I’m thrilled to welcome Ena Jones back to the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors to celebrate the release of her newest novel, SIX FEET BELOW ZERO.
Ena Jones writes contemporary middle-grade fiction (for children ages 8-12). She grew up in Northern Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, DC, and currently lives in North Carolina. She loves to read a wide variety of books, hole up in her office and write fun stories, take long walks along the ocean, and cook yummy meals for family and friends.
Here’s a link to the SIX FEET BELOW ZERO Educator’s Guide, courtesy of Holiday House.
What inspired you to write this book—and were there any surprises along the way?
SIX FEET BELOW ZERO sprouted from a simple idea. I wanted to explore the question of guardianship, something both parents and kids think about. There’s always a fear: Where will the children end up if something happens to the parents? And will a new guardian have the best interests of the kids at heart? We all know that, from both parent and child perspectives, there are people who are not suited to the role of caregiver. And that’s where I started my “What if . . .” questions.
The first character that came to me was “Great-Grammy,” who was inspired by my husband’s grandmother. I wanted a person who would find a way to protect the children any way she could, even if she weren’t around to do it herself. My husband’s grandmother was that kind of real-life force.
As for surprises, writing a novel is one long series of them. But the biggest surprise was that I found the courage to write—and finish—the book at all. I tried very hard to talk myself out of it, and even enlisted others to tell me it was a bad idea, mostly because of the role of the freezer. The entire concept seemed absurd for a middle grade novel. But as I wrote more and more scenes, the 10-year-old inside of me kept chuckling. And the heart of the story really meant something to me, so here we are a few years later.
I’m glad you didn’t talk yourself out of writing it! I love the heart of the story–and how it encourages readers to appreciate their families and things they often take for granted. You kept me chuckling throughout the book, too.
I love how fleshed out and unique all your characters are. What pieces of you and your life are in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO?
I’ll go back to my husband’s grandmother here, too. She lived on 10 acres of land just outside of Washington, DC, and we would visit her with our children and have the best time tromping around her property. As I wrote the book, I pictured her, the house, the wildlife and trees, and definitely the hundreds of groundhog holes! Revisiting that time in our lives was the best part of writing this story.
Here’s a photo of my favorite tree on Marie’s property. Look closely, and you’ll see a swing she put up preparing for one of our visits.
Beginnings are so hard to nail…but yours sucked me in immediately. How did you decide where to start your book?
The beginnings of books are hard! But they are so important. They’re the gateway into a story, where a reader will either keep going, or think “Meh,” and go on to the next book—or maybe out for ice cream.
I decided to play with a flashback approach. Flashbacks don’t always work, but I knew what I wanted: a compelling and humorous scene to kick off the story and act as a promise to readers about what’s to come. Something that might entice even the most reluctant readers to be curious about Rosie and Baker’s backstory, and all the events, personality-types, and attitudes, that led up to the BIG AWFUL THING that forever changed Rosie and Baker’s lives and ushered them into their “new normal.”
First I tried an opening that took place at the midpoint of the story, where Rosie and Baker sat in a police station doing their best not to answer questions about their great-grandmother’s whereabouts. But the siblings didn’t know enough about their predicament yet, so that didn’t work.
After a bit of trial and error, I landed on a place further along in the story, at a point when they fully realized the foe they were up against and the stakes involved. And that’s where I found my beginning: Rosie starting an urgent last-chance email to her Aunt Tilly, letting everything the siblings had been through spill out.
And that’s the beginning that stuck.
What type of research did you need to do?
It seemed that I was always researching something. Trees, wills, historic graves, locks, and of course freezers . . . the list was endless. I even researched hairstyles. I needed a good one for Grim Hesper!
I love how you sprinkled humor throughout a book with a serious topic. What tips can you share for blending the two?
For me, it all comes back to knowing the characters and their relationships with each other. Maybe characters are dealing with a serious or sad situation, but that doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly become other people. They are still themselves!
For instance, in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, there’s a scene where Rosie and Baker, as they grieve the loss of their great-grandmother, have agreed to come together to do something that seems almost impossible.
The thing is, even in the midst of that difficult scene, they must deal with each other’s quirks and their own shortcomings. There’s a unique opportunity to hit on unspoken truths when feelings let loose under stress, especially between siblings. Who else would you let your guard down with?
Also, normal everyday things continue to happen, that ordinarily wouldn’t be a big deal, but within the serious and sad scenario Rosie and Baker have found themselves in, they get a chuckle.
So I guess that would be my biggest tip for balancing humor within a serious scene or story: When something big, scary, and/or bad, is happening, remember to add your characters’ personalities to the mix, whether those traits are annoying or endearing, and also throw in some evidence that real life hasn’t stopped just because characters are handling (or not handling!) the big, scary, or bad, things.
Thanks so much for those awesome tips! Can you share a writing exercise with us?
A few years ago I was at an SCBWI conference in Florida, and took a full day workshop led by Elizabeth Law, Backlist & Special Projects Editor at Holiday House Books, and Greg Pincus, screenwriter. They spent the day comparing writing stories for children with writing screenplays and developing movie concepts, and it was so much fun!
One of the most memorable parts for me was the segment about “Poster-izing Your Book,” as in movie poster. It’s the line that isn’t a blurb, or synopsis sentence, but that captures the essence of your story in a short sentence or two. It’s what you almost always see on movie posters at the theatre. Do an online image search for “movie posters” and you’ll pull up thousands of examples.
It was at that workshop where I came up with the idea we’re now using to introduce SIX FEET BELOW ZERO:
A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative.
The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.
I highly suggest writers use this strategy on the book they’re writing, no matter what stage it’s in. It helps to study as many movie posters as possible, and then get to work. Fill a few notebook pages with words and short phrases that describe your book, and then start to put them together.
Try it. You’ll love it!
And if you ever have the opportunity to take this particular workshop led by Elizabeth and Greg, don’t miss it!
Wow! That sounds like an incredible workshop. I love your exercise! It’s fantastic for writers and I can picture teachers and students poster-izing books and movies and letting others guess what they are.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell the Mixed-Up Files readers?
I write books that are contemporary, but have a “This would never happen!” vibe. The thing is, I’m basically that kid—my character—when I’m writing. In my world, it not only could happen, it did. I hope readers will connect with the characters in SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, but mostly I hope they enjoy the ride.
I definitely enjoyed the ride. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files again, Ena…and for generously donating a copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO, a bookmark and recipe card to two lucky winners. Enter the Rafflecopters below!
A dead body. A missing will. An evil relative. The good news is, Great Grammy has a plan. The bad news is, she’s the dead body.
Rosie and Baker are hiding something. Something big. Their great grandmother made them promise to pretend she’s alive until they find her missing will and get it in the right hands. The will protects the family house from their grandmother, Grim Hesper, who would sell it and ship Rosie and Baker off to separate boarding schools. They’ve already lost their parents and Great Grammy–they can’t lose each other, too.
The siblings kick it into high gear to locate the will, keep their neighbors from prying, and safeguard the house. Rosie has no time to cope with her grief as disasters pop up around every carefully planned corner. She can’t even bring herself to read her last-ever letter from Great Grammy. But the lies get bigger and bigger as Rosie and Baker try to convince everyone that their great grandmother is still around, and they’ll need more than a six-month supply of frozen noodle casserole and mountains of toilet paper once their wicked grandmother shows up!
One copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO is open to everyone in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
One copy of SIX FEET BELOW ZERO will go to a teacher, media specialist or book blogger in the U.S. or Puerto Rico.
Winners will be announced on April 15. Good luck everyone!