It's exciting when I get to interview children's authors whose work I admire and even more thrilling when that author is also a friend. I first met Jessica Lee Anderson when I attended a book signing party with several other Austin SCBWI authors at Barnes & Noble. At the time, she was signing her middle grade award winning novel Trudy (winner of the 2005 Milkweed Prize for Children's Literature) and her warm smile enveloped me with her inner beauty. She's one of the kindest, sincerest people I know. When you speak with Jessica you feel that she's invested in you. No one else matters. She's genuine and generous and incredibly talented. And no doubt why she was such an effective instructor when she taught for five years at the Institute of Children's Literature. Lucky students!
One of the things I admire about her as a friend and writer is her hard-working and determined attitude. She's always working to improve her craft, she has a Masters of Arts in Children's Literature from Hollins University, and open to sharing what she's learned so far in her journey with other writers. I've had the pleasure to hear Jessica speak on several occasions to peers, librarians and teachers, and her passion for writing and inspiring children to read and write is magical. Spell-binding. AWEsome.
She believes in excellence and raising the bar every time her pen strikes the page. Her books touch you deeply and she's not afraid to write about serious topics like mental illness and border issues which she did in her Young Adult novel Border Crossing (Milkweed, 2010). She invests in you the reader and her characters. And I'm touched she took time out of her extremely busy schedule to talk with us. But I'm not surprised. Because that's just the kind of thing she does. Please welcome, Jessica Lee Anderson!
Describe your typical writing day for us? Are you a morning writer? A night owl? Do you write in an office? Under the shade of a lilac tree? A café? Let us peek into your writing world.
My typical writing day starts with a large cup of coffee or tea in the morning. I check my email and then try to research, dig into a manuscript, or revise depending on where I’m at in the writing process. I’ll write for a couple of hours, take a break for lunch, and then write some more in the afternoon if possible. If I’m close to finishing a draft or a revision, I’ll write well into the evening. I use to be a complete night owl and get my best writing done in the wee hours, but as I’ve gotten older and as my schedule has changed, I’ve forced myself to be more of a morning writer.
Do you set daily writing goals for yourself? Weekly? Yearly? Do you think goal-setting is important for your career? Are you more of an organizer or fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants person?
I’m a loose organizer who sometimes flies by the seat of my pants! (See her interview with Samantha Clark on To Outline or Not Outline) Goal setting is definitely important to keep myself accountable and to be able to see how far I’ve progressed. That said, I do need to set some consistent daily writing goals, such as completing a certain number of chapters or writing a certain number of words. Whenever I work on a new novel, I set goals in terms of when I’d like to finish and when I hope to have the revision(s) complete by.
What do you like most about being a writer? What is the thing that surprises you the most about writing? Or being a writer?
I love the creativity of being a writer most of all—getting surprised by characters and their actions, hashing out a plot, honing words, etc. When I first started writing, I was surprised by how effortless books were to read yet so challenging to write. This reminds of a quote I love by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Easy reading is damn hard writing." I’m constantly and pleasantly surprised by how supportive and wonderful the local Austin writing community is.
F. Scott Fiztgerald said, “Character is plot. Plot is character.” In your novels Trudy and Border Crossing your characters drive the plot? Their action and reactions direct the scenes. When you begin a novel do the characters come first or the plot?
In most of my work to date, the characters drive the plot. Their actions and reactions direct the scenes and influence future choices, etc. In half of my novels that I’ve worked on, the plot came first, though. I knew what was going to happen, but it took me a while to get to know my characters and their desires. In the remaining half, I “heard” the character voices and then the action began to unfold.
In Trudy and Border Crossing the characters both deal with illnesses yet in very different ways? Can you briefly describe why you felt compelled to write these stories?
Trudy is very personal to me as I watched my grandmother slowly slip away to Alzheimer’s. It was a very painful process, and I wrote as a way to cope. Years later, I became fascinated with the brain, and wanted to know more about schizophrenia. This research eventually led to Border Crossing.
Both Trudy and Border Crossing are written in the first person point-of-view? Did you start the novels in this point-of-view? Or did the point-of-view change? Do you experiment with point-of-view when you’re writing a novel? Did writing in the first person point-of-view make it easier to get inside your characters’ head?
I’ve started with first person point-of-view with all my novels. I’ve found that this close viewpoint makes it easier for me to better understand my characters and their motivations. I experimented with the third person point-of-view in Border Crossing during a revision, but found that it was too distancing (even though my protagonist is an unreliable character).
Tell us about your newest novel Calli (Milkweed, 2011) to be released this September and currently available for pre-order on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. What was the inspiration behind the book?
My family and research into foster care inspired Calli. Calli’s world changes when her moms take in a foster child named Cherish. Cherish kisses Calli’s boyfriend, steals things, and seems like she’s trying to ruin Calli’s life. When Calli retaliates, things go horribly wrong. Even though there isn’t an easy solution, she tries to make amends.
Where do you find inspiration and motivation as a writer? What and/or whom are your “rocks” in your writing life?
I read as a way of staying motivated, and my friends constantly inspire me and motivate me. Seriously, I don’t know what I’d do without PJ Hoover, Jo Whittemore, Kari Holt, E. Kristin Anderson, Stephanie Pellegrin, Jeanette Larson, and the entire Austin SCBWI chapter! My husband, Michael, is an incredible “rock”—I can't say enough about how lucky I am to have such amazing support!
Jessica is also part of the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels seven authors and illustrators who write for children and teens.
What are you working on now? Eager fans want to know!
I’ve been working on a middle grade novel called Finding Bigfoot. Everdil Jackson thinks she can repair her parent’s broken relationship and grow closer to her friends by proving Bigfoot’s existence after an unexpected encounter. Everdil ends up proving more than she bargained for, including her inner strength and ability to adapt.
You’re so sweet, Carmen! Thanks for your time and thoughtfulness!
Thank you, Jessica!!!
To read additional interviews with Jessica visit Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog Cynsations on Trudy or her Guest Blog post with PJ Hoover.on Cynsations. She also has several others listed on her website.