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Interview With Jenny B. Jones

As a teacher in a super sized high school, Jenny B. Jones has successfully poured her experiences with teens into The Katie Parker series. She joins us this month to talk about her latest book, So Not Happening, book one her new series, A Charmed Life.

Jenny, what led you to write Christian YA?

God made me do it.

I knew I was a chick lit writer. Heck, my LIFE is chick lit. But as I was working on this brilliant romantic comedy that would change the world and surely lead me to a Pulitzer, this YA idea popped into my head and would not leave. I did the only thing an obedient child of the Lord would do. I completely ignored it. Though I taught and read YA, I was not going to write the stuff. Yet I couldn’t concentrate on this rom-com of the century, and it was going nowhere. But the YA in my head—unfolding by the day. I’d never had a complete story figured out before (um, and never since), but when I had the beginning, middle, and end of what would become the book In Between, I knew I had to at least write the ideas down. And then I just kept going.

Katie Parker, the star of In Between and the following books in the series, was loosely based on two students, and their stories had to be told. It wouldn’t leave me alone. I knew this was God telling me “You have to do this.”

How much of what you experience daily as a high school teacher influences your stories?

It’s a huge influence. They know anything they say or do in my class is fodder for a book. Sometimes a student will say something funny then ask, “Did you write that one down, Ms. Jones?” And I bounce things off them all the time. “Um, so what you’re saying is that Clay Aiken isn’t cool?”

And sometimes the influence is more specific. Katie Parker was based on two students I had. One, who discovered her own talent in my drama class and one who was a foster kid, but like Katie, completely changed when she found a safe, loving home. Students like that just leave permanent imprints on your heart.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?

Oh, my. Where to start. Every moment is so amazing all on its own. I will never forget “the call” from the editor for my first book. I was driving down the interstate on a warm Spring Break day and had to pull over to catch my breath and write things down. I still have that piece of paper. Things definitely changed when I mailed Chip MacGregor a few crisp hundreds, and he finally agreed to represent me. If I kept sending money. No, seriously, Chip has done great things for my career and is an amazing encourager. My newest release, Just Between You and Me, which just hit the shelves, is a Women of Faith pick for 2010. It’s my first stab at women’s fiction and was a really fun stretch away from YA.

And at the risk of sounding like a suck-up, I think joining ACFW and coming to my first conference in 2005 had to be the most significant and defining moment for my writing career. When I went to that first conference I knew NOTHING. I only had about 25 pages of In Between, but I had a paid critique (which I highly recommend!), and the author liked it, and contacted a publisher for me. The author said something like, “Write another chapter and add it to your proposal.” And I was like, “Proposal? What’s that?” Did I mention I knew NOTHING? I think 90 percent of what I know of writing, I learned in that first conference. I went there not to get published or meet with editors/agents, but to just soak it all up and learn. And boy, did I. That conference led to my first contract. It changed my life. I would not be published without ACFW. I’m very, very grateful to this organization.

How do you balance your writing time with your teaching responsibilities?

Balance? What’s that?

I’m still struggling with the balance thing, but this is the school year I’m gonna get it right. Really. For real. Totally mean that.

My biggest responsibility at home is a cat and the dishwasher, so I think aside from the job, I have more time than other writers. I have no IDEA how authors who work and raise families do it. This year I’m conducting what I call “Project Avoid Burnout and Don’t Be a Hag.” I’m only teaching part time, then that gives me the afternoons and evenings (if necessary) to write. I hope it works. I’m not a good time manager, so I hope it’s not just me going part time for the sake of catching up on General Hospital. Prior to beginning Project ABADBAH, I taught in the day and wrote in the evenings and on weekends. No free time or at least rest time makes a person crabby, not to mention unhealthy, so I’m really excited to get some sanity back into my schedule. And when I say sanity, I mean more time to get out, color my roots, and shave my legs.

And how do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling, especially for the YA market? Do you find this more challenging?

I think the YA market is an especially challenging genre right now. Look at the YA section at Wal-Mart. At Barnes and Noble. What’s the dominating theme or color? Black. Dark. I’m not above a good vampire story myself, but it’s all gone a direction I’m not crazy about. Yet our kids sure are. The youth culture is surrounded with so much darkness and hopelessness. Secular lit is right there to meet them where they’re at—feeding those interests some of them didn’t even know they had. I’m so glad that we are seeing more Christian YA out there. And we need even more. According to Ron Luce in Battle Cry for a Generation (totally recommend it if you write YA, have a teen, or in teen ministry), America has 33 million teens, yet only four percent consider themselves Bible-based believers. I don’t know that I believe that statistic is completely accurate, but I do think the number is indeed low—and dropping. These are our future leaders, so that stat should scare you. And no matter how many emails I get that say otherwise, we’re not going to reach these kids with fake piety and perfect, flawless “models” of Godly behavior. That’s not life. That’s not relatable. It’s hard to write a Christian young adult novel that would make a teen put down a dark book and read yours, but that’s also a fun challenge for many of us. I hope there are more authors ready to enter the ministry of writing for teens. We need you. Our teens need you.

What do you consider the greatest moment of your writing/publishing career?

I had a reader email me earlier in the year. She had randomly Googled her name and found one of my books—because her name and my characters were the same. On a whim, she bought the book. In this email, she told me she was an atheist and had no idea the book was Christian until she got into it. She read it. A few weeks later she bought her first Bible and was hesitantly looking for a church to try. We’ve communicated a few times, but I still pray for her. Still send her books. I don’t know what’s going to happen there, but it’s letters like these where a heart was touched that bring you back to what it’s about. And I need those reminders because I tend to get lost in “What’s my next chapter about” and “I was so busy writing I can’t even remember if I put deodorant on today.” Writing is busy, hectic, frantic work that can wear you down. But reader letters and emails that point back to Christ are examples of His living water—for the reader and for the writer. Very humbling. Every email of a God moment is such a gift.

Who/What spurs you to write? Where do your story and character ideas come from?

I tend to get ideas from not thinking. (I don’t mean to brag, but I happen to be amazingly talented at not thinking.) I’ve learned in the last year that when I’m really stuck, I have to get away and unplug. I was really stuck for a story idea that would become my current release Just Between You and Me. I went to see Confessions of a Shopaholic and as my brain went on autopilot, big pieces of the new novel started coming to me—pieces that had absolutely nothing to do with Shopaholic. But in the movie’s honor, I did make the main character a red head.

The idea for A Charmed Life series came from watching my students, including very young students, reading a secular series that was very popular about some teen Manhattan socialites. I tried reading some of the books and couldn’t even get through one. I’m not a prudish reader, but omigosh. It was bad. But shaking my head at their reading choices did not influence them at all. I can’t argue with, “But it’s good.” I can only try and compete with it. So I played “what if,” and wondered what if one of those teen socialites got her life flipped and wound up in the country on the lower end of the popularity food chain. That idea, along with my own sadness over the loss of a teen mystery show called Veronica Mars led to the creation of Bella Kirkwood and So Not Happening. Book two, I’m So Sure, will be out in November.

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?

Ha. I’m the last person to answer this question. I have no idea. I don’t think this makes me unique, but in terms of the few things I know about my writing style, my main goal is to make people laugh and entertain them. I like upbeat, hopeful, humorous stories. I can’t write too heavy, or if I do, I have to have some crazy antics or lines to balance it out. If you’re looking for a deep, intellectual read, I’m not your girl. I want to entertain first, and then minister. I want the reader to have a good time. And if they are, they’ll keep turning the pages. And from there they’ll get the message God has for them within the book. But if the book is not fun, the reader is never going to get the message anyway. My favorite thing is just to make people laugh.

Finish this question. The best way to get a teenager to read a book is…

Threaten them with a taser.

I firmly think there are not any nonreaders. There are people who have not found the right books for their taste. When I taught English 100 years ago, my greatest joy was converting a nonreader by placing “the” right book in their hands. Unfortunately as teachers or parents, we often find ourselves having to force books on kids they will not or cannot be interested in. Years of that (or even weeks) can turn a kid off of reading forever. There’s more student choice in picking novels in schools now more than ever—at least in my state of Arkansas. So hopefully we will see more readers.

Two of my closest friends were proud, card-carrying nonreaders. Then I introduced them to Kristin Billerbeck’s Ashley Stockingdale series and Rachel Hauck’s Love Starts with Elle. Okay, and a few secular romance novels. But anyway, they are now total converts. One of them—the most diehard of book rejecters—now texts me her nightly reading progress. “Just read for 3 hours.” Chokes me up every time. Sniff, that’s my girl!

Any parting words?

Thanks so much for the chance to stop by and hang out! We’re doing giveaways of So Not Happening and the new release Just Between You and Me all month on my blog — Can’t wait to see many of you in Denver! And believe me, anything is possible at an ACFW conference. Go prayed up, expecting God to move in a big way.

Thanks for sharing with us, Jenny!

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