“I never intended to write a love story, to be honest. It wasn’t until my 30s that I could look back at my own first time falling in love and appreciate it for how truly amazing, horrible, and kind of hilarious it was. ‘Slingshot’ isn’t at all a memoir but my attempt at doing justice to the subject matter of being completely blindsided by the momentous fifty-foot wave of feelings and confusions and burning convictions of first-time love.”
Jennifer Morrison: You knew you wanted to write a novel, and you had an idea of what it might be about—what is your process to actually making that something real?
Mercedes Helnwein: Well, I’ve been writing my whole life. I wrote my first official story when I was about ten years old and ever since then it was just something I did. When I was a teenager, that’s what I wanted to do – be a writer. I didn’t think I would ever publish anything but I always continued, and that has never changed.
As far as 'Slingshot' is concerned, I started writing this story about 10 or so years ago. I was looking for a new idea to write about, and at the time, my little brother was going through his first heartbreak. I was giving him advice on the matter and trying to help him feel better but he was very solidly in that place of “That was the ONE person in the world for me, and now it’s over for eternity!” And to me, as an adult, his reaction was kind of hilarious, and yet I completely understood how he felt because I was the same way when I went through my first heartbreak.
And that’s what got me interested in exploring that theme in a story. I felt like there was a lot of humour to be found there, amongst the drama and turmoil.
When you were in the throes of your first heartbreak, did part of you have enough awareness to think, “I’m going to think this is really funny someday?”
(Laughing) No! It was not even remotely funny to me at the time. It was debilitating. The thing that was so disorienting was that it was a completely new way to feel pain. I had never felt that way before. I didn’t know that that kind of misery existed!
And that’s something I was trying to relate in the book: how when heartbreak happens for the first time, it’s different than any other time, because it’s such an alien way to feel. You have no prior experience with it. One minute, you’re oblivious, just coming out of childhood, and the next minute this thing slams into you without any warning – and you didn’t know that you could feel that miserable. It’s a lot to grapple with. At that moment, you don’t even know that it will ever end – and you don’t know that about 85% of all your convictions under the influence of heartache are probably delusional.
So much of the novel is about just the nitty-gritty of first love. It’s not “Oh, I’m so in love and it’s so great!”
Yeah, that’s funny because the subject matter of love started to become interesting to me only when I viewed it through heartbreak. I wanted to specifically write about the whole experience of first love, including very much how it ends, because that’s usually a huge part of it.
Okay, so basically, going from the idea to the actual writing of the novel was very natural for you because you were already writing things that had structure – and it was just something that was a natural part of your life?
Yeah, but that being said, I probably don’t write novels in the most effective, structured way possible. I just start writing and see where it goes.
It feels like you’ve taken great care to give everyone their own voice through dialogue. What is your process in terms of finding the core of that for a character and also refining it over time?
A lot of the characters were based on actual people I knew, so I didn’t fully start from scratch. There were certain things I knew about each character from the get-go, and then I built on that and created new people that became their own characters.
I also rewrote that thing so many times — especially the dialogue. In the beginning, everyone’s voice was a little more interchangeable, and the longer I worked on the story, and the more drafts I wrote, the more I understood the characters. I put them through so many dialogues and situations that by the end, I knew them so well. Not just their vocabulary, but also their body language when they talked, their mannerisms. How they would react to things, their flaws, their virtues, where they would lose their nerve – all that stuff. It was much easier to write dialogues for them at that point after years of getting to know them.
From the first time I read the novel, one of the things I responded very strongly to was that everyone was very unexpected. We’ve had these coming-of-age stories where you have the quintessential cafeteria scene and everyone is in their group, and you know exactly who’s who based on who they’re sitting with, and then people are pretty true to that for the whole movie, usually. What felt very different about 'Slingshot' was that everyone takes you by surprise in very realistic ways. Everyone is much more three-dimensional, and everyone’s story is much more complicated.
Was that something that was on your mind when you were writing the novel? That you were going to dive into the characters and find those different corners? Or was that something that naturally developed as you were writing?
Well, I specifically didn’t want a very easy “bad” person in the story or a “that’s the asshole” character, as far as the kids were concerned. I wanted to make none of them a really terrible person – I just wanted to make them very human. People in real life are flawed, and they make mistakes and they say mean things, or have judgmental thoughts and weird ways of dealing with problems, but they also have their heart in the right place a lot of the time, and struggle, and feel guilty, and have regrets, and try to change. Things are usually not as simple as, “that’s an asshole”. Sometimes, yes, but in most cases not.
Also, I really wanted the older cool girl not to be mean. I knew a couple older girls who I looked up to and who were so beautiful and seemed to know everything, and they were really nice to me, even if they gave me questionable advice on dieting, relationships, and bras. But they weren’t those typical beautiful mean girls from movies. I liked that idea.
It’s very refreshing. So much of pop culture tells us that everyone is terrible to each other at that age, and there is some truth to that. Everyone’s a little lost and freaked out and has hormones going through their system and all sorts of things, but there are also a lot of just really great people. Somehow, that often gets missed in storytelling to create conflict. There is the tendency of defaulting to making people mean to each other or selfish or ego-driven.
Yeah, and kids can definitely be like that, but they might also just not always be like that. Life is usually not that easy for anyone.
Right, exactly. Well, it’s amazing how that really weaves through the novel and shines – that perspective on life.
Do you have any books that you felt were your “true north” when you were working on 'Slingshot'? For example, when I’m directing something I’ll say, “Oh, these five films were really instrumental for me finding the vibe for this”.
Do you have novels, or poems or short stories that you felt were your inspiration or “true north”?
The one book that always comes to mind is 'Bonjour Tristesse' by Françoise Sagan. It wasn’t directly inspirational in terms of the plot, but more mood-wise. There’s just such a mood to it. It’s a coming-of-age story (very not American, though). And it shows so well how someone young collides with love and other circumstances and is so permanently changed and incapable of ever attaining that childhood carefreeness again. To me, that book is really a story about the end of childhood. The title – 'Hello Sadness' – is one of my favourite titles ever, for anything. I think the title alone could be the inspiration for this entire novel.
It’s interesting that you put it that way. Knowing 'Slingshot' as well as I do, I understand why you’re saying that, but there is so much levity to the way you’ve written it and so much heart to all the characters, that if someone were to say that this could be the premise — this idea of 'Hello Sadness'— I’d be like, “Wait, what?”. There is so much joy and humour and fun to be had in the story, despite how much Gracie goes through. And that makes her such a survivalist. Instead of her succumbing to the hard things and letting them consume her, she grows and overcomes them, which is such a beautiful thing.
To me, the book was really about how Gracie knows exactly how to take care of herself and protect herself, but she doesn’t know how to love and be loved. She doesn’t know how to have intimacy—actual intimacy. And all those things that she goes through reveal how in actual life, those hardships are important.
Sometimes we misunderstand suffering.
And yes, there is suffering in the book, but the suffering also makes her capable of empathy, capable of opening up more, and admitting that she might need people. The need to be connected to people. It’s interesting because, yes, I understand what you’re saying about 'Hello Sadness' as kind of the heartbeat of the story, but it’s that with a smile!
Yeah, and that’s life. To me, life is never as one-sided as we might think. I really appreciate when books or films include the humour and the small absurdities that are inevitably part of life. Even when something is technically a sad story, if there is humour in some of the details – the dialogue, unexpected small moments – that makes the story so much more real to me.
And as far as writing goes, that’s the only way I would feel inspired to approach a story – to view the subject matter from some angle where I can see the humour of it.
How much of the story do you feel you pulled from moments of your own life? Or do you feel like it was more distantly inspired by feelings?
A lot of it was directly taken from my life. I mean, not the big story, but a lot of the details – specific dialogues and moments. In the end, it’s easier to grab real things that you remember than thinking up stuff.
I remember my editor commenting on something Derek said to Gracie in the story – I think where he told her that she had the perfect amount of meat in her calves. She commented, “That’s such a weird thing to say!” And that was something that my first boyfriend had said to me. And that line really worked, too! So many things he said to me (good and not good) stuck in my head as “facts” for a long time.
It is funny, those things – those moments – that stick with us from a young age that create these lenses through which we see the rest of our lives, all because someone said something to us at some point.
Yeah, that’s really true.
"...that’s something I was trying to relate in the book: how when heartbreak happens for the first time, it’s different than any other time, because it’s such an alien way to feel. You have no prior experience with it. One minute, you’re oblivious, just coming out of childhood, and the next minute this thing slams into you without any warning – and you didn’t know that you could feel that miserable." - Mercedes Helnwein
In your own life, doing so much art side-by-side with writing, do you feel like those things weave together? Or do they stay separate?
I was always under the impression that they stayed separate, but I was working on 'Slingshot' so long and thinking so much from the viewpoint of kids, going through all my diaries and old camcorder footage, etc. The subject matter of the book did start to slosh over into my artwork. I started researching vintage photos and finding a lot of cool imagery of school kids and adolescence and I began to do a whole series of artworks based on that theme.
Do you see any similarities between the way you approach writing from the way you approach drawing/painting?
It’s so different. It’s ridiculous how different it is. I usually put on an audiobook when I draw or paint. It’s so fully visual. There’s not that much thinking involved, except when I’m thinking “Wow, this is not working. How do I fix it?” or something like that. But mainly, I’m not stuck in my head when I do visual work.
Writing is just full-blown mental activity the entire time. It feels a lot harder, and sometimes, more maddening because basically, it’s problem-solving and thinking non-stop. It’s like a puzzle and I’m always looking for a better word, sentence, plot idea, dialogue, etc.
Do you have a ritual to get into that headspace to write? Or can you just kind of jump in and out?
I guess it depends on what point I’m at in a story. I try to write first thing in the morning because that’s when my head is the most un-cluttered. Sometimes not a lot happens and other times, it’s much easier to get into that headspace. My main ritual is tea, though. If I have tea, everything seems far more hopeful. Green tea in the morning, and black tea in the afternoon.
Okay, so why Florida for the book?
I spent a lot of time in Florida as a teenager, so it made some sense to write about a place where I was the age that I’m writing about. But that aside, Florida has always been so inspirational to me.
I’ve also spent a lot of time in LA, but LA is such a cool city. I mean, I love LA – I think it’s an amazing backdrop for stories – but to me, it’s always felt a little intimidating to place a story there. I don’t associate it with my teens, either. I associate it with my twenties. And generally speaking, it just feels a little too cool of a place. I’m more drawn to small towns and “weird” rather than “cool”.
Florida always feels like a great place to put a story – the vegetation, the subtropical weather, the fact that there are alligators, and hurricanes and spring-breakers and German tourists. It’s just such a fascinating mixture of elements. Visually, it’s so great. I love when I see a film or TV show that takes place in Florida and really does that environment justice. Like 'The Florida Project', for example.
Music is a huge part of what winds us through the novel. Did you always know that that was something you wanted to pull through? Or was that something that just developed as you went – in terms of you hearing certain songs with certain scenes, and music starting to present itself as a structural element?
I think it’s just such a natural instinct for me to connect any project I’m doing intimately with music. I never outgrew that teenage intensity about music, so whether I’m drawing or writing or whatever, music will always play a big part.
About 80% of all my inspiration is musical – and I think it’s the most important art form there is. I don’t know what better way to get an emotional setting for a scene than with the right song for it. For example, even with the novel I’m working on now, I kind of have to know what bands the characters are into. Even the characters who listen to music I’m not a fan of at all. I just need to know.
In 'Slingshot', Gracie listens mainly to 90s music – music that is considered “older music” now. When I was a teenager (in the 90s) the stuff I was truly obsessive about was also all older music. I listened to a lot of 60s music and lots of 30s blues. I felt a bit broken off from what all my friends were into. I kind of wanted that same situation for Gracie.
Did you have access to that music through your parents? Or did you stumble on that on your own?
Some of it came from my parents. For example, I was really into Aretha Franklin, and that came from my mom. The first record she ever bought, in Germany in the 60s, was an Aretha Franklin album. And my dad had some blues CDs in his studio. That’s how I came across Blind Willie McTell, which started my blues obsession. Once I had some entrance points, I just went really deep and obsessively into finding more and more stuff I liked.
Music really gave me an identity and a way to feel comfortable in my own skin, and a way to feel pretty superior to everybody else because my musical tastes were so much more sophisticated (laughing).
So much more evolved! You were on another plane (laughing).
But that’s a teenage thing too, where you’re like “No, I’m right with my musical taste!” As an adult, I’m so much more laid-back and open-minded about music than I was as a kid.
And so, for Gracie, that was also kind of important – that she be a bit judgmental of musical tastes and protective of her own. Her bands are basically a religion to her. They’re what give her something to believe in and an identity.
How did you choose the names for the characters? Do you have any kind of system or is it more intuitive?
Well, with Gracie the name changed a few times. I was trying to find a simple, traditional American name. Something pretty and harmless that would clash with her character. And even after I chose Grace as her name, it felt like it was the wrong name for a long time – very unfitting to her – and I kind of liked that. It’s the perfect opposite name for her.
For Wade, I got the name from this CD my banjo teacher gave me of an old-time banjo player and fiddler called Wade Ward. I had never heard that name before and I thought it was so weird, but still somehow so American and normal sounding.
A lot of the other first names were stolen from people I know, with no rhyme or reason.
Where did this idea evolve that Gracie is the accidental child – the child of an affair? Was that something that was always in there? Because the psychology of a young person dealing with being the product of that kind of relationship is really interesting.
Yeah, that was always there from the beginning. In a very, very, early version of the story there was a whole section that took place when Gracie was about twelve years old. Originally, the story was going to be three parts – when she’s a kid, when she’s a teenager, and when she’s in her twenties. So, the backstory of her mother and father was developed in the first part – the childhood part.
And that’s actually also where the slingshot came from. There was a kind of warfare going on with all the kids in the neighbourhood, and Gracie and her best friend Frankie decided to use slingshots as their chosen weapons. They get obsessive about becoming good with slingshots, and they practice until they achieve this insane god-like ability to shoot at things. And so, even when she’s a teenager, she just instinctively still has that skill.
Was the book always called Slingshot or did it have other titles?
No, it was called The World is A Vampire. For many years!
Oh, interesting! And what prompted the change?
Well, that was my working title. I always suspected it would eventually be changed because I didn’t want people to think it was a story about vampires or a story about the Smashing Pumpkins. So, when my editor suggested we change it, I agreed that it was a good idea, as much as I love the original title. We thought of many different title ideas. My ideas were all a little bleak and/or dramatic, and eventually, my editor suggested “Slingshot”, and I thought that worked really well.
There is something metaphorically interesting about the slingshot, because now that I’ve lived inside of Gracie’s world for a couple of years – that moment where she slingshots Derek is so instinctive. It’s such a fight-or-flight moment. And you instantly understand so much about Gracie based on the fact that in a fight-or-flight moment, she’s fight. It feels like so much of her existence is a “slingshot” decision. Like, she does a thing, and then she has to deal with all the stuff on the other side of the thing, and that’s a really fun world to explore. I’m a very type A/overthinker/plan-it-all-out kind of person, so it’s so fun to be on a journey with a character that is a “slingshot” type of character.
Yeah, totally. That was a big part of why I loved writing for her too.
Well, those are my questions! You know I love this book. I’ve read it so many times, and I love Gracie and Wade and Georgina and Beth – all of them! They’re all very lovable.
I remember the first time I read it, I was on a plane and I had just been doing a bunch of stuff with teenagers and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to something else with teenagers, and then there was the moment in the book where the kids dump the Gatorade on Gracie. And I was like “Oh, here we go…” and in my brain, it was going to be her being down-trodden and upset – but the fact that she was like “Great! Bring it on! What’re you going to do next? Pour some 7-up on me?”
And I was like, “Oh, this book is different.” It had my attention because she knew exactly how to stand up for herself. That was a really strong entry point to 100% being in the world with her and wanting to go on that journey with her.