Tuesday, July 01, 2014

New Voice: Jennifer Mathieu on The Truth About Alice

By Emma Kate Tsai 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Jennifer Mathieu is the first-time author of The Truth About Alice (Roaring Brook, 2014). From the promotional copy: 

Everyone knows Alice slept with two guys at one party. When Healy High star quarterback, Brandon Fitzsimmons, dies in a car crash, it was because he was sexting with Alice. Ask anybody.

Rumor has it Alice Franklin is a slut. It’s written all over the “slut stall” in the girls’ bathroom: “Alice had sex in exchange for math test answers” and “Alice got an abortion last semester.” 

After Brandon dies, the rumors start to spiral out of control. 

In this remarkable debut novel, four Healy High students tell all they “know” about Alice–and in doing so reveal their own secrets and motivations, painting a raw look at the realities of teen life. 

But exactly what is the truth about Alice? In the end there’s only one person to ask: Alice herself.

How did you get into writing?

I was a journalism major initially. Actually, I have no formal writing training in terms of an MFA or even an English degree, but I’ve been a writer my entire life, ever since I can remember—working on my school paper and entering little writing competitions in school.

By RDSmith4
Sometimes I think I probably should have been an English major. But I always thought in my mind: “What does an English major do?” “What kind of job would an English major have?”

It seems silly now, but in the early nineties when newspapers weren’t dying yet, I could write and still make a living, so that’s why I majored in journalism.

I went to Northwestern University and got my B.S., and I did work as a newspaper reporter for several years for the Houston Press. And I actually dabbled in personal essay. I had a few pieces published here and there and I even tried to pitch a book of essays but didn’t really get very far. Then, in 2005, I decided to become a teacher. I got certified by HISD and ended up getting a master’s in education.

How did you decide to write young adult literature?

After I started teaching middle school English, I realized that there was this new world of young adult literature. As a kid I’d read everything I could get my hands on, constantly: Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, and all the eighties teen classics, but I didn’t realize there was this sort of renaissance in young adult literature that was happening.

And of course I taught middle school, so my students wanted to know what was good. I went to the International Reading Association, a big conference for English teachers who focus on reading, and they had this huge room where publishers gave away ARCs and I was like a kid in a candy store.

I shipped home a box of these young adult novels and I started reading them, and I just thought to myself, that young adult literature had become so authentic. It was telling real stories about real kids, and different kinds of kids. Something told me I might be able to do this.

How did you get your first agent?

I ended up writing a manuscript that I took to completion, and after that I went to a teen book conference in Humble where I met a woman named Sonia Sones, who writes YA books in verse: What My Mother Doesn’t Know, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, which is just one of my all-time favorite titles.

I hired her to critique my first young adult manuscript. I asked her, “Please just tell me if you think that if I have like any chance. I trust you. What do you think?”

She said, “You have a voice, you should do this. It’s a tough market, it’s a difficult market, but I think you have a chance.”

I didn’t know what a query letter was, I didn’t how people got agents, that was all foreign to me, but thank God for the internet, and I did a Google search.

I remember going to Barnes and Noble and getting a book of literary agents and trying to figure out how this all worked, and that’s how I found Nathan Bransford, who eventually became my first agent. On my bedroom wall, I have my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree and my letter from Nathan Bransford offering me representation. He never sold the first two books I wrote, but they got me an agent.

How did you get the idea for The Truth About Alice?

I ended up changing agents, and even though my new agent loved the two books I’d written, it was Alice that she sold. When I signed on with her, it was just an idea. But I wrote it, she sent me notes, I revised it.

When I was in high school, I read "Seventeen" magazine. It was 1992, and there was this article about this girl who went to school in Minnesota and she’d been the subject of these horrible, disgusting, sexual things written about her on a bathroom stall. She ended up suing the school under Title IX because the school didn’t clean the stall. Her parents came and tried to help her clean on a weekend and I remember thinking about how humiliated she must have felt. To have her parents have to see that.

That stayed with me and ended up being the seed that started the book. God, what a nightmare for that girl. And I’ve always loved stories that are told from multiple points of view like The Spoon River Anthology.

I remember thinking this might be the one that sells. I was right. It eventually went to auction and four houses bid on it at the same time. I ended up choosing Roaring Brook Press because they showed interest first, they had changes to make that made sense me, and they made a little YouTube video that showed how enthusiastic they were.

What was different about The Truth About Alice?

It was so much fun to write. The characters felt so alive to me in my head. I would see students at my high school where I teach and think that’s Kurt, or that’s Kelsey. They just seemed like real people to me.

Also, the story had some scandal in it, some bite to it, which I think always helps sell a book.

It’s about a girl who allegedly sleeps with two boys at a party, and all these rumors develop, and it’s set in a small Texas town. It was pitched as "Friday Night Lights" meets "Easy A."

Why do you think you can write young adult literature?

I remember high school really, really well. I personally did not like high school very much. I don’t know if that’s why I ended up teaching it and writing about it. But I just remember what it was like to be a teenager, and how painful it was in a lot of ways for me.

One of my eleventh graders read an ARC of it and she came up to me and said that it was the most realistic teenager voice she’d ever read. I think I get teenagers. I think that’s why people seem to like the voice, especially of Alice. It’s like the gloves are off.

Do you have any tips for writing for teenagers?

One thing I do and I think I do well is I try not to use slang or dated language. I don’t reference Facebook or any of that. Because, really, in this book they write graffiti about a girl ion a stall. That’s in a sense somewhat 1950s, but it hasn’t turned off the teenagers I know that have read it because there’s something timeless about being a teenager and feeling ostracized. I think focusing on those timeless elements of being young are how you stay authentic, as opposed to trying to sound young in the voice or the dialogue. You don’t want to be that older person that’s trying to sound young.

What teenagers are is brutally honest, not always out loud, just in that intensity in everything that they think and feel. I try to tap into that.

Everything is such a big deal, everything is capitalized when you’re a teenager. This one character in this book, her name is Kelsey, is very concerned about what other people think of her and she eventually drops Alice as a friend out of fear of being ostracized along with her.

There’s this moment where she says,

“You know how like when you’re learning about Nazi Germany and how everyone is always I wouldn’t have been a Nazi. Well, I would have been a Nazi. I would have been a passive sort of a Nazi, but I still would have been a Nazi. Because everyone says they would have saved Anne Frank, but clearly not that many people did.” 

She has that awareness. Teenagers are not dumb and they see hypocrisy very clearly. Even when they themselves are doing it, when they’re the ones being hypocrites.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2014, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

As I reflect back, I don’t know if I’m surprised to debut in 2014 or just flat out grateful.

More on Jennifer Mathieu
I received the call from my agent that my book had sold – actually, that it was going to auction! – while on a beach vacation with my family. This may sound a bit fantastical, but shortly before the vacation, I’d started “imagining” what it would be like to receive such news while at the beach.

I actually created a vision in my mind of answering the phone from my agent and hearing her say, “Alice sold.”

I’m actually a really rational, logical person (for a writer, anyway!), and I had no logic to base this thinking on – the book went out at the end of the spring and we hadn’t heard anything yet.

Plus, "The Truth About Alice" was my third manuscript to go on submission – my first two had come very, very close but had never sold. But something in me knew on some weird gut level that this one was going to be different.

I even remember thinking, “Third time is a charm.” But nothing my agent or anyone else said or did gave me any actual facts to think it was going to sell at this time. It was just a feeling. And it came true just as I’d pictured it!

Jennifer & Kate Sowa, Blue Willow Bookshop
I’ve been a writer since childhood, but I started writing young adult fiction in 2007 or so, shortly after I became a teacher. It was a two-year process to write my first novel and find an agent.

Then, as I mentioned, my novel didn’t sell – although I got a lot of wonderful positive feedback. I wrote another book. That one didn’t sell either.

Again, more positive feedback that always ended in, “but...”

Then my original agent left agenting, and I was moved to someone else in the same agency who is still my agent today (the wonderful Sarah LaPolla). I started thinking about trying to write a third book – I had this idea for The Truth About Alice swimming around in my mind.

I remember having long talks with my husband about whether or not I should continue, and it always came down to this: I still loved writing.

I remember saying to him, “The day I no longer love writing, I’ll give up trying to sell a book.”

And I still loved it! Of course I did. I’d been doing it since I was young. So I kept doing it.

 I wrote The Truth About Alice over the period of about two years and then it sold.

Lucha tries to stop Jennifer from packing.
I’ve said more than once that I’m very glad this book came out when it did. I’m 37, and I have an established career as a teacher, a profession I really love.

I have a wonderful husband and son and a rich family life and lots of good friends. I feel like I’m in a place to truly appreciate this success and remain humbled by it.

It’s not that I don’t consider myself ambitious or that I don’t want to continue to do my best as a writer. I do.

 But it took seven years to get from the time I started writing young adult fiction to the time I held the copy of my first published book in my hand.

The wait was worth it and I think the wait helps me keep it all in perspective. This is all a dream come true, and I’m grateful for it. This is all icing on a really delicious cake.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Well, I can’t get too precious or navel-gazing about my writing. I can’t wait for the moment to strike.

In addition to teaching full-time, I also have a husband and young preschooler. When I’m on deadline, I write every day. I work, pick up my son, spend time with him and then with my husband when he gets home, and after my son is asleep my husband and I take a few minutes to just talk about our days. This is very helpful and rejuvenating.

Then it’s off to the dining room table to write! Again, because I have one to two hours a day at most to really work on my writing, I just have to do it. Some nights I write junk, but that’s okay. I still wrote something.

senior year
I actually write more now than I did before I was a mother. Limited time helps me prioritize what I really want to do, and I really want to write!

When I’m not on deadline, I might not write each day, but I’m always doing something related to my writing career each day – even if it’s just reading a book on my To Read List or connecting with other authors on social media and keeping up with the news. (Although I try not to get too obsessed with all that. I’m a big believer in not getting wrapped up in industry trends or gossip.)

My advice to others who want to write but who also have full-time jobs is to try and create a routine. Something else that helps me is establishing little writing “goals” like writing 500 words on a particular day (or 1,000 words if I have more time).

However, I’m a big believer in finding what works for you. Some people don’t do well with the pressure of a number of words. Some would rather say, “I’ll write for 30 minutes,” or “I’ll write on Tuesdays and Fridays.” It’s almost like exercise – even if you don’t have a ton of free time due to other work commitments, creating little mini goals like that can really keep you motivated.

Another piece of advice is to find a friend or friends with whom you can share your work – maybe a critique partner or group. I’m very fortunate because I have a dear friend who is also a teacher and a young adult lit fan. She doesn’t write herself, but she loves to talk with me about my writing and projects, and she is a terrific sounding board. She has been reading my work since I started all those years ago.

Finding someone you can talk to about your projects can really motivate you and inspire you to keep going! I often feel very energized when talking to my friend about my projects, and after we talk I’m ready to jump back on the keyboard!

3 comments:

Laura Gokey said...

I LOVED this book!! I'm also a teacher who writes YA and I'm hoping to get an agent soon. I love how down to earth Jennifer is and I look forward to reading more of her work!!

Robin said...

Thank you for introducing me to Jennifer. I esp. appreciated her frankness on her journey to publication and that she said writers all write different ways. Sometimes it feels like I have to write every day to be a "real" writer. It's a good reminder that while that's ideal, what I do is no less real. I'm reading this book, for sure. Thank you!

Kirk Apolo said...

This book was powerful. With multiple and ever changing POVs, it allowed the story to take a multi-dimensional spin that made us look from different angles. Because of the great writing, it was easy to follow the story while the characters stayed in their perfect personalities.

This story was about cliches. About high school and it's drama and how something small could turn around and blow out of proportion. The rumors could ruin someones life and The Truth About Alive really showed that.

I could not say anything more that wouldn't be as good as the other reviewers said about this book but I did really really love it. It made me sad, made me happy, and made me angry. Alice was definitely very likable and not reading from her POV made the story just that much stronger.
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