Wednesday, April 6, 2016

From the Spark to the Shelves: An Interview with Jody Casella

The acclaimed YA author discusses how her haunting novel Thin Space came to be and shares her advice for up-and-coming writers.  ♦ 
Jody Casella is the renowned YA author best known for her 2013 novel Thin Space, a fascinating book which blends fictional realism with the search for something a little bit magical. It revolves around the story of a boy named Marshall Windsor who’s trying to find a mythical place known as a “thin space”—a place where the line between the living and the dead can be breached—which would allow him to get into contact with his deceased twin brother. The result is a harrowing tale that Kirkus Reviews has praised as “[b]rutal and brilliant.”
     Casella has been writing ever since she was little and has been writing and pursuing publication for over fifteen years; as such, she's gained a lot of insights along the way in terms of both writing and getting published. In this interview she shares those insights with us, discussing her creative process, the role of rewriting and editing in finding your story, and what beginning authors can do to help their own cause.

What was the process like writing your book Thin Space? How long did it take you to complete?

I wrote a first draft of Thin Space during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month—a writing site where you pledge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.) The story I thought I was writing was about girl who moves into a house that turns out to contain a "thin space," but somewhere during the drafting of the story, a barefoot boy named Marsh showed up and basically took over the book. I reread my mess of a draft and realized that it was Marsh's story and not the girl's, so I wrote the entire book again from his point of view. That took an additional four months.

What inspired you to write Thin Space? How long had you been planning your novel before you started writing it?

The writer Sid Fleischman says it takes two sticks to start a fire and two ideas to make a story. That was true for me with Thin Space. I'd heard about the Celtic belief in thin places, spaces on earth where the veil between our world and the world of the dead is thinner, and that idea was one spark. My other spark was watching a barefoot teenaged boy step off a school bus during the winter. I thought: Now, why in the world is this kid walking around barefoot? Somehow the two ideas merged together when I was writing the book.

What was the editing process like, both before and after you found a publisher?

As I mentioned earlier, I did a complete overhaul of the book—from one point of view to another. The second draft needed to be revised a bit, but looking back, I'd say it was probably 85% there when I sold it to Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster. The editor had me do two fairly thorough revisions, where I took the book apart and pieced it back together. Because the main character is an unreliable narrator, he has two completely different stories going on at one time—the one he tells the reader and the one that is the truth. I had to make sure that the book could be read on both levels simultaneously, and that involved lots of rearranging and tracking and tweaking.

How did you go about finding a publisher? Did you use an agent? What was the most difficult challenge in getting Thin Space published?

For publishing in the Young Adult market these days, for the most part, you need an agent. I found an agent after two months of querying, but it took her almost two years to sell Thin Space to a publisher. I think the main challenge is that the book is hard to characterize. It's called Paranormal Romance, because that was a trendy genre when it sold, but honestly, there's very little romance in the book. Also, it's not a true paranormal either.

It’s popular today to do a lot of self-promotion for one’s book, such as using social media and planning book tours. What is your experience with marketing your book? What do you think is an author’s responsibility regarding marketing?

My publisher expected me to have a social media presence, which includes maintaining a website and being on Facebook and/or Twitter. They encouraged me to do blog tours and interviews—both print and online—and to attend area book festivals. I planned several of my own bookstore signings, in cities where I had many friends and family members. My publishing company sent me on a multi-author book tour in California.
     My view on self-promotion is that you should do what feels comfortable to you, take opportunities that come your way, and seek out events, such as school and library visits, but in the end, one author can only do so much. A large publishing company's reach and distribution will be the deciding factor in the overall success of a book.

Was the experience of publishing your book what you expected?

I did tons of research before I was published, interviewing other writers about their publishing journeys and following author websites and social media promotions, so I had some idea of what to expect. I think my one big disappointment with the entire experience was viewing publication as The Goal—the highest pinnacle of success— and what I realized as soon as I made it over that mountain was that publication was one more step along the way.

What is your educational background? How did that help you with writing your novel?

I majored in English with a concentration in Creative Writing in college. I have an MA in English. My education taught me how to write stories and how to read carefully, but it did not teach me how to write a novel. I had to write novels to learn how to write novels. And I was a very slow learner! Thin Space was the sixth novel I wrote and the first to be published.

Are you currently writing another book? If so, how is the process going and if you would like, what is it about?

My work-in-progress is in the revamped revision stage. I've already plowed through one draft and have taken the entire thing apart to see what I had. Answer: a giant mess. But, a good, strong, clear, funny voice. A complicated and interesting main character. And a fairly clear story arc. Now I'm picking my way through the story again and shaping it up, one step closer to where I hope it will eventually be.

What advice do you have for busy college students who don’t have a lot of time to work on their manuscripts?

Everyone's busy. If you want to write, you need to make time to write. Twenty minutes/a page a day will equal a finished draft of a book at the end of a year. Scrawl out words in a journal. Jot down ideas in a notebook. Read. A lot.

What other advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Become comfortable with your own process. There is no one right way to Do This. So, figure out what works for you, but also, be open to trying other methods. Dash out a first draft and let the story go wherever it wants, knowing you'll have major revamping to do later. Or, bang out a logical, organized outline and follow it to the letter. Or, some combination of the two. Wake up early and write in the mornings. Write in the evenings before you go to bed. Talk to other writers and pick their brains about how they work.
     Don't be afraid to write crappy first drafts. Don't sit around dreaming of being a writer. Writing takes work. Write the best story you can and when you've taken it as far as it can go, submit it for publication, (expect/don't fear rejections), celebrate your success, and then begin writing your next book.
  • About the Author
    Sarah Shroyer is a freshman honors student at Miami University. She is majoring in English Literature and has a wide variety of interests including, (not surprisingly) reading and writing. She also enjoys field hockey, watching movies, and meeting new people.

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