The Against All Odds Story of Anna Todd, Author of the Best Selling After Series of Books

Before, during and after.

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  • Photographed by
    Hong Jinwook

Being a New York Times best-selling author was something Anna Todd could never have even dreamed. She was raised in Ohio, and at 18 she married an U.S. Army soldier. The young couple had a young son with serious health issues, and Anna was consumed with trying to manage them. In 2013, while living in Fort Hood, Texas, she started typing a novel on her smartphone. She worked at it whenever she could, whether shopping at Target or working at the local Ulta Beauty store. Her novel After was an overnight sensation, ultimately spawning six more books to create the After fan fiction series. 

The series has been released in over 35 languages and has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. Anna has also served as producer and screenwriter on the film adaptations of two of the books in the series, After and After We Collided. She has also written two standalone novels as well as two other book series.

Here Anna chats with VB editor Linda Grasso about the roller-coaster ride of the past 10 years, which has culminated in her planting roots in Sherman Oaks.

It is amazing what you’ve accomplished in a relatively short period of time. Kind of against all odds. 

Yeah, it really is. Honestly, even now when I hear it, and it’s been almost a decade, I’m still like, wow, that was a ride. How much can life change in a 10-year period? It’s crazy to think where I am now compared to where I was my whole life.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Reading was my escapism as a child and as a teenager. I was the girl in class who loved reading the books that we were assigned to read. I’d ask for more, and my teachers would let me borrow books. I just had this fantastical idea of like, oh, it would be such a dream to be a writer. I kept thinking, if only I could go to college. My mom was very anti-government, saying stuff like, “College is a scam; don’t do it.” So I never thought college was possible, and I thought you can’t be a writer if you don’t have a literary degree or any experience. 

When you started writing After, you were a military wife working a minimum wage job and caring for a son with serious health issues.

Yes, my son has a rare genetic condition called tuberous sclerosis. In addition to seizures, he has epilepsy, autism and behavioral issues. At the time, I was going to doctor appointments and trying to learn as much as I possibly could about the condition. I was doing a research program where they would fly us from Texas to UCLA every three months. I couldn’t even afford a hotel. I remember writing on my phone during the research program, at my son’s appointments, and after he went to bed at night. I’d stay up late, and I just became addicted to it. Something just clicked in my brain.

So as I understand it, you were fascinated with One Direction fan fiction—stories featuring characters remiscent of the bandmates in imagined scenarios. After you’d devoured everything you could find, you decided to write your own fan fiction series on the social storytelling app Wattpad.

Yes. One day this idea popped in of this girl in college and this boy with tattoos. I was like, wait, this boy looks like Harry Styles. My version was covered in tattoos. It was the typical kind of bad-boy, good-girl romance. The story just went from there.

Once you started writing, what did that creative experience feel for you?

It felt like I was plugged in to a supercharger. I’d found something to do for myself. But part of me was terrified. I was almost embarrassed. Why would I have the audacity to think I can write a story? I’m just a random girl in Texas with a high school diploma taking community college classes. But part of me was thinking: This is the best thing I’ve ever done. 

How and when did you realize people were actually reading your work on Wattpad?

At first, I would refresh the page and then I was like, oh, I have a read. Then I would refresh it again and be like, oh, I have two! And then I realized that they were both me. I wrote the second chapter and then the third chapter. Then it just started snowballing. Within two months I had a million reads. My phone was going crazy. I had to turn my notifications off. People asked what else I’d written. 

I got a couple messages from people saying they were agents. I was like, what the heck? This is a scam. I would ignore them. Then I got emails from Wattpad. I ignored the first four or five. At Wattpad they still tease me about my ignoring them. Ultimately I signed with Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

How did you wind up moving from Texas to Los Angeles?

I started coming here because I got a film deal for the books. I’m a sensitive, empathetic person who thrives on bonding, and I had no human connection in Texas. I was married to somebody who was gone 80% of the time. (Anna and her husband are now divorced.) When I came here I thought, this is where my people are. Everybody I was coming in contact with seemed to have a spark in them, no matter what they did for a living. 

What was it about the Valley that attracted you?

One of my LA friends has lived in Studio City her entire life. She told me that I’d like Studio City and Valley Village. I loved that everything I needed was five to 10 minutes away. Plus it’s quiet. I lived in Studio City for two years, then bought a house in Valley Village, and now I live in Sherman Oaks, where I know all my neighbors. 

What are some of your favorite Valley haunts? 

I love Tortoni Caffe on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. It is small and family-owned, and the coffee is wonderful. They’ve got food options too. I also love Petit Trois. They’ve got a great espresso martini. I also enjoy On the Thirty for a quick drink or meeting up with someone. 

Where do you see yourself in the future?

Two years ago I went to Wattpad with the idea of starting an imprint together. This year we have six titles coming out that are not just my books. I want to publish voices that wouldn’t typically be published—unrecognized writers who are talented. As for my future lifestyle, I’m never moving out of the Valley. It just feels more like a community than other parts of LA. I like that. ν

For more, listen to Anna’s episode on the SheSez with Linda Grasso podcast. Available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify—as well as the other platforms.