October 15, 2017

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YA Authors Nic Stone and Jared Reck Chat About Crafting Characters, Their Paths to Publication, and More

Nic Stone Photo by Nigel Livingstone

Debut authors Jared Reck and Nic Stone’s books both center around teen boys searching for a sense of identity in the face of of big, life-changing conflicts. Reck’s poignant A Short History of the Girl Next Door (Knopf, Sept. 2017) tackles love and loss with humor and heartbreak. Stone’s Dear Martin (Crown, Oct. 2017) grapples with police violence and whether Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings still hold true today. The authors share thoughts on the writing process, developing their characters, and what they’re working on next.

Nic Stone: We’re both authors with books that are out/headed out into the world! What’s the best thing about being a debut author for you?

Jared Reck: Honestly, the most amazing part has been how much my world has expanded since all of this happened. I’ve lived in a small town in Pennsylvania for most of my life—and I love it here—but now, all of a sudden, I have all these incredible new people in my orbit. From my wonderful agent to my editor and all the amazing people at Knopf and Random House to teens I met in Chicago and librarians in New York City. And I get to say things like, “That’s my friend David from Brooklyn—he’s a brilliant writer.” And, “That’s my friend Nic from Atlanta—her book is going to blow you away.” It’s shameless name-dropping, but I can’t stop myself.

How about you, Nic—what’s the best thing about being a debut author?

NS: For me, the best thing about being a debut author is also the worst thing: having no idea what’s going to happen. On the one hand, it’s this exciting adventure, and you sort of fasten your seatbelt and try to enjoy the ride—for instance, seeing our books pop up on these “10 YA Must-Reads This Fall!”–type lists is pretty amazing. But, it’s also all terrifying, you know?

Who was the first person you called when you found out about your book deal?

JR: I really want this to be a cooler story than it is. I got the call on a Friday afternoon, right after I got home from school—April Fool’s Day, believe it or not. I think I mostly just giggled and swore on the phone with Laura, my agent, when she told me the news.  And after I hung up, I literally lay facedown on my dining room floor and cried into the carpet—luckily, no one else was home yet. When my wife got home, I couldn’t figure out how to tell her, so I just followed her awkwardly around the house, and finally, when she was sitting down to pee, I spilled it. She held her arms out and stared at me, like the idiot I am.

NS: That was the BEST story. Please tell it all the time.

JS: Ha! Who was the first person you called when you found out? (Bonus points if they were peeing when you told them.)

NS: #Anticlimax: I genuinely don’t remember. The book sold in February 2015, and since then I’ve had a baby (who is 16 months old now) and sent my other kid to kindergarten. My path to publication was—a little atypical.

What was your path like? 

Jared Reck

JR: I think mine was pretty straightforward, but still utterly shocking to me. It took me about seven months—and over 60 rejections—to land an agent. So once Laura and I decided the manuscript was ready to go on submission to editors a month later, I was mentally preparing for another months- or even years-long wait. After less than two weeks on submission, though, we got the offer from Erin Clarke at Knopf. It’s still surreal for me, a year and a half later.

Maybe the most atypical part for me is that I made my students part of the whole process. I’ve always written in front of my students, and my eighth graders that year knew I’d finished my first book, saw my query letter, cheered with me when I landed an agent, cheered even more when I got the book deal—all while watching me start on Book Two.

What was your path like, Nic? What made it so atypical?

NS: Well, super-long story as short as I can make it: [I] landed one agent, [it] didn’t work out. [I] landed a second agent; we went out with a manuscript; an editor liked the style but wasn’t totally sold on the story; she asked what else I was working on; I got 12 hours to whip together a proposal for Dear Martin; she bought it; I wrote it and rewrote it, and rewrote it, and 32 months later, it’ll be in a bookstore or library near you! WHEW! I think the most atypical part is that my debut technically sold on proposal. Which isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds, trust me.

JR: I love talking to you about your writing—you are exploding with creative ideas. So do you have a favorite character from Dear Martin? Do your characters come to you fully formed?

NS: I honestly don’t have a favorite character in this book. It’d be like trying to choose a favorite child for me. And yeah, I’d say my characters do come to me fully formed, though I generally have to spend a bit of time getting to know them. I think of it as making friends with the people who live inside my head.

What about you? Do you have a favorite character? Does everyone come to YOU fully formed?

JR: They definitely do not come fully formed. I start every one of my stories with a Main Character Questionnaire—a simple tool I use with my students in Writing Workshop. It’s about 20 basic questions, answered in the voice of that character—like you’re sitting down across the table from each other and recording whatever he or she says to you. I’ll write 20 to 30 pages of my character just talking to me before I even start the story. And when I invariably get stuck partway through the novel, I’ll pause and make up a couple new questions—get my character talking to me again—to get unstuck.

I agree, it’s really hard to choose favorites, but I really love Grampa in Short History. So, what inspired you to write Dear Martin?

NS: I love Grampa, too. So Dear Martin was inspired by a sequence of three things: 1. Multiple highly publicized shooting deaths, specifically of unarmed African American teen boys, 2. The rise of mass marches and protest movements in response to these deaths, and 3. Seeing quotes from my personal hero, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., used in opposition to these movements and marches. Knowing what I knew about Dr. King and the civil rights movement, number three didn’t sit right with me, so I decided to write a novel that would explore the question “What would Dr. King say and do were he alive in 21st-century America?”

What inspired you to write A Short History of the Girl Next Door?

JR: I wish I could say Short History came from some big idea, but it didn’t. It really just started with a character, developed in front of my students in our Writing Workshop. About seven or eight years ago, I’d finished my first short story with my students—a 30-page story about a dweeby eighth grade orchestra member sitting in in-school suspension—and I loved how it turned out. So when I sat down and started a new character with my students the next year, I ended up loving this kid even more: he was funny, and self-deprecating, and stuck inside his own head all the time, and he lived and breathed basketball. He was Matt, before there even was a girl next door.

Where do you see your characters five years from now?

NS: I feel like the queen of the anticlimax right now, but the truth is, at this point, I don’t see them beyond the last page. Hopefully, they’ll go on and lead productive lives and change the world?

What about you? Do you imagine lives for your characters beyond the end of the book?

JR: I do—in a weirdly, hopefully optimistic way, as though I’m not the one in control of them. Matt would be in college in five years, maybe playing ball at a D3 school. Still self-deprecating, sometimes to the point of self-loathing, still with an inner-movie director that gets in his way, and still feeling the pangs of loss more than he’d like—but hopefully in a better headspace, with a little more wisdom and maturity, to deal and grow and be the kind of man he knows he should be.

NS: Now you got me thinking I should come up with a better answer to that question! I can totally see Matt exactly as you described him!

JR: Any advice you’d give aspiring writers?

NS: Make a habit of thinking critically. The better you are at mentally picking things apart and asking tough questions and expanding your own understanding of the way things function in the world (and why they function that way), the better you’ll be at building narratives. Telling convincing stories involves a lot of mechanics and technicalities that are often unconscious, but the better you get at deconstructing the world around you, the better you’ll get at constructing awesome ones from inside your head.

What advice would you give?

JR: Whoa. That’s really good advice—I’m going to steal that for my classroom. I’m always trying to get my students to notice what authors are doing, but you just said it perfectly.

My advice? It’s okay to fake it. Seriously. I just finished writing my second novel, and I still feel like I’m faking it—like I still shouldn’t really call myself a writer. But even if you feel that way—and I bet most of us feel that way—go ahead and pretend like you’re a real-life writer anyway: join an organization like SCBWI, take a class or a workshop, find a writing friend or two, do your research, keep reading and writing, and pretend that you’re already so successful that you can write about whatever makes you truly happy. (I wrote about nerds, basketball, corked wiffle ball bats, and almost inappropriately good gravy.)

I’m dying to know, Nic—what are you working on next?

NS: So I am actively working on something secret and in a different genre, but I actually just got copyedits back on my next YA. Which is weird yet exciting. It’s slated for next fall, and while mum’s the word on title and plot details, what I can say is that it’s different from Dear Martin, but my hope is that it’ll provoke the same kind of internal questioning I’ve heard Dear Martin provokes for many readers.

What’s your next thing?

JR: Book Two is currently in my editor’s hands, and I honestly have no idea what I’m allowed to talk about, so—assuming all goes well—here goes: It deals with hospice care and picture books and cartooning and mustachioed pooches and confronting the odds of first love and living in the aftermath of abuse. And I hope it works, because I really, really love this one.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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