Molly Morris talks teenagers coping with grief in her unforgettable novel, This Is Not the End

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Part road-trip drama, part comedy and part romance, This is Not the End is a super fun summer read packed with twists and heartfelt conversations.

Ever since the sudden deaths of his parents, seventeen-year-old Hugh has developed a serious preoccupation with endings – and things get a little complicated when he meets Olivia Moon, a high-school outcast who can’t die.

We chatted with Molly Morris on her unforgettable YA contemporary debut.

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Congratulations on this amazingly weird (and I 100% mean it as a compliment) debut novel! Everything is so creative – from the ice cream truck, to the Spoiler Alert blog, to Macaulay Culkin. What an exclamation. Please tell us where you get all the inspirations from.

Having my novel called “weird” is the best compliment I could’ve asked for, so thank you! It is insanely weird.
I’d like to say I sit and ponder all the ways in which I can make my writing weirder, but if I’m being honest, this is just how my brain works. I think in pop culture references; it’s just how I relate to the world. When I say or hear things, I’ll often say them as I hear them in my favourite shows (usually the US version of The Office or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and all my comparisons are references to my favourite books and movies.
People often say it’s numbers that bind us as humans because they’re the same in every culture, but I feel the same way about pop culture. If I compare something with a reference to the Kardashian family or the movie School of Rock, there’s a good chance somebody’s going to instantly know what I’m talking about. It’s a really deep (and I’ll be honest, convenient) form of connection and communication, so I like to bring that into my writing. And because I’m in to things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other weird stuff, the weirdness just sort of naturally comes out on its own.

Which ice cream flavour from Killer Ice Cream truck would you personally want the most? And which pun are you proud of the most?

You know what? I actually hate ice cream. Okay, that’s not entirely true, but it’s definitely not what I go for when I want something sweet. I worked at an ice cream store for the better part of three years as a teenager and it was a deeply strange experience (YOU try helping your boss pick out lingerie for a party). I also ate ice cream on almost every shift, so this, combined with my eclectic array of fellow employees (some of whom were truly delightful) kind of marred it for me.
That said, I think I’d most want to eat Happy Birthday Charlie Manson, which was inspired by my favourite birthday cake-flavoured ice cream at my job. I love buttercream frosting and sprinkles. I’m most proud of Pogo’s Surprise though, because I think that takes a little extra knowledge of John Wayne Gacy Jr. to understand, though I guess that’s not exactly something to be proud of. I actually watched the John Wayne Gacy Jr. series of Conversations with a Killer on Netflix recently—this was after I sent the final draft of my novel to the editorial team—and it was so horrific and traumatising that I thought, “My god, did I go too far?”

Do you also hate those movie endings yourself? How do you pick which movies for Hugh to include on his Spoiler Alert site?

Yes! It was very important to me to only write about pop culture references/books/movies/etc. that I actually have experience with and care about. Initially I tried including references to movies/books I hadn’t seen or read, but it just didn’t work. I have to have a certain energy and passion for what I’m writing about for it to work, and if I don’t have it, I find it really hard to write anything I’m happy with.
That said, I didn’t necessarily hate all the endings I wrote about, but I can definitely see why they’re perceived as “bad.” I actually really liked the endings to Shutter Island, Inception and Avengers: Infinity War, but I can understand why others wouldn’t, especially Hugh – they’re kind of cheap, but if I found them impressive, I tend to let it slide. I actually find it really difficult to disassociate myself from my narrator and not just write them as an extension of myself. There were times when I was writing Hugh and kept thinking, “Hey, he’s actually wrong about this! I can’t write that.” And I actually had to have a talk with myself and be like, “Molly, you know you’re not actually Hugh, right? He’s allowed to have different thoughts than you.” So, I picked the movies/people/shows he would definitely have the biggest problems with, endings that are on the whole unsatisfying to most people or that he himself would have experience with. He loves Motown music, and there are a lot of bad endings in the world of Motown, so it made sense to include those.

All these fun little features make This is Not the End so rich and add so much depth to the story. How do you balance between adding the right amount of details and not burying the main storyline?

With great care! Honestly, I write with such bulk in a first draft, I have to go back and make significant cuts so readers can actually see what the story is about. It’s not always easy.
The way I write is, I see the story as a movie in my head. I cast everyone with Hollywood actors and actresses, set the stage in places I usually have some experience with (like my old house in Washington, DC; a music venue I held an event at in Brooklyn) and then watch the scene play out in my head and write down what I see, almost like a transcription. Sometimes it’s too much detail, sometimes it’s not enough, so I generally have to go back and add and subtract after initially taking the scene down.
I just recently wrote a new manuscript, and it had so many character quirks that were just taking away from the storyline, so I had to go back and take a lot out. For me at least, I know when I get it right – when I don’t, it feels almost like a head cold. Reading the story back feels heavy and foggy and just not right, even though it can technically function. So, I smooth things out, move scenes and details around, and I just know when it’s right again. I feel lighter and clearer.

The character developments in This is Not the End are also top-notch. Hugh gets to have a personal in-depth chat with most of the characters and in particular, some great conversations with the adult figures in his life. In YA novels, the protagonist mainly just interacts with people their age. Why do you think it is so important for him to have these confrontations with the adults?

Thank you! While writing this book I worried I was making it the Hugh Show by having him have beef with basically all the other main characters, but this was a big transitory point in his life in which he needed to confront all his own insecurities and demons, so that meant a lot of his friendships were shaken up along the way.

I think people chronically underestimate the depth of teenagers and their experiences. It’s not just (and in all honesty, probably never has been) all soda parlours and prom night; teenagers experience profound loss and love and stress and anguish in the same way adults do and a lot of the time alongside adults, so it was important to me to acknowledge this and give Hugh and his friends the credit they deserved by putting their issues on the same level as their adult counterparts.

Everything Hugh has been through has meant he’s had to grow up quite quickly too, so it made sense that he had to hash out these big emotions with adults. And I always tend to write very immature adults—or adults with younger-sounding voices—so I think Hugh tends to see them on his level anyway rather than as these “superior” adults. He has to work hard to acknowledge that his sister is an adult who deserves his respect, so having him realise this was a natural part of his story arc.

This book is pitched as the next Tik-Tok sensation (and yes I agree). Which type of BookTok trend do you want to try to promote This is Not the End?

Why thank you! I actually quite like the idea of TINTE being paired up with the storyline trend, where people talk about the plot of a novel as though it was their own life. Not only is this hilarious, but I also think it would be something Hugh would do anyway. I can just imagine him being like, “DUDE. SO. I was driving my sister’s van one afternoon when I saw this girl from my high school…”

What are you most looking forward to regarding YALC? (Other than writing your name on your forehead because you have cut your hair)

Oh my gosh, definitely praying they’ve got name tags because those flowing locks (read: scraggly, prematurely greying hair) from my YALC promo picture are a thing of the past.
In all seriousness, I’m unbelievably excited to see Ciara Smyth. I’d heard about her novel Not My Problem from the Waterstones newsletter or something but otherwise didn’t know much about it, so when I did pick it up in preparation for YALC, I was immediately floored by its brilliance and humour. I’m going to fan girl so embarrassingly hard when I see her.
I’m also just excited to get up on stage with other authors as though I’m actually interesting. It still blows my mind to think that anyone would want to hear anything I have to say regarding writing and books and teenagers and everything else, so that’s pretty darn cool.

Get your copy of This is Not the End here

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