Book Nerd Interview
Anna Jarzab was born three weeks late, a fact that underscores her lifelong devotion to procrastination. She was an adorable baby, let’s be honest; it was all downhill from there. She grew up in the north suburbs of Chicago, where she read a lot and did pretty okay in school, all things considered. After spending three years at a high school that was almost as large, population wise, as her undergraduate institution, her mother’s job took the entire family to San Francisco’s East Bay area, where she spent her senior year at a school one fifth that size. That was an interesting adjustment, but on the bright side she finally moved up to varsity on the swim team! Of course, the competition wasn’t as stiff, but whatever.
After graduating from high school, Anna moved forty minutes down I-680 to go to Santa Clara University (or Sahnta Clahra if you’re Kiera Knightley in Bend it Like Beckham). After battling homesickness, she became quite the joiner. She served three years on the Peer Judicial Board and was a Frosh Escape leader, an Orientation Leader, the Fiction Editor and Associate Editor of the Santa Clara Review (the university’s undergraduate-run literary journal), a Junior and Senior Senator and a committee chair in Associated Students, the editor of her chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta, and wrote the occasional book review for the university newspaper. In her free time, she managed to double-degree in English and Political Science.
A stint at the University of Denver Publishing Institute after graduation led to an editorial assistant position in textbook publishing, which she left eleven months later to attend the University of Chicago for her Master’s degree in the Humanities, concentrating on literature and creative writing. It is at the U of C that she finished writing All Unquiet Things, which served as her thesis project. Shortly after matriculating, Anna moved once again to New York, where she works in book marketing, aspires towards infinity by acquiring many more books than can fit inside her tiny apartment, and spends a lot of time on public transportation.
What’s one thing that readers would be surprised to find out about you?
In my other life (aka my day job), I work in online marketing at one of the big six children’s publishers. My life is totally consumed by YA! Which is something that I really love. I also think it makes me a better writer; I have a LOT of in-depth conversations about books at work, and it gives me a unique perspective on what works and what doesn’t, why certain books grab you from page one and others never quite get there. I also read a lot as a result, which makes me a better writer, too.
What was the greatest thing you learned at school?
I went to a few really wonderful schools, and so a ton of what I learned has great value, but one thing I’ve always carried with me is something my University of Chicago professor, Bill Veeder, used to say: “What’s the ‘so what’?” Just because you write a story down on paper doesn’t give it meaning. There has to be a greater payoff. When I don’t like a novel, that’s usually because I think the So What? is missing. Why should I care that this or that thing happened, that this character betrayed that character? So what? What does it mean to me, and what does it mean for them and the world in which they live? I think about that ALL THE TIME when I’m writing. So what? Who cares, and why should they?
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
My graduate thesis adviser, the novelist/short story writer/screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto, once told me: Don’t be coy with the reader. There’s a difference between writing a clever, twisty plot and just plain manipulating the reader into believing something when it’s neither true nor important. If you have to rely on unlikely misunderstandings, or unnatural behavior from one of your characters, just to build to some reveal you have planned, you’re not trying hard enough and it probably won’t work anyway. Readers resent being manipulated. Particularly helpful advice when you’re working on a crime novel, like I was at the time (my debut novel, All Unquiet Things), but applicable to all kinds of novels. I think about it all the time, and pass the advice on to my writer friends.
What are some of the common challenges that new and experienced authors face and what advice do you have for over-coming them?
This question is funny, because I think the biggest challenge to all writers is bad advice. Lots of writers pretend they have things figured out, that you have to write this kind of story to be good, that you can’t do this or that in a novel, and then they pass this “knowledge” on to others. But I think the happiest, most successful authors write the stories they want to write, and then listen to feedback and process it the way that works for them. I came up against this when I was writing my Fall 2013 novel, Tandem; the first, um, four drafts didn’t really work for anyone, but when I asked people why, they were like, well this isn’t how you tell a story about parallel universes! And I was like, says who? The book wasn’t working the way I was writing it for a while, but it wasn’t because I was straying too far from the beaten path, it was just because I’d made some choices that didn’t make any logical sense. Once I changed those things and made the right choices and gave myself some liberty to go even farther off the beaten path to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it, it all came together, and now it’s really great, and perfectly in line with my vision. The greatest tool a writer has is their gut. Everything else is just noise. (Which is not to say that writers shouldn’t listen to their editors and be open to revisions! They should be. When someone tells you something’s not working in a novel you’re pouring your heart and soul into, they might not be right about what the problem is, but they’re usually right that something’s off.)
For those who are unfamiliar with your novel; The Opposite of Hallelujah, how would you introduce it?
The Opposite of Hallelujah is a novel about a sixteen-year-old girl named Caro (short for Carolina) whose life begins to evolve in unexpected ways when her much-older sister, Hannah, returns home after spending eight years as a cloistered nun. The story is, in large part, about Caro and Hannah and their relationship, but it’s about other things, too, like faith and math and physics and art and philosophy and love. And there’s a cute Polish boy in it, which would convince me to read it if I had not, in fact, written it.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Caro?
I think one of the most surprising things about Caro is how much I fashioned her on myself as a teenager. I didn’t realize I was doing that until I was really far into the story. I think the negative parts of her—her selfishness, her fear of change, her insecurities—were all an exercise in self-criticism, and all of the positive things she learns, the way she develops, are things I hope are true of me now as an adult.
Why do you feel you had to tell this story?
With a few exceptions, I think there’s a dearth of books for teens that tackle issues of religion head-on without an agenda. I didn’t really set out with that purpose in mind—write a book about religion for teens—The Opposite of Hallelujah was something I originally wrote for myself, to work through some of my thoughts about God and the universe, what we owe ourselves and each other, and what I believe. But when I returned to it to revise for publication, I had a more deliberate picture of the kind of discussions I wanted Caro to have, the ideas I wanted her to come into contact with. I think there are many ways to talk about religion—whether or not you’re actually religious—that aren’t preachy or cynical, and I was hoping to present some of those ways in this book.
For those who are unfamiliar with Hannah, how would you introduce her?
To me, Hannah is a lost girl, paralyzed by her inability to know herself. For those who haven’t read the book, Hannah, who is twenty-seven, experienced a traumatizing event in her pre-adolescent years that kind of left her frozen, and she hasn’t exactly handled it in the best way, although she means well and is certainly capable of incredible amounts of love and selflessness. But she’s very stubborn and proud and that gets in the way of her really seeing just how much pain she’s caused with how she’s chosen to deal with her own suffering.
Do you have a favorite quote that you keep visible in your work environment to help inspire you?
Not exactly, but I do have three Rules for Life that I try to apply to everything I do: Know the Rules. Pay Attention. Don’t Be Stupid.
If you could introduce Caro to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
That’s a great question—assuming you mean any character from any other book (as opposed to one of my other books), I think I’d love to introduce her to an insufferable fool like Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice. Just, like, a real blowhard, because she would not be able to suffer that in silence and I think it would be funny to see how she reacted.
What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
Next up for me is a project I’m in love with called Tandem, which is book 1 in my new Many-Worlds Trilogy. It’s a story about a teenage girl who is pulled into a parallel universe and has to pretend to be her double in order to earn a return ticket to Earth, but in the process she learns a lot about herself and falls in love and suddenly has to decide exactly where her loyalties lie and how much she’s willing to sacrifice to get back home. I cannot wait for people to read Tandem—I worked so hard on it, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written (and, I think, the best thing I’ve ever written), and it’s really different from my first two books. It’s got action and adventure and romance and drama and humor and a little tiny bit of science fiction and it’s great. I’m really excited about it.
Caro Mitchell considers herself an only child—and she likes it that way. After all, her much older sister, Hannah, left home eight years ago, and Caro barely remembers her. So when Caro’s parents drop the bombshell news that Hannah is returning to live with them, Caro feels as if an interloper is crashing her family. To her, Hannah’s a total stranger, someone who haunts their home with her meek and withdrawn presence, and who refuses to talk about her life and why she went away. Caro can’t understand why her parents cut her sister so much slack, and why they’re not pushing for answers.
Unable to understand Hannah, Caro resorts to telling lies about her mysterious reappearance. But when those lies alienate Caro’s new boyfriend and put her on the outs with her friends and her parents, she seeks solace from an unexpected source. And when she unearths a clue about Hannah’s past—one that could save Hannah from the dark secret that possesses her—Caro begins to see her sister in a whole new light.