Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Jennifer Brown

Posted on: November 27, 2013

JenniferBrownThis is my third and final interruption of November Zombie Fest with an author interviews. Today I’d like to introduce you to Jennifer Brown, the author of the timely young adult novel Hate List. Brown grew up wanting to become a teacher and in college even studied to become one. In fact, if not for her husband, who talked her into giving writing a try, there might not be any novels with her name on them. That said, Brown was also one of those kids who always had pencil and paper her hands. Her first story was written in fourth grade and ran two pages long. Her friends, her teachers, and even her friends’ parents told her that she should be a writer. She also loved to write, and did it often, but says she initially viewed it as a hobby and not a way to make a livelihood. After quitting a Human Resources job which made her miserable, she became a stay-at-home mom and decided to write. She hasn’t ever looked back.

Despite her busy schedule, Brown took time earlier this fall to answer my questions. Besides always enjoying interviews with authors, I liked how much I related to some aspects of Brown’s life. Although I didn’t grow up in the Midwest, it is now my home because it’s my husband’s birthplace. During high school especially, I also struggled with low self-esteem. Although Brown decided eventually not to become a teacher, we also share similar academic interests. I studied psychology in college and now am a special-education teacher. Last, both Brown and I grew up with pencil and paper always in our hands. Writing is part of who we both are.  

ALLISON: What is your favorite memory from growing up in the rural Midwest?

JENNIFER: I have a lot of great memories from growing up in the Midwest. My family owns some pastureland across the road from a friend, who also owns some land. Growing up, every Sunday was spent “on the farm,” as we worked the garden, tended to the cattle, picked apples, or whatever else needed to be done. The farmhouse had no television, but there was an upright piano in the living room, and usually I would slip back into the house while everyone else was outside working, and make a beeline for that piano. My coziest memories are of sitting in the dark living room plinking around on the keys, a fire burning in the fireplace, the smell of fresh-baked bread wafting in from the kitchen.

ALLISON: Do you prefer country, town, or city?

JENNIFER: Though I cherish the time spent on the farm when I was young, and I also cherish the years I spent living in downtown Kansas City in my early 20’s, I think I really prefer small town life. I feel more connected here, more grounded. And I also like that I can access either of the other two (country or city) very easily and quickly from where I am now.

ALLISON: Describe yourself as a teenager.

JENNIFER: By the time I hit my teens, I had already been through a lot of personal stuff. A lot of pain, a lot of resentment. I had also been bullied, so I was uneasy in my own skin, had a very low self-esteem, and felt ashamed and embarrassed of who I was. But in 8th grade, I made a great best friend (she is still a great best friend) who was so full of sunshine and cheerfulness and light, it was almost impossible to wallow. We were gigglers. We were silly. And we loved to dance. I really became masterful at hiding how I was feeling on the inside.

ALLISON: In one interview, you indicated that the bullying you endured in high school inspired some of the scenes in Hate List. Have you ever been the bully?

JENNIFER: Great question! For some time in 6th and 7th grade, I was friends with a girl who was a bully. She even bullied me (I never felt such relief as I felt when I finally severed the relationship for good in 9th grade). She was not afraid to bully others — especially with name-calling — and while I don’t think I ever really participated, I definitely didn’t do anything to stand up against it. I regret that.

ALLISON: You grew up wanting to become a teacher. What turned you away from that field?

JENNIFER: English 210, which I took my freshman year of college. I had wanted to be an English teacher, but I quickly learned that good grades in English classes meant analyzing texts and coming to the same conclusion that the teacher came to. I am such a believer that, because your reader comes to the story with her own unique life experiences, no story is the same story for two people. I just didn’t, and still don’t, understand how there could be a “right” and a “wrong” way to read a story or poem or essay or…any piece of written work. Looking back, I probably just had a prickly teacher. But at the time it was reason to change my life course. And I’m glad I did! I’m happy with where my psychology major took me.

ALLISON: Why did you return to college to study psychology? Have those studies influenced your novels?

JENNIFER: I always enjoyed my psychology (and sociology) classes quite a bit, and excelled at them. It just felt right, even though I knew I’d never go on to be a counselor or psychologist of any kind. Little did I know, I was going to use my psychology knowledge in my writing. But, yes, I do. All the time. And majoring in psychology led me to my psychologist husband, who helps me understand my characters on a deeper level.

ALLISON: You eventually became a writer. How has that changed you?

JENNIFER: Wow. It has changed…everything. I had no idea how much I would love doing this, and at this point I really can’t even imagine what else I would do with my life. I’ve occupied a lot of roles in my lifetime…had a lot of jobs. I have never had a job that felt this right. So it changed me in that I feel more settled now in what I do. I don’t hate work anymore!

ALLISON: In Hate List, Valerie is attracted to a “bad boy”. What about bad boys attracts women?

JENNIFER: I think it could be any number of things that makes a bad boy attractive. For some women it could be a “see the good guy within” thing — they want to be the only one who understands him. For some it could be a “saving him” thing — they want to be the one who fixes him. And for some it could be a rebellion thing — they want to be with the one they shouldn’t be with. For Valerie, I think it was simply that Nick understood her darkest side. She needed someone who could see that not everything was okay all the time. She needed someone who would hate the world with her.

ALLISON: In Hate List, a girl from the “in crowd” befriends Valerie. What advice would you offer teenagers who struggle to fit with their peers?

JENNIFER: It’s so hard to fit in, and sometimes you can really feel so alone. I get that. I’ve been there. There is someone out there for you — someone who will understand and befriend you. It may take a while to find her, and you may have to stretch yourself (just as Valerie did with Jessica), but she is out there. You won’t be alone forever. Things will get better. Just keep reminding yourself that you are worthy of friends.

ALLISON: What are your favorite books about bullies or troubled teens?

JENNIFER: Crash Into Me by Albert Borris, Keep Holding On by Susane Colasanti, Shattering Glass by Gail Giles

ALLISON: In an interview, you indicated that talking about your memories of bullying was frightening to you but that it turned out to be one of the best things you’ve ever had. How did you get over your fear? What are some of your best memories from helping teens feel validated in their own experiences?

JENNIFER: There’s always going to be some level of fear when stepping in front of a gymnasium full of teens and talking about my most vulnerable moments. But I understand that talking about it, and sharing my experiences, is important. It’s what I can contribute to the effort to stop bullying, and if I help even one person feel like they’re not alone in what they’re going through, or make one bully re-think what he or she is doing…then it’s worth facing my own fears. And every time someone reaches out to me to tell me that Hate List helped them, or hearing my story helped them, that’s all I need to hear to know that I’ve got to keep talking, no matter how uncomfortable it might be in the moment.

JENNIFER: I have had teens tell me that they recognize themselves in Jessica, or that the book has helped them see their school differently and reach out to people differently. Those are the best stories.

ALLISON: What’s next?

JENNIFER: In January, I have a Hate List e-novella coming out. It’s called Say Something, and tells the story of what led up to the Garvin High shooting from the perspective of a different character. And in May I have a new YA novel coming out, Torn Away, which is about a girl who loses everything in a massive tornado.

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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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