Maya Van Wagenen is the wunderkind author of the memoir Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek. Lest the term “memoir” prompt you to imagine someone older reflecting on their misspent youth, let’s clarify that Popular is a memoir of Van Wagenen’s recent eighth-grade year, during which she followed the advice of a 1950s self-improvement book, Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide. Despite her young age — the book began as her journal during the year she followed Betty Cornell, and she’s now only a high school junior — Van Wagenen’s writing is polished, mature, and very, very funny.
City Paper: How scary was it to embark on this one-year experiment? I can’t imagine doing anything so self-aware and brave in eighth grade.
Maya Van Wagenen: I was terrified. I’d always had a difficult time fitting in and making friends, so I worried that this might make things worse. At the same time, I felt I didn’t have anything to lose because I was already getting teased and bullied. Plus, the realization that I wasn’t embarking on this journey alone and that I had Betty Cornell with me as a sort of imaginary friend and guide made it easier.
CP: How did what you learned during that year affect your high school experience? How does it continue to affect the way you interact with people day-to-day?
MVW: Following Betty Cornell’s advice allowed me to redefine popular as something that isn’t based on peer pressure, bullying, or putting others down, which is how it’s so often portrayed. Instead, the popularity Betty Cornell talked about is based on lifting others up, being inclusive and kind, and presenting yourself in a way that makes you feel confident. Those lessons have helped me navigate high school and changed the way I look at and talk to those around me. I’m a kinder, more confident person.
CP: What was the hardest part of turning this project into the finished, published book? When you first started writing, did you even think it would end up as a book?
MVW: Taking something so personal and going through the editing process was difficult. I’d never expected my journal to be published and was completely honest in my writing. While it was a little nerve-wracking and sometimes embarrassing to share my true experiences and innermost thoughts, I learned how powerful truth and sincerity are when connecting author to reader.
CP: Now that you’ve realized your dream of becoming an author, what’s next?
MVW: Currently I’m working on my first novel and outlining future books. I’ve always wanted to write and Popular has given me a unique and wonderful opportunity to establish myself as an author.
CP: There are, as you know, few YA writers who are actually young adults themselves. What’s it been like being on the other side of things, as part of the industry? Did your editor and publisher know what to make of you? Did you have any trouble feeling like a part of the YA author community?
MVW: I’m so grateful to my agent and editor for taking me and my writing seriously despite my young age. They treat me like an adult and that has been amazing.
While I’m always a little shy at book festivals when I’m around well-known, well-respected authors, those writers are always so kind and inclusive — which is why I’m so thrilled about being part of YALLFest.