jess rothenberg
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What was your own reading experience like, growing up?

I’ve always been a totally obsessive reader.  Even as a kid, I'd find a story I loved—whether Sweet Valley High, The Baby-sitter’s Club, The Witches, Anne of Green Gables, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, the list goes on—and read it again and again and again until I either wore the pages down to nothing or reached maximum capacity and finally had to move on to something else.  The same goes for music.  I tend to get completely obsessed with one or two songs and play them on repeat for days until I, or my neighbors, can’t take it anymore.  (Sorry neighbors!) 

Favorite books? Favorite authors or genres?  

For me it’s less about the genre and more about the world of the story—as in, how quickly the writer’s world sweeps me away and whether or not the characters feel real, or true.  Whether it’s a story about a baby who wears his underpants over his diaper (Captain Underpants), a dystopian thriller about children of war (The Hunger Games), a classic love story (Pride & Prejudice), a powerful work of contemporary fiction (Before I Fall), so long as the voice rings true, I’m in.  

As far as writers go, Roald Dahl is probably my all-time favorite (I love some of his adult stories just as much as those he wrote for children), but I also love—in absolutely no particular order—Jane Austen, Lois Lowry, Neil Gaiman, Judy Blume, David Sedaris, Jeffrey Eugenides, Salman Rushdie, E.B. White, Kate DiCamillo, Suzanne Collins, Alice Sebold, and Yann Martel.  Also, Ishiguro.  And of course J.K. Rowling.  Oh jeez, this is hard. 

Have you always been a writer?

I’ve always been a reader and a storyteller, and I always thought I’d become a writer, especially since Unicorn and Mermaid weren’t exactly viable career options.  I come from a family of “artists and vagrants” (to quote one of my all-time favorite movies, Little Women) and they always encouraged me to write, to act, to paint, to play music, and even to dance, despite my total lack of rhythm.  My original plan was to be a professional ballerina, but then a girl bit me in ballet class when I was seven, so that was the end of that.  Writing seemed like the next best thing, so I’ve pretty much been at it ever since.  Although I do occasionally pretend to be Taylor Swift and break out my guitar.  Again, sorry neighbors! 

How’d you get started in publishing?

I read and wrote a ton throughout high school (the Ashley Hall School for Girls in Charleston, South Carolina) and college (Vassar), and got my official start in publishing as an Editorial Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of a major adult publishing house in New York.  At first, I wasn’t very good at it.  I once got my entire arm stuck in a copy machine.  Another time, I tore my pants wide open after backing into the sharp edge of my boss’s bookshelf.  Then there was the day I accidentally tore a check for a ridiculous amount of money (which I was supposed to be mailing to a Very Important Author) completely in half.  I’m still amazed I wasn’t fired on the spot for that one.  Luckily, I turned out to be a much better editor than an assistant, which is maybe why they kept me around.

After a few years, I moved over to the children’s book world and truly found my home.  I worked my way up the food chain to Senior Editor and stayed there until late 2010—editing a long list of award winning and bestselling writers like Richelle Mead, Kathy Reichs, Lili St. Crow, Josh Lieb, Kevin Bolger, Robert Paul Weston, and Allegra Goodman to name just a few.  I write full-time these days, but I met some of my best friends (many of whom are also writers) while working in publishing, and wouldn’t trade that time for anything.  No, not even a lifetime supply of Ben & Jerrys.

The Catastrophic History of You and Me features a protagonist who has literally died of a broken heart.  Why did you write your story for a teen audience?  

The truth is, I didn't start out writing it for teens; I started out writing it for myself as a way of dealing with a series of bad breakups I’d been through.  I still feel like a teenager in my head most of the time and, given the sorts of books I've been editing for years, it made sense that the story and characters evolved as they did.  But I like to think anyone who’s ever had their heart broken will enjoy the story—whether they happen to be thirteen or thirty-five.  Nothing like a broken heart to reconnect you with your inner fifteen-year-old!

Are your characters or stories based on real life?

There are little bits and pieces of real life mixed into my work, for sure.  I’ve obviously never died of a broken heart, but there have certainly been times when I thought I might.  The scene in Catastrophic History where Brie washes up naked on a beach is taken straight from my high school days—my best friends Jesse, Leah, and Chesnee convinced me to go skinny dipping at a crowded beach the summer before senior year and a giant wave came out of nowhere and crashed me to shore completely naked.  (They still tease me about that one.)  I also share Brie’s obsession with 80’s music and Wendy’s Frostys.  And the character of Patrick is sort of a big mix of guy friends and boyfriends I’ve had over the years.  (Ahem.)  They know who they are.

Overall, being a writer is sort of like being a chef: you take a few ingredients from life, a few from favorite memories, and a few from your weird, personal, make-believe world.  Then you mix all those ingredients together, cross your fingers, and pray the kitchen doesn’t blow up!  Sometimes the results are messy and embarrassing.  But sometimes the results are surprisingly delicious and—best of all—TRUE.  True writing is when the magic happens.

Where do you get your inspiration? 

I get inspiration from everywhere and everything!  Music; movies; old photographs; the way the light hits the pavement on a lazy afternoon; books I’ve read, places I’ve seen; even the places I dream about seeing, someday.  Inspiration is all around us all the time.  You just have to be paying attention. 

I want to be a writer.  Do you have any advice? 

Read!  Read, read, read, all the time!  Think about why you love certain writers and certain stories, and then play around with characters and voices and worlds of your own to see what feels true to you!  Find a regular (and realistic, for your life) writing routine and stick to it.   Don’t be one of those writers who never writes because life gets in the way.  Writing just a little bit each day adds up, you’ll be amazed.  Take an improv class to kick your imagination into high gear.  Consider joining a writing group or applying to an MFA program where you get to read and critique other peoples’ work, as well as share your own.  Sometimes it’s tough to hear feedback (critical and constructive alike), but I swear it’ll make you a better, braver writer.  And, at the very least, it will force you to write!

What are you working on next? 

Right now I’m working on my next novel for teens, but I’ve got a lot of ideas I’m excited about for young readers and maybe even (oh, the dreaded word) adults.  We shall see.

What do you hope people will take away from your work? 

The Catastrophic History of You and Me is my first published novel, and I’m so excited for people to read it.  It’s a very humbling thing to put yourself out there in such a personal way—knowing not everyone will love what you have written as much as say, your mom loves it.  (Thanks, Mom!)  But at the very least, I hope readers will see some part of themselves in Brie and Patrick’s story. I hope it will allow them to notice the humor in dark situations; to understand that people aren’t always who they seem to be; to learn that love works in mysterious ways.  I hope it makes them laugh, and maybe even cry.  

Finally, I hope it reminds people that sometimes—and I speak from personal experience on this one—a broken heart is the best thing that can ever happen to you.  

Thanks for stopping by, and happy reading!