Freshman Fifteens author Jasmine Warga chatted with fellow Freshman Lori Goldstein to find out more about her forthcoming debut, BECOMING JINN (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, Spring 2015).
Wishing doesn’t make it so, Azra does. When the silver bangle snaps around her wrist on her sixteenth birthday, Azra becomes the latest in the long line of Jinn from which she descends. But as she begins to grant wishes, she uncovers the darker world of becoming Jinn and realizes when genies and wishes are involved, there’s always a trick.
“A chisel, a hammer, a wrench. A sander, a drill, a power saw. A laser, a heat gun, a flaming torch. Nothing cuts through the bangle. Nothing I conjure even makes a scratch.
I had to try, just to be sure. But the silver bangle encircling my wrist can’t be removed. It was smart of my mother to secure it in the middle of the night while I was asleep, unable to protest.
Though my Jinn ancestry means magic has always been inside me, the rules don’t allow me to begin drawing upon it until the day I turn sixteen. The day I receive my silver bangle. The day I officially become a genie.
BECOMING JINN has such a spot-on YA voice. Did you specifically set out to write YA novels?
Yes, but I didn’t know it. My first manuscript was an “adult” manuscript about a man-boy, almost 30-year-old who, after getting carjacked at a fast-food drive-thru, is forced to reconsider his meandering life. Though Max was 29, he acted 16. So I guess I was writing YA masked as adult. When I began to consider my next project, it was a conscious decision to try my hand at YA. Considering my addiction to reading YA books and watching “teen” shows (flag-flying, card-carrying, die-hard Vampire Diaries addict here), I should have known from the start that YA was what I was meant to be writing. But I guess sometimes it takes a bit of time before the wand chooses you . . .
How did you come up with the concept for BECOMING JINN? Jinn, I know, have a really storied mythology in the Middle East, but you don’t see their occurrence too much in YA, or even in American literature.
I was sitting here, trying to figure out how I knew what a Jinn was; I feel like I always did. I’d say “Jinn,” surprised other people didn’t know the term. (Why I would have been talking about Jinn years before I started writing this book, I have no idea, but I digress . . . ) Anyway, I just looked it up, and indeed there was a Jinn episode of the X-Files so maybe that’s where it came from. Or Charmed? Was there a Jinn on Charmed?
Clearly, this is not the highbrow answer you were looking for, but it’s the truth. Anyway, when I started thinking about a new concept for a book, I realized that, at the time, there were no modern-day tellings, aside from Aladdin, of genies. Certainly not in books. My genie book would be a Jinn book and my Jinn book would be a genie book, because, to me, they went hand-in-hand. My brother-in-law is an avid traveler, and his photographs of Morocco and Jordan and Turkey inspired me. The second I hit on my Jinn story, I knew I would tell it with those places as inspiration, being true to the Middle Eastern origin of the Jinn. And I knew exactly who my main character would be: Azra. It was a name just waiting to come alive in my pages.
I had been waiting to use it since 2011. That year, there was a horrible earthquake in Turkey. Two days after the quake, a mother and baby were found trapped under the rubble, both miraculously alive. That baby was named Azra. From the moment I heard the name, I knew it was going to be my main character — one day.
I had saved the article, but the name was always in the back of my mind, waiting for the story to go with it.
I loved diving into the Middle Eastern mythology surrounding Jinn, and it forms the backbone of my Jinn world. While the book is set in the contemporary New England world, the Jinn and their lives, from their clothes to their furnishings to the terms they use, are drawn from the Middle East, and I love the richness it gives to the characters and their ancestry. And I hope it encourages readers to want to read about, learn about, and visit these places the same way it does for me.
I know humor is something you really enjoy in books and strive for in your own writing. Can you talk more about why you think it’s important and how you go about giving your writing those humorous touches?
One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I’m incapable of writing without humor. For me, humor flows naturally onto the page. So much so that even in the most heartbreaking moments in my original draft, my main character would find some way to make a joke. While humor in these types of moments is a perfect way to show a character’s defense mechanisms, what I learned through my editor’s extremely diplomatic version of “hmm…would she really be doing standup right now?” is restraint.
The books I like to write are the ones I like to read, and humor is a core element of that. It doesn’t have to be a laugh-a-minute, but I think infusing writing with some degree of lightness adds another layer to your work. If your book is very dark, and then you hit the reader with some humor, you let them breathe, you highlight the torture you are putting your characters through by showing the barest glimpse of what life would be like if things weren’t so dire. And the opposite is just as true: if there’s an overall lightness and sense of fun and humor and then you whack someone (metaphorically and literally), the severity and the heartache is felt that much more strongly. Contrast is key, and humor is a great way to achieve that.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Your books have a lot of layers, so I’m guessing plotting can be an ordeal. How do you keep it all straight? Do you plan ahead of time?
Do I plan? Does a Jinn like sweets? (They do.) I’m an over-the-top, 70+ page outline plotter. It takes me anywhere from two weeks to six weeks to plot. I learned this the hard way. My first novel was a complete pantsing disaster. That book ultimately ended up being a manuscript I still adore, but it took me three, long, hard, painful years to get there. I essentially wrote three novels to get to the last one. While it was also due to my inexperience as a writer, the majority of the problems stemmed from my inability to plot. Apparently characters need to do more than just sit in a room and talk. Who knew? I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. When I wrote Becoming Jinn I plotted every which way, and I wrote the initial draft in two months, did one month of revision, and then signed with my agent. We worked together for a couple of months, and the book sold in less than two weeks. Superstition or not, I am a plotter for life.
And strangely, though I often think of character development as being my strong suit as a writer, my books do seem to have a lot more plot than I like to admit/realize. Despite all the time plotting, keeping everything straight is no easy feat. When one thread changes, it unravels the entire thing, and I have to build it all back up, one painful stitch as a time. An interwoven, intricately plotted book is not what I set out to write, but it is what my Jinn books have become. Even though things change from outline to page, without plotting, I’d still be writing book one—my twentieth version of book one.
If you could give one piece of advice to other writers, what would it be?
Find an honest cheerleader—someone who will raise their pom-poms to celebrate with you on your best days and hoist you on their back and lift you to the top of the pyramid on your worst. Notice I said “honest.” Because a constant “yes-man” (or yes-woman as the case may be) will not help you get better. And we all need to get better. Writing is a continuing-education profession. If we aren’t improving, we aren’t writing. After your cheerleader dries your tears, he or she better be ready to tell it like it is. Tell you if that scene needs fixing, if that story idea stinks, if that line of dialogue is as stiff as a politician’s. Because if everything you put on the page is perfect, than why aren’t you selling books like J.K. Rowling?
Then, when everything you put on the page is perfect, and your cheerleader tells you, you can believe them. And when you still aren’t selling books like J.K. Rowling and your cheerleader promises that you will, one day, you can believe that too.
For me, that person is and always has been my husband (and yes, we are a few years into this writing gig and style wearing our wedding rings). If it weren’t for his criticism and encouragement, I’d be back to editing technology journals. And there isn’t a lotta humor in those, let me tell ya.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Jinn, Jinn, and more Jinn! I’m in the middle of revisions on the sequel to Becoming Jinn, which will be released in Spring 2016, one year after Becoming Jinn debuts. I’ve been in the Jinn world for more than two years, and though I still can’t levitate worth a damn, I’ve had many wishes granted in that time (okay, come on, you knew that was coming). I’d love to return to my adult manuscript, perhaps even turning in into an upper YA, and I have at least three other ideas whose characters keep speaking to me. I have to get at least one of them out of my head and soon—it’s getting crowded up there.
Lori Goldstein is the author of BECOMING JINN. Born into an Italian-Irish family (hence the short temper and the freckles), Lori grew up on the Jersey Shore and now makes her makes her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a place close enough to the ocean that on the right day, she can smell the sea from her back deck, and yet it still takes an hour to get to the beach.