After her mom dies, Liberty's father shows up in a camper to take Liberty and her younger sister, Billie, for the summer. At first, Liberty thinks things with her "gone-forever-but-now-he's-back-dad" might work out fine, but when he abandons the sisters at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, she realizes that they are on their own. As the sisters try to get to safety, some of Liberty's twelve-year-old decisions are ill-advised, but her loyalty to Billie never wavers.Q: Liberty and Billie have a wonderfully strong bond. Did you draw on personal experience to portray their relationship?
A: I’m sure I did, although it wasn't a conscious decision. I come from a large family and we are all close in age. I have two sisters and two brothers. I am the oldest, so the bossy, controlling part of Liberty I came by naturally. I also have my own children. Although, I do feel like Liberty and Billie are their own creations. When I wrote them I wasn't thinking of a particular person or persons. They came alive as I wrote and after I finished my first draft I felt like I had a really good handle on who they were and how they behaved.
Q: Liberty and Billie cross paths with several interesting characters—do you have a favorite?
A: In some ways they are all my favorites. There’s a true emotional connection behind each character. I would say I really loved Star Wars Kid (Roger) and didn't want his story to end. I hope I can create some form of Roger again in my future writing. I also loved Lavender Lady and Orson. They made me laugh and were a great duo to write. And finally, I’d say, I loved Tattoo Guy. I love him because upon first observation he seems intimidating and scary, but as the book progresses we get the whole picture of who he is (compassionate, funny, and smart). In the beginning he is not who he seems. In general, I think this is true of most people. There is so much more to a person than what we see on the surface. Deep down everyone has a story that we can relate to.
Q: Your story presents mental illness with delicacy and candor. Was it difficult to achieve that balance?
A: Thank you, I’m so happy to hear you say that. I worked very hard on those scenes and wanted them to feel right. I would say the moments with Liberty and Billie’s dad were my most difficult to write and I spent most of my time on those scenes trying to make them feel real. People deal with mental illness daily— trying to cure it or contain it, as well as trying to accomplish everyday tasks such as how to: work, sleep, eat, take care of children, get an education, find someone to love, etc.. In many ways mental illness can feel like business-as-usual for the people who live with it or for people whose loved ones struggle, so I wanted, at times, what was going on with dad to feel both comfortable and uncomfortable to Liberty and Billie. Obviously, in the book, their dad needs help. The girls need to get over the dream of who they want him to be and come to terms with who he really is. They also need to get to a place in the book where they recognize he is not behaving normally. Sometimes mental illness isn't entirely obvious until, when suddenly, it is.
Q: What is the hardest part of writing for you? What is the most rewarding?
A: Right now I can pinpoint two hard parts. First, forcing myself to create time to write can be difficult for me. My family is still all at home, so there are many needs at my house. I am one of the primary people who take care of those needs, so time is my enemy. There is a constant struggle between things that need my immediate attention and also my writing (which also needs my attention, but it doesn't always feel quite as urgent). When I am not getting my writing time I turn very cranky. At my house we have this game, Table Talk, that we play at dinnertime and one of the questions is: If you could be a super hero what quality would you have and why? I always choose the ability to stop and start time. My kids think that is the WORST super hero power ever. But wouldn't that be awesome? I dream of having all the time in the world. Second, I think the hardest part in a manuscript is generally the middle…I would say around page 130 is where I start to slow down and feel stuck. That’s because I don’t use an outline as I write. I’m a seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, so the middle always gets difficult because I have to make important decisions that affect the ending. I hate middles. The most rewarding part of writing is reading a scene you just wrote and think, wow! I kind of like that. In fact, I like it a lot. That feeling is addictive.
Q: This is your first published book. Were there any surprises along the journey from idea to publication?
A: Yes, there were surprises. I remember going to a marketing meeting at FSG/Macmillan after the book was first bought and someone asked, “Do you have any questions?” And I sat there trying to think of an intelligent question when I finally said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I don’t know.” Now, two years into the publishing process, I think I would have better questions. Another surprise is once your manuscript is bought by a publishing house is takes a REALLY LONG time to hold that book in your hands. It just does. There’s no real way around it. Also, I didn't realize how much I was going to need and rely on my agent who has turned out to be a really amazing person, so I lucked out there. When I was making my agent choice, I didn't realize how important that relationship would be, and I have been pleasantly surprised. The same is true for my editor. I have learned so much from her. It’s great to work with people who love my book almost more than I do. The publishing world is really quite small and I think it’s important to surround yourself with great people, and in turn, be good to the people around you.
Thanks Jen, for taking the time to tell us a little about yourself and your book. I'm looking forward to reading your next book, especially if you tell us more about Star Wars Kid's story.
You can read more about Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave and read the first chapter at Jen White Books. Pick up a copy of your own when it comes out on June 9.