2015 Hall of Achievement Inductee
Gayle Forman’s fans know her best as the New York Times bestselling author, the globetrotting journalist, and the witty writer with a knack for making the universal feel personal. But even Forman’s greatest admirers may be less acquainted with her early-career works.
There was, of course, that timeless yarn about a girl getting lost in her closet. And the account of a child seemingly deserted by her parents (it’s okay, they were just on vacation). And then Forman’s favorite: the epic story of a poor girl’s spontaneous combustion.
“That’s what 5-year-old Gayle wrote about,” she jokes 40 years later. “Thank God those teachers didn’t call social services.”
Despite starting young, it took some time for Forman to see a career in storytelling. Her plan as a young girl was to grow up to be the sun (“I was devastated to learn this wasn’t a career option,” she shares on her website) — and even in high school she didn’t envision that writing would ever become a job. When Forman arrived at the University of Oregon, she intended to study biology and chemistry en route to a career in medicine.
By her sophomore year, Forman was already looking for something different, signing up for classes across the university that jived more closely with her interests. After sensing a spark in her first journalism class, Forman registered for the school’s then-infamous information gathering course, lovingly known by students at the time as “Info-Hell.” It had deservedly earned a reputation as the SOJC’s weed-out class, but for Forman it proved to be a kick-start.
“That was the moment I realized, ‘Oh my God, you big idiot, of course journalism is what you want to do,’” she says. “You like to talk to people, you like to write, and you like to travel — and journalism incorporates all of those. From then on, I was full steam ahead.”
After college, Forman charged ahead as a magazine journalist with international flair, filing dispatches and features from as far afield as Pakistan and South Africa. On one of her earlier trips, an assignment from Seventeen magazine to write about girl soldiers in Sierra Leone, Forman found herself hustling alongside seasoned reporters from The New York Times and The Economist on a UNICEF press trip. She was the new kid on the block, and she knew it.
“There was something nerve-wracking about it, but also exhilarating,” she says. “I learned that stories weren’t just going to fall into my lap. I had to go get them.”
After more than a decade covering women’s issues and social justice stories around the globe — writing for the likes of Cosmopolitan, The Nation, Elle, and Jane — Forman made a mid-career pivot, trading in her jet-setting journalism schedule for an only slightly less chaotic lifestyle as a fiction writer and mother.
By any measure, the sudden switch turned into a runaway success. In 2009, Forman’s second young-adult novel, If I Stay, exploded into an international bestseller, eventually reaching the top of both The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. The book, a gripping tale of a 17-year-old girl’s choice between life and death following a catastrophic car accident, has sold more than 2.4 million copies worldwide and has been adapted into a Hollywood film starring Chloë Grace Moretz.
Even now, the novel’s journey seems to catch its author by surprise. When Forman sat down to write it, she was unsure if the story’s dark plot twist would suit a young-adult audience or if any publishers would bite. On her computer, she saved the first draft as “Why Not?” — as in “Why not give it a shot?”
Her fans are glad she did. Since the book’s release six years ago, Forman has been amazed by the range of reader reactions, from the teenagers who find renewed wonder in life’s treasures to the adult readers who take solace following a personal loss in their own lives.
“This sounds really cheesy, but I just felt like a vessel of love,” Forman says. “As I wrote the book, I was feeling all this love from my friends and my husband, and I think that somehow transferred to the page.”
Since the breakout success of If I Stay, Forman has published six more young-adult novels, and she is now completing her first adult-focused book, Bypass, which is scheduled for publication next year.
And to think, it all started with a story about a girl lost in the closet.