Hey all! Here is an interview with the wonderful Jennifer Zeigler, author of Alpha Dog and How NOT to be Popular (which I loved!). Enjoy, and thank you Jennifer!
How NOT to be Popular is such an interesting book - something that is opposite of most young adult books. Why did you choose to write about a girl trying not to be popular? What was your inspiration?
How Not to be Popular was inspired by my oldest, dearest friend, Christy. In the fall of 2005 she called from California to say she was getting married, so of course that triggered a whole series of lengthy long-distance chats. Christy, like Maggie, moved around quite a bit when she was younger. (I had always envied her worldliness, but later, when we were grown, she confessed that it could be tough.) Well, I guess she was on my mind a lot, because one day I got a clear vision in my head of a teenage girl walking to school in a crazy outfit. The girl wasn't Christy, but she was in a similar predicament: she was sick and tired of getting uprooted all the time, so she was purposefully trying to drive people away. I found myself so intrigued I had to investigate this person and her world. What did she think would happen? What would happen? Who would she affect along the way? I became interested in exploring popularity as a theme. Is it a quality you are born with or something you can attain? Is it inherently good or bad—or neither? If someone isn't popular, can they do something to change that? And inversely, if someone is naturally charismatic, can they somehow turn it off and not be admired or noticed?
Alpha Dog was your first book. What was your road to publication like for it? How did it change with your second book, How NOT to be Popular?
In true Jenny Ziegler fashion, I did not take the recommended path to getting published. Instead I sort of fell backwards into it.
When I took a break from teaching in order to have a baby, I decided to also use the time to write down a novel that had been rolling around in my head for years. I wasn't consciously trying to be published, I simply needed to let the story out – and it felt good to exercise that corner of my brain after a day of nursery rhymes and Sesame Street. When I finished the draft I showed it to a friend who was a published author. He was very encouraging and put me in touch with an editor at Bantam. They were not interested in an original work at the time, but they were developing several paperback series for teen readers and decided to take a chance on me. The editor gave me a condensed, half-page plot of a book they wanted for one of their series and I worked up an outline and two sample chapters. To my pleasant surprise, she liked it and hired me. That work led to other series work, all of which were written under a pseudonym.
Later, when I was ready to get my own story idea published, I went through the connections I had made as a work-for-hire writer. Luckily, one of my editor friends liked my ideas for Alpha Dog and offered me a contract. While I was doing rewrites on Alpha Dog, I got a brainstorm for How Not to Be Popular and pitched it to her. Luckily, she loved that one, too. I would like to emphasize that nowadays it is very difficult to get noticed without an agent. So I would recommend to anyone who aspires to be published that they not follow my lead and go through an agent. I just happened to get lucky.
Were any of Maggie's experiences like yours in your teenage years?
I would have to say no. Maggie was very loosely based on my pal Christy, but they had very different experiences. I didn't live Maggie's story either. On the other hand, I think all novels are somewhat autobiographical. Everything is filtered through a writer's personal experiences and belief system. So I suppose if someone wanted to, they could deconstruct my books and find all sorts of subconscious allusions to my past. In fact, sometimes I'll reread one of my books and a little light bulb will go off, and I'll think, "I know where I got the idea for this scene/character." It's very surreal when that happens.
I guess I'm a little like Maggie in that I avoid conflict (like she does with her parents). Plus, we have the same irreverent inner voice. Other that that, I'd say Maggie's teen experiences were only similar to mine in that (as with all young people) they were eye-opening, often confusing, and sometimes really fun.
What made you decide to write for teens and not kids or adults?
For many reasons. First of all, I grew up reading great YA writers like Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, Paul Zindel, and S.E. Hinton, and their writing had a significant impact on me. Plus, the teen years are so powerful. Everything is heady and dramatic. You're experiencing these new, raw emotions and everything you go through seems to etch permanent grooves in your brain. As a writer, I enjoy exploring those early experiences that mold our identities. But also, I tend to be interested in the same things young adults are into. (I'm not sure what that says about me and my mindset.) For example, I love TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars. I read young adult novels. I thoroughly enjoy films like Superbad, Juno and Napoleon Dynamite. So I'm often in their universe anyway.
Even though all of my books have been for teens so far, I don't think I will only write stories for that market. I have ideas for adult books, as well as stories for children. I just write whatever is most vivid at the moment.
What is your favorite part of writing for a teen audience?
I have a few favorites. First of all, I love being able to relive the teen years vicariously through my characters. Maybe, deep down, I'm trying to do better than I did the first time – I don't know. Or maybe I'm just trying to stay young and vibrant. Secondly, I love being able to meet young people when I visit schools or festivals to discuss my books. And third, I love calling myself a "young adult author," because it makes me sound young! J
Do you have a certain playlist you play when you write? If yes, what's on it? Is that the kind of music you listen to all the time, or just when you're writing?
While I'm writing, I can't listen to anything but classical. If it has words or a danceable tune, it's too distracting. But I do play music to "get into character" before I write. I try to listen to bands that I think the lead character would be into. For example for How Not to Be Popular I listened to quite an eclectic mix. I saw Maggie as a power-pop girl with a slight folksy edge, and I tried to find songs that captured the quirkiness of the story and/or the melancholy that is weighing her down. So I listened to lots of stuff by Radiohead, The Rite Flyers, Spoon, Cake, and The Shins. In addition, I played some tunes that her hippie parents would be into – songs by Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, and Weezer.
What is your daily schedule like?
There's no "typical" day, but more often than not it follows this pattern:
-- Wake up (at least halfway) around 7 a.m.
-- Drink coffee to fully awaken.
-- Pack lunches for the kids. (It is crucial that I drink coffee first. Once I accidentally packed my daughter's pink princess to-go cup in my son's Spiderman bag. As you can imagine, he was rather upset with me.)
-- Get dressed. Try to remember to remove any ketchup stains and brush hair before walking daughter to elementary school.
-- Come home and exercise. (This is also necessary. Otherwise, sitting at a desk for several hours leaves me aching, grouchy, and bent like a question mark.)
-- Sit at a desk for several hours. Write. (Sometimes the transition from mom-thing to writer-woman is quick and easy. Sometimes it takes a while. If needed, I have several tricks to get me to focus. Like taking a walk. Or reading a page of a favorite book. Or playing music that fits the mood of the story.)
-- Around 2:30 I find a stopping place and do the Great Kid Round-Up.
-- Supervise homework, make dinner, eat, and spend quality time with family.
-- Supervise story times and baths. Tuck kiddoes into bed.
-- "Me" time. This can be used to watch TV with hubby or read a good book or even (if I'm on deadline) go back to the computer to write or edit some more.
-- Go to bed.
-- Rinse and repeat.
What is your favorite young adult book and/or author?
I can't choose a favorite author. It's tough for me to choose a favorite book, too. However, I do have to reread To Kill a Mockingbird every year, and I never get tired of it. To me it is simply a perfect story. Epic yet so readable. Touching without being melodramatic. Funny and amazingly real. It's a simple story and yet it's so sweeping. Each time I read it I discover something new to love about it.
Since it's December and nearing Christmastime, what is your best Christmas memory?
Ooh – great question! Tough question! I'm afraid I'll have to cheat and give you two. The first favorite memory would be the Christmas after my son was born. It was wonderful to see him experiencing the holidays for the first time. He especially loved ripping the paper off of his gifts and playing with the boxes and bows (the presents he didn't much care about until later). That first Christmas Eve he ended up getting himself stuck in a box. It was hilarious! My next favorite Christmas memory would have to be my daughter's first Christmas. On that Christmas Day she decided to walk – just stood up and toddled across the room with all the relatives watching. We were all amazed.
Can we expect another book from you anytime soon?
Um … define "soon." J I'm hard at work on two separate projects right now. I can't seem to push one aside and take them one at a time. Thus, I'm progressing more slowly than usual. The upside, however, is that after a lull, I might end up with a couple books out in the same year. We'll see!
How long does it usually take you to write one book?
I would say a year – give or take a couple of months. First there's the concept phase where I play with the idea. Then comes the plotting and outlining. Sometimes I take time to do research. So it's typically a couple of months (or more) before I start writing. First drafts take me anywhere from three to six months to complete. After that, the rewriting begins. Often I do several passes before there is a "final" draft. Then comes the proofreading stage, and finally … the long wait until the printed copies are on the shelves!
Keep in mind that my writing doesn't always flow at a steady pace. There are dips and dives. There are times when it takes all my energy just to finish a few pages, and times when I have to take long walks or get in weird yoga poses in order to clearly think through a problem. Then, of course, there are times when I am simply waiting to hear back from my editor. On the flip side, there are days when the words just spill right out and fifty pages of draft seem to magically appear in front of me. I love those days.
What is your advice to teens to want to be an author when they're older?
Simply this: write and read and live life.
Read to understand good storytelling. Read several types of stories – of different genres, different formats, and different time periods. You don't have to pick books apart as you read them. Just expose yourself to the voices and rhythms of other authors.
Live life to find your own stories and voices. Meet and observe people. Take in your surroundings. Ask questions such as: "How did this come to be?" "What if THIS had happened instead of THIS?" "What was going through that person's mind?" You'll soon find that there are all kinds of tales to be told – fiction and nonfiction.
Write to write. Like anything else you must practice it in order to get good at it. Keep a journal or blog. Write letters, even if they are to no one in particular. Find your comfort zone – a way of writing that feels like it fits you. Maybe you are a poet. Maybe you love to research and delve into the past. Maybe you are gifted at building suspense or crafting a hard-to-solve mystery. And when you find your voice, you'll know it. Because it's always been there waiting for you to release it.