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Interview: Jennifer Bradbury

Writing a novel then trying to get published can be somewhat like taking a road trip: you can be improved or hindered by impulses, distractions, breaks, false starts, and the input of others.

For author Jennifer Bradbury, traveling down the road to publication has proved interesting. Her debut novel Shift was partially inspired by a trip she took years ago. Though the circumstances and plot of Shift - a mystery about a college boy gone missing - are fictional, the novel was born out of that special trip and the anecdotes it provided.

What made you and your spouse choose to take a two-month trek via bicycle to celebrate your honeymoon?

One of the things I fell for in my husband was how adventurous he is. And when we met, I soon learned that he'd done quite a bit of bike touring - including a cross-country trip when he graduated from high school. I thought it sounded like fun, and he was thrilled that I was willing to try. I didn't even own a bike at the time - a friend ended up buying me one at a yard sale down the road from where we got married, and that's the one I've ridden since. And the trip itself turned out to be a great way to start our marriage. A couple of months of intense adventure, fun, and challenge proved a great foundation.

How soon thereafter did you start writing Shift?

Nearly eight years later. I had a lot of anecdotes from the trip that I thought of using, but it took me that long to figure out a story.

Did you find it difficult to write from the viewpoint of a teenage boy?

It was daunting, so daunting that I almost didn't do it. But the more I wrote, the more fun it was to be Chris. But my background as a high school English teacher, my time as a backpacking/rock climbing guide at a boys' camp in North Carolina, and the fact that I've always been a bit of a tomboy came in handy. My favorite bit of reassurance came from my brother-in-law. He's one of the folks who read the earliest draft of the story for me, and came back and said, "I always knew you'd make a great guy." That felt good. Weird, but good.

The chapters alternate between Chris starting his freshman year of college and Chris and Win traveling the summer after graduating from high school. Did you write one portion of the story, then the other, or did you flip back and forth?

I wrote it straight through. At the time I wrote the book, I was living in India on a Fulbright exchange, and my sister had mailed us DVD copies of the first season of Lost. I was fascinated with the way that show used flashbacks to advance the action in the present time story line, and it inspired me to try structuring the story that way. I did add several chapters during subsequent revisions, but luckily it worked out that the patten remained in tact.

What did you do the summer after you graduated from high school?

Nothing as exciting as Win and Chris. I was saving money for college so I nannied for a family with two small boys. Now that I think about it, it probably did have something to do with the book! We played outside and went to the pool and shot Nerf things at each other and spent a lot of time wishing classic Nintendo allowed three players to play at a time. It was actually pretty great.

My favorite line in your novel reads: "Reality had a disappointing habit of not measuring up to my memories." (I quite agree.) Why do you think this is true?

I think we're all storytellers at heart. And I think most of us use the material we've lived through to tell those stories to ourselves. So there's something about the way we remember something happening that often supersedes the event itself. And I sort of hate taking photos on vacation. My husband's gotten used to it now, but I'd almost rather not have the picture to diminish the memory. That said, I'm grateful my husband ignores my whining and manages to get some good pictures anyway.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I don't think I ever decided to be one. I used to think I was going to be a journalist, but tired of that in my second year of college when I realized how much more fun I was having in my English classes. And I also realized sort of belatedly that I was good with kids and teaching, so it became a really wonderful career for me. But I always wrote with my students on essays I assigned, and then fell into a writing group about seven years ago with two coworkers at school who are gifted, dedicated writers. It was then that I began to entertain the idea of writing a novel.

Who was your most influential teacher?

I've had a lot of good ones. David Lenoir and Jim Flynn in college, Mrs. Tatum and Ms. Williams in elementary school. But the most influential is easily Gail Kirkland, my high school journalism teacher. I took journalism for four years. Kirkland taught the first year as a writing class, and if you stuck around you invited to write for the paper and join the production staff She's the one who made me start to realize how much I loved storytelling, and the importance of writing a nice, tight line. She really was inspiring.

Are you still teaching English?

I'm actually not. My daughter was born a few months before the book sold, and I taught half time last year. I've been on leave all year and probably will be for a while. I love teaching, and miss it and my students, but I'm happy to be home with my daughter for a while.

Do any of your students read your works in progress?

Yes. I had a few students I passed manuscripts on to in my last few years and always got great feedback. And in my ninth grade writing classes, we always chose one book to read aloud for the semester. We'd take twenty minutes every Thursday at the beginning of class and read a chapter of a YA novel aloud. It was a way to sort of share a literary experience and dissect as a class a great sentence or diagnose the way a writer was building something. A few years ago, I couldn't find a book that no one in the class hadn't read, so I took a chance and asked if they'd be willing to listen to a draft of one I was working on and combine our read aloud time with some writing group practice. It turned out to be the best thing I ever did as a teacher. I noticed my kids taking their own writing a lot more seriously when I was asking them for feedback on my own. And they gave amazing notes. There were things in my editorial letter for Shift that my students had called me on and I'd sort of let go. Hearing a seasoned, brilliant professional echo the criticisms of 15 year-olds was pretty fantastic.

Are you working on a new novel now?

I am. My second novel for Atheneum, tentatively titled Apart, will likely be available in 2010. It's a bit of a heavy book - dealing with the impact of a father's mental illness on a family, but we're hoping it will be a nice follow up to Shift. And I've got two others that I've been working on since Shift sold that I'm excited about as well. They're a little lighter and represent some new territory for me - a historical and a light genre thing. Maybe they'll make it out into the world someday.

What are your ten favorite novels of all time?

This is an impossible question. Here are some that I find myself recommending a lot, and ones that have been sort of touchstones for me.

* David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
* Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
* Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
* Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
* Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
* I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
* A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor
* Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
* The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
* Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Visit Jennifer's website and blog.

Related Posts: Book Review: Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, Class of 2k8

Today's SBBT Stops
Elisha Cooper at Chasing Ray
Dar Williams at Fuse #8
Jennifer Bradbury at Bildungsroman
E. Lockhart at The YA YA YAs
Mary Hooper at Miss Erin
Charles R. Smith, Jr. at Writing & Ruminating
Mary E. Pearson at A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy

View the entire SBBT calendar.

Visit my archive of author interviews at Bildungsroman.
Tags: books, class of 2k8, interviews, sbbt

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