Meet Janet Fox.
Janet Fox writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages. She became a children’s author in the mid-90s, when her son’s learning differences led her to develop her non-fiction book for Free Spirit Publishing, GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT (2006).
Janet’s young adult debut novel, FAITHFUL (Speak/Penguin Group, 2010) was an Amelia Bloomer List pick, and was followed by a companion novel, FORGIVEN (Penguin, 2011), a Junior Library Guild selection and WILLA Literary Award Finalist, and a YA historical set in the 1920s, SIRENS (Penguin, 2012). Janet’s debut middle grade novel THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE is an historical fantasy set in 1940 Scotland (Viking, 2016), and has garnered starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers’ Weekly, and Shelf Awareness.
Janet is a 2010 graduate of the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a former Regional Advisor and current Assistant Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and she’s a former middle school and high school English teacher. Janet lives in Bozeman, Montana. She’s represented by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can also find her at http://www.janetsfox.com.
Now onto the interview!
While browsing your website I saw a post entitled, “Bury the Backstory,” and how it works through example of a character’s backstory using A Knight’s Tale. Why do you think authors get so caught up in the backstory that they forget the current story?
Every story needs backstory. That said, authors who are new to the craft may forget that story supersedes backstory. Backstory is rich with detail – and that’s why it may be so hard to filter the backstory in slowly. And building backstory is work and what author wants to set that work aside?
Recently I taught a session in world building, which is really about creating the backstory for any book. But, as I cautioned my young students, most of the backstory is for the author to know and for the reader to infer. The reader wants to live in the story “now”. The story should progress dynamically into conflict. The backstory impacts the protagonist (and the antagonist) but should be implied through action and reaction. A backstory that is laid out fully in linear fashion is boring.
I love creating backstory. I try to create a story “bible” for each story I write. Characters are richer and more fully developed when you understand why they do what they do. For example, the character who has lost her father to disease may want to dedicate her life to eradicating cancer. If the story you are writing is about how that dedication leads her to do something terrible, like stealing or lying or murder, you, the author, need her backstory, but the audience does not – until the right moment.
However tempting it may be to lard the book with history, less is more. Save the backstory. Slip it in in small measure.
I love this exchange from your book Sirens –
“I’m not a flapper,” I said.
“Yeah? Well, we can fix that.”
Was the story inspired by The Great Gatsby? If yes, what single detail in your story connects most with Fitzgerald’s novel? If not, what single detail is completely different from the classic?
What a great question.
Yes, I did reread The Great Gatsby while writing Sirens. And so there was a heavy influence on my process.
Probably the detail that most resonates for me is the alignment of coincidence. I know – that’s not a detail. But it’s what makes Gatsby so true. That Nick ends up living next to Jay. That Tom is having an affair with Myrtle. That Daisy is driving the car that kills Myrtle.
I think life is defined by the strangeness of coincidence, and when an author can make that resonate – well, for me, it’s a thrill. I tried to make the encounters that seem coincidental in Sirens feel honest. When Jo and Lou first meet; when Jo and Charlie fall in love.
And what is different? Well, Fitzgerald’s story is about men and their relationships, about the decadence inherent in the American dream of the period. I hope my story is about two girls and their relationship, and the idea that believing in a personal dream can lead to a rich life.
Congrats on your latest novel, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle! What made you want to write a “keep calm and carry on” mystery novel focused in the past?
This novel was inspired by the image of the chatelaine that appears in the book. I saw the image on Facebook (really) and it “spoke” to me. What an odd thing, I thought. What does it mean?
Almost at once I began to imagine a story much like my favorite books of childhood – the Narnia books – set in England during World War 2, but with that fantasy/otherworld element. The entire story came into my head so fast it was like a dream. It’s rare when a writer receives such a gift.
The “Keep Calm and Carry On” motto has so much subtext. Like – should I keep calm? Why? What’s there to worry about? Wait, is something worse to come? And it also speaks to the English “stiff upper lip”.
My mother was first generation from England. She embodied so much of what is idealized with “Keep Calm”, for that’s what she was like.
So I was inspired by my childhood favorite reading and my mother, and by something else that I can only describe as my muse.
What future projects are in the works? Can you tell me about any of them?
I’m working on a possible sequel to Charmed Children. I’m also working on a new middle grade and a new YA contemporary. My agent is shopping a YA scifi project and a picture book. And I always have a file of new ideas.
I see you wrote a short story for Spider Magazine called “Why Dragons Don’t Have Handkerchiefs.” What to you is the biggest difference between short story and novel and how do you cope with it?
Interesting. I hadn’t thought about “Dragons” as a short story, but I suppose it is.
Honestly, I’m working on a short story piece right now and I find it difficult. My head thinks in long form. Although I’ve had short stories published, I don’t think of myself as a short fiction writer. Mainly they are small windows into a much larger story.
So I guess rather than coping with the difference I think of my protagonist and what dramatic change might take place in their life at any given moment. We all have those moments: when our boyfriend says goodbye, or when we have a fender-bender, or when we pick up a new puppy. These are all tiny windows into the soul – how we respond, feel, with heartache positive or negative. They could become short stories.
As a writer it’s my job to find the heart inside each incident, whether short or long.
You can find Janet in the following places:
Yes! Please connect with me at any of these
Website: http://www.janetsfox.com, and now http://www.rookskillcastle.com (where there is an interactive game and a way to ask me direct questions)
Thanks Janet Fox for the interview!