Several years ago at the Highlights Foundation retreat center in Boyd's Mill, Pennsylvania, I hit it off with middle grade author Jennifer Maschari. It turns out that Jen's from Ohio-- and lives only fifteen minutes away from me. Since then I've read her books and become a fan. Her latest novel, Things That Surprise you, is wonderful. Jen's got the gift for tunneling into the mind of the middle school kid and for crafting tightly woven, clever stories with heart.
Also, one of my favorite things: all of her books have a dog character!
I'm so pleased to have her on the blog today:
Jody: Give me your elevator pitch for Things That Surprise You.
Jen: Well, it's about soon-to-be-sixth grader Emily Murphy who uses the advice from self-help CDs to try to solve her friend and family problems.
Jody: I loved Emily from the very first page. Her obsession with a book series starring a magical unicorn. Her confession that she always peeks at the ending of a book before reading it. She doesn't like to be surprised.
Jen: No, she does not!
Jody: And then she's got all of these family and friend issues to deal with-- her older sister who is struggling with an eating disorder and a best friend who seem to be growing up faster than she is and pulling away. Where'd you get the idea for a book like this? Or I guess I'm asking how you do it-- go back into the middle school mind.
Jen: I have a lot of memories of my middle school years and also teach middle school. I often joke that I've never left it. I remember how hard those years were for me...
Jody: Do you ever think you'll write for other age groups? In other genres?
Jen: I don't know. I love writing middle grade. First, I think the kids reading it are the greatest. They are SO enthusiastic about books. I love doing school visits and hearing their ideas and thoughts and questions. Second, my voice seems to work well in middle grade. I love to read middle grade books, too. I could see myself writing chapter books or picture books. Chapter book characters are so memorable.
Jen: You and I have compared notes on our writing processes before and I know you see yourself as a slower writer. How long did it take you to write Things That Surprise You?
Jen: About about a year or so.
Jody: That's not too bad. A lot of revising?
Jen: Oh, yes. I did this one massive revision (based on my editor's very smart and kind advice) in which I rewrote the entire story except for twelve pages. There were subsequent revisions after that, but that major revision helped find the heart of the story.
Jody: That is an extensive revision. Did you have a similar process with your first book, The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price?
Jody: I do this kind of thing with index cards. I don't know how other writers can keep all of the scenes straight without keeping track in some way.
I have to tell you that your launch party for Charlie Price was one of the coolest and cleverest parties I've ever attended. I still remember the balloons and cupcakes and gift baskets. Any special plans for Things That Surprise You?
Jen: Thank you Jody! I had so much fun planning that launch party. Sadly, the bookstore where I held my launch for Charlie Price is now closed. Also, the day my new book comes out is the day before school starts (it's going to be a busy week!) So instead of just one launch, I'm going to do a couple of different events at some local bookstores over several weeks. Of course, I still plan on having balloons (unicorn themed!) and cupcakes.
Jody: I am relieved to hear there will be cupcakes! Speaking of launch parties, self-promotion can be tough for writers... how do you approach promotion? Any tips and tricks? Things you'd do again? Things you won't bother with this time around?
Jen: For middle grade, most of my promotion is concentrated on reaching out to teachers and librarians who are then able to buy the books for their own libraries and classrooms. One thing I did for Charlie that worked really well was a mailing targeted at school librarians and local public libraries. I included an information sheet about the book with some pull quotes from reviews, a synopsis, and a very short handwritten note. I think I sent this to about 250 schools. I mailed out some postcards, too. I enjoy receiving mail and sending mail so this was fun for me!
Jody: You have a website too, and I see you on social media.
Jen: Yes. I try to keep my website updated with events and book information and I do send out a newsletter but need to get better at sending it out more regularly.
Jody: You're busy! I know you're still teaching, and that's got to be hard, balancing a day job with a writing career. How do you it?
Jen: Not very well! I'm a person who needs to see a task through beginning to end, and I've found that when I have a bunch of tasks - teaching and writing and taking classes - that's not possible. I need to alternate working on several things. I'm working on putting myself on a schedule so I carve out that writing time, and I'm also learning (and reminding myself) that there's no perfect time to write.
Jody: What's up next for you? Can share any secrets about your current WIP?
Jen: I'm working on another contemporary middle grade. It's still in the very early stages so I don't want to say too much but the main character's name is Trina, and the story has another great dog. I also have a chapter book idea I'm playing with. It's a lot of fun and a bit lighter than my middle grade books.
Jody: Are you ready for the lightning round, Jen?
--What's the best recent book you read?
I reread one of my very favorites: Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
Hiking - I love being out in nature.
--TV show you've binge-watched?
Forensic Files (I seriously have seen almost all of them and there are a lot.)
--Most embarrassing thing that happened to you in middle school?
Oh goodness - a lot of embarrassing things! I feel like I've blocked most of them out. Supposedly, I fell up the steps in front of my classmates. At least, that's what someone wrote in our 8th grade memory book (which is maybe more embarrassing?!)
--And last, but certainly not least, will you share pictures of your dogs?
Of course! I have two English bulldogs: Hank and Oliver. They are such good boys.
Want to know more about the lovely Jennifer Maschari and her awesome books and adorable dogs?