Jennifer Brown is a debut author who took some chances with her first book, tackling the tough subject of the aftermath of a school shooting from a unique perspective. Hailed officially as a hero by the school but hated by most of her classmates, Valerie is forced to come to grips with her unexpected role in a school shooting several months prior as she finishes her senior year. Jennifer Brown agreed to answer some questions about her inspiration for the story and the character’s relationships.
1. First, congratulations on the recognition you’ve received with Hate List. You were nominated for YALSA’s Top Ten List and you won the Thumbs Up! Award for the Michigan Library Association. Have you been surprised at the reception it’s been getting, especially since this is your first novel? Has the reception overseas been similar to what you’ve experienced in the U.S.?
Thank you for the congratulations! I have been very humbled by the reception that HATE LIST has gotten. It’s wonderful enough to get published and know that there’s at least one person (your editor) who thinks the book is worthwhile. To have librarians and reviewers and especially teen readers agree…it’s just the best feeling ever. So, surprised? Sure! And totally excited!
As for the reception the book has received overseas…I spent a wonderful 8 days in October touring Germany with my German publisher, dtv. We talked to schools in four cities (about 1,000 teens!), and spoke at The Frankfurt Book Fair, which was the craziest, most amazing book event I’ve ever been to. The reception was so wonderful. My publisher is very excited about the book, and the teens really seemed interested as well. I’ve gotten a couple of emails from German teens, and it always thrills me to no end to think about someone so far away connecting with my characters.
2. The book begins with Valerie returning to school for her senior year, and we later learn through flashbacks the details of the school shooting that her boyfriend instigated at the end of her junior year. Were you ever tempted to begin the story before or during the shooting? What inspired you to initially tell the story of what happened through the newspaper articles that begin the chapters?
For me, the story was never about the shooting. It was always about how Valerie (and, really, how everyone else) faced life afterward. The real story, to me, was about What Happened Next. So, no, I never wanted to start the story before the shooting. But I recognized a need to see and feel the horror that Valerie and Jessica saw and felt that day, so we could better understand what they were thinking when they came back to school afterward, so I needed to show some of the shooting as well. The best way that I could do that while not making the book about the day of the shooting, was through flashback.
Because the story is written in first person point of view from Valerie’s perspective, everything we know about the people in that school and what happened that day (as well as before and after), are coming to us through Valerie’s filter. I wanted to get a more objective view of the students who were killed, so I used the newspaper articles to help us get that more objective view.
3. What made you want to write this book, and how long did it take you from start to finish? Were there any trouble spots along the way, and how did you overcome them? Did some scene or character in the original draft not make the final printed book?
I actually got a song stuck in my head while I was sleeping one night. It was Nickelback’s “If Everyone Cared” (this is why that song is quoted at the beginning of the book, by the way), and really, it was just the “Amen, I…I’m alive…” part of the song that kept replaying in my head that night. If you listen to that song, really it’s a story in and of itself. And you can sort of envision someone or several someones sitting out pondering the vastness of the universe and how small and petty our anger and hurt and so forth are in comparison. Anyway, when I woke up the next morning, I had Valerie in my head. I could see her and hear her, and I just knew her story. I wanted to write Valerie’s story because it felt important to me. It felt like she had some important things to say.
At the time that I was writing HATE LIST, I still had a preschooler at home. So I was only writing part time, and was getting up very early in the morning to do it. So it’s kind of a blurred timeline for me, but I would say it took me about 6 months to write the rough draft. But it took well over a year for revisions and so forth, so from the morning that I woke up with Valerie in my head until the day her story was on a bookstore shelf was probably close to two years.
I actually didn’t have any trouble spots with HATE LIST, which is kind of amazing, because I think there’s almost always a point that I reach about halfway through any long project where I’m bored and don’t really want to work on it anymore. But I didn’t really have that with HATE LIST. And revisions went really smoothly. My editor was very good, and I trusted him, and we worked well together.
There were a couple of scenes and one character who didn’t make it into the final draft, mainly because those scenes began to compete with the main storyline. The character who got cut was a baby–Valerie’s dad and Briley’s baby.
4. I see on your blog that you have a teenager. Were any of the characters inspired by your children, their friends, or events that had happened in their lives?
I thank God every day that, no, we have not lived through any nightmare such as this. And, no, I can’t say that even the bullying scenes or any of the troubled scenes that the characters have gone through were in any way inspired by my kids. Perhaps, however, I could make an argument that the fact that school shootings exist and my children go to school in some ways inspired the novel as a whole. The idea that something like that could happen in any school — including their school — really frightens me.
5. Valerie not only has a complicated school life, but she doesn’t get unconditional support at home either. I’m awestruck by the emotions that you write about, and I keep telling people there’s not a cliche character in the whole book. What sort of research did you do, if any, to capture the complicated emotions that everyone exhibits in the novel? Did you talk to survivors of school shootings or grief counselors?
Fortunately, I’m married to a psychologist. In fact, Dr. Hieler, Valerie’s therapist, is based on my husband. He helped me to a great extent when it came to understanding Valerie’s grief process. He even helped write some of the therapy dialogue. But I also used personal experience to fill out the characters’ emotions. I was bullied in school, and I understand that feeling of embarrassment and loneliness and, at times, hatred. I also tended to fall for “rougher” kind of guys back then, and so I can understand how it’s possible to love and see light in someone that everyone else just thinks is a “total loser.” And my parents divorced during this same tough time period, so I also understand what it’s like to go through that. Some of those emotions really never go away. They may hide for a number of years, but it doesn’t take too much to tease them back out in the open.
6. How much input did you have on the cover design and the book trailer, both of which can be seen on your website?
I actually didn’t really give much input at all when it came to the cover design, mostly because I really loved it right away. I thought it was visually arresting and I really couldn’t think of any other book out there with a similar design. What I loved most about it, though, was that it set the tone for the book right away. Because I also write humor, I was afraid that some of my readers might assume that any book that I’d written would be funny, and pick up HATE LIST expecting humor. But there really is no way you could pick up that book…with that cover…and think it’s going to be humorous.
As for the trailer, I actually hired a company to make it, and had lots of input into how it was designed. I chose several of the photos and asked for melancholy music, etc. I really love how the trailer came out. It’s haunting and I think fits the tone of the book well.
7. I see you have a second book coming out this summer titled Bitter End. Would you mind telling us a little bit about it? Will there be a book trailer for your next book? Is there a reason you’re writing books about troubled relationships (first Valerie and Nick, and now Alex and Cole), and do you think you’re next book will continue this trend?
BITTER END is about a girl who falls in love with the new boy at school. He’s perfect in almost every way–romantic, talented, good-looking, and really into her. But she finds out that he also has a very dangerous side, and she needs to make a tough decision–is she too far in to get out?
I’ve been thinking about the trailer for this one, and I’m guessing that, yes, there will be one.
I think the reason that I tend to gravitate toward stories about troubled relationships is because that is a subject that is so very relatable to so many people. Relationships are difficult, and we all seem to fail or fall short with someone at some time in our lives. I also think that where there is strife–confusion, pain, grief–there is learning…about ourselves…about the human experience…about change. So, yes, I think that my next book will probably at least include a struggling relationship, but not necessarily a struggling romantic relationship. Because there are so many relationships we all forge in our lifetimes (mother/daughter, brother/sister, boyfriend/girlfriend, friendships, etc.) and none of them are easy.
8. I also see on your blog that you participated in NaNoWriMo, an annual challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Was this your first year participating, and were you successful in completing your NaNo? What are your thoughts about this challenge and do you have any tips for anyone interested in next year’s challenge?
This was my first year officially competing, yes. I’ve tried it several times in the past, but had never made the official commitment to do so. And I had a theory that was why I’d never completed it before. I thought maybe if I made it official, I would feel the pressure to finish. So this year I made it official, and probably what really made me finish was that I got into a group of local moms who were also trying it out. As I saw them complete the goal, it really made me want to complete it.
I barely did, by the way. I had some travel in November, and then there was Thanksgiving, and I had tons of great excuses why I couldn’t write. I ended up needing 16,000 words the last three days of the challenge. But I did it, writing more than 8,000 words in one day alone!
My tip to writers who plan to do it next year? Um, don’t save the last 16,000 words for the final three days.
9. Can you give some recommendations for teens who are looking to read more books like yours?
13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers
Story of a Girl, by Sara Zarr
Jumped, by Rita Williams-Garcia
Also, some of my favorites:
Crash into Me, by Albert Borris
Sorta Like a Rockstar, by Matthew Quick
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
10. If you could have dinner with three authors, living or dead, who would they be and why?
John Green, because he is intelligent and funny and I stalk him anyway.
Ernest Hemingway, because he amazes me.
Maya Angelou, just to hear her speak in that beautiful, poetic, measured voice of hers.