Here’s an interview I recently completed with J.M Reep. J.M Reep is the author of Leah, which I review here.
1. To start off, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I like to think of myself as a writer, but that doesn’t pay the bills, so for my day job I teach freshman composition at the college level. I’ve taught at a variety of schools, but I prefer teaching at the junior college level. I live in Texas, which is where I’ve lived most of my life. My favorite place to shop is a local chain of used book stores, and every time I shop there I wind up spending $30-$40 on books. I’m not sure how many books I have in my collection, but it must be at least 400.
I started writing novels when I was in seventh grade, and by the time I graduated from high school, I had written nine complete novel-length manuscripts (not to mention a couple dozen short stories and a couple hundred poems). I’ve never written a play; I’d like to, but I can’t think of a good plot that would work in play form. I’ve published one other novel titled The Spring.
2. Do you like to read as much as Leah? If so, what do you read and which authors do you enjoy? Any YA authors?
I read a lot, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t read very much YA. I’ve read a few YA books, but most of my reading choices are drawn from “literary fiction” and classic literature. I’m a big fan of 20th century literature; I really like Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jose Saramago. My all-time favorite novel is Nabokov’s Pale Fire; I was an English major in college, and Pale Fire is a novel written with English majors in mind.
My reading choices, and my lack of experience reading YA fiction, sometimes worries me because even though I consider myself a YA writer, I often wonder if the stories I write are “misinterpretations” of what a YA novel ought to be. I do try to pay attention to what other YA authors are doing, and I like to read synopses and book reviews of other YA novels. What I’ve noticed is that my stories don’t seem to bear much resemblance to most of the other books that are out there. I’m tempted to classify my books as “literary YA fiction,” but I also think that sounds very pretentious!
What I try to do is write the kinds of stories that I would have liked to have read when I was a teenager.
3. Can you describe the road to the publication of Leah?
I started writing the first draft of Leah when I was in college (either 1994 or 1995). At the time, it was the best story I had ever written, so I decided to try to publish it. I prepared what I called a “finished manuscript,” but what I didn’t realize at the time was that the manuscript I sent out was far from finished. At that point in my life, I certainly knew how to write a novel-length first draft, but what I didn’t fully understand was how to revise and edit that draft. So what I [self-]published back in 1996 was, at best, only a “second draft” of the novel. It wasn’t until after I received my copies of the book that I realized it didn’t live up to my own expectations. In short, it was very badly written, and I promised myself that I would someday revisit the novel, rewrite it, and try to publish it again.
After Leah, I stopped writing fiction for a few years. In the late 1990s I spent most of my creative energy writing poetry, and I even published a number of pieces in small literary magazines in the US and Europe. I also started teaching, and it was my experience as a teacher which helped me learn what I needed to learn about revising and editing writing. By teaching others to write well, I actually taught myself how to be a better writer.
In early 2007, I acquired a mysterious illness (doctors never could figure out what was wrong with me) that I suffered from for almost a year. Reminded of my own mortality, I recommitted myself to writing. I finished a novel that I had been working on for a few years titled The Spring which I published in early 2008. Again, I self-published. You might be wondering why I’ve chosen to self-publish instead of following the more “traditional” route of going through an established publisher. There’s a number of artistic and political reasons behind this decision, but probably the most important reason is because I prefer to have complete creative control over my work. When I write my stories, they are my own. I don’t have an agent or a publisher pressuring me to be more like Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling. I’m free to follow my own muse, and my stories belong to me completely. If they are good, I can take all the credit. If they suck, then I have only myself to blame.
When I finished The Spring in early 2008, I decided that the time was right to finally revisit Leah and fulfill that promise I made over a decade earlier. So I spent the better part of 2008 rewriting and revising Leah (a process which I chronicled in a blog titled, appropriately, Revising Leah <http://revisingleah.wordpress.com/>). I worked on it for months, reading it again and again, cutting text, adding new text, rewriting long passages, correcting typos and wrong word errors, and basically doing everything I could to make the novel the best it could be. At last, earlier this year, I finished and republished the book. I’m very proud of this new edition, and I’m very happy that Leah Nells now lives in the story that she deserves.
4. What inspired you to write Leah?
More than anything else, I think I was just fascinated by the character and the challenge of placing her in the role of the main character of a novel. It’s easy to imagine Leah as a supporting character, but the main character? Not so much. I created the character of Leah Nells when I was in high school (11th or 12th grade, I think). At first, she was the composite of three different individuals:
First, there’s a lot of myself in her. Each of my main characters in my stories possesses some quality or personality trait of my own self. In Leah’s case, she shares my introversion. I’m not quite as extremely introverted as she is, but like her, I prefer to be by myself.
Second, she’s also loosely modeled after the character of Laura Wingfield from Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie, which I first read in my 11th grade English class. When I read the play, I was drawn to Laura’s character because I had never seen a character quite like her. Like Leah, Laura is isolated from the rest of the world, not so much because of shyness but because she is physically crippled and that has given her a sort of inferiority complex. I’m pretty sure I derived the name “Leah” from the name “Laura.”
And third, there was a girl in my high school class who was living a life similar to Leah’s. She was shy, had very few friends, and would sometimes spend her free time reading. Once she even brought a big book of trivia questions to school with her, which she read when she had some free time. I only had three or four classes with her during our entire high school career, but obviously she left an impression on me.
So at some point late in 11th grade or early 12th grade, those three influences combined to form this new character, Leah Nells. I wrote a couple of short stories about her, and I liked her so much that I knew someday I just had to put her in a novel. But writing a novel with Leah as the main character was very difficult because she’s so different from most other main characters that writers create. The challenge for me was could I write a novel from the perspective of a character who almost never speaks and doesn’t have any friends? The result, I think, is a novel that’s a little weird, a little “off,” but I hope it’s a novel and a character that readers find as fascinating as I do. Even today, Leah remains one of my all-time favorite characters.
5. What is a hobby of yours, other than writing?
I think I have a very creative personality, so when I’m not writing, I have to express myself in other ways. The problem is, though, that writing is all I’m really good at. I can’t draw or paint very well, and I can’t play a musical instrument. Nevertheless, I do like to take on artistic projects when I’m not writing. For example, a few years ago, I spent time creating word collages — sort of cross between poetry, graffiti, and scrapbooking. I’d take interesting or random phrases and quotes from magazines and arrange those cut-outs on small watercolor canvases. These random phrases and quotes then combined to form something new, something like poetry or an essay, yet something very different and original, too.
6. What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
I think the most important thing that a young writer can do is just have fun with writing. When I was young, I worried about what other people would think if they read my stories, and I worried if what I wrote would be good enough for publication. I shouldn’t have, though, because what I didn’t realize then is that there would be plenty of time to worry about that stuff later. When you’re young, you ought to just indulge in that wonderful creative spirit and boundless energy that you have and take full advantage of it. Choose stories to write that you think will be fun and exciting to write, not stories that you think the world expects from you. If you’re having fun while telling a story, then you’re doing it right.
7. Describe yourself in three adjectives.
Quiet, intellectual, patient. Other people who know me might use different adjectives, though. 🙂
8. This or that: reading or listening to music?
Wow. I don’t know. Both reading and music have been so important in me; I really can’t imagine my life without either of those things. I was at a teacher training conference a few months ago, and one of the activities we were asked to do was to decide which material things are most important to us — those things that we cannot live without. I was able to whittle my list down to two items: my collection of books and my collection of music. Everything else I can do away with.
When I was younger, I used to listen to music while I wrote stories because listening to music would give me an emotional charge and inspire new ideas. I don’t write while listening to music now, but I do still listen to music all the time and it does still inspire my writing.
9. What is next for you in the book world, if anything?
Right now, I’m writing the first draft of a new novel titled Juvenilia. (I’ve also been chronicling that process in a new blog by the same name located at <http://www.jmreep.com/juvenilia>). My three novels, Leah, The Spring, and Juvenilia make up a series of books — a sort of trilogy, actually. Each novel is a separate story — you can read one without feeling required to read the others — but the three stories are linked together by their setting (they all take place in the same fictional universe — the same high school) and they all share the same general theme of struggling to figure out who you are and where you belong in the world. Because the three stories are all set in the same fictional universe, there are some moments of crossover: some of the main characters in one novel might appear as minor characters in the other novels. In fact, I’m planning to let Leah Nells make a very, very brief appearance in Juvenilia, even though she isn’t the “star” of the new book. Leah doesn’t appear in The Spring, but a couple of the main characters fromThe Spring are mentioned in Leah. The new novel is coming along well, so far, and I hope to publish it by 2010 or 2011. That will complete the trilogy, and what I’ll write after that is anyone’s guess!
I hope that brought more insight as to how Leah came to be, and of J.M, too.
Thanks for reading!