“This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.” Authors and readers alike continue to find inspiration in the words of William Shakespeare, particularly words of love. Isabel Gillies, author and Law & Order: SVU star, is no different. Growing up in New York City, she saw love in the parks and the museums, the subways and the avenues. In her young adult debut Starry Night, Gillies takes the first stirrings of love and uses them as inspiration for two characters just learning what the word means. Here, we talk with Gillies about her favorite love story, the challenges of moving from writing memoirs Happens Every Day and A Year and Six Seconds to crafting fiction, and (surprisingly) shrimp gumbo.
Bookish: Your last book was a memoir, which is obviously a deeply personal writing experience. What was the most challenging thing about switching to writing fiction?
Isabel Gillies: Because it wasn’t based on my own life, I didn’t have a set plot. There are a lot of ways you can go when you write a memoir, but I think your instinct takes over and tells the story for you: this happened, then this happened, then this happened. With fiction you have to construct the story, and I’d never done that before. So that was challenging. It took me three tries. It wasn’t so easy, but once I got it, then it was easy. I’d hit the end of the day and be like, I don’t really know what happened, but I think I just wrote 3,000 words. So that kind of magic thing happened.
Bookish: What was the most rewarding thing about switching to fiction?
IG: It’s kind of a cliché and I never thought it was true, but I always heard writers say that the characters start writing themselves. I was like, That’s b.s., that isn’t true. You’re writing it. I thought writers must be very conscious of every decision, but then it did happen! It really did happen. Suddenly, a character would do something, and I was writing it, but it was driven by the character and not by my mind. It was really cool; it made me feel like a writer.
IG: It feels very similar to acting or painting. I believe the creative process, the process of putting what is inside you out, is very similar. Painters lose themselves, actors lose themselves. And sometimes you don’t lose yourself! Sometimes you’re like, Here I am, Isabel Gillies. It’s 2:35. I’m eating a carrot because I can’t really think of what to say. Some days you don’t lose yourself, but most days you do… and if not you just erase it and start again the next day!
Bookish: What drew you to writing a young adult novel?
IG: I love teenagers. I loved being a teenager. I am very excited because my children are about to be teenagers. This book is about the first time you fall in love and usually that happens when you’re a teenager. I say that cautiously because I’m sure there are times when you fall in love when you’re 11 or you fall in love when you’re 37. It’s a hard thing to pin down, but I think your teenage years are when a lot of firsts happen. It’s a very exciting time.
I just love teenagers. I love everything they say—even if they’re mean or weird. It felt like what I should do.
Bookish: There’s a great passion with teenagers too because everything is the end of the world if it does or doesn’t happen.
IG: Yes, yes! I think it has to do also with chemicals and hormones. You had to have all that mojo to go out and learn how to hunt. It takes an incredible amount of hormones to grow in the ways you have to grow to become an adult. I think that informs everything about how you’re feeling.
It’s wild. It’s like being on drugs!
Bookish: Well your emotions just have complete control of you.
IG: I sort of feel like that as an adult to a certain extent. So I relate, I totally get teenagers.
Bookish: What inspired you to set this story of falling in love for the first time in New York City?
IG: I don’t like to admit it because you’re supposed to be like, Oh I just made everything up! But it’s where I fell in love for the first time.
And it’s a great landscape. Central Park is a big deal in the book and the Met, the bus, East, West. Brooklyn is there. They know they’re supposed to dig Brooklyn, but they don’t know anything about it.
Bookish: You’ve said a few times, “Is there anything better than falling in love?” How would you describe that feeling?
IG: It’s true, I do say that a lot. I don’t think there is anything better. It’s that first time, that’s the one that’s so striking. It’s almost like you’ve been injected with something. What I love about falling in love myself, and I put this into the book, is the feeling that something has radically changed. It changes the way you talk and breathe and think. You feel so much physically. But you can’t put your finger on it.
Growing up, I’ll always remember, knowing from movies and TV that there was a possibility that you wouldn’t fall in love. I always thought, Oh my god, I hope I’m not that person. Love seems so awesome, but before you feel it you don’t know. It’s so mysterious. So when you do and someone nails it and is like, “No you’re in love. I can see it on your face!” Then you think, Oh I did it! If I died tomorrow it would be okay. Well, it’d be bummer but hey I’m in love!
Bookish: What is your favorite literary love story (YA or otherwise)?
IG: Romeo & Juliet. That is the ultimate. They fall in love in one room, in one night. I believe that 100%, I believe in love at first sight. Then they have their opposing families, they’re so young, and they’re so impulsive! They get married. They’re acting in the name of love… There’s the unfortunate death stuff, but that’s probably my favorite.
There are a lot of great love stories. It’s just the best thing. Why wouldn’t you write about it? Why wouldn’t you want to read about it?
But it’s hard to write about. It’s weird to have such a powerful and universal feeling and hope that you can write that and make it real for people.
Bookish: Your social media is filled with great quotes from authors, and also a lot of great food! If you had to declare your love for a single dish what would it be?
IG: Shrimp! I love it so much. There has never been a shrimp that I’ve eaten that I haven’t been like, I am so lucky that I get to eat this. I would eat a shrimp enchilada, shrimp burrito, shrimp cocktail, fried shrimp, shrimp po boy, shrimp gumbo.
Bookish: What are you reading right now?
IG: I always get nervous around the reading questions. I actually couldn’t read at all until I was nine, so it makes me feel like when I was little. I hated reading and when people would ask me about my favorite book I’d try to make up one. It was hugely anxiety producing for me because I couldn’t really do it. And when you turn into a teenager it’s a showoff point, Oh I love reading.
What I did then is that I really started reading nonfiction. I liked people talking about their process. It could be a guy who makes tablecloths, but I liked reading about how they did what they did.
Now it’s different, but I’m still a little bit cuckoo about reading. I either read a lot, a lot or I read for seven minutes. It depends on my kids. If you have kids, it’s really a non-reading time in your life. At the end of the day, I’d rather watch Top Chef.
And I just finished The Goldfinch. That’s a good one, too.
Isabel Gillies, known for her television role as Detective Stabler’s wife on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and for her cinematic debut in the film Metropolitan, graduated from New York University with a BFA in film. She lives in Manhattan with her second husband, her two sons, and her stepdaughter.