Well, I’m writing this from a hotel room in St. Louis, and I have to say right from the get-go (or maybe gecko) that Katy Perry was 100 percent correct when she wrote “That’s what you get for waking up in St. Louis.”
Debaucherous night, let me tell you. Not only was I in my hotel bed by 10 p.m. but I really pushed the envelope and watched one of those restaurants-are-filthy-but-an-Englishman-on-steroids-can-fix-them-right-up-by-yelling-at-the-owner-and-firing-a-line-cook-and-then-everyone-is-grateful-and-cries-shows. Such a transformative viewing experience. I’m thinking I may skip my reading tonight at Subterranean Books and just watch that show about Cajun people pawning things instead.
On the subject of readings, Chicago--look out. First time YA novelist Lisa Jenn Bigelow reads this Saturday at The Book Cellar. Her first novel, Starting From Here is out and Bigelow spoke with Our Town about creating a relatable narrator, balancing her work as a librarian with her passion for writing and why LGBTQ teens need to see themselves reflected in literature.
Our Town What was your initial kernel of inspiration for the book?
Lisa Jenn Bigelow It was two kernels popping together. There's an unfortunate stereotype in literature that all dog books end with the dog kicking it. Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, etc. I decided I wanted to write an "anti-dead dog book." Instead of the story culminating in the dog's death, a near-death experience would be the catalyst for the rest of the story. I had a side character from a short story I'd written—a girl who'd lost her mother, whose dad was away working as a truck driver, who was doing poorly in school. And I thought, she could really use a good dog.
OT How long did you work on it?
LJB That’s hard to answer. From the time I started writing it to its publication was about seven years, but most of that time I was waiting to hear back from agents and, once I found an agent, editors. Writing the first draft probably only took about six months, with several rounds of editing to follow. Publishing can be an excruciatingly slow business sometimes. Even after the book sold to Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books (which was subsequently acquired by Amazon), two and a half years passed before the book came out.
OT I want to compliment you on the very relatable voice. Did you go through drafts getting to know what your narrator sounded like, or did you sort of hear her in your head right away?
LJB Thanks! For the most part, Colby's voice was clear in my mind—outwardly sarcastic and tough, inwardly tender and raw. But there was still a lot of tweaking throughout the editing process. It was important to make readers sympathize with her in spite of her jagged edges. Humor helped, as did letting her vulnerability show. My editor was also meticulous in finding inconsistencies—places where Colby sounded too mature, too country, even too masculine. There's nothing like an inconsistent voice to rip readers out of a story.
OT How do you balance your writing work and your career as a librarian?
LJB It's a challenge. Finding the time isn't a problem so much as finding the energy, especially in winter when the days are so short. I'm extremely diurnal, and if the sun is down, I want to be asleep. I try to take an hour to write before or after work, but it doesn’t always happen. On the other hand, a plus to being a librarian—aside from simply enjoying the work—is that keeping up with industry news is part of the job, so it dovetails nicely with writing. And, of course, I'm constantly surrounded by inspiration.
OT Who do you hope your book reaches?
LJB I think everyone could get something out of it, whether it's knowing they're not alone in coping with grief or struggling with sexual identity, developing empathy for people who are, or simply enjoying a story about girls, dogs, and trucks. I even know of a 95-year-old man who's read it. But there are two groups I particularly hope it reaches. The first is LGBT teens, because it's still an unfriendly world and it's important for them to know they're not alone. The second group is readers who are a little uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality—possibly because they don't have anyone in their lives who's openly gay. They say knowing someone gay is the greatest factor determining a person's support for LGBT civil rights. Colby could be that "someone." If readers empathize with her struggles, they may realize she's not so different from them--that her sexuality doesn't define her or make her any less deserving of love or legal protection.
OT Do you write for adults as well?
LJB Trick question. I’m going to quote Andrew Karre, editorial director at Carolrhoda Books: "Young adult books are about adolescence, not for adolescents." A recent study by Bowker Market Research showed that 55% of YA books are purchased by adults—and most of those adults are purchasing for themselves. So the idea that YA books are just for teens because they’re “kid stuff” is a both a shame and a myth. Think if that had happened to Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar. Not that all YA books are destined to be classics, of course, but there are a lot of amazing books that I’m sure get overlooked by adult readers because of some kind of YA stigma. But as to whether I write about adults, the answer is no. I don’t feel old or experienced enough to write about adulthood with any particular insight.
OT Any plans for a sequel?
LJB I've already got half a dozen other books in the queue, but never say never.
Catch Lisa Jenn Bigelow Saturday November 3 at 7 p.m. at The Book Cellar. Don't EVER catch "Restaurant Impossible."
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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