Interview: Guest Lecturer & Graduate J. A. White

J. A. White (or just Jerry, when he’s not being fancy) will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. Jerry attended Odyssey in 1996, its very first year. He is the author of the middle-grade fantasy series The Thickety, including A Path Begins (Winner of the Children’s Choice Debut Author Award, Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014), The Whispering Trees (Booklist Top 10 SF/Fantasy/Horror for Youth 2015), as well as two more sequels. He has also published a book of essays about the Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Jerry lives and teaches in New Jersey. Learn more about Jerry and his work

You write scripts for Escape Goat Pictures, a company that makes book trailers, commercials, and short films. How has writing for visual media changed how you write novels?

When you write screenplays, you have to strip story to its barest form. There isn’t room for any fat whatsoever. I think that has made the transition to writing children’s novels pretty easy for me. I’ve had a lot of practice communicating information in as concise a way as possible.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

Oh man—there are like twenty different answers I could give for this one! I’d say that in order to even embark on this journey you have to accept two things. One, you’re going to work very, very hard—harder than you’ve ever worked on anything in your entire life. You have to be totally and completely dedicated. You also, to a certain degree, have to be willing to give up other aspects of your life (social, TV), because writing takes a ton of time. Two, you are going to fail. A lot. And I don’t just mean that agents and publishers are going to reject your work, though that will happen too. I mean that you are going to write things that just don’t work. As long as you can accept those two things, have at it! Remember, writing is its own reward.

You’ve been an elementary school teacher for a number of years. How has being a teacher, especially a writing teacher, helped you with your own fiction?

That’s a good question. As a writing teacher, particularly a teacher of children, you’re constantly reminded of basic writing tenets (show don’t tell, use adverbs sparingly, etc.). I would still use these things in my writing, of course, but they might not be in the forefront of my mind. Every lesson I teach is like a review of what I should be doing in my own writing, at its most fundamental level.

You describe your series The Thickety as dark fantasy. What drew you to write darker stories for a younger audience?

It’s honestly just the way I’m wired. I probably read too many fairy tales as a kid. I also stopped reading children’s books early in my life, because they were pretty insulting—everything would end up okay at the end, and there weren’t any real stakes at play. I wanted to write something that I would have loved as a kid.

How has writing and publishing a series changed the way you publicize and promote the newest book in your series?

To be fair, I’m terrible at publicizing my books, at least in terms of social media. I’ve never really gotten the swing of it. I do like school visits quite a bit. When I go on those, I’m pretty much promoting the first book in the series and speaking very briefly about the other books. The other tricky part is that a plot description of the third book is actually a huge spoiler, so I try to limit myself to talking about the first one.

What’s one of the most memorable short stories or novels you’ve read recently? What do you feel made it so?

You’re going to laugh, but Great Expectations. It was shoved down my throat as a high school student and I really hated it. But I gave it another try and was just blown away by the momentum of the story, the sheer can’t-put-this-downness of it. That Dickens…he’s pretty good. Another book I read recently and loved was Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. Great story, wonderfully told. It helps that I love stories about stage magicians. I’ll probably write one someday.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon?

I have a middle-grade book called Nightbooks coming out in 2018. Just finished the first draft, and I think people are going to really dig it. I’m not 100% sure what will be next after that. I’ll be sending a few MG proposals to my editor in the coming weeks, and I’m also working on a huge adult fantasy novel. I’ve been tinkering with that one for a while now. It’s a massive, scary undertaking, but I love a challenge!


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