Magic, Hope and Children's Fiction: An Interview with Novelist Jenny Moss

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working with novelist Jenny Moss at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Jenny and I were in neighboring offices, and at one point discovered we were both writers. I remember late evening chats between afternoon and night classes, stolen in the hallways and at the xerox machine. And then Jenny was gone, and I never knew what happened to her--until one day I saw her tucked away in the corner of a cafe with her laptop and asked her how she was. "Writing," she said, and went on to tell me about her upcoming novel, the delightful WINNIE'S WAR. A middle-grades historical novel, it introduces students to the 1918 influenza pandemic, and fictionalizes the real events of League City, Texas.

Since then, she's published another, and just received the advanced reading copies for the third. While all three are quite different in their writing styles and target audiences, Jenny has done a great deal of research and world building for each. She's come a long way from those days in the halls, and I'm very proud to introduce her to all of you.

1. When you visited my fiction writing class, you talked about the differences between WINNIE'S WAR and SHADOW. How hard was it to change genres, and how did that come about? How different was the world-building process for the two books?

I jumped back & forth between writing WINNIE’S WAR and SHADOW for a couple of years. I didn’t plan to write two very different books simultaneously. I always have stories rattling around in my head, and they are all over the place in terms of time period or place or genre or even readership. The loudest story – the one I think about the most – is the one that gets written. In this case, there were two.

The biggest challenge probably had less to do with genre than it did with the ability to drop one story and set of characters and pick up another one and immerse myself back in it, remembering all the details of characters’ personalities and interactions, and the development of themes and subplots and all the things that go into creating a book!

WINNIE’S WAR is historical fiction set in a small town in Texas during the 1918 influenza pandemic. I based my fictional town of Coward Creek on the real town of League City. SHADOW is a traditional fantasy set in a fictional world I created, but (very) loosely based on medieval England. The major difference in the writing process for the two books is that one required more research into the history and the other, more imaginative world-building. I enjoyed doing both.


2. You've commented before about how surprisingly welcoming you find the Young Adult writing community. Could you elaborate on that? Why do you think YA is thriving now, as opposed to so many other genres?

I think there are two things here to comment on: the first is the children’s and YA book community, all the writers, librarians, teachers, bloggers, agents, and editors and their co-workers, and the second is the appeal of the stories.

In regards to the former, I can’t compare this community to the adult publishing world, but I think there is a bond within the children’s and YA book community because we all love and value these books so much, for what they do for children, for tweens, for teens, and also for us, and we are ecstatic to find others who love these books as much as we do. And it’s also a relatively small world, once you become involved in it, especially with the connections we all make over the Internet, which increases the closeness, I think.

As to why these stories appeal to so many people, and even adult readers are now turning to YA books, I think there’s a special, wistful, magical, and even hopeful feeling about childhood that’s part of the experience up until we leave home as young adults, and picture books, chapter books, and middle grade and young adult novels have the opportunity to try and capture a little of that magic. And when writers are successful at that, not only children but adults too want to read these books and experience that magic and hope.


3. You just received the Advanced Reading Copies for your upcoming book, TAKING OFF. What can you tell us about it? I noticed that it has a section where writers talk about their inspiring teachers--was that information fun to collect?

TAKING OFF is about a teen who meets Christa McAuliffe before the Challenger disaster in 1986. Annie lives in a very science-oriented NASA town, but wants to be a poet. She’s about to graduate from high school and is getting pressure from her boyfriend to not go to college and pressure from her mom to go to college and she’s conflicted. I worked at NASA as an engineer for many years and was there during Challenger. I wove some of my memories of that difficult time into the story.

I asked my editor if we could add the inspirational teacher section, and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed asking other writers to contribute to it, and they were excited about having the opportunity to thank their teachers. One of the themes in TAKING OFF is how one person can change another’s life, and I believe in that strongly. Teachers can, and do, have a profound and lasting impact on their students. Many of us carry the memories and the words of a teacher in our hearts for years after we’ve already lost contact with her or him.

Although I was working at the space center when Christa McAuliffe was in training there, I didn’t get a chance to meet her. After researching her life for this novel, I realized what I’d missed out on by not meeting her. She was an extraordinary person, and it was a pleasure to write about her.

Thank you, Jenny! And finally, our standard bonus question: What are you reading right now?

I just finished this wonderful YA trilogy CHAOS WALKING. My favorite (although they were all great) was the first one, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO.


Comments

Thanks so much for visiting BtO, Jenny. I loved reading about your books, esp. the new one coming. I was a brand new teacher without enough experience to apply when NASA put out the call for teacher applicants, so I followed McAuliffe's journey with great interest (and envy) and remember all too clearly trying to explain what had happened to a classroom full of ten-year-olds. I can't imagine what in must have been like at NASA that day, but I know that experience must have added great depth to the story. I'll be looking for it.
Anonymous said…
Thanks to the BtO folks - esp Kathryn - for inviting me to your blog!

Colleen, I was involved in the payload training of two of the Challenger astronauts. In some ways, it feels as if the tragedy just happened yesterday. I never met Christa McAuliffe, but I have friends who did. She was a remarkable person.

Thanks again,

Jenny

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