I jumped at the chance to interview author Jennifer Gennari as soon as I heard about her newest book, Muffled. As a special education teacher, I’m always excited for stories that portray exceptional kids with honesty, humor, and strength. Muffled does it beautifully, and as it happens, Jen is just as insightful and honest as her main character, Amelia.
CL: Hi, Jen! Thanks for chatting with me! Let’s start with how the idea for Muffled came about – can you tell us about it?
JG: Thank you, Chris, for inviting me to the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors! Like many writers, I keep a story file of ideas. For more than fifteen years, I had a note about a blizzard from my childhood: “I’ll never forget that snowstorm. The silence without cars. What would happen if all the noises stopped?” It wasn’t until much later that I saw a way to approach that idea. I realized that for many people, including my husband, silence isn’t just beautiful, it’s something they need to recharge, to be able to participate in our very noisy world. And that’s how Amelia’s story began.
CL: And the story is set in Boston – any particular reason you chose that city?
JG: I lived in Boston when I was the age of Amelia, and it was important to me to show a family that depends on public transportation. Many children who live in cities don’t have cars, and I wanted to reflect that reality. I love Boston, for its Public Garden (and Make Way for Duckling statues), the stately, amazing library in Copley Square, and the Red Sox. Like Amelia, I grew up riding the green line!
CL: It’s so cool to have that personal connection! How about research, then? Muffled seems like a super realistic portrayal of life with sound sensitivity—did you have to do any research for the book?
JG: Researching is an integral part of writing. I didn’t rely on my memory of Boston—I looked at images of the library’s lions, transit maps, and apartment buildings. To develop Amelia’s character, I read The Highly Sensitive Child and spoke to a therapist and special education teachers. Researching also means empathizing, an important skill for writers. I notice people’s emotions in certain situations, and try my best to get those details right. Stories introduce young readers to different ways of being, something I take seriously. Readers will always find hope and connection in my books.
CL: Muffled is your second traditionally published book. I’ve heard that second books can be harder to write…was that your experience?
JG: Yes! I’m glad you asked. I wrote three books between My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer and Muffled. Each one was beloved but the stories, in the end, were not viable. I think of those manuscripts as plotting practice: I got better at increasing tension, giving characters a satisfying arc, and rewriting scenes that didn’t work. For all those aspiring writers out there, know that persistence and a willingness to revise are key to success!
CL: That’s a great way to think about it! You actually mention on your website that plotting a story is a bit like a puzzle. Could you explain that?
JG: I am a big fan of jigsaw and crossword puzzles—especially during this pandemic! When you first start a jigsaw puzzle, all the colors and details are scattered. You have to organize the pieces, and see what picture emerges, just like the details and scenes of your manuscript. And to carry the metaphor on, revising is like doing the same puzzle twice—it’s still hard but memory helps you find the path forward to complete a story without any holes.
CL: I love that! So if it wasn’t obvious already, you’re also an editor and writing teacher yourself, right?
JG: My career began as a reporter, and later, I became a news editor of a weekly paper. If your article doesn’t fit on the page, it will be cut! I discovered I’m good at preserving voice and intent and excising the fluff. When I studied for my MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I understood even more completely that every word choice matters. Now, through The Highlights Foundation, I teach others how to edit their own manuscripts. It’s an essential skill and I love teaching writers!
CL: So cool! Okay, Jen – now it’s time for the lighting round! Favorite place to write?
JG: Surrounded by shelves of kidlit books with a cup of tea nearby!
CL: Favorite authors?
JG: Jacqueline Woodson, Kate DiCamillo, Erin Entrada Kelly to name a few!
CL: Best dessert?
JG: Any homemade pie!
CL: Do you have any pets?
JG: No, but I love watching shorebirds from my home.
CL: Favorite elementary school memory?
JG: Like Amelia, I often snuck off during recess to find a cozy place to read.
CL: And lastly – favorite piece of advice for other writers?
JG: Read, read, read!
Jennifer Gennari is the author of MUFFLED (Simon & Schuster, 2020), a Junior Library Guild selection, and MY MIXED-UP BERRY BLUE SUMMER (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), a Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year selection, and an American Library Association Rainbow List title. An engaging speaker and teacher, she has presented at the Writing Barn, SCBWI workshops, and Highlights Foundation. She serves as Marin County Co-Coordinator for the SF North and East Bay Region of SCBWI. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives on the water in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @JenGenn and more at www.jengennari.com.
Many thanks to Jen for taking the time to talk to me! Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of Muffled!
See you next time!