On Sunday, Sept 14 at 3pm, we’ll be hosting Jennifer Longo, local author of Six Feet Over It. We asked Jennifer some questions to prepare for her visit. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to get to know her!
Island Books: Why did you decide to write a novel for teens? And more specifically, where did you come up with the idea to put your female protagonist in a graveyard?
Jennifer: That’s a really great question – I actually never decided to write a book for teens! I wrote this book as straight up literary fiction for adults, with the protagonist at thirteen years old. My agent thought aging her up and bit and pitching the book as YA would give it a better chance with editors. The only problem was, I hadn’t read any YA books since I was a young adult myself and was completely unfamiliar with the current trend. I’d read Judy Blume and Lois Lowery and Katherine Patterson, and that was about it. Thirty years ago. So my agent sent me a bunch of her client E Lockhart’s books, and pointed me toward other current YA authors to bone up on how these books worked. Revising the book to fit some of the conventions of the YA market was the hardest part of the whole process. I still don’t get it! But I hope I came close - readers and reviewers are responding about how it is different from most YA they read, so that tells most of the heart of the original story was retained. And young readers are loving the story, which tells me YA aren’t all necessarily totally plot motivated readers, they seem to love a good internal struggle, as long as it’s compelling. The idea to put the MC in a graveyard came from the main struggle I wanted to put her in, which is one abut learning to accept help and let herself mourn, and allowing death to have a place in her life without taking over – my own experiences growing up around the graveyard my family owned lent themselves perfectly to the story, and added some rich detail I’d been writing about for nearly thirty years already, so – done and done!
Island Books: How did your background in acting and screenwriting influence your writing style and process?
Jennifer: I did go to graduate school for playwriting and acting – I’m horrible at screenwriting, actually! Acting in and writing plays is hugely influential in how I write prose, particularly in how I write dialogue, how I structure the story, and how I create the character relationships. Plays are nearly all dialogue. Very little action may happen in a play; people playing characters can sit around in a living room for three hours and two intermissions, but the dialogue takes the audience through an entire story – amazing. The results are gorgeous. Writers should all be so lucky to have Albee’s instinct and ear for authentic language. I, on the other hand, must revise and revise and revise and revise….
Island Books: How did you come up with the title?
Jennifer: I did not come up with the title Six Feet Over It. My wonderful Editor at Random House, Chelsea Eberly did. The original title, of the play version of the story and the current novel, was At Need. Random House felt no one would know what that meant, and that it didn’t convey the humor of the story, so luckily Chelsea came up with this one.
Island Books: Your main character, Leigh, is only sixteen and basically takes on most of the responsibility of managing the graveyard her father bought. She’s a bit of a Cinderella, doing all the dirty work for parents who are selfish and infuriating. Her life is pretty terrible, actually, considering her sister has been fighting leukemia and her best friend died. Was it difficult to write from her perspective without making her a martyr? You accomplished that so well.
Jennifer: Thank you so much! That was something my agent, editor and I were constantly monitoring, we had a sort of “Martyr Check!” system – whenever Leigh was starting to whine too much, or get too down in the dark ‘Woe Is Me’ place, someone would make a note, and we’d examine how to pull her out into the light. Or at least find a way for her to take herself a little less seriously, measure her existence against someone else’s, or, my favorite way, have her look the ridiculousness of her situation square in the face and call it out. So much of what she’s living through is Just. So. Dumb! Seeing that is how I got through many situations as a kid myself, actually. I’d be sitting in the midst of some totally stupid moment created by my parents or whomever, I’d be so sad about it, feeling so sorry for myself, and then I’d cling to one thing – how incredibly lame it all was. How when I got home I would write it all down and then later I’d be relating what happened to a friend, and that person would invariably laugh at what I was telling them. Eventually I stopped being hurt that people were laughing at my misery and I realized they were right – most of the crap I was whining about was not misery, it was just incredibly insane! Like, I’d be at lunch in high school with my friends saying “My mom got my dad a stripper for his birthday and my boyfriend was there and we’re eating chips and salsa while three feet away some community college student is grinding on my dad’s lap to Little Red Corvette and I hate them so much!” and I’d be near tears, or in tears….and suddenly I’m in a comedy routing, people were laughing and it occurred to me that things could be much worse. There is, in fact, a ton of humor – dark and otherwise – to be mined from my life. So Leigh’s pushing herself away from self pity was kind of a reflection of my own efforts to do the same, I think. I’m taking a memoir class at Hugo House in Seattle this Fall…We’ll see what hilarity that dredges up!
Island Books: Why did you decide to play out Leigh’s relationship with Dario the way you did? Did you always plan for it to develop that way or had you set out to write their relationship differently?
Jennifer: Oooh my favorite question! One of the only things I knew for certain about this book before I wrote a single word was that it would, under no circumstances whatsoever, contain any romance at all. This was the second hardest part about converting the story from adult to Young Adult. Originally Leigh (the MC) was thirteen years old, so it was much easier to keep any romance out. But when they aged her up to fifteen, I got all kinds of pressure form every editor we shopped the book to. My agent (Melissa Sarver-White at Folio Literary) knew how much it meant to me to keep romance out, and she stuck to my guns just as ferociously as I did. I love her so much for that! And I would like to say first that I am very aware I’m a brand new novelist, I am no Hemingway, I am not speaking to an evaluation of the writing in YA when I say what I’m about to say at all, I’m speaking strictly to the plotlines. Okay. So, there are two main reasons for the Dario/Leigh relationship unfolding the way it does; First and foremost, this is a story largely about this young girl’s relationship with Death. Death - this character, for the narrative clarity of this story, sexual maturation (which normally would be part of the MC’s teenaged experience) has been pushed aside by other, more pressing matters and can’t be explored right then – which sucks for her. It is a problem, and part of the conflict. Part of the narrative. The second reason I knew romance had no place in any book I was interested in writing, was that if it was going to be marketed as YA, I am personally annoyed that nearly every singly YA book aimed at girls has the MC either yearning for, obsessing over or just actively engaged in finding, securing, mourning the loss of or just generally dealing with getting a boyfriend. Why attracting boys and seeking their approval must be such an intense focus for young women’s stories is beyond me. That’s the (hetero) narrative young girls are fed by every book focusing on this theme – that a boy in the center of one’s existence is the norm, if every single book girls read is telling her that if she doesn’t have a boy in her life causing either trouble or joy, there’s something not normal about her? That is not right. And, by the way, it isn’t realistic or true! There are girls who are late bloomers, boys too, or who just don’t give a crap! They might have other things to think about, like themselves, and what they want in life or the struggles they are enduing or helping someone else through. I wanted to offer something different to readers. A story about something other than lipstick by the lockers and all-consuming crushes. That said – I know there are many great YA books about for young girls about other things besides chasing boys, thank goodness. E. Lockharts’ We Were Liars is a book that demonstrates how romance can be part of a story and not be the entire focus, it’s the latest YA I’ve read and it is amazing. Also, Seattle author Karen Finneyfrock’s Starbird Murphy and The World Outside does this exceptionally well; two books I can’t wait to give my own (almost) teenaged daughter.
Island Books: What are your three favorite books and why?
Jennifer: Wild by Cheryl Strayed – My favorite book genre is memoir, this story of a woman who is lost and who pulls herself out of her self pity and forces herself to become a force of nature – it is the most wonderful book I’ve read in years. Beautiful prose, amazing story structure, I read it again and again. Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey – Picture book memoir! Incredible art and words about two girls exploring their world and growing up on an island on the east coast. Moody and gorgeous! Gift From The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh – I re-read this every year and give it as a gift to everyone I know. It’s this meditation on life as a person, about solitude and living as a wife and mother and artist and human. Also she takes tons of walks on the beach and collect shells and rocks. Runners up: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Island Books: What are some of your favorite things about living on Mercer Island (besides Island Books)?
Jennifer: My family are all lifelong, native Californian/San Franciscans, we just moved here last year and we love it! Particularly:
1. Watching the seasons change while running while my dogs frolic in Pioneer Park
2. Fellow parents at my daughter’s school, so much kindness and wonderful friends.
3. The schools are amazing! My sixth grader is so happy here, the teachers and administrative staff are wonderful.
4. The Mercer Island library! It is so beautiful and I love all the librarians!
5. The South end Starbucks. They let me write for hours and all the baristas are so wonderful and smart and funny and kind.
6. Sunsets over Lake Washington.
7. The farmer’s market. So many great food and flower booths, I love it!
8. The dentists! Seriously! MI Pediatric Dentistry is like a trip to a spa for kids, and Dr. Dawn Bova and her staff have taken this terrified patient and made me happy to go to the dentist. They are fabulous. I love them!
9. The Summer festival. Oh my gosh, so fun! The rides, the booths, the food!
10. Luther Burbank Park. Gorgeous.
11. The Mercer Island Half Marathon – I ran right past my driveway and into my house to put on band-aids and changed my shoes! This island is perfect for a half marathon, 13.1 miles of gently hills all in the shade. Amazing.
12. Reflected pink sunlight on Mt. Rainier. Impossibly beautiful.
13. Fifteen minutes to Seattle but a world away in the quiet trees. It is heaven.
Thank you so much, this was so fun!