Author Interview: Jennifer Bradbury on Shift

Jennifer Bradbury on Jennifer Bradbury: “I grew up and attended college in Kentucky, and worked a few summers at a boy’s camp in North Carolina. I met my husband there and we spent our honeymoon biking across the southern U.S. After that, we moved to Washington State, where I taught high school English for eight years. Most of my time was devoted to working with ninth-grade writers. Now, I’m a stay-at-home mom who manages to write a little every day (almost!) during my daughter’s nap time.”

What kind of teenager were you?

A little bit of an outsider really. I was devoted to a few things—swimming, writing for the school paper, bad TV—but didn’t seem to experience the easy relationships that others did. Friendships and social interactions didn’t really feel natural until I was in college. I was also pretty sarcastic, enjoyed saying things that I thought might elicit strong reactions from my mom and teachers, and I liked making people laugh. (It occurs to me as I write this that maybe I haven’t really changed all that much.)

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?

I really learned to write from an amazing teacher, Gail Kirkland, who advised our school newspaper. I still think she’s the person responsible for teaching me to write a tight line, a strong sentence, and to uncover story quickly. My first drafts of novels read very much like the articles I wrote in high school.

From there, I spent my first couple of years of college as a journalism major where my writing became even more lean and spare and completely about the story. Then I find the true faith of the English major and fell in love with the layering possible in a story and character. And I loved writing papers. But I still had no aspirations to be an author.

Then, in my first year of teaching, I fell into a writing group with an amazing pair of coworkers (our librarian Cathy Belben and counselor Laural Ringler) and began to get a different sort of picture of what it meant to be a writer. I really don’t think I’d be here now if it hadn’t been for the example set for my by those two. At that point, I started toying with the idea of writing young adult fiction, and things sort of took off.

I have to add that my high-school students were probably my best writing teachers. In my ninth grade composition classes, I always read one YA novel aloud each semester to give us a model to talk about and discuss. At some point, all the options I presented to one class had already been read, so I took a chance and shared a draft of something I was working on. Read aloud time became a workshop, and those fourteen year olds taught me more about holding an audience than anyone ever will.

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

I do think it started with Cathy and Laural. At that point, I knew I liked writing, that it was one of those itches that demanded scratching, but had no idea really what it meant to try and submit my work. They were incredibly prolific and disciplined about submitting and publishing, and encouraged me to start thinking about writing for specific audiences and looking for ways to publish.

I wrote my first full length YA novel in 2002, and submitted it to the Delacorte Press Contest. I didn’t win (no one did that year) but I got a really great, detailed rejection letter from an editor there named Joe Cooper who invited me to discuss the story with him and resubmit. I did, and blew it. But that manuscript was one that just needed to get out of the way so I could try something else.

I ended up submitting again the next year with a new book that I was sure was amazing, and it only earned the form rejection. That was tough, but I managed to dive back in and spend some time revising, and then started the process of querying agents. I got a handful of requests for fulls and partials. One of those was from Robin Rue at Writers House. She liked it enough to request revisions, which I did, but she still didn’t think it was quite ready.

Then in 2005, we were living in India while I was on a Fulbright, and the pieces started to come together for this bike trip story. I wrote the draft that Fall, submitted again (way prematurely) to the Delacorte contest, and earned the form rejection. I revised and sent out query letters again to agents. This time, all three of the people I queried on the first round wanted it, and two came back with the best rejection letters ever, full of enthusiasm for the story and nuggets of criticism.

Then my daughter was born, and I sort of neglected subsequent requests that came in for fulls while I threw myself into motherhood. A few months later, Robin Rue’s office emailed asking why they hadn’t seen the full they requested. I sent it off with the few tweaks I’d done when I’d been unable to get back to sleep after a midnight feeding, and Robin took me on. She had the offer from Caitlyn Dlouhy at Atheneum within a week.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Shift (Atheneum, 2008)(recommendation)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

Thanks! Here’s the copy from my website:

“When Chris Collins and Winston Coggans take off on a post-graduation cross-country bike trek, Chris’s hopes are high. He’s looking forward to seeing the country, dodging a dull summer at a minimum wage job, and having one final adventure with his oldest friend. The journey from Hurricane, West Virginia to the coast of Washington state delivers all those things . . . and more.

“So much more that when Chris returns home without Win at the end of the summer, he’s certain their 10-year friendship is all but over. But when an FBI agent begins asking questions—and raising suspicions about Chris—he learns that saying goodbye to a friend like Win is never as simple as riding away. Shift offers an adventure story and a missing persons tale spinning around a single question: What happens when you outgrow your best friend?”

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Shift was inspired by two bike trips. The first was the one my husband and his best friend took after they graduated from high school. Their route was very similar to the one in the book—from West Virginia to Spokane. And then after we married, my husband and I rode from Folly Beach in Charleston, South Carolina; to Los Angeles.

Bike touring is an amazing way to travel, and I wanted to capture that and share it with people who might be unfamiliar with it. And we collected so many anecdotes and incidents that people always asked us to recount for them, that I began to realize if I could string some of those together, it might be a great book for teens. And from there, it became a matter of inventing characters, finding conflict and figuring out a way to structure the story.

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

I don’t remember exactly when I started thinking that the bike trip story might be a great YA novel, but I remember when I made the decision to write it.

My husband and I were living in India at the time, and I was teaching a very light load at a school there. I realized I needed a new project to keep me occupied in the afternoons, and began to try to find the story for Shift.

My husband has always been my biggest fan and first reader, so I was bouncing ideas off him before I even started. And we had a lot of long conversations about me taking anecdotes that to him were really special (those ones I planned to borrow from his earlier trip).

There was even a moment when I told him I wasn’t going to write it without his blessing and sort of ungrudging permission to do what I wanted to these characters. And luckily, he got as excited about the possibilities for the story as I was.

So, that fall (2005) I’d write a chapter a day or so and bring it home, and he’d read it that evening. By the time we left in January 2006, I’d gone through a couple of passes on the story. Then we returned home, my daughter was born, and I did very little with it.

That summer, I tweaked some more, sent it out to agents. Robin Rue agreed to represent the book in August 2006, sold it soon after, and here we are, almost two years and a lot of revision later. My editor is so, so smart and thorough and has absolutely asked the questions that made Shift what it is now. I wish her name were on the cover alongside mine.

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

The biggest challenge was also the first one—figuring out a reason for this story to be. It wasn’t enough that I had weird anecdotes from my own trip; I had to find something emotionally true to drive it all. The experience of outgrowing a best friend became that. Then those things all took over, and the anecdotes and bike trip stuff became totally secondary.

Research wise, I spent time reading journals of our trips, talking a lot with my husband, and figuring out the route and towns and distances mentioned in the story.

The logistics of this book have also been kind of nutty—with the back and forth nature of the chapters and the timelines I established, making sure the characters were where they were supposed to be has been an ongoing battle. I was still tweaking days of the week in the last pass before the book went out for the official printing.

What is it like, being a debut author in 2008?

Weird and wonderful, I suppose. I’m a memberof the Class of 2k8, and it’s been amazing to have a group of writers experiencing the joys and anxieties of being first-time novelists together. I’m honored and humbled to part of such a group.

What has surprised you most about being published?

That I’m even more shy now about revealing myself as a writer than I was before I was published.

According to your author biography, you and your husband went on a two-month bike trip for your honeymoon. What inspired you to take the trip?

I’d just come off a semester abroad in England when I met my husband. We were both working as part of the adventure team staff at a boy’s camp in Black Mountain, North Carolina. I was so full of that experience in England, and amazed by the climbing, backpacking and stuff I was doing for the first time, that his stories of his own trip made me silly enough to think I wanted to do it. We got married the following summer, and I think he was as thrilled to find someone willing to try it as I was to have found someone willing to take me.

For the record, I was the one who got whiney and teary about headwinds.

The freshmen-engineering aspect of the story was well-textured. Did you go to Georgia Tech?

I actually graduated from Western Kentucky University, but my husband earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering at West Virginia University Institute of Technology. I lived in the Southeast for most of my life and spent enough time at my husband’s school when we were dating to get a feel for how overwhelming some of those classes might be.

Would you let your kid take a two-month, cross-country bike trip?

Yes. I hope my kid wants to go on a cross-country bike trip. We’ve already started our daughter on bike touring with some short trips around Washington state. And we fully intend to have her and her siblings in the saddle as soon as they can pedal. I can only hope that we’ll be successful in rearing adventurous kids. That said, I can’t promise I won’t be weepy and worried like Chris’s mom when they go off on those adventures.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I’ve been a stay at home mom for the last year. Before that I taught high school English for eight years at Burlington-Edison High School (go Tigers!). I loved teaching, but decided I’d rather be at home with my own kid for a while.

As a bonus, it’s actually given me a little more time to write—she’s a good, long napper, and not having papers to grade in the evenings makes a world of difference. But I really miss my students and the great staff I worked with.

I also have a very, very part time job as a sort of consultant/instructor for some Gates Foundation education initiatives. Basically, I teach other teachers how to use technology as a tool in project-based learning in the classroom. But as the book stuff is picking up steam, I’m transitioning out of that as well.

Beyond parenting and working, I read, go to spinning class at the health club, run around in the woods when the weather’s nice, and binge -watch DVD’s when its not.

What can your fans look forward to next?


My second book for Atheneum, tentatively titled Apart, will likely be available in 2010. It’s a bit of a heavy book—dealing with the impact of a father’s mental illness on a family, but we’re hoping it will be a nice follow up to Shift.

I’ve also got two other projects I’m working on that are of a totally different spirit—lighter and more fun. One focuses on a girl uncovering the mystery behind the Poe Toaster, and the other is set in 1815 England—featuring mummy unwrapping parties, Napoleonic war espionage, and Jane Austen references.