Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Jen Conley on Writing YA Fiction

Scott's Note: Jen Conley, author of the superb story collection Cannibals, has a new book out.  It's a YA novel, and her first YA book of any kind.  But wait.  Young Adult?  From an author who, up till now, has produced a body of emotionally dark, quite unsparing adult crime fiction? What's going on?  I asked Jen if she'd like to talk about what prompted her to write YA, and she said she would.

Let's see what she has to say:

Seriously, What Am I Doing In YA? 

My novel, SEVEN WAYS TO GET RID OF HARRY, is about 13-year-old Danny Zelko who comes up with seven ways to get rid of his mom’s cruel boyfriend. The book is considered YA, meaning Young Adult, a book for older kids and teens. I consider myself an adult writer because pretty much everything I’ve published so far has been for adults. So what am I doing in YA?
I have no idea.
It just seemed like a good idea at the time when I came up with it.

The origins of this book go back a few years. “Seven Ways To Get Rid Of Harry” was the title of a short story I’d written for Thomas Pluck’s anthology, Protectors. It was for adults, not kids. This gave me the free reign to be psychologically brutal because the story is about psychological abuse, and some physical abuse too. Harry is the boyfriend of Danny’s mom and he’s not just cruel, he leans towards the sociopathic--which can be pretty terrifying. When I finished writing the short story, I was proud of it and proud to have it published in Tom Pluck’s anthology. Then I moved on to write more stuff.

But that kid, Danny Zelko--hyperactive, punky, mouthy, tough, annoying, lover of Pink Floyd--kept hanging around my brain like a pine fly. (If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting a relentless, annoying, painful NJ pine fly, please, take a trip to the Pine Barrens. Enjoy.) The boy wouldn’t go away. Sort of like some of my students.

Students: “Hey Ms. Conley. Whatcha doing?”
Me: “This is my break! I’m off the clock! Go away. Find a friend!”
Students: (cackling) “Someone’s having a bad day.”

So why does one write a YA novel when they’ve always written for adults?

That’s easy. I’m a teacher. I’m around middle school kids all day, particularly 12 and 13-year olds. I know what they’re like, right down to their isms and language and most of all, what they’re afraid of: the vice principal’s office, being ostracized or embarrassed by their peers, losing their parents, nuclear war and, more recently, school shootings. But I also know what they love: snow days, their cell phones, candy and gum, friends, dogs and cats, some of their teachers, and humor. Because I’m around them all day long, eventually a character like annoying and knuckleheaded-at-times Danny Zelko would set up shop in my head. 

In the beginning, many writers try out different genres but eventually declare a favorite in a timely manner. Not me. I had to wander around many genres and make writing more difficult for myself. Writers are marketable when they stick to one ballpark area. Readers expect it. And although I lean towards crime, I like other things too. I like Nick Hornby. (I’d like to be a darker Nick Hornby.) I grew up loving Judy Blume and there was a time I was going to write Judy Blume-esq books. I adore the horror novels Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and I spent a little time trying to write horror. Yet my favorite storyline leans towards the working class American who doesn’t have the money to make the choices that would change their lives for the better. So they go for broke, take that risk, plan a crime or fall into one, and the ending is usually bleak. A Springsteen song basically. But Young Adult doesn’t really fit with the hopeless world of a classic Springsteen song. 

Or does it? I never wanted to write YA because I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a Young Adult writer (and I still don’t) which is why I dodged Danny Zelko for a few years. In addition, how could I turn a sad, broken adult story into something hopeful and funny for kids? And why risk it? Risk being known as a YA writer when you really want to write for adults too?

I don’t know. I’m not really good at the business end of writing no matter how hard I try. I mean, I get the business end but it’s so, well, frustrating. Like buying a new car you don’t have the money for. All I can say is when a character stomps around your head day and night, you go for it. And I liked this kid. He’s mouthy, punky, and a pain, but he’s also very self-sufficient and deep down, kind. Still, he’s in a bad situation. He misses his dead dad, and worst of all, he knows he’ll spend the next few years enduring and fighting Harry’s sociopathic harassment until it turns physical. Because it will. It always does. I have empathy for Danny, like I have empathy for all my students in tough family situations. For the kids right now who live Danny’s life, and for the adults who once lived with a Harry.

When you write YA, you should leave the novel on a hopeful note. You don’t have to, but you should. Kids are too young for bleak endings, or at least I think so. Danny has hope that he can outmaneuver his situation because, well, he’s thirteen, still full of hope. In addition, he’s also an underdog and a survivor, which I think is very important for the genre of crime fiction. The best crime fiction stories are about underdogs and survivors. Maybe that’s why I’m in YA with this book—I’m mixing the hard knocks of crime fiction and the optimism of a good Judy Blume book. Maybe I’m trying to capture that moment before it all goes to pot for Danny. Because I know Danny’s life is going to be one of hard work, little money, broken hearts, broken dreams.
Or will it? He’s got a lot of spit and grit.
I have hope that he’ll break out of a grind and do something great. Or justified. Or drastic.

I think I’d even like Danny in my class. Sure, I’d be pulling him out in the hall and giving him a talking to every other week, and maybe send him to the vice principal when he hit my last nerve. He’d hate me at times but I think eventually, like all my Danny Zelkos, we’d arrive at a truce. He may even ask me to sign his yearbook. 

That'd be in June, though, when our time together has come to an end.

You can find Seven Ways to Get Rid of Harry right here:


Jim Wilsky said...

Enjoyed reading this Jen but then I enjoy reading whatever you write and have for a long time. You just sold another copy of your new book, even though I'm far from a young adult, ha.

Jen Conley said...

Thank you, Jim. I hope you enjoy my book and get a kick out of Danny Zelko.