My name is Jen and I'm a writer, a mom, a terrible smartass, a bit of a catlady, and the author of a debut YA novel called The Beginning of After which sounds incredibly depressing but really isn't.
Tell us about The Beginning of After? What inspired you to write it?
I've always been a little obsessed with the idea of "the survivor." You lived while others died. So what do you do with that? How does it color the rest of your life? That's just super-interesting to me. Then, years ago, I met a young woman who had lost most of her family in a freak accident and was devoting her time to volunteer work. I didn't know her well, but I found her story fascinating. This was also shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when everyone I knew was sharing this collective grief, trying to find our paths in a reshaped world. So that combination sparked a story idea for me, about a teenage girl who survives one of the worst imaginable traumas -- the loss of her family -- and how she is now permanently connected to the other "survivor" of the tragedy, her neighbor and former childhood friend.
As the book slowly evolved, it became about other things too. Like how Laurel's grief can never be totally her own; living in a small community and being in high school, she has to get through this trauma with all eyes on her. And how we can create our own families when we need to. The cool thing about working on a book for a long time is that you come across a lot of different points of inspiration along the way, and the story grows with your experience.
Did you base any of your characters on yourself or others in your life?
There's a lot of me in Laurel. I wouldn't say I based her on myself -- she has always been her own person -- but the way she looks at the world, with a mix of gravity and humor, and the way she's always struggling between people-pleasing and self-assurance… that comes from me for sure. The only other character who I can say is drawn from a real person is Nana. I had a Nana. She was amazing.
Are there any songs that could describe the atmosphere and feel of the book?
By the time I was done with this book, I had a huge playlist of songs I listened to while brainstorming or going for walks in my neighborhood. When I hear World Spins Madly On by The Weepies, I'm instantly thrown into Laurel's life. Their music in general, especially the Hideaway and Say I Am You albums, strikes the perfect notes for The Beginning of After. Other favorites on the playlist: Breathe Me by Sia, Such Great Heights by Iron and Wine, Soul Meets Body by Death Cab for Cutie, Darklands by The Jesus and Mary Chain, Hometown Glory by Adele, The Scientist by Coldplay, and Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. This is going to sound weird but sometimes I miss being back "inside" the story so I'll listen to my playlist and BOOM, I'm there again.
Are you hoping that readers will take away any specific message from your book?
I wouldn't say it's a "message" exactly, but I hope readers draw some hope and strength from The Beginning of After -- whatever kind they need. It may seem overdramatic to write about a girl who loses her entire family at once. But in a way, that's just an extreme metaphor for any type of game-changing event that can happen to us in life -- the ones that draw a line between "before" and "after". Maybe that's a divorce, or a personal injury, or a changed relationship, or a move to another state. Whatever it is and however "truly crappy" it seems, I think we can survive it. Maybe we can't see it right away, but it might open up fresh opportunities and bring new and surprising people to us.
You're working on your second novel. Can you share anything about it?
The good news is, nobody dies in this one! But there will be plenty of emotion and drama, and a lot of comedy too. The story focuses on five teens who are the subjects of a documentary film series that checks in on their lives every five years. I'm really loving the main character, Justine (who is very different from Laurel), and having tons of fun with it so far.
What were you like as a teenager? Did you like to read?
I was pathetically shy and a terrible overthinker. But I had my friends and a real identity as a "writer girl" even back then, and was also into theatre -- acting and singing. I did read constantly, but at the time YA wasn't a huge genre like it is now. I read a wide range of stuff. I especially loved historical fiction and had this thing about reading anything I could get my hands on about Queen Elizabeth I and the Tudors. I'd "discover" an author, like Isaac Asimov or J.D. Salinger, and then read everything they'd ever written. Then I'd usually go and try to write something in that style…with disastrous results.
What are the first 10 things that come to mind when you think of your favorite things?
In no particular order:
- My daughters sleeping peacefully in some weird position.
- A cat's purr loud in my ear.
- Reading a good book first thing in the morning, when you just wake up.
- Trees in autumn.
- The car radio playing just the right song, at just the right moment.
- Walking alone with my iPod around NYC.
- A quiet house with afternoon light.
- Looking at my husband during the course of a crazy day and remembering why I married him.
- Writing a scene you like so much you wish you were a character in it.
- A great idea coming at an unexpected time, like in the shower or while you're in the middle of a phone conversation.
You create a website called It's My Life. Can you tell us about it?
It's My Life is a website that's part of PBS Kids GO! and covers what they call "life skills issues" for pre-teens aged 9 to 13. We handle topics like puberty, bullying, family problems, drug and alcohol abuse, fighting with friends, crushes, starting middle school or high school, etc. There's written advice, polls, games, videos, and a heavily moderated message board, plus a blog where I post news stories, celeb interviews, stuff like that. I've been running this site for 10 years and I just love it. It's the perfect complement to my work as an author. It's immediate, and covers real life, lets me focus on a younger audience than my YA fiction.
A typical day in your life would be…
I'm constantly struggling to create a typical day! Every time I think I have one made, it all falls apart. But this is as typical as things get around here: In the morning I'll get my daughters off to school and then give myself a half hour of general "screwing around online" time -- catching up on personal email, checking Facebook and Twitter, reading strange news. Once I get that out of my system, I settle in for about two hours of writing. If I'm working on a first draft like I am now, that's all I'm good for. I have to turn off my Internet connection with Mac Freedom (and stash my phone downstairs) so I'm not tempted to jump away from the task at hand. Once I get to a good stopping point, or feel totally burned out, or Mac Freedom lets me back online, I'll reward myself with some more Screwing Around Online. Then I'll take a break for lunch, come back and work on It's My Life for a while or another two-hour draft session, or some blogging/book promotion type stuff. An hour before the girls come home, I get out for errands or a walk or to swim laps at the pool. Once the kids are back in the house, all hope of work is over and it's household/parenting time, but with any luck I feel like I've gotten a lot done in their absence.
When you wear a lot of hats, it's challenging and often stressful to piece together your day like a jigsaw puzzle. But on the rare days that I do have a full day set aside to write -- like a Saturday when my husband has taken the kids somewhere -- I almost can't handle the intensity of working on a single thing. So I guess I'll keep the craziness for now!
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