Saturday, April 13, 2013
Interview with Jennifer Castle
One of my absolute favorite reads of 2011 was a novel called The Beginning of After by debut writer Jennifer Castle. The book was an advanced review copy, in a stack of other ARCs, and at first, I put off reading it. The subject matter seemed so...dark. A girl's entire family dies in a car accident and she's got to figure out how to live her life after that utterly devastating event. When I finally did pick it up, I found to my surprise that the novel totally transcends that synopsis.
Yes, the girl does have to deal with the tragic loss of her family, but The Beginning of After is about so much more than that--it's a true coming of age story that's brilliantly written and moving and complex. I knew as soon as I finished it that I'd discovered an author that I'd eagerly follow from that point on.
A cool coincidence: a year later my publishing company sent me a comp sheet, which is basically a list of books that the marketing department thinks are comparable to yours, and The Beginning of After was on my list. I wrote to Jennifer Castle to tell her that fun fact and to point out that maybe one day soon our books would be "shelf buddies" because of our last names. She graciously replied and we've been corresponding ever since. She kindly read and blurbed my book Thin Space. And a few weeks ago I was able to read her latest book You Look Different in Real Life. I wasn't surprised, this time, to find that I absolutely loved it. This book is different from The Beginning of After in theme and tone--there's some humor and snark--but it's just as insightful and thought provoking, and proves that Jennifer's Castle's debut was no one-hit wonder.
I'm thrilled that Jen has agreed to let me interview her today, so without further gushy adoration from me, I'll start as I always do, by asking:
Where do you get your ideas?
Jen: My ideas don't come to me in those economical AHA! moments that some writers get. Mine come slowly, picked up as fragments I learn about or discuss with people around me, news stories, non-fiction books, my own memories ignited by something random in the here and now. Then there are the bizarre notions that pop into my head, seemingly out of nowhere, as I try to go about my day -- you know the classic inopportune spots like traffic lights or in the shower. All this stuff stays in orbit for a while and then eventually, gravitates into the shape of something. Characters and their journeys usually come to me before actual story elements.
Jody: That sounds like how it works for me too. I carry ideas around (sometimes literally, on scraps of paper) for years. And thank goodness for the shower, right? I read once that there's something elemental about water when it comes to creativity. Not sure if this is true or not, but I'll take it. Anyway, once you have your idea, what's your next step? Do you outline the story in advance or just start writing and see what happens?
Jen: I do sort of a combo. I used to write screenplays, so my mind naturally travels around the classic three-act framework. I need to know where I'm starting, where I'm going to be halfway through a story, and where I want to end up. I need to know where things get effed up in the story, and what's at stake. But I don't like to outline the whole thing, because I want to leave breathing room for the characters to evolve as I write them. I'll usually map out 50 pages at a time. I'm also a big fan of the "vomit draft" where you just pound out that first go-round, some of it raw and very much half-planned, and doing the real work in revision. In other words, I feel completely disorganized and this is probably why drafting is much longer and more excruciating than it should be.
Jody: Ha! I like that term "vomit draft." I work that way too and find that you've got to have a lot of trust in the process when so much is done by the seat of your pants. Plus, there's a thought in your mind the whole time about how much work you'll still have left to do once that vomity draft is finished.
But everything about this process seems to take a long time. Has that been your experience? Did you have to write many practice novels before hitting your stride? Did you get many rejections?
Jen: Okay, so you're totally going to hate me for this answer: The first book I wrote was the first book I sold -- The Beginning of After. Originally, TBOA was not a YA book, and I had written about 100 pages of Laurel in college, so maybe that version counts as a separate book? And it did take me six years to write, on and off, so it sure feels like more than one book to me.
As for rejections...well, um. Again, you're going to hate me. I queried two agents and both offered to represent me. But I did receive rejections when the manuscript went out on submission to editors. Quite a few, actually, for various reasons, before it was acquired by the exact right editor at the exact right publishing house: Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins. I know my experience is not typical and believe me, I'm still grateful for how heartbreak-free it was. I got very, very lucky. I have enormous respect for authors who struggle through years of multiple manuscripts and rejections before finally getting that first deal. Those experiences usually translate into some mad skills for an author moving forward.
Jody: Nah. I don't hate you! You're making it sound like you just fell into it, but six years working on a book isn't overnight success. You earned your mad skills, is what I'm saying. For me it took, um, a tad longer, *cough*-- twenty years, give or take a few --*cough* but it's necessary time, I think, looking back. Every writer moves at her own pace, figures out what works and what doesn't, even down to the nitty gritty of scheduling your writing time. I was talking to Jennifer R. Hubbard last month and she sets a very specific work schedule for herself every day. Do you do that kind of thing?
Jen: I'm a morning writer. Unfortunately, I have young kids, who are by definition morning people (alternatively known as Crazy Demanding Why The F*&$ Are You So Energetic at 6am People?). So my work doesn't start until well after the school bus has pulled away with my children on it. I usually write from 10am until noon, take a break, then work again for another hour or two. Sometimes that second session doesn't happen, and I try not to feel guilty about it. I tend to work in short, intense creative bursts and then flame out, and once I'm getting diminishing returns on the page, it's time to stop. When drafting, I go for 1,000 words a day. My other thing is that I don't let myself take two consecutive days off from writing; if I skip a day for whatever (usually dumb-ass) reason, I have to write the next day, even if it's just for 90 minutes at a coffee house on a Sunday morning, surrounded by hungover college students.
Jody: Isn't it funny how we have to set rules for ourselves? And how we have to deal with guilt when we break those self-made rules? I know this might sound crazy to non-writers out there, but I think that it's one of the things that goes along with working for yourself. Unless you're given a specific deadline, it all comes down to you and the blank computer screen every day, and if you're going to write the words... or not.
Add to that all the other day to day life-stuff we have to deal with. At the risk of making a sexist generalization, I think this may be more of an issue for women writers. Like, I don't picture Stephen King having to clean toilets. Maybe that's not fair though. Even Stephen King lives in the world and has other junk he's got to do, pay bills etc. You mentioned waiting until your kids get on the bus each day, how do you balance your writing time with everything else that's going on?
Jen: It's very, very hard. I've learned to be hyper-protective of that morning block of writing time, not just from others but also from myself. As in, "Yes, Jen, I know you want to watch last night's Downton Abbey before you go online and accidentally see who died in this episode, but GO WORK NOW." My endless task list of assorted life-crap also has to wait. I don't even look at it until after the words are done. I don't know if you experience this too, but people often assume that because I write for a living, I can work or not work as the mood strikes, and why can't I make that coffee date/Pilates class/PTA event/doctor's appointment? I just behave as if I have to go into an office and report to a boss for a certain period of time, and find that saying "Sorry, I have to work" or "I'm on a deadline" is something nobody argues with.
Jody: Oh, yeah, I get that too from people and it's very tempting to give in, to "just this once" blow off work. But then I think: when I was teaching, could I skip out of my classroom and go to a movie or spend an hour scrolling around online? Uh, no. Speaking of scrolling around online, it's pretty clear lately how much marketing and promotion writers are expected to do now, and so much of this involves social media. What's your take on this aspect of the job?
Jen: Sometimes I feel pretty lame and rather lost about that stuff. What really works? What should I be doing that everyone else seems to be doing but I don't feel comfortable doing? When I feel that way, I go back to the thing that always guides me: I do what feels natural. I can only be myself in social media, and it may not be as "effective" at selling books as some people's selves, but I'm okay with that. So I post on Facebook, on my personal page as well as my author and book pages, only when I have something I feel compelled to share. I use Twitter the same way, although I'm still not comfortable jumping in on conversations; the whole thing feels like a big high school cafeteria and I'm the shy new girl looking for a table that won't shun me.
I enjoy blogging on my own website and look forward to blogging as a new member of YA Outside the Lines, but again -- I try to do it in a way that says, "When I post, you know it's something worth reading." The part of "promotion" that I enjoy the most is connecting personally -- through social media or email or in person -- with readers, bloggers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, and especially other authors. These connections often lead to great bookstore or school events, coffee chats, lovely rambling email threads, and other experiences that may or may not help sell my books, but make me feel so blessed to be doing what I love and sharing it with the world.
Jody: Love that philosophy Jen, and it seems to me that you're doing it all exactly right. Before I let you go, what are you working on now?
Jen: I'm gearing up to start the draft of a new novel, for which I'm already under contract with HarperCollins. I think it's time I tackled a full-on love story, don't you think? I'm ready to fall head over heels as I write and hopefully take the readers with me. Right now, I'm having a lot of fun building the characters and mapping out their relationship. This is going to be the most personal piece of fiction I've ever written and I can't wait to start. I'm not able to just yet -- I don't start drafting until I've done a lot of what I call "character journaling" first: I write journal entries as if I were the character. It really helps define a character's voice as well as develop who they are, where they're coming from, and where they want to go.
Along with promoting You Look Different in Real Life and the companion short story "Playing Keira," this is what the rest of 2013 will be for me.
Jody: I can't wait to read it! And I should mention here that I've read "Playing Keira" (out May 7). I love the idea that you were able to take a character from the novel and further explore her POV. I'm also really intrigued about putting a short story out there, as opposed to a novel. You don't see that much in YA, but with the rise of e-books, maybe short stories will find a niche. I hope so. And I hope you write a story for each one of the characters in YLDIRL.
Thanks, Jen, for talking with me, and dear loyal blog readers, if you want to learn more about Jen and her work, you can find her in the usual places:
Her website JenniferCastle.com
On her facebook author page
On Twitter @Jennifer_Castle
And if you'd like to check out her new story "Playing Keira," click here.