Hailing from the small, coal-mining town of Price, Utah, Jennifer’s love of storytelling began at an early age. She recalls the backdrop of her childhood: desert and barren hills that served as the canvas for her imagination to run wild. Influenced by the likes of writers such as Stephen King, Jennifer’s debut novel, Struck, released in May of 2012, captivates with intrigue: a teenage lightning addict, doomsday cults, earthquakes and the end of the world. Jennifer is teaching the workshop “Writing YA from the Inside Out” as part of our Writing for Young People series at the Summer Writing Institute. We had the chance to chat with her over the weekend.
Q. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
A. Absolutely! I never seriously considered any other career, and I’m not sure I ever had the choice. Even before I learned how to read I was on the path to becoming a writer. My dad’s storytelling abilities were my first inspiration. He used to tell epic bedtime stories that sometimes spanned weeks. I became obsessed with “story,” not only in the written form, but oral, film, television. The idea that someone could make a career out of telling stories for the joy of entertainment infected me, and I’ve never found a cure.
Q. What inspires you?
A. Everything. Anything. I’m always watching, observing, listening. You never know where inspiration can come from. You have to be on your guard, and you have to pay attention. When you hear something – a snippet of conversation – or learn something – a random fact – that starts your mind down the “what if” path, that’s it. Inspiration. Whatever gets your brain gears turning is grist for the mill. Books are not built on one inspiration, but hundreds of big and little pieces of inspiration for plot, setting, character, theme. You have to be a sponge and absorb as much of it as you can. My advice for writers of any genre is to read widely. Some of my biggest lightbulb moments came from reading random nonfiction books that had nothing to do with what I was working on.
Q. You have had a really unique opportunity of seeing the roles you write come to life, what’s it like seeing your vision on screen?
A. It’s surreal and empowering and addictive when it works. You look at the actors playing your characters and think, “I made you! You came out of my head!” But it can be terrifying, too, because sometimes a line or a block of dialogue doesn’t work when spoken out loud, or a scene isn’t adapting quite how you planned, and you have to scramble to make it work because cameras don’t lie. If it doesn’t play, it doesn’t play.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel, Struck?
A. Struck is the story of a teenage girl named Mia Price who is not only a human lightning rod, but also a lightning addict. She’s been struck by lightning hundreds of times throughout her life, and she’s become addicted to the feeling of being filled with energy. Nothing makes her feel more alive than being struck. Unfortunately, it’s not very good for her, and endangers the lives of those who are close to her. So she and her family move to Los Angeles, where lightning only strikes a handful of times each year. But she trades thunderstorms for earthquakes, and soon after she arrives in LA a massive electrical storm causes an earthquake that devastates the city. In the chaotic aftermath, two doomsday cults rise to power, one that wants to save the world and one that wants to destroy it, and both cults possess seers who’ve predicted that Mia is the key to their apocalyptic visions.
Q. I’ve heard that writers often bond to their characters, what does it feel like to finish a story and let go of that bond a little?
A. Ah, the post-partum blues. I just finished a book, so I’m in that separation phase right now. Honestly, and this sounds a little depressing, but I feel elated for about two days after I finish a book, and then I start to feel empty. But I think that’s the plight of creatives of all kinds. You get a high off of the work, even when it’s hard, and then when it’s done you come crashing down. Or maybe that’s just me.
Q. Do you have any advice/cure for the infamous “writer’s block?”
A. For me, writer’s block usually stems from doubt, either doubt in myself and my abilities, or doubt in the foundation of what I’m working on. If it’s doubt in myself that’s tripping me up, I’ve found that reading something truly inspiring kicks me back into gear. You’d think that would do the opposite, that reading something great would make you feel even more hopeless by comparison, but that isn’t usually the case for me. When I read something amazing, it sparks my creativity and I get excited again. Excitement is key! If you’re not excited by what you’re creating, that could be why you have writer’s block. Or, if you know there’s some fundamental problem with your plot or characters, intuition can cut off the blood supply to your creative arteries. That might mean you’ll have to risk stopping in the middle of a draft to go back and examine what you’ve done, see if you can find the flaw in the design.
But, if all else fails, you just have to start writing something, anything, accepting that it might well suck, and be okay with that. Remind yourself that you don’t have to show anyone the suckness. As long as it starts the ball rolling again, that’s all that matters.
Q. How did you get started in the writing industry and what is your best piece of advice to people interested in pursuing writing as a career?
A. Well, first things first, I got started by writing a few very bad practice books, a lot of short stories, and then, eventually, writing a good book. Even before I wrote the good book, though, I started going to conferences so I could network. I’ve found networking to be essential. When I was still working on my first bad book, I attended the Maui Writer’s Conference and got the chance to have lunch with Terry Brooks. Years later, he agreed to read Struck and blurb it. Networking definitely has its value!
But the best piece of advice I can offer (there’s so much, but I’ll narrow it down to this) is to keep perspective about what the publishing industry is: it’s a business. What does that mean? It means that even while you might be carving a piece of your heart out to put on the page, or creating a masterpiece of literary language, what you’re really doing is creating a product that publishers need to sell. And it’s hard to accept that, because it diminishes the act of artistic creation. BUT…the kind of perspective I’m talking about comes into play when you’re trying to write a query letter, or when you’re choosing from your file of ideas which one you ought to write next, or when you’re assessing agents or going on submission or promoting your book. These are big, big, big parts of being a writer, and they’re the business parts. Focus on the art when you’re making it, and then get down to business.
Q. What is one interesting thing about you that most people don’t know?
A. I’ve never seen “Top Gun.” I don’t know why, but it just never appealed to me.
Q. What is the best food you’ve eaten in the past week?
A. Coconut pancakes!
Q. Is there anything new on your plate? What can we expect from you in the future?
A. My next YA novel, The Killing Jar, will be released through FSG/Macmillan in Fall 2014. It’s about a teenage girl who survives a horrific crime against her family, only to be kidnapped and brought to a utopian commune. There she learns some startling secrets about herself and her connection to the commune people who call themselves the Kalyptra.