I “met” Janet after reading her fabulous YA historical novels and letting her know how much I enjoyed them. She was kind enough to read WHEELS OF CHANGE before it was published and wrote a wonderful blurb that appears in the book. We’ve had an e-mail friendship ever since. I couldn’t wait to talk to Janet about her YA novels and her new venture: a debut MG. Janet was also kind enough to feature me on her blog today. You can check out that post at: http://www.kidswriterjfox.blogspot.com
1. SIRENS takes place in the “Roaring Twenties”. What attracted you to writing about that era?
SIRENS is set in New York City in 1925. When seventeen-year-old Josephine Winter’s father ships her off to live with her rich cousins on the glittering island of Manhattan, he says it’s to find a husband. But Jo knows better–there’s trouble brewing, and in 1925, all that glitters is not gold. Caught up in a swirl of her cousin’s bobbed-hair set–and the men that court them–Jo soon realizes that this world of jazz and gangsters and their molls hides a nest of lies. But when she befriends the girlfriend of one of the most powerful and dangerous gangsters in town, Jo begins to uncover secrets–secrets that threaten an empire and could destroy everyone she loves. Jo is faced with a choice: hang on to her soul, or lose herself in the decade of decadence.
My first two YA historical novels were contracted for together, and I linked them by tying in characters, although the second is not strictly a sequel. Just as I was putting the finishing touches on FORGIVEN my publisher contacted my agent and asked if I would be interested in trying my hand at a novel set in the 1920s. I said yes, and wrote a proposal, and they accepted it.
I don’t always say yes to suggestions like this. But I’ve always been fascinated by the twenties – it was a time of such rapid social change as to be explosive. Plus there are nuances like the fascination with the supernatural and the subtle political rumblings that led straight toward World War II. I had a lot of fun researching and writing SIRENS.
2. You wrote two other wonderful YA Historical Fiction books: FAITHFUL and FORGIVEN. How did you come to be a writer of historical fiction?
Thank you! It was a total accident. I don’t consider myself to be an historical fiction author, and in fact most of my current projects are anything but. FAITHFUL, my first novel, was really written as a way for me to deal with the sudden death of my mother. When I went to craft Maggie’s story about her search for her mother, I picked Yellowstone as a setting, and 1904 as the year only because I was interested in that period of history and it’s a fantastic period within the Park.
3. As someone who also writes historical fiction, I’m interested in how you conduct your research. Tell us about your process.
I almost never research ahead. It’s important to me to know my character first, so I often write quite a bit before I feel the need to dig into research. Once I know my character, then I try to craft a story that will delve into the rich human experience. And then I often research on the fly – hunting for material that I need to know.
For example, with SIRENS, I knew Jo and I knew she was going to befriend Lou, and I knew the two girls would get mixed up somehow with a gangster and bootlegging. But it wasn’t until I heard a radio interview one winter night with the author of a book about the 1920’s magician Howard Thurston that I realized that the twenties’ obsession with spiritualism would be central to my theme. It fit my character, it fit the story, and it was an interesting aspect of the twenties that doesn’t get much attention.
That said, at some point I do the following: read newspaper ads and articles of the period; read something written in the period; read the society columns of the time; find vocabulary lists or terms popular at the time; find clothing catalogs of the time; look for popular pastimes. These all comprise my socio-economic understanding, the atmosphere that surrounds my character.
4. You recently sold your first middle grade historical titled CHATELAINE: THE THIRTEENTH CHARM. Can you tell us about that and how it was writing your first MG novel?
Actually CHATELAINE is much more fantasy than historical. Yes, it’s set in 1940 and the children are escaping the blitz; yes, there is a German spy and an enigma machine. But after that, it’s very much a story about ghosts, a steampunk witch, an immortal wizard, children who are disappearing, artifacts with magical powers, peculiar teachers, a creepy castle, the rainy Scottish Highlands…in short, a slightly scary run-for-your-life mystery.
I loved writing this novel. It came out of nowhere – actually it was inspired by a piece of jewelry I saw on the internet – but as I was writing I was remembering all those days as a preteen when I was holed up in the corner on a rainy afternoon with one of the Narnia books or an Agatha Christie novel. Kat is such a great character and I had so much fun writing her story and then embellishing it with wild and crazy twists and turns…I hope readers will love it, too.
It sounds amazing Janet. I will definitely be adding that one to my reading list!
5. Of all your memorable characters, which one is your favorite and why?
Wow. That’s like loving one of your children more than the others!
I guess if I had to be pinned to the wall, I would say Maggie, because she’s my first. But then there’s Kula, feisty Kula, who begged to have her story told. And Jo – she’s such a determined, strong-willed girl – and Lou, who comes from nothing and has street-smarts. Now Kat, she’s the pragmatic girl who has to develop her imagination…and then there’s Rima, from my next novel…obviously, this is the impossible choice!
Janet Fox writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages. She became a children’s author in the mid-90s, when her son’s learning differences led her to develop her non-fiction book for Free Spirit Publishing, GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT (2006). Other work for children includes short fiction (Spider Magazine) and science non-fiction (Highlights for Children). Her young adult debut novel, FAITHFUL (Speak/Penguin Group, 2010) was an Amelia Bloomer List pick, and was followed by a companion novel, FORGIVEN (Penguin, 2011), a Junior Library Guild selection and WILLA Literary Award Finalist, and a YA historical set in the 1920s, SIRENS (Penguin, 2012).
Her debut middle grade novel CHATELAINE: THE THIRTEENTH CHARM is an historical fantasy (Viking, 2016). She is a 2010 graduate of the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a former Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and a former high school English teacher. Janet lives in Bozeman, Montana, where Janet and her husband enjoy the mountain vistas.