On the statistical probability of a windfall

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By Nickky Faustine P. De Guzman

Her love stories spring from serendipity: an e-mail sent to the wrong person, a chance encounter at an airport, and getting stuck in an elevator. Jennifer E. Smith, the author behind the young adult (YA) books This is What Happy Looks Like, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, and The Geography of You and Me, believes in fate and chance.

“I’ve been obsessed with moments in time that act as hinges, a split on before and after. Yesterday your life is one way and tomorrow it’s entirely different. I just love exploring themes on fate, timing, and chance,” said the author whose books have been translated into 33 languages.

Her brand is about happenstance, and she’s happy to find this voice as a writer to set herself apart from other novelists.

“Ever since I wrote the Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight I’ve got so many comments from readers who have met the love of their lives on a plane. These things absolutely happen in real life, and that’s what makes them fun to read,” she said.

It follows that her latest book, Windfall, is about statistics: What are the odds of winning the lottery?

Alice, who is secretly in love with her best friend, Teddy, buys him a lottery ticket as a birthday gift. Their friendship and love story are soon changed after he wins $140 million.

“Everybody has areas of interest, and about chances happen to be mine,” she said in an interview with BusinessWorld on Nov. 9, two days before she held a book signing in Cebu.

Always drawn to tales of good luck, the book she is currently writing, well, follows the same theme: a love story set in a train traveling from New York to San Francisco. It’s not yet done, and she feels no pressure to finish it anytime soon, since the book won’t be out until 2019. In between travelling for work and pleasure, she sits down to write, but she is quick to share that the right words don’t often come out.

“I try to write every day but it always doesn’t shake out. I don’t have a strict process, I wish I was more methodical but I’m in the mindset where if it’s not working in a day I don’t get stuck there in my computer for hours. I go out and take a walk or something. But if there’s something, on the flip side, if it’s working really well I’ll cancel my dinner plans and work through the night. Keep it going,” she said.

Asked about the significance of the written word in the “post-truth” digital age of “fake news,” she said fiction will always provide optimism.

“At times like these when you think the world is falling apart, you worry that it is less to be writing small stories. But it is actually the small stories that provide hope and empathy. I’m a firm believer that books are the lights in the crack — and we are in darkness right now. I think in a way it is more important than ever to be writing stories that are full of hope,” she said of her novels.

“It’s too broad to say that all YAs are escapism, but you can call my books as such,” she said.

Her books may be anchored on love stories, but they tackle universal stories on ambition, family, friends, and achieving dreams.

Her stories are also bankable when translated from page to the screen. At this moment, the team behind The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight movie production is castings. Dustin Lance Black (Milk) wrote the script and will direct the film adaptation.

Still, the written words are always better than the moving pictures, she confessed. “I would like to think that any movies made from my books would be an exception because it only gets better with other people’s visions and interpretations, but in general, I do think that books are better than movies. You know, it’s a translation. It’s not the same thing, and I do tend to love books more than the movie,” she said, smiling.

But then again, we might as well visit the movie houses — and bookstores — because who knows what we might find there. A new love, perhaps?

Q&A WITH JENNIFER E. SMITH

Some people are very snobbish about YA because they think it’s too mushy or it’s for the kids only, how do you change these notions?

I think everyone was 16 once. There’s a wonderful nostalgia to YA. There’s so many great stories and writers working on the genre right now. There’s so many disparaging articles written about teens, but try to read books about them, see where they are coming from, what they are thinking. They are good books that just happened to be about 16-year-olds.

How has social media and the Internet changed the art of writing?

It can be a distraction, so I try to limit myself so I’m not perusing all day. I try to do it in chunks of time and give myself 20 minutes in the afternoon and at night, for example, but less focus on reading because of the political climate in the US where it’s a little bit bleak sometimes to be there all day. You sometimes need to step away but then it is important to keep up with what’s happening. I found it a lot harder this year than ever before. I particularly love Instagram, but I am not so active that it hindered my writing but I learned a lot by following other writers on Twitter. Following even If I’m not talking [to them] I learn a lot.

How do you deal with feedback, especially the bad?

I try to tune out, not because I don’t appreciate what people say. Sometimes it’s a huge privilege for me when people take the time to read and comment. If you read a review that is 99% great, that one thing that is negative is what you will remember a year from now. So it can be really hard, it can be distracting. And I don’t want to be crowdsourcing based on what people think should happen. Once it is out of my hands, it does not belong to me anymore, but the readers. They are completely entitled to their opinions, the same way I am entitled to mine when I read.

What would you do if you win the lottery like your character, Alice in Windfall?

I think there are a lot of themes in the book Windfall about good deeds, random kindness, and volunteering, and those are things that are important to me. There are, of course, things that I’d want to do that are a little bit more personal or selfish. I would love to travel even more than I already do, [would] love to buy cottage in Scotland. There are things I want to buy, like a bookstore. There’s something invigorating about the idea of winning enough money to help people’s dreams come true, especially now, it is so important to give kindness to the world. I don’t really play the lottery, and the odds are small, but you never know.

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