Brianna Bourne grew up in Indonesia and Egypt and now lives in England with her husband and their two young daughters. When she’s not writing, she is a stage manager for ballet companies around the world, and her 2021 debut novel, You & Me at the End of the World, is a YA romance with a speculative twist: teenage ballet dancer Hannah wakes up to find herself in a silent, empty Houston. She is completely alone in the city… except for one other person: a very cute musician named Leo.
After reading You & Me, I was so happy to get to ask Bri some questions about her book, her writing career, and her life.
You work as a stage manager for ballet companies (so cool!), so where does writing fit in? Did you always want to be a writer, or is this something you came to recently?
I’ve always loved to write, and if you’d asked elementary-school-me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have 100% said “Author.” Once I got to high school, though, that felt like an impossible dream, and the path to becoming a writer seemed unclear and risky. So I decided to go for a more stable career – in theatre! I went to a conservatory-style theatre arts college to learn the ins and outs of backstage work. After graduation I worked primarily for ballet companies, like English National Ballet and Houston Ballet.
In between gigs, and when work was less busy, I’d write snippets of things, and I always felt the pull to tell stories in that way. About five years ago, I decided to give Hannah and Leo’s story, which had been brewing in me for many years, a real, concerted effort.
In your novel, Hannah is a ballet dancer. Were you ever a dancer?
I was never a dancer myself – although I did take a few ballet classes in college so I could better support the dancers I worked with. I love dancing, but I have a very low pain threshold, and you have to be extremely tough to be a ballet dancer!
Without any spoilers, where did the idea for You & Me at the End of the World originate?
I knew I wanted to write a YA love story where the two main characters get to be alone—really alone—for a solid chunk of time. No school, no parents, no expectations. When you’re falling in love for the first time, it so often has to squeeze in around all the pre-existing parts of your life.
It wasn’t until an image popped into my head—a girl walking barefoot down an empty twelve-lane highway—that I knew where to start. What would it be like to wake up to find you’re the last person in the huge city you’ve lived in all your life? The streets are silent, the air is still, and there’s no sign of what happened to everyone else—but somehow the electricity still works and your grocery store doors slide open on brightly lit, fully-stocked shelves.
And then… a boy.
Was You & Me your first completed manuscript, or do you have other “drawer novels?”
I wrote one objectively awful middle grade fantasy many years ago, but I guess it proved to me that I could string 70,000 words into a book-shaped object!
The setting in You & Me is so evocative: Houston, Texas, completely devoid of people. How was it writing about Houston while living in England? Is Houston a special place to you?
I love Houston! I went to high school there, and I visit my family there every summer, so it’s still very vivid to me – even when I’m typing next to a window overlooking the rain-soaked English countryside.
Houston is such a vibrant, diverse, and noisy city, and it’s huge, so seeing it empty and quiet is more of a gut-punch than if I’d set the book in a small rural town. And Hannah and Leo are city kids, so they’re thrown even more off-kilter by the emptiness.
You weathered many agent rejections before you finally found representation with Chloe Seager of Madeline Milburn Literary Agency. How long were you in the querying trenches? How did you find the confidence and motivation to keep going?
I queried You & Me two separate times, for about 6-9 months each time. (With a major from-scratch rewrite in between!) There were so many moments when I was on the verge of giving up. I was getting a lot of requests, but nothing was turning into an offer, and I couldn’t figure out why.
By the time I got the offer of rep from my agency, my confidence was nonexistent, so at that point I was running on pure stubbornness. I’d given so much of myself to this story; I couldn’t bear to pull it off the table until I’d tried absolutely everything. My wonderful critique group and my WriteMentor mentor were a huge help in keeping my spirits from dipping below rock bottom during those months.
You & Me was on the New York Times “10 YA Books to Add to Your Reading List This Summer,” was listed by BookRiot as one of their “20 Must-Read 2021 Young Adult Fantasy Releases,” AND was a Waterstones “Teen and YA Paperback of the Year.”
First of all, CONGRATS! Second of all, how does this happen? Is there a way to make sure your book gets into the hands of the “right” people?
Thank you so much! I was thrilled to see You & Me on those lists. I have no idea how I got on the New York Times one – I imagine their YA Book Editor gets sent tons of books from publishers, and they write about the ones that they enjoyed? I think the Waterstones one is based purely on sales numbers – but again I’m not completely sure!
My publicist at Scholastic is incredible, and he makes sure all of the trade review panels (Kirkus, School Library Journal, etc.) get a copy, as well as prominent journalists and bookbloggers, but after that You & Me (and the vast majority of books) have to rely on word of mouth for success. A very select few books are earmarked for more marketing dollars, and will be positioned with a better chance at becoming a bestseller.
Like me, you have two young daughters. How do you make time for writing, your family, and your job?
It’s extremely difficult to juggle everything, as I’m sure many of your readers know! The theatre industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, so I haven’t don’t any theatre work in quite a while. I haven’t found the perfect solution to mom/writing balance yet, but one thing I’ve learned is that I have to treat my writing time with the respect I’d give to any other job, and that means setting firm boundaries around my writing time. No one would question me if I said I need to be at the theatre from 11am to 11pm, but I used to feel guilty about spending even a couple of hours at my desk writing. I had to push through that, and now I’m very clear about how much writing time I need each week, which can vary immensely depending on where I’m at in edits. I wrote You & Me almost exclusively between the hours of 9pm and 2am, but now that I’m a “real” author, I have the flexibility to write during the day occasionally. (Luxury!)
Your author website and Instagram are both gorgeous, and it seems like you know what you’re doing when it comes to building an author brand. Is this something you were doing on your own before you had your book deal, or something you’ve learned about recently?
Thank you so much for saying that! Social media doesn’t come naturally to me, and it took a huge amount of time to establish my website and my handles. I didn’t start building them until after I had my book deal, so I had a lot of catching up to do. The book cover helped to get a color scheme going, but it really has just been me Googling every step of the way.
How much do your agent and publicist help with things like your website and social media presence?
My agent, editor, and publicist work extremely hard to support the bo
ok in other ways, but the Instagram and the website are all me. (It might surprise you to hear that when you see bookmarks or swag campaigns or even giveaways, they are usually 100% author driven and paid for!) Of course, if I ever need advice or help, there’s always someone that I can email.
You’re at work on a new book… can you tell us anything about it??
It’s another epic YA romance with a speculative twist, this time between a tall, dark and broody boy and a STEM genius girl. It’s full of crisp autumn vibes and blistering romantic tension, and I can’t wait to start sharing more details about it!
Can’t wait! And finally, what’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
It’s terrifying to tear into a completed draft, but making dramatic cuts and changes is the only way to take a manuscript to the next level. I could spend years making small line edits on a manuscript, but most of the time the only thing that will fix deeper issues and weaknesses is plunging your hands in and breaking things apart to put them back together in a different way. You got this – the old draft will always be there!
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Eva!
Many thanks to Brianna Bourne for answering all my questions. You can find Brianna Bourne on Twitter, Instagram, or at her lovely author website. Be sure to check out Me & You at the End of the World and be on the look out for her next book!