Interview: Amy Belasen and Jacob Osborn
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Amy Belasen and Jacob Osborn were brought together by barbeque. A few years later, they released Jenny Green's Killer Year, a dark comedy which had taken root in Amy's mind during her college years. Now I'll let the authors tell you a little more about how they met and became friends, then collaborators.
Amy Belasen: Well, Jacob likely has more input on the setting -- an LA hotspot for all things barbeque -- since he worked there for several years, while I was only there for a few months. We met at the Expo station, where Jacob was stationed.
Jacob Osborn: I moved to Los Angeles on a whim, and needed a job pretty quickly. I didn't feel ready to wait tables so I started hosting at a BBQ restaurant in The Grove (a highly popular outdoor mall). Before long I was the main food expeditor, opting to converse with the cooks over the customers. I'd been at the restaurant about a year or so when an interesting new server named Amy Belasen walked through the door. All the servers there needed to learn expo, and odds are I met Amy when training her on the expo line. Soon enough we started up a friendship. She was particularly fond of the ice cream sundaes I'd make her, but then again, she's fond of anything free. After I mentioned I was a writer, Amy told me about an idea she had where she went around killing her lousy boyfriends; we were working on Jenny Green within a month.
What does waiting tables have in common with writing novels? What, if anything, did you learn from your time as a restaurant that you can apply to your writing routine?
A: The thing about waiting tables in LA is that you never know who you'll meet. I've been able to manipulate my way into more meetings with high power agents/producers/directors than you could ever imagine, just by being a charming waitress. That said, I learned that there is a certain balance that must be maintained so that these "corporate" types are clear on what I'm after (first and foremost, a networking opportunity and a business relationship). Waitressing in Los Angeles is a great way to meet people in the industry, large and small. Waitressing has taught me how to develop business relationships and promote my ideas in a professional way without compromising myself or my values. It's certainly taught me the importance of a good pitch.
J: I didn't actually start waiting tables until I left the BBQ restaurant for another restaurant nearby. As of this moment, I can't nail down a precise commonality between waiting tables and writing, but if I learn anything from serving that can apply to writing, it's probably through the different stereotypes I meet. Believe it or not, I'm often pleased when meeting stereotypes because they're great jumping off points when it comes to creating characters. Naturally, a deeper investigation of both my customers and our characters will prove that most stereotypes are merely superficial impressions masking a more complicated background.
Tell us about the story behind the story.
J: Amy wrote an original twenty page manuscript called "Book of Johns." In it, she was the main character, and it basically detailed her somewhat cruddy relationships from college and beyond, with a little twist: instead of merely breaking up with these heinous guys, she killed them. The manuscript didn't have one setting (it went from Canada to LA), and instead of having a conventional structure (beginning, middle, end), it was much more episodic in nature. It read more like something you'd find in the humor section.
When did you decide to write this book together?
A: A few months into my employment at the barbeque joint, Jacob and I found that we shared plenty of common ground. We were both East Coasters, both Jewish, both somewhat cynical about the restaurant business, and both aspiring writers among a restaurant full of actor types. When I told Jacob about the bare-bones story idea I had, he asked to take a look at what I'd written. Half-embarrassed and half-proud of what I'd accomplished (it was only 26 pages at the time), I emailed Jacob my work. He sent me back something like ten pages of edits, and before long, in the summer of 2006, we became co-authors to what would become Jenny Green's KILLER Junior Year.
J: Amy told me her idea and it immediately struck a chord. For whatever reason, I've been writing about femme fatales for a long time. One of my earliest short stories was about a prostitute who kills all of her Johns, which I must have wrote in fifth or sixth grade. Besides that, I've worked on at least two scripts about a woman who kills off a bunch of creepy guys. The major difference between anything I'd written up to that point and the idea Amy presented was the comedy element. The notion of a Jewish American Princess committing these extreme crimes really connected with me, and I expressed casual interest until one day I finally sat Amy down at a pizza place and told her I wanted to write this book with her. She was instantly on board. I expressed a desire to make this a conventional novel. I thought the satirical element was strong (althought I wouldn't label the book definitively as satire), and the idea could be very topical in its assessment of modern day behavior. I also introduced new characters and suggested we set it all in one place (McGill University, which would eventually become Molson Academy). Amy agreed, responded with her own ideas, and we took it from there.
Did you outline the entire story and split up writing duties, or did you take a less structured approach?
A: Our writing process was a give and take. The beauty of the novel is that there is as much truth from my college experiences as there are characters and situations from Jacob's vivid imagination. Ironically, there were times when Jacob would come to me with a new character idea -- for instance, Prof Stone -- and I'd say, "I totally had that professor in college!" So I'd add onto his character with some specific details from my experiences in Canada, and it would make our fictional story that much more realistic.
J: As far as the writing went, I would typically write the skeleton of a chapter, then send it to Amy. She'd strike out the parts that didn't work, put in parts that she felt were stronger, and inject the entire chapter with relevant details. Then she'd send it back to me. I'd review her edits, and if everything looked good, I'd move on to the next chapter.
Had either of you written a full-length manuscript before?
A: I hadn't.
J: I tried to write my first novel, about two scientists who discover a magic plant that cures AIDS but also gives its patients supernatural powers, in about seventh or eighth grade. I made it about 200 pages before quitting. Then, in college, I wrote two novels that will never see the light of day. One was a kind of psychological fantasy book about a college student who slowly discovers reality is all in his head, and the other was a grim futuristic book about computers taking over the planet. Since moving to LA, I've written or co-written a plethora of scripts, but Jenny Green was the first novel I'd worked on since college.
Your book is a dark comedy marketed to teens. Did you have any concerns about the concept or the content? Did editors or other publishing personnel tell you to tone things down - or perhaps to do the opposite, to raise the stakes?
A: Hmm, there are a few ways to answer this question. Initially, we set Jenny up in college in Montreal, but the publisher felt that Jenny's voice was so young and fresh that it would actually appeal more to teens than adults. As first-time authors, that sounded more than fine to us, so with a few alterations, Jenny Green quickly became a boarding school student. With this change, we were concerned that some of the content may be racy for teen readers, so we went back in and made a few more changes. We made sure that Jenny's actions were not without consequence. Towards the end of the novel, it's apparent that Jenny has chosen a lonely path - she can no longer fit in with her classmates, she has alienated herself from her best friends, her boyfriends (at least from the one who's still standing), she's ruined all of her relationships as a result of her actions. This is no way to live.
J: I'm a worrier by nature, and I definitely experienced a great deal of concern over the content being misinterpeted. However, I think the book does much less to inspire action than it does discussion, and the characters are over the top enough to take them out of the realm of empathy. You might find yourself routing for Jenny Green at times, but I think she can be so twisted that you only put yourself in her shoes when you're reading the book, and you don't take her sentiment into the real world. Furthermore, I think the book does a decent job at exposing the inherently flawed sense of power that enables Jenny, and by the end she's as much a victim of corruption as the men she kills. The major scene that the editors actually fretted over was the bedroom scene with Dizzy D. Without giving too much away, there's a chapter where a guy named Dizzy D asks Jenny to perform a pretty disgusting act, which Jenny censors in the book because she's too grossed out to name it specifically. In the original text, this part was not censored, and it was the editors who suggested we block some of it out. I actually prefer the result, since it's more in synch with Jenny's narrative style.
What will be your next collaboration?
A: Jacob and I are currently working on another dark comedy teen book. Though the story is tightly under wraps for now, we can tell you that this will be a whole new set of memorable characters and situations.
J: We're working on our second book right now. I don't want to give away the idea, but it's definitely in the vein of Jenny Green. It's narrated by a strong female voice, contains an abundance of shallow but engaging characters, and it gets way out there in terms of shock value.
What are your ten favorite books?
The Talented Mr. Ripley (and the others in the Ripley series) by Patricia Highsmith
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Abs Diet by David Zinczenko
American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis
Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt
The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine
My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler
Some of these are books (the latter few) I truly loved at the time, but can't say for sure how much I'd love now. Regardless...
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
1984 by George Orwell
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
The Charm School by Nelson Demille
Lightning by Dean Koontz