Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Interview with author Jenn Kelly (and Book Giveaway!)

Sometimes you have to get lost to figure out where you're going. All Jackson wants is to be the hero, just for once in his life. The hero who steps in at the last minute to save the universe. The hero who saves the entire village from a raging fire. Great Aunt Harriett is always telling him find his own story, but so far his story doesn't seem very exciting. Until he falls into Great Aunt Harriett's hair, that is. There Jackson will encounter a world of elves, trap doors, bubblegum-blowing birds, hairy-backed spiders, kangaroo meat, and perilous danger which requires ... a hero.

We find this hero-in-training in Jackson Jones: The Tale of a Boy, an Elf, and a Very Stinky Fish. Well, with a title like that, you can imagine how much fun kids 9-12 are going to have reading this novel! When I read that blurb on Amazon and discovered the author was Canadian, I immediately hunted Jenn Kelly down and asked if I could interview her. She told me to 'have at it!'

VC: The first burning question: huge hair? Where did the idea for that come from?
JK: Great Aunt Harriett's hair: Ok, so awhile ago (like 4 years ago) hubby and I were invited to a very ... prestigious wedding. Not royalty, but the nicest building I've ever been in. The decor was just so and I felt very uncomfortable. I have learned to purchase a 60% off Jones New York cocktail dress for such occasions, but that was 4 years ago!

And one thing I noticed at fancy weddings, is that they are double-boring. No one cares what the father of the bride has to say except for the father of the bride, the bride and the mom of the bride. No one else even knows what he's talking about! Aaaaand there was nowhere to sit down! We all had to stand around and let the super-old people sit in the fancy straight back chairs (of which there were 6 chairs for 65 people). No sitting and eating, we had to stand. The entire 4 hours.

So as I was munching on a particularly disgusting canape, I noticed a rather ... fancy lady with a huge helmet head of hair. Honkin' huge. I thought we were in the south.  So this woman had her big hair and had her dress and I thought, 'I bet she's one of those ladies who carries her dog everywhere. And I bet she's furious she can't bring her dog to the wedding. I bet the dog is in her hair!'  And I waited breathlessly for this woman to start feeding her dog canapes, but it never happened. The next day I sat down and started the story of a woman who had a whole other world in her hair, complete with its own tour guide.

VC: A tour guide? What kinds of sights to see are in this hairy world?
JK: The tour guide is Meeka. She's an elf. She has two other sisters, Rayaa and Eleissa who work in there as well.  Meeka has an affinity for getting into trouble, which is why she is stuck being a tour guide. She's great at it, but always manages to get into predicaments.  The places Jackson and Meeka visit are: the Book Room (where Jackson finds a book that tells him 'how to be yourself' but it's blank, the Cafeteria (where Jackson learns moderation is key), the House (where Jackson meets the other two sisters and is introduced to 'the Author'), and then the Forest (where Jackson meets Josh, a dreamgiver, who helps people find their dream). Jackson is sent on a quest to find a stone with his name on it, the name the Author gave him. There are also bubble-gum blowing birds, kangaroo-meat and gargantuan hairy-backed spiders that wait in the corner for their lunch.

VC: Reading through bits of the Amazon sneak peak was fascinating. You're breaking all the rules, girl! You're not supposed to address the reader directly! How dare you!  

JK: Wait, there's rules? Who said there were rules? I didn't know that! I failed English in University! Wait, do they teach that in University? I was learning garbage about symbolism of Chaucer and what the holly meant in Sir Galahad. Maybe that's why I failed. I didn't care about symbolism. I just wanted to read the story!

I had absolutely no idea what the rules were. I didn't read books on how to write a book. It made absolutely no sense to me. I just ... wrote it.  When I look back at what worked for me, it was pretty systematic. Which makes no sense. I had to be at Starbucks, I had to have a venti, soy, no water, no foam, chai latte. I had to be listening to funk jazz. I would just sit down, and write. Of course I'd stand up frequently and walk around Chapters and stomp my feet in frustration because I had no idea what would happen next, so I'd think of the most ridiculous thing I could think of.

VC: So...did anyone try to make you change the way you addressed the reader? Or, on the flip side, did Zonderkidz ask you to put it in?

JK: Did they change it? Um, part of it. They only took out a bit of the narrative. They liked it, I think.

But, in the second book, they took a bit more of the narrative out. Which made me pout a little. And then I got over it.

VC: How important is that to your voice? (Because I gotta say, your voice positively oozes out of the pages--good job!)
JK: Voice: I had no idea what voice was when I wrote. I still don't. I just smile and nod and say 'thank you'. From what I understand, it's that I write like I speak. Which I guess is a compliment because when people read it, they admit right away that they can tell I wrote it. I think that's a compliment. I haven't seen anyone cover their ears when I talk. At least, not to my face.

What I don't understand is how people could not write the way they talk. I mean, sure, some writers are fantastically eloquent and I can be eloquent when I get my grown-up voice on (or when I'm arguing. I pull out big words when I argue) but if you don't talk like that normally ... wouldn't that be arrogant and presumptuous? Wouldn't it sound like you were 'being' someone else?  There's one thing I am very good at.  Being myself, being real.  Wow... did that sound arrogant?

VC: Not at all. You know the saying: Be yourself; everyone else is taken.
JK: What I'm challenged with now, is learning to use my voice in a non-ridiculous way. The Jackson Jones' books are fun and silly and fantastic (well, I like them) but now I'm taking a break and working on an adult contemporary fiction.

When I was writing the Jackson Jones' books, I would only allow myself to read kids' books to stay in the zone. Now that's changed. I have to read grown-up books, which is something I don't do often.  I don't like reading serious books because then they make me serious. I can't read horror or mysteries. I can't read heart-breaking books (The Kite Runner absolutely destroyed me), so how am I going to write adult fiction? I have no idea.  I am trying to read some of my favourite grown-up books like 'Chocolat', 'The Red Shoes', and the Left Behind series. What genre is that? 

VC: I'm pretty sure the Left Behind series isn't the kind of thing your voice wants to write. Why can't stories for adults be lighthearted and funny, too? Who says adults have to be serious all the time?
JK: Ah, but how can you tell? I have done quite a bit of writing in the past, mostly with 'serious dramas' for our church. I really get into the rawness and realness of the challenges of Christianity. I'm rather proud of them. Rather emotional and heart-wrenching.  But I am reading the Left Behind series because well, 1) they're fantastic! and 2) I've been thinking a lot about death and Heaven. I'm feeding my soul.

I totally agree with you that adults should be lighthearted, but unless you're Douglas Coupland, people don't normally like silly and bizarre. Which is unfortunate. Inside of me is a series waiting to be written. It's all about a girl's struggle with her identity in Christ. And it's real and raw and kinda ... well, it plants you right back into reality.  But it isn't time to write it yet.

VC: So you're setting Jackson aside in favor of serious adult fiction? Whatever will the kids who are becoming addicted to your books do?
JK: The reason I'm not writing anymore Jackson Jones at the moment is because, well, publishers like to see good sales first. And given that the first book has only been out for six months, it's too early to tell if it'll do well. So they said to wait.  So in the meantime, I snagged an agent (money! security! encouragement! kick in the bum!) and while chatting, I threw a plot at him and he went a little crazy for it, so that's what I'm doing.

VC: Ah, I was wondering if you had an agent. How did that process work for you?

JK: I had 72 rejections. In between all that, I went to the Word Guild writer's conference in Guelph (Ontario, Canada) and met agents and publishers. I hit it off with someone from Zondervan but they didn't have a kids' editor yet. A few months went by and when I contacted him again, he said they had hired Kathleen. He put my manuscript on her desk and within a week, she called.
I had been rejected by 45 agents. This one had rejected me before but I had a 'feeling' about him. So I figured I had two books to my name, what agent would say no? So I queried around again to 'Christian Agents' and he responded.  So now I have the lovely Bill Jensen as my agent. 

VC: Are you figuring on more Jackson Jones books in the future?
JK: I do have the third and fourth book written in my head. I've written down all my brilliant ideas for them, and they will wait for now. When Zondervan says, Ok, time for another one, I'll be ready.

VC: So what is prompting the genre change, then? 

JK: You're going to laugh.  While at Zondervan I had a brilliant editor named Kathleen. I love this girl. She 'gets' it. And it is so rare that people get it. Kids who read my book and love it, 'get it'.  Adults who read it...well, it's not as popular with adults, and I'm fine with that. I didn't exactly write it for them. 

Anyway, Kathleen was there for the second book and then she emails me saying she's moving across the universe to somewhere named Oregon and is changing publishing houses. Yes, my heart broke completely. I had a champion behind me and she left.  When she switched publishing houses, she switched jobs from kids' books to adult fiction and Amish romance. So I told myself I would write Amish fiction so I could work with her again. And then it progressed into Amish fiction with a Bourne Identity twist to it. I'm kinda excited.

VC: Wow, that is quite a change from Jackson Jones! Did the genre change prompt a method change in your writing style, or are you still writing seat-of-the-pants?

JK: No, I have learned to have an outline. Who knew you needed one? I have never needed to be methodical in writing (with the exception of location and beverage choices) but now I do. And what a difference when you when write an outline! Why don't they teach you that? Maybe they do, but not until second year?

VC: I don't know what they teach you; I never went to university at all. But I'm interested in the fact that now you love outlines. How much structure are you planning ahead with this novel?

JK: I think I like the outline because then it tells you what you're supposed to be working on. I'm brilliant at falling off course. This is why it takes me about twelve hours to clean my house. I get distracted. So if I'm writing about a character and something happens, the next thing I know, something else happens and I realize that it makes absolutely no sense and there is no way I can keep it that way.  With the outline, I like the structure. This happens, then make this happen, which makes this happen. I like that it gives you a home base to always come back to.

VC: One last question. As you know, this blog highlights international fiction. Is there a setting for Jackson's story besides Aunt Harriet's hair? Does it take place in Toronto or anywhere real as well?
JK: Um, do you mean a city? It starts off taking place at his house. He just moved. Then Great Aunt Harriett's hair. Then back at his house, then another house. I don't like putting in cities because then you have to be accurate. I'm terribly at accuracy. And grammar. (You may have to clean this up.)

The next book takes place in a tree.

VC: And there you have it, ladies, gentlemen, and kids! I can't imagine how all of you wouldn't want to pass this book on to a tween in your life. Jenn Kelly is offering one reader a copy, anywhere on Planet Earth. If you'd like to put your name in the hat, please add your email address with your comment before Friday, April 29, replacing @ with (at) and .com with (dot) com.

"Void where prohibited; the odds of winning depend on the number of entrants. Entering the giveaway is considered a confirmation of eligibility on behalf of the enterer in accord with these rules and any pertaining local/federal/international laws."

Welcome a new regular contributer to our blog, author Jenn Kelly! She lives in Ottawa, Canada, but her heart lives in Paris. Or Hawaii. She hasn't decided yet. She is an undercover garden guru, painter, and chef, which has absolutely nothing to do with this book. She won a writing award in grade 4, failed English Lit in university, spent many years writing bad poetry, and then decided to write a book. This is it. She is married to her best friend, Danny, and is mom to a five-year-old boy and a dog who worries too much. She embraces the ridiculousness and disorganization of life.

Valerie Comer's life on a small farm in western Canada provides the seed for stories of contemporary inspirational romance. Like many of her characters, Valerie and her family grow much of their own food and are active in the local foods movement as well as their church. She only hopes her creations enjoy their happily ever afters as much as she does hers, shared with her husband, adult kids, and adorable granddaughter.

She is represented by Joyce Hart of Hartline Literary Agency and has recently sold her first work, a novella, to Barbour Books. Visit her website and blog to glimpse inside her world.


  1. Your story is so exciting. As a fellow children's writer it seems there is more focus on other genres and we are kind of left behind. Congrats on this book and wishing you many more successes! :O)

  2. This sounds like an super fun read! I think my 12 yob would love it. I'm also deeply impressed with your perseverance in getting it published. Thanks for sharing Jenn - it's a great encouragement.


    Did I do that right?

  3. This book sounds like a hoot. Even if I can't find a 12 year old to give it to, I want to read it. :-)


  4. Alice, you're never too old to read juvenile fiction! Afterwards you donate it to your church library for kids to enjoy too. That is, if you win the book instead of me.

    leannehardy (at )gmail (dot) com

  5. Love the plot of this story. It does sound like a fun read, and it's nice to hear that someone broke the writing rules and came up with such a fresh story. I hope this is wildly successful for you.

  6. Valerie and Jenn, thanks for your fabulous interview! And Jenn, welcome to our blog :) Your book sounds like a story my kids and I would love to read.

    narelle (at) narelleatkins (dot) com

  7. a great posting/interview...thanks for the chance to read this fun book :)

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com