Interview by Brock Eastman
Featuring Somebody on This Bus is Going to be Famous!
Brock: How did you come up with the idea for this book or series? or What was your inspiration for writing this book?
Janie: I like to tell people that I don’t get ideas—they get me! When I was a kid I wanted to be famous, and spent of lot of time in school (when I should have been learning stuff) imagining myself as an actress or movie star or director or Madame President. “Fame” is the gold ring of our celebrity culture, but I think kids who aren’t looking for fame per se are still grasping for a sense of significance and meaning. Anyway, one day I was imagining a high school reunion where one of the class members had moved on from graduation day to be very famous—how would the others react? What would be their memories of that person, and did they have any inkling of future fame?
Brock: Tell us about the main characters? Who are they, what makes them unique.
Janie: The most obvious feature of SOTB is that it boasts nine main characters! They all live in the same subdivision and take the same bus to school every day. Most of them can be tagged with a recognizable “type,” but if you know anything about people, you realize the tags don’t stick. As we get to know each of the characters better, their masks will slip, but here’s what they look like at the beginning: Shelly’s the rock star, Bender’s the bully, Miranda’s the earnest candidate for “best friend,” Kaitlynn’s the chatterbox, Spencer is the brain, Matthew’s the quiet one, Jay’s the jock, Igor’s the clown, and Alice is the shy girl you barely notice. But underneath . . .
Brock: In three sentences (or you can choose three words) what is this book about?
Janie: Growing up. Learning yourself. Seeing others.
Brock: Do you outline the entire book before starting, or do you write as you go and let the characters take control of the story?
Janie: I wish I could outline the entire book before starting out, because then first drafts wouldn’t be so hard. But I can’t do it—I have to start with a setting and situation, a handful of characters and a rough idea where I want to go, and usually stall out about three chapters in. Then I back up, rewrite, and hope the story will carry me a little farther. Usually, it’s not until I’m about two-thirds through the rough draft that I get a sense of the whole plot and how it’s going to work.
Brock: How do you believe this story relates to the lives of readers?
Janie: At this age, kids start looking outward for affirmation. I’ve noticed it while teaching writing classes, even among homeschoolers: from the ages of 7 through 11, if I’m reasonably entertaining I can get them to look at and listen to me. Around the age of 12-15, it gets tougher—I have to stand on my head (or the equivalent) to get their attention, because they are so focused on each other. They’re beginning to separate themselves from their home and parents and look around at their peers for clues about what kind of people they are. They are obsessed at this age with what their peers think about them. That’s what most of my kids on the bus are like: each has personal ambitions, but different levels of confidence.
Brock: What is your favorite genre to write for?
Janie: If you mean age: I had to find this out by experience. Starting around the age of 25 and for the next two decades, I wrote a total of four novels for adults. Not one of them were published, and it wasn’t for lack of trying! Then I had an idea for a novel directed at younger teens, and The Playmaker became my first published novel. After that I gravitated to a slightly younger age, and middle grade is where I ended up. Ironic because middle school is where I was most miserable as a kid!
If you mean literary genre: When I was a kid the genre I liked best was historical fiction, and that’s still largely true. So that’s what most of my children’s novels have been: The Playmaker and The True Prince are set in Elizabethan London during Shakespeare’s time; My Friend the Enemy is a World War II story, and my next novel, out this fall, is about Hollywood and the early silent movie industry.
Brock: Any certain research required for the book, or is it all from your imagination?
Janie: Most of my novels require some research. For this one, I was writing about a school bus when I’d never ridden a school bus. My local school transportation contractor let me explore some of the busses in his fleet and ask him questions.
Brock: How do you strike the right balance in your book?
Janie: Hmm. . . .The “right balance” usually strikes itself. Most of my books have a serious point, but I try not to be too serious—I strive for a light touch.
Brock: Why did you choose to focus on nine main characters?
Janie: Because interaction throughout time is part of the theme. As I mentioned, kids ages 12-15 are starting to look to each other more and more for correction and affirmation—hence all the agony about what’s cool and what’s not—and relationships are becoming more fluid for them. Also, I wanted to stress that we all don’t know nearly enough about each other as we think we do. Each of my characters has his or her own life, but they are all mysteriously related—not least, around a real mystery. Each will turn out to hold a clue to the mystery, whether they realize it or not, and they will solve the puzzle together.
Brock: If your book changed as you wrote it, how is it different than how you originally planned?
Janie: I originally submitted the manuscript to my previous editor at Random House. She thought it had possibilities but suggested some fairly minor revisions that would strengthen Miranda, tone down Shelly, and change the motivation of one pivotal adult character (of whom I can’t tell you, since they’re part of the mystery!). I made the changes, which improved the manuscript, but the editor passed on it anyway. The changes my new editor suggested mostly had to do with cutting material—she’s very big on cuts! The basic plotline and characters, though, are essentially the same as when I submitted the manuscript the first time.
Brock: How much leeway do you give yourself with facts in a Historical GENRE TYPE (Romance, Thriller, etc.)?
Janie: That’s an interesting question. Generally, the closer the setting is to our own time, the more accurate I try to be. In My Friend the Enemy, I caught a dating error just before the final copy was to be printed. My editor and I discussed how important it was, and I decided it needed to be changed, even though it wasn’t anything like as significant as V-J Day. But there are still folks around who remember the War, so I wanted to be as accurate as possible. It meant rewriting one chapter and adding a few paragraphs elsewhere, but I’m glad we did it. For my Shakespeare books, I fudged a few dates and people to suit the plot, and excused myself in the historical note at the end. Nobody has complained!
Brock: How do you hope parents will use this book with their kids?
Janie: It’s a good read-aloud for slightly younger kids (ages 9-11), as long as the listeners can keep the characters straight. For the age for which it was intended, it’s a unique character study. Parents who have read the book might want to direct their kids to the caricature on my website, and see if they can guess each caricature represents. It might also be fun to talk about analogies: who do we know who’s most like Bender? Shelly? Miranda? Jay?
Brock: What do you hope kids take away from this book or series?
Janie: Partly that their lives are taking them somewhere—all the small (and big) disappointments, triumphs, agonies, and fun times are shaping them into the people they essentially are. And God made us all different. And that’s good.
Brock: Are you a full-time or part-time author/writer?
Janie: Full time—I also write regularly for World Magazine, I blog, and I am co-founder and writer for RedeemedReader.com, a children’s book resource for Christian parents and teachers.
Brock: How long does it usually take you to write a single book?
Janie: They’ve all taken about 10 months, unless I have to do a massive rewrite (which happened once). That doesn’t include the editorial work, which can drag on for a year and a half.
Brock: Expound on the spiritual themes in the book/series?
Janie: We are a work in progress, and “he who began a good work in us will surely see it through to the end.” When you’re in early adolescence, as most of my characters are, small setbacks can seem like THE END, but they’re actually the tools God is using to shape us and help us grow. At the very end the book, after a serious bus accident, one of the characters realizes how great a gift life is. That’s what we should be feeling every day—“and be thankful.”
Brock: When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
Janie: Not until I was in my mid-twenties. As a child, on up through my teens, I wanted to be an actress (or failing that, a costume designer!). As a young wife whose husband did not want her to work (which suited me just fine), I had a lot of time on my hands, and only so much of it could I spend reading, even though I read a lot. So I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. It ended up taking eight years, what with babies coming, and all, and it wasn’t very good, but by my absolutely final rewrite, I understood something: Novel writing is a lot like acting out a play in your own head. And you get to play all the parts!
Brock: What are some of the strongest influences on your writing?
Janie: If you mean authorial influences, T. H. White’s Once and Future King was my favorite book as a middle-grader, and pretty much all through my teens. White taught me about depth of character and how to portray it. In my thirties I encountered the Canadian writer Robertson Davies, in particular a series of novels called The Deptford Trilogy. What most impressed me about his work is the use of detail and how he was able to put the reader right into a scene.
Brock: What’s your view on e-books and the new publishing revolution?
Janie: Not even publishers know what to think of e-books yet! I think I’ll always prefer physical books, but it sure is easy and convenient to order something from Amazon and have it show up on my Android reader within 30 seconds. I’m still amazed by that. But if I don’t mind waiting, I’ll wait for a book with pages. In children’s publishing, the only thing that bothers me is apps. An e-book is still a book, but a book app is something else. More like a video game. I wrote about that here.
Brock: In what ways does your faith impact how you approach writing?
Janie: It’s reinforced for me the value of prayer! More times than I can count, I’ve been blocked or stymied in the fiction-writing process, and the Lord helps me see my way through it. Beyond that, every writer writes from a certain worldview. A Christian worldview helps me to be more discerning about what I write—don’t make wild promises (“You can be anything you want to be”) or grim futures (let’s put a bunch of teens in a controlled environment and see how long it takes for them to kill each other!). A story doesn’t have to be squeaky-clean or happy-happy. But it should end with hope.
Brock: Coke or Pepsi?
Janie: Sweet tea.
Brock: Soft shell or Hard Shell tacos?
Janie: Chalupas. Otherwise, hard shell.
Brock: Favorite place to vacation?
Janie: You had me at “vacation”.
Brock: Favorite season?
Janie: I’m with C. S. Lewis: autumn.
Brock: Do you have a particular drink or food you consume when you write? Like coco, raspberry tea, animal crackers?
Janie: I write lean.
Brock: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
Janie: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, if I had to pick. Also Colossians 1:17: “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” I’ll never get to the bottom of that one.
Brock: So, what’s your next book?
Janie: I’m glad you asked! We finally decided on a title, after kicking around a lot of options: I Don’t Know How the Story Ends. It was my editor’s idea and I wasn’t crazy about it, but it’s growing on me. Especially after I ran an informal poll on my two Facebook pages and her title won over mine by about 5 to 1. Anyway, it takes place in the summer of 1918, when a 12-year-old girl and her little sister move down to California for the summer to stay with their aunt, who lives in a poky little suburb called Hollywood. Only it’s not so poky anymore, and the aunt’s stepson has gone plumb loco about motion pictures. He has a cameraman, an idea, and now he has a female lead—let’s make a movie! It’s scheduled for October: “like” my Facebook page and you can see the cover reveal in a month or two.