Author Interview: Jennifer Ziegler on Alpha Dog

Jennifer Ziegler on Jennifer Ziegler: “Who is Jennifer Ziegler? No one knows for sure. I go by many names. Most people refer to me as ‘Jenn’ or ‘Jenny.’ My father sometimes still calls me ‘Poo’–his nickname for me when I was a little girl. I’ve even written a few books under other secret names. (But not ‘Poo’.)

“I was born in Temple, Texas but moved with my parents to Anchorage, Alaska before turning one. There I got a younger sister, a younger brother, a dangerous snowball-throwing arm, and a passion for reading and writing. When I was five years old, I wrote my first poem in my school writing journal. Here it is, verbatim:

‘The Sun’
The sun is hot
The sun is hot a lot
If an astronaut
Should go to the sun
He would get caught
In the hot.

“At the age of eight, I moved with my family back to Texas where I continued to read and write–but thankfully gave up poetry. After high school I attended the University of Texas, earning degrees in Journalism and English. While there, I fell in love with the city of Austin and its many cool hangouts, music venues, swimming holes and hip people. I decided to settle there upon graduation, and found jobs as a freelance reporter, editorial assistant, and middle school language arts teacher. I also met a cute musician guy named Carl and, two years later, we married.

“For many years I ghost-wrote mass market teen fiction for series such as Sweet Valley High Senior Year, Fearless, and Love Stories. I also authored two prequel novels based on the cult-hit TV show “Alias.” The first one, Recruited (Bantam, 2002), actually made the New York Times Bestseller List for children’s paperbacks. In 2006 I published my first trade book, Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006), a teen novel set in Austin.”

Visit Jennifer’s LiveJournal!

How did the writing life first call to you? Did you shout, “yes!” Or run the other way?

I shouted “Hell, yeah!” and ran headlong into a tree! With me, it was never a question of enthusiasm for the craft, it was more a matter of finding my direction. I come from a family of natural-born storytellers so I learned narrative form even as I learned to talk.

At some point, probably, when there was no one around who would listen to me, I picked up pencil and paper and started writing down my stories. I decided at a very young age that I wanted to write novels, but then felt societal pressure to tone down my dream.

When a student announces that she wants to grow up to be an author, it’s sometimes met with a condescending “Isn’t that nice?” followed by a well-meaning lecture on the importance of math or the difficulties of making it in the world.

Being the dutiful “teacher’s pet” type, I tempered my ambitions and focused on journalism. (In hindsight this was not a bad thing since I did more writing for school newspapers, UIL competitions and college journalism classes than I did for any English coursework. It was great training and helped shape my style.)

After college, I worked as a freelance journalist and middle school English teacher. I enjoyed both jobs immensely, but they weren’t my ultimate dream. Now I’ve come full circle.

Why did you decide to write for teens specifically?

Many reasons. First of all, I grew up reading great YA writers like Judy Blume (author interview), Paula Danziger, Paul Zindel, and S.E. Hinton, and their writing had a significant impact on me.

I read all genres, but my favorite books were those that depicted the tragicomic journeys of ordinary people. Plus, the teen years are so powerful. Everything is heady and dramatic. You’re experiencing these new, raw emotions and feel trapped in a limbo between childhood and the adult world. I used to wonder if I was the only grown-up who still had dreams about being in high school, but my friends say they do too. I think that’s because it was such a profound time. Everything you go through seems to etch permanent grooves. As a writer, I enjoy exploring those early experiences that mold our identities.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles?

In true Jenny Ziegler fashion, I did not take the recommended path to getting published. So let me preface my tale with a disclaimer: do not follow my lead.

When I took a break from teaching in order to have a baby, I decided to also use the time to write down a novel that had been rolling around in my head for years. It was just something I had to do. I had hopes for it, but no set expectations.

When I finished the draft I showed it to a friend who was a published author. He was very encouraging and put me in touch with an editor at Bantam. They were not interested in an original work at the time, but they were developing several paperback series for teen readers and decided to take a chance on me. The editor gave me a condensed, half-page plot of a book they wanted for one of their series. I worked up an outline and two sample chapters. To my pleasant surprise, she liked it and hired me. That work led to other series work, all of which were written under a pseudonym. When I was ready to get my own story idea published, I went through the connections I had made as a work-for-hire writer.

So Alpha Dog is either my first book or my sixteenth, depending on how you look at it. (By the way, that first story I showed my friend? It is on a shelf collecting dust. Every time I glance at it I feel a little like a neglectful parent. Someday I will revive it.)

The main reason I advise against following my route is that there isn’t as much series work these days, and it’s really hard for a brand new writer to break in that way. It’s much better if you find an agent who can make the connections and hammer out the deals for you.

Congratulations on Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006)! Could you briefly tell us what the story is about?

Alpha Dog is a love story between a girl and her dog. Katie is seventeen and has been letting other people run her life–especially her micromanaging mom. When she goes off to the University of Texas at Austin for a summer program, she finds herself on her own for the very first time. On an impulse, she adopts a dog from the animal shelter only to discover that she cannot control him. As she learns to take charge of Seamus (her dog), she also learns to take charge of her own life.

What was the initial inspiration for this book?

Thanks! It is a tale that is very close to my heart. It was inspired in large part by my late great doggie, Cutter. He was a stray I took in when I was in college–and could barely look after myself. It was the beginning of big responsibilities for me. I was finishing up my degrees, deciding on a career path, and couldn’t continue the self-absorbed college lifestyle anymore. This dog depended on me for his survival, and caring for him made it easier for me to share myself, and my space, with others later on. Soon after came husband, mortgage, kids…

That said, the book is not autobiographical. Katie is not me and Seamus is not Cutter. I threw in some true anecdotes, but that’s about it. Also, I should mention that my wonderful editor Stephanie Lane was the first to propose a girl-meets-dog story. I had had a similar brainstorm that I hadn’t yet fleshed out and by melding our topics we came up with Alpha Dog.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Hard to say… I suppose it took about two years. There was a lot of back-and-forth in the beginning while we developed the idea. Plus, I took time in the middle of the project to do a quick for-hire assignment. Never again. It looked seamless on the calendar, but because both schedules changed during the course of the projects, I ended up writing two books at once for a couple of months. It’s enough of a juggle being a mom and novelist; throwing an additional job into the mix maxed out my brain power. Just ask my friends. I was pretty weird there for a while.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Trying to manage the two book projects at once was by far the most complicated challenge. Not only in terms of time management, but creatively, too. Alpha Dog is written in first person, and the mass market book was in third person. Alpha Dog is a quirky little coming-of-age book and the other was more action-adventure. Usually when I write, I like to immerse myself in the character’s world. It’s like living in two universes simultaneously–the “real” one where I pack lunches and do laundry and attend meetings, and the fictional one where I fully imagine what the protagonist goes through. Tossing in a third alter ego was way too much of a head-spin, so I had to put one book aside until I finished the other.

There were other trials along the way, as well. While I was writing the first draft, Cutter died. He was very old and I knew, logically, that the end was near. But it still blindsided me emotionally. I took a week or two off to grieve, but when I went back to writing I was more inspired than ever.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Simply this: write! I know that sounds glib, but I’m completely serious. I sometimes meet people who are reading about writing, talking about writing, and doing all sorts of extensive planning for a writing career…but they aren’t writing. The manuals and support groups are great tools, but they shouldn’t take the place of actually cranking out the pages.

I have file drawers full of stuff I’ve written that will forever languish in a dusty dark purgatory. It’s frustrating, but I have to keep in mind that not everything I create will have a published future. Sometimes we write just to flex our mental muscles and shape our individual style. Don’t fall so in love with a draft that you aren’t willing to put it aside and try something else. Find your passion, create an inspired piece, and use it to find an agent. While you wait (and there’s lots of waiting in this line of work), keep writing. Keep pumping up those literary muscles.

How about those interested in writing for teens specifically?

I don’t think the advice should be much different. Although I would encourage people to stay in contact with their readers, or people the same age as the intended audience. Not because they need to learn the slang (in fact, don’t try to learn the latest jargon–by the time your stuff is in print, those words are, like, so over), but because they need to keep the teen perspective.

We grown-ups get so caught up in the minutiae of our own lives, we forget what it’s like to be so young and restless and flooded with hormones. A thirty-year-old simply won’t experience love, frustration, or existential angst the same way a fifteen-year-old would. So if you want to write for teens, engage in regular dialogue with teens. It’s fun and it keeps you young.

How can teachers, librarians, and other event planners get in touch with you?

They can call my office phone at 512.458.8052 or email me at

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

Usually something related to parenting. When I’m not author-woman, I’m a mild-mannered, slightly frazzled, usually ketchup-stained mother of two. I enjoy spending time with my son and daughter. We go to the library, swim, sing on our karaoke machine, play checkers, watch cartoons. I also volunteer at the elementary school as much as I can. When I get “me” time, I do yoga, take walks, grab coffee or margaritas with my pals. My husband and I are big music fans and film buffs, so we try to keep up with the latest good stuff. And, if the budget allows, we travel somewhere every year. This last summer we went to New Orleans–one of our favorite spots on earth. It was sad to see how it had changed, but heartening to find that it hadn’t lost its special charm.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Right now I’m working on my next trade novel, which probably won’t be out until 2008. It’s another teen fiction book, also set in Austin, and also dealing with the themes of fitting in and, to use a hokey phrase, coming into yourself. In addition, I’ve started doing more public speaking–at schools, bookstores, etc.–which I thoroughly enjoy. Having worked in education, I’m always thrilled to get the chance to support teachers and librarians. And getting feedback from readers is golden. I find it ironic that writing keeps me shut away from people a lot of the time, because when I’m out observing and making connections, that’s when I’m most inspired.