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Kim Tomsic

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Interview with Best-Selling Author Jennifer Bertman THE ALCATRAZ ESCAPE

The Alcatraz Escape by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman with illustrations by Sarah Watts (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt and Company May 1, 2018)

Legendary literary game-maker Garrison Griswold is back in action—this time with “Unlock the Rock.” For his latest game, Griswold has partnered with the famous–and famously reclusive–mystery writer Errol Roy to plan an epic escape room challenge on Alcatraz Island.
Emily and James are eager to participate, but the wave of fame they are riding from their recent book-hunting adventures makes them a target. Threatening notes, missing items, and an accident that might not have been an accident have the duo worried that someone is trying to get them out of the game at any cost.
When Emily’s brother is caught red-handed and blamed for all the wrong doings, Emily is certain Matthew is being framed. With Matthew’s record on the line, Emily and James can’t afford to leave this mystery uncracked.
Welcome, Jennifer! It’s such a treat to feature you on my blog. Congratulations on your latest release in the Book Scavenger series, and double congratulations because The Alcatraz Escape is a Junior Library Guild selection and also an Amazon Best Spring Book for Ages 9-12!

There’s so much I want to know, so let’s begin:

1.      Many “pre-published” authors who read this blog love hearing the “HOW” an author’s career path began. How did you get started writing and what did you do that shifted your career from wanting to be published to landing a book deal?
Being an author was something I’d dreamed about as a kid, but I stopped believing it was possible for me in junior high and high school. Then, when I was a freshman in college, I was given the option of taking a creative writing class instead of the standard Research Writing 101. Creative writing sounded way more interesting, so I took it, and loved it so much I never stopped writing stories after that. I went on to take the maximum amount of creative writing classes that UC Irvine would allow me. One of my professors, Michelle Latiolais, made me feel I had real potential for a career as a writer, and so I went on to get my MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College.
During graduate school, I realized children’s books were my passion. I went to the Book Passage Children’s Book Writer & Illustrator conference (where I met Lois Lowry—one of my author idols when I was a child!), and I joined SCBWI.
Throughout all those years, I was only focused on learning the craft of writing. I didn’t try to get anything published. Even after I graduated with my MFA, I still didn’t feel my writing was ready to be published, so I kept writing and meanwhile juggled multiple part-time jobs, then I started working full-time at McGraw-Hill Higher Education as a production editor for college textbooks.
I wrote a lot of picture books and revised and revised and revised until I finally felt a few were ready to send out to publishers. They all got rejected, but one was very close to being accepted two different times. The last rejection felt especially defeating—it had been my second revise and resubmit for an enthusiastic editor, and I’d thought for sure that would be my big break. But it wasn’t.
By that point, I’d been taking my writing seriously for close to ten years and was consistently getting feedback that my writing was strong. I felt like I had a good handle on the craft, and so it seemed like a matter of finding the right story for me to tell. I thought about the books I loved most when I was young, and Book Scavenger grew out of me trying to write what would have been the ultimate book for my younger self.
I spent ten years working on Book Scavenger—six different drafts—before it sold. (I continued to work on picture books and started a few other novels that went nowhere, but Book Scavenger always felt special to me even though I struggled with how to best tell the story.)

When I was working on Draft #4, I received an email from Ammi-Joan Paquette, an agent with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. She’d visited my website and blog and read the brief description I’d posted about the book I was working on. She wanted to read it! Fantastic! Only, my latest draft wasn’t done, but Joan was happy to wait until it was.
When I finished my fourth draft, I felt like the story was really solid. I sent it to Joan, who loved it, but thought it needed one more revision. The daunting part of her revision request was that she thought the draft was too long for the middle grade market at that time and wanted me to cut 100 pages from the story. Eek!
I wasn’t sure right off the bat how to tell my story with 25,000 less words, or if I’d even be able to figure it out, but Joan’s advice rang true to me. When I read her feedback, I knew she was envisioning the same best version of my story that I was. I knew it would serve the story I was trying to tell if I followed her advice. So I dug in and got to work.  
I managed to pare the story down so it was pretty close to 50,000 words. I sent it back to Joan and Oh Happy Day! She liked it! She wanted to represent me and after careful consideration, I agreed.
Before Book Scavenger went on submission, Joan suggested one more change to the ending of the book. Once again, she was seeing something that had always bothered me about the story on a subconscious level, and I knew she was spot on. I did another revision and then, finally, we sent Book Scavenger out.
We heard back with positive interest within a week, and after two weeks I had a pre-empt offer from the fabulous Christy Ottaviano who I have been thrilled to work with these past few years.

Book Scavenger and The Unbreakable Code are both New York Times bestsellers, Congratulations! I can’t wait to see The Alcatraz Escape land on that prestigious list, too. Since you’re a bestselling author and I am a lover of magic, please give me one magical tip that has helped your writing sparkle.
Thanks, Kim! Hmm, a magical tip . . . Every writer is going to have their own methods and style, but I am a patient and scrutinizing writer. I assemble my sentences and paragraphs and chapters like I’m putting together a jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece, questioning each word as I go. I’m always asking myself how a sentence or paragraph or chapter serves the story. I think this approach benefits my writing in general, although sometimes I get too stuck in my head, going in circles around something that maybe won’t end up being important. With my last two books I had to work with very tight deadlines. This taught me that I’m more capable of writing quickly than I had once thought. And sometimes racing forward can release really wonderful things, but there is always a point in the revision process where I have to go over what I’ve written with a meticulous eye.

3.     What do you do to research your novels (i.e. do you travel back to San Francisco and what else?)

For The Alcatraz Escape, I read a lot about Alcatraz, of course. I watched documentaries and visited Alcatraz in person, even though I’ve been there several times before. On my research trip to Alcatraz, I went with an eye toward what my characters would notice and experience while they were there. I took a lot of photos and videos to help me remember and capture details, but the Internet can also be helpful if there’s something I’m trying to remember but didn’t jot down or take a picture of. I also reach out to experts when I have questions or to verify details of my story. The third Book Scavenger was inspired by escape rooms, and so I did an escape room with my writing group and read up on other people’s escape room experiences. In general, I keep myself open. You never know when you will happen across a news article or something that relates to the story you’re working on.

4.     If you could have a Freaky Friday moment with one of your characters in any of your books (but for only one day), who would you swap places with and why?

Emily, so I could go book hunting around San Francisco for a day.

5.     You’re officially one of the great children’s mystery writers. What are the top three things you think a book needs to be a strong mystery?
Wow! Well, thank you for saying that. What a wonderful thing to hear. I’d say in the very best mysteries, you will often find:
1) Main characters who get drawn into the mystery in a compelling and believable way, making it hard to separate the plot from the character. Meaning, if somebody else had been dropped into the story instead of your main character, the events wouldn’t have unfolded in the same way. Your main character is the one making choices that drive the story (and therefore the mystery) forward.
2)  None of the characters feel like they are only there to offer a clue or act as a red herring.
3) Setting. Every great mystery I’ve enjoyed has also been rooted in a strong sense of place that’s added to the mood and plot in intriguing ways.

6.     What are some of your favorite children’s mystery novels?
Sheila Turnage’s Three Times Lucky series, Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keye’s series, Masterpiece and Shakespeare’s Secret, both by Elise Broach, Greenglass House by Kate Milford, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  

Sneak question of sorts: I love that your blog Creative Spaces features writers in their work environment. Show us yours:

7.      If you could travel back in time, what is one tip you’d give your past writer self when you were pre-published?
Trust your instincts. Your hard work will pay off in the end so don’t beat yourself up too much. Have fun. Be more organized with your notes and files.

Thank you, Jennifer!

For more information about the book, to read an excerpt, or to join the game visit BookScavenger.com.

Bio: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the author of the New York Times--bestselling Book Scavenger series (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt) which includes Book ScavengerThe Unbreakable Code, and The Alcatraz Escape. Book Scavenger was an Indie Next Top Ten pick, an Amazon Book of the Year, a Bank Street College Book of the Year, an NCTE Notable Book, and has been nominated for twenty state award and honor lists, among other accolades. The series will be translated into thirteen languages. She studied creative writing and dance at UC Irvine and went on to earn her MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. She worked in publishing for over a decade before becoming a children’s book author. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer now lives in Colorado with her family.

Twitter: @jabertie

BOOK SCAVENGER (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt)
New York Times Bestseller |  Best Book of the Year: Bank Street, Amazon  | NCTE Notable Book

BOOK SCAVENGER 2: THE UNBREAKABLE CODE (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt)
             New York Times Bestseller |  Junior Library Guild selection
  "Readers who loved the first volume will find this follow-up even more satisfying. Purchase extra copies where there are fans." --School Library Journal 

                Junior Library Guild selection |  An Amazon Best Spring Book for Ages 9-12

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