I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Hubbard in June at the New Jersey SCBWI Conference
when one of my volunteer assignments was to be her "faculty liaison." I didn't know what this meant,
but fortunately, neither did she, so I was able to fake it. I had signed up to attend both of the work-shops she co-presented with Kit Grindstaff, and as soon as they ended I proceeded straight to the Conference book sale, where I bought Jennifer's first two published YA novels, THE SECRET YEAR and TRY NOT TO BREATHE. Jennifer describes her work as "minimalistic contemporary realism" (see below), and that's a genre I feel is underrepresented these days in YA. At the book signing, Jennifer graciously agreed to let me interview her for this blog. Fortunately, I'm able to post our interview before the Sept. 12th anticipated release date of her third published YA, UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP (Viking Press). What this means is that you now have time to pre-order!
1. In each of your first two novels, SECRET YEAR and TRY NOT TO BREATHE, the
protagonist has suffered a loss and now feels an impulse to embark on new relationships, but
finds that a longing for something from his past is holding him back. For Colt in SECRET
YEAR, it’s memories of a girl who has died; for Ryan in TRY NOT TO BREATHE, it’s a girl
who has now made it clear that she wants their relationship to stay platonic. Did you
consciously choose to leave both boys in unsettled emotional states as their stories ended? If so,
In both cases, I felt that a “Hurray, all my problems are solved!” ending would be unrealistic. But
I also view these endings as the points where each boy has achieved a measure of peace and hope.
They both are forever changed by what they’ve gone through, but they also have plenty to look
2. SECRET YEAR puts a lot of its focus on class distinctions between the teens who live in
The Flats and those who live on The Hill. Colt makes a point of assuring the reader that his and
Julia’s story is not Romeo and Juliet’s, because if they had taken their relationship public, no
blood would have been spilled. But is Julia’s name really a coincidence rather than a reference?
Is it your impression that caste systems still operate as overtly and intensely in American small
towns as they do in this novel?
Julia’s name is a semi-coincidence. I originally chose her name just because I like it and thought it
suited her ... but when I realized the connection with Juliet, I was happy to get that additional layer of
meaning from it.
I do think that divisions in our culture, whether based on income, politics, education, race, religion,
or ethnic background, do operate this intensely—and often even more intensely. They can be overt,
or subtle and insidious.
Colt and Julia mostly use the economic division between them as an excuse for secrecy; it’s a self-
imposed limit, an aphrodisiac, an important tool in the particular game they play. Yet as much as they
mock this division, it affects them in more subtle ways that they don’t fully understand. Where you
live, what kind of future you can expect, who you’ll meet, are all at least partly determined by
3. TRY NOT TO BREATHE has a teen protagonist who was hospitalized following a suicide
attempt and is trying to readjust to ordinary life. Who is the reader you saw in your mind’s eye
as you were writing about Ryan and his struggles? What aspects of Ryan surprised you by
appearing unplanned on the page while you were writing the novel?
I didn’t have a specific ideal reader in mind. I just wanted the book to feel true—not that there is
only one truth, but that it would reflect a believable scenario.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me was Ryan’s loyalty. I knew his bond with Jake and Val was
strong, but I also knew the distance between them was causing problems, and I didn’t realize until
late in the book just how strong their underlying bond was. Ryan would go anywhere or do anything
for them—and they would for him—even if they don’t see each other much anymore.
The fact that he wanted to go sky-diving also surprised me!
4. Your newest YA novel, UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP, will release on September 12th. Is
there anything about its plot and/or characters that you’d like to share here? How did it feel to
get into the head of a female protagonist after having male narrators in your first two books?
In what ways was it easier for you to write your third novel than your first? In what ways was
The short version of this book is: In junior high, Maggie was an outcast, bullied by her classmates.
Then her chief tormentor moved away, and high school proved to be less brutal, although Maggie has
never truly let her guard down. She only finds peace when hiking in the mountains—with a friend
who may be turning into more. But just when Maggie thinks she can move beyond her fears and her
sense of worthlessness, her old enemy returns to town.
When I wrote short fiction, I had both male and female narrators, about fifty-fifty. I have written
both male and female narrators for novels, too, but it just happens that the first two novels that sold
had male narrators!
This book was very hard to write, harder than the first two. Not because of the female narrator, but
because I was balancing the hiking, romance, and bullying plotlines, and finding the balance among
them took a while.
5. You’re a member of YA OUTSIDE THE LINES, a group of YA author/bloggers whose
motto is “YA Novelists Pushing the Boundaries of the Genre and Writing From the Heart.”
What has that membership meant to you, both personally and professionally? In what ways do
you feel you push the boundaries of the genre? Are there any ways in which you would like to
do so more?
I love blogging—I have my own blog, too. A group blog is fun because I only write one post a month, but I get to see all these other bloggers’ variations on the monthly topic. Sometimes the posts are heartrending, full of raw emotion; other times they’re light and funny. I was a regular reader of the blog before they invited me to join.
As far as boundary pushing, I’m a little unusual in writing minimalistic contemporary realism at a time when long, description-rich paranormal and fantasy books are more dominant.
I’ve experimented with form and format and unusual point-of-view, but haven’t yet produced a publishable novel from those experiments. I keep trying, though. Try Not to Breathe actually started out as a verse novel.
I do try to take slightly unusual angles on my stories. Many books about suicide end with the character’s decision to die or not, or they begin after a suicide has occurred. In Try Not to Breathe, I wanted to explore what happens after an attempt; where does the character go then? In Until It Hurts to Stop, I wanted to look at the aftermath of bullying, the way it affects people even after the abuse stops.
* * * *
I want to thank Jennifer so much for taking the time to answer my questions to close to the
release date of UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP, when I'm sure she has quite a few other things she
could be doing instead. In addition to her monthly blog posts at YA Outside the Lines, Jennifer does indeed have her own personal blog at http://jenniferrhubbard.blogspot.com (note the middle initial R!) She can be found on Twitter at @JennRHubbard, and her website is www.jenniferhubbard.com, where all her other contact and social media information can be found. Jennifer is represented by Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown. Thank you for stopping by, and please don't forget to pre-order your copy of UNTIL IT HURTS TO STOP! I, for one, can't wait to meet Maggie in September!