Our guest today is Jess Rinker, author of the middle-grade novels Out of Time: Lost on the Titanic, The Dare Sisters, and The Dare Sisters: Shipwrecked (coming this September). Jess has also written picture book biographies on feminist Gloria Steinem and Brenda Berkman, one of the first female firefighters for the New York City Fire Department.
Thanks so much, Jess for joining us at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors! It has been fun witnessing your publishing success since meeting at the Highlights Foundation workshop several years ago. Can you offer a bit about your journey?
Thank YOU for having me! It’s funny, I always think about our time at Highlights as if it was “last summer”, when in fact it was four years ago! Wow. A lot has happened since then for sure—it’s amazing how connected we’ve all remained and hopefully, we’ll begin to cross actual paths again soon.
My journey started way before then, probably more around 2005 when I went from one of those people who said “someday I’ll write a book” to someone who actually sat down and wrote a book. It would be the first of many shelved manuscripts, but learning I could write a novel changed my life trajectory. Fast forward through years of practice, attending conferences, and taking classes, by 2014 I graduated with an MFA, signed with an agent the following year, and sold my first book Gloria Takes a Stand in 2016. I definitely put in my “10,000 hours” as Malcolm Gladwell says. 2018 was a bit of an explosion for me regarding book sales, and so now I just turned in my third middle-grade novel, which brings me to a total of six books by next summer. Whew.
I know you love the outdoors and rural settings, which shines through in your middle-grade works of fiction. Would you share your inspiration for these settings?
So far, yes, all of my middle grade takes place in rural/small town settings. (Even the super secret one we’re just about to pitch to my editor) I grew up in rural NJ and PA in the ’70s-’80s and my parents were pretty hands-off so I was free to explore all of the woods and creeks and rivers around me. Other than a library card, it was probably the biggest gift they gave me. I had few friends as a young child and the woods and wildlife became my entire world—the perfect place for an imagination to blossom. My mom gave me countless nature books as well, and so learning the names of flowers, trees, bugs, animals, even fish, and frogs, became a way for me to “know” the wildlife around me, as well as order my otherwise chaotic world. I think my mom always had an innate understanding that when you give something a name (or learn its name), you gain an appreciation for it. In my upcoming book The Hike to Home, I give my mom and my young self a little nod in that the main character has a similar proclivity to know all the names of the natural things around her. It’s something I still do and now living in a brand-new place—West Virginia—there are so many new creatures to get to know! West Virginia is an incredibly biologically diverse state with New River Gorge (The nation’s most recent National Park!) being the highest, I believe.
Your picture book biographies feature strong, independent women. Your middle-grade fictional work shares the adventures of strong and independent girls. Tell us a little bit about the background behind these stories.
To be completely honest, I never intended to “brand” myself and when I first started, I was writing angsty YA that didn’t sell. I’ve always approached the writing life—and publishing as much as possible—as someone who just truly loves writing stories. I don’t have a very altruistic sense until the book is on the shelf. Once it’s out there, it’s on its own, but before that it’s all mine and I treasure that creative stage. So ideas come and go and whatever grabs a hold of me the most, I write it. I have plenty of stories and ideas that are not strong-girl stories per se.
That being said, back in 2015 I was reading Gloria Steinem’s canon of literature and that, paired with the sale of the biography, fueled me in a new way as a woman and as a writer. I absolutely became conscious of wanting to write characters who had agency in their lives. I had next-to-none as a child, and many children are powerless because of their circumstances. I chose not to write about those circumstances (yet) and instead write stories that showed children the power they CAN have. Somehow, that turned into strong girls, strong women. I’m not complaining! But it was a natural evolution, driven by my own education and internal revolution, the love of storytelling, and a desire to empower children in whatever little way I can.
I know that you and your family experienced a tragic fire, which engulfed and destroyed your home, including all of your childhood journals. How has writing helped you move forward through that loss?
That was a huge blow, for sure. Sometimes I don’t even remember it happened until someone mentions it and other times I look in my closet and mourn the loss of my favorite summer dress or those precious journals. I mentioned earlier that 2018 was a bit of an explosion for me book-wise, and I think that’s what really helped me quickly recover from that trauma—which was also caused by a literal explosion! I don’t know that we will ever be “over it”, only through the worst of it, but we have found a secure new normal since then. The book sales kept me focused. I’d lost everything I owned, but I still had my family and my job, and it completely kept me going. I’d also been married only a week before the fire, so while it slightly marred our anniversary month, which is August, we had a lot of love and joy.
Exactly a week after the fire, even though we were technically homeless, we still had our wedding party that had been planned for months. Sometimes I wish we could do it over again since my husband and I were in a bit of a fog, but I’m grateful we were able to celebrate. In another wonderful, but long story my wedding dress had been somewhat spared from flame and smoke because of the way it was stored, so a dear friend of mine stole it away, had it cleaned and repaired, and I got to wear it again at the party. We made the news for the fire and the dress. Kind of a beautiful juxtaposing, I think. Everything is writing material, right?!
Whenever I do school visits, both students and teachers are interested in my writing process. Tell us about yours.
Gosh, it changes so much all the time—especially with writing under a few different categories. This question is always tough to answer, but I suppose my main process is to first let myself be entirely swept away with an idea. Whether nonfiction or fiction, I dive into research, notetaking, scene ideas, dialogue, and especially character development before I really write anything. When I’m drafting, I’m in my PJ’s on the couch. Sometimes I try to get away to a place like Highlights where I don’t have to think about normal day-to-day stuff, but that’s not possible as much anymore since I’m also teaching now. I don’t have any fun rituals or anything—it’s just me, silence (when possible), the notebook or computer, and a comfy place to sit.
What stories did you enjoy reading as a child?
Everything. I was never once told I wasn’t allowed to read something so I read everything from the nature books to kids’ books to my mom’s collection of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. My favorite stories often involved survival aspects, like Island of the Blue Dolphin, or My Side of the Mountain, but I also loved classics like Little Women and The Secret Garden. (Which, come to think of it, have survival aspects in other ways) All of EB White and Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Katherine Paterson. But I quickly graduated to adult books and loved horror and dystopian. I weirdly enjoyed reading about grown-ups. I also really loved my grandparents’ shelves of encyclopedias and would page through them quite a bit. It wasn’t until having my own kids, and especially while working on my MFA, that I really got a good dose of the huge variety of children’s books.
I know you teach writers at the collegiate level. What have you learned through this process?
My husband and I were just talking about this! Teaching writing forces you to be a better writer and that’s one of the reasons we both really enjoy it. (Although don’t ask me that when I have 25 essays to grade in two days) Teaching stretches you, keeps you on your toes. Not only for the college but with freelance clients as well. We team up as a couple to coach writers through their projects and we bring different skills and insights to the table, so it becomes a pretty well-rounded process. When you have to help someone craft and revise an essay or plot a novel, it reminds you of all the things you do on a more subconscious level. It’s very eye-opening. My favorite part of teaching, however, is encouraging young writers who want to be better, assuring them that it is a lifetime of practice and devotion, and none of us masters it. We just get better. Hopefully.
As you are married to children’s book author Joe McGee, what is it like working and living with a fellow creative soul?
It’s pretty wonderful. I won’t say there haven’t been some tough spots, because when we first partnered, he was a bit “ahead” of me in the business. I was struggling to sell anything, as well as unable to find a decent job. I had a couple of years of a lot of disheartening “No’s” seemingly coming from everyone and we struggled financially. Those couple years were hard on me. I wasn’t competing with him, but I remember thinking if nothing ever happened for me, and I had to settle for retail jobs for the rest of my life, I didn’t know if I could survive the relationship. This came from my own personal baggage of always feeling like the cheerleader in my previous marriage, and I was very aware of that, and so was Joe. With patience and continued determination, it obviously all panned out. And Joe is probably my biggest cheerleader.
I’m often asked which is my favorite book that I’ve written…do you have a favorite?
I get that question a lot too—especially from kids. I always tell them my favorite is the one I’m writing right now because it’s true! It’s that special creative time where the story is all mine and I can be lost in it before handing it over to the world. So right now, my favorite book is the one we’re about to pitch to my editor…hopefully more on that very soon!
What is your absolute favorite thing about writing for children?
I do not know. How’s that for an answer! But I really am not sure how to choose one thing. Writing is what I love and it just happens to be for children. I’ve been writing for myself since I was a kid, and then when my kids were little, and I read to them all the time, I thought, “I could totally do this”. So, I did and I never looked back. I’ve never tried writing an adult book, I never have ideas for adult books, and I’m fine with that. I could get super psychological and really pull it apart on a deeper level that has to do with suffering a lot of trauma as a child, and the fact I was treated like a peer to my parents from day one, and so never had a true, care-free childhood….but nah. It doesn’t really matter. Because those very things also made me the writer I am. The fact is, the ideas and voices in my head are always kids and teens, and I just love writing their stories. When a young reader tells me they loved the book, or a parent tells me that it’s the first book their kid ever finished, that is a major heart-warming bonus, for sure. But I’d keep writing regardless.
Thank you, Jess! To learn more about Jess, visit her website, www.jessrinker.com. Jess has graciously offered to give a copy of both The Dare Sisters and the upcoming Dare Sisters: Shipwrecked to one lucky winner. Enter here by July 15 for your chance to win. Note: Only residents of the contiguous United States, please.