I wrote the first draft of TRANSFER STUDENT in 2006 after my father-in-law died. It was a crazy, sad time. I was working at the Los Angeles Times on the re-opening of the Griffith Observatory [it had been closed for five years for renovations] and we were back-and-forth between LA and Fresno [a four hour drive from LA], more and more frequently as my father-in-law got worse and worse, eventually ending up on life support. His name was Ray. I named the Reathan word for “year” in his honor.
After Ray passed, just hours after, it was nighttime and my husband Joe, his mom and I all sat out on my mother-in-law’s patio and looked at the stars. She said she knew Ray was up there, one of the stars. And that’s all it took. I had the beginnings of a story about souls that traveled, that starjumped, through space. And I wanted to explore the idea of a parallel planet similar to Earth, a sister planet. Retha is that planet and an anagram for Earth.
There were other things that inspired the story too. Los Angeles was a major inspiration because I raised my kids there and I love the city. So I knew that the female protagonist would be from LA. And since I worked in entertainment for a time, I knew Beverly Hills would be a lot of fun to write about.
I also wrote about places I had more of a connection to––Griffith Park and Zuma beach. And lastly, a news story that unfolded over the years further inspired the plot as I wrote and rewrote Transfer Student.
This same news story is also why I decided to tell Transfer Student from two POVs, a teenage girl and a teenage boy alien. The news story profiled the hostilities surrounding a man who announced he would be having an operation to become a woman. Because he was an official in a municipality this was a very public, personal announcement. It made national news at the time. It captured my attention for a variety of reasons and I knew that I wanted to write a story about how the vessel that a soul inhabits doesn’t define it. A story that’s been written perhaps a million times, but I wanted to write about in a way that explored many things: what it means to love; what it means to be a boy or a girl; what it means to risk everything to become who you really are. Transfer Student is a classic fish-out-of-water story that I’ve written as a love letter to teens and also as a way for all of us to see a piece of ourselves in everyone we meet, no matter our differences, no matter what planet we call home.
As far as the actual writing of the story I had a few challenges. I had never written in a male POV. My early drafts really show that weakness. I always wrote Ashley in the first person. But, I’d always write Rhoe from the third person, as if I was literarily tip-toeing up to the first person present that he’s written in today.
I have no idea how many drafts I’ve written of Transfer Student. But I do know that in order to get to first person present I had to write in the third and past too so I could be sure that the first person present was the only way to tell the story I wanted to tell. There is nothing more immediate than first person present, in my humble opinion. And I want the reader to be on the journey as it happens. To feel and discover with the characters. I want the reader to starjump with the characters and experience the longing and awkwardness that comes when you try to figure out a new world. There was only one tense that would do––first person present.
I hope Transfer Student sounds like a story you’d like to read.