I’ll admit it: I’ve been in a reading rut lately. I’ve read books I liked, a few more that I didn’t—but nothing that’s seemed worthy of recommending to fellow readers. All that changed last week with Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, out now.

Lord broke out on the YA scene last year with her contemporary debut, Open Road Summer. But it’s her follow-up novel that really strikes a chord. The Start of Me and You follows Paige Hancock, a teenage girl who lost her boyfriend in a tragic swimming accident. But Paige is tired of being that girl—the one everyone casts sympathy glances at. So she embarks on a new school year with a plan that includes dating the boy she has crush on and eventually learning to swim again. Of course, if your teenage years taught you anything, it’s that life doesn’t always go according to plan.

Lord crafts a poignant look at what it’s like to deal with love, loss, and general teendom, then infuses it with sharp wit and pop culture references. The Start of Me and You feel fresh in a sea of contemporary YA. Sure, it’s a little cheesy and slightly predictable. But the heart of the story overshadows all of that. There’s a quote in the story that sums it up for me: “In books, sometimes the foreshadowing is so obvious that you know what’s going to happen. But knowing what happens isn’t the same as knowing how it happens. Getting there is the best part.”

Here, Lord talks about her inspiration for The Start of Me and You, and teases her next project.

EW: What inspired The Start of Me and You?

EMERY LORD: This novel is based largely on my own high school experience in a suburban setting, and how that factors into your identity when you’re not in a big city and you’re not in a small town. And also, it’s a book that I started drafting when I was grieving pretty powerfully. It’s sort of a sad back story behind a very beautiful sunset cover. But I couldn’t get myself out of it. And more than that, I wanted so badly to help my teenage cousin through a grieving experience that we were sharing, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t even get myself out of it. Writing helped me. I did not think it was doing this at the time. I thought I was crafting pure fiction. But now that I look back on it, I think I was really [thinking about] how much I wanted to guide a high school aged girl through not letting grief define her, at least not in negative ways. And not letting her small community define her either.

So you wrote this book before your debut novel [2014’s Open Road Summer]?

I did. I just needed a little more time for The Start of Me and You to percolate. I needed a little bit of time and perspective to edit it. Open Road Summer had different elements of grief. There’s more anger in it, which is the next phase of grief. And that book was also fun in a lot of ways. But after writing through that one and kind of getting back to myself, I was much more ready to return to The Start of Me and You and edit with some perspective. The story changed enormously, but the original thought process came beforehand.

The Start of Me and You is full of pop culture references. Did you make a conscious effort to include those?

When I originally wrote the book I had had it drilled into my head—as I think many writers do—that you shouldn’t make pop culture references because it ages your book. I was really resisting it. But one of the things I wanted to commit to completely with this story is realism. And for me, realism as a teen means having pop culture be a big part of your life. The things that you love start to become part of your identity. It occurred to me that I could make up those things, and I did [make up some things] in the book. But it just seems a little too heavy handed to make up an entire book’s worth when people would know more or less what I was referring to. I just decided to commit to realism, even if it’s going to date the story. I think it’s an important part of narrative, and I wanted to let it be an important part of Paige’s narrative as well.

Paige has a close relationship with her grandmother. Is that something you can relate to?

That’s not from real life in terms of something I had experienced—having a grandparent who was a confidante and also suffering from Alzheimer’s. Although I did enjoy close relationships with my grandparents—and now, at this point in my life, I do have a grandparent, unfortunately, suffering from Alzheimer’s. But that came way after I wrote the book. But I’m glad now that I wrote it that way, because I think it’s an all-too-common experience. I loved the idea of a teenage girl having a relationship with a grandparent and not out of obligation—a teenage girl seeing [the] real value of having relationships, not just with a grandparent, but also older people in general and what that can bring. And how you can connect with people who are generations above you. I loved the idea that that would be the person who [Paige] would find a lot of comfort in, and learn a lot about herself through.

What projects are you working on now?

My third book comes out next spring. It’s called When We Collided. And it’s the first book I’ve ever written that’s in dual narration. It switches up chapters. Even though it’s a love story—and that’s how I think of it, as this exuberantly summer love story—it also focuses a lot on things that are really personal to me including several facets of mental health. That’s something I’m really passionate about, especially in terms of teenagers. So that will be where I’m going next.