jennibrownJennifer Brown is a  two-time winner of the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition and a humor columnist. And yet the premise of her debut young adult novel Hate List (Fall 2009, Little, Brown BFYR), the aftermath of a school shooting as told by the shooter’s girlfriend, sounds very serious.

Jennifer, how did writing humor prepare you for a YA novel? Or are the two styles just separate parts of your personality? (Hmm…are you a Gemini?)

No, not Gemini, but I can still blame the stars: the stubborn Taurus in me won’t let an idea go once it’s popped into my head. We May babies are just bold that way. Or if that Taurus theory isn’t working for you, I can blame the real stars. Paris…? Britney…? Tom Cruise…?

If I’m going to go all serious writer on you, I’ll talk about the “fine line between comedy and tragedy” and point out that most of my humor-writing friends (including myself) are actually really serious people. That when we rant or crack a joke, we’re really digging at and pointing out the things in life that bother us (in real life this would translate to nervous, uncomfortable, misplaced laughter that would make us look a little on the creepy side and make it so we’re not invited to parties very often… not even family parties… uh… not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…) and we tend to do a lot of sitting around and brooding about All That’s Horrible in the World.

But the truth is… I just wrote the story that wanted to be written, regardless of the genre. Writing Hate List was no different experience than writing humor — come up with an idea and run with it. Keep running, even past the Doubt Days and the Days When I Just Give Up — and do it barefacedly and fearlessly.

When you write humor for a living, you get used to criticism. A joke, by definition, has to have a target, which means every time you sit down to write, you stand a pretty good chance of ticking someone off and getting a letter that begins, “Dear Hack Loser, You ruined my life…”. I think this “toughening up” was helpful for me, in that I wasn’t afraid to go out of genre with Hate List and write something that felt so different.

All of that aside… for me there is a real element of hope in Hate List as well. And we humor writers are nothing if not masters of silver linings.

All writers have those Doubt Days. How do you personally work through them to reach your silver lining? What was your toughest moment of doubt? And what was your most recent silver lining?

Probably what makes me push through more than anything is the support I receive from people who’re really important in my life. My agent, Cori Deyoe, is really great at making me feel like I can do anything. I always know I can try new things and have fun and Cori will support it or will tell me when something I’ve tried doesn’t really work (and will do it in a way that keeps me from chucking the laptop through a window and breaking all my pencils in half). My editor at LB, T.S. Ferguson, is also super-supportive of my work. Also, my husband, Scott, never stops supporting and believing in me. My kids, my friends… I want to keep pushing through those days because I want to prove them all right, that I can do this.

I would probably say my toughest moment of doubt was my very first in-person agent pitch ever. She listened to me, was very quiet for a moment, then blew her nose and said, “I can’t imagine anyone who would buy this book.” She proceeded to tell me that I’d never sell a book with my “Midwest voice.” I came home from the conference, cried my eyes out, and shelved the book. It took me a while to get back up and start working on the next one.

There’ve been other tough moments. When a reader responds to a column, not only telling me I stink as a writer, but also questioning my mothering skills or saying I’m a basically bad person, it’s tough. Hard to pick yourself up after that. But deadlines and editors you don’t want to let down help in that process a lot.

ketchupHonestly, though, I can’t imagine ever truly giving up. I can’t imagine a day without writing. It’s just that ingrained in me. The idea of giving it all up is scarier to me than facing those tough days. Believe it or not, this is where my kids are important to my sticking to it — writing is a release and keeps me from noticing when there’s a Crayola mural on the wall or a loose hamster or ketchup on the ceiling (seriously, how do they get food on the ceiling?!). 

My most recent silver lining happened this morning when I opened my email. A humor writer whose blog I just adore (The Suburban Jungle) wrote to tell me she enjoyed my column this week. Made me feel great. When people reach out and tell me that I’ve written something that made them smile or touched them in some way… that’s really all the silver lining I need.

As a mother-writer myself, I find it difficult to find time to write. How do you schedule your days? How do you make time for your writing? How long has the ketchup been on the ceiling?

I’m always careful to define myself as a mom first and a writer second. That way, there’s never any confusion in my mind about prioritizing. And that’s all it really is, juggling being both mom and writer, a matter of prioritizing. Somehow I was blessed by being born with both amazing organizational skills and an ability to be really flexible. Some people call it an annoying combination of anal-retentiveness and air-headedness, but I think “organized” and “flexible” sounds a lot more resume-friendly.

So I let the kids’ schedules really dictate mine. I work around theirs. And I always understand that my working hours may not look the same from day to day, or might not even look the same at 4:00PM as I thought they would when I woke up at 6:00AM. As long as I understand those two things — that my schedule is not mine to make and it may change on me at any moment — I’m not often frustrated by lack of writing time.

Of course, it means I have to be prepared to work always. I might have to stay up till midnight, or later, to work on a chapter, and I might have to get up at 5:00AM. Because of this, there really isn’t a “typical” writing day for me. There also, typically, isn’t such thing as a “day off” for me (even on vacation I’m checking emails on my cell phone during the boring parts of Splash Mountain).

It also helps that I don’t tend to care about things like ketchup on the ceiling so much. In fact, now that I look at it, I think it may have started out as yogurt. 

So how long have you been writing for children? What was the spark that started you on this particular path?

This is really my first attempt at writing for young adults. I’ve always believed that writers should follow their story rather than their genre. In other words, write the story that wants to be written (passion being far more interesting on the page than specialization). If it turns out you fail because it’s not a genre you can do well… you fail. So what? You’ve learned, at least, right?

Because of that, I never had a thought, “I think I’ll try writing a young adult book. Maybe… about a school shooting…” Instead, I followed the story, which popped into my head in the shower one day, like most of my writing ideas do (Oh, how I wish they’d invent a waterproof laptop!). I kind of “knew” in the back of my mind that what I was writing was a young adult story, but I wasn’t thinking about that while writing it. It wasn’t until Hate List was finished that I fully understood what genre I’d been writing in.

crayolaartdesk1I always get my best ideas in the shower, too. Someone once recommended a tile pencil/china marker to me. And I’ve read good things about the Crayola Floating Art Desk, too. (If you like to write in rainbow.)

Can you tell us about the submission process for Hate List? How did you land your agent?

I love to talk about this, because my agent actually found me in the dreaded Slush Pile! You know, the pile of submissions they tell you it’s IMPOSSIBLE to be noticed in? It’s not impossible and I’m proof. I submitted to 3 Seas blindly and it was almost a year later that I got an email from Cori, asking to see a full manuscript for my book. She called me the day after Thanksgiving to tell me she wanted to sign me.

It seems like the submission process for Hate List was lightning-fast. I sent Cori the manuscript and within a few days she was getting really good bites on it from some big publishers. It went to auction and within just a few weeks was sold to Little, Brown. It was very whirlwind, and I wish I’d written some of it down because I don’t remember the details too well now. I only remember her calling me and saying, “So how does it feel to be a published author?” I was in my car and it felt a lot like I was going to wreck into the side of a Mr. Goodcents. When she called to tell me about the “final deal,” I was on my hands and knees, scouring the shower floor. So much for glamor.

Wow, your story comes full circle. It began with an idea in the shower and ended with cleaning the shower. I’m sure all my blog readers are going to be squeaky clean from now on!


I’m curious, what happened to that first book pitch you shelved?

That first book, a women’s fiction book, is still shelved. I check in every so often and my main character is still despondently devouring tubs of Chunky Monkey and watching Dr. Phil episodes in a pair of ripped sweats and a dirty T-shirt. She’s not ready to come back out yet, poor thing. I really should explain to her that harsh criticism and rejection is part of the business.


Now that we know your character’s weakness for chocolate chunks in banana ice cream, what about you? How do you like your chocolate?

In a Cherry Mash!

Jennifer, this has been a fun interview. Thanks for talking with me. Love to have you back when Hate List is released! Good luck!



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