Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Jennifer Echols - Former Newspaper Editor Turned Award Winning Author

Welcome to “Up Close & Personal.” For every interview I will be introducing a literary personality discussing her views and insights, as well as upcoming literary events around the world.

Today’s interview is with Jennifer Echols. She has written two romantic comedies for teens and has won the Whatley Award for the year's best essay in the Journal of Popular Culture.

Her book ‘Major Crush’ is a double-finalist in the National Readers’ Choice Awards in the Young Adult and Best First Book categories. Her upcoming book “The Boys Next Door” is due out in June ’07.

EI: What were you like as a teenager? Please tell your readers more about Jennifer Echols -- the woman behind the author?

JE: I tended to throw myself into projects and take charge. I was editor of the student newspaper and drum major of the band. I wanted to be a high school band director myself and compose music for band, so when I was fourteen I bought a college textbook and taught myself how to arrange songs for 20 parts. Many times I thought living in a tiny town held me back. There were no special schools or camps for the arts. But of course as an adult I look back on the experience and see it was an idyllic childhood with parents who supported me in everything that interested me.

EI: Do you enjoy writing? What is it about this art form that enchants you the most?

JE: It’s like composing music but better, because you’re the composer AND arranger AND conductor AND musician. I’m addicted.

EI: Why have you chosen to write in the genre in which you write?

JE: When I started out, I was aiming for literary fiction. But after some soul-searching, I realized that romance is where my heart is. Even in the great works of literature, I’m most interested in the romantic subplot.

EI: In what ways does your writing benefit from your training as a former newspaper editor? Do you feel that the skills you possess as a college writing teacher, and PhD candidate in English inform the way you approach writing a novel and, if so, how?

JE: I wish I had been able to sell the first novel I finished, but I know I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if I hadn’t held those jobs. In different ways they all taught me that writing is not about you, the author. It’s about the reader. You have to be able to step outside yourself and see your writing the way a reader sees it, or no one will be able to identify with your message.

EI: Please explain to your fans about your previous life as a newspaper editor. What made you decide to leave that job? Do you think that life is a dream job or a nightmare?

JE: Actually I held two newspaper jobs--one as a copyeditor and one as lifestyles section editor. Both times I left to go to graduate school. For me personally, these jobs were both dream job and nightmare. The nightmare part came when, as lifestyles section editor, I served as an ambassador to the community. I am extremely introverted, so playing extrovert was a real struggle for me. The dream part was the editing itself. I love working with words, whether they belong to me or other people. I still work as a copyeditor--I just do it from home.

EI: Could you describe your path that lead you to publication--any stumble along the way? Is there anything about you that you would do differently, knowing what you do now?

JE: I had several different agents who were not able to sell my earlier novels. If I had to do it over again, I would definitely have joined Romance Writers of America sooner. I knew about the group, but as an introvert I was loath to go and talk with people about what I was doing. In making my latest push for publication, I found the group invaluable for social support as well as networking and business advice.

EI: You have created a world where romantic comedy for teens does move forward sequentially but instead moves in a more random and fluid way. How did you keep your characters and storyline funny and straight?

JE: I draw charts, graphs and pictures. Whatever works.

EI: When did you get the first inkling that your book might become wildly popular? Can you describe your feelings upon realizing this?

JE: Some people thought a book set in a high school marching band wouldn’t sell. I knew it would because band is a wonderful and very popular activity with lots of opportunity for drama, intrigue and romance. So I feel smug. :)

EI: Your book ‘Major Crush’ is a double-finalist in the National Readers’ Choice Awards, and also in the Young Adult Best First Book categories. It’s a very romantic and a funny novel. Did you ever intend the book to be connected to these specific genres, or did it just evolve?

JE: I intended it as a romantic comedy. I’ve written other genres, but when I started this book I could see the whole thing.

EI: Do you always know a story's ending when you begin writing?

JE: Always. First I figure out the beginning, the ending, the climax, and the other important plot points. I may write the rest more fluidly, but I need that road map starting out so I don’t get lost.

EI: Let’s shift gears... tell us about your book ‘Major Crush’ how did you come up with the title and idea?

JE: I got the idea from my experience as the first female drum major of my high school marching band. My original title was “Queen Geek,” as in band geek, but another book coming out around that time had the same title. Elke Villa in Simon & Schuster’s marketing department came up with the title “Major Crush,” and I renamed a character after her as a thank-you (see page 58 of the book).

EI: How much of ‘Virginia Sauter & Drew’s’ life is planned out in your head? How do you know where you will go next with any of your characters?

JE: I know exactly what happens to Virginia and Drew for quite a few years after the book ends, but I’d rather keep it to myself. I’m still holding out hope for writing a sequel someday.

EI: What challenges or obstacle did you encounter while writing and creating “Virginia” How did you overcome these challenges?

JE: I remember feeling somewhat distanced from her at first. I made her a little more like me so I could relate to her better. She’s not exactly like me, but a lot of the problems and emotions she wrestles with as drum major are taken from my own experience.

EI: Let’s talk about your soon-to-be-published 2nd YA novel. "The Boys Next Door" Can you give us a hint what it’s all about? And what inspired you about the book? And what about writing for teens appealed to you?

JE: From the back cover:

“Lori lives for summertime at her family's lake house. She spends all season wakeboarding, swimming, and hanging with her friends--including the two hotties in the cabin next door. With the Vader brothers, Lori's always been one of the guys.

“But while Lori and the ‘baby’ brother, Adam, are inseparable friends, she can't deny a secret crush on Sean, the older Vader boy. This year Sean's been paying Lori a lot of attention, and not in a brotherly way.

“But just as Lori decides to prove to Sean she's girlfriend material, she realizes that her role as girl friend to Adam may be even more important. And by trying so hard for the perfect summer romance, she could be going way overboard...”
JE: I grew up on a beautiful lake in Alabama, so I was able to put a lot of my experiences living on the water into this book.
As for writing for teens...I finished writing my first novel when I was twenty years old, and although I intended it as a literary novel, it was YA-ish in that it featured young characters. Since then I have gone back and forth writing for adults and teens. I have never left YA behind as a reader or a writer.

EI: What would you tell those authors considering applying to an M.F.A. program? In your opinion how important is it for a writer to have a writing degree?

JE: I think you should write down what you need and think you will get from this program, then examine the course descriptions very carefully and discuss the program with the folks in charge before you commit the time and money. Some extremely prestigious programs can help you get published because the profs can hook you up with their agents or editors if they’re impressed enough with you. I think this happens very seldom. On the other hand, I firmly believe no education is wasted. But from a purely practical standpoint, especially if you’re writing commercial fiction rather than literary fiction, you might do just as well by joining a professional writers’ group like Romance Writers of America and--very important--WRITING.

EI: What can fans look forward from you in the coming months?

JE: “The Boys Next Door” is coming out on June 26. I have more projects in the works for teens and adults. Check my web site at http://www.jennifer-echols.com for the latest.

EI: Would you like to close the interview by telling your readers any writing tips for the young aspiring writers?

JE: Write every day. Make it a habit. Talking about writing and actually writing are not the same thing. Talking is easy and writing is hard. But it will get easier and lots more fun as you go!

To learn more about Jennifer Echols, please visit her at:

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