Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Janet Key Interview - Twelfth

Photo Content from Janet Key

When Janet Key was twelve, she sang and danced onstage in the background of musicals, stayed up too late reading Shakespeare, and had a closet full of themed, handsewn vests.


What inspired you to pen your first novel?
This is my first novel being published, but it’s not the first novel I wrote…in fact, it’s not even the second or the third! My road to publication took way longer than I imagined, but it has made me immensely grateful to have gotten this far and for the opportunity to share my book with future readers. As for the inspiration behind writing TWELFTH, the inspirational moment was deceptively simple: I was rereading a Shakespeare play and remembering what it was like to read it when I was younger – like discovering a language I didn’t know I already spoke, or unearthing a hidden treasure – and that led to the idea, Well, what if there really were clues to a hidden treasure in a Shakespeare’s play? Such a small, spur of the moment idea, and yet it somehow managed to prompt years’ worth of creative work.

Greatest thing you learned in school.
I’m lucky in that my high school and higher education included theatre and creative writing, so it’s not one thing per se but the whole path to following my passion!

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
I’m writing this when the book hasn’t been published yet, but already there have been many rewarding moments. One that happened recently was a friend of mine in a totally different city preordered a copy of the book from his favorite local indie shop, and the bookseller mentioned that they had already read and enjoyed the book. The reality that someone I didn’t know was interested in my book, read it, and enjoyed it enough to mention it to someone who they didn’t know knew me feels like absolute magic. As a writer who has gone through quite a bit of failures and setbacks before publication, I don’t take having any readers for granted, much less readers who enjoy the book.

Was there a defining moment during your youth when you realized you wanted to be a writer?
I was always deeply engaged with the arts – dance, theatre, and visual arts/crafts, plus a few regrettable attempts at learning to play a musical instrument – but writing was something I always did, from keeping a journal to writing little illustrated storybooks to feverishly scratching out plays when I couldn’t find parts I liked in the already written ones. I honestly don’t think I knew you could “be a writer” when I was a kid. The first person I knew personally who had published a book was the husband of one of my dad’s coworkers who drove a truck for a living. I guess I thought that’s what I thought you did: write books and drive trucks. It’s not a bad combo, when you think about it, but so far I’ve only done the book writing part.

What’s the best advice you can give writers to help them develop their own unique voice and style?
I think focusing on voice and style can be a mistake for young writers. Start with the craft of a good story – character, motivation, conflict, action, dialogue, scene and summary, all that good stuff – before trying to define something as malleable as voice or style. Start studying the writing you admire surgically, with a meticulous eye for how those writers phrase their work and reveal information. For a while, your voice will probably sound like an imitation of those writers, and that’s OK, it’s part of the process. The hope is that the unique combination of the writers who influence you starts to blend with the literal voices around you, the regional music of the people you know and shorthand language of your family and friends, to create something entirely, uniquely yours. I’d also say there’s a big difference between style and just being obscure. Sometimes young writers hear a piece of advice like “have your own style” or “use interesting language” and then will go out of their way to insert lengthy, impossible to understand descriptions that leave their readers baffled or snoring. Aim for clarity and authenticity; you’ll be surprised how often you end up discovering an interesting description just through the process of trying to be precise.

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
I wish I were a writer who only focused on one thing at a time, but my desk (and my brain) is always cluttered with many different pieces in process. I write pretty broadly in terms of form and genre, too, so sometimes books and stories and scripts for adults get their pages crossed with different kidlit projects. As for what I hope will be published next, I currently have a finished YA book about Las Vegas, the history of the atom bomb, and time travel that my agent and I will start sending out soon. I’m also revising a bio-script about Helen Gahagan Douglas, a historical figure who gets a brief mention in TWELFTH.

In your newest book; TWELFTH, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it.
TWELFTH starts at a theater camp in the Berkshires, where my main character Maren has been sent mostly against her will. She’s certain she’s not going to enjoy it, but soon gets pulled into a treasure hunt for a legendary diamond ring with clues buried in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She makes great friends along the way, but draws a little bit too much attention from other people looking for the ring – including, perhaps, the ghost of the camps namesake, Charlotte “Charlie” Goodman. At the same time, there’s the parallel storyline of Charlie growing up in the 40s and 50s LA, dealing with questions of gender identity, and trying to live her dream of being a film director at a time of great suspicion and suppression in Hollywood. As the book goes on, the reader learns more about Maren and Charlie and how their stories intersect, as well as, I hope, gets to spend time immersed in the theatre and classic cinema and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a play about love in all its disguises.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
Like the play that helped shape it, there’s a lot about gender diversity in TWELFTH. I hope the book both offers representation to gender diverse youth and prompts conversations and greater understanding amongst kids who have no experience. I also hope there’s a greater interest in Shakespeare and history, particularly queer and feminist figures who might be overlooked in education and popular culture. But mostly I hope it’s a fun, engaging mystery that you have to stay up late to keep reading (and maybe makes you cry at the end…you don’t have to cry, but quite a few people have cried, so maybe keep some tissues nearby).

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating Maren?
Maren is a little like I was at that age: though our specific circumstances were not at all similar, I, too, was dealing with some heavier stuff, and my answer to it was to go quiet, put my head down, and try to slip under the radar. While she has always made a lot of sense to me, my first readers couldn’t say the same, and a lot of their margin notes were questions about who she was and what her motivation was about. It was a good lesson in not assuming others have an immediate insight into your characters – or, for that matter, into yourself. Sometimes you have to risk being vulnerable in the page and in life.

What was your unforgettable moment while writing TWELFTH?
TWELFTH was written in many, many different places – New York, Idaho, Ohio, and, of course, western Massachusetts, to name a few – but the most memorable place was probably Hong Kong. My brother and sister-in-law moved there in early 2019 and very kindly invited me to live with them for several months, so naturally I hopped on the next plane. Near the end of my stay, when I was trying to put together a clean draft of the book before I returned to working in the states, I rented a desk at a coworking space. I remember at one point I looked up from my screen, and I was so deep in the process of trying to describe the Massachusetts summer that it honestly took me a minute to remember I was about 20 stories up in a city of skyscrapers, halfway across the world! But that just goes to show that fiction writers live in their stories as much as in the real world.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would love to take Charlie, a character who is gender questioning and growing up in an earlier, very socially conservative time, on a tour of some of the more recent kidlit novels. I think Charlie would be tremendously touched by all the diverse faces and voices in books now, and incredibly inspired by how free and openly the younger generation can live. Remembering the sacrifices past generations made to get here is always a good reminder for me to stay grateful of how far we’ve come, but also to keep up the fight.

What’s the most memorable gift you’ve ever given someone?
I’m a big fan of thrifting at second-hand shops, and over the years I’ve definitely managed to find some treasures. Still, I know not everyone feels the same as I do about “pre-loved” items, so I try to only give thrifted objects as gifts to people I know extremely well, and even then, only as a “bonus” gift along with something else. This Christmas was memorable in that not one but two people appreciated the gifts I had thrifted for them more than the gifts I had bought! Lesson learned: everybody likes a little hidden treasure in their lives.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Learn a useless skill that challenges you in equal parts to giving you joy – and don’t do it just once, but frequently, as often as possible. I’ve honestly made a practice of learning for the sake of learning: from certifications in SCUBA diving to teaching yoga (including one in Aerial yoga!) to gelato school (and yes, there is such a thing). I think learning something new is a way to constantly surprising myself with things I thought I couldn’t, wouldn’t do. Case in point: I was never a sporty person growing up, I don’t love heights, and I can feel very self-conscious when trying something physically challenging…but string a silk hammock from the ceiling and suddenly I want to get upside down! I also think the societal mindset about education – that it’s something you do when you’re young, for the utilitarian purpose of finding your career, and then you’re done – is absurd. Plenty of people don’t know their passion or their path in life when they’re 18 or 22, and that’s OK. It’s never too late to try something new or follow your dreams – something my mother modeled for me when I was a kid and she went back to law school. Right now, I’m a late-in-life community college fashion major – not because I plan on being a designer, but because I love sewing and wanted to learn the proper techniques. So let learning become a constant, active part of your lifestyle, including learning something that’s “useless” but joyful.

What is your happiest childhood memory?
I’m lucky to have a lot of happy memories: my dad has always been deeply engaged in my life, so I have a lot of memories of playing games with him and my brother, pitching tents in the backyard and catching frogs at the pond. My mom was and is incredibly creative, so we were always sewing and crafting and baking something. And, of course, I spent a lot of my childhood on stage, in dance recitals and community theatre, telling a story and playing make-believe in front of an audience. I can’t pick just one – an embarrassment of riches!

How far away from your birthplace do you live now?
I was born in Modesto, CA, and currently live in Houston, TX, but to be fair, my family left Modesto when I was two years old, so I can’t say I miss it.

In no particular order (or genre, target age reader, or release date), here are ten books I read and loved between 1/22 and 4/22:
  • Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman
  • All the Girls I’ve Been Before by Tess Sharpe
  • The Mirrorwood by Deva Fagan
  • Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer
  • Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
  • Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Deleted Scene from TWELFTH
The week before I sent the draft of TWELFTH to my agent, I was about 100 pages over what tends to be a good length for kidlit. I knew the book would benefit from being tightened up, and I suspected that the only way I was going to get down 100 full pages wasn’t just to make small cuts, but to cut a plot point – specifically one of the clues to the treasure – out entirely.

To briefly summarize for those who haven’t read the book: there are four main friends looking for the diamond – Maren, Theo, Graham, and Sal – and they’re following various quotes from Twelfth Night that lead them closer and closer to the ring. When Maren includes Sal in finding one of the clues without consulting the other two first, Graham clearly feels a little jealous, and so I structured the following clue hunt around just Maren and Graham. The clue itself would be hidden in a library book, in one of Charlie Goodman’s favorite books.

I cut this scene for a couple of reasons: the first was that, on a craft/practical level, it seemed a little messy to add another text to the treasure hunt. Since Twelfth Night was already being used, I wasn’t sure how a different story with different quotes would contribute, and knew it might just confuse. It also felt true that this clue didn’t quite justify itself in comparison with the others – the realization of what the clue meant seemed too fast for the characters, perhaps in a way that strained credibility.

And finally, I wasn’t sure about the “message” the a scene offered. Education isn’t something I think about when I’m writing for adults, but when I’m writing kidlit, I’m conscious about what kids might take away from the characters they love. In general socially, we’re now in a place that encourages kids to “own” their feelings and then “let them go,” and I think that’s great, but it’s not always clear what owning feelings means or how they let them go. I started to think the scene modeled an unhealthy response to feelings: Graham was giving two of his friends the silent treatment until Maren goes out of her way to make him feel better. That isn’t exactly a way of owning your feelings, or fair expectations to have on your friends to solve your emotions. Instead, the cut version had Graham take responsibility for his feelings in what I think is a healthier way: he took the space he needed for a while; he didn’t expect someone else to fix his feelings for him; and when he was ready, he came back to his friends with a new set of boundaries about how they were going to move forward. Honestly, that’s a more mature response than a lot of adults I know can manage when they feel something like jealousy or exclusion, myself included, and I was glad to get to model it in fiction.

Former clue:
Here lies your way,

The camp’s library looked much like any school library, full of colorful tables and beanbag chairs, with one slight difference: most of the shelves were filled with the slim-spined volumes of plays, tucked together like the lines of a barcode, instead of fatter novels and biographies. At the door, Maren flipped on the light switch and the fluorescents flickered and buzzed to life. She looked around — where to start?

“Shouldn’t we go get the others?” Graham whispered as he followed a few feet behind.

“No time,” Maren said, moving through the stacks. She was about to explain that Mr. Cairn had heard Monty telling her about the book, but she knew the disagreement they’d have to have. “Just…if we don’t move fast, someone else might find it first.”

“Find what?”

“West!” Maren said, checking the letters on the shelves as she went: here was A-D, here was E-J. She pushed on further. “Nathaniel West!”

“Nathaniel West?” She could hear Graham hurrying after her. “Am I supposed to know who that is?”

“He was a writer who wrote about old timey Hollywood, apparently — here!” Maren pulled them down a few more, to the shelf marked T-Z.

“Old time Hollywood?” Graham followed. “You mean like when Charlotte Goodman was alive?”

“Exactly.” Maren dropped her to her knees to better read the W’s. Her fingers brushed past Wallace, Washburn, and Wasserstein. “And his book is right— here!”

She snatched up a thin volume and showed it to Graham. The cover read The Day of the Locust in large white font, while below it was a picture of an old film camera.

“That looks pretty old,” Graham said. “First edition, maybe.”

“Yeah,” Maren said, running her hand carefully along its front. “And Theo would drool over this camera.”

“So where do you think the clue is?” he asked.

But Maren had already started fanning through the pages. She expected at any second a piece of paper to drop out, an envelope with the gold trim, but she made it to the end and still hadn’t found it. She fanned through again, and then a third time. She felt under the book jacket and inside the library cardholder. Still nothing.

“This makes no sense,” she said, flipping through the pages harder now. “It’s supposed to be here!” She turned the book upside down and started shaking it.

“Stop!” Graham said again, and pulled the book out of her hands as if rescuing a kitten. “That’s old, you’ll break the binding.”

“What?” Maren asked indignantly. “Sal and I had to dig out a potato plant to get the last clue, it’s not crazy to think we might have to take apart a book to find this one.”

Graham glared at her. “You can put plants back in dirt,” He said. “But you can’t put a book back together after you rip it up, especially not a first edition.”

“Fine,” Maren said. “Do you have any other ideas?”

“Hold on a second.” Carefully, he began turning the book over in his hand, feeling the spine and jacket, flipping through the pages one at a time with agonizing slowness.

“I already did that,” Maren huffed, but Graham ignored her, just continued his careful crawl through the book, as if he were actually reading it. It felt like hours later when he finally got to the end and paused, his hand resting on the envelop for the check out card.

“The clue made a big deal about the word ‘due’ right? That’s what led you to the library, right?”

“Yeah, so?” Maren said.

“So, where’s the card to check the book out?” He showed her again the empty envelope.

“Well…” Maren started, but couldn’t think of anything to say.

Graham turned and started toward a back corner. “We should check the card catalogue.”

“Where?” Maren asked, but Graham was already far ahead and didn’t answer. Maren hurried to follow, feeling both impressed and annoyed. When she got to the end of the shelves, she saw Graham was at a high wooden cabinet with tons of little drawers. He pulled out the W’s as she walked up. One card was standing up higher than the others.

They exchanged a look.

“You don’t think someone else found it first, do you?” Maren whispered.

Graham didn’t answer, just drew out the card for the book. It was blank, and Maren felt a surge of disappointment.

“If Renee Wallace got here —” Maren started to say, but the words dried up in her throat as Graham flipped the card over.

Taped to the back, almost exactly liked up with the card itself, was a small ivory envelope with a gold lining.

Graham peeled it free, then held it out to Maren with trembling hands.

She shook her head, amazed, and smiled at him. “You open it,” Maren said, pushing it back towards him. “You found it.”

Graham smiled back. Then, without a word, set on the envelope with vicious fingernails. For someone who was so gentle with the old book, he attacked the envelope with vicious tears.

“Be careful!” Maren laughed. “You don’t want to rip up the clue!”

But Graham had finally freed the paper and shook it out. His eyes moved rapidly over the page a few times. Then he held it out for Maren to see…


Better Nate Than Ever meets The Parker Inheritance in this heartwarming mystery about finding your people and accepting others as they are.

Twelve-year-old Maren is sure theater camp isn’t for her. Theater camp is for loud, confident, artsy people: people like her older sister, Hadley—the last person Maren wants to think about—and her cinema-obsessed, nonbinary bunkmate, Theo. But when a prank goes wrong, Maren gets drawn into the hunt for a diamond ring that, legend has it, is linked to the camp’s namesake, Charlotte “Charlie” Goodman, a promising director in Blacklist Era Hollywood.

When Maren connects the clues to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, she and her new friends are off searching through lighting booths, orchestra pits and costume storages, discovering the trail and dodging camp counselors. But they’re not the only ones searching for the ring, and with the growing threat of camp closing forever, they're almost out of time.

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  1. "What was the last movie that you saw at the cinema?" That twisty movie where the guy is interviewed by some police detectives.

  2. It's been ages. I think it was ETERNALS.

  3. I don't go to the movies very often, probably Joker, yup, as far back as that.

  4. probably end game before the pandemic hit

  5. GREENLAND was the last movie i saw

  6. The last movie I saw in the theater was The Downton Abbey Movie before the pandemic.