February 15, 2005

Brashares shares divine secrets of her Sisterhood with teens, one grown guy

There are very few events that will inspire me to travel back to my hometown. One of them is a friend's wedding. Another is a book signing by Ann Brashares, the nationally bestselling author whose series for young adults, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, has a rabid fan base among more college students than would probably care to admit it.

Brashares spoke at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, an inscrutable choice. If I were embarking on a 10-city book tour to promote my beloved book series, I'd definitely make the publisher (in this case, Random House) put me up in much fancier digs, like the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. But perhaps Brashares was trying to stay true to the milieu of her books. As she informed the audience, she chose to set her Sisterhood stories in Bethesda, Maryland because her characters had to live in a suburban enclave where protagonist Tibby "would be upset about having to spend the summer."

The most surprising part of the evening was its interactive element. According to Brashares, the third book in her series, Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood, is orange because a fan suggested the hue. (Lamentably, when asked to supply another color suggestion, the majority of the audience murmured pink, although yellow would fit much better with the pastel motif.) Brashares also revisited the character of Eric in Girls in Pants because fans requested his return. "What do you guys think? Should Lena and Kostos get back together?" she asked the audience, referring to a torrid love affair between two main characters. It was no surprise when the near-unanimous reply turned out to be, "Yes."

Brashares is quiet, petite, and humble. She treated everyone at the reading with deep respect—even me, who looked really out-of-place with three days' beard growth on my face in a roomful of adolescent girls. I subjected Brashares to a story which, I realize now, was surely incomprehensible at the time: how Girls in Pants was delivered a month early to the Maroon office, causing me to scream in delight, much to the amusement of everyone in the immediate vicinity. Instead of questioning this, Brashares merely smiled beatifically and posed for the camera.

Brashares's career is an inspiration to anyone who's ever struggled through a boring short story or finished an uninteresting book and thought, "I could do better." Brashares worked as an editor for 11 years before deciding to do just that. Now, she cites Judy Blume as her own role model, though she questions, "How could anyone compare herself to Judy Blume?" The self-deprecation, however, stops there: She seems confident as she gears up to write Book Four, which will be the last chapter in the Sisterhood saga. After that, she'll finish her adult novel that's in the works and (one assumes) kick back to count all the money she made off of the Sisterhood movie adaptation.

Brashares spoke quite a bit about that movie. She served no official function on the set but was flown in to meet the cast and crew. The director, Ken Kwapis, a TV veteran (The Office, ER) was eager to receive her input, at one point calling and asking her the name of a childhood pet so he could feature it as an in-joke in the movie.

Regardless of this level of involvement, however, Brashares seemed mystified by the entire process. She cluelessly asked her publisher, Random House, how her fans already received word about the Sisterhood movie when it doesn't hit theaters until June. By way of explanation, they pointed to the sticker advertising the film that they had affixed to every single book jacket.

Well, they don't pay her to market her material. What they do pay her to do is to write stories that resonate with readers of all ages, and Brashares does that remarkably well. She explained how she came up with the character of Carmen (while daydreaming through the opera—not, however, the opera Carmen), the concept of the Traveling Pants (her editor shared a pair of jeans with a group of girlfriends), and the idea of having four main characters (because she liked all the girls so much she just couldn't decide which ones to make secondary). Listening to her make her accomplishments sound so effortless, I'd never felt more empowered to write. If a poor attention span is all it takes to dream up something as funny, addictive, and emotionally honest as the world of Brashares's books, I'm already there. I'll drop out of school now.

It's easy to want to hate Brashares. She really does "have it all"—sensitive, artistic husband; a wildly lucrative career in the arts; a permanent address in New York City; three kids; three New York Times bestsellers. But her saving grace is that she really does seem to know how lucky she is. She's grateful for every morsel of attention she gets, because she certainly doesn't get it from her family. Brashares explains: "I want my daughter to read my books when she's older, but I don't know if she's going to. I mean, how cool can that be—reading your mom's books?" Meanwhile, her son informed her that if the Sisterhood film was released on the same day as Stars Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, he was going to go see Star Wars. (Luckily, the release date of his mom's film has been pushed back to June 3.)

Brashares does have a fan in her own mother. Brashares the elder recently walked into a bookstore, pointed to a special Sisterhood display, and proudly announced to the clerk, "These are my daughter's books!"

The clerk examined her for a moment before enthusiastically responding, "Those are my daughter's books, too!"

Brashares's mom didn't bother to explain to the clerk that she had spoken literally. Because, after all, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books really do belong to everybody. Even creepy 20-year-old guys who travel to the suburbs to hang out with a group of teenage girls.