1. In what ways do you relate to Essie? Have you ever had to make a decision like hers?
In most ways I think I’m really different from Essie. I’m the oldest of six kids, so no one was trying to stop me from growing up, in fact, the opposite happened. I always had to be older than I was. I was never into dance or cheerleading in high school. I didn’t have a single group of friends either. But I did have a few experiences where I made some bad choices and then decided to confess the behavior because it felt like the right thing to do. Sometimes it worked out well for me and sometimes I had to deal with some pretty steep consequences (like my French teacher retracting her college recommendation.) In each of those occasions, I, like Essie, could have kept quiet and gotten away with it. But the personal consequences of doing that, the way it makes you lose a little piece of yourself, isn’t worth it. So the trade-off is facing the disappointment of others and possibly a punishment, but you get to keep yourself intact.
2. If you could befriend Essie with any other YA character who would it be and why?
I think she’d really like Frankie from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks. They have a lot of similarities. Both girls have just developed into their adult bodies and are navigating all that comes with the ability to attract male attention in that way. They both know what it is to make bad choices and face up to the consequences. But Frankie is a bit more street smart than Essie and aware of what it takes to grow up as a strong woman, so I think Essie would really look up to her and could learn a lot from her. Frankie and Sara (Essie’s best friend) would probably also be great friends.
3. In what ways did you incorporate The Book of Esther into Queen of Secrets?
I started with characters. The main cast of characters in The Book of Esther are Esther, Mordecai (her uncle or possibly cousin,) The King and Haman (the king’s advisor.) These became, Essie, Micah, Austin and Harrison. Most of the rest of the minor characters in the book are ones that I added to be able to tell my own version of the story and don’t have a counterpart in the book, except for Hayden. She’s based on the harem worker who helped Esther prepare to meet and attract the king.
After I had the cast of characters all set, I turned to plot points. The fact that Esther keeps her religion a secret was a big one and that the king’s advisor develops this hatred of Mordecai, I really wanted to keep those, but there were others that I had to let go to make the story work. In the biblical story Haman dies. In QUEEN OF SECRETS Harrison’s punishment is not spelled out, but it’s obviously not a literal death, though he does experience the death of his football career.
There are also lots of other little details that most people might not notice, the school colors for example are the colors used to describe the royal court. Essie’s inexperience with makeup comes from the interpretation that Esther stood out to the king because she was the only woman in the harem who wasn’t wearing makeup.
4. What was your journey to publication like?
Even though this is my second book, I actually sold it at the same time as my first book. FSG bought both of them together with the plan to release them sequentially. I really have SCBWI to thank, in part, for the sale. It’s not one of those stories where I was submitting endlessly (though I have plenty of those with other things I’ve written.) The story of this book is much more about making genuine connections.
When I got really serious about learning everything I could about becoming a better writer, I joined SCBWI. I took every class and attended every conference I could find. I joined a critique group. (A couple actually.) One of the groups told me point blank that they were an intense group and if I wasn’t serious about working like crazy on my writing I wouldn’t be a good fit. (I thought I’d found heaven.) At that point I hadn’t published anything, but they’d both published in children’s magazines. The first piece I worked on with them sold to Highlights. (My critique partners, btw, were/are Brenda Ferber author of JULIA’S KITCHEN and JEMMA HARTMAN, CAMPER EXTRAORDINAIRE and Carol Grannick writer of the blog The Irrepressible Writer. We now have several others in our critique group as well.)
Fast forward a year or two and Brenda sold JULIA’S KITCHEN. One day she mentioned that her editor loved to edit chapter books. That happened to be what I was working on, so when it was finished, with Brenda’s recommendation, I send that book to her editor. She asked to see the YA I’d just started and then bought them both. When I say it like that it sounds so easy, but it really didn’t feel that way at the time. It was a lot of hard work!
5. Was there a specific message you were hoping readers would take away from Queen of Secrets?
No. In fact, I think the opposite. I can’t write a message; I can only question. So I started QUEEN OF SECRETS with some questions and then explored the answers in the ways I think these characters would explore them. What does having religion in your life mean to a person? What kind of loyalty do you owe to your family? How do you decide big relationship questions? I don’t think there is one right answer to any of these questions. Perhaps the thing I hope readers take away is that it’s just good to question, to explore your life and yourself. A lot of choices are valid, but it’s better when you are making them deliberately, when they are coming from a true place inside yourself, not simply because it’s what society or your parents say you should do.
6. If you were stranded on a deserted island what three books would you want with you?
So I guess an e-book reader is out, right? Okay, this is hard. I’d go with Persuasion, by Jane Austen; A Collected Works of Shakespeare and How to Get off a Deserted Island by Rowan A. Boat.
(Sorry, that was really corny. I couldn’t resist.)
7. What is one place in the world you would love to be able to visit one day?
I’ve always wanted to go to Prince Edward Island and do the whole Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery tour, so I’d have to pick that. Though I’d want more than a day. (And for the record, if the Deserted Island book wasn’t allowed, I’d take Anne of Green Gables.)
Thanks so much, Jenny!
Click here to read my review of Queen of Secrets!
Also, click here to visit Green Bean Teen Queen, the next stop on Jenny's tour (Monday, July 19)