Native Voices: Jen Ferguson on What She Has Learned As A Writer

By AJ Eversole

Today we welcome debut author Jen Ferguson. Ferguson (she/her) is Métis and white, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice armed with a PhD. She believes writing, teaching and beading are political acts. Her debut YA novel, The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, arrived from Heartdrum / HarperCollins on May 10th, 2022.

The cover was illustrated by Reyna Hernandez with beading by Kim Stewart. The jacket was designed by Laura Mock.

What is the heart of The Summer of Bitter and Sweet?

At the heart of the novel is a family and a community. At the heart of the novel are the people and the land and the relationships between them. As the story opens, Lou is secretive and dealing with all the things in her life alone—even though she has supportive uncles, her mom, and her best friend at her side. As Lou’s tumultuous summer moves forward, she reconnects to her kin and her community to build healthy, thriving relationships.

May 10, 2022 at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. Jen Ferguson in conversation with Racquel Marie (Ophelia After All) and Hayley from Pages of Hayley

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

I would tell teenaged Jen, who wrote novels in her bedroom after she’d finished her homework that yes, this writing matters and it is training for the future. I’d tell early 20s Jen that it was okay to take time away from writing—that this is valuable too, that writers need to live, that doing something other than writing fuels the writing. And I’d tell early 30s Jen not to quit, that she’s close and that the years before getting an agent and her book deal with Heartdrum are going to be the hardest. She’s going to want to quit. But she shouldn’t. And she won’t.

Link, my soon to be eight-year-old nephew is my biggest fan. He’s also a huge fan of Dawn Quigley’s Jo Jo Makoons series.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I was in middle school and my cat Paws had been diagnosed with a urinary disorder—one quite common to male cats; in fact, my cat Frank has the same disorder. But as a child, I didn’t understand that it would be okay. I said a four-letter four. In front of my parents for the first time.

And oof, they did not love that.

Being sent to my room and having to write out an apology while in the murky emotional terrain of having a sick pet, taught me very quickly that words had impact, that words meant different things to different people, and that there was a context and a place for certain words. I also learned that when you have to write out an apology, it just hits different. It became a kind of invocation, not only said but carved into paper in my careful cursive. I never forgot the lesson, that certain words had a place, a time, and an ideal audience.

May 10, 2022 at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. Jen Ferguson stands with the events sign.

Do you have any tips for debut authors about balancing the roles of author and writer?

Keeping those roles as separate as possible seems to be the best thing for both my writing and my career as an author. As an author there are lots of distractions—promoting your books, supporting your community of writer friends, engaging with the public, doing interviews, and the dreaded task of updating your website!

All of those things can add unneeded stress and often unkind voices—you know, envy, imposter syndrome, or a really scathing review—that will get in the way of the writing.

One example: I don’t read reviews on sites like Goodreads or Amazon anymore. Because reviews aren’t for me as writer or for me as author—they’re for readers. And when I did read reviews, they got in the way of the writing and in the way of being an author.

I know it’s not possible to stop things in your author life from leaking into your writer life all of the time because we’re human. But finding ways to keep those two things from getting in each other’s way is really good practice. You’re allowed to take your author hat off and wear your writerly tiara, and your writerly tiara doesn’t go with all your professional outfits.

Frank the Cat guards the author copies of The Summer of Bitter and Sweet

Cynsational Notes

Métis (on her father’s side) and Canadian settler (on her mother’s side), an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice armed with a PhD. She believes writing, teaching and beading are political acts. She is represented by Patricia Nelson at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

Her debut young adult novel, The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, is forthcoming from Heartdrum / Harper Collins May 10, 2022. Her first book for adults, Border Markers, a collection of interrelated flash fiction stories, is out now with NeWest Press. Her novella “Missing” won the Malahat Review’s 2022 Novella Prize and her essay “Off Balance” was selected for the Best Canadian Essays 2020. Learn more about her other novelsshort storiesessays, and poems.

She lives on Gabrielino Tongva territory and teaches fiction writing at Loyola Marymount University. You can reach her on twitter at @jennyleeSD or through her website.

AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. She currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or Twitter @amjoyeversole.