Crank the tunes and blast the AC. We caught up with debut author Adi Alsaid at this year’s BookExpo America to talk about his road trip young adult novel Let’s Get Lost. Leila crashes, sometimes quite literally, into the lives of four other teens as she makes her way across the country to see the Northern Lights. Though she helps each of her travel companions find what they’re looking for, the answers she seeks are far more complicated. We chat with Alsaid about road trip tunes, the best places in America he’s traveled to, and how it feels to be compared to YA legend John Green.
Bookish: Is this your first time at BEA?
Adi Alsaid: I came here a few years ago as a struggling unpublished writer and kind of just wandered around, but this is my first time really experiencing it. And oh my god, it’s so fun. A little busy, but unreal to see the huge poster of my book out front and the car. Some bloggers walked by and recognized me and asked me to take a picture. We decided that I’m going to steal it and go on a road trip to go see the Northern Lights.
Bookish: Are there any other authors you’re hoping to see while you’re here?
I kept myself from really looking at who’s going to be here. I knew I was going to be so busy and I didn’t want to feel as though I was missing out. So yesterday when I had a free hour, I wandered around. I saw R.L. Stine! But it was a ticketed event. Elementary school Adi was very disappointed.
Bookish: What are you reading right now?
AA: I’m reading This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz. It’s so good, I like it better than Oscar Wao. I wasn’t blown away by that one. He’s a good writer, but it didn’t connect with me. This one I’m enjoying a lot more.
Bookish: What drew you to writing a young adult novel?
AA: I started reading, like really reading, young adult a few years ago. It was kind of hit or miss. I either really loved the books or I felt that the ideas were great but the execution wasn’t the way I would’ve done it. So I was like, Why don’t I just do it? We’ll see if I can put my money where my mouth is.
Bookish: Your book has been compared to works by John Green. How does it feel, as a debut author, to be compared to the ‘King of YA’?
AA: Imagine what it would feel like, and that’s exactly what it feels like! It’s pretty awesome. Paper Towns was one of the books that was a big hit for me and I was like, See young adult can be so good. I wanna give that a shot.
I actually took a picture of the poster out front and put it on my personal Facebook, and one friend commented, “The names you see on there are yours, John Green’s, and in the background Jodi Picoult’s.” That’s pretty awesome.
Bookish: In your book, Hudson describes Leila as a tornado, and it’s something that stuck with me. She really does shake everything up, but she also seems to bring out the truth in the people she meets—where Hudson really wants to be, how Bree really feels. Did someone you know help to inspire her?
AA: Leila was somewhat inspired by Amélie and how she starts doing all these little things for strangers. But then Leila took on a life of her own. I didn’t start by think of her bringing out the truth, I just wanted her interacting with all these characters and then things kind of started happening that way. She would seek out the truth and make them really be honest with themselves.
Bookish: Did you have a strong sense of where the plot was going when you started?
AA: The plot was very planned out. I had a chapter-by-chapter outline, so I knew exactly what was going to happen. But something happens during the writing process where all of the little details start coming to life and the characters really, as writers always say, take on a life of their own. The outlining is like architecture and everything else is interior decorating, you’re making the place livable.
Bookish: There are so many characters in the book. Did you have a favorite to write?
AA: I loved kind of teasing myself with Leila. I was getting to know her as I was writing, just as the readers slowly get to know her throughout the book. There were all these little bits and pieces that would come out in her conversations that I hadn’t really planned for. But Elliot’s section was a lot of fun to write. I was kind of a lot like that in high school.
A lot of the time when people tweet at me saying they finished the book, I like to ask which was their favorite character or section to read. So far Elliot has been the favorite.
Bookish: Why do you think that is?
AA: I think unrequited love is a big part of being a teenager. A lot of people can relate to that—guys and girls.
Bookish: Leila’s journey is to see the Northern Lights. Have you ever seen them yourself?
AA: I haven’t. There was one time in between drafts that I was checking out Groupon getaways a lot. There was this 6-day tour through Iceland with airfare and hotel for like $800. I was like, I should do this, I should do this. I don’t know why I didn’t. I think I had just gone to Costa Rica, so I figured, Take it easy on all these adventures. Especially since I was going to get notes back soon and have to write another draft. It’s on the list, but not yet.
Bookish: What’s on the top of that list?
AA: A Euro trip actually. I’ve been to London and that’s it for Europe. I’ve done a lot of road trips within the U.S. and a few small ones in Mexico, but the rest of the world is still open to explore. And on a Euro trip you could see the Northern Lights too. I kind of feel like it needs to be Alaska, but it shouldn’t.
Bookish: What’s the best road trip you’ve ever taken?
AA: It’s so hard to choose. I took a road trip from Las Vegas to Seattle and then down the California coastline, which was absolutely beautiful. I could go up and down Highway 1 for the rest of my life. But that one, I went with a friend who was a little less adventurous. I wanted to explore food-wise. I love going to a new city and trying out their best restaurant, and he wanted either Chinese food or chicken wings. And our music tastes weren’t exactly the same. So we clashed and by the end, about two and a half weeks, we kind of hated each other.
We got back to Las Vegas and I was like, “Okay, Mike, nothing personal, I don’t want to see you for a couple weeks.” Then I invited a couple of friends to my apartment to hang out in the pool and they told Mike and Mike came. So I told him, “No! I wasn’t kidding, I don’t want to see you.”
But there were a lot of fond memories from that. I ended up moving to California for a little bit because when I drove past Monterey, I thought, This is kind of cool. When I decided to be a writer I said, “Monterey can work.”
I’ve also taken a cross-country trip, but it doesn’t reflect Leila’s trip at all, I went West to East. It went from California to Las Vegas and then Albuquerque, Austin, along the South, and then along the Eastern seaboard.
Bookish: Is there a favorite place you visited on that trip?
AA: Austin, Texas. I mean, I was in New Orleans, too, and that was awesome. There’s a part in the book where Leila sends a postcard from Chicago about popsicles. That was from New Orleans. We were walking around and it was so hot, and we turn a corner and there’s a gourmet popsicle shop.
Bookish: What’s the best music to crank full blast with the windows down?
AA: It’s weird, and most people won’t agree, but I love folk. There’s one song that’s in Let’s Get Lost, “The Trapeze Swinger,” and it’s a super slow song. Most people would fall asleep to it, but that’s one where I put the windows down and blast it. It’s that really soft acoustic guitar and he has a ridiculous voice, and the lyrics are so good. I love singing along.
The lyrics I have to connect with, so the music that a lot of people think of as road trip music is more about dancing in your seat. What does it for me is singing along and the songs that I memorize the lyrics to are usually lyrics that I like. I have a whole road trip playlist. I wish I had my iPod on me, but it’s got stuff like The Swell Season and The Tallest Man on Earth. A lot of folk-based sing-along stuff. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel is a great sing-along song.
Bookish: Favorite gas station snack?
AA: I usually do two things, and this is from growing up in Mexico, I get some crunchy and spicy form of chips, and then after that I’ll have something sweet. Skittles are usually great for road trips because you can just have them in the cupholder and have one at a time.
If it’s an early start I’ll always go with coffee. And water, I’m a big water drinker. I’ve had energy drinks because I’ve been on these long drives where I need to stay awake and they’re just awful. I usually just chug them. I want them to do their thing, but I don’t want to have to taste them.
Bookish: You’ve said that you are a light traveler. If you could only bring three books on your road trip what would they be?
AA: Timbuktu by Paul Auster. It’s a small book so it wouldn’t take up a lot of space, and it’s one of the few books that I’ve reread multiple times and I just find something new in it every time. It’s kind of about loneliness and I think that helps on road trips to have something you can turn to to help ease that.
Some sort of travel writing would help. The Best American Travel Writing 2008, I randomly found that at a used bookstore in Mexico. It’s this tiny place, it’s the only English language used bookstore in Mexico City, and it had the 2008 Travel Writing. I read that and it made me want to go travel immediately. So something that would keep that going.
And Calvin and Hobbes.
Adi Alsaid was born and raised in Mexico City. He attended college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After graduating, he packed up his car and escaped to the California coastline to become a writer. He’s now back in his hometown, where he writes, coaches basketball, and makes every dish he eats as spicy as possible. In addition to Mexico, he’s lived in Tel Aviv, Las Vegas and Monterey, California. Visit Adi online at www.SomewhereOverTheSun.com, or on Twitter: @AdiAlsaid.