Freshman Fifteen author Jasmine Warga sat down with fellow Freshman Jen Brooks to find out more about her forthcoming debut, IN A WORLD JUST RIGHT (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Spring 2015).
High school senior Jonathan Aubrey creates worlds at will. In Kylie-Simms-is-my-girlfriend, he’s given himself everything he doesn’t have in real life-–the track team, passing grades, and his dream girl–-until one day he confuses his worlds and almost kisses the real Kylie Simms. Now his girlfriend Kylie and the real Kylie are changing, and Jonathan must solve the mystery of his own life to save his love from a gruesome fate.
“Kylie breathes a contented sigh and snuggles against me. My body practically shivers with the ecstasy of being with her. She’s everything I need to live, and she’s not even real.”
Before you were an author, you were a teacher. Will you share with us a bit about your transition from teaching to writing? What compelled you to start writing stories? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always liked making up stories and writing them down, but I don’t think I ever really wanted to be a writer by profession. I went to college to become a medical researcher, and for the first two years I studied biology, chemistry, and physics. Then to fulfill a distributive requirement, I took a course about contemporary education in America. It changed everything. After deciding I really wanted to make a difference as a teacher, not a researcher, it might have been natural to become a science teacher, but when I took a hard look at what I was best at and what I enjoyed most, I realized that teaching literature was the right path.
I taught high school English for fourteen years, during which I decided I wanted a Master’s degree, and I thought a degree in creative writing would be “fun.” Little did I realize how much it would change both my teaching and my life. Eventually I went on maternity leave that turned into a resignation of my teaching position, and while I was at home with my son I decided to commit to the goal of being published.
IN A WORLD JUST RIGHT has such a unique concept. It seems to toe the line between fantasy and contemporary—when did you first come up with the idea for the book? Do you see it as a genre-bending book?
Honestly? It was just something to keep me busy while I was waiting to hear back from agents on a different manuscript. I set a goal of one page a day and waited to see what would happen. My original idea basically was a scene of kids on a bus on the way home from a nighttime track meet. I knew I wanted one character to be able to make worlds or switch worlds, but I envisioned the power as having real-life applications that meant some nefarious organization or the US government were pursuing him. I’d never written an action story before and wanted to see what I could do. In the end, I got more and (I think) better ideas as I went on writing. Kylie, who is Jonathan’s made-up girlfriend based on a real girl, didn’t even exist as I originally conceived the story.
You attended a MFA program, correct? How did your time in the program shape your writing? Would you recommend it to other aspiring writers?
I received my MA and MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA. That program is the reason I started taking myself seriously as a writer. During my MA studies, I was given a professional science fiction writer as my mentor (Timons Esaias), and Tim was exactly the right person to mentor me. I’m sure he could see all of my novice mistakes at once, but he had this way focusing his critique on what I was mature enough as a writer to tackle. He left a lot unsaid until I was ready to hear it, and the result was that I built a lot of skills and confidence in my abilities.
When I returned for the MFA, another mentor (Anne Harris) also encouraged me with her enthusiasm for my ideas. Although the mentoring was essential for me, I also worked with incredibly talented and supportive critique partners, including two I still exchange all of my work with—Diana Botsford and Rhonda Mason. From the professors who run the program, to the students and alumni, to the publishing professionals who visit each residency, the people at SHU gave me everything I needed to become a professional writer. I would definitely recommend the experience to other aspiring writers.
What is your writing process like? What do you do when you get stuck?
I am a total pantser. I start with an idea and a character, maybe have a picture of a scene, maybe know the ending, and I just write. I get all my best ideas as I write. For me, writing is a little like watching a movie, I never know what the characters are going to do, or what the big revelations will be, and I write from chapter to chapter basing what happens next on what I just wrote. It’s fun to discover how things turn out in my own stories!
On that note, is writing different now that you have a book deal? If so, how?
Except for the pressure of having a deadline, and except for having this wonderful feeling of being validated as a writer, writing is no different for me after the deal.
What was your favorite scene to write IN A WORLD JUST RIGHT?
I’d say, in general, my “favorite” scenes to write are my most challenging ones—I like to challenge myself as I write. Anything set in Jonathan’s-smokin’-hot-dance-club was challenging because of the nature of the content. Same with the semi-merging back-massage scene. Most challenging of all was the last chapter, where I had to finally make sense of all the weird stuff that had been layered in throughout the book.
And who was your favorite character to write? I’m looking really forward to meeting Jonathan, but I’m curious if another character was even more interesting to you as a writer.
I guess Jonathan, since I chose him as my POV character. But it was also interesting to write Kylie, because I actually had to write two different Kylies, one in each world.
Can you share with us a bit about what you’re working on now or is that top secret?
My next book is still in its early stages, which means anything could happen, but it currently features six POV characters, all seniors in high school, who possess pieces of jewelry that were collected over the course of 400 years of American history. As the story unfolds, they discover why the priceless collection was abandoned in a back yard pond, who each piece originally belonged to, and the secret (possibly magical) power each piece wields over each of their lives.
Jen has a habit of being deeply moved by profound ideas, and her writing reflects her interest in exploring human goodness, relationships, and the feeling of being a part of something greater than oneself.
She loves the science fiction and fantasy genres because of their dazzling possibilities for portraying characters and ideas. She credits her undergraduate experience at Dartmouth College, her MFA at Seton Hill University, and her fourteen years of English teaching with shaping her writing.