Meet WILLA Award Author Janet Fox

Janet Fox’s Young Adult novel, Forgiven, was a WILLA Literary Award Finalist in the Forgiven with awardWomen Writing the West’s 2012 competition, and it is a story well-deserving of this award. This is a companion novel to Faithful, which takes place in Yellowstone Park in Montana.

Synopsis: Flirting on the edge of danger, Montana girl Kula Baker finds herself on the streets of San Francisco, alone but for a letter of introduction. Though she has come to the city to save her father from a cruel fate, Kula soon finds herself swept up in a world of art and elegance – a world she hardly dared dream of back in Montana, where she was no more than the daughter of an outlaw. And then there is the handsome David Wong, whose smiling eyes and soft-spoken manner have an uncanny way of breaking through Kula’s carefully crafted reserve. Yet when disaster strikes and the wreckage threatens all she holds dear, Kula realizes that only by unlocking her heart can she begin to carve a new future for herself.

Welcome, Janet, and congratulations again on your award. Tell us how Forgiven evolved. Did you start with the idea of writing a story centered around the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake or with the character?

I began with the character – although I’ll confess that setting forms an integral part of my author photoearly process. Kula is a secondary character in my first novel, Faithful, and I fell in love with her. But she’s a tough character, and initially my editor was leery; she worried that readers wouldn’t be able to connect with her. When I submitted the draft, I’m happy to say Jen changed her mind – or maybe Kula changed Jen’s mind.

I do like to create events in my historical world/fictional world that would interest readers beyond the story arc, and in that sense, taking Kula to San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake seemed like a perfect fit. Kula’s world is shaken to its foundations metaphorically and literally.

What made you decide on the genre of young adult historical romance?

I’ve been writing most of my life but my early projects were all for adults. It wasn’t until my mother died, and I found among her papers a stack of unpublished children’s stories, that I realized that my voice is that of a young person. I guess you could say I suffer from arrested development. As for historical, I’ve always loved history, and it seemed to fit the character of Maggie in Faithful, who popped into my head one day as I was taking a walk, and then she just wouldn’t leave me alone. And the romance: aren’t all young women obsessed with romance? I know I was, so I just put myself back in those shoes and relived all the aches and pains and desires I had as a teen.

Faithful high resAnd why the setting of Montana?

That walk I was taking? That was here in Montana one summer day when we were in our cabin in the mountains. Maggie wormed her way into me through the magic of those mountains. And then I had to send her to Yellowstone, which is both beautiful and treacherous, because what she was living through had to push her way outside her comfort zone. Again the setting resonated with the underlying theme.

Kula began in Yellowstone because that’s where we meet her in Faithful, and her core values and ideas are formed as a result of her upbringing there and then in time spent in Bozeman.

What is the insight you, as an author, received from writing these books and what do you hope your readers will take away?

Interesting question. I don’t consciously look for my theme up front when I begin a new project; I always start with a character and a snip of a situation. I never know what will evolve from that. It’s only in the later stages of drafting that I begin to identify my “theme” – what my readers might take away, what Thomas McCormack calls the “master-effect” – so that I can tie imagery and symbolism together to make a resonant whole. Each of my novels does something different in that regard.

I suppose, though, that what I’m doing when I write is searching for meaning. I’m looking for answers. I guess if I ever really find those answers, I’ll stop writing; and for the moment I have no plans to stop writing.

Do you have a favorite author who has inspired you?

I have many. From Dickens, I’ve tried to learn the art of the cliff-hanger. From Austen, the beauty of the perfect sentence. Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), crafts constant tension; M.T. Anderson (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing) does historical with rich resonance and veracity; Tolkien constructs evocative settings; Hemingway writes lean and spare; Joyce writes with poetry. I admire many, many contemporary kidlit authors: Maggie Steifvater, Rita Williams-Garcia, Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Laini Taylor, Gary Schmidt, Polly Horvath, Richard Peck, Judy Blundell….I could go on and on.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

When I was in third grade.

Seriously, my third grade teacher sent a poem I wrote to the town paper, and when I saw my name in print, that was it. I was hooked, and never stopped thinking about becoming a writer.

Have you mentored other writers?

Yes, I hope so! I’ve given critiques as donations for various charities, and I’ve spoken at many writers’ conferences. I taught high school for four years and I love encouraging young writers; a young woman here locally won a contest that included my mentorship, and she has great talent and promise. I like to encourage writers. But I do have to limit the amount of time I give away, because I have many projects waiting for me.

What advice do you have for kids who aspire to write?

Read. Read all the time. Search for support and don’t be discouraged – it takes time to build skills. When you’re ready, study the craft. Find a support network – I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) early in my career, and the advice and information I gathered there was crucial. Keep writing, and try writing different things in different genres; you might find your voice in picture books or in poetry or in westerns. Don’t give up.

Your third YA novel, Sirens, is now available. Is this part of your series or is it a Sirens front cover.indddeparture?

Sirens is a definite departure. For one thing, it’s set in 1925 New York. For another, it’s slightly edgier than the first two, with gangsters and Prohibition, and a missing brother who may or may not be dead and who may or may not be a ghostly presence.

What project are you working on now?

I have three projects in various stages, and they are a real departure for me. Two of them are middle grade fantasies (although one does have historical elements) and the third is a young adult science fiction novel. I move back and forth between them as I finish drafts, or as my agent is reading. I don’t like to be idle.

You are traditionally published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin. How difficult was it to land that first contract? And do you have an agent?

I do have an agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, and I’ve been with her since before she sold Faithful. She is instrumental in focusing my career. She came from the editorial world, so she is hands-on with my projects, giving me lots of feedback and nurturing them until they are ready to sell. I had sold my very first book, Get Organized Without Losing It (Free Spirit Publishing, 2006), on my own, but I’m thrilled to have Alyssa on my team.

Learn more about Janet on her Website.

The other two important things I did for my career was join SCBWI, and I went back to school (Vermont College of Fine Arts) for my MFA in writing for children. Both of those steps took me from a wanna-be writer to a serious and committed author. I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also been determined to grow and learn, and that’s really what it takes.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks so very much for hosting me, Heidi!

  2. Janet,
    May you have a long and fulfilling career with your multiple interests.

    • That’s so sweet, Arletta! Many thanks and back at you!


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