September 27, 2012

Psychtember Interview with Jennifer Brown (and Giveaway!)

Jennifer Brown, author of Hate List, Bitter End, and Perfect Escape, is dropping by the blog today with an interview for Psychtember! I reviewed Bitter End for Psychtember last year and Perfect Escape this time around.

Here's a little more info about Jennifer and her most recent YA novel Perfect Escape:

"I've pretty much always been a dreamer, lining up my dolls and stuffed animals on the stairs and "teaching" them things. I had imaginary friends (which was good because we moved pretty often and I pretty regularly found myself with few real ones) and would hold "conversations" with them. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was telling them stories, and it was my favorite pastime.

I never wanted to be a writer (I was going to be a teacher), even though I was always writing. My first story was a short story, written in 4th grade. It was two pages long, hand-written, and my characters had names like Donna Schlieigermeigssterkks. I showed it to my grandma, who loved it so much she called my aunt on the phone and read it to her.
Even though Grandma was cracking up while reading it, I was hooked by the celebrity of it all. Since then, I've always written, even when I thought nobody would ever read any of it.

Writing didn't turn into a dream until about 10 years ago when my husband, Scott assured me people wouldn't laugh at me. Turns out, he was wrong. People laugh at my writing all the time. It's just... well... I'm a humor-writer... laughing is what I want them to do. It also turns out he was right. Sometimes I can write serious stuff, too.
(from her website)

"Kendra has always felt overshadowed by her older brother, Grayson, whose OCD forces him to live a life of carefully coordinated routines. The only way Kendra can stand out next to Grayson is to be perfect, and she has perfection down to an art -- until a cheating scandal threatens her flawless reputation.

Behind the wheel of her car, with Grayson asleep beside her, Kendra decides to drive away from it all -- with enough distance, maybe she'll be able to figure everything out. But eventually, Kendra must stop running and come to terms with herself, her brother, and her past.

With undeniable grace and humor, acclaimed author Jennifer Brown explores OCD, the pressure for perfection, and the emotional highs and lows of a complex sibling relationship." (from Goodreads)

Now for the questions...

1.) Perfect Escape, Bitter End, and Hate List are all contemporary YA books tackling issues related to mental health and psychology. What motivates you to write stories involving these kinds of emotionally hard-hitting topics? Do you think you'll continue to write in this vein, or do you ever see yourself switching gears entirely to another style or genre?

The things I write about are things that real teens are encountering every day. I think it's important to talk about tough issues and how we can overcome them. Knowledge truly is power, and the first step to making change, and I like writing books that can help get a discussion going. Also, my wish is that my books, tough as the subjects are, will provide some hope to young adults who are experiencing the things my characters are going through.

I do think I'll continue to write these kinds of stories, always, but I love to try out new things. New styles, new genres, new audiences all interest me, so I definitely hope to write some stories in different genres as well.

2.) You clearly do your research when it comes to the psychology of your characters' behaviour. Do you find it a challenge to balance communicating facts/knowledge about a disorder or issue with making your characters and their interactions believable? If so, how do you approach this hurdle?

I actually think really understanding a social issue or the psychology of my characters helps me make them more believable. In general, what works for me best is understanding everything I can about what makes my characters tick. When I have troubles, it's because I don't know them well enough. The hurdle can sometimes be making sure the story isn't too "textbook." What is most dramatic isn't always what's most realistic. It's a fine line to walk.

3.) The term "OCD" appears a lot these days in pop culture and the media, but it's not always used correctly, resulting in misinformation about the disorder in the general public. If you could ensure that readers remembered one fact about OCD from Perfect Escape, what would it be?

I think a lot of people confuse perfectionism with OCD. You hear people say, "I've got a touch of OCD" when they really mean that they're perfectionistic about something -- they like their things kept just-so, or their house super clean, or they don't like to touch door handles of public restrooms and so forth. But OCD can be a debilitating anxiety disorder that can really interrupt someone's life. Some people who have OCD are, in many ways, held hostage by it. They might spend hours each day washing their hands or brushing their teeth, they might not be able to leave their houses or will spend so long with their rituals before leaving their houses that they're chronically late and will lose jobs and relationships or so forth.

I also think it's really important to remember that a person who suffers from a mental illness is not only that mental illness. It can be so easy to get frustrated or frightened or just want to condemn a person for their struggles, but as Grayson showed in Perfect Escape, there are lots of complexities and emotions that come with mental illness, not the least of which is the desire to be out from under it.

Also, it's important to me that people understand what it's like growing up alongside someone with mental illness. Sometimes it can be easy to ignore the "well child," in favor of the one who needs more attention. Like Kendra, sometimes siblings of someone who struggles just want to be heard, be validated.

4.) It's unusual these days to see a YA novel without a central romance, but in Perfect Escape the focus is on the brother-sister relationship of Kendra and Grayson. Were you concerned that this might negatively affect the appeal of the book to teens? What qualities would you say Kendra's and Grayson's relationship embodies that would not be present in a romance?

Really, none of my novels have much of a romantic element. You get to see glimpses here and there of Nick's and Valerie's relationship before the shooting in Hate List, and you get to see the buildup of Alex's and Cole's relationship in Bitter End, but neither of those novels really have any sort of central romance to them.

Honestly, I'm not even thinking "romantic relationship" when I sit down to write a novel. There are many relationships outside of romantic ones that are interesting and important to teens. I get a lot of reader comments about the relationship between Valerie and her younger brother, Frankie, in Hate List, so I know that teens do care about sibling relationships. I know that romantic relationships are important to teens, but so are best friend relationships, parent relationships, extended family relationships, work relationships, and sibling relationships, so I wasn't worried about teens being able to relate.

I think one thing that Kendra's and Grayson's relationship embodies that romances might not is ease. They're both comfortable just being themselves and saying what they're thinking, and not worrying about "looking good" to one another. This lends itself well to humorous moments as well as touching moments, and I think it helps us to see all the nuances of the characters a little better, because nobody is putting up any sort of front.

5.) If you could match up two characters from any of your three published YA novels — either romantically or just as friends — who would you pair, and why?

I would try to match up Grayson with the Alex, Zach, Bethany friend trio in Bitter End. I think they would accept him for who he is, and I think he could use a few more friends.

6.) You've got two more YA books coming out in the next couple years: Thousand Words, about a teen girl caught in a "sexting" scandal, and Torn Away, about grief in the aftermath of a tornado. Can you give us a few hints about what to expect from either of these?

These are two very different novels. In Thousand Words, you can expect to see what happens when a bad breakup turns into a worst nightmare. It's a worst-case-scenario of what could happen when a naked photo goes viral and gets labeled "child porn." In Torn Away, my main character, Jersey, loses everything in a tornado, and spends the summer being shuttled around to various family members. It's a story about family, and love, and acceptance.

Thanks so much, Jennifer, for these thoughtful replies to my questions!

Jennifer has kindly offered up *signed* copies of both Bitter End and Perfect Escape for giveaway.

So, here's how this is going to work:

- There will be TWO winners. Each winner will receive one copy of Bitter End and one of Perfect Escape.

The rules:

- Entrants must be 13 years or older.
- Open to US only
- One entry per person
- Following and tweeting are not necessary but always appreciated!
- Ends Oct 10, at 11:59 pm EST.
- Winners will be selected randomly and contacted by e-mail

To enter, please fill out THIS FORM. Comments are wonderful but do not count as entries.


  1. I am yet to read one of Jennifer's books but they all appeal to me and I love that she does plenty of research before writing about such serious topics.

  2. "I also think it's really important to remember that a person who suffers from a mental illness is not only that mental illness."

    I really, really wish more authors can remember this when they write books with mental illness being a plot device or ends up being a source of superpowers. There's a lot of misconception about mental illness and I do think that the more books that accurately portray them, like Ms. Brown's books are, are printed and read. Also, two big thumps up for not writing a romance because that's what sells. Great interview, ladies!

  3. Thanks for sharing this interview with Jennifer Brown. I am a former MS and HS teacher, a budding writer, and a fan of her body of work. Her stories have a depth many YA books do not and appeal to many.


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