New Voice: E.M. Kokie on Bridget Zinn & Poison

Bridget (wearing her blue “party hair” post chemo) & E.M.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Bridget Zinn was the debut author of Poison (Hyperion, 2013). She grew up in Wisconsin.

She went to the county fair where she met the love of her life, Barrett Dowell.

They got married right before she went in for exploratory surgery which revealed she had colon cancer. They christened that summer the “summer of love” and the two celebrated with several more weddings. Bridget continued to read and write until the day she died.

Her last tweet was “Sunshine and a brand new book. Perfect.”

Bridget wanted to make people laugh and hoped readers would enjoy spending time with the characters she created. As a librarian/writer she loved books with strong young women with aspirations. She also felt teens needed more humorous reads. She really wanted to write a book with pockets of warmth and happiness and hoped that her readers’ copies would show the watermarks of many bath time reads.

E.M. Kokie is an attorney, but has long had a strong interest in literature for teens. Personal Effects (Candlewick, 2012) is her first novel. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Could you begin by telling us a little about Bridget and how the two of you connected as critique partners and friends?

I met Bridget through my partner, who had worked with Bridget while she was a library school student. So, I knew Bridget as someone I chatted with at library events. But when Bridget learned I was just starting to write a young adult novel, she was gracious and generous enough to invite me to join the novel writing group she was in.

Through that group and SCBWI, which Bridget also encouraged me to
join, I made wonderful writing friends and began to receive helpful critique while I was writing the first draft of Personal Effects. Bridget and the other members of the novel writing group were an
endless source of tough critique and hopeful encouragement, both of which I needed desperately in that first year of serious writing.

I was really very anxious about showing my writing to other writers, but
Bridget had a way of melting away the fear and making you believe in yourself. So, Bridget drew me into the writing world, and we became friends through being critique partners, and through talking about
books, and writing, and so much more.

More from E.M. on Personal Effects

And then that friendship deepened as both our writing careers seemed on parallel paths. Bridget signed with her agent in the spring, and I signed with mine the following fall. She sold her Poison, and then I sold Personal Effects some months later. We were both revising for our editors and starting to think about the realities of promotion and thinking about our next books. And then we both even bought houses around the same time, so we were exchanging pictures and virtually stalking each other’s house hunt targets.

Of course, Bridget was doing much of that while battling cancer, even if so many of our emails and calls had much more to do with revisions and writing and house buying than illness.

Some of my favorite messages from that time are the ones where Bridget is
joyfully sharing bits from the next book she was writing, and how it was going off in directions she didn’t intend, and her trying to wrangle it back to where she wanted it to go.

Even in the midst of
tests and “the next round of yuck” (as I referred to the chemo and treatments and side effects in our messages), she was full of enthusiasm and joy in her writing, and in her life. Bridget wasn’t a
pollyanna, and she had her moments and certainly her frustrations, but she embraced every opportunity to be happy, to celebrate the good.

Reading back through her messages can make me laugh and smile now.
Bridget’s friendship, her generosity, enriched my life — not only through the sheer joy of being her friend, but because she nudged me along my path to becoming an author and invited me into her circle of
writer friends.

What were Bridget’s challenges and triumphs in crafting Poison, and what about it captured her/your imagination?

When I first read a draft of the first chapter of Poison I remember being so struck by how solid and developed her main character Kyra was, right there, from page one. She was scaling a building, her
weapons at the ready, and wishing for pie — hot, flaky pie — and I loved this character!

Follow the Poison blog tour!

The world of Poison was an often lighthearted, fantastical world, but Kyra was so serious and confident in her plan
to murder the princess. I remember thinking, “Murder the princess? She wants to murder the princess?”

It seemed such a huge and unexpected plot arc, and Kyra was so earnest in her plan, and yet this was not a book that took itself seriously. The world of the book was full of magic and fanciful, shiny bits and creatures, but Kyra’s depth and seriousness grounded it.

But the joy was in Bridget’s willingness to go to the silly, to the humor, to have something dire and creepy and tense happening, and you turn the page and start laughing out loud. I never knew where it was going to go next. Bridget was so willing to show Kyra’s flaws, and her mistakes, and to put her in silly and uncomfortable situations.

Poison had so much of Bridget’s humor, her readiness to laugh and to see the absurd as funny. To ask why not a magic search pig? What if I place my serious, earnest, tough character in silly, frilly underwear, and then catch her unawares in a compromising position? What if sometimes her seriously clever plans go a touch ridiculous?

That juxtaposition of the silly and the serious made for an unexpected reading experience.

How did she approach writing per se?

You can read, or even listen to, Bridget’s thoughts on writing in her own words. I chuckle as I read her “Naughty” tips to getting writing done. I will add that as light and full of humor as her writing might be, and her thoughts on making time to write, Bridget was serious about her writing. She was dedicated to it, and she respected it. She respected craft and training and revision and critique. She was a laser sharp critiquer herself — gentle, kind, often funny (there were many sad faces in the margins of my critiques from Bridget as she expressed her displeasure at my “mean” characters), but decisive and sharp in her focus.

I respected that focus, her belief that you didn’t so much make time to write as write and make time for the other things you had to do. But, as I think her post shows, she wrote because she loved to write. She
delighted in her stories. I loved talking to her about her work in progress drafts because she would laugh as she recounted the unexpected characters or scenes that had surprised her.

Even when she
was struggling to write between treatment, she could laugh at the unexpected shenanigans in the story she was writing. I think that joy shines from the pages of Poison.

How did you hear about her selling the novel? What do you remember about that?

She wrote me a short and to the point Facebook message to tell me it had sold, and then we quickly planned a phone call so that she could share and I could hear all of the details by phone. It was an
amazing, joyful call, to hear her excitement and happiness, the exuberance in her voice when she told me all about it.

I had signed with my agent about a month before that, and had just turned in revisions, so besides her sale, we had a lot to talk about. We were on the phone for a very long time.

That whole time feels like a roller coaster of emotions, with all these huge things to celebrate and to
share, amid her treatments and fighting the cancer. When we emailed or talked by phone, we would talk about her health, of course, but then move on to revisions, writing, submissions, etc.

Have you participated in any events celebrating the book’s release?

I participated in a video chat on March 12th, during which some of Bridget’s author friends shared memories and bits of Poison. We and a whole host of people from around the country all logged in to shindig, and it turned into a really warm and wonderful celebration of Bridget with a lot of smiles and laughter. And it was wonderful to be able to see the faces of many of the participants (not just the authors tapped to participate) who had webcams because we could see them laughing and nodding along, too. I especially loved watching Barrett, Bridget’s husband, react to the stories being shared.

And I’ve participated in a blog tour, which is ongoing, and there are some other virtual and in person celebrations and events in the planning stages. There was a fabulous launch party in Portland, and I’d love to see one in Madison, too. I have a feeling

I will be talking about Bridget and Poison for a very long time as readers find Poison and seek to know more about Bridget. Her spirit of joy and
celebration is certainly living on.

How would Bridget have celebrated the release of Poison?

From Bridget’s blog; used with permission.

With cake. Many different kinds of cake. Bridget celebrated many things, and many of those things she celebrated with cake. I can imagine she would have had stops for cake scheduled into all her release day activities, and cakes from all her favorite places at her launch parties (and there would have been multiple parties). And she would have joyously signed books, the line wrapping around the space and moving slow so that Bridget could befriend every single person in line.

If you search Bridget’s blog for the word “cake” you will be rewarded with many posts in which cake was mentioned.

About Poison

Can she save the Kingdom with a piglet?

Sixteen-year-old Kyra, a highly-skilled potions master, is the only one who knows her kingdom is on the verge of destruction—which means she’s the only one who can save it. Faced with no other choice, Kyra
decides to do what she does best: poison the kingdom’s future ruler, who also happens to be her former best friend.

But, for the first time ever, her poisoned dart..misses.

Now a fugitive instead of a hero, Kyra is caught in a game of hide-and-seek with the king’s army and her potioner ex-boyfriend, Hal. At least she’s not alone. She’s armed with her vital potions, a too-cute pig, and Fred, the charming adventurer she can’t stop thinking about. Kyra is determined to get herself a second chance (at murder), but will she be able to find and defeat the princess before Hal and the army find her?

Kyra is not your typical murderer, and she’s certainly no damsel-in-distress—she’s the lovable and quick-witted hero of this romantic novel that has all the right ingredients to make teen girls swoon.

Cynsational Notes

Bridget’s Path to Publication by Bridget Zinn from Bridget Zinn’s Blog. Note: in her own words. See also Barrett on Bridget, El Dia de los Muertos, and Cake.

Promoting a Late Author’s Debut Novel: Poison by Bridget Zinn from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…how can a book be successfully launched without an author? In the case of the YA fantasy novel Poison (Hyperion) by debut author Bridget Zinn, who died of colon cancer in May 2011 at the age of 33, the answer is simple: with a lot of help from friends.” See also A Remembrance of Bridget by Michael Stearns, her agent, from Upstart Crow.

Attention Austinites! Celebrate Poison and Bridget at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at BookPeople in Austin.

Cyn Notes: (1) Please help spread the word about Bridget and #Poison. (2) Photo of Bridget and E.M. by Georgia Beaverson.

One thought on “New Voice: E.M. Kokie on Bridget Zinn & Poison

  1. Cynthia:

    What a kick it was to read today's post! I learned about a new voice from two writers I admire, and whose senses of humor tickle my funny bone every time.

    I just bought Poison and look forward to getting to know Kyra.

    Thanks for all you do,

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