Editor Heather Demetrios Discusses the DEAR HEARTBREAK Anthology

The Q & A

What is the origin story of the DEAR HEARTBREAK anthology?

I adored Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar, which my agent got me as a Christmas gift our first year together. The whole thing is an instruction on holding space, telling your story, and how to be emotionally intelligent while navigating the challenges of being a human. Oh, and it’s brilliantly written, too. One day I realized it’d be a great format for teen readers, and adults who want to get back in touch with their teen years, or even parents with teens. I was excited about getting letters from teens all over the world, of taking this collective pain and making something hopeful and beautiful with it. And I was jazzed to see what kind of work this project could draw out of some of my favorite YA authors. I told them, before signing on, that this was going to push their limits, that we needed to meet these teens’ raw openness with their same level of vulnerability and generosity. And they did. The YA authors who contributed to the anthology were able to dig deep, and I am so proud of them.

I think we’ve really created something that can be a balm for people, and a little light in the darkness. A book that says, “I see you.”

Self-love became an unexpected theme of the book, which became a big takeaway for a lot of readers.

How does revision work for you? What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

Well, I’ll tell you my regret about this book. From Day One, I wanted it to focus on romantic heartbreak, both because we’d conceived of it as a Valentine’s Day book, but also because, in the back of my mind, I envisioned future Dear Heartbreaks. One totally focused on family heartbreak, and another totally focused on friend heartbreak. And while those types of hurt are also mixed into this book (because it’s all connected), the letter writers’ main focus was on some kind of romantic heartbreak.

I’ve heard people say it, including myself: don’t hold anything back with a book. Don’t assume there will be more books in a series, don’t assume you’ll live to write the next one. Don’t hold back.

And while this wasn’t a case of holding back so much as a decision, I now wish I had mirrored Dear Sugar even more, and included some of the amazing letters I was “saving” for later. Because who knows if there actually will be another Dear Heartbreak? And it kills me that those letters – like the one from the girl who was worried her family was going to be deported – may never be shared. This is my seventh book, and I feel like a bit of a rookie with that mistake. I think I let Market and Career in with that choice.

What are your favorite VCFA memories?

My class, the Allies in Wonderland (2014), were so, SO close. To me, VCFA is synonymous with family. I often joke that I paid for my writing tribe, and that they were worth every penny. I remember our last semester, I think it was, a bunch of us flopping onto the lawn and looking at the stars: I don’t remember all who was there–I was squished up next to Ibi Zoboi and, I think, Kathryn Hughes. Pablo Cartaya was somewhere, which meant Joe McGee and Jess Rinker were nearby. And I’m pretty sure Frankie Bolt and Cammen Lowsutuer and Linda Camacho, maybe, and Lisa Papademtriou were there too. A bunch of us. And I thought my heart might burst from love and from being in the only place in the world I wanted to be at that moment. My favorite thing about books is the crew of friends — the fellowship.

And that’s what VCFA gives you: your very own fellowship on the journey of the writer’s life.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student? 

I would say that, the biggest thing, is to always push yourself. Sometimes you’ll get an advisor who does that, and that’s great. But one of the things the low residency model teaches you is how to be your own champion, your own advocate, your own disciplinarian.

I always say that the model is really the best way to study writing in higher education. I believe so because it mirrors the “real” writing life, and, to some extent, the editorial relationship. You can’t be passive in this. So know what you want, ask for what you need, and give it your all. Don’t come to VCFA to get published. No one can guarantee you that. Come to get better. 

My work with Amanda Jenkins, in particular, formed the foundation of who I am as a writer today.

About The Book

This is a book about the dark side of love: the way it kicks your ass, tears out your heart, and then forces you to eat it, bite by bloody bite. If you’ve felt this way, you’re not alone…

In this powerful collection, YA authors answer real letters from teens all over the world about the dark side of love: dating violence, break-ups, cheating, betrayals, and loneliness. This book contains a no-holds-barred, raw outpouring of the wisdom these authors have culled from mining their own hearts for the fiction they write. Their responses are autobiographical, unflinching, and filled with love and hope for the anonymous teen letter writers.

Featuring Adi Alsaid, Becky Albertalli, Libba Bray, Mike Curato, Heather Demetrios, Amy Ewing, Zach Fehst, Gayle Forman, Corey Ann Haydu, Varian Johnson, A.S. King, Nina LaCour, Kim Liggett, Kekla Magoon, Sarah McCarry, Sandhya Menon, Cristina Moracho, Jasmine Warga, and Ibi Zoboi.

About Heather Demetrios

Heather Demetrios (’14) is a young adult author, writing coach, and meditation teacher for writers. She’s the recipient of the Susan P. Bloom PEN New England Award and the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Bad RomanceI’ll Meet You There, and Exquisite Captive. She’s the editor of Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love, which features several VCFA faculty and alumni, and the author of Codename Badass, an upcoming feminist pop biography of WWII spy, Virginia Hall. New fantasy, contemporary, and historical novels are also forthcoming. Her honors include books that have been named Bank Street Best Children’s Books, YALSA Best Fiction For Young Adults selections, a Goodreads Choice Nominee, a Kirkus Best Book, and a Barnes and Noble Best Book. She lives abroad in various locales, but you can always find her at heatherdemetrios.com.