New Voice: Janci Patterson on Chasing the Skip

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Janci Patterson is the first-time author of Chasing the Skip (Henry Holt, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Ricki’s dad has never been there for her. He’s a bounty hunter who spends his time chasing parole evaders—also known as “skips”—all over the country. Ever since Ricki’s mom ran off, Ricki finds herself an unwilling passenger in a front-row seat to her father’s dangerous lifestyle. 

Ricki’s feelings get even more confused when her dad starts tracking seventeen-year-old Ian Burnham. She finds herself unavoidably attracted to the dark-eyed felon who seems eager to get acquainted. Ricki thinks she’s ever in control—the perfect accomplice, the Bonnie to his Clyde. 

Little does she know that Ian isn’t playing the game by her rules.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I write on my laptop, which travels with me whenever I go somewhere I might write.

I wrote Chasing the Skip mostly in the seating areas of the Humanities building where I earned my master’s degree. I wrote it as a for-fun project between finishing my thesis and graduation, so the writing had to fit in the spaces between final papers, thesis revisions, thesis defense, and my last classes.

These days, I write mostly at home, so the laptop travels with a smaller radius. I do a lot of work at the kitchen table–my husband runs his painting business from his work table there, so I have good company. Other times I stretch out on my bed, or lounge on the couch with the computer on my lap.

Desperate times find me other places though; I had a deadline last Thanksgiving, so I wrote in my in-laws’ basement. I’ve written in the car on road trips, and at parks, and at the library. I’ve found that where there’s a will to fit in some writing, a space can be discovered in which to do it.

I tend to work better in small snatches than in marathons, so I do my best to wrap a little writing into every day.

I do try to write during the day, though, because after eight o’clock my brain gets a little too fuzzy for intense work. I know writers who get up super-early to write, and I can’t do that either. My writer brain doesn’t turn on until about 10 a.m. But since both my husband and I are self-employed, I have the luxury of lots of hours stretched across the middle of the day that are perfect for writing. It’s just a matter of sitting down (wherever I am!) and doing it.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

My main character Ricki loves to read the news, which brought up some technology issues right away. Ricki gets her news online, which means I had to bring in internet terms. I steered away from anything brand-specific–who knows which companies will be in control of our web-browsing in five years. Anyone else remember when AOL was popular–and to describe mostly by function. The internet is sure to change, but likely we’ll still be clicking to open and typing for text input for the foreseeable future.

As for the news Ricki reads, I had her encounter news about war in the Middle East–I can’t think of anything I’d rather have date my book than a prolonged period of peace in that area, but alas, it seems doubtful.

Even though all the action of my book takes place on a road trip, technology still follows my characters everywhere. Ricki’s Dad loves to listen to audio books. While the method of audio consumption is likely to change (and has, from record to tape to MP3), the act of listening to a previously recorded reading of a book is probably not going out any time soon. So I tried my best to be vague about the delivery system, and focus on the act of listening instead. Dad has a “player” I believe, which could be anything from a tape deck to an iPod to whatever will come next (I hope!) which will hopefully help keep the book from dating quickly.

Cell phones are always tricky–much of the time, I needed Ricki to feel isolated. She’s on a road trip away from her mom and her friends and her boyfriend–if she can just call or text them all on a whim, I lose some of the pressure of an isolated road trip with her dead-beat dad. So I decided that Ricki’s mom hadn’t paid the phone bill, and Dad doesn’t want her using his cell phone–it’s for work. The word cell phone is pretty entrenched–odds are we’ll have them for the foreseeable future, so I wasn’t too worried about dating the book over that.

If the book does become dated, it will probably be over some issue that I didn’t think of–some little detail of our lives that will change drastically over the next few years.

You can’t plan for everything, especially in a rapidly changing area like technology. The best you can do is tell a compelling story, and trust that the heart of that story will carry readers past the details.