When searching for a good book genres can be a helpful tool. Let’s face it, there are a whole lot of books to read and a depressingly short amount of time to read them. It’s just so much easier going straight to your favorite section in the library or bookstore to find something you know you will probably enjoy.
Towards the end of the last school year, my wife met a parent of another kindergartner who had recently published a book. I immediately thought this was an incredible thing to do and was interested in what it was about. When I learned that it was a young adult novel, about a high school girl, I figured it would not be something I would enjoy reading; in the way that I would not be attending Taylor Swift’s Eras tour. I was impressed, but not interested.
Throughout the summer vacation, the book lay on our coffee table with some other recent purchases that I was working through. When I finished two other books that were in a genre more aligned to what I felt comfortable with, I decided to give it a read. A daughter-dad road trip to visit my father in Florida seemed like the perfect time. And, it was.
Swipe up for Secrets, by Brigitta Estelle Burguess, is the story of a seemingly normal teenager who is navigating the various pitfalls of youth. Set in a small town in Maine, the novel begins with the main protagonist, Layla, preparing to switch over to private school from her previous High School. Things quickly get interesting when Layla discovers that she has an uncanny ability to write peoples thoughts. This power leads Layla to help solve a long-hidden mystery of the unnatural end to one of her town’s respected business leaders, Julia – who was also the Founder of Layla’s favorite bakery that now serves as her main hang-out. Along the way, Layla finds friendship, love, and acceptance for who she is and what she truly wants to do with her life.
This surprising book managed to fuse several different genres into one satisfyingly entertaining story. Swipe up for Secrets definitely exists in the post-Gilmore Girls world, while having darker mystery elements and supernatural phenomena thrown into the mix, giving it an eclectic feel that keeps the reader on their toes until the emotionally riveting conclusion.
Pleased to find myself so engaged in the story, I was impressed by its timeless depiction of a classic coming-of-age, while still expressing its own unique angle.
I sat down for a conversation with the author, Brigitta Estelle Burguess at one of our local bakeries, Crispelli’s; which, I felt would be an appropriate place to discuss her book.
Jamiel: What drew you to this genre?
Brigitta: I didn’t really intend on writing a young adult fiction novel when I started. I sort of want to say that I tripped and fell into the genre. I knew what stories I wanted to tell, but I didn’t know which part of them was going to be the focal point. So, walking in I knew what Layla’s story was going to be and what Julia’s story was going to be, and I knew the characters and knew that it could go a few different ways. Not to get too far into what contemporary young adult fiction novels are, but I’ve been to a number of different conferences, and I’ve met a lot of really interesting people, and basically through studying what makes a book a certain genre, I’ve had a lot of help putting my book into that genre. I can’t even really call it contemporary anymore because contemporary young adult fiction is like this moment, right now. I put this book out in June, but I had been writing this book for a long, long time so it didn’t have real time stuff that’s happening; in some ways it does, like the idea of swiping up and Instagram. So social media is relevant, but some of these Contemporary Young Adult Fiction novels are so on top of it.
Jamiel: Yeah, other than those mentions of social media I felt that it was a really timeless story, I remember hanging out in coffee shops and it feeling the same way as you’ve depicted.
Brigitta: Exactly, so that’s why I don’t even call it contemporary young adult fiction. I just refer to it as Young Adult Fiction.
Jamiel: You chose Maine as the setting for your novel even though you are based in Metro Detroit. Do you have any personal connection to Maine that made you choose it for your setting?
Brigitta: I’m going to be honest with you, I’m obsessed with Maine. I just love the beautiful towns, and the small-town vibes, fall foliage, all of that. I love all of that.
Jamiel: Why not Michigan?
Brigitta: Well, okay. When you’re a writer you get to do whatever you want.
Jamiel: What was your process for writing this novel?
Brigitta: I’ve been working on it for seven years. So, in my head it unfolded in two different parts. Layla’s story came to me seven years ago and then Julia’s story came to me separately, for a number of reasons around the same time. Layla’s story was what I wanted to focus on, so when I got into that it was so natural, I just loved her character and that story. Along the way two things happened. One, I love romantic poetry. It’s a very niche thing. At the time I was studying romantic poetry. I’m an English Major, we love poetry. You’ll see a lot of that in the book. So the character of her dad being a poet and then passing away and his whole life as a poet is a big focal point, because it brings this idea of romantic poetry. Wordsworth said that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling recollected in tranquility”. Which, is what he described as romanticism and romantic poetry, and that’s what all the poets were doing at that time. It was very fluid and emotional. It had never been done before. Now we see it all the time but at that time it had never been done before. When Layla learns that simultaneously when she learns she has this special gift that is essentially the gift of the writer, she is able to tell someone else’s story and show us how they feel, even though she is not that person. To me, what I wanted it to allude to was that the role of the writer is to be able to do that. That’s what we put on them. That’s their job. As she becomes a writer, in a very literal sense she is able to do that, but that is something that all writers should be able to do and are tasked with. We assume that they are going to know how to tell the story. So, as she grows into a writer, that’s where her gift comes from.
Jamiel: So, are you saying that the “truth writing” that comes off in the book as supernatural is there as a metaphor for what writers should do?
Brigitta: Yeah. Spoilers, it’s a metaphor. I think it grew out of that. I mean, obviously the rest of the story unfolds and there’s more to it than that, but yes, on the surface it’s supposed to be a metaphor for what the role of the writer is and we see that it’s so hard for her, because unfortunately when you are a writer and you have this sensitivity, and this innate ability to feel for other people, that’s hard too. You’re going to get to know people too well. It’s going to make your friendships difficult. It’s going to make your relationships difficult. It’s not easy to have that kind of sixth sense.
So, the other part of this is Julia’s story, and Julia’s story came to me in a separate way. Her story is kind of my own story mixed with other women that I know. It’s basically a story of domestic violence and how common that is and what those situations can look like. It’s a story of so many women that experience these terrible relationships. Just terrible trauma and they do all the things right to keep themselves and their families safe, and they still lose. I felt that I needed to tell that story.
Jamiel: Are there any autobiographical aspects to the character of Layla?
Brigitta: Big yes on that! I was exactly like Layla when I was growing up. I was bookish and nerdy. Really good at math and just wanted to read, but also had other things that I liked. I felt that I went to a really competitive school so that also came out. If you’re a woman in STEM there is a lot of pressure to be really competitive. The reason that I wrote her that way is that so many of the stories that you read when you are reading young adult fiction involve a girl that has one aspect to her personality. It’s like, oh, what’s her one thing. Is she a basketball player, or does she do water polo? Is she obsessed with taking photos, whatever, is she an artist? Like, you have one thing. As a girl, reading those books really affected me. I was like, What’s my one thing? I’ve got to only have one thing. But the truth is, girls are really complex. We can like so many things at once, but at some point, you’re told to pick one. We’re all taught to have one thing. I wanted to write Layla as a full human being.
Jamiel: Any plans for follow up stories for Layla?
Brigitta: Yes, I want to write a sequel to this.
Jamiel: Like the college years?
Brigitta: Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t yet know where she’ll be, but I do think that she has more to do.
Swipe up for Secrets by Brigitta Estelle Burguess is available for purchase on Amazon.