Five months ago, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.
Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.
About the Author:
When not writing about serious subjects, Jennifer Brown, a two-time winner of the Erma Bombeck Global Humor Award, is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. She lives in Missouri with her husband and three children. Hate List is her debut novel.
I tore through Hate List like a woman on a mission! Valerie Leftman broke my heart and made it soar. Jennifer Brown has written one of the most tragic, yet inspiring books about teens and how they relate to their peers and home life.
Hate List has been chosen as one of School Library Journal’s best of 2009.
Jennifer, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for OPWFT readers. I’d like to start with questions about Hate List – with no spoilers of course!
Q: What inspired you to write a book about a school shooting?
A: Funny that you ask this question — I’ve never really considered HATE LIST to be a story about a school shooting. I’ve always seen it as more of an “emotional journey” story, especially since the shooting has already happened before the story even opens.
That said, I’ve always had questions surrounding school shootings (“Why do they happen?” “Why doesn’t anyone stop the shooter in progress?” “Why do we, the rest of the world, just accept the media’s ‘truth’ about these events?” And, of course, “What happens after?”). Not blaming-type questions, but just… questions — probably in part because I’m a writer and I question a lot of things, but mostly because I’m a mother and school shootings really frighten me.
Also, I dealt with some pretty intense bullying in junior high and high school, and I’ve always kind of carried that around with me. I’ve never quite understood why people are so mean to each other (and not just teens, either. Ever notice how mean grown people can get when they get all anonymous and cocky on an Internet message board? Yipes!). I’ve been carrying around my experience for 20 or 25 years, and I felt like it was beyond time to let it go.
And then — and this is the goofy part, but I can’t leave it out — the Nickelback song, “If Everyone Cared,” got stuck in my head one night while I was sleeping, and I woke up with these two characters in my mind (there’s even a scene in HATE LIST where Nick and Valerie are “lying beneath the stars,” just like in the song) and all those swirling questions and past experiences just sort of collided with one another and the story was just… there.
Q: You take a unique approach by bringing the reader the story through Valerie, who is a victim, a hero, and to some, to blame. How did you come up with your complex story line for Valerie?
A: Well, like I said, I’ve always had these questions in the back of my mind. And I had this notion that what we’re fed (usually that the shooters were evil or were outcasts and horribly bullied and so forth) is perhaps not necessarily the full and only truth. Nothing is black and white like that, but it’s easier to believe that A) the shooter was pure evil, or B) the victims somehow “deserved” it because they tormented him relentlessly, than to try to see that there are all sorts of different “truths” out there, depending on whose perspective you’re adopting. (And, by the way, I don’t think anyone ever could “deserve” to be killed for bullying someone.)
So I knew I wanted a character who sort of represented all of those truths. She stopped the shooting in progress, so she was a hero. But she also created the Hate List, so she was the villain, right? And then there was the whole bullying aspect, where she was really tormented, which kind of made her a victim, too. And if you look at Jessica — one of the bullies — you can see sort of similar conflicting traits. Jessica was a bully, so she was a villain. But she also lost a lot of friends (and almost lost her own life), so she was a victim. And she reaches out to Valerie — the most hated girl in school — after all is said and done in order to make a positive change in her world… which kind of makes her a hero, too. They’re like reverse sides of the same coin.
Q: Valerie’s family dynamic adds further obstacles for her as she heals. Did you research how parents react in situations such as school shootings, or were Mom and Dad from your own muse? They are a very real portrayal of how parents would react – conflicted and unsure how to help their daughter, with the situation compounding the already existing issues in their marriage.
A: The Mom and Dad really were from my own muse. I come from a broken home, so the crumbling marriage thing wasn’t really a stretch for me to come up with, but I also just thought about how a parent might feel if they were in Jenny and Ted Leftman’s shoes. Having never been in this situation, I would never act like I know for sure what they’re going through, but I would imagine that, as a parent, you still love your child, but you’d be pretty horrified by what she’d done; you’d feel some amount of guilt for not having seen it coming; you’d feel like the whole world was watching you and you definitely wouldn’t want your child to do something else to screw up while the whole world was watching. There’d be all kinds of grief involved — grief for the students who died and their families, grief for the loss of your happy family, grief for what your child has gone through — and fear, and self-pity and… probably just about the whole gamut of emotions.
A lot of readers have experienced the parents (especially the dad) as being horribly mean. But I never experienced them that way. I kind of felt sorry for them. Parents aren’t perfect, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.
Q: Was it difficult writing about Nick from essentially two perspectives, as hated school shooter, and loved boyfriend? How did you manage the balance?
A: At first, I didn’t have a good balance. Nick, in my mind, didn’t need to have a soft, vulnerable side that we see because he was already dead before the story begins, and all we needed to know about him was that he was the guy who did this horrible thing. The focus of the story was Valerie, and she didn’t see what the love of her life was planning to do. For whatever reason, she just didn’t see it, possibly because she was so crazy about him and she totally romanticized him.
This is where I have to give my editor (T.S. Ferguson) props, because in re-writes, he forced me to show why Valerie would be so in love with this guy. So the scenes where you see the soft side of Nick… the lovable side… those were brought in during the re-writes. Turns out, T.S. was so right about this. My favorite scene in the whole book is a scene that didn’t even exist in the initial version of HATE LIST, but I love that scene for what it does to bring Nick to life for the reader and to keep Valerie from just being an idiot who fell in love with a bad guy and then was surprised that he turned out to be bad.
So to answer your question… no, it wasn’t very difficult, because I didn’t write the two halves of Nick at the same time. I wrote the “bad” Nick initially, then went back in, months later, and created the “good” Nick.
Q: On a lighter note, who is your favorite character (other than Valerie), and why?
A: Dr. Hieler, hands-down, because he is 100% stolen from a real-life person — my husband, Scott. Scott, a psychologist, played a huge part in helping me understand Valerie’s grief process. I know him better than anyone in the world, and the guy’s just so colorful and wonderful, he makes for a really lovable character. So everything from Dr. Hieler’s body language (slinging a leg over the arm of his chair) to the wooden hot air balloon in his office to playing chess with his clients to catchy sayings like, “Fair is a place where you eat corn dogs and ride the merry-go-round,” are Scott’s. A lot of my readers have fallen in love with Dr. Hieler and, trust me, he’s milking it for everything it’s worth!
For the writers among us:
Q: Do you outline or wing it?
A: I wouldn’t say I “wing it” exactly, but I absolutely do not outline. I spend a lot of time thinking about a story before I sit down to write it, so I have a pretty good idea of the major plot points before I ever set fingers to keyboard. But I do like to allow room for the characters to shape the story themselves a little bit. Occasionally this can land me in trouble, and I can end up with sub-plots that threaten to overthrow the main plot, but that’s pretty easily taken care of in editing.
Q: What was your journey to publication like with your debut, Hate List?
A: I’ve been writing for about 10 years, and up to this point, my focus has always been on humor-writing and lighter romance. In fact, I signed with my agent in 2006 for a light romance I’d written. It still has not sold. So I just kept writing and kept writing. In fact, HATE LIST is my 5th novel — it’s just the first to sell. Because HATE LIST is so far out of my genre, I was kind of afraid to admit that I was writing it. I didn’t really tell my agent what I was working on — I’d just send her these cryptic notes that I was working on something (the poor woman… probably deserves a medal for dealing with me). Finally, when I told her I was about done with the project, she asked if she could see the first three chapters, and I was scared to death! I was scared that she’d see that I’d written out of genre and would hate it and would drop me for wasting most of a year on a non-viable project.
Turned out, she loved it, and started trying to sell it right away! So I sent her the full manuscript and let her have at it. And it all went very, very fast (especially when, as a writer, you’re used to waiting for months for feedback on a submission). It really was just a couple weeks between sending her the manuscript and bids coming in. In the end, we went to auction, with three publishers bidding, which seemed (and still does seem) completely surreal to me. We did a little minor haggling back and forth, and finally accepted Little, Brown’s offer.
It’s probably important to note that I found my agent through a blind submission. Yep. Slush pile. So it does happen!
Q: Do you have critique partners who do the first read?
A: I tend to be pretty close-to-the-vest with my work while I’m working on it. I’m kind of superstitious that way. I don’t even like to tell my parents what a story is going to be about until I’m done writing it. That said, I do have a few writer friends who I completely trust and would go to if I were to find myself in a “stuck” place.
Q: Do you have a point of view and tense preference for your writing?
A: I almost always write in 1st person point of view, because I feel it is the most immersive point of view, for me, as the writer, and also for the reader. And I prefer to write in past tense, but I love the immediacy of a story told in present tense.
Q: Writers sometimes struggle with bad habits, like using too many adverbs, or passive verbs. Do you catch yourself having a writing habit that you try to break?
A: Wild sub-plotting — I have a tendency to, out of the blue, stick a rape scene into a story or some other major thing that doesn’t really work as a random, sudden sub-plot. That said, I tend to go ahead and let myself write those crazy sub-plots, just to get it out of my system, and then delete them later.
Q: Do you edit while writing, or leave editing until after the first draft?
A: I just keep going, and edit after the entire first draft is done. However, every day when I sit down to write, I always re-read the last chapter written the day before, just to get myself back “in voice” and back into the storyline, and if I see something major in that chapter, I’ll fix it then.
Q: What kind of networking do you do, and how do you interact with your readers?
A: I do a lot of online networking (I have a Facebook page, as well as a Facebook Fan Page, I’m on Twitter, I Skype book clubs and classrooms, I blog for a couple websites, including my own, I hang out on Goodreads and check in at LinkedIn every so often, etc.), and I love to interact with readers. I love receiving emails and letters and comments on my blogs, and I always try to respond.
Because I’m in KC and we don’t get a ton of writery events here, I don’t get to do a lot of in-person networking with other writers. But I try to get it in when I can. So I go to whatever conferences and workshops I can get to and try to talk to as many people as possible while I’m there. I also do quite a few speaking gigs for all kinds of different groups — from groups of librarians to mother’s groups, breakfast clubs, schools, churches, book clubs, etc.
Q: Best piece of advice for aspiring authors?
A: Ignore the people who will try to tell you that you should give up. The publishing industry is not dead. You can get noticed through a slush pile. You can make it without “knowing someone.” As long as you believe it’ll happen and you really pursue it… it will happen.
And….just for fun…
Q: Mexican, Italian or other?
A: Italian, of course!
Q: What’s your favorite color?
Q: As a humor award winner, what’s your favorite sit com of all time?
A: Hoo-boy, this is tough. Probably Three’s Company (John Ritter was sheer genius), but The Office comes in a veeery close second.
OPWFT is excited to announce a contest to win HATE LIST with Jennifer Brown as the judge! All you have to do is leave a joke for Jennifer in the comments of this post, and the one that makes her laugh the hardest wins! You have until December 18th to post – good luck!
Don’t forget to visit Jennifer’s blog – http://www.jenniferbrownya.com/
*Winner’s outside of the US will recieve an Amazon gift card to purchase HATE LIST.
(Please note: this contest has closed)
Original interview published on Old People Writing for Teens by Jamie Blair. To view the original interview and comments, please click here.