Looking for a novel with that typical happily-ever-after we all know so well? Well, 500 Words or Less isn’t that. Author Juleah del Rosario explores concepts such as love, loss, spinning moral-compasses, and self-discovery while refusing to succumb to that perfect, unrealistic ending in her debut novel. The main character, Nic Chen, wrestles with all of these concepts as she enters her senior year at an elite, uber competitive high school and begins the stress-ridden college application process. Our interview with Ms. del Rosario examines many of these specific aspects of the novel, like its unique verse, to aspects of del Rosario’s personal life, like her own high school experience.
Stephanie Hull: Nic’s high school experience in 500 Words or Less is relatable and realistic for many teenagers today. How did you come up with the subject matter of 500 Words or Less? What does this subject matter mean to you? What do you hope it means to readers, especially those about to or in the midst of applying to college?
Juleah del Rosario: The idea for 500 Words or Less came out of two separate ideas actually. I think one of the earliest lines I wrote was a version of “a moral compass that doesn’t point north.” I really wanted to write about a female character who was morally questionable, who was flawed, but whose consequences weren’t as obvious. This was probably the most important thing for me. I remember distinctly reading a YA novel that I had been really excited to read because I loved all the books by that author, and even though the book was exactly what I thought it would be, I got to the end of the book and literally threw it across the room. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I was so tired of reading stories where people make mistakes (and in this case, some pretty major mistakes) and then everything ends up perfect in the end. So fricken perfect. Reality is so much more complex than that. I knew I needed to write about the complexity.
At the same time, I was really interested in this idea of paying someone else to write your college admissions essay. How could someone who isn’t you reflect the person you are? Because there are real services and companies out there that will write your essay for you. But the writers are mostly adults. What if it wasn’t an adult, what if the person writing was your peer. Could they better reflect your own reality? How can anyone possibly reflect their whole self in a 500 (or now 600+) word college admissions essay? Maybe you can’t, but maybe in the process you can discover some truths about yourself.
Stephanie: The poetic verse of 500 Words or Less makes it stand out among young adult novels. I found when I was reading that the style made it easier for me to relate to Nic’s experiences. What made you want to write the novel in verse? How did you arrive at this decision? Who are your favorite poets? Your favorite poems?
Juleah: I originally wrote 500 Words or Less in prose, but got to the end and felt that it didn’t have the emotional quality that I envisions for the story in my head. So, I tried experimenting with different forms, and experimented with writing portions of the novel in verse. That experiment was very freeing as a writer. I think what it did was temporarily block out that inner critique. I kept telling myself, “I’m just experimenting,” but what resulted was a story with the emotional quality that I always wanted.
I wouldn’t say I have a single favorite poet. I look for poems that have more of a narrative quality, that feel like they’re telling a story.
But there is one poem that has always stuck with me, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” because it captures that experience of coming across an animal, unexpectedly, and it looks at you and you look at it and there’s this connection. We’re not even the same species, yet we can still feel a sense of connectedness.
Stephanie: From reading your novel, it seems like you really understand the process and mindset of teenagers throughout the ever-so-daunting task of writing college essays. How was your experience applying to college different from Nics? How was it similar? If you were applying to college today, what do you wish you would have known? What would you tell Nic, if you could? Any advice for those of us applying now?
Juleah: The high school experience that Nic has, particularly the culture and obsession over getting into not only college, but top colleges is based on my own high school experience. I went to a public school, but in a wealthy and well-funded school district. And the competitive culture was student-driven. It wasn’t from our parents, it was a culture of our own creation. I was right there in that culture, in that hyper-achievement mindset to do the most activities, be the best in sports, and have the top grades and SAT scores. Except, then I received my PSAT scores and I did horribly. Then I took the SATs and again did really, really poorly. I took classes, I took the ACTs, I took the SATs again and no matter what I could never even get to an average score.
This was devastating to me, because I felt like getting into all those top schools I had always dreamed up, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and even some mid-tier schools, were all out of the question. I did everything I was supposed to do, and yet I felt like my scores were defining my future, were defining me.
That experience resonates in what I wanted Nic and her classmates to feel, this sense that college admissions, the whole process, is defining us in some way.
I loved college, and I did end up getting into a very good liberal arts college that was one of the few schools that didn’t require SATs scores at the time. I do think college changed and shaped me in profound and meaningful ways. But the further I get away from my years in college, I know it never defined me. All my experiences, high school, college, the random jobs I had after college, the move I made in my late twenties leaving family and friends to move alone to a city where I knew no one, all of these shaped me significantly. But I still don’t think they defined me, because our identities are always being redefined, reshaped, by the minute, by the context, by the world around us, and by ourselves.
One piece of advice that I give friends and try to live by, is if you make a decision, own that decision. Don’t look back at all the other options. Just embrace whatever it is you choose. Whether it’s deciding where to apply, where to attend, which job to take, whether to move to a new city, break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, honor the choice you make, and embrace the pathway it will lead to. I’m really proud to look back at the many crossroads I have faced and the decisions I made that led me certain ways, even if some not so great stuff happened down some of those pathways.
Stephanie: Nic’s relationships with both Ben and Jordan are quiet complex and tug at the readers heartstrings. What lessons would you want readers to take away from the mistakes and missteps Nic made throughout the story?
Simplistically, but truthfully, that humans are flawed. Our friends, parents, the people closest to us, and ourselves, we are all flawed.
Stephanie: With such an exciting debut novel, what can readers expect from your upcoming novel, Turtle Under Ice? Will Turtle Under Ice be written in verse as well? Any other stylistic decisions that will be different from a “traditional” young adult novel?
Juleah: My editor asked me a few months ago where the idea for Turtle Under Ice came from, and I was like, uh turtles. I love turtles. I always have, and I love going to this pond in the summer and watching the turtles bask in the sun on a log. But I always wondered, what happens to them in the winter when the pond freezes over? For some turtles, they are able to survive under the ice, living in the water that isn’t frozen, and converting water into oxygen to breath. The story isn’t specifically about turtles, but it’s a metaphor I wanted to explore, how amazing it is that something can survive, swimming slowly, under a layer of ice.
Turtle Under Ice is another novel-in-verse, this time told from two perspectives, sisters, and one of them has gone missing during the middle of a snowstorm. I’m actively re-writing the whole thing right now, so I honestly don’t know much other than that!
Stephanie: What drew you to writing specifically young adult novels? Do you plan on expanding outside of the genre in the future? How have people seemed to respond since 500 Words or Less has been published?
Juleah: When I was in high school I thought that to be “smart” meant reading all these classics and “literary” novels for adults. But I really disliked them, and I really disliked reading as a result. In college, I started to check out children’s books from the library because I knew I could get through them fast and that they would be way more fun to read than the boring and dense material for class. From there, I migrated to young adult, and just never looked back. Reading YA has made reading enjoyable again. I almost exclusively read YA now, and there’s just so much to read! I don’t plan on expanding outside of YA, but if I did, I would probably still write for young people, maybe just a younger audience.
What has been surprising and what I think it really great is hearing from some of my parents’ friends or people their age, people way outside the target demographic, and how meaningful the book was to them, and to hear that even though they grew up a while ago, some of the experiences still resonate. The question of who we are never goes away.
Juleah: Seeing as you were a part of starting your own high school’s literary magazine, do you have any advice for me and my classmates?
It was so exciting to be able to see our work on high quality paper with glossy pages and color printing. So, ask your school for the funds necessary to produce the best looking literary magazine ☺