Meet Lauren Kunze, author of The Ivy, a young adult novel that follows Callie Andrews, (a California brain with beauty), through her freshman year at Harvard. Think First Chance Dance, Fifteen Minutes comp, Hasty Pudding punch, and of course, a dreamy upperclassman.
Can we start off by talking a bit about your time at Harvard?
Sure! I was in Wigglesworth as a freshman, majored in English and did a neurobiology minor. I came intending to row crew, but I had a back injury. I started the first year of college in physical therapy and realized that I wasn’t going to play sports again. At that point I started running a lot, writing, and working on school.
When you were in school, did you want to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I also always wanted to be an actress. They are kind of similar dream jobs that I didn’t really think I could do. Part of this book was an experiment to see if I could support myself writing…see if I could do it.
Where did the idea for The Ivy come from?
This girl in my class wrote a book called How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. It’s about a girl who wants to go to Harvard, but at her interview she’s asked, “What do you do for fun?” and she can’t answer the question. So, the rest of the book is about her learning how to have fun and get kissed and get popular. So that was her book, and it was a big deal, and the movie rights had been sold. It début on the New York Times Bestseller list, however, a few weeks later it came out that it was largely plagiarized. Anyways, long story short, my roommate Rina and I were sitting around in our room junior year, and Rina was like, “Oh, I wonder how hard it would be to write a book, maybe you could do that.” And I was like, “Yeah! Maybe I could do this…we could do this together and it would be fun.”
We started talking about stories that had happened to us and people we knew. Senior year we were really intent on “We can’t leave school without having done something great…we need to start a company, or something”…you know what I mean? A lot of people don’t wait to leave school to do something great.
There was an editor from Little Brown who came to give a talk to English majors. One girl raised her hand and asked if he ever accepted manuscripts. He said no, but also “If anyone gets my personal email address and sends me a very interesting letter, I’ll read it.” I went to him after the talk and said, “I’m going to need your personal email address because I’m going to send you an interesting letter.”
Rina and I sent him this pitch (we hadn’t written any of the book yet). He wrote back and was very interested. He had forwarded it to someone else who asked for the first three chapters, and Rina and I were like, “Crap, we have to write the first three chapters.”
I was writing a thesis at the time, so my life was consumed, but I put it aside for a week and wrote the first three chapters. And then she didn’t answer. A few months later I got a letter from her assistant saying, “It was a little too “YA” for us.” (Writer note – YA means “Young Adult”)
I thought, that’s it, I can’t write. Then, another letter came along from someone from the young adult division wrote to us, and we sent her the first three chapters. Again, no response. At this point we were about to graduate. I finally cracked and email her and said, “Well, I’m assuming you’re not interested, but if you have any feedback, I’d really like to hear it.” She actually wrote me back with some really good feedback, and based on that, I was like, OK, I’ll see what I did wrong and that was my first time, and I’ll take some time this summer and really write it.
At this point Rina was in Turkey pursing a finance job. I had been admitted to grad school at Oxford and Cambridge, and told them both I was coming (which was bad), but by the end of the summer I was like, “Uh, It’s really expensive, and I’m not sure I want another year of school…I’m going to finish this and see what happens.”
So, I did finished it, and because of the previous experience, I wanted to get an agent. I got an agent in December, and she sold it in March, and that was it. And there’s three more coming.
What was the writing dynamic like between you and Rina?
We came up with the fundamental concept, characters, and storyline together. Then, I do the writing, and she’s like my point person. I send her stuff and she adds details and comments about things like, “What does this character’s voice sound like?” I think the bulk of the collaboration happened while we were both still at school, since we really spent the whole year about funny stuff that had happened.
What were some great classes you took at Harvard?
Justice was really a memorable class. I took it my sophomore year…it’s an amazing experience, not just a class. We would always sit in the back, and there was always a lot of intrigue going on that had little to do with the class….
In the book, Callie has many different experiences with the Harvard social scene, specifically the Hasty Pudding Social Club punch. Could you talk a little bit about your personal experience with the final clubs scene at Harvard?
So, Rina was in the Pudding and the Bee, and I was in neither. I did punch everything. For me, it wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to do. Also, the Pudding is its own special world. The Pudding of the book is kind of different form the Pudding of reality, same thing with the FM of the book. I was talking with a former editor of The Crimson, and he was like, “Was this your experience with FM in reality?” No. It’s very far from reality. I said, “I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, but the FM of the book is this extremely widely read, very powerful magazine, that a lot of people want to be a part of…that’s not necessarily my experience of FM in reality. Same thing with the Pudding. In the book it’s this thing that’s really cool. I’m not sure if that’s what most Harvard people consider in reality. I’m very on the fence with how I feel about having a set group of friends. I think there can be both good and bad things about it…It’s not that long ago, but when I was a sophomore there was only the Isis and the Bee…when those were the only two, they were looking for a very narrow set of people.
I feel like I would love to be in a male finals club because I would just want a social space that’s not a gross, smelly, house party, and have a space to hang out with people that I wouldn’t necessarily hang out with through other things.
In the book you talk about some infamous Harvard parties (Calpso, Mad Hatter, etc.)…do you have any memories of parties that really stood out?
Well, Calpso was actually the first party that Rina and I went to freshman year. Rina knew an upperclassman, so we were somehow invited…we stole this inflatable pink flamingo. We were on our way home, then we heard music coming from The Spee. We didn’t know what it was, but we were like, “Oh, there’s another party.” There was a senior at the door who was like, “Are you on the list?” We said, “No, but our friend Trevor the flamingo is!” He said, “Oh, come on in.”
Also, Great Gatsby at The Fly…we crashed it freshman year. It was really awkward actually, because it’s a really strict date event. So, everyone was like, “Where are your dates?” and we were like, “My date’s in the bathrooooom…..” Obviously though, the parties in the book are exaggerated for fiction.
The best party I went to in all of college was at MIT actually. Those MIT know how to plan and execute. They applied their engineering knowledge to engineer this party to perfection.
As a Harvard grad, what are your thoughts on the “Harvard allure” evident in our popular culture (*cough, Social Network, cough*)?
I mean, I think it’s something that people are interested in hearing about…It’s definitely true that the fact that the book takes place at Harvard is very important, but honestly, I just wrote about what I knew and my experience. There’s a lot of fodder for fiction material.
Have you gotten any flack for writing in this genre that some may consider “fluffy” and you are a Harvard grad, or have people been pretty supportive?
So, nobody’s actually criticized me to my face or been like, “Why didn’t you do something more high brow?” A Publishers’ Weekly review said something like, “Just because a book is about Harvard doesn’t mean it has to be smart.” The thing is I read obsessively what people are saying, and I thought I would care a lot more about it, but it’s all so different that it’s kind of hard to let any one thing get you down….It’s not meant to be great literature, it’s meant to be fun, and I will have succeeded if the reader felt entertained and engaged.
The book is about the class of 2014; the real class of 2014 just arrived, do you have any advice for them?
I think it’s good to embrace discomfort. Try things you shouldn’t normally do. Hang out with people you wouldn’t normally meet. Take a class that seems way out of your element. Don’t wait for the most comfortable thing you can do.
Last question…how many of the three things you’re supposed to do before you graduate did you do?
One…The best one.
Note: Keep your eye out for the next book in The Ivy series, Secrets.