Courtney Peppernell talks Pillow Thoughts
Charlie Upchurch: I had an opportunity to talk to one of your editors at AM the other day and we were talking about the Chainsmokers and how they were a fan of your work…
Courtney Peppernell: What happened with Pillow Thoughts is originally it was self-published, and it had been out for a couple of months, and one morning I woke up and all these people on Instagram had messaged me and said that the Chainsmokers had tweeted out a poem from the book and everybody was asking “where is this poem from, we love this poem” so just to wake up to that was incredible. I knew who the Chainsmokers were too, I love their music, I like what they’re about, so to have them connect with a piece of my writing was super awesome and so we contacted them and they said “yeah send us a copy of the book we’d love to read it” and everything happened from there.
CU: You have written for a long time, since you were young, so can you tell me a little about that?
CP: I started writing when I was young. I’ve always loved writing and I’ve always liked writing short stories. Writing was how I expressed myself. I can be kind of quiet and I guess withdrawn, but over the years writing has really helped me to come out of my shell and say the things I want to say. When I was younger, I wrote a lot. The first taste of being an author and going down that road was that I had a blog for a couple years on Tumblr and someone wrote to me and asked if I could write a fanfiction about Glee. I was like “what is fanfiction and what is Glee” [laughs]. Like I’d never heard of either of those, and this is going back a couple years now, but I investigated and I saw that fanfiction was something where people could write their own takes on movies or TV shows or bands or whatever and Glee was this show about singing. So I wrote this fanfiction called “The South Side of Anywhere” and it was about two characters from Glee and it turned into this story that so many people responded to. I had so many emails, so many messages from people saying how much they love the story and how much they connect with it. I thought “I can’t believe I can have so much impact on someone, this is something I want to do” and a few years later I put together Chasing Paper Cranes and kind of went from there.
CU: Yeah that’s amazing! It’s also so cool to hear that because one of the things I wanted us to talk about is that people can access writing in so many ways and you were able to do fanfiction on the internet and get this really positive reinforcement that gave you the spark.
CP: Yeah I love that, and I think that’s why social media is so important in this day and age because there are so many platforms that connect people with all different kinds of writing and all different kinds of styles, which is really awesome. The poetry we’re writing now is more of a gateway. I was saying to a reader (since she was asking what I thought about traditional poetry and this new kind of poetry we’re writing today), and to me, it’s kind of like, back then we had the same feelings and felt the same things, it was just written differently. Language evolves and changes over time and poets that wrote about love 50 years ago, well we’re still writing about love as well, we’re just speaking to our generation. So I think it’s really cool to think that someone walks into Barnes & Noble and picks up Pillow Thoughts but then sitting on the shelf next to it is Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickinson and maybe they’ve never been exposed to poetry like that, but they pick it up and they think “I kinda like this too” so it’s bringing them together, connecting them, and I think that’s cool. Like I was saying before, everyone has their own style and to me, writing, no matter what form, has always just been about expression. I think everyone has their own story and their own way of saying how they feel, and it doesn’t matter the style or how its written if its making other people connect, and not feel alone, or think “hey, I’ve thought that too! Someone else in the world feels the same way I do and I feel a bit better.” That’s always a good thing. I get a lot of messages saying “hey I just went through this breakup” or “you’re helping me get through this” and I say this to my readers all the time, that I’m just like your friend in the corner saying “you can get through this, you can do it.” That’s really important to me, at least that they’re sort of connecting with that and feeling that way and thinking “Hey I’m in a really hurt place right now, and I’m trying to heal, and I’m reading this, and it’s getting me to the point where I can start to heal and start to move on.” It’s amazing to me and I’m glad that it’s helping people. I’m a big believer that you have to stop thinking about “what if,” you have to think about “what is.” You have to take what you’ve been given and move forward with it and say, “okay well I can’t control this, but I can control how I deal with it and how I move on from it.” Also, I have a lot of young people reading my work, and I think it’s so important for young people to have someone to look to and say “hey they’re out there doing well for themselves and picking themselves back up again if they can do it I can do it too.” I like writing longer pieces but also those short little one-liners that really jump out at people. I think there’s a lot of poets these days that can really grab people in that one line, which is a skill! There are so many skilled poets out there these days, so it’s cool to watch and be a part of that.
CU: Yeah and I think a part of that resurgence in poetry’s popularity is partly because there’s so much media out there, so many things fighting for your attention, so something that has a really pointed couple of lines that you can really take to heart is like taking a vitamin in the beginning of the day like I get all this good stuff from this tiny little action!
CP: It’s like my power juice! I love one-liners because I feel like I’ve come from writing novels and writing stories and some of the feedback from family or people that have read my work, especially the novels, they liked when I’ve rounded off a paragraph or a scene with a one-liner that either relates back to something that a character says or that sums everything up. I think that translates into my poetry and think “okay one-liners can be super popular if you make it powerful,” so it’s been cool to see the connection between my novels and poetry.
CU: I was reading a Goodreads review of your book, Keeping Long Island and I saw that you responded to it! Which was so interesting that you went out of your way to self publish this book and you wrote this really nice response to this long critique but you just said “thank you for your feedback and caring enough to give a good analysis. This helps me going forward as an author.” I was kind of surprised by that! Is that something you do often?
CP: Yeah I try to! I do get a lot of messages, and I try to respond to as many people as possible. I’m adamant that it’s me responding. I’d never want anybody else responding to the messages, because for me these readers are taking the time to talk to me, so I can make the time to talk to them. They’re supporting me so that’s how I want to be in my career. For responding to reviews and people critiquing my work, I’m not sure if “writer maturity “is a term but it’s definitely maturity in my writing. When I was writing Chasing Paper Cranes, I got a couple reviews where I sort of [gasps] “you’re going off about my baby and I don’t like that!” but at the end of the day you have to accept that everyone has different opinions and everyone’s gonna like something or they don’t’ but for the people who take the time to say, “Hey Courtney this is a good book, but maybe this is how you could improve” like I love people like that because that’s what I want to be because every book that I release I want it to be better than the one before. I’m always looking for ways I can improve. People really liked Keeping Long Island so I was happy. They loved the characters and my characters are everything to me. Its bizarre but I feel like I know my characters best and I could just pick up the phone and call, Kayden and Alex are from Keeping Long Island and just pick up the phone and be like “Kayden what are you doing today?” So it’s bizarre but it’s how I feel.
CU: I did really enjoy Keeping Long Island. You were talking about earlier when we were chatting in the studio that people don’t always understand that you’re not always writing about personal stuff. It kind of reminds you of writing novels where you’re writing from the perspectives of these characters. Can you talk about that?
CP: The difference between poetry and novels, novels are obviously longer and you have these pathways into these characters and how they interact with each other. For me when I write a novel, I just go hardcore on what the characters like to do, how they interact with people, all that kind of stuff.
CU: It sounds like they influence each other in very positive ways.
CP: Yeah they’re definitely friends [laughs].
CU: One of your most famous poems is the “Looking for Ice Cream” poem. I wanted to talk about that but will you read it for us first?
CP: Yeah absolutely. So this is “Looking for Ice Cream.”
We were in the grocery store. You wanted ice cream even though it was cold out. You couldn’t decide which flavor and I was teasing you about being so indecisive sometimes. I suggested we just buy every flavor in the store and you laughed. It was the kind of laugh I could listen to for the rest of my life. You said I was silly and you kissed me, pressed against me so I could feel how cold the tip of your nose was. You were only in sweats, hair so messy from being in bed all afternoon. And in that moment I knew I loved you more than anyone else I had ever loved. In that moment I knew you were my once in a lifetime. And yet all we were doing was looking for ice cream.
CU: I feel like when you’re in love the best thing to do is go grocery shopping.
CU: I noticed this from your novels and your poetry. The thing that really makes it for me is these small, intimate details, like her nose being cold. It just brings you to that moment. You share these really intimate feelings and details and it seems really brave to be that vulnerable. Did you go through a conscious process of being like “I’m willing to share these intimate moments with the public and be willing to deal with the great parts of that and also maybe the crappy parts of that”?
CP: I think for anyone when you share your work it’s really scary the first time. Even now, if I’m going to release a new book, there’s still butterflies, there’s still nerves, like are people going to connect and relate and like this. But I think for me, the biggest thing is my readers. My readers share themselves with me and they make it so easy for me to share myself back. Especially with these intimate details about being in love and the things I’ve been through, they’ve made it not so scary to share things about myself because they’ve been so good in responding to it. With “Looking for Ice Cream,” it almost didn’t make it to Pillow Thoughts. Rhian and I had gone to the store, and yes it was in the middle of winter, it was freezing. We just went to our local grocery store because Rhian wanted ice cream (Rhian always feels like ice cream but anyway) so we were going around the store and we were looking for ice cream and she didn’t know what flavor she wanted. All of that happened and for me it was a really important part in my relationship when I knew “we’re doing something so simple and mindless and I just love her” and we went back to the car and I wrote down my feelings in notes on my phone. I was already working on Pillow Thoughts so last minute I was like “oh yeah I wrote that poem for Rhian I’ll have a look at it again and see if I’ll put it in there but maybe I shouldn’t put it in” but at the last moment I was like “yeah yeah i’ll just put it on the last page it’ll be fine” and that is now the most popular poem in the book. It’s just so funny to me that people relate to it so much. I think what’s interesting about that poem is a lot of people have said to me that “I felt that way, I’ve felt that way in a simple moment when I’ve realized I really really loved someone.” It doesn’t always have to be romantic love, you can look at friendships and the people you really connect with. In the really simple moments of life you realize how important that person is to you. That’s a lot of what I try to have my poetry be, is just the simple things in life, everyday life things, that’s the direction that I’ve gone in and the direction that I like, just talking about the everyday emotions.
CU: Well and it reminds me, so we were talking about how you are vulnerable and in return your fans are vulnerable and in one of your interviews you were talking about a woman who would read pillow thoughts to her husband on business trips
CP: Yeah like there are certain people that really stick out to me in certain emails and messages that I always remember cus at the time I’m reading and I just kind of think oh wow like I sort of melt a little when I’m reading it and I think it’s really sweet. Yeah this lady she wrote to me, she was in the US, I can’t remember what part of the US she said she was from but uh her husband goes on, you know, lots and lots of business trips so they were kind of, you know, frequently away from each other and she was sort of saying how she picked up Pillow Thoughts and uh you know read the long-distance section and it really kind of, she related to it a lot and she would read poems out to her husband over the phone and it would make them feel closer together like it would bring them closer even though he was so far away and I just I fell in love with that kind of idea I fell in love with…
CU: That’s a very sweet story
Yeah just that people can be reading you know my poetry I’ve written for my partner and they are relating it back to their own partners and they’re feeling it and um you know it’s making them feel I guess closer and better even though that other person is ways. It was a really sweet story
CU: Yeah yeah it’s so great. I also kind of wanted to talk about a vulnerable thing that you seem to be really great with that you broach in both your poetry and your novels is that of being estranged from parents due to your sexuality
CU: Is that a personal experience for you or is that kind of something where you can relate to other people from that happening?
CP: I think it’s definitely not personal. My parents are amazing, they’re my best friends and they’ve always supported me even when I you know came out as gay and sort of told them um which was a long time ago now but were always you know really really supportive of me. So, for me in my novels especially I like to write about things that I’m unfamiliar with. I think that um it’s kind of important to me because it helps me understand what other people are going through. Especially in the LGBTQ+ communities, like there’s a lot of people that go through so much hardship, who, I’ve had my fair share of different things over the years but not to the extent of some of the stories that I’ve read and fir me being part of the community its important I understand their challenges so I like to write about characters who have had those challenges so I can you know understand it a small way myself. But yeah, my parents are extremely—they’re actually here with me. I brought them with me.
CU: That’s very good to hear. I was reading keeping long island and I was like oh no I hope this isn’t about her mom
CP: No no yeah. I definitely like to write stories that I have to go away in and do research on these characters and I like drawing similarities between the characters and myself but I also like making the characters really really different. And I kind of do that with my poetry as well. I like making poems that are really really about me and then other poems that are quite different to me and I like seeing I guess…it’s like a fun game with my readers seeing which readers say, “oh hey that one’s definitely about you” or this one they’re like “I don’t really think that one’s about you” that’s like oh you know they’re slowly getting to know me over time as well which is super cool as well
CU: That’s really cool and that’s also…what a great exercise in empathy. Trying to relate to other people’s stores
CP: yeah you know I um in my family my mum her older sister is disabled and she’s been in a wheelchair her whole life and she’s intellectually disabled so I’ve grown up with that to me its normal. But she amazes me. Every day she’s got this smile on her face and she faces every challenge far and she has far greater challenges than I would in my everyday life so you know other people and people who don’t have experience with that or people who have disabilities and mental illness people who aren’t accustomed to that who don’t know people who have a mental illness or a disability they’re just not sure how to act or maybe they don’t have that empathy or compassion to it whereas me, I sort of think even though I don’t have a disability or me it’s still really really important for me to be compassionate to it and consider it. Just because something doesn’t affect you or to you it might not seem impossible it doesn’t mean it’s not really really difficult to someone else. I think that in today’s society especially we have to be more understanding and we have to be more considerate of the challenges that lots of different people go through
CU: Yeah totally and that entire sentiment…I’m 31 and I feel like maybe I’ve just started to get there. And you’re so much younger than that! Like already so wise…I’m very impressed. But um yeah. Definitely a thing we could use more of. I also just wanted to quickly talk about you talk about mental health in your work and anxiety and depression and it’s another thing that I think you do very well and a really big strength of yours. You’re also really good in your novels using metaphors that might also relate to poetry. Do you intentionally try to write about that because you think it might be helpful for LGBT folks who because of their struggles kind of…they deal with that more often just because of being ostracized?
CP: Yeah absolutely. For me being in the LGBT community I wanna be…. I write for everyone. But LGBTQ+ they’re special to me too. Especially with pillow thoughts…there still a lot of people out there who think I’m male. They don’t realize I’m actually a female. They have no idea that I’m gay. Some of my favorite messages are…they’ll come to my page and go “Courtney I thought you were a guy and sort of now I kind of get you and your book makes way more sense now” that’s cool bc it shows that love is universal but it also connects me with LGBT readers and the struggles that some of them go through and just mental illness in general. Me personally, I haven’t really dealt with half of what other people go through. I went through a horrible breakup years back and I really was not myself I really changed within myself and everybody around me saw that. I think I was extremely sad…like on the cusp. But you know I went and saw someone about it and there’s no shame in that. And you know counseling and things like that really really helps people but from that experience and from seeing friends deal with depression and anxiety it’s important for me to give a voice to it as well. Even be a voice to say “hey I’m here for you. I may not understand it in the way you understand it but I still realize that you have a challenge or there’s something you’re trying to overcome…just be patient” like “hey what do you need” finding the right words finding the right phrases not making someone uncomfortable and that’s what I try to do in my poetry especially is trying to find the right way to say things. There’s a right way and maybe there’s a way that’s a bit confronting so I always try to take it back a notch to write something that makes them feel comfortable reading
CU: Kind of acknowledge their reality.
CP: Yeah exactly how they deal with things. It’s not wrong there’s nothing wrong about it it’s just a different perception it’s a different way of dealing with life. Everybody has a different way of dealing with life. No one’s way is a wrong way, you just have to understand where someone is coming from so you can be considerate towards it. People have said “are you an author or an LGBT author,” and it’s like, “well I’m Courtney and I’m not defined by sexuality.” I’m really proud to be gay but it’s not going to define who I am and what I do. It’s nice that I can be a voice for kids that don’t feel represented in the media. But that is definitely changing- we’re seeing the beginnings of those changes. Things are definitely changing in the world and starting to get there, so that’s really exciting.
CU: Yeah that’s great. Has it been nice to interact with your fans on a personal basis?
CP: Yeah it’s hard to express sometimes just how much they mean to me. They’re the people behind me and some of them have been there right from the start. Some of them have jumped on more recently but either way the people I’ve met unload their stories to me. Some of them have said “I’m sorry to be unleashing this on you” and I’m like “No, I love hearing your story” and they’re so quiet too! I’ve noticed my readers are very quiet and timid personalities. It’s cool, because they’re just like me! I can be kind of quiet too when I want to be. It’s been great meeting them and all the people I’ve met have been amazing people. I’m really keen to meet as many of them as I can and show that I’m grateful. This has been such an overwhelming ride and I’ve been so blessed. I’m also just really thankful to them since they’re the ones driving the support behind me and I just really really appreciate it.