The waiting is brutal, too. You’ll wait for an agent to sign you, then an editor to acquire your work, then more editors to edit, then stars to light up (or smudge) your name on Goodreads and Amazon. It’s a long, slow process. While you’re waiting, write something else! (A poem’s a solid cheat here.)
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennie Englund.
“How is it possible to belong to something so large, yet feel so alone?”
Jennie Englund’s critically-acclaimed YYA novel, Taylor Before and After (Macmillan), debuted in 2020. Set on the dynamically diverse island of Oahu, with its “dizzying contradictions, from shabby to glorious” (Kirkus Reviews), the story explores the effects of mental illness and addiction on a young adult, her family, and the community. In unique epistolary structure, eighth-grade Taylor Harper responds to writing prompts in her language arts class, alternating between two timelines―before and after a tragic accident. Landing in hope, the heartfelt coming-of-age tale chronicles the year that changes one girl’s life — and will change the reader — forever.
A scholar of Harvard University’s “Under Fire: Intersectionality of Climate and Culture” colloquium, Jennie Englund is an alumna of the United States’ Peace Institute and the Geneva Centre for Public Security, and a two-time National Endowment of the Humanities fellow. Her YYA literary debut Taylor Before and After (Macmillan, 2020) has received critical acclaim, and was featured in the New York Writers’ Workshop. Presently, she is a college professor of composition and communications instructor at fire officer academies.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
My YYA debut, Taylor Before and After (Macmillan Publishers 2020), dropped last winter. It took about five rounds of hardcore revision — and ten years of writing, revising, querying, revising, and signing. And revising.
But in the spirit of transparency, this next part is where I’m a cliché.
For 45 years, I’ve pretty much been writing. And for half of that, I’ve been teaching writing — from actual, literal printing to first graders, to essay organization to middle schoolers who ran from revision like they were on fire, to clear, focused, detailed APA research papers in college. My first published piece was in Mothering Magazine. The check for 150 dollars got me all ambitions, and even with three kids under five and a teaching gig (almost every author I know has another job, BTW), I wrote and wrote and submitted. It’s kind of an addiction.
My short story “Bakersfield Baptism” won the Pacific Northwest Writing Association’s First Place in 2009! That was a shot in the dark. Afterwards, my narrative “Seized” was acquired by the American Journal of Nursing. This is the upside of diversifying — you never know where you’ll end up in print! The industry’s wide: fiction, flash fiction, short fiction, long fiction, nonfiction, poetry… I think the lesson here is to get writing out there! Submit to journals, magazines, newspapers, contests! You never know… (A good guideline is to stick to calls with no or low sub fee.)
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Straight-up, hands-down, flat out, the best thing that’s happened to me as an author has been belonging to the world’s most incredible author circle.
Last March, a tweet had popped up from anthologist Mary South, asking: “Are you publishing a book during COVID-19?” She was thinking of forming an online support group. At the end of her invite was a star — the Northern kind.
With Taylor’s victory lap cancelled due to COVID-19, I followed that star. So did 80 other writers who also debuted during the pandemic — authors from every genre imaginable: YA, literary fiction, historical fiction, religion, politics. These folks are (literally) rock musicians, college instructors, New York Times and Miami Herald reporters, Vanity Fair contributors, statisticians. We came from everywhere.
What we had in common was that we were stranded in a locked-down world with a break-out book. Some debuts were stuck in warehouses, some editors sick or MIA. Imprints dissolved, even some of our houses merged or folded. So we leaned on each other to share and plug our books about the cocaine cartel, crossword puzzles, and Kurdish refugees. Landing on the name “Lockdown Literature,” we called ourselves “Lockies.” We got Twitter and Instagram handles, and posted pictures and reviews everywhere. We had a logo, we had t-shirts. There were Zoom lunches and launches, collaborations and cocktails.
Then, in November: Ava Homa’s email arrived: “Lockies, One of our own authors won the 2020 Booker Prize…”
Replies to Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain’s sweep poured in: “Congratulations!” “Fantastic!” “Amazing!” “Hooray for one of our own!” “Go team!”
And, from Douglas Stuart himself: “Lockies…We did it!!!…Can’t wait till we can get together and celebrate all of our books!”
His ‘we’ heated our hearts. The lovely Douglas Stuart, unanimous RECIPIENT OF THE 2020 BOOKER PRIZE, included all of us in his MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR win!
I can’t even describe the impact of that inclusivity during the otherwise desperate time. Let’s just say Douglas kept us all going.
A ‘re’union is in the works!
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
The biggest obstacle to becoming published was balance. Work and writing, family and writing, sleep and writing…Just thinking about this breaks my brain. It was A TRIP teaching APA citations to college students every other day, and crafting an emotive literary YYA novel in between. It was easier to come out of the creative writing process, dress up, and lead a lesson on thesis development than it was to actually develop the thesis in my book the next day. I tried telling myself that having thesis, organization, and the importance of examples in my head from teaching, those were also at the forefront of my writing.
Other challenges popped up as the process rolled along. If I had the chance to do it over, I’d lobby harder for Taylor to be marketed toward an older readership. The structure is sophisticated — alternating timelines in an epistolary narrated through writing prompts in Taylor’s language arts class. I wish I’d fought to get the book to more teachers, counselors, and parents. They’ve turned out to be some of Taylor’s biggest fans!
Now…dare we bring up ‘reviews’? That’s a whole interview on its own. For now, I’ll say I’m proud of the reviews Taylor’s gotten — the good and the bad — either 5 or 4 stars, or 2. There’s not much middle/average. People either love or hate her. I’m OK with that.
Can I add what’s missing in my answer? Rejection. Getting rejected and rejected and rejected could easily be a no-going-forward roadblock. And I was/am rejected ALL. THE. TIME. But instead of using “unfortunately…” as an excuse to quit writing, I try to learn from it and write better. I ask myself how the piece could be stronger/clearer/tighter/more purposeful/more compelling? How could it stand apart?
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh geez, okay. When Rhoda Belleza, then-editor at Macmillan, called to acquire TAYLOR, I. HUNG. UP. ON. HER. Accidently, but still… And when she called back, she inadvertently hung up on me! With a start-off like that, it was a miracle the deal actually went through.
Also, thinking I could write a love scene was a pretty big fail. Despite 28 passionate years with my mate, I COULD NOT write a love scene without making it a potential SNL skit. The more drafts I did, the more my writing group giggled. So, I made the scene awkward. (Which young love usually is.)
Also also, WHY did I think it was a good idea to smear my face with luxury oil before my book-jacket photo shoot? The sun bounced off every cell of my cheeks, chin, forehead, nose. It looked like I had swallowed a light bulb. I had to do the whole shoot over again (and again), which turned out to be my niece taking a picture of me with unwashed hair on a random ranch. That’s the one on the flap. No face oil.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Crafting the short story is wild! Packing a slice of a life into 25 pages is absolutely thrilling! It takes TONS of revision to whittle down and tighten up — and add in dialogue, description, detail. I’m super excited about a climate-fiction (yep, that’s a thing!) piece I have out on submission. It’s bizarre yet creepy-real. Cli-fi is really far out of my wheelhouse, and yet…We’ll see!
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
Like a lot of writers, I couldn’t land Taylor in the breathtaking way I was aiming for. So I went back to Oahu, where the story’s set, to actually try surfing for the first time (in my mid-forties!). I put it off till the last day, when, at the lowest level of ‘surfing’ a human could ever do, I borrowed a stand-up paddle board without the paddle and lay down on it in a lagoon. There were zero waves, and I only got up once, but when I did, I laughed so hard, I fell over, and an audience of cabana boys and Australian sisters shared a pretty good chuckle. I did get the conclusion, though!!!
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Taylor’s ending is striking. At the same time, it’s empty. (You’ll have to see what I mean for yourself!). it reflects a circular journey, mimicking the introduction, but the MC is extraordinarily different by then. Over 320 pages, she’s changed. I hope the reader feels that. That’s my first hope.
As with every single word (or even a lack of words) I chose for the story, I deliberated over those end pages, even if, ironically, they’re Taylor’s stream of conscientiousness.
My second hope is that the reader gets that life is ROUGH! No one has it easy. Some have it easier than you. You have it easier than some. But it’s about how we get through it, what we do with it that shapes us. And using there’s nowhere better to use that pain than in writing! You can use the worst things that’ve ever happened to you to craft a better, deeper, more intimate, truly original story.
Me, I’ve had a lifetime of grief. That’s broadened my spectrum, and has led me to know true joy and compassion. Toward the end of her year-long narrative, Taylor has the experience to help frenemy who turned her world upside down. But does she have the empathy? The choice is complicated. I was able to explore all the angles.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
For some reason, publishing is a super-secret industry. There are definitely things I wish I’d known early on.
1.) Take edits like a boss. You don’t have to use all of them. But at least play with suggestions from your writing group, your agent and editors. The feedback can lead you somewhere extraordinary! I just finished a third stab at the intro of my follow-up novel. Each time, it’s gotten stronger and ‘voicier’. (While we’re talking intro here: This may very well be the hardest part of the craft. It will definitely be the most re-worked.)
2.) The competition is brutal. I mean BRUTAL. And that’s GOOD! Because it pushes you to write better. The best tools are hard work, taking risks, being yourself, and being brave. I’m a fan of writing to a fringe audience, the one that NEEDS us. Do something original. I mean, aren’t you tired of seeing the same story?
3.) The waiting is brutal, too. You’ll wait for an agent to sign you, then an editor to acquire your work, then more editors to edit, then stars to light up (or smudge) your name on Goodreads and Amazon. It’s a long, slow process. While you’re waiting, write something else! (A poem’s a solid cheat here.)
4.) Heads UP: The YA Twitterverse can be cliquey, tricky, and make you feel like a failure. You might see “everyone else’s” record sales, best-seller listings, awards, ‘likes’ and thousands of followers. You might think you’ve written the world’s worst book. The self-doubt can be immobilizing.
But find your people. They’re out there! One of my brightest moments has been when an editor I’ve admired forever — She of Great Integrity & Authenticity — followed me! If she was the only follower I ever had, that would be enough.
When you do find your people, plug them, boost them, buy and share and star their books! Write uplifting reviews! Being positive helps us sleep at night. And someday that magic might come back to you.
But if You. Just. Can’t. Twitter, hey, I have you. Instagram is a way happier place — all cupcakes and kittens. It’s definitely my jam!
5.) Lastly, the editing and editing and editing and editing, the competition, waiting, and inferiority complex is all worth it when you hear from a reader who tells you your words changed her forever.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study). Can you share a story or example?
My go-to muse is EXPOSURE. There’s nothing like experience to expand our range and get our neurons firing. I’ll go anywhere, do anything: read poetry, paint with watercolor, chat with a stranger, belt out Florida Georgia Line. I’ll cook Ethiopian tibs with infused butter and injera, and make marinara from scratch. I’ll plant an unnamed stalk in the fall, and revel in what it turns into (a columbine) in spring. I’ll hike a new trail, or try out a different fishing lure. But. I’ll only watch series or films that get over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s ridiculously snobby. It’s because I spend hours a day on a screen, typing and revising and reading and searching and promoting. It makes me picky about what I’m glued to the screen two more hours for. (If I’m missing out on something really great, though, let me know?)
Another trait that catapults creativity is to cultivate and celebrate our idiosyncrasies. These make our voice distinct and interesting.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
As a research-writing teacher, I have a profound love for non-fiction. Recently, I’ve swallowed whole Jessica Bruner’s Nomadland and Dan Rather’s What Unites Us. I liked one more than the other, in terms of examples, stories, and solution.
I’m OBSESSED with documentaries about Hank Paulson. I’ll admit it: I have a thing for economic environmentalism and sociology, the stuff that happens to people and places after an event — like the Great Recession or the pandemic. Yeah, I know, it’s weird.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve always wanted to ignite a movement to turn water bottles into vehicle fuel. This would reduce waste and carbon emissions, giving the planet a huge boost!
Also, my life’s work has been trying to get homework banished. Truthfully. Having students who worked multiple jobs, were single parents, veterans, and/or homeless has cinched this up for me. Can you imagine if our kids were able to play outside all afternoon instead of filling in worksheets??? Also, there’s a socioeconomic incongruity.
On a more realistic / boots-on-the ground level, I’m simmering an idea to help support debut authors.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Please click on the links to come see me!
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
Thanks for having me! I hope I lifted upcoming writers, while giving an insider’s reality. I’d love to hear how this helped folks along!