Jessica Leader

Short and Fine

Have these questions really been asked Frequently?  No.  More like Occasionally.  So I’m going to be bold—bold, I tell you—and call these:

(Occasionally Asked Questions)

If they become FAQs, I’ll let you know.  



Did you always want to become a writer?

No, but looking back, there were many clues that I might become one. When I was three, I planned to become a garbage collector, because (and I swear this is a real quote) I wanted "to see how people live." I imagined going through peoples' garbage cans and to see whether they owned a cat, and whether they ate regular Life Cereal or Cinnamon Life. (I liked both. I still do, actually.)

If you think about it, writing and collecting garbage come from the same impulse: the desire to know what makes people tick. These days, instead of going through people's trash to find the answer, which I'm pretty sure is illegal, I create characters who intrigue me and write to figure out why they act the way they do.

Another early clue that I would become a writer was that I liked to play dress-up all the time, and not just when I was little, evidenced below. Writers have to become the people they create, at least while they're writing, and clearly, I liked pretending I was someone else.

Dressing up for an actual holiday
Living-room production of Little Rabbit Foo-Foo
(which could also have been titled Nice and Mean )
Wigs rule.
Dressing up in middle school?  Yup.

(And hey, maybe I still do!)


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Is Nice and Mean autobiographical?

Definitely not! I never cooked up a big plan to humiliate one of my friends, the way Marina does to Rachel, and thankfully, I never felt the need to disobey my parents about something big, the way Sachi does with video class.

However, I definitely remember feeling upset when people tried to act all cool, like Marina does. And like Sachi, I sometimes looked at the people around me and thought, "How do you all know how to do this thing that I have no idea how to do?"

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Ms. Leader! I was one of your students! Is Marina/Sachi/Rachel/Flora/ Elizabeth/ Addie / Lainey/Julian/Alex based on me? Will you ever write about me? How about if I bribe you?

Sorry, my loves, but I don't base my characters on people I know. Sometimes my characters are a vague blend of a few people with a few other traits thrown in; other times, I make them up completely. When I'm writing, I want to focus on the best way to tell the story, not on capturing how someone I know thinks and acts. Rest assured, though, former students: you are all interesting enough to be the subject of a novel.

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How did you get the idea for Nice and Mean?

Marina and Sachi were actually supporting characters in the very first novel I ever wrote called Too Soon to Tell, about Sachi's friend Lainey. Too Soon to Tell was also written Too Soon to Publish, so I set it aside. However, I had very much enjoyed writing snarky comebacks for Marina, and I wanted to stick with her to figure out why she acted so mean, so I turned her into the main character of my next project.

The character of Sachi came to me when I was observing an English class as part of my teacher training. One of the students had come to the US from India when she was five, and she was poised, smart, and completely adored by her classmates. Something about her, though—maybe the fact that most of her classmates were white, but something else, too—made me wonder if her classmates really knew her, and what it was like to be her. I knew that when I set aside Too Soon to Tell, but I didn't want to set aside Sachi.

I can't remember which came first: the idea of putting Marina and Sachi in the same book or my realization that they could stand to learn from each other. Soon enough, though, they were my two halves of a whole, my nice and my mean, my two characters in my first published novel.

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Will there be a sequel to Nice and Mean?

I don't know yet, coming up with sequel titles has definitely been fun. There could be Cute and Bad, or Sweet and Sour, or Silent and Deadly. Feel free to come up with your own. And hey, if you have any ideas for the continued adventures of Marina and Sachi, I won't mind at all if you send them to me.

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What do you want to write about next?

I'm working on two stories right now: a camping trip gone wrong, and a first boyfriend gone complicated.

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In the bio of you in Nice and Mean, it says that the story of the apron is true. What are you talking about?

If you've read Nice and Mean, you might remember Sachi's friend Phoebe telling a story about wearing an apron to school. She'd thought it looked cute at home the night before, but at school, her best friend said, "Hey, do you know you're wearing an apron?" and she felt so embarrassed that she took it off. That all happened to me in second grade. It wasn't a huge deal, but I do remember it, and looking back at it now, I feel a little mad that I was embarrassed enough to change my outfit. Who cared if an apron wasn't usual school-wear? I liked it.

I'm hoping that Nice and Mean will help readers think about the reasons that things (and people) become popular, and give readers the confidence to stick to their tastes. I know it's hard, and probably the worst in middle school, but if you start sooner rather than later, you'll probably become a stronger person for doing so.

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Why do you want to write about kids in middle and high school?

Maybe because I have so many strong memories of growing up, I feel very connected to the experiences of younger people. Crushes, cliques, parents and teachers feel like important issues, and worth worth writing about. I'm especially drawn to stories about friendship. Relationships that change because one person is moving ahead and one wants to stay the same; situations where people realize they're not good for each other or that they really need each other—to me, that's some of the best story material out there.

To hear my thoughts on reading young adult literature, see this article (coming in November.)

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What are your favorite books?

Gah! Naming favorites is so hard. So I'm rephrasing the question to, "Which books have you read over and over, either because you enjoy them or want to study how they work?" Answer: a pile of well-worn volumes.*

Favorite Books

Favorite Books

For my thoughts about reading young adult literature, click here.

*Apologies to Sharon G. Flake, whose book The Skin I'm In was so well-loved by my students and me that her name wore off the spine.

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Will you come to my school/ town/city/country/universe, talk about writing, do a reading or sign books?

Well, if inter-galactic travel is involved, sign me up.

In all seriousness, I would be thrilled to consider any invitation. I do appearances both in person and virtually—Skype provides a great low-cost way to have me visit your classroom. My Appearances page lists places I'm likely to be, as well as different types of presentations I can do for your school.

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Can I write you with other questions? It seems that mine weren't Occasionally Asked enough to be answered here.

You can definitely write me. Depending on what's going on with me, I will try to write you back as soon as possible. You can also Follow me on Twitter or hang around my blog.

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