New Voice: Jennifer R. Hubbard on The Secret Year

Jennifer R. Hubbard is the first-time author of The Secret Year (Viking, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Take “Romeo and Juliet.” Add The Outsiders. Mix thoroughly.

Colt and Julia were secretly together for an entire year, and no one–not even Julia’s boyfriend– knew.

They had nothing in common, with Julia in her country club world on Black Mountain and Colt from down on the flats, but it never mattered. Until Julia dies in a car accident, and Colt learns the price of secrecy. He can’t mourn Julia openly, and he’s tormented that he might have played a part in her death.

When Julia’s journal ends up in his hands, Colt relives their year together at the same time that he’s desperately trying to forget her. But how do you get over someone who was never yours in the first place?

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

I read widely, but my favorite stories were contemporary realistic novels, and that’s what I like to write now. I couldn’t deal with my real-life problems by flying, or casting spells, or reading people’s minds, and so I wasn’t as interested in books where the characters could do those things. I wanted books where kids were dealing with the kinds of situations that I faced—bullies, sibling rivalry, crushes, and so on. Such books reassured me that I wasn’t alone.

I also didn’t like pat endings, where everything wrapped up too neatly. Life just wasn’t like that, and I needed to know that people can be okay even if they don’t get everything they want, even when life is unfair. I really wanted books that went there, that showed people surviving and even flourishing in the face of imperfection.

In The Secret Year, I wanted to explore the emotional consequences of a serious relationship, to acknowledge that such relationships can affect us on a deep level. I wanted to look at secrecy and self-deception, and whether there is such a thing as “no strings attached.” I wanted to plumb the depths of loss, of what we go through when people are suddenly wrenched from us. I wanted to talk about the dividing lines between people, and how sometimes we step over them as if they don’t matter, and other times we make them matter a great deal.

I read The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (1967) when I was growing up, and people have mentioned that book in connection with the The Secret Year.

The Secret Year is not a retelling of that story, but I had a sort of conversation with it as I wrote my book. For example, I have a scene where the kids from the “wrong” and “right” sides of the tracks confront one another, and I was thinking of the big rumble at the end of The Outsiders as I wrote it.

But I was thinking in terms of contrast—of how differently my main character, Colt, viewed his conflict.

In The Outsiders, the confrontation between the Greasers and the Socs means a lot to the participants; they’re very invested in it.

In The Secret Year, Colt is much more detached and skeptical. He’s still drawn to the violence, but deep down, he’s cynical. There are other differences, too, but I don’t want to get into spoilers!

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Most of what I know about voice comes from listening to people talk.

Colt’s voice was there from the beginning. I usually start a writing project because a line comes to me, or maybe a paragraph, in a distinctive voice. I write it as if I’m taking dictation, wondering who this character is and where he’s going next. I never considered writing The Secret Year from anyone else’s point of view, because Colt’s voice was so strong.

We do get to see things from Julia’s point of view, through her diary. Julia’s voice is complicated because of her self-consciousness; her writing is a combination of her true thoughts and of attitudes that she’s trying on.

There’s a moment where Colt acknowledges that Julia could always see through him, that she was not fooled by whatever self-protective poses he might assume for the rest of the world. But Colt saw through Julia as well—which made her comfortable sometimes, but uncomfortable at other times because it lessened her sense of control.

I usually have a first-person narrator, so I use character sketches to get in touch with all the other characters. The important secondary characters include Michael (Julia’s brother), Austin (Julia’s boyfriend), and Kirby (who acts as a sort of bridge between all the characters). My computer folder for The Secret Year contains files called, “AustinBackstory,” “Michael and Kirby,” “Julia-Kirby dynamic,” and “Michael Vernon profile.”

Michael is a catalyst; he sets important events in motion at three points in the story. I really wanted to understand him, because at times he helps Colt and at other times he’s an antagonist. And so I wrote an autobiography for him, and I did sketches where I wrote some of the book’s scenes through his eyes.

I also wrote the account of Julia’s death from Austin’s point of view. I can tell you exactly how he spent that week, how he dealt with the news. There’s an important scene near the end of the book, involving the school’s student magazine, and I’ve written that scene from Austin’s point of view.

Almost none of the material in these character sketches appears explicitly in the book, but I hope it seeps into the story, and allows the reader to sense what’s underneath. I’ve always believed that secondary characters should do more than serve the main character’s interests; they have their own interests, their own lives.

Cynsational Notes

Jennifer R. Hubbard lives and writes in Wyncote, Pennsylvania.