Interview with Jennifer E. Smith
Books Divas scored an interview with Jennifer E. Smith, author of The Comeback Season and You Are Here!
Your previous novel, The Comeback Season, and your latest novel, You Are Here, both portray young outsiders who are coping with loss. Why are you drawn to these sorts of characters and situations?
I’ve always been interested in books that move me in some way. Reading is an act of faith; you give yourself over to these characters, go along for a journey with them, and then end up somewhere completely different than where you started. I find myself drawn to books where that journey feels particularly meaningful. Reading about the superficial concerns of the most popular girl at school has never been nearly as interesting to me as the girl watching from the sidelines with a great big hole in her heart. I guess you could say that I write to find out the shape of that hole, and what it was that once fit there.
When I was young I always thought it would be great to have a twin because then I would always have someone to play with. It is interesting to think about that now in the context of your book, and Emma’s longing to fit in. Did you feel this way at all when growing up?
I think everyone’s probably been fascinated by the idea of having a twin some point; I certainly was as a kid. You can’t help wondering what it would be like to grow up alongside someone as closely as that. Of course, the reality is that twins argue and fight and get on each other’s nerves just like any other siblings, but there’s this illusion of togetherness that really appeals to Emma in the book. Her siblings are all much older, so even though her family is fairly big, she feels like she got cheated out of all that comes along with that – the raucous dinners, the family road trips, the teasing and fighting and affection – and thinks everything would have been different had her twin survived. And maybe it would have. But then she might not have needed Peter as much as she did!
Peter seems to have loved Emma since he first saw her in the fifth grade. Do you think in real life love at first sight is possible?
I do! At least I’d like to believe so. I’ve heard enough stories to realize these things are possible, though it’s obviously a bit different when it happens as young as Peter and Emma. But I love the idea that the right person could be there all along without you ever realizing it…until all of a sudden you do. It’s very sweet.
Do you share Peter’s love for maps and historical events in the way that you share Ryan’s (from The Comeback Season) love for the Cubs?
I’ve always found maps to be really fascinating, but there are very few things I love as much as the Cubs! It was such a unique experience writing Ryan’s character, where so much of her enthusiasm was my own. But Peter took my mild interest in maps and history to a whole new level – let’s just say I’ve never seen a battle reenactment! – and that was a lot of fun to write too.
Have you taken any major road trips yourself?
Oh yeah. My family was big into road trips when I was a kid, and I’ve been to 46 of the 50 states, most of them in the backseat of the Smith family minivan. I’m practically a pro at the license plate game!
Have you been to the places that Emma and Peter visit?
I’ve been to most of them, since my own experiences tend to creep into my writing more often than not. The town where they live in upstate New York is based on where I went to college; I live in New York City at the moment, which is their second stop on the trip; I’ve visited Washington, DC fairly often; and my parents recently moved to North Carolina. The one place I haven’t been is actually Gettysburg, which plays a crucial role in the book. I still need to make the trip down, though in the meantime, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there via Google.
I’ve read that you work in publishing. How does this affect you as an author? Does it help to know the ins and outs of this world and also work with writing?
Yes, I’m an editor at Random House, though not in the children’s division. I think working in the industry can be both a blessing and a curse. It definitely makes me a more empathetic editor to my own authors, but as a writer, it can make you a little bit cynical. Since I know how everything works, there’s no mystery to the process, and I sometimes miss that curtain being up. But the children’s world is also fairly different than the adult one, and so it’s nice to have a bit of space between the kind of books I work on as an editor and the kinds of books I write when I get home. It definitely takes some fancy footwork to balance the two, since they both take up an enormous amount of time and creative energy. But I consider myself really lucky to have found two things I love to do as much as writing and editing!
Did you always know that you wanted to write? Do you have any advice for our aspiring authors?
When I was in fourth grade, I was one of the winners of a statewide writing contest, and after that, my fate was pretty much sealed: I had the writing bug. I took my first stab at writing a book in eighth grade, where I managed to produce a rambling 350 page single-spaced doorstop of a novel about a girl and a horse. But that’s the thing about writing: the only way to know whether or not you can write a book is to actually sit down and try to do it. After that first one, I wrote two more full manuscripts before starting The Comeback Season. But none of it was time wasted; in each case, I couldn’t have written the next one without having written the one before, and I learned something new each time. You just have to have faith that they’re all leading to something bigger. I think the greatest thing about aspiring authors – whether you’re 18 or 81 – is that you know exactly what you want to do. Do you have any idea how many people there are in the world who still have no clue what they want to be? Figuring that out is half the battle, so if you’re certain you want to be a writer one day, you’re one of the lucky ones. Now all you have to do is get to work. The best advice I can give is also the simplest: the way to become a writer is simply to write and write and write. (And then write some more.)
When you were young what were some of your favorite books? What are your current favorites?
As a kid, my favorites were Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, and Tuck Everlasting. Nowadays, I spend a lot of time reading manuscripts for work and books that I’m editing. But I’m also a huge Harry Potter nerd, and I just read Catching Fire, which I thought was completely riveting.
What’s next after You Are Here? Do you have another novel in the works?
Yes, I’m working on a new novel at the moment that I’m very excited about, though it’s coming along a bit more slowly than I’d like. It’s not always easy to find the time, but I once had a professor who said “You can write a novel if you can steal an hour.” So I’m trying to keep that in mind with this one, taking it an hour at a time, and I’m sure I’ll get there eventually!