At 24, Anna Todd opened Wattpad on her phone and started typing a fan fiction story about One Direction’s Harry Styles. Now, those very words have not only been transformed into a book series but also a Hollywood movie. Thanks to her loyal fanbase, “After” has garnered over 1.5 billion views.
Her published book has been translated into 30 different languages. We caught up with Todd to find out about her journey as a writer, her experience watching her work come to life as a movie, and her interactions with her fanbase.
Q: How does your love of literature, especially classics, influence your work as a writer?
AT: If you have read “After,” it’s obvious I love classic literature. I’ve always been a reader my whole life. I always say that most of my friends from growing up are from books. I didn’t come from the best childhood — both of my parents are addicts and they didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so even having a book was a novelty. I think the reason why I loved classics so much is because that’s what I got from school for free. I just kinda fell in love with them. There’s something so timeless and special that today, we tell the same stories they told, just in modern ways.
Q: If you could one day wake up and inherit the writing prowess of any author, living or dead, who would it be?
AT: I’d probably say Cassandra Clare. She somehow manages to write successful books and doesn’t take as long as most writers to write huge incredibly detailed books. She creates a whole world and then manages to fill the world book after book. Every single time i read one of her books it’s better than the last one and I’ve been reading her for like, 11 or 12 years now. She just keeps getting better. I would love to be like her.
Q: What do you think Jane Austen’s response to “After” would be?
AT: Obviously I have no idea, but I would love to think that she would be proud of the fact that I’m a woman and I made my own career without anybody telling me that I couldn’t. Especially because I don’t have a college degree. I don’t have the kind of pedigree or upbringing that most writers do. I think she’d be proud that I’m a woman doing whatever I want when I want.
Q: What was your experience like on set making decisions that will shape the film, from wardrobe to dialogue? Did you expect to have that much say?
AT: I knew I would be on set every day but I thought that I would be there more as a consul, like if they needed to know would Hardin do this or what would Tessa do here. But then I got a crash course in making the film and everyone was so fun. Jenny [Gage, the director] and I had a really collaborative relationship. If she knew that I had to rewrite pages or if she needed me to go in Dylan [Arnold]’s room and decide how short his hair would be, I was at the beck and call of anyone who needed help with anything along the process. I ended up having a million jobs but it was so fun and I loved the process. It was a great experience.
Q: What was it like seeing your work — your world, your characters — come alive?
AT: The first time that we did a rehearsal, I was crying and I didn’t realize I was crying. I felt super overwhelmed in a good way. After that, after we started rolling, I was so focused on making the movie that I didn’t really take the time to realize that it’s my book becoming a movie. I’m in that stage now, where I’m just really happy for my fanbase who is the reason why any of this happened for us. It’s really cool.
Q: What has surprised you in your interaction with your fans, from Wattpad to the book tour to doing press for the movie?
AT: Just their trust and their loyalty. I’ve been warning them about the changes and everything but they’ve been really trusting of the choices that we’ve all made. I wasn’t that surprised though because I know they have my back no matter what but it’s been incredible to see it happening even with the casting changes that we made — they were all really supportive.
Q: A huge part of Wattpad is the collaborative aspect — getting immediate feedback from your fans in live time. What do you see is the difference in your writing process when you do have access to that feedback versus when you don’t?
AT: I still get feedback but it’s not as easy as it used to be when I could post whatever on Wattpad whenever I wanted, but I have a group of people that I send my chapters to and get the same kind of feedback. They’ll tell me brutally if they like it or if they don’t, or if they are mad about a certain chapter. I really love the interaction of writing on Wattpad. And now that I’m self-published, I can do a little more of what I want and write more on Wattpad but I love that constant engagement and feedback. I know a lot of writers — some of my friends included — they would never want the public to read it first, but for me it’s way more fun that way.
Q: That’s very bold and courageous. Did you have to overcome anxiousness about posting publicly?
AT: Not at first. I had the luxury of thinking no one ever was going to read it, so I had no pressure at all in the beginning. I didn’t have any social media except for a One Direction fan account on Instagram. I didn’t have any reason to think anyone was going to read it. I never thought about what people were going to think, I just thought that it was really fun. And as people started reading it, I felt like oh, my friends are reading it, even though they were technically strangers on the internet. I never felt that pressure luckily.
Q: What advice do you have for young writers in the making?
AT: Change your idea of what a writer is and should be. I spent the first two years of my career trying to explain what happened to me with all the luck and reasoning from the world, when really I worked my butt off and I wrote a million words. I don’t have any training. If you feel like you should be a writer and you feel like there’s a story in you that needs to be told, tell it. Nowadays with technology, the publishing house is changing along with self-publishing. There’s a million ways to get your writing out there.
It’s not like 10 years ago when one editor in a stuffy little room got to decide what we read. It’s places like Wattpad and Archive Of Our Own — all these places where we can tell stories in a more democratic way. If you feel like you’re supposed to write, you are. If one door closes — it’s so cliche but it’s true — if one door closes, open another one. Because the internet gives you unlimited chances of being published. Some publishing is extremely underrated. I know tons and tons of women who make a living and support their families through self-publishing. A big publisher, an agent, all of that — it’s not relevant. The story is what’s important.
“After” comes out in theaters April 12.