What's In a Page: Alena Dillon on her post-pandemic change to The Happiest Girl in the World

Seija Rankin
·3 min read

Debasmit Banerjee; HarperCollins Alena Dillon, 'The Happiest Girl in the World'

Alena Dillon's debut novel, Mercy House, made a huge splash — it's currently in development for a television adaptation by none other than Amy Schumer — and this month, she's releasing another book ripped from the headlines. The Happiest Girl in the World tackles the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, following protagonist Sera Wheeler as she works towards her dream of making the Olympic team when her best friend reports the team doctor.

In honor of her sophomore novel's publication, Dillon answered EW's burning book questions, telling us how she got her start and which part of the book she rewrote in a flurry.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?

ALENA DILLON: A Kid in King Arthur's Court fan fiction. Although, at 10 years old, I didn't see it as such; I thought I was being completely cutting edge, having a '90s era boy sucked into a painting and spit out in Medieval times. I wrote the first fifty pages on my dad's work desktop, and it was lost in a tragic defragging accident. The world was perhaps better for it, but when we realized it was gone, my dad and I bawled on my bed.

What is the last book that made you cry?

Kitty O'Meara's And the People Stayed Home, an illustrated children's book featuring the poem of the same name that went viral at the start of quarantine. It's tender and hopeful but also painful as we are still so much in the thick of it.

Which book is at the top of your current to-read list?

I consume mostly audiobooks these days. My purchased list is rich and long and could keep me riveted through 2025. But I'm particularly itching to get to Gabriela Garcia's Of Women and Salt. I've read wonderful reviews. I'm also toying with a project that deals with addiction, and its audiobook is performed by the talented Frankie Corzo, also a narrator in The Happiest Girl in the World audiobook.

Where do you write?

At a small writing desk in my bedroom, while my 2-year-old stands in the hall and bangs on the hollow door and I increase the volume on my YouTube rainstorm track.

Which book made you a forever reader?

Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone. Dolores Price was a dark prickly teenager who reflected myself back to me and compelled me to search for myself in every book. She also was my first siren call to write characters other women would recognize.

What is a snack you couldn't write without?

Cold ravioli. Wait, no. Peanut butter pretzels. Wait, no. Extra Toasty Cheez-Its. Wait, no.

If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?

The Happiest Girl in the World ends at the Olympic Trials in 2021, a scene I wrote in March 2020. This was a panicked rewrite after the pandemic landed fierce and fast, and the Olympics were delayed, making the ending, as it was, implausible. It still seemed preposterous to imagine we'd be distancing come Summer 2021. I think I may have used the word "crowds." Now I can barely speak the word "crowds."

What is your favorite part of The Happiest Girl in the World?

It was thrilling to write scenes in the midst of gymnastics routines. Not only could I embody the kind of athlete I'll never be and perform heroic feats I wouldn't dare attempt, I could bring all the tension in that character's life onto the floor or beam, so the emotional stakes met the physical ones in the air.

What was the hardest plot point or character to write?

This will come as no surprise, but it was really hard to leave my characters alone with the doctor who sexually abused his young patients. They were so vulnerable, and he was absolute poison.

Write a movie poster tag line for the book:

How much is a dream worth?

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