Interview: Jennifer Ziegler
Current Mood: silly
Current Song: Sugar by Stretch Princess
Author Jennifer Ziegler and I recently had a nice long talk about confidence and self-worth. We also spoke of books, pets, and songs about sugar. Keep reading to find out her nicknames, her pen names, her favorite names, and how to get a copy of her new release, How NOT to Be Popular.
Please help me assure teen readers that being true to yourself is far cooler than being popular. Any advice for those feeling tragically unhip?
Yes. Don't feel that way! (I'm like a regular Dear Abby, aren't I?)
In all seriousness, I do think teens are forever trying to be "someone else" in order to feel accepted. I get that. In fact, I tried it myself. But it's not worth it. First of all, the qualities you think you should be displaying (for example, a sassy attitude when you are naturally sweet or a thrill-seeking persona when you are cautious at heart) might not help you later, out in the real world. Secondly, folks can usually sense when you aren't being real, and that will drive away the quality people and only impress other pretenders. Third and most important, if you aren't being you, how can you truly bond with someone else? Your friendships will be based on lies and pretense, and you'll miss an opportunity to really connect with others. If you are genuinely yourself and open up to people who understand, that's real acceptance. That's what will make you feel good about yourself.
I used to think people were popular because they were extremely self-confident. Although I still believe that's somewhat true, life has taught me that it isn't quite so simple. Confidence can be faked. True self-assurance comes from knowing yourself (flaws and all) and being fine with who you are. People confuse being "popular" with being "well-liked" and to me there's a big difference. Really, whether you have twenty friends or one friend doesn't matter. What's important is finding those individuals you can be real with. Which is better? Having twenty "friends" who don't know the real you or one good pal who knows you inside and out and loves you for who you actually are? Many teens (if they are completely honest) would say the first one because they feel secure in a pack. But that's deceptive. Group mentality is an illusion – it's one or two strong personalities and a dozen others going along with it. Meanwhile a good friend will lend you strength when you really need it.
I don't pretend to make any grand statements about popularity in my book. I was simply interested in exploring the themes of self-image and acceptance – and how much control, if any, we have over it. If you aren't popular, can you make yourself so? And if you are naturally charismatic, can you make yourself into a loser nobody?
Maggie, the leading character in How NOT to Be Popular, is really named Sugar Magnolia. If you could change your first name, what would it be and why?
Ooh! Great question. Growing up I always wanted an exotic-sounding name. Something like "Fiona" or "Arabelle." But I came to realize that those names just don't fit me. Although I do have a dreamy, romantic side, I'm not all that enigmatic in real life. Meanwhile "Jennifer" is perfect because it suits both sides of me. "Jennifer" is what I use when I want to appear all grown-up and professional. The Jennifer part of me reads Milan Kundera and uses words like "quintessence." She's the one who shows up at school board meetings, attends lectures, and sips wine with Important People. But most of the time I'm simply "Jenny." Jenny is friendly, somewhat old-fashioned, and not afraid to get her hands dirty or let out a big belly laugh. Jenny loves silly cartoons and blue jeans and greasy, drippy nachos. And everyone who knew me as a teenager called me Jenny.
Both are me – sometimes simultaneously. However, even though I believe my name is pretty perfect for who I am, I will still try to answer your question. I'm a big believer in having names that match the person. So, I guess if I were one of my book characters I would call myself "Elizabeth" but go by "Liz" or "Libby" with my pals? Or "Rebecca/Becky"? "Margaret/Meg"? "Alexia/Lexi"?
You want to know my two favorite names of real persons? Thelonious Monk and Isabella Rossellini. You can't make up names that cool. And they're so much fun to say!
Every chapter in How NOT to Be Popular begins with a tip. Which is your favorite?
I'd have to say Chapter 6's tip, since it gets the biggest reactions out of people – sometimes laughs, sometimes gasps, sometimes nervous giggles. Plus, you've got to admit it's the one most likely to get someone branded a weirdo. But as far as real life is concerned, the tip that's given in the epilogue is best: "Be Your Flawed Self and See What Happens..."
The photograph that graces the cover of the book is perfect, and I see that it is credited to Corbis. Who found the picture?
You know, I'd been wondering that myself, so I decided to ask my editor, Stephanie Lane. This is how she explained the process:
"The cover photo was sort of a serendipitous find, found after hours of combing through stock images online. You remember we had a tough time getting the right look for this book, and then the perfect photo just sort of found us."
Stephanie and our designer, Stephanie Moss, captured the perfect "feel" for the cover. Quirky and fun, yet slightly inscrutable. I like that you don't see the girl's face and she seems to be hiding behind her hair. It makes you look twice. I also love the strong, lively colors and the playful fonts. I really couldn't be happier with it.
How much of your first novel, Alpha Dog, was pulled from your own experiences as a pet owner?
Not a lot, actually. Mainly I was able to draw on my general understanding of dogs – how they react in different situations, how they demonstrate their emotions, how they bond (or don't) with people. Cutter, my late great doggie who inspired the story, was nothing like Seamus. Whereas Seamus is a holy terror, Cutter was actually pretty cowed. In fact, he was once chased by a dog one-third his size! So embarrassing!
However, the scene where he's missing from the balcony was taken directly from real life. That happened with Cutter. Only instead of a balcony it was a backyard, and the railing was a chain-link fence. And yes, the outcome was the same. A few other scenes sprouted from stories friends told about their pets or incidents I witnessed while out at the park. Also, Cutter's (and now Betty's) vet is the amazing Dr. Skyler, who makes a brief appearance in the novel.
Along the same lines, which special member of the household is more critical of your work, your cat or your dog?
Ha! Probably the cat, since he actually belongs to my sister and only comes for visits. He's only interested in me if I have food. My dog, on the other hand, is always interested in everything I do. She'll keep my feet warm while I sit and write. She'll listen sympathetically when I start shouting at the screen. She'll hoover up the crumbs that fall as I eat at my computer (a bad habit of mine). She'll even put her head on my lap and let out a little sigh – to let me know she cares and remind me that she so deserves a chew bone.
Do your kids or your husband read your works-in-progress?
Nope. No one reads works-in-progress except my editor. The only time I'll show friends or family an excerpt from an early draft is if I need specific help in areas of their expertise. For example, I go to my husband if I have questions about live music, video gaming, comic books, or sports. My son and his pals help keep me up to date on teen culture. And I have two or three great friends I can call on for their exceptional understanding about life and the world in general.
Normally, the first draft process is me slowly materializing into the story's universe and reporting what I see, so I don't like to bring other, real-life people into the mix at that point. Not unless I absolutely have to.
Various posts at your blog have hinted at your affection for The Mary Tyler Moore show. Do you have a favorite episode?
Oh my. I hadn't really noticed before how much I've alluded to it. The Christmas card posts were just me being silly. Once I made the first pun, I couldn't stop. That TV show was actually before my time, but I did catch episodes in syndication. Mary is a great character, and I identify with her spunky, scrappy, slightly fretful personality. I do have a favorite episode, though. The one where she goes to the funeral for Chuckles the Clown and can't stop laughing? Classic!
You've written many books under pen names. Which was your favorite?
That's a tough one. Two come to mind right away: The first Alias book I wrote, Recruited, and one of the Love Stories. Recruited was fun because it was my first stab at writing kick-butt, girl-power action/adventure. Plus, I was a fan of the TV series. J.J. Abrams, the show's creator, actually wrote me a nice thank-you letter which I've framed and put on my office wall. It's helpful to look at it whenever I'm feeling inadequate. I wrote several Love Stories books under my pen name Lynn Mason, but there was one I ghost-wrote for someone else. That one is special to me because I included my grandmother as a minor character. She is no longer with me, but I like knowing that her big, bubbly persona is out there making other people laugh.
Were any ghostwritten projects difficult to get through?
Actually, I only had one bad experience doing for-hire work. Once while writing a book for a teen paperback series, they changed editors on me three times – and each one had a different vision for the novel. Usually in series work they have the plots fairly well mapped out. Each book would have its own self-contained storyline, plus move along the overarching plot. Only in this particular case, they had virtually nothing. The main plot had pretty well been used up by the preceding books. Instead of leaving me a few paragraphs of action to work with, I had two sentences. It was horrible! We were pulling ideas out of thin air – which normally wouldn't be a problem for me but I had absolutely no idea how they'd originally wanted the story to end up. And since the project had changed hands so many times (and I was beginning to see why), they didn't know either. We managed to throw something together, but basically I ended up working extremely hard on that book for very little money and no real acknowledgment.
Don't get me wrong, though. That was only one horror story out of seventeen mass market paperbacks. Still an excellent track record overall.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Ack! These questions are always so tough! The thing is, I enjoy books of all different genres and levels, so that widens the field considerably.
But fret not. After long hours of pondering, I have come up with this list. It is a good list.
But keep in mind that last month I might have come up with a very different one. And next month's list (if I'm asked) could be greatly changed.
MY LIST OF FAVORITES, AS OF TODAY:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The Complete Calvin & Hobbes (Is that cheating? I truly adore the writing in the strip, as well as the drawings.)
Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Again, cheating? It's the one play I enjoy reading as much as watching. A real marvel of literature and one of the most intriguing characters ever.)
Thanks for all that you do, Little Willow! Your blog is always informative and enchanting, and I'm so pleased to be here on it.
Thank you for the kind words, Jennifer!
If you have any questions for Jennifer Ziegler, please leave them in the comments below this interview and she will respond.
Visit the author's website and LiveJournal.
The first person to contact Jenny via her website and mention this blog along with any song lyrics which mention sugar (yes, we're serious!) will receive a free copy of How NOT to be Popular from the author herself! Click over to her contact page and make sure that the references to Bildungsroman and sugar are in the body of the message.