Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Inside the Writer's Studio with Janet Gurtler

Today at Inside the Writer’s Studio we welcome Janet Gurtler author of I’m Not Her. Janet and I have been online friends for a good long time. We’ve buoyed each other, vented when we needed to, and crack each other up often. Janet is a superb writer. She is dry, witty, and under the surface her characters boil with tension. She is so adept at creating a full round teen life. Her latest releases, I’m Not Her and If I Tell cement her as a realistic YA voice we will long be listening to. So, let’s welcome her, all the way from Canada to be our guest here today.

About the book (from Sourcebooks Fire)

"For the first time in my life, I didn't feel envy..."

Tess is the exact opposite of her beautiful, athletic sister. And that's okay. Kristina is the sporty one, Tess is the smart one, and they each have their place. Until Kristina is diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly Tess is the center of the popular crowd, everyone eager for updates. There are senior boys flirting with her. But, the smiles of her picture perfect family are cracking and her sister could be dying. Now Tess has to fill a new role: the strong one. Because if she doesn't hold it together, who will?

Janet Gurtler tests the bonds of sisterhood in this moving debut that readers of Jodi Picoult and Sarah Dessen will savor.

Welcome, Janet! (And see Janet’s feature essay in The Varying Shade of Shadows issues of the lit journal Hunger Mountain.)

Is there a story behind the story that you wish to share? (Ie: the ah-ha or lightning moment where the story inspiration struck)

I’M NOT HER came to me with the image of two sisters at a party, (which is how I’m Not Her opens). I saw one sister, looking pretty and confident and popular, dancing to music while the other sister sat all alone watching and envying her while a boy gushes about her sister. I was thinking about how things aren’t always as they seem, and what if the perfect sister had her perfection ripped out from her. How would it change both sisters’ lives? The big C changes everything for both sisters.

How important is community in keeping you inspired? What authors are a part of your virtual and/or hometown community? How do they keep you inspired? How do you inspire them?

I was SO fortunate to find an online community of writers who helped (and continue to help) with inevitable ups and downs in the publishing business. This group really does keep me going.  When my first book came out, I joined the DEBS, a group of YA writers who launched books in 2009. The DEBS have been a big part of keeping my head above the water and inspiring me to keep writing when things get tough. I’m inspired by the amount of sharing and caring we have built in this diverse group of writers, from NY Bestselling Authors to well, me.  I have a great trust in the group and love having people to go to, people who “get” things I might be going through. I like to think that I return the favor by guarding the trust gifted to me. 

When I published my first book I also connected with this amazing author online, an author who is kind of my soul mate and a total inspiration to me. Her name is Bethany Hegedus. J She amazes me with her brilliance and her support of my work. (Awwww, thanks Janet and ditto!)

I was also lucky enough to find a local group of YA writers to help keep me going. We meet monthly and swap books and talk about the business and cheer each other on and compare notes, no matter where we are in the publishing process. 

Is there a favorite quote you turn to when the rejection blues get to you?

Quotes are delicious.  I love them. That said, my favorite quote for dealing with rejection (or a bad review which feels like a rejection) is more like a mantra. “Problems bother you only to the degree you permit them to.”

Meaning that I am the one allowing the rejection to get me down, and I can choose not to let it. Of course, I am quite human and do sometimes wallow, but in the end, picking myself up and keeping on is part of the business of being an author. Rejection comes in many forms and at all stages for an author. I should turn to quotes more often that food when I’m having the rejection blues. But no matter how delicious the quote, food usually tastes better.

Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you?

Funny I was thinking about this the other night as I lay in bed drifting off to sleep. Yes. Most of my thoughts before sleep are about books!  I was contemplating what it is that my books have in common. My reoccurring themes at their most basic are Man vs. Society and Man vs. Himself. 

Something almost every one of my main character shares is a journey of some sort, a journey of finding out who they really are, versus whom everyone else wants them to be.  My something is in the lines of “BE WHO YOU ARE.” Be true to yourself and try to strip away all the crap that weighs us down and usually ends up in bad decisions.

Is there anything that you are afraid/worried/concerned of tackling in your work? Genre-wise? Audience-wise? Topic-wise?

I think my anxiety with I’M NOT HER is my fear of appearing to portray cancer in the wrong way because I’m showing it from the other side, the point of view of the sister who does not have cancer. I’m cognizant of not trying to take away from the people who are the ones suffering, the ones who are sick, but also trying to show the overwhelming affect it has on the other family members. I wanted to show honesty and truth in human emotion. That despite the love and concern there can be resentment and moments of self-pity that often cause even more guilt for the “healthy ones.” Sometimes the thoughts and even actions of Tess, the sister who doesn’t have cancer, are selfish and unpleasant, but she is human (and flawed like most of us). 

I was also a little nervous writing in first person present, as some people really don’t like this POV, but for this story, that is how it flowed.  It’s the only book I’ve written in this POV. 

What do you feel is your strength as a craftsperson? How do you turn your weaknesses into strengths?

I think my strength is in developing multidimensional characters. At least I hope that’s a strength, it’s certainly something I aspire to do. I’d like to think that teens or adults who read I’M NOT HER might recognize pieces of themselves in my characters and the way they react to the foils thrown at them by life.

I use craft books and critiques to try to strengthen my weaknesses, which I don’t want to point out because then they’ll glare even more. ;) 

How important is voice in your work? How does “voice” come to you?

I think voice is the most important quality in my books because I write character driven stories. 

Voice is a lot of listening to the character in my head, but also trying to notice things in the same way that the character would notice them. It’s both a conscious and unconscious process for me.  For example in I’M NOT HER, Tess is an artist, so I tried to see things the way she would from an artist’s point of view.  I try to imagine how she would phrase things.  Parts of the author’s experiences flow into character and story, but learning to filter them or rework them is the part of the conscious process of voice.  

Character. Tell us about the relationship between your protagonist and antagonist. How does this relationship grow and change throughout the work? What does your main character want? And how long did it take you to clarify those wants?

The protagonist in my story is Tess, a young girl who wants nothing of her athletic and popular sister’s life. She doesn’t aspire to the friends or social trappings of her sister but wants to be recognized as a talented Artist, an honor student and for her own brand of accomplishments that aren’t as valued as her sister’s.  

The antagonist is the cancer that is threatening the limb and life of her sister. The cancer is threatening her sister’s life and also taking away Tess’s chances at things she thinks she wants, her aspiration to be in the Honor Society, flying under that radar at school and even winning an art contest.  Tess has to change, to learn to be stronger and find her own voice to help her sister in her fight. 

Tess’s basic wants are established in the first chapter and the evolution of her character and her changing desires based on the hardships thrown at her sister is part of her growth. 

Quickly name 5 favorite stories—could be books or movies even. Do these stories have anything in common with one another? Do they have anything in common with your own work? What comparisons can you make in terms of what matters to you in your own work and what you like to read/experience? 

I love strong character driven books. I am a huge fan of contemporary, though I have been known to enjoy a good paranormal story as well.  My first love was A Wrinkle in Time and it was because I related so strongly to Meg in that story. In my grade six head, I was her. So misunderstood and struggling to find strength. Internal struggle is something that resonates with me and comes out in what I write. Personal growth is important to me as a reader.
Juno I loved because she was the wittiest, funniest most real character I’d seen in ages. I like to think that my books are also filled with some quirky humor and I have always been told I’m very down to earth or “real” in my life. I do not really know how to pretend to be someone I’m not. Well. I do but I prefer the real deal. The characters in My Sister’s Keeper were real, going through pain and heart ache, but multidimensional and so empathetic. I admit that I am drawn to books and movies that make me cry. (Juno, Before I Die, If I Stay)
I love going deep, finding out what makes people tick, looking beyond what appears to be on the surface and I think this comes out in what I read and what I write.

Which literary character, yours or another author’s, do you most relate to? And why?
There are many parts of Tess, in I’m Not Her that I relate to. She feels very self-conscious and socially awkward at times, and I definitely felt like that as a teen. Yet inside of her is someone who wants to believe she has value and wants to be heard and accepted on her own terms.  

I also love and weep for tragic characters. I remember going out with some high school friends in my late twenties, and we were talking about our lives as teens and what we’d later learned about some of our friends. There were so many things we didn’t talk about as teens, or didn’t know about each other back then.  Things that made a lot of sense to me or perhaps explained some of behavior. Alcoholic parents, abusive parents, mental illnesses the list goes on and on.  I guess what I’m saying is I that relate to conflicted characters and strive to show some of the underlying motivations of the troubling behavior. 

Inspired by the Actor’s Studio, what sound do you love? What sound do you hate?

One of my favorite sounds is thin ice (on the street in winter) crunching under my feet. I still actively seek out thin ice to crackle and crunch. And I *may* have passed this love to my son. 

I hate the sound of people using speaker phones. Really, really hate it. I can’t explain why, but when someone puts another person on speaker phone and I’m in the room, I get wild inside.

Be brave. Share a paragraph from a WIP. 

I looked around the almost empty hallway for an excuse to get away.  A few feet from us a janitor pushed a mop on the dirty floor. He glanced over and Miles lifted his hand in a wave.  The janitor nodded and then turned his attention back to the floor, as if the dirt embedded in the tile was much more interesting than my run-in with the new kid. He pushed his mop and disappeared around a corner.
Miles leaned his head closer to mine. “I heard you’ve changed,” he said.
“Hair challenged. That’s about it.” A single bell filled the air in the now empty halls. I spun around and hurried towards my homeroom class. An aroma of musk cologne followed me.
“Hey, wait,” Miles called.
I kept going but felt something grab at my fingers.
At once the air squeezed out of my lungs. I struggled to breathe as images invaded my mind. The world around me disappeared and I watched his memory play like a live video stream inside my head.
He had his arm wrapped protectively around a girl. A hoody covered her face but I saw fear etched into his features.  He bent his head and mouthed something in the girl’s ear and the two of them began to run. Then he looked back over his shoulder and his expression turned to panic.
“Leave her alone,” Miles yelled. “You don’t want to hurt her.”
I looked past him, trying to see what he was looking at.
He let go. I sucked in precious air, and looked down at my exposed skin. In school five minutes and already two visions. Worse than I’d imagined. The sharp pain returned at the back of my head. 

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.

I am afraid of horses. I like them at a distance, but I’m afraid of riding them.

Janet, thanks for being here today and sharing about your process, about Tess and Kristina and how they came to be, and for making us laugh! Fans of Janet Gurtler will not have to wait long for her next book—If I Tell—also from Sourcebooks Fire (but not a sequel to I’m Not Her) releases this fall.

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