Author Interview: A.M. Jenkins on Beating Heart and Repossessed

A.M. Jenkins on A.M. Jenkins: “I live in Benbrook, Texas with my three sons. Novels: Breaking Boxes (Delacorte, 1997); Damage (HarperCollins, 2001); Out of Order (HarperCollins, 2003), Beating Heart (HarperCollins, 2006); Repossessed (HarperCollins, 2007); Night Road (HarperCollins, spring 2008). I also do freelance work for educational and trade companies; I’m currently working with Tiffany Trent on a fun project called Queen of the Masquerade, a book in the Hallowmere series (Mirrorstone, August 2008).”

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I’m wary of speaking about publication in a way that encourages treating it as a writing goal. Personal goal, yes, but it’s not like once you’re published you’ve got it made and can relax and enjoy the rarefied air whilst dishing out advice to the great unwashed. Plus, the publication “path” is seldom straightforward. It usually doubles back on itself, forks off in different directions, or comes to a grinding halt in the middle of nowhere. IMHO, writing is about moving forward, and the real path for beginning and experienced writers alike is one of learning, stretching, and improving what’s on the page.

With that in mind, my answer is:

Stumbles: rejection, rejection, rejection. Always rejection.

Sprints: Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel, California Young Reader Medal, L.A. Times Book of the Year Finalist, ALA Top Ten Best Books, Booklist Editor’s Choice, BCCB Blue Ribbon Books, BBYA, Quick Picks, PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship.

Congratulations on your recent releases–Beating Heart: A Ghost Story (HarperCollins, 2006) and Repossessed (HarperCollins, 2007)! Let’s start with Beating Heart. Could you fill us in on the story?

Beating Heart is the story of a dead girl and a living guy. She thinks he’s hot, but also believes he’s the one who killed her. He has his own problems, romantic and otherwise, and now he’s also unwittingly being stalked by a ghost.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Beating Heart?

Some years ago there were a couple of movies that came out fairly close together, both with dead main characters who didn’t know they were dead. (and the audience didn’t know either, till the end). I thought about that dead MC scenario a lot, about how it would be difficult to do that in a novel because you usually use physical details to ground the scenes and to provide info about the emotional aspects of the story. The fact that I was too short-sighted to see a way to do this made me want to figure out a way to do it.

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

For me, the first hurdle was getting past the idea of grounding scenes in the traditional sense–after all, if the point-of-view character has no physical body there is no concrete scene to set. The second hurdle was getting the story to move along, when its MC (main character) had no sense of the passage of time, no dialog, no interaction with anyone or anything. She also was an unreliable narrator, to the point where the reader would have no clue what was going on. It was clear fairly quickly that the story would need to be nailed down somehow in order to be more than a collection of wispy impressions.

Your use of alternating point of view in prose and poetry was brilliant! Could you talk about this decision?

It was purely trial and error. Once I decided that the story had to be nailed down in order to work, I tried adding in a second point-of-view character in real time.

I thought at first that alternating the dead girl’s “floaty” voice with more traditional prose sections would be too jarring, so I went through a phase where I tried the manuscript out as half-graphic novel (real-time guy), half “free verse” (dead girl).

From there I eventually came to see that the real-time parts might work if I could take my graphic novel script and turn it into a flat-voiced, removed, third-person prose that didn’t compete with the dead girl’s sections, which were as evocative as I could make them.

So I’d like to claim brilliance, but unfortunately I’m more along the lines of the proverbial monkey with a typewriter.

Moving on to Repossessed, could you tell us about this title?

A demon is sick of doing his job in hell, and decides to take an unauthorized vacation by hijacking a teenage guy’s body and using it to experience physical life.

Again, how did the idea come to you?

I spend quite a bit of time in the car because my kids have to be dropped off at different schools, so I think a lot about things like whether there’s really a Satan, and what’s the point of having a hell, and whether I should stop and get a Milky Way at the Texaco.

What were the challenges in writing this story? The thrills?

This story was probably the most straightforward thing I’ve ever written. The challenge came in making the book more than just “The demon experiences A, B, C, D, etc.” so that the reader would continue to want to read it–and, frankly, so that I’d continue to want to write it.

How did you get in touch with your inner demon-fallen angel? Or put another way, I found the voice irresistible. Did it come to you fully formed or did you have to fight for it, and if so, how did it finally emerge?

The voice was the easiest part. I would guess it’s probably the closest to my own voice, out of anything I’ve written. I’m just snarkier and less grammatical than the demon is.

Are you a plotter or a plunger, or does it vary from book to book?

I am a plunger who is always trying to stretch my abilities. Someday I hope to learn to plot. It hasn’t happened yet.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I’m trying to think of any advice I’d offer my old self, but nothing is coming to mind because I’m pretty sure my old self wouldn’t have listened. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I don’t think any advice on earth would have kept me from making them. And I don’t think I’d have learned from advice as well as I’ve learned from experiencing the ups in all their glory and the downs in all their horror.

If I had to give somebody else advice, I’d say it’s generally a good idea to focus on the work more than on getting/being published. The ironic thing is that once you focus on the work, you increase your odds of getting/being published.

And I will share my all-time favorite quote about writing, by Barry Moser: “I would rather have the two-hundred fifty-six imperfect books that mark the vectors of my journey through my art form than to have one perfect book that marks nothing but its own perfect self.”

What would you say specifically on the topic of writing horror/gothic fantasy? Which books would you suggest for study and why?

These are tough questions. On one hand, it’s extremely important to be aware of what’s already out there so you know what’s been done, and who bought it (editor/publisher-wise). On the other hand, you don’t want to accidentally soak up somebody else’s style. There’s so much great fantasy on the shelves that it’s already hard enough to find something unique to say and a unique way to say it.

I suppose that a writer of horror/gothic fantasy has to walk a line between being familiar with the market, and being too derivative. I think everyone has to figure out what works for their own writing process and not feel worried that they’re doing it the “wrong” way.

In my own process, I try to avoid reading fiction that’s even remotely similar to what I’m currently working on. However, I read as much related nonfiction as I can get my hands on–and I tend to wander pretty far afield, because I never know what book is going to have a chapter or paragraph that sparks something, or provides a detail that helps me create a world.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I deal with my family, mostly. Otherwise, I work out, then eat enough to counter any effects of working out. I e-mail friends. I watch TV (anything related to any manuscript I’m working on, plus various anime series, “Robot Chicken,” “Top Chef,” “Project Runway,” “Ghost Hunters,” and anything involving Jane Austen, Mount Everest, or 18th-19th century naval life). I also read, mostly non-fiction and some manga series.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

There’s not a lot to balance because I don’t do much promotion. I’m more of a behind-the-scenes grunt-work type of person.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Night Road is a book about two “vampires” who take a third newbie “vampire” on a road trip for training purposes. This is the manuscript that was awarded the PEN/Phyllis Naylor fellowship.

Queen of the Masquerade is the fifth book of ten in Hallowmere, a fantasy/historical series by Tiffany Trent.

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Award-winning YA author Amanda Jenkins from