Driving Sideways: Jess Riley debuts with a lot of heart...and a kidney

Jess Riley's debut novel Driving Sideways was a long time coming, but when it busted out, it busted out big. Buzz has been widespread and book-club friendly. Within weeks of its release, Driving Sideways was off to a second printing.

Right away, when I visited Jess's web site, I had to love this refreshing PR bio:
Wisconsin native Jess Riley spent much of her childhood sitting at her desk during lunch hour for lying and/or passing notes during class, both of which qualified her for a possible future as a novelist. Between bad haircuts, she wrote poetry and fiction in middle school. She was nominated by a high school English teacher to attend a summer camp for budding artists and writers, where she realized she needed a whole new wardrobe. Also, she needed to work on her creative writing skills. She won her first short story contest a year later for a tale told through the point of view of a seven year-old black boy living in Cabrini Green because as a middle-class white teenager, she knew a lot about that kind of life. Jess has been a waitress, a blue cheese packager, and currently, a grant writer for local school districts. She worked at a mall-based toy store during the Tickle Me Elmo craze of 1995 and lived to tell about it. She has also worked as a teaching assistant at a medium-security men's prison, which was much less stressful. Jess graduated from UW-Oshkosh in 1998 with dual degrees in English and history. She now lives in a drafty old house in Oshkosh,Wisconsin with her husband and a neurotic dog that despises public radio.

It's been a long and winding road for Driving Sideways.

"After years of rejections for my 'trial novel' (currently undergoing major reconstructive surgery for a possible resurrection), I never thought I’d land an agent, let alone sell my book at auction," says Jess. "It was something I had fantasized about for years, and I almost gave up several times. When it happened, it happened quickly. I was nearly orphaned when my editor left our original acquiring house (HarperCollins) for Random House in summer of 2006. I was fortunate enough to go with her, which doesn’t always happen. Though it pushed my book’s release back one year, I am thrilled to be able to stay with the editor who 'gets' me and my book."

Asked what hard-earned wisdom she might share with aspiring authors, Jess says, "Number one: Don’t quit writing. Ever. Write for yourself first, but if your agent or editor has suggestions, heed them. Be professional. Read and support other authors. Hone your craft—there is always something to learn and improve upon." Last but not least, she adds, "They mean it when they say they want a 'fresh hook.'"

The fresh hook in Driving Sideways is a heartfelt and surprisingly funny exploration "Cellular Memory": Is it possible for our organs to retain our energy if donated to another person? Can we really channel someone else’s tastes in music, food, or hobbies? And what happens if you’ve had a transplant and simply convince yourself this is true?

From the press kit:
Driving Sideways tells the story of Leigh Fielding, a twenty-eight year-old kidney transplant recipient who—six years, hundreds of dialysis sessions, and a million bad poems after being diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease—finally feels strong enough to pursue a few lofty goals she’s been mulling for years: find herself, her kidney donor’s family, and the mother that abandoned her over twenty years ago.

And what better way to do just that than a solitary road trip across the country? Well, maybe not entirely solitary, because Leigh suspects she may have inherited more than just an organ from her deceased donor. It’s this sneaking suspicion that takes her trip down some unexpected detours—and the juvenile delinquent who blackmails Leigh into giving her a ride is only the beginning.

Booklist says: “Smart and funny without being forced, sentimental without being maudlin, Riley’s funny, picaresque vision of America will make readers wish they could go along with Leigh on her next trip.”

Marian Keyes, bestselling author of Anybody Out There?: "Driving Sideways is a gorgeous novel -- I LOVED it! It's enjoyable, uplifting, and so so so funny and sparky. I found it hugely entertaining and very touching. Jess Riley's voice is irreverent and wonderful, and her writing is genius."

Driving Sideways was one of eight finalists selected from over 600 applicants in the 2005 James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been tagged as "Break-out Book" by Target. And this is just the beginning. Try to keep up with Jess on her blog.

Go, Jess, go!


The book sounds fantastic, and I enjoyed Jess's bio as well.

Thanks for sharing, Joni, and best of luck with the book, Jess.
Jess Riley said…
Thanks so much, Joni and Colleen! This has all been so exciting. :)

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