Freshman Fifteens author Jen Brooks chatted with fellow Freshman Kim Savage to find out more about her forthcoming debut, AFTER THE WOODS (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux/Macmillan, Winter, 2016).
“Statistically speaking, girls like me don’t come back when guys like Donald Jessup take us.
According to my research, in 88.5 percent of all abductions, the kid is killed within the first 24 hours. In 76 percent of those cases, it’s within the first two hours. So when they found me alive after two days, the reporters called it a miracle.
They liked it even better when they found out Donald Jessup didn’t want me at first. He wanted Liv. But I took her place. Not only did they have a miracle, they had a martyr.”
What was the origin of your idea for After The Woods?
I start my novels with a human impulse that interests me. For After The Woods, it was sacrifice. I wondered, would you sacrifice yourself for your best friend? Then I created a character who would.
I also considered its inversion: would you sacrifice your best friend to save yourself? I wrote a second character who does.
In After The Woods, the reader sees how those sacrifices play out, and questions follow: when is a sacrifice noble? Is it ever not?
After The Woods is set in a suburban town next to a wooded reservation. Is this setting inspired by the place where you currently live? Any anecdotes to tell about your experience in those woods?
The woods in After The Woods is inspired by the Middlesex Fells Reservation, 2,500+ acres of state park spanning five towns in Massachusetts, one of which is my town. So yes, it’s a local story for me. I actually recorded an excerpt on Boston NPR affiliate WBUR as part of their Zip-Code stories contest: you can hear it here.
I did a few things in the name of fact-checking. One involved a sleeping bag, a hill, and a couple of disturbed onlookers. But now I’m veering toward spoiler territory.
My favorite part of your novel is the flawed nature of each of your characters. They display everything from guilt to bona fide psychological disorders. Do you have a favorite character? Do you have a secret to writing characters with such psychological depth?
Alice Mincus has a place in my heart. She’s one of the most morally upright characters in After The Woods in the sense that she is loyal to Julia. She’d have her back in the same way Julia had Liv’s in the woods. But she’s got a slow-burning grudge against Liv for dumping her back in middle school that reveals itself in ways that are pivotal to the plot. Alice may wear Hello Kitty sweaters and still bring a home-packed lunch, but don’t cross her.
Humans are fundamentally flawed, and as a reader, I want to see those flaws, swollen pink. The flawed character works my emotional plasticity: I’m forced to identify with her humanity, even if it’s as elusive as Deborah’s. I know readers who refuse to do this, who will diss a book because they didn’t agree with the actions of a character. Those aren’t my readers.
You are a former journalist, and an important character in this book is a journalist. How did your other chosen profession shape/affect your writing life or the characters/events in After The Woods?
I didn’t spend a long time as a journalist; a few years out of grad school, I returned to academia, my happy place. But the training I got working for newspapers and in J-school shaped my writing, and my story-telling, for the better.
In After The Woods, Paula Papademetriou is a broadcast journalist who lives in Shiverton. When a body is found in the woods a year after The Shiverton Abduction, Paula emerges as an unlikely ally, leading Julia through a revived media frenzy.
Paula sees this crazy story right in her own backyard. She has to meet these girls; it would be professional misconduct if she didn’t. As both a journalist and a writer, I’ve had stories tug at me in the same way. Whether her motive is self-interest or professional obligation—and if Julia should trust her—is for the reader to decide.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I write nearly every day. I’m like Rob Lowe on Parks & Recreation running constantly to maintain his endorphin-high. The alternative is ugly. But yes, I do other stuff: parent three sparkly children. Try not to let my body atrophy over my keyboard (i.e., workout). Devour books. Spend time with the loveliest friends. Lobby my endlessly patient and allergic husband for a Goldendoodle (it worked: I won.).
Who are some of your favorite authors and books?
I love authors for different reasons: I actually just wrote about this for my agent Sara Crowe’s blog. I’m currently reading Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words, and I’m worried for him, because I can go fangirl at the drop of a hat.
I also adore certain books just because they hit a sweet spot. Reading Tartt’s The Secret History at our home near a Famous Vermont College Town was preppily atmospheric. I read Anna Quindlan’s Every Last One at a time my family was dealing with its own suburban stalker-ish issue. French’s In the Woods was lying on a table at a remote house we rented on Cape Cod. A raw chill pervaded the place, and inside felt like outside. Shiver.
What has been your greatest challenge as you travel the road of traditional publishing? Your greatest reward?
That some things are not under your control. But let’s be real: who cares? I couldn’t ask for a more perfect editor in Janine O’Malley. And to be published by the same house as Eugenides, Franzen, and Kincaid, among others? I’m okay with letting go a little.
The Freshman Fifteens have been a lifeline. It’s like being surrounded by muses who personify wit, candor, beauty, empathy, and wisdom. You couldn’t write these ladies if you tried.
But the greatest reward is in the act. I feel rewarded every day that I get to do this. Writing is a vocation. If you feel like it’s a job, stop.
What advice would you give to other writers? Anything specifically for teen writers?
Introversion is the mark of this profession, but here’s the thing: you must connect with other writers. I have two whip-smart writing partners who are the most important people in my life, beyond family. They make me show up every day, even if we’re not physically together. And they get what I need, because they need the same things.
For teens, Wattpad makes it easy to connect with other future authors. It’s also a great tool for developing the habit of writing regularly. I became aware of Wattpad through The Freshman Fifteens Common Room contest, where we’re mentoring teen writers who will be published in a short story anthology on Wattpad. When I see a girl or boy putting out chapter after chapter on Wattpad, I see someone honing their craft. That tells me that teen is going to be published one day. As a teenager, I would have been all over it.
Kim Savage is the author of AFTER THE WOODS coming Winter 2016 from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux/Macmillan.
Kim was born in Quincy, Massachusetts and raised in Weymouth, on the South Shore. Which might sound beachy, even luxe. Think Winnebagos and chicken coops. Today, Kim lives with her husband and three children in a town west of Boston. It’s a lot like Shiverton, near the real Fells reservation. Born with dysgeographica—she’s directionally challenged—the fear of getting lost in those lovely, dark woods lives close to her skin.
Her second thriller, THESE ARE THE NOTES YOU DIDN’T GET (working title), comes from FSG/Macmillan in 2017. She is writing her third novel.
Find Kim online: Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Facebook