Author Interview: Jennifer Ziegler on How Not To Be Popular

We last spoke to Jennifer Ziegler in October 2006 about the release of her debut single-title novel, Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006)(author interview). Visit Jennifer’s LiveJournal and MySpace page!

Congratulations on the publication of How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte, 2008)! Could you fill us in on the story?

The book centers on Maggie, a seventeen-year-old girl who has just moved to Austin, Texas. Most new students do their best to make friends and fit in, right? Well, not her. This is because her parents always make her move after a few months or so, and she is just done with it. She knows she will only be in Austin for a short while, so she asks herself, “Why try to be accepted at all?”

Having just bid farewell to best friend number twelve and her first serious boyfriend ever, she is scared to make real connections and then get hurt when the time comes to move. At first she tries to lie low and blend into the background, but that doesn’t work. So she changes her strategy and does all the wrong things on purpose–dresses wrong, acts wrong, gets seen with the wrong people. Basically, it’s opposite day every day. However, real life isn’t exactly a math problem. You can’t reverse a formula and expect the inverse result. So things don’t exactly play out for Maggie the way she intends.

What was your initial inspiration for telling this story?

That’s quite a tale in itself. In the fall of 2005, I was contacted by my oldest, dearest friend, Christy. She called from California to say she was getting married, so of course that triggered a whole series of lengthy long-distance chats. Christy, like Maggie, moved around quite a bit when she was younger. I had always envied her worldliness, but later, when we were grown, she confessed that it could be tough.

Well, I guess she was on my mind a lot, because one day (when I was supposed to be working on the final draft of Alpha Dog) I got a clear vision in my head of a teenage girl walking to school in a crazy outfit. The girl wasn’t Christy, but she was in a similar predicament: she was sick and tired of getting uprooted all the time. So she was purposefully trying to drive people away.

I found myself so intrigued, I had to set aside Alpha Dog (don’t tell my editor!) and investigate this person and her world. What did she think would happen? What would happen? Who would she affect along the way?

Over the years I’ve learned that when the muse visits, you have to drop everything and follow. If you wait until a better time, she won’t be there and the idea will be fuzzy and stale.

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

After that initial spellbinding flash, it took another two years before the finished product hit bookstores. First I had to finish Alpha Dog. Then I had to shape the idea and pitch it. Once I was under contract, the typical notches in the timeline followed: first draft, revisions, proofs, galleys.

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

With every single one of my projects, the major challenge is balancing work with the demands of parenting. I’ve been writing for over a decade now, but I still can’t seem to find that perfect equilibrium. Just one night (one blankety-blank night!) I’d like to go to bed with no guilt.

At the end of every day, I feel as though I’ve either neglected the kids or the writing. I say no to a game of checkers with my daughter in order to finish some editing, and it haunts me later. Or I stop short of my mandatory word count, and it proves impossible to make up.

I think one of the reasons this is so tough is because both roles make similar demands. Parenting uses much of the same energy as writing. A nurturing, creating, super-focusing energy. Thus, I’m often sapped of power before I’ve completed my tasks for the day. Plus, as I mentioned, there’s the guilt. Writing requires a degree of self-absorption and concentration that I know, instinctively, is sometimes at the expense of the little ones in my care.

Don’t worry–they aren’t suffering. And I’m gradually figuring out how to make it work. I’ve found my high-productivity time and learned tricks to get into “the zone” quickly, and I’ve set more realistic goals. Coffee helps a lot, too.

What were you like as a teen? Are any aspects of your inner adolescent reflected in Maggie?

I have no idea how people saw me as a teen. I wasn’t popular, but I feel I was well-liked. I had a best friend who had my back, a social group I could be myself with, and intellectual pursuits that kept me coming back to school each day (namely, drama and writing for the paper).

Maggie isn’t Christy or me. However, I’m of the firm belief that every character I create is going to have a fragment of me in them. Usually, this bestowing of traits isn’t a conscious act, so I typically realize it later–after the story is written.

In the case of Maggie, I recognize my avoidance of conflict and my sometimes irreverent inner voice. There’s also a duality in Maggie that I’m aware of within myself. That of wanting to be close to others, but feeling guarded. However, Maggie is definitely bolder, more sophisticated, and more impulsive than I am (now and as a teen). But she’s also less self aware. Because of her nomadic lifestyle, she’s always “presenting” herself to others. And if you’re always investigating new surroundings, there’s little time for self-exploration. I didn’t have the greatest sense of myself at that age, but I was further along than Maggie.

Being an Austinite, I was especially delighted to see how well you integrated a sense of place into your story. What about the city inspires you?

Everything! This is the perfect city for novelists. Here, stories find you.

The surroundings are inspirational–beautiful yet tough, full of charm and flavor and history. But to me, the people are its most valuable resource. Austin is a wonderland of characters, all with tales to tell. Rodeo stars mix with rock musicians. Yuppies live next to hippies. Soccer moms befriend tattooed roller girls. And I don’t mean to imply that they all fall into categories.

Either because of the universities or because it embraces musicians and artists, Austin tends to attract very open, creative, and spirited folks. People who are unapologetically themselves. Fascinating beings who belong in books.

In Alpha Dog, although it is set in the present day, many of the places I reference are from the past. “The Drag” that I describe is straight out of the ’90s, back when I was going to U.T. and having all sorts of adventures about town. I did that on purpose, both out of nostalgia and because I felt it would be a better setting for the story. The Austin in How Not to Be Popular is the here and now, though.

Sophomore novels are often a struggle. How did you bounce back so quickly with another wonderful story?

I guess I didn’t have a sophomore slump because, in a way, it isn’t my sophomore effort. Although it is the second publication that has my name on the cover, it’s actually my nineteenth novel overall.

Before I successfully pitched my trade books, I wrote for young adult series, such as Sweet Valley High, Fearless and Love Stories. I didn’t get a byline on those projects, but I gained invaluable experience and honed my style. So I might have been a little more confident in my abilities than someone with only one book under their belt. I’m not sure.

What has surprised you most about being a YA author?

Two things. First, the fact that I am a YA author. This was one of the primary do-or-die goals of my life. I think I wanted this job as far back as when I was first reading. Even now it seems a little unreal to say, “I’m a young adult author.” But I love saying it and hearing it–especially because the phrasing sort of makes it sound as if I’m a young adult. Which I am, of course! (Cough, cough.)

The second shocker was discovering a whole community of writers who like and support each other. You see, my first publishing deals were for mass-market novels. It was work-for-hire–fun (because it was writing), but rather anonymous and motorized. I wasn’t “the talent,” but a key person on an assembly line. So I guess I started to think of writing as an inherently solitary pursuit. And that was fine.

But now I’ve “debuted” in the local literary scene and have met several fellow writers. It’s like finding long-lost family. They understand you in ways others don’t. They offer invaluable advice and encouragement. They make better puns than I do. Discovering this world has been such a pleasant, eye-opening surprise.

How do you balance the responsibilities of being an author (promotion, negotiations, etc.) with writing itself?

Um… I don’t. Balance, that is. In fact, it’s thrown another metaphoric wrench in my endless quest to be super mom-writer. Now not only do I have to plan my writing around bedtime routines and PTA meetings, I also have to fit it in among store appearances, conferences, business lunches, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I love having this problem! I’ve worked hard for this stress! It’s just going to take me a while to figure out how to fit these new tasks into my routine. Plus, I need a bigger calendar.

You’re an author who blogs. Tell us about your blog. What is its mission? What purpose does it serve in your writing life?

I started my blog because some key people convinced me that it would be a great publicity tool. I still believe they’re right, but in truth, that’s not how I use it–at least, not deliberately.

What has happened is that the blog has become my personal journal. I’ve kept a diary before, but I’ve never been one of those day-to-day chroniclers. You know, with entries like, “Today I ate beans. Yau-Man got voted off the island. I think the dog is sick.”

Instead, I typically wait until I have something weightier to say. A story to tell or an idea to explore or a rant about some random topic.

So rather than simply marketing myself and reaching out to readers (which I hope also happens), I use the blog as a sort of literary dojo– place to stretch out my writing muscles before I begin my work day.

Sometimes I worry that I’m too open with the personal stuff, but it’s not like I have a Lindsay Lohan lifestyle. I really don’t have much to hide. And occasionally I fret that I’m not marketing myself enough. But that’s hard for me.

There’s a difference between writing about my life and writing about myself as some sort of literary figure. The whole self-promotion angle still feels unnatural. However, since that was one of the initial aims of the blog, I should probably keep trying.

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

Gosh… I’d probably tell myself to relax and enjoy it more. Not that I didn’t enjoy it back at the start, I was just so nervous about making a mistake.

When the kids were babies, I’d work myself into a tattered, muttering, ink-stained mess trying to meet their needs and meet deadlines.

Now I realize that the publishing world is run by humans. They understand if you are going to be a few days late. They don’t expect absolute perfection on the first draft. And they certainly don’t want their writers to end up hospitalized for exhaustion.

I’m still a stickler for deadlines, but I’ve eased up on myself a little. The fear that I’ll one day be exposed as a plucky wannabe rather than a real writer has somewhat subsided. If I hadn’t stressed so much in the beginning, I could have had more fun–and more sleep.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I don’t mean to sound demure and secretive, but I can’t really say just yet. I have several items in front of me, and it’s simply a matter of choosing.

As I mentioned, I’m learning the whole marketing aspect of the job and trying to fit it into my daily routine, which is slowing me down a little. Right now I’m still promoting How Not to Be Popular and working on some vital infrastructure (setting up websites, learning PowerPoint, etc.), but I’ve got three ideas researched and outlined, and I’m eager to get moving on one of them.