By Aleah Gornbein
Today we’re pleased to welcome Eric Smith to the WNDB blog to discuss his young adult novel You Can Go Your Own Way, out now!
No one ever said love would be easy…but did they mention it would be freezing?
Adam Stillwater is in over his head. At least, that’s what his best friend would say. And his mom. And the guy who runs the hardware store down the street. But this pinball arcade is the only piece of his dad that Adam has left, and he’s determined to protect it from Philadelphia’s newest tech mogul, who wants to turn it into another one of his cold, lifeless gaming cafés.
Whitney Mitchell doesn’t know how she got here. Her parents split up. Her boyfriend dumped her. Her friends seem to have changed overnight. And now she’s spending her senior year running social media for her dad’s chain of super successful gaming cafés—which mostly consists of trading insults with that decrepit old pinball arcade across town.
But when a huge snowstorm hits, Adam and Whitney suddenly find themselves trapped inside the arcade. Cut off from their families, their worlds, and their responsibilities, the tension between them seems to melt away, leaving something else in its place. But what happens when the storm stops?
What was the inspiration behind the title choice and were there any other song options left on the cutting room floor that also fit the story?
So, the original title of You Can Go Your Own Way was… wait for it… The Pinball Blizzard. It was a nod to classic rock, and you know, a bit on the nose regarding what the book was about. It was also basically a dad joke. When my wonderful editor (Rebecca Kuss is brilliant) suggested a title change that still felt contemporary and musical, but also dug into what the book was really about, I had to think a lot. I ended up sharing a whole bunch of pinball titles with my editor. Redemption Game! Skill Shot! Full Tilt! This is How You Lose Your Bonus Game…
But what Rebecca had me consider, was how this book isn’t actually about pinball. Or even a snowstorm. Those are huge pieces of the setting, sure. But it’s really about two old friends who lost one another, finding their way back to each other… while letting go of everything that’s been holding them back.
Adam and Whitney both feel like they are stuck in their roles, but learn that they can… well, go their own way. And that’s a big part of how that title came into play.
When I think about that Fleetwood Mac song, there’s a lot in the lyrics about wanting to find a way to be together but having a hard time making things work. There’s a lot of that back and forth with these two.
Pinball is obviously a huge part of the book, what with Adam’s family-owned store, Old City Pinball, and his personal investment in the game. What kind of research did you do into pinball games and machines? Have you played any of the games mentioned in the story and do you have a favorite?
Oh goodness, so much. Too much. I read a few pinball books, spent a ton of time on the ol’ Internet reading everything I could. I ended up putting too much pinball into the initial draft, just piling on references to the intricate parts of the machines. Histories of the various games. And my editor challenged me, again, to remember what the book is actually about. A lot of that research got snipped out, so I could focus on the actual story. But! I think it’ll make me more interesting on panels and at conferences in the future, at least!
And I’ve played a lot of them. At least, the ones that are real. There are a few made up ones in the book that are sort of wishlist games in my life (a pinball machine based on The Last Starfighter, yes please!). But the Star Trek: The Next Generation and Addams Family Pinball machines are two that get featured pretty prominently and are very real. In fact, those are two of the best-selling pinball machines in history.
I think my favorite machine out of the ones that get referenced… it’s probably a toss-up between the Lost in Space and Jurassic Park machines? Or maybe even the Pin Bot machine that gets a quick nod. I never played the actual machine, but the old school original Nintendo game was something my Dad and I played a lot when I was a kid.
What was the hardest part about writing this story, and did anything surprise you throughout the process?
Is it silly to say writing the actual book was the hardest part? Cause it kind of was. You Can Go Your Own Way sold right before the pandemic hit, and suddenly I found myself on a deadline to write a wholesome romantic comedy while holed up inside, trying to navigate working from home with a toddler, being afraid to go outside… it’s hard to find the drive when things are falling apart.
What surprised me in that process, was how eventually it felt really cathartic to spend time in a world that felt safer than the one I was in. I wrote in a lot of places that I missed going to (many of which closed during the pandemic and over the course of writing the book), made references to friends I was missing… in a way, it helped me have them all close to me, in a time when everything felt pretty far away.
Things still feel a bit far away, but we’re getting there. And I’m full of the kind of hope that I hope I wrote into this novel.
Adam is described as Sicilian and Palestinian—how do his parents’ backgrounds impact Adam’s life (on and off the page)?
They’re based a lot on my birth family, so there’s a heavy emphasis on family for him. In my family everyone’s feelings are right there with one another, out on display, in the way everyone talks and acts. But Adam’s lost a lot of that with the loss of his father and is closed off and shut down. And as readers find out quickly in the book (it’s in Chapter 1, not spoiling anything here!) his mother tries to hide all of that hurt from him to protect him. But, it ends up doing the opposite.
The past and history is also a big part of my family, and we see that in Adam and his push to hold onto that arcade. Objects aren’t just that, they’re tethers. And that arcade keeps him close to his father.
Without giving too much away, what were some of your favorite scenes and/or lines of dialogue to write in You Can Go Your Own Way?
So, there are a few moments where the reader starts to realize Whitney and Adam’s complicated history, and how they were friends long before any of this. No spoilers, you know they’re former best friends from the jacket copy. But the little moments that peel away at how they fell out with one another, and the ways they’re still holding onto each other even as they bicker and fight, were huge favorites for me. Cause it felt real, you know? You can have a fall out with someone close to you, and still cling to those happy memories while wrestling with the bad. It’s human.
And I suppose… the Swedish Fish scenes. But I see you have a question about that later! I’ll save this one.
The romance in this book follows some classic (and squee-worthy) tropes that readers will definitely enjoy (I know I did!) from childhood friends to rivals to kind-of friends to “oh wait, they’re hot now” to lovers—how did you decide what the course of Adam and Whitney’s relationship would look like and what is your favorite romantic trope?
Thank you! I saw a TikTok video recently of someone counting all the tropes in the book and it made me very happy. I always had the image of these two rivals snowed inside an arcade and finding a way back to each other amongst the games, it was just a matter of building up the story to get to that point.
At heart, I’m a lover of a good slow burn story. Just let it take forever, and I’m good to go. For me, rivals who barely know one another slowly falling for each other is a lot of fun, it’s a favorite trope of mine in rom-coms, but the idea of giving it a slow burn from YEARS ago just made me so happy.
In You Can Go Your Own Way, the story really starts when they were in junior high. We don’t get to see a lot of that, they talk about it, we get some flashback memories, but their love story has been going on for way longer than what’s on the page. I wanted the relationship to have that slow burn, without having to write the whole slow burn. Because then the book would have been like 150,000 words.
And I think enemies to lovers is maybe my favorite? Some recent hits that really got me were I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest, I Kissed Alice by Anna Birch, A Pho Love Story by Loan Le, and These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong.
In your last novel, Don’t Read the Comments, you created a video game (Reclaim the Sun). How was the process of creating the fictional book (The Art and Zen of Pinball Repair) in You Can Go Your Own Way different and why was it important to the narrative?
In the original draft of You Can Go Your Own Way, the book was something Adam carried around everywhere, and referenced only once or twice. It wasn’t a big part of the story. But my editor really adored that element and thought we should have faux excerpts from it.
The voice was the tricky thing, because the book had to be written in an adult voice that had a philosophical flourish, in the way a lot of not-self-help-but-kinda-self-help books do. I ended up being really inspired by my brother-in-law, who is one of the smartest people I know, and often speaks in these really inspired, profound turns of phrases. I pulled him right into the story.
Reclaim the Sun was pulled from a lot of video games I love. The Art and Zen of Pinball Repair was inspired by a person I love.
Adam and Chris’ friendship was so lovely to see and I absolutely loved the Swedish Fish candy indicating a “big feelings” talk that passed from his dads to their friends and even Adam’s mom. If you could choose a candy (or other type of food) to eat while having an emotional discussion, what would it be?
Okay, so I love talking about the Swedish Fish because this is actually a real thing in my group of friends from high school. Only instead of Swedish Fish, we used Tootsie Rolls. They were called “Tootsie Roll Meetings” and at the end of the year, before a big speech-and-debate event, we’d sit in this huge circle in a living room and get all those huge feelings out with candies.
I think… if I could go back in time, maybe I’d use Swedish Fish instead? I never really liked Tootsie Rolls much. But goodness, did I love those meetings. And it really established what my character would be like, growing up. A teenager who always said what they were feeling and kept my heart on my sleeve. A lot of my characters are like that.
As an established author and a literary agent, do you have advice for young writers or people wanting to break into the publishing industry?
I feel like patience is my big one, as far as writing goes. Publishing is this weird industry where nothing happens and then suddenly everything does. Just keep writing, just keep talking with your community, and pushing yourself forward.
And I guess community ties into that advice in a big way too. I feel like the publishing journey is full of way more joy when you have a group of friends with you along the way. To celebrate with, to gripe with, it’s important. Find your people, whether it’s connecting on social media or at a meetup at your local bookstore. It’ll make this whole process a lot better.
As for breaking into the industry, don’t be afraid to say hi to industry professionals on social media or via email. A lot of us are happy to do informational interviews, dish advice, etc. when we can. Everyone is swamped these days and trying to their best, so again, patience there, but reach out.
And keep your eyes open for internships and other opportunities. I’m such a fan of the Publishers Marketplace jobs board, which is free, and everyone posts gigs on. Great place to watch for jobs.
But again, comes down to community. Connect, chat, be kind. We’re all just trying to make good books happen.
The story in You Can Go Your Own Way feels like a love letter to Philly – do you have any recommendations for some of your top underrated spots in town?
I adore the plant shops down on Passyunk, like Urban Jungle and ILLExotics (which has an amazing selection of reptiles, my goodness), as well as places like Stump in Northern Liberties. I’m not sure if they’re underrated, because plant people certainly love those spots, but they’re places that have brought me a lot of joy.
If you’ve never been to Giovanni’s Room in Center City, it’s a historic LGBTQ+ book store that has an amazing selection of used and new books, and sales go to good causes. I love rummaging through their dollar bins and browsing the shelves there. I found a signed Margaret Atwood poetry book there once!
And maybe… Grace Tavern? I hype that place up among my friends all the time, but it is the best hamburger in the entire city of Philadelphia. Hands down.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from You Can Go Your Own Way?
That you aren’t bound to your past. That you deserve love that’s unconditional. A lot of Whitney goes through in this book, is trying to prove to her father that she’s worth of attention and affection, through working non-stop. I grew up with a lot of friends who had to deal with conditional love. If their grades weren’t good enough, well, affection got taken away.
That’s not okay. You deserve to be heard and hugged no matter what.
Which books do you think You Can Go Your Own Way is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for recently published or forthcoming YA books?
I’ve seen a few people compare You Can Go Your Own Way to Emma Lord’s Tweet Cute, which makes me really happy (rivals over grilled cheese sandwiches falling for one another). And probably any of Whitney Gardner’s books? I’m such a massive fan of everything she writes, and they always have a spectacularly geeky hook tied to a powerful story about friendship and family. Oh! Same goes with Sarvenaz Taghavian. There’s a special reason Virtually Yours appears on page in You Can Go Your Own Way. Her novels inspire me, and I think you’ll inspire you too.
Eric Smith (he/him) is a Young Adult author from Elizabeth, New Jersey. His recent books include The Girl and the Grove, Don’t Read the Comments, and You Can Go Your Own Way, as well as the anthology Battle of the Bands, co-edited with Lauren Gibaldi. During the day, he can be found working as a literary agent with P.S. Literary. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and son.
Aleah Gornbein currently works in publicity at Holiday House, the first American publisher founded with the intent of only publishing children’s books. She liked school so much she went back to get a Master’s in Publishing a year after graduating college. As someone who has yet to read a story with all of her identities represented, her goal is to help put diverse books into the hands of kids. You can find her shouting about books on TikTok and Twitter (@bookworm613) or at Books of Wonder events sitting in the back row (when we’re not in a pandemic).