Author Interview with Jessica Wren

When I began blogging three summers ago, little did I realize how much fun and rewarding it would be.  I was, to put it bluntly, clueless when it came to the blogosphere.  So many aspects of blogging are great, but if I had to choose the best of the best, that would be easy–the many virtual friendships I have formed with so many talented and wonderful people throughout the WordPress community.  I am continually humbled by all the support and goodwill that permeates this very special network.

One of those talented and wonderful wordsmiths is Jessica Wren.  Jessica took the time recently to interview me on her great website, and now I am returning the favor, chatting with Jessica about the art of writing and about her engrossing novella, Ice, which I very much enjoyed.

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It’s my pleasure introducing Jessica Wren.  I hope you enjoy the interview!

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1. Have you always known that you wanted to be a writer? When did you first discover that writing was something you had a passion for?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. When I was twelve, I wrote a novelette. My seventh-grade English teacher did a serious review, writing on a piece of paper the good and the bad (this was, of course, before the Internet). The fact that someone took me seriously at that time spurred my confidence as a writer. I still have that review; it is one of my most treasured possessions.

 

2. What, or who, are some of your inspirations as a writer? Do you have any favorite authors? Novels?

Stephen King. I think I have read just about every work written by him, and Ice has been compared to some of his works (most notably, The Shining). I have also drawn inspiration from some of the Latino writers, mainly Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In fact, Ice was loosely based on One Hundred Years of Solitude. I created Minterville as an American Macondo.

 

3. If you could offer an aspiring writer any single piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t listen to negative people. Pay attention to constructive criticism, of course, but if someone is actively trying to work against you, get as far away from him/her as possible.

 

4. In your novel, Ice, it struck me right away that there is virtually no cell phone presence in the town of Minterville. Of course this is mostly due to the telepathic Minter ability of the residents (more on that in a moment), but I couldn’t help but wonder if, in presenting the town in this way, that you might be making a statement about the smartphone culture we live in? Do you feel that society has gone too far in its dependence on smartphones and digital technology in general?

I never thought about it, but now that you mention it, maybe I was, subconsciously, trying to make a statement about the importance of community and ties, and how technology addiction can be damaging to one’s social skills. Cell phone reception is poor in Minterville because of their location deep in the woods, but the residents there are used to it and have come to rely on the Minter and person-to-person communication.

 

5.Speaking of the Minter, and the ability of the town residents to communicate on a telepathic level, I was struck by your portrayal of small-town America. Are you from a small town originally? Do you live in a small town today? 

Today, I live in Brunswick, Georgia, which has grown a little too much for my taste. Minterville is modeled after Argyle, Texas (where I did live as a child). In Argyle (at least at that time), everyone knew everyone, there were many community events, and while we couldn’t communicate telepathically, we all knew each other’s phone numbers. It was also virtually crime-free.

 

6. Ice is written in several Parts, each Part narrated, in a first-person format, by a different resident of the town. That’s a very interesting literary technique, and one that presents the reader with different perspectives over the course of the novel. What inspired you to write the story in this manner, as opposed to a third-person narrative throughout or from the first-person point of view of just one character?

I chose to tell Parts 1 and 5 from Elliot’s point of view because he’s a mainly objective character. He was actually originally going to be my only narrator. However, my editor (who’s also my husband) pointed out that by doing that, I would miss out on the emotional depth that characters directly involved in the events, such as Andy (on the outside) and Carolyn (on the inside), could provide. I finally decided to keep Elliot as the narrator for the beginning and the end (before and after the main crisis) because of his objectivity and because as far as that particular town is concerned, he functions as an “everyman.” To be honest, I wish I had used the third-person.

 

7. One of the characters in Ice refers to the press as a “group of blood-sucking vultures.” Does this harsh critique of the press mirror your own views at all?

I do believe the media does “spin” stories to generate ratings, but my view is not nearly as harsh as Elliot’s. He is upset because he feels the media presence in Minterville is disruptive and that they are taking advantage of their tragedy to boost their own ratings (and once again, he is pretty much speaking for everyone).

 

8. There really isn’t a single main character in Ice. In effect, the entire town of Minterville is the main character. This brought to mind certain other works, such as Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, a short story collection where the stories are not chapters in a single novel, but rather separate, individual stories that are connected through theme, characters, and location. Was it an intentional choice you made before writing the novel not to have one main character? Or did that evolve over the course of writing Ice?

It evolved over the course of the writing. It took me a lot of time and frustration to decide the best way to present this particular story. At one point, I was even planning to do it vignette-style (similar to Winesburg, Ohio). Out of everyone who reviewed Ice, I think you are the only person that got that Minterville itself was the main character. I made it a deliberate point of saying that the populace tends to be of one mind. One thing I deliberately avoided doing was presenting anything from Tom’s perspective, even though he is directly at the center of the action. As a “naturalized” resident, so to speak, he simply does not have the ability to think about things the same way everyone else does.

 

9. In a similar vein, did anything really surprise you as you wrote the novel? Did some things go in a completely different direction than you had at first envisioned?

Absolutely. For starters, the twist at the end involving Cierra was something I added in a week before publishing. I had to tone down a lot of the characters who were becoming too mean. Stephanie was originally a bully who verbally abused Elliot their whole lives, and Barbara was a lot nastier in the beginning. In one deleted scene, she told several of the other women involved that they deserved to die (for various reasons). Ice was a short story that I started writing for a contest that just kind of grew.

 

10. Ice is an emotional roller-coaster ride, with a lot of ups and downs as the characters navigate a terrifying situation. In the end, when it’s all said and done, what do you hope the readers of Ice will take away from the novel?

The main lesson is always trust your instincts. When your gut is telling you that something (or someone) is “off” it probably is. The other main things I am hoping readers will take away are compassion and empathy, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The people of Minterville don’t for a single second blame the person whose long-ago misdeeds caused the whole incident, because when it was all said and done, he had done everything in his power (which included a plan to permanently get rid of the criminals at the expense of his own life) to avert the tragedy, and when he couldn’t, he alone accepted the consequences. I hope readers will notice that he never once blamed Manuela or anyone else for his decisions.

 

11. Will there be a sequel? What are you working on now?

I’m planning a whole Minterville series. Although it was the first published, Ice is going to be Book 7. Book 8, which I will write when I’m done with my current project (about that in a minute), will be called Chill and it will be a sequel in which Manuela gets a taste of her own medicine. Book 1 will be Blizzard (James Minter’s story), Book 2 is Freeze (Manuela’s story), Book 3 is Snow Storm (Tom Watson’s story), Book 4 is Shiver (Sebastian’s story), Book 5 is Frost (Barbara Jenkins’ story), Book 6 is Winter Winds (more about the events of 1993).

What I’m working on now is a four-part series called the Cadiz Beach Series. The titles will be Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind, which revolve around a criminal defense attorney named Vincent McPherson who tries to rid Cadiz Beach, Florida (another fictitious town), of the Irish Mob. I’m doing the rough draft for Earth now. Vinny (as he is called) defends two young people accused of killing the son of a notorious Irish mobster. This trial unleashes all the fury of the Mob on this small, beachfront community . . .

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Jessica Wren is a writer who has published exactly one ebook. She has created this page to share her infinite wisdom with professionals such as herself. A high school teacher in a small Georgia city, she knows everything about being a cop, a lawyer, a drug dealer, a serial killer, a teenage boy, and every other known identity. She gives top-notch professional advice about writing by which she consistently fails to abide. Her other talents include boring teenagers to death, aggravating her husband, driving extra-slow when others are behind her, and dropping food on her blouse. Jessica’s ultimate dream is to retire to a one-room shack with 20 cats, where she will sit on the porch and shout “Get out of my yard!” while swinging a broom at anyone who happens to pass by.

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You can connect with Jessica on her website, her Twitter page, and on Goodreads.

Thank you, Jessica, for a great interview, and thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

Author Interview — Joanna Wiebe

For over a decade now, I have been a freelance proofreader for a handful of book publishers.  I really enjoy it.  I have always loved to read, after all, and the publishers I freelance for offer a wide, eclectic selection of titles to work on.  Many are nonfiction, which I don’t mind at all.  I’ve always been a big nonfiction fan.  But, of course, as a fiction writer myself, I always feel excited when I am assigned a novel.  Such was the case late this past summer, when I was asked if I could proofread a Young Adult paranormal novel with the eye-catching title of The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant.

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And as I read the story, I literally forgot I was proofreading, that this was supposed to be a job.  I was captivated by the words, the plot, the characters.  It was a joy to read.  I reached out to the author, Joanna Wiebe, asking her if she would be willing to do an interview here on The Eye-Dancers blog, and she was gracious enough to accept the invitation.

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And so, without further delay, I hope you will enjoy the interview with Joanna . . .

1.  Your novel The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant, published by BenBella Books, is due out at the beginning of next year.  It is also the first in a series of three novels, called the V Trilogy.  Please tell us a little bit about the book, as well as the trilogy as a whole.

Well, the first book, The Unseemly Education, describes the beginning of a series of pretty major discoveries that our hero, Anne Merchant, will make about herself and the people she loves throughout the series.  In the first book, we see her very focused on what a lot of teenagers focus on: getting the hell through high school and off to college, where ‘real life’ is supposed to start.  Anne has always been a top student, so she expects to become her class valedictorian, but she finds out quickly that all the Cania kids share her drive to become what they call “the Big V.”  By the end of the book, we learn why the Big V is such a big deal to these kids, but we don’t yet know why Anne, who is a far cry from the standard Cania student, has been allowed to come to Cania; we’ll learn that in the second book, and that’s when we’ll see Anne begin to live life instead of thinking life is something that happens after you’ve got through the muck and mire of being sixteen.

2. The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant tackles the issue of regret, and the lengths parents will go to give their children a second chance.  How did you decide you wanted to write about this theme?  Did the idea for the book just hit you, suddenly, as ideas sometimes do?  Or was it something you had thought about for a while?

The lengths parents will go to was an issue I fought to keep central to the story throughout its evolution because, from where I stand, we read a lot of romantic love stories but not quite so many stories of the love between parents and their children.  I’ve experienced the way romantic love comes and goes—I mean, the guy I was crazy about in high school is essentially the opposite of attractive to me today. 🙂  And I’ve experienced how everlasting the love between parents and their children can be.  My dad essentially raised all five of us on his own, and when he died when I was in my early twenties, I felt a desperation to have him back from which I have yet to fully recover.  That said, I’m not suggesting romantic love takes a backseat to parental love—not at all!  They’re equally complex, and that’s what I hope to explore.  Of course, this book isn’t ‘about’ a girl and her parents—it’s a fantasy-paranormal-romance-suspense book. 🙂  But it does center around how desperate a parent’s love for their child can be and how vulnerable that makes them—to say nothing of the powerful feelings children have for their parents: desire to please, worry about disappointing, fear of being unable to be real with them, and ultimately, for some of us, understanding.

The issue of regret is really interesting—I love that that came through for you.  Certainly the parents here feel regret, and some of the kids do, too, but I’ll be exploring Anne’s regrets in greater detail in the second book.  So stay tuned.

3. The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is a wonderful title!  I am always fascinated by titles of stories, and know from firsthand experience that titles sometimes do not come until very late in the game.  Did you know what the title for the novel would be before you began writing it, or did it only come to you in the middle, or at the end, of the writing process?

So glad you like the title!  A few other writers have commented on liking the title, too, which is a great relief to me because I’ve come to understand that I am terrible at titles.  When I was a creative writing student, the other writers in class would tell me how much they loathed my short story titles, but I thought they were awesome!  Stuff like “Prep School Boy’s Last Chance to Dance” and “There’s a Hole in My Boat.”  They’d groan; I’d smile.  With this book, my poor agent and editor had to wade through my suggestions very patiently over a very long period of time.  I’m like, “Shadows and Tall Trees!”  And they’re like, “You realize this is supposed to be something people want to read, right?”  Yeah, I guess I’m brutal.

It was actually my partner, Lance, who suggested “The Education of Anne Merchant” just around the time I was surrendering the final manuscript to BenBella, which happened after the book deal and then-title had been announced.  My editor, Glenn, added the word “Unseemly,” and voila.  I had nothing to do with it beyond coordinating it.  Which is probably why people think it’s good. 😉

4. There are some very memorable characters in the novel.  Were any of the characters inspired by anyone you know, or have known?

Thank you!  I actually worked with a guy named Manish, so (spoiler alert, but not a biggie) when my old coworkers found out I killed him off, they were like, “I knew you didn’t like Manish!”  But I totally do like him!  This minor character just felt like a Manish to me . . . and he needed to die. 😉

The character Stanley is my dad.  No question about it.  One of the greatest things I’ve heard about my book is something my sister Sarah said after she read the chapter where Anne and Stanley reunite; she said it felt like I’d created a new memory of our dad for her.

Oh, and the Pomeranian, Skippy, is the name of my nana’s Pomeranian we grew up with.  That dog had the stinkiest breath on earth, but that didn’t make it into the book, to my dismay.  When you’re writing a story like The Unseemly Education, where a reveal is around every corner, all the little details become clues; so giving Skippy stinky breath might have confused readers, even if it would have made my siblings laugh.

5. The setting for the Cania Christy Preparatory Academy, where Anne Merchant goes to school, is Wormwood Island, Maine.  Is there a special significance to this setting?  Why did you choose Maine as the location for Cania Christy?

Maine is just one of those locations, isn’t it?  I think Stephen King has done something to it; it seems cloaked in mystery and paranormality.  The school needed to be remote and on the East Coast, so it really came down to the Boston area or Maine.  And Maine just felt right.  Wormwood Island is named after the character Wormwood from CS Lewis’s amazing The Screwtape Letters, the significance of which will hopefully make sense to people who read the book.

6. The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is a Young Adult novel in the sense that it tells the story of a teenage girl and her unusual experiences at the Cania Christy Academy.  (Though I believe the story will appeal to readers of all ages.)  Have you always enjoyed YA fiction?  Do you have any favorite YA authors?

I love YA.  When I was what I guess people call a “tween,” I read a lot of VC Andrews and Christopher Pike; prior to that, I read the Hardy Boys.  I guess around the time I was in grade eight or nine, I graduated to bigger books with bigger stories, like The Clan of the Cavebear series by Jean Auel and the novels that would shape my appetite since, with The Jungle and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being chief among them.

It seems to me that the best YA writing ever is happening now and has been for the last decade or so.  I find I don’t have favorite authors as much as favorite YA books, which include The Book Thief, Fiend, and Miss Peregrine’s School—plus wonderfully indulgent reads like Smith’s Lockdown, Meyer’s Cinder, and Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood.

7. Have you always known you wanted to be a writer, ever since you were little?  Or did the calling to write come slowly, over time?

It has been a forever thing, but it really took form after my parents’ divorce, when I was eight and we moved in with my nana.  I was very shy then, and she had a typewriter.  Writing was the most natural response to where I was and how I was feeling, and that’s never changed.

8. If there was only one piece of advice you could give to a new or aspiring writer, what would it be?

Write with a deadline.  Start writing that f***ing book right this second, and tell yourself you’ll have it done exactly four months from now.  We writers make a lot of excuses, and you just know someone’s reading this right now thinking, “It would be so cool to hold my own book in my hands, but . . .”  No buts.  Just set a date, and write.  Don’t sleep.  Don’t watch TV.  One of my favorite writers (okay, I guess I do have faves) is the late Donald Barthelme.  His brothers also wrote and taught writing.  One of the Barthelmes—it escapes me which—was describing his rigorous writing process to his students; a student asked him when he found the time to sleep, and he replied, “Who said anything about sleeping?”  Carve out time to read, to work enough to cover your bills, to sleep enough to stay alert, and possibly to run outside just to freshen your head.  All the time left over is time you should be outlining your story, writing it, revising it, editing it, and ultimately querying agents.  That’s how you move from aspiring writer to published novelist.  At least, that’s what people kept telling me, and that’s what worked for me.

9. Please tell us when and where The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant will be available for purchase, and where readers can discover more about you and your work.

It comes out Tuesday, Jan 14, 2014, and it’s available in bookstores throughout Canada and the US.  If you’d like to keep up-to-date with news, new books, giveaways, and general awesomeness, join me on my Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/joannawiebefiction

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Thanks so much to Joanna for doing this interview!

And thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

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