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Alex, Approximately

Jenn Bennett

In ALEX, APPROXIMATELY, teenager Bailey moves across the US to the West Coast to live with her father - and to track down a boy, Alex, who she is friends with online.

Bailey plans to discover Alex's real identity before revealing who she is. But then she meets the aggravating (yet very attractive) Porter and her plans for the summer start to go awry.

We asked author JENN BENNETT to tell us more about ALEX, APPROXIMATELY

Q: What brought you into writing for and about teenagers?

A: In my first published book series, I wrote a teenage character named Jupe, who was a favourite with readers. I often heard the comment "She should write YA". My agent suggested I try it, and six weeks later, I'd written Night Owls. It felt comfortable and right, a good fit for my voice. Maybe I'm still a teenager at heart?

Q: What was it about the film You've Got Mail that made you decide to base your book on it?

A: You've Got Mail is based on an older classic film from 1940, starring Jimmy Stewart, called The Shop Around the Corner.

When I originally decided to write something based on this plot structure, I had stayed up all night, sick with the flu. Early in the morning, The Shop Around the Corner showed on a classic film TV station. I watched it and was utterly charmed. That's the moment I decided to write Alex, Approximately.

It wasn't until many weeks later that I did a re-watch of You've Got Mail, but I definitely enjoy this movie, as well.

Q: How hard was it to develop your own teenaged characters, Bailey and Porter, when you have watched the two adult characters in the original story?

A: Once I'm inspired by something, I put it out of my mind and let my imagination run in a different direction, so it wasn't difficult at all. It's just a jumping-off point.

Q: Did the fact that the reader knows the characters' online identity, and the characters don't, make the story harder or easier to write?

A: So much harder! That's the delicious part about it: that the reader is basically a fly on the wall who knows something that neither characters knows. It's a twist on the normal way you'd read something.

One of my favourite old TV shows is the American mystery series, Columbo. In this series, the viewer sees the murder at the beginning of each show. Moreover, the detective, Columbo, has a pretty good idea who the murderer is at the beginning. The joy is watching him figure out why the person was killed and gather all the clues he needs to make an accusation.

That's how I saw this book: readers know from the beginning that Bailey and Porter are their online identities, Mink and Alex. But they don't know. And that's exciting.

Q: Bailey and Porter each reflect on how their love of film developed - when did your love of film start and what are your three all-time favourites?

A: My love of film started young. Raiders of the Lost Ark and the first three Star Wars films were some of my favourites when I was a child (and still are). It's hard to pinpoint just three all-time favourites, but I suppose these would be up there: Amelie (2001), The Thin Man (1934), The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Films I've re-watched over and over? Young Frankenstein (1974), The Shining (1980), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Clash of the Titans (1981) - from which I can't turn away, like a car crash, every time it's shown on TV.

Q: Each chapter in the book starts with a quote from a film. Why did you decide to do that and how hard was it to find the quotes?

A: It was my (brilliant) editor who suggested it, and what a great suggestion it was! I tried to pick quotes that mirrored the plot or feeling of each chapter, so that part was tricky.

But I have a lot of film knowledge. My husband and I own thousands of DVDs, literally, and he was a film major in college. So it was a lot of back and forth between us, trying to remember particular lines and running through all the possibilities.

Q: Which films mentioned in the book do you hope your readers will be inspired to go and watch?

A: If readers haven't seen any Hitchcock films, I'd hope they'd try Vertigo, North by Northwest, or Rear Window. For classic romantic comedies - particularly 'screwball comedies' of the 1930s and 1940s, which inspired a lot of the feel of this book - I'd hope readers would try The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby, two of my absolute favourites.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the setting - which really does make you want to go find a West Coast beach...

A: The town in the book, Coronado Cove, is based on Santa Cruz, California. Boardwalk, surfing, redwood forests, foggy summer mornings and sunny afternoons. I just added the quirky museum and a few other details.

Q: Although Alex, Approximately is based on a comedy romance, your story also deals with some difficult family circumstances for Bailey and Porter. Is it important for you as a writer to have the 'grit' to write about, too?

A: I describe my books as 'dramedies'. There's humour and joy and swooning, but there's also problems and issues and conflict. That feels true about life in general, I think. I don't like to write about dying kids, and all my books have hopeful endings, but conflict is important.

Q: The story is driven by Bailey and Porter's repartee - is that what you enjoy in your writing?

A: To be honest, repartee is the main reason I write anything at all. It's all about the banter! When I'm writing dialogue, I don't say it out loud, I just try to know my characters inside and out.

Even if it doesn't make it to the page (and most of it doesn't), I know what their childhood was like, their favourite food/music, their politics, and that's how I know what pushes their buttons, so to speak.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: I've recently finished my next YA contemporary book, Starry Eyes, which will publish next year. It's about a teen boy and girl from rival families who get stuck in the California wilderness together when their friends abandon them on a camping trip. Currently, I'm writing a YA historical adventure with a bit of a fantastical element (and romance, of course).

Q: What's your favourite escape from writing?

A: I never want to escape from writing. If anything, I'm constantly wishing for fewer distractions! But I also paint (oil painting, in which I have a degree), cook, collect old books, put together jigsaw puzzles, play video games, watch old movies, read, walk my dogs, think about doing yoga, and dream about travelling...

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Your reviews Jenn Bennett

ALEX, APPROXIMATELY - publishing later this month - sees teenager Bailey crossing the US to find...

Your reviews

Ella Queen of Jazz, I loved the direct style and brightly coloured, eye-catching pictures, the collage design and...