It ended up being my favorite book of the summer, the one I recommended to all my girlfriends looking for a beach read. Matson’s books are all summery and ideal for reading on a blanket in the backyard. I spent the rest of the season catching up on her previous books. Matson provides what, for me, is the Holy Grail of YA writing– her books are light, but never trite, with heroines whose family and friends are just as important to them as their love lives. The romances unfold gradually, so I know why the characters are in love and am thoroughly invested before that first kiss. Seriously, just go get them.
When I realized this summer was coming with a new Matson book I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Save the Date features Charlie Grant, youngest daughter of a cartoonist who’s wrapping up the long run of her For Better or For Worse style newspaper strip. She has a nearly-consummated crush on her brother’s best friend and is about to graduate, but hasn’t committed to a college. All her siblings, beloved and otherwise, are coming home for her big sister’s wedding, which is happening in the backyard of the house her parents are in the midst of selling. What could go wrong? Everything. Hilariously. If you’re currently planning a wedding, you might want to put off reading this one– it could be as stressful as that time I watched The Terminal while traveling internationally. Otherwise, this is going to be the most fun you’ve had at a fictional wedding since Father of the Bride. Or maybe My Best Friend’s Wedding. My Big Fat Greek Wedding?
In any case, as the jacket copy puts it, “Over the course of three ridiculously chaotic days, Charlie will learn more than she ever expected about the family she thought she knew by heart. And she’ll realize that sometimes, trying to keep everything like it was in the past means missing out on the future.” There’s that trademark Matson balance of laughter and tears again, ready to keep me happy for another summer.
Matson was kind enough to answer my fangirl-who-dreamed-of-being-a-literature-professor questions about Save the Date, her writing process and her pop culture obsessions. Hope y’all enjoy reading her thoughtful responses!
TN: In Save the Date Charlie Grant saves her sister’s wedding from about 150 near-disasters. As the friend who gets called when somebody needs a last minute hem, I love her gumption! What’s your favorite disaster in the book (or the one that makes you shudder the most)? Are you the friend who gets called for a last-minute rescue?
MM: Disaster ranking – love it! There are SO many and some that I actually don’t want to spoil. But I would say my favorite that I can talk about might be the mix-up with the wedding band. I had that idea early on in the process, and I was just waiting for that scene to come so that I could finally write it! I’d had so many jokes percolating for so long, it was a joy to finally write that scene.
And I would love it if my friends thought of me as a last-minute rescue friend! I’ve definitely been tasked with helping to deal with logistics the morning of important events, and hopefully I’ve risen to the occasion.
TN: Like Alexandra in your last book, The Unexpected Everything, Charlie’s dealing with a glossy public life and complicated private reality. How do you wrangle embracing the mess and wrangling public vs private?
MM: It’s interesting that I didn’t notice that similarity until now! But I think it’s been on my mind, especially as we really begin to curate our online lives to the point where they no longer resemble reality. I think it just helps to be aware, if you’re looking at someone’s Instagram feed, that it’s not the reality of the situation – that you’re only seeing the highlight reel. And I try, when I post on social media, to try and show the seams and be as upfront about the mess as possible.
TN: You write books I think of as light-hearted, relaxing summer reading, but your protagonists are dealing with heavy stuff— grief, guilt, secrets, moving, graduation, abandonment, families ignoring the elephant in the room… Your ability to deal with your characters’ pain without wallowing in it has made your books perfect reads for me over the last few crazy years— I know I’ll shed some cathartic tears along the way, but laugh even more and close the book full of hope. How do you strike that balance of tone as you write?
MM: That’s so nice of you to say – thank you! I do hope the books strike that balance. I think of my books like life – it’s never just one thing or the other. There are days when you’re crying hysterically and then two hours later you’re laughing with your friends. Life is never just one thing – it’s everything, all at once, usually when it’s least convenient. That’s why I was so insistent, when I was writing Unexpected Everything, that all three pieces of the story – family, friendship, romance – have equal weight. Because it’s not like part of your life ever stops or fades into the background. I wanted them to feel as balanced as possible – because that feels like the most like life to me.
TN: Your stories usually leave readers missing a key piece of information until you dramatically reveal the whole picture. You give us two of these moments in Save the Date— one of which, delightfully, involves a guy wearing only his car’s floor mat— but the reveal is more direct than the moving back and forth in time you used in Second Chance Summer. How do you decide what your readers should and shouldn’t know and how and when to reveal all?
MM: I’ve never been asked that before – you’re giving me a lot to think about, which is awesome. I come from a playwriting background, so that might be a part of it. Nearly every play has information the characters know the audience doesn’t, and the reveal of it is part of the drama. In many of my books, the character isn’t sharing something because they’re in denial or ashamed of it – it’s something they don’t necessarily want to face, but as they try and actively ignore it, it keeps bubbling up. I think there was so much going on in Save the Date that it didn’t feel like there was room for some big secret reveal – the story was going to keep moving and we didn’t have time for it! And it might just be my personal preference, but there’s no way to get me as a reader engage with a book than by indicating that there’s a larger mystery going on, or something I don’t have all the information about. I immediately want to know more!
TN: Save the Date mostly takes place over a single weekend rather than the full summers and epic road trips of your previous books. How does that structure change the writing process and story you tell?
MM: It was a really different structure, which was one of the reasons I wanted to try it. My last three books had all taken place over an entire summer, and I was feeling comfortable in that format – which I knew meant that it was time to shake things up. But it was a really challenging writing process – about two years from the first draft to the last – in part because I approached this book the same way I’d approached my others, not really understanding until I was two drafts in that a more limited time frame meant that I needed a lot more structure than I normally brought to drafting my novels. It was also a much more plot-heavy book than I normally write. Usually in my books, the characters drive the plot, and with this book it’s the other way around. So that also took me a few drafts to figure out. All in all, it was a learning process! I’m not sure I’m going to write another 3-day book any time soon, but I’m glad that I eventually figured out how to do it for Save the Date.
TN: Your characters all have ties to the Connecticut town you’ve created, and I love that you keep us updated on them via cameos in subsequent books. Do you already know what they’re all up to before you write the next story, or do those details come as ways to fit our old friends into the new book’s plot? Is it getting harder to squeeze them all in as your bibliography expands?
MM: Letting people catch up with former characters is one of my favorite things about writing books that have a town in common! I love answering readers’ questions and giving them a window into what these characters have gotten up to since they last saw them. I always loved when authors like Stephen King and Sarah Dessen did this, and was so happy when I realized, in Second Chance Summer, that I could do it too. I sometimes know ahead of time – like with Andie’s dad’s appearance in Save the Date – and sometimes it comes up in a more organic way when I’m writing. It is getting more challenging – I never want it to overwhelm the story I’m writing, or make it feel like I’m shoehorning characters in just for the sake of it. I’m not sure my forthcoming book (out in 2020) will have any. It has been a lot of fun, but I don’t want to keep doing it if it doesn’t fit the story.
TN: I’m an enormous name nerd and so curious about your tendency to choose popular names for the girls at the center of your stories and more old-fashioned names for their love interests. Also, is there actually someone out there named Billiam?
MM: The names are some of my favorite things to come up with! I spend a lot of time thinking about characters’ names, because names mean so much. Nobody is named in a vacuum – so what does the name say about the characters’ parents? What are their siblings named? Do they have a nickname? If so, who gave it to them?
I never want to use any name that feels too contemporary or on-trend…nothing that will seem dated in a few years. And after a few books, it became clear that my naming preference seemed to be girls’ names from the 70s and guys’ names from the 30s. I think for the girls, I tend to like more commonly used names – especially since I grew up with a more unusual name and could never find any personalized mini license plates or bracelets without special-ordering them. For the guys, I think there’s something inherently more trustworthy about old-fashioned, slightly dorkier names. I don’t know why, but it always feels that way to me. And there’s a bit of a challenge for myself in it – if I can get you to swoon for a Frank, or a Clark, or a Roger, or Bill, I’ve done my job. (Also, you’re welcome, Franks of America!) Clark has actually been gaining in popularity in the last few years, which I like, since it’s always been one of my favorite names.
And Billiam IS an actual name!! I swear I didn’t make it up! 🙂
TN: Here at That’s Normal we’re always discussing our pop culture obsessions, so we’d love to know what you’re obsessed with!
MM: So much! There’s nothing more than I love being a fan of something, and really doing a deep dive! I’m currently obsessed with the TV shows Superstore, Brooklyn 99, Westworld, and Killing Eve. I loved Infinity War and can’t wait for Ant Man and the Wasp – I’m pretty much obsessed with all things Marvel. I’m very excited about a bunch of movies coming out this summer – especially Ocean’s 8, Incredibles 2, and Mission: Impossible Fallout. I love the Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling’s pen name) Cormoran Strike books – I’ll be re-reading them all summer as I wait for the fourth one to come out! And lately I’ve been playing the Bleachers album Gone Now over and over again.
Save the Date is available tomorrow, June 5! Thanks so much for chatting with us, Morgan!