Hello my dear readers! Today, I have another interview with author J.L. Bryan for you! His book, Jenny Pox was one of the few book this year that genuinly surprised me. What I at first thought was a good Young Adult book with a paranormal touch (Sorry Jeff for maeking rash assumptions) turned out to be so much more. It really blew me away, in the positive sense! But I don´t want to give too much away, you´ll have to read my review tomorrow and the book for that! :)
For now, give it up for Jeff!
Welcome Jeff and thank you so much for stopping by for this interview!
Thanks for having me as your guest on your dark and lovely blog, Christine.
Jenny Pox is the story of a girl named Jenny Morton, who is born with a supernatural ability that’s both powerful and not very helpful to her. Anyone she touches gets infected with a horrible disease, like the bubonic plague in fast-forward. Her touch is fatal if she touches someone for any length of time. She can’t turn it off or control it at all.
This shapes her whole life. She doesn’t make any friends, and generally avoids people as much as she can, so that she doesn’t hurt anyone. This makes her an outcast at school, and it doesn’t help that she wears gloves all year round (again, to avoid touching people). They call her “Jenny Mittens” and basically think she’s a freak. She’s also very poor even by the standards of the shrinking little rural town where she lives.
She discovers that a boy in town has the opposite power—he can heal people with his touch. Because of this, he’s the only boy in the world who can touch her. Fortunately, Jenny develops a lot of affection for this boy—unfortunately, his girlfriend Ashleigh hates Jenny. Ashleigh is a very popular, manipulative girl, and she has a secret power, too. Her touch makes people feel love. This gives her tremendous power over almost everyone (except Jenny, who she can’t touch because of Jenny’s nasty power), and she plans to destroy Jenny by turning everyone against her in a very extreme way.
Where did you get the inspiration for this story about people with gifts and these special gifts in general from? Was it more of a process or something that just came to you?
I wish every story came this easily. One morning in August 2009, I got the whole story all at once. I hadn’t thought about any of these characters or situations before—but suddenly I knew all about Jenny, her power, how it had shaped her life, the major conflicts and other characters—everything fell into my head in one complete ball. I spent about a month unspooling that ball, writing the first draft. I wrote on my lunch break, I wrote in the evenings until about midnight, I wrote all weekend. I could not stop writing until that first draft was done. I barely slept.
Which character is your favorite? And which one was hardest to write?
It’s hard to pick one favorite out of this group. Jenny’s personality was very strong to me and I felt a deep emotional connection to her. Ashleigh was fun to write—a wicked, scheming villain always is!
My favorite character might be Jenny’s dad, just because he has so many problems himself and he has to raise Jenny alone, despite the fact that he can’t touch her at all. He manages to work out solutions to this difficult problem, and he does a pretty good job raising her given the circumstances.
The hardest character to write may have been Seth, since he was a little more of a mystery to me from the beginning. I had to figure out where he really stood, how much of his personality was his own and how much had been shaped by Ashleigh’s enchantment. I’m pretty happy with how he turned out.
A while ago, I read this article here. While reading your book, I was reminded of it the whole time. Would you think that your book is something that the author of said article would consider as “filthy” and “Soft Porn”?
The author of said article is clearly dying to label things “filthy.” This goes back to the controversy over Speak. I haven’t read that book, but I’m certainly much more likely to do so now it’s been banned in some places. From what I understand, the book portrays a character who suffers being raped. So long as this is an issue that women must think about, it will and should be reflected in literature. The article writer doesn’t understand that literature reflects life, and it is one way we deal with the difficult and painful issues of life. Women, including teenage girls, must deal with the reality of rape, whether the article writer himself wants to think about it or not. If we could remove something from literature and thereby remove it from the real world, then that would be a different story. But that’s not how the world works.
In Jenny Pox, there’s less sex and drugs than in the teen movies I watched as a kid. And those issues are much tamer in Jenny Pox than what I actually saw and experienced in high school. My only interest was trying to deal with them honestly. I don’t know if I could write about adolescence where sex and drugs are not major concerns—that wouldn’t fit my experience at all and would feel like dishonest writing.
Ashleigh treats sex as a way to manipulate, control and confuse people. For Jenny, it’s about opening up to another person, letting down the emotional barricade behind which she has lived all her life. These things occurred organically to the story, and I didn’t make any special effort to put them in or leave them out.
Ultimately, sex is central to life—just ask any plant or animal.
Were you afraid that your book might be banned because of its content?
No, because the book has to be somewhere before it can be banned. Jenny Pox isn’t located in any school library, and I don’t expect it to be. If it were to be banned somewhere, that would be great for me, because more people would probably read the book as a result.
With Ashleigh, your book features a character who is outwardly the perfect conservative Christian, but has a whole different agenda. Is it safe to assume that your book could also be viewed as social criticism?
In the broadest sense, that aspect of the book is about how those who want to do evil find it most effective to wrap themselves in whatever symbols the society around them considers good. Political and religious symbols, as well as key words and phrases related to patriotism and religion, are the best way to short-circuit any rational thought process on the part of your audience. Appeal to their deeper emotions and they’re less likely to question the logic of what you’re saying or ask for evidence.
Ashleigh’s social instincts are basically Machiavellian. She knows what people in her town value and what their views are—and she’s aware of similar things on the national level—and she is great as positioning herself as a moral, upright person that everyone is supposed to like and trust.
I think this applies in a general way to leaders, political or religious, who cleverly use what people already value in order to manipulate them and gain their loyalty.
The story ends (after a huge escalation I might add), leaving a few things unresolved. Is there a chance that we might get another story about Jenny and Seth?
The chance is growing daily. People who read the book generally expect more stories to follow, and I’ve had requests for a sequel. I don’t usually write sequels, but I wouldn’t mind spending some more time in the world of Jenny Pox—as you mention, there’s a lot left to explore. I feel very connected to these characters, and they basically wrote their own story last time, so maybe they’ll do it again for me.
I actually have a pretty strong idea of what will happen in the next story, so that’s a good sign I’m going to write it. I have another book to finish right now, and there are a couple of places I want to travel before starting a sequel to Jenny Pox. I probably won’t really get to work on it until 2011.
Is there something you want your readers to learn from your book or something they should take with them?
The story has a lot to do with the inner experience of conditions like depression and social anxiety. I don’t have a particular message—if you’ve experienced these things, maybe it provides a sympathetic story. If you haven’t, maybe it gives some insight into how much emotional pain people can suffer without anybody else realizing it. And there’s something to do with the importance of love, but I’m not wise enough to try to summarize that in words.
Can you share something about the story that didn´t make it into the book?
Originally, the story opened with Jenny’s birth, which was a horrific bit of story. I later decided to drop that first chapter. It was just too gory and too sad, but also I wanted to tell the book mostly from Jenny’s perspective. With the original opening chapter, the story started from her father’s perspective instead. It later seemed unnecessary to include the scene at all, and you always cut what you can when you’re rewriting.
Jenny Pox is in major parts written from the perspective of a teenage girl. Did you find it hard not only to write from a female POV, but also a teenager’s?
This wasn’t too much of a struggle when writing because I understood and felt Jenny so strongly as an individual. As long as I focused on “Would Jenny do this? Would Jenny say this?” I was fine. I didn’t try to expand the question to “Would a teenage girl say or do this?” because there is no generic teenage girl. Everyone’s an individual.
I did worry about whether the character was going to come across correctly or not, whether I was doing a good enough job rendering her for the readers. So far, I’ve heard from many female readers (include the most important one, my wife!) and they seem to think I did a pretty decent job.
If I’d thought about the difficulty of writing such a character in advance, given my double handicap of being male as well as having been out of high school for more than a decade—I might have found it daunting. Since the story came fully inspired, I fortunately didn’t have to worry over those things until it was time to revise.
I don’t think the story would have worked with a male protagonist. It just seemed to demand a female protagonist and a female villain.
Tell us something about your other projects. One of it is a satire about vampires called Mid-Afternoon: The Overhyped, Ultra-Sexy, Chilling, Frightening, Blood-Curling Tale Regarding the Latter Day Vampires, right? You´re not a big fan of vamps?
Oh, no, I love vampires! Why else would I have read the different vampire books I satirize in that book? And I never miss an episode of True Blood.
Mid-Afternoon started as a parody of Twilight that I posted on Facebook as I wrote it, one chapter at a time, basically to amuse and/or annoy my wife and her friends (many of her friends are huge Twilight fans). The story kept going and swelled to include a lot of the vampire books I grew up reading, like ‘Salem’s Lot and Anne Rice’s book. It ends up looking at the different kinds of vampires out there—from your mouldering old Nosferatu types to those sparkly and relatively harmless Stephanie Meyer vampires. The different vampire types aren’t getting along, and they each have their own ideas about what a vampire should be. It’s largely about how the vampire myth has evolved in popular culture, and how different people react to that.
Would you say that your mood has an influence on your writing and the story in general?
I don’t think so on a day-to-day basis. The mystery writer Lawrence Block once wrote something—and I’m very much paraphrasing, but it’s basically: “There are days when you feel inspired and the writing just flows. There are days when it feels like a struggle to write anything. When I revise, I can’t tell what I wrote on a good day and what I wrote on a bad day. It’s impossible to distinguish.”
That has helped me through every rough patch. It’s true. Your writing skills are where they are after years of reading and writing. Your skills don’t shoot way up because you’re in a good mood, nor do they go away because you’re in a bad mood.
On the other hand, the general tone of my work tends to be dark, softened with humor and moments of sweetness. That is the general tone of how I’ve experienced life. There are all these horrific things going on—wars and poverty and just crushing problems—but humor is the best tool for coping with that. And there are moments in life that are painfully sweet and sometimes make the rest of the suffering seem worthwhile.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Music, books, TV shows or real life?
Everywhere. I would say that the emotional cores of characters tend to come from real life, either from feelings I’ve had or how I’ve seen other people act. Music is critical to my writing process. By the time I’ve finished a book, it’s evolved a soundtrack in my mind. For Jenny Pox, there was a lot of old country, like Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, since she the old records are her main inheritance from her mom. I also listened to some harder and darker music while writing the story, a lot of White Zombie and Nine Inch Nails.
How does your typical writing day look like? Do you have a special routine?
I work a day job, so my writing day starts on my lunch break. I normally hand-write a few pages at lunch. When I get home, I start by transcribing those pages and then adding more. The transcription process is also a revision process. I hate using laptops so I don’t have one of those. I may break down and buy an iPad, though, to help support my writing-at-the-coffee-shop habit.
You´ve studied English literature at the University of Georgia and at Oxford, with a focus on English Renaissance and Romantic literature, and screenwriting at UCLA. Wow. Is that something that actually helps you while writing, or would you say that you could have written your books without it?
I don’t think my books would be at all the same without those experiences. I had some great teachers, both at UGA and Oxford, who helped me to understand literature at a deeper level than I would have discovered on my own, or at least it would have taken many more years of personal study.
The UCLA experience was critical for my writing. Previously, I’d studied under English professors. It’s an entirely different animal to study writing under screenwriters who have made their living for years by writing stories. They know exactly the kinds of things you struggle with, and they have so many insights into the actual craft of writing and how to solve problems, and how to get the most use out of what you have. My workshop teacher, Debra Baron, was full of great insights. I’d already been writing for many years by then, so my brain was prepared to soak up all that craft-related knowledge and put it to immediate use.
A question that I am always curious about (but could be kind of personal) is: are your characters based on people you really know or maybe even a little bit about yourself or are they all purely fictional? Did some of your own High School experiences make into the book?
I think most characters are a patchwork of yourself and other people. Jenny has a lot of the same emotional makeup I did as an adolescent, the sense of loneliness and isolation and not really finding anybody that you connect with. There are any number of people in the world like Ashleigh, who are self-righteous and moralizing in public but won’t hesitate to hurt people who get in their way.
No character in the book is based on a specific person in real life. I wouldn’t even know how to do that except in the case of minor characters, and I wouldn’t really want to, because a character needs plenty of room to be himself or herself. I wouldn’t want to trap them inside my impression of another person.
Some of my high school experiences did make it into the book, although in a way that’s completely changed to fit into the story.
Did you ever have a writer´s block? If so, what did you do to deal with it?
I never run out of things to write. I do sometimes hit “slowdowns” where I’m trying to work something out, consciously or subconsciously, and only turning out a page or two a day. This ends with a renewed burst of writing when I sort out the problem. I typically write every day. I think writer’s block is mostly a problem of not feeling like writing on a particular day.
Tell us something about your favourites:
Hard question! I think Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde are some of my favourite writers of the English language. In horror, I grew up with Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, that generation of writers. Scott Nicholson is one of my favorite writers, not just because of his great Appalachian horror stories but because he’s done a lot to help and advise me.
favourite paranormal creature?
This is hard, too—but I’m going with werewolf. I’ve just always liked them a lot.
favourite all time hero/heroine?
Odysseus, the original trickster.
favourite all time villain?
Baron Harkonnen from Dune. Now that is a villain!
Which one do you prefer, book or e-reader?
E-reader. They don’t use up so many trees, and they’re addictively convenient. I’m kind of a book grazer these days, so it’s nice to have plenty of books with you wherever you go.
My wife and I taking the dogs to the park. You never regret spending an afternoon there.
Did you ever have a major computer catastrophe/problem during writing? And how many back-up copies do you usually have?
Yes, I have! I nearly lost a whole year’s worth of writing once. Now I back everything up on flash drive, CD, and a few other places.
Was being an author something you´ve always wanted or did it just happen?
I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I’ve been writing stories since I was 6 or 7 years old, and as soon as I realized people did that for a living, my mind was made up.
A question that is inspired by another interview I did with an author: If you would be Superman, what would be your Kryptonite?
Television! It drains so much time if you let it. Even educational TV is mostly a waste of time, since you spend an hour learning what you could have learned in five minutes of reading.
I’m currently reading 33 A.D by David McAfee (a vampire book!) and Drummer Boy by Scott Nicholson.
And finally: Is there anything you want to say to your/my readers?
I’d like to thank your readers for taking the time to read this interview. They should also know they can read several chapters of Jenny Pox for free by downloading the sample from Smashwords (located here). If they have any questions for me, they can post it in your comments section and I’ll come back around to answer them.
Thanks so much for having me visit, Christine! I’ve enjoyed my time here on the Dark Side.
Thank you for taking the time to stop and answer all my questions! It´s been a great pleasure and honor! I´d be happy if you would stop by again anytime soon!
And now… the giveaway! Jeff has generously offered to provide one free ebook copy of anyone of you guys! That´s right, open INTERNATIONAL! The giveaway will be open for exactly one week until October 6th. All double entries will be deleted!
All you have to do is fill out the form below and leave a comment or question about anything in this interview!