Today I have the privilege of interviewing debut novelist, Jennifer Hubbard, author of The Secret Year, a YA novel that is about secrets and loss, although it's about so much more than that. I've known Jenn personally for at least 7 years. We first met at the Philadelphia Writer's Conference in 2003, and ran into one another at the Fall Philly Conference run by the always terrific Eastern PA SCBWI as well. At the time, I knew that Jenn was working on a novel for teens and that she is the author of a number of short stories for grown-ups as well as some poetry.
Since then, Jenn has completed her novel, landed an agent, gotten a book deal and seen her first novel released. In the words of the Grateful Dead, "what a long, strange trip it's been."
1. Your debut novel, The Secret Year, came out a few months ago. What has surprised you most about being a published author?
That strangers really do read and talk about one’s book. I know that sounds incredibly naive, but I published short stories for years, and it’s a very different experience. I’ve only ever seen one review of a short story of mine. But novels generate much more conversation, for whatever reason—which is wonderful and strange at the same time!
2. The Secret Year features a teen male narrator. Did you always conceive the book as being written from Colten's point of view?
Yes, always. His voice came to me rather insistently, and provided the engine to move this story forward.
3. The voice sounds like an authentic teen male voice. Given that you are not now, nor have ever been (to my knowledge) a teen boy, how did you go about putting yourself into his shoes?
Whatever I know about male voices comes from living with guys, working with them, being friends with them, overhearing their conversations in school halls and on trains and in restaurants, and from reading their work. And still, I always think of my characters as people first.
4. As anyone who has read your blog knows, you put a great deal of thought into your writing. How conscious are you of theme when you write? Is that something that you start with, or something that evolves throughout the writing and revision process?
At first, I just write. As I go, I have an idea or two that I’m trying to develop: in this case, “secrecy” was uppermost. Why do people choose secrecy, when they do? What do they get from it? Why is it so appealing? What are the consequences of keeping secrets? Of revealing them?
After the first draft, I figure out what the theme is and sculpt the later revisions to emphasize that theme. In later drafts, I also consciously choose language or symbolism that reflects that theme. Although secrecy stayed a central focus of The Secret Year, loss and grief were important topics also, as well as the issue of class differences, and the fact that people often become emotionally involved with one another even when they’re trying not to.
5. You've written (and sold) short stories for the adult market, but your longer fiction is for the young adult market. Have you (or would you) write short stories for the YA market, or, alternatively, novels for the adult market? Why or why not?
To me, the main difference between the forms is that a short story revolves around one incident or idea or concept, while a novel requires subplots and a wider scope. I have written YA short stories, although there hasn’t been a huge market. However, there’s Hunger Mountain now, and there are always anthologies. I would love to do more short fiction. I think it’s fascinating that short stories haven’t been more commercially successful in this era. We keep hearing how people have short attention spans now, how we live in a sound-byte society. And yet, short stories haven’t found as big a market as novels have, just like short films haven’t found as big an audience as longer feature films have. It seems counter-intuitive!
The YA genre is rich in material, and I’m very happy working here. I have no shortage of YA ideas. But once in a while, I want to write about a different time of life, and then I’ll write a short story for adults.
6. From conversation and having attended several conferences with you over the years, I know that you are a proponent of what you call the "creative stretch", by attending seminars or conference sessions that focus on areas other than those in which you typically write. What are the benefits of attending sessions in areas in which you don't typically write?
It keeps me fresh, from getting bored or stale. I also think that cross-genre and cross-form pollination is very good for the arts.
For instance: Working with short fiction and poetry teaches me about economy of language, richness of imagery, and making every word count. Mysteries and thrillers show me how to build suspense, and how to pace discoveries and revelations. Essays are great examples of developing a narrative voice and shaping an idea, picking and choosing which details are most important to make a point.
7. How often do you go about singing "Pop! Goes My Heart"?
Two writers who shall remain nameless (cough*Kelly Fineman and Angela De Groot*cough) exposed me to this snappy pseudo-‘80s-pop-hit from the movie Music and Lyrics during a break on one of our writing retreats. Retreats are a great way to focus exclusively on writing for a period of time, to get away from all other responsibilities. Most of us have to put writing on the back burner, or at least the side, while we deal with day jobs and family obligations and the chores of daily life. A retreat puts writing squarely on the front burner, and for me it’s also an opportunity to unplug from the internet for a while. As an added bonus, retreat evenings with my writer buddies have exposed me to movies my husband would never watch!
KRF: I notice that Jenn hasn't actually answered the singing question. I shall assume, therefore, that she sings the song at least once a day, but since she was not suffering from the Pop! hip last time I saw her, she must be keeping it under control.
8. What's next?
I’m working on another contemporary, realistic YA novel.
Cheese or chocolate? Both, but not at the same time.
Coffee or tea? Tea.
Cats or dogs? I’ve owned both, but currently have a cat who is a legend in his own mind.
Favorite color? Blue.
Favorite snack food? Smartfood.
Favorite ice cream? There was a place near my house that used to sell Almond Joy ice cream: coconut ice cream with fudge and almonds. But now that it’s gone, I stick with my old favorite, mint chocolate chip.
Water or soda? Water.
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? I pressed shuffle 5X to bring you this selection: Vivaldi, Kelly Joe Phelps (a blues musician), the Beatles, REM, and David Bowie.
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? It’s not necessarily the last, but my all-time favorite is from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Spencer Tracy plays a police chief whose life is falling apart. He’s overseeing a big investigation, and when he reaches his breaking point, the police are all looking to him for a decision about the next phase of the investigation. That’s when he says, “You know what I believe I’d like? A chocolate fudge sundae, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.” A co-worker and I got into the habit of saying that line to each other whenever things got too hectic.
Other stops on the SBBT today:
Mary Jane Beaufrand at The Ya, Ya, Yas
Rita Williams-Garcia at Fuse Number 8
Charise Mericle Harper at Shelf Elf
Holly Schindler at Bildungsroman