Phee Van Zant, a wisp of a girl who’s far more Han Solo than Princess Leia, tends to drive her way into trouble. More than reckless, she’s one of the most daring street racers on planet Castra. But Phee transforms from rebel to revolutionary after a taking a no-win deal to race the corporate rally circuit, where she’s catapulted between the boy who’s been running alongside her all her life and the intense, castoff rogue who prepares her all too well for the road. This YA debut is set in the future, yet in a galaxy not so far away.
What was the origin of your idea for Tracked?
I grew up in a sleepy Oklahoma town, watching the cycle of oil boom and bust. For better or worse, “black gold” fueled our tiny city; the industry literally kept it going. So living in that red-dirt, flat-plained world, I became acutely aware of the way commerce and corporations can make or break a society. At the same time, in school, we learned about the way Oklahoma was settled—through breakneck land rushes and wild, claim-staking runs for homesteads on the new frontier. (I think that’s why I enjoy science fiction so much. Interstellar colonists aren’t so different from 18th century pioneers?)
So that history planted the seeds for Phee’s world, a corporately controlled planet in the far future.
But the final inspirations for Tracked came to me from two very different places. I’d watched two things on TV in quick succession: Death Race with Jason Statham and the documentary, Hot Coffee, an eye-opening look at corporate exploitation of the law—forced arbitration, the legalese of contracts, and the slow erosion of civil rights. Add a lifetime of devouring sci fi sagas like Star Wars and there you have it. I asked myself…what if Han Solo’s story were different? What if the “scruffy-looking nerd-herder”—the scoundrel—was a girl, and the roles of rogue and princess were reversed? What would happen if my hero faced down a powerful, corrupt force? How could one girl possibly race against an empire?
Tracked is about a teenager who races cars (on another planet, no less!). I really appreciated the authentic feel of the details surrounding her racing experience. Do you have any experience in the professional car racing circuit? How do you know so much about the subject?
I work in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, not too far from Texas Motor Speedway, and while I’ve never raced a car, I’ve always daydreamed about it. Every time I cruise by the speedway or visit TMS, I imagine the rush of careening around the turns. And when the idea for Tracked came to me, I started researching all kinds of racing—Formula One, Nascar, rally racing. I read like a fiend—technical books, racing magazines (Hello, Red Bulletin. Thanks for all the speed junkie features!), driver memoirs, you name it. I watched footage. I even interviewed an amateur racer. But ultimately, the rally racing in Tracked isn’t modeled on any one contemporary motor-sport. I drew inspiration from many of them, and the “circuit” is one part research, two parts imagination.
My favorite part of your novel is the main character, Phee. She is referred to as a “spitfire” in the book. She pushes the envelope,and can be sarcastic and impulsive, but she is also fiercely loyal. Lots of authors write characters that take their qualities from real-life people, even themselves. Could you tell us a little about Phee’s origin as a character?
I guess you could say that I’m a bit of a Walter Mitty, and Tracked is 84,000 pieces of daydream, strung out and shouting, 250 declarations per page. And as for Phee…on the one hand, she’s the devil-may-care rogue, my polar opposite. Because in truth, behind the extroverted facade, I’m an extremely timid, fearful person. (Seriously. So many phobias. So little confidence.) And you certainly wouldn’t catch me behind the wheel of a race car, pulling death-defying moves. No way!
On the other hand, I do believe there are tiny bits of would-be me buried in Phee. We’re both passionate and emotional—on the inside, more than a little out of control. And like me, Phee’s 100% Gryffindor. She’s not afraid to speak up and stand up for what she believes in. I wish I could borrow that courage! And as you mentioned, she’s headstrong but loyal to the last. Protecting the ones she loves, that’s what drives her. Phee is a spitfire. Flawed, fiery, and fierce; she’s the brave hero I wish I could be.
In addition to being a writer, you are a full-time school librarian. Has your other chosen profession shaped/affected your writing life?
Yes! By day, I am a school librarian, and that means I get to breathe/sleep/eat words and stories. By day, I get to connect kids and adults with good books and resources. Nurturing budding readers…reading, buying, talking up good books…that’s my job description. How fun is that? And at home, I get to spin my own stories. I feel very, very lucky. The only tricky thing is time management. Balancing family and work and writing isn’t easy, but I love being an author and a librarian. I’m grateful to be in a good place, doing what I love.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I nap. You think I’m kidding, right? Totally not kidding. Napping is my favorite hobby. Okay, I have other hobbies, too. I hang out with my family. I read, I watch movies, I go to rock concerts. I play air guitar. I look at my real guitar and pretend I’m going to make time to play again. I run. I work out. I eat pancakes. (I can’t overstate this. So many pancakes.) But napping is the best. It fuels daydreams and gives me the energy to go out and eat more pancakes.
What advice would you give to other writers? Anything specifically for teen writers?
First of all, I don’t know who first said this, but I learned it at DFW Writers’ Workshop. There, I heard it over and over…when it comes to writing, there are really only two rules:
1.) Don’t bore the reader. And 2.) Don’t confuse the reader.
Beyond that, nothing else matters. My other advice is…read and read and read and find your voice. You’re not a news reporter. You’re not making a list of “stuff that happened.” Instead, you’re interpreting an experience. Channel your narrator or character and choose the exact, just right words that get that unique experience across. Forget about passive verbs and adverbs and all the other paint-by-numbers rules. Just get inside. Tell the story from under the skin, from the heart. Tell it the way no one else can, and you’ll make it.
Jenny Martin is the author of TRACKED coming May 5, 2015, from Dial, an imprint of Penguin.
Jenny is a librarian, a book monster, and a certified Beatle-maniac. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son, where she hoards books and regularly blisses out over all kinds of live and recorded rock. She loves to connect with readers and writers (and anyone else) who loves music and words (and anything delicious).