Author Interview: Jennifer Ziegler on Word Play and Developing Characters

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Today I’m thrilled to welcome fellow Austin author and friend Jennifer Ziegler to the Cynsations blog for a chat about writing and teaching. Her latest middle grade novel, Worser (Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House, 2022) has received several starred reviews and lots of positive buzz.

Tell us about your new release, Worser.

Gladly! The novel is about a twelve-year-old honor student and social misfit William Wyatt Orser (nicknamed “Worser”) who finds his home life turned upside-down and himself in need of refuge. When a used bookstore opens its doors to him, Worser discovers that the key to making friends is for him to open up, too.

The book has been in the works – slowly but surely – for about nine years. That is not a typo. The main character hopped into my head around 2012 and I was just starting to write his story when I was offered the chance to do Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic, 2014). I am not one of those superhuman writers who can draft more than one novel at a time. It’s difficult enough for me to exist in the real world and create the one I’m writing. So, I asked Worser the character to please hold on for a while, that I’d write the one book and then get back to him. Well, that one book turned into a series of books. But, thankfully, Worser stuck around.

Worser has a Masterwork— “an epic lexicon of words he’s carefully collected over the years.” Do you have a similar word collection, and what role does it play in your writing process?

I do not have a word collection like Worser does, but I enjoy learning about words. Also, I love plays on words. My whole family is into stories, but my mom especially is into word play. I credit her and some fun teachers for introducing me to puns, anagrams, “anguish languish,” and other word games. And yes, one day, years ago, I sat down and tried to recreate actual words using nothing but state abbreviations. (For example, Pennsylvania’s PA plus Connecticut’s CT equals PACT.) This and a couple of other games I made up found their way into the novel.

Jennifer and her mom.

Several reviews of Worser mentioned how well-developed your characters are. Can you share a few strategies you use to bring characters to life?

Oh, I’m so grateful for those reviews and comments. Character, for me, is the key ingredient – the sourdough starter to every story. I cannot begin writing unless I have a strong grasp of the protagonist(s). Characters are the human connection, the stand-in for the reader. They personify the central question or themes of the novel, and they generate the plot. Thus, once I know my main character, everything else can more easily fall into place.

I use all kinds of strategies to deepen and develop my characters. By the end of a full draft (or two – or six), I know a character the way I would know a friend in real life. However, in order to start writing, I have to know what the protagonist thinks they want. What is their goal, the thing they believe will make things easier for them or completely turn their life around? But I also have to know my character’s need, something different from what they want – in fact, it might be the opposite.

In this book, Worser wants everything around him to stop changing and for his home life to go back to the way it used to be. He cannot yet accept that this will never happen. What he needs, though, is support in the form of friendship and community. Once he finds this, it helps him be okay with change.

To discover all this about Worser, I tried various things. Basically, I hung out with my character – writing and imagining scenes from his life. This showed me what was important to him and what he believed about himself and the world. I charted various paths for him, and I created side characters who would pull or push him in various directions until he finally learned what he needed to learn.

As I mentioned above, I spent a long time imagining this book. Even when I worked on other stories, Worser was always in the back of my mind. Occasionally I’d be going about my day and think, “Aha! Worser would be doing this” or “Worser would believe this.” I can’t recommend a nine-year trajectory for everyone’s books (including my future ones), but if there was a silver lining, it was that it gave me ample time to get to know my protagonist.

Along with husband Chris Barton, you host a very cool YouTube series called “This One’s Dedicated To…” which you talked about in a 2021 Cynsations post. That makes me wonder, who is Worser dedicated to, and why? (Or do we have to wait for the video?)

Thanks for asking! Worser is dedicated to Erica Eynouf, my best friend and someone I’ve known since I was Worser’s age. Like me, Erica is a word nerd and is quite possibly the smartest and funniest person I know. I still have notes we passed one another in high school, and they are full of wordplay – creative spellings, puns, riffing off people’s names, etc. We also invented our own version of Scrabble. In it, each player had to use all seven tiles they’ve drawn, making up a word and connecting it to what’s on the board. We also had to make up a definition for it. I remember one: Bropdink (noun) – one of those small, unidentifiable pieces of metal you find on roadways.

Interestingly, Erica and I both went on to work with words in our careers. She is a librarian and teaches library studies at a prestigious college. So we’re both educators, and we both work with books (but at opposite ends of the publishing process).

You’re part of the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Art’s Writing for Children & Young Adults program. As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?

I am honored to be part of the VCFA community. But even though I’m in a mentor position, I’m constantly learning from fellow faculty and my students.

Teaching gives me an awareness of craft that I don’t have when I’m creating, or that I’m only aware of on a subconscious, instinctive level. And this semester I’m serving as faculty co-chair as well as advising students, which has been a terrific life-lesson in POV – allowing me a wider, behind-the-scenes view of the program. My work at VCFA challenges me in the best way and brings new, never-ending discoveries. I cannot overemphasize how much it has helped me grow as a writer and person.

Of course, my writing helps me teach, too. My experience not only lends me some credibility with up-and-coming writers, it also allows me to better empathize with students and share tips and tricks I’ve developed to surmount craft issues and other problems (like self-doubt, which I’ve finally realized never goes away, regardless of how much we’ve published). Plus, I can use my own books as examples. It’s so helpful to have texts that you know inside and out, as well as the processes behind them. Both jobs create a positive feedback loop – or spiral? – in which work helps other work, teacher helps student in ways that also benefit teacher, and past experience helps with both present and future efforts. Win-win-win.

Cynsational Notes

Author Jennifer Ziegler, photos by Sam Bond Photography

Jennifer Ziegler is the author of several novels for young and young-at-heart readers, including Worser, Revenge of the Flower Girls, and How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2008). She also serves as faculty co-chair of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

A native Texan of Mexican American heritage, Jennifer lives in Austin with her husband (and favorite author), Chris Barton, and their boss, a terrier mix named Ernie. When not teaching or creating books, Jennifer loves to visit schools, festivals, and conferences to lead workshops and presentations, urging readers and writers to recognize their own powers and use them for good.

Follow Jennifer on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Gayleen Rabakukk teaches creative writing classes for the Austin Public Library Foundation, is an active member of the children’s literature community and Austin SCBWI. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Follow Gayleen on Twitter and Instagram.