Our Thursday Quick-Write today is a team effort from Jen Petro-Roy and Ammi-Joan Paquette. Jen was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts, even though she rejects the idea that snow and cold are ever a good thing. She started writing in third grade, when her classroom performed a play she had written. It was about a witch and a kidnapped girl and a brave crew of adventurers who set out to save the day. As a kid, numerous pictures of Jen often featured Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books clutched in her hand, so it was just a matter of time until she started writing her own books for children. In the past, Jen has worked as a teacher and a teen and children’s librarian. She loves running, board games, trivia, and swimming, and has a mild obsession with the television show Jeopardy! P.S. I Miss You is her debut novel.
Ammi-Joan Paquette is the author of many books for young readers, including The Train of Lost Things, the Princess Juniper series, Ghost in the House, Bunny Bus, and The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies, as well as the Two Truths and a Lie series, co-written with Laurie Ann Thompson. Joan is the recipient of a PEN New England Discovery Award honor, and her books have been recognized with starred reviews, Junior Library Guild selections, and on a variety of “Best of the Year” lists. In her non-writing life, she is a senior literary agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Visit her on the web at www.ajpaquette.com
Jen & Joan both write books that address emotional topics for kids, and they’re joining us today with a conversation and a writing prompt.
Q: Many books are inspired by their authors’ life events. Did any personal experiences inspire this novel for you?
Jen: Absolutely. P.S. I MISS YOU tackles a bunch of “tough topics.” (Or, I should say, what people label as tough topics.) Because for me, tough topics are real-life for so many, and that’s why it’s so important to include these issues and situations into our narratives–so our readers can see themselves in our books. In my book, Evie struggling with a lot–her older sister Cilla is staying with a relative after getting pregnant in high school and disappointing her strict Catholic parents. At the same time, Evie’s friends are starting to develop different interests and Evie herself is developing a crush on the new girl in school. While struggling with my sexuality is something that I myself never went through, Evie’s relationship with religion and her journey to both question and redefine her faith in God is something that I did experience (and that I am still navigating). For many, faith is something that is set in stone–for them, it’s a touchstone. But for others, for adults as well as kids, faith is something that has to be worked through, doubted, lost, or strengthened. Any of these paths is okay, and I worked hard to make Evie’s journey feel authentic.
Q: What was the journey that led to writing your book? Did you feel any concerns in dealing with such a sensitive topic?
Joan: This novel is the most personal of any I’ve written so far. The external catalyst event that brought on the book was my daughter losing a jean jacket that was important to her. That led me to think about things that I had loved and lost over the years, and about lost things in general. Right before my eyes, the Train of Lost Things was born—and with it, the question: What if there was a way to get back your most precious lost belongings? What if you just had to believe enough?
As I set to writing the story, however, I knew right away that there would be deeper layers to tell. And thinking of loss brought me to the passing of my mother, in a very quick fight with cancer over a decade ago. While Marty in TRAIN OF LOST THINGS is dealing with the loss of his jacket, and his efforts to get it back, the deeper aspect of his fight has to do with the impending loss of his father to cancer, and how he learns to deal with this.
I know some people question whether sad or “tough” topics are too much for kids to handle, whether they should be cushioned from them. But I think we all know that real life is sometimes messy and sad and tough. There’s no avoiding it! Fiction can give young readers the tools to experience some of these sad or hard emotions in a safe space, to explore their own feelings through these hypothetical situations, which may give tools or strength to draw from in any future challenges. As well, sometimes kids—just like us adults—need the cathartic experience of curling up with a sad book and having a good cry.
Q: What is your writing process? How do you begin a new book?
Jen: I’d say that I’m a combination between a plotter and a pantser. I’m a natural perfectionist, so I absolutely need a road map to guide me as I write, but I also thrive off of the excitement that comes from the thrill of that “new shiny idea.” Usually when I have a new idea, I start writing furiously…until I hit around page twenty and realize I have no idea where I’m going. That’s when I start to draw my road map.
I usually plot out my book in a notebook, drawing out timelines and calendars, plotting each chapter, and writing up character profiles. Then I dive back into the first draft, which is my least favorite part of the process. I’m a huge revision fan. I love diving back into the mess, pushing up my sleeves and figuring out what I did wrong and what I did right, how to connect different threads, build up certain sections and further develop characters. Since we’re talking about “tough issues” in this post, revision is another place where I can revisit any serious situations my characters are getting into and make sure both the details and the emotions are true to life, without being too preachy or heavy-handed.
Like many, I go through a lot of drafts as I’m writing, usually at least four before anyone else sees the manuscript. I think it’s so important to realize that that messiness is part of the process. For everyone!
Q: How do you know when a life experience or idea is “the one” to make it into fiction? When it comes to tough subjects, how much is too much?
Joan: I think the best ideas to pursue as a writer are the ones you absolutely cannot put out of your mind—the ones that won’t let you go, no matter what. The ones you can’t help but write. So how do I know when a story is “the one”? When it hunts me down until I write it, and forces me to stick with it come what may. (As a matter of fact, I’m wrestling with just such an idea right now…!) And there is something cathartic about exploring difficult life experiences through fiction, even for us as writers. I think sometimes we sit down with big life questions, framed as the experiences of others, and through the safety of that fictional lens, we can work through to understand what we truly believe, and want, and are.
So how much is too much? That’s a question that only I can answer for my stories, and only you can answer for yours. One thing I do know for sure, though: It never hurts to try. It never hurts to start.
Your Assignment: Brainstorm a list of situations and experiences in your recent or distant past that come back to you. It might be a big challenging life turn, or it might be the smallest conversation or exchange that left you scratching your head or cringing in embarrassment. Try retelling that event in a fictional setting. What will you change? What will you preserve? What is it about that incident that has so captured your mind that you have not been able to forget it? Maybe it would do the same to another reader, somewhere . . . As always, feel free to share reflections in the comments.