I'm writing a book report and need to include some biographical info about you. When and where were you born?I was born in New York City on October 9, 1967. (Although my family moved away from the city when I was three years old, I've always considered it home.)
What, or who, inspired you to write The Beginning of After?
I’m happy to say I’ve never experienced a trauma like the one Laurel does in this book. But I've always been a little obsessed with the idea of "the survivor." You lived while others died. So what do you do with that? How does it color the rest of your life? That's just super-interesting to me. Then, years ago, I met a young woman who had lost most of her family in a terrible accident and was devoting her time to volunteer work. I didn't know her well, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her story. This was also shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when everyone I knew was sharing this collective grief, trying to find our paths in a reshaped world. So that combination sparked a story idea for me, about a teenage girl who survives one of the worst imaginable traumas -- the loss of her family -- and how she’s now permanently connected to the other "survivor" of the tragedy, her neighbor and former childhood friend.
As the book slowly evolved, it became about other things too. Like how Laurel's grief can never be totally her own; living in a small community and being in high school, she has to get through this trauma with all eyes on her. And how we can create our own families when we need to. The cool thing about working on a book for a long time is that you come across a lot of different points of inspiration along the way, and the story grows with your experience.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I did a lot of reading about how teens grieve, and also about "survivor guilt." I read a few memoirs by young people who have experienced tragedy on this scale. I picked the brain of a therapist friend who works with people overcoming trauma. I didn't go crazy -- I think there's such a thing as too much research. Beyond that, I just made sure I knew my characters as well as I could, and that I knew how to be true to them in the different ways they cope. When a reader who has dealt with grief as a teen tells me they love the book, that I got it just right, it truly means the world to me.
Did you have a “music playlist” while you were writing The Beginning of After?
I did build up a long playlist after all the years I spent working on this book. I don’t listen to music while I’m actually writing, but I often take “brainstorming walks” with my iPod that will help me think through a problem or just get me in the right frame of mind to work when I get home. Here are some of my favorites:
- "World Spins Madly On" by the Weepies (in my mind, this is the music for the book trailer...even though we never made one!)
- "Cosmic Love" by Florence + The Machine
- "Such Great Heights" by Iron and Wine
- “Breathe Me” by Sia
- "Darklands" by The Jesus and Mary Chain
- "Soul Meets Body" by Death Cab for Cutie
- "The Ghost In You" by The Psychedelic Furs
- "The Scientist" by Coldplay
- "Hometown Glory" by Adele
- "Everything To Me" by Liz Phair
What would you like people to take away from the experience of reading The Beginning of After?
I would love for readers to be able to draw some hope and strength from this book -- whatever kind they need. It may seem overdramatic to write about a girl who loses her entire family at once. But in a way, that's just an extreme metaphor for any type of game-changing event that can happen to us in life -- the ones that draw a line between "before" and "after". Maybe that's a divorce, or a personal injury, or a changed relationship, or a move to another state. Whatever it is and however "truly crappy" it seems, I believe we can survive it. Maybe we can't see it right away, but it might open up fresh opportunities and bring new and surprising people to us.
Where did you get the idea to write a book about teens who are documentary film subjects, in You Look Different in Real Life?
I've always wondered what happens to reality TV and documentary film subjects after the cameras go away. Do they live their lives differently, like someone's always watching? Does the way they're portrayed on screen change the way they see themselves in real life? The possibilities of character and story seemed so juicy, I couldn't resist. Then I started thinking about how the rise of blogging and social media has allowed pretty much everyone to make themselves the "stars" of their own documentary. Every time we post a status, a photo, check in at a location...we're building a narrative of our own lives. I think it's scary-easy to share so much of ourselves, to think so obsessively about what we're putting out there for the world to see, that we lose track of who we really are.
I'm also a huge fan of documentary films, perhaps for the same reason why I love writing contemporary YA fiction: sometimes there's nothing more fascinating than real life. One of my favorite documentaries is the "Up" series of films by director Michael Apted. He started by interviewing a group of 7-year-olds in England in 1964, and has checked in on their lives every 7 years, with the most recent being "56 Up." This seemed like a great premise for a novel, and I couldn't resist.
Did you have a writing playlist for You Look Different in Real Life?
Big time. Here's what inspired the voices, moods, and emotions of this book's characters:
- "Heroes" by David Bowie
- "Raise Your Glass" by the "Glee" Warblers (dorky, I know, but it has to be the "Glee" version)
- "Someone Take the Wheel" by The Replacements
- "Forever Young" by Alphaville
- "Black or White" by Michael Jackson
- "Put the Message in the Box" by World Party
- "Kids in America" by Kim Wilde
- "Freetime" by Kenna
- "Stop and Stare" by OneRepublic
- "Kids" by MGMT
- "Shake It Out" by Florence + the Machine
- "We Are All Made of Stars" by Moby
At this point you could ask: Well, Jen, which is it? Are we heroes, or are we made of stars? We are both, and everything in between.
Why do you write Young Adult novels?
The simplest answer is, that's where my storytelling heart lives. It's where my writing voice feels the most organic and authentic. But I've considered this question a lot, and I've realized that young adulthood is where the overarching issues of life—love, friendship, family, identity, generally finding one's place in the world—explode gloriously. There's an urgency that's so compelling to me: all literature asks the "big questions," but YA lit REALLY REALLY REALLY wants to know the answers.