father is a skilled psychologist, and I grew up with the influence of not only his incredible talent, but the smart conversations I heard at dinner parties between him and his many therapist friends. I did a self-designed psych major in college and then went to social work school, because I could not get enough of learning about psychology. It’s always a priority for me to make sure that my characters are real: that their emotional journey, their reactions, their fears, their joys, their survival skills, their ability to risk... I need to those fit perfectly with their history and their psychological make up.
I believe very much in the ability to heal, even with tough histories, so I love writing about characters who may inspire others with similar pasts.
What's next? Are you working on anything new?
I am! But I can’t tell you what, lol. I am working on an outline now, and I think this may be a “quieter” book than some of my others. Small town, no crazy drama. More down-to-earth, more literary, but still very, very romantic.
THE YA QUESTIONS
If your real life adolescence was a YA book, what would you, the main character, be like?
I vacillate between total self-consciousness/insecurity across the board and utter zest for life and friends and silliness.
Who is your secret crush?
The boy who sits in front of me in math class. He’s stunningly gorgeous, absolutely hilarious, and awkward in the most charming of ways. Even the teacher has a crush on him.
What is your number #1 source of angst?
That apparently EVERY OTHER GIRL IN THE SCHOOL HAS A ROMANTIC PARTNER EXCEPT FOR ME, AND I WILL NEVER HAVE A BOYFRIEND. I will never look like all the hot girls, I will never be what anyone wants, and no one will ever see me past the slew of girls with perfectly tricked-out perfectly permed and Aqua-Netted 80s hair and their four-hundred Benneton sweaters and slew of Guess jeans. I shall probably die alone with bad hair and horrible pants.
At what point would the reader pump his/her fist in victory?
When I meet this totally sweet, brilliantly smart guy who fits none of the molds about what is supposedly hot and desirable. But he’s heartmelty and sweet and incredibly kind. I fall in love for the first time, and I finally get that I actually like myself. That I don’t need rugged, narcissistic alpha males to validate that I’m a worthy person.
And who would play you in the film adaptation?
Madelane Petsch, currently on “Riverdale.”
The real Jessica.
THE SLUMBER PARTY QUESTIONS
What is your secret power?
I’m an unlicensed shrink with whopping dream-analysis skills.
What is your #1 favorite food?
Tell me about your area of expertise.
Toddlers who bite. I worked at a high-end child development center for a number of years, then went to social work school and got a job in early intervention. If you’ve got biters, I’ve got reassuring answers.
If you could assemble your own Ocean's 11 of fictional characters, who would you pick and why?
Eleven (Stranger Things), Martin (Grosse Pointe Blank), Rhett Butler (Gone With the Wind), Laney and Blythe (Black Iris by Leah Raeder/now Elliot Wake), Jessica Jones, and Homer and Prairie (The OA).
I’d need a mix of physical, intellectual, emotional, passionate, and unique talent.
What is your best karaoke song?
Oh, dear god, no. You do not want to hear me sing. I’m Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend’s Wedding. So, you know, fun and engaging, but basically dreadful.
What is your favorite adult beverage?
Gin and tonic with Bombay Sapphire and strong tonic water. Three limes. I hate wimpy tonic water. I apparently have a thirst for quinine.
Tell me something scandalous!
One time, I was at the post office, behaving all normally and whatnot, but when the lovely (and actually normal) post office employee handed me my receipt... I curtsied. Like, not a full-on dramatic curtsy, but a good dip. It was super weird. I have no idea why I did that, but it then became a phobia of mine. So to this day, every time I go to the post office, I mutter to myself, “Don’t freaking curtsy, don’t freaking curtsy...” Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t...
What book have you read (or movie you've watched) the most number of times?
Taken. (I can quote nearly the entire movie), with Breakfast Club as a close second.
YA authors are so cool. Who would you give a BFF charm to?
Ohhhhh, just one? <sighs dramatically and stomps feet> YA authors really are so, so cool. I’ll go with Rebekah Crane (The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland and Aspen). Rebekah initially got in touch with me because she wanted some author advice, and something about the way she phrased things and her inherent charm just drew me in. We ended up writing back and forth for months (and about way more than just book stuff), eventually got on the phone, and then finally met in person for a wild weekend about a year later. This girl is a gem. Not only is she a super talented writer, but she’s utterly hilarious, and an incredibly warm, thoughtful, supportive friend.
Out of all of the characters you’ve written, which one do you most wish you could be?
Well, Blythe from Left Drowning probably got the most action, so there’s that... But I’ll go with Allison from my new 180 Seconds. Something about the way she grew into herself and let herself accept a beautiful relationship after a really rough past moves me.
If you were invited to the FYA slumber party (and obvs, you ARE), what is the most crucial snack food and/or movie/or anything you'd bring?
Guacamole (HELLO?? HUGELY IMPORTANT! SEE ABOVE!), spicy salsa with extra cilantro, and chips.
Jessica provided the first three options, and the fourth option was chosen for her. The magic number was 6.
A S H
Ducky from Pretty In Pink
Taken-era Liam Neeson
Volunteer at a sardine factory
# OF KIDS
(By “kids” you probably mean baby goats, right? Preferably “fainting goats,” because they are extra rad and mad cool. So, I’m going with “goats of all sorts, and especially the fainting kind.”)
Snap pea opener. (Those stringy things are work, man.)
Professional light bulb changer.
Stuffed animal hug tester. (If it doesn’t feel right, I’ll know.)
Guacamole taste tester
Persian Princes and their generous emails.
A Steven King-style sewer
Dylan McKay’s Porsche.
Hideous pink Mary Kay car.
Scooby Doo van.
180 Seconds is available now.