Janae Marks’s books capture the essence of what it feels like to be 12 years old, and they’re great reads—brilliantly written! A Soft Place to Land comes out TODAY, while last year saw the release of Marks’s debut From the Desk of Zoe Washington, both from Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Lucky me—Janae is here on my blog to tell us a bit about her writing process. Lucky you—one reader will win a copy of both books! Yep, it’s a 2-book giveaway this month, thanks to HarperCollins’s generous offer to donate the books. Hop to the end of this post for giveaway details, then use the link to come back and read my interview with Janae. The deadline to enter the 2-book giveaway is Tuesday, September 21, 2021, at 11:59 PM.
A. B. Westrick: Janae, welcome to my blog!
Janae Marks: Thanks so much for having me!
ABW: Let’s start with today’s release. A Soft Place to Land begins with Joy (the protagonist) in a tough place because of her parents’ issues, and the dramatic tension skyrockets when Joy makes a few mistakes. Some writers can’t bear to put their protagonists in trouble, but you don’t hold back. Without spoiling the story, can you talk a bit about crafting the moments when Joy messes up? How was it for you to make your protagonist sweat?
JM: Is it terrible to say that I enjoyed writing those parts? 🙂
ABW: Ha! That’s great!
JW: It’s not that I like to see Joy (or any of my protagonists) suffer, but coming up with those disastrous moments is kind of fun! I try to think of worst-case scenarios. I knew Joy would find a way to overcome those hardships, so it was also rewarding to write the aftermath, and show how those experiences help her grow as a person.
ABW: I love the themes that emerge in your stories, such as the sense that when kids are dealing with tough stuff, they’re not alone; other kids are dealing with tough stuff, too. Or the sense that everyone makes mistakes, adults included, and an apology goes a long way. Did you intend to weave themes like these into your novels? Do you begin a story with particular themes in mind?
JM: I knew that I wanted the question of “what makes a home?” to be a big theme in A Soft Place to Land. But the secondary themes—of community, friendship and forgiveness—came out as I drafted the book and got to know all of the characters and their stories better.
ABW: You’re really good at arousing curiosity in your readers. For example, Zoe is mad at her neighbor Trevor, but you delay revealing what happened between them. Joy is trying to figure out who wrote a poem on the wall in her building, and soon, of course, readers are trying to figure it out, too. When you began writing these stories, did you know the trouble with Trevor and the poem would become significant, or did these plot points emerge along the way?
JM: I knew before writing Zoe’s story that her conflict with Trevor would be a subplot. I had elementary school friendships end during middle school, which was hard, so I wanted to explore a situation that might lead to that. And I knew that if I waited a bit to reveal why Zoe and Trevor weren’t talking to each other, it would add suspense to the book. I made sure not to wait too long to reveal their backstory though, because holding things too long can also annoy your reader.
You might be surprised to learn that the poem on the wall, and actually the entire hideout, wasn’t even in the first draft of A Soft Place to Land! The first draft was still about Joy’s experience in the new building after her family’s move, but the whole mystery storyline wasn’t there. After my editor read the first draft, she said the book needed something else, so we decided to add the hideout. That’s when I came up with the poem and the mystery behind who wrote it.
ABW: Oh, the hideout and the poem are such integral parts of the book! I can’t imagine Joy’s story without them.
Now let’s talk about From the Desk of Zoe Washington. In this novel, the story builds from Zoe asking why her birth-father went to prison to Zoe learning about The Innocence Project and wondering if it could help her dad’s case. Also, she wants to audition for the Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge. When you sat down to begin the story, which of her desires came first? Or put it this way: what was the story you originally set out to tell? (I could imagine either of these desires making for a good story, but weaving both together made the book a particularly compelling read.)
JM: I originally set out to tell a story of a girl whose father was in prison, and might be innocent of the crime. I was actually inspired to write this after listening to the first season of the investigative podcast Serial, which is about a man who’s in prison for murder, but many believe is innocent. I wondered what it’d be like to be the child of someone in that position, and came up with Zoe Washington. Then, because I wanted to give Zoe a hobby, and I’m obsessed with watching baking competition shows, I decided to make her an aspiring pastry chef. It was nice to write the lighter, fun baking scenes between the heavier scenes about Marcus in prison.
ABW: I listened to that Serial podcast! It was really tough. That was a good decision—balancing prison-related issues with baking scenes.
Are you more of a plotter or a seat-of-your-pantser? Early-on, do you chart out where the action will go? I guess I’m really asking: when there’s a blank page (or computer screen) in front of you, how do you get going?
JM: I’m definitely a plotter! I only tried “pantsing” one manuscript and it was a disaster. (It’s not published for a reason!) I like having some sort of roadmap, even if it’s just a few lines per chapter. Then when I sit down to write, I have a general sense of what the next scene should be and I’m not as intimidated by the blank page.
ABW: Now, I have to ask if you love Froot Loops®! Zoe’s baking experiments include a Froot Loops®-flavored cupcake. Did you try out the Froot Loops® recipe before you put it in the book?
JM: I don’t actually love Froot Loops®! I’m not the biggest fan of sugary cereals. But my husband and daughter love them! They inspired me when I was trying to think of a cupcake recipe for Zoe. I didn’t make these cupcakes before adding them to the book, but I found a recipe for them online. A few months before the book came out, I decided to try the recipe out, and the cupcakes were pretty tasty! (You can find that recipe on my website HERE.)
ABW: I’m not a fan of sugary cereals, either, but I’m sure some readers will want to try that recipe!
I see that you have an MFA in writing. Got some writing tips for aspiring novelists?
JM: Yes, I would say:
- Keep finding ways to improve your craft. You do not need to get a writing degree, or even take writing classes—though you can! Read craft books, write as much as you can, and find critique partners who can give you feedback to make your stories better.
- Read a lot! You learn so much about storytelling through reading. Read all kinds of books, even outside of the genre/category you typically write.
- A bonus tip: don’t give up! It took me ten years to get a book deal, so if your journey to publication is long, you’re not alone. Keep writing!
ABW: Ten years. Persistence matters. That’s great advice.
Finally, could you share a bit about how you get your writing done? Are you an early-bird or do you burn the midnight oil? Do you have rituals that help you focus? And what are you working on now?
JM: I’m more of an early bird. My brain starts to shut down when it gets dark at night. I’ve learned to write without any rituals, because as a parent, sometimes you only have a limited amount of time to write and you need to just get to work! But I do like listening to the Deep Focus playlist on Spotify when I write.
Right now I’m waiting for editorial notes from my editor on my third middle grade novel, which hasn’t been announced yet. I’m excited to dive into revisions, which is my favorite part of the process. I can’t wait to share more about that book soon!
ABW: Love it. I look forward to reading it! Thank you so much for doing this interview.
JM: Great to be here!
If you’d like a chance to win a copy of A Soft Place to Land and From the Desk of Zoe Washington, do one or more of the following:
- leave a comment below (comments need not be long), or
- tweet (or retweet) about this giveaway (tag me @abwestrick so I’m sure to see your tweet), or
- email me at abwestrick (at) gmail (dot) com with the subject line, BOOK GIVEAWAY.
Here’s a sample tweet:
I enjoyed reading #author @abwestrick’s in-depth #interview with @JanaeMarksBooks! Sign up for the 2-book #giveaway by 9/21/21. https://bit.ly/JanaeMarksInterview
The deadline to enter is Tuesday, September 21, 2021, at 11:59 PM. On Wednesday, September 22, I’ll put all the entries in a list and my handy-dandy random number generator will select a winner. Thanks to HarperCollins’s generous offer, one lucky reader will receive two books: A Soft Place to Land and From the Desk of Zoe Washington. I’ll post the winner’s first name below.
The giveaway winner is NORTHERN PARKWAY SCHOOL! I love it when my giveaways go to schools. Many of the folks who tweeted, emailed me, and left comments on this post are educators and big readers, and it makes me happy to connect with all of you. Happy reading!