By day, Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest magazine, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. By night, she is a fiction writer with a debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, new from St. Martin’s Press (named to the March 2017 Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction shortlist!), and another stand-alone book club title, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, forthcoming in 2018. And by the minute, she is a proud wife and mom to two super sweet and super young kids in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Her diverse career in the publishing industry spans more than 15 years and includes stints in book editing, marketing and public relations, and freelance writing and editing. She blogs at WritersDigest.comand elsewhere (if you’d like a guest post, contact me!), tweets fairly regularly @jessicastrawser (please do say hello), enjoys connecting on Facebook, and speaks at writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.
I read her novel (ALMOST MISSED YOU) and was hooked immediately. Having a three-year-old boy myself really tugged on my mommy heartstrings and Jessica’s writing tugged on my writer’s heartstrings. Please, stop what you’re doing and download this ebook, or go buy it somewhere and start diving in! I even passed it along to my mom when I was finished (she adored it as well). Of course, after going gaga over this book, I had some questions for its fabulous author. So, here we go…
1- When you are writing, do you have beta readers? If so, how do you find them?
I do have a few trusted beta readers—mostly generous souls from my life who are kind enough to lend an eye and who happen to share my love of books: a librarian, a former bookseller, a voracious reader. I’ve also traded critiques with fellow writers on occasion, and in those instances we connected regarding something else first and the swap came about organically. I do not share my work “when I am writing,” however—only completed drafts that I feel are on their way to being ready for an audience.
2- Are your characters for your works loosely based-on or inspired by actual people?
My characters are wonderfully not inspired by actual people—dreaming them up is half the fun.
3- Do you have a basic outline that you follow when you are writing? Or do you wing it?
I tend to have a central question I’m pursuing an answer to, and some key themes and plot points in mind that I’d like to hit along the way, but definitely not an outline (though I often wish I did!).
4- Who are some of your favorite authors?
Liane Moriarty, Maggie O’Farrell, Anne Tyler, Jodi Picoult, Alice Walker, Jojo Moyes, Chris Bohjalian, David Sedaris … I could go on and on!
5- Do you read other genres besides your own? What genre do you consider your work?
Part of my day job as editor at Writer’s Digest involves interviewing bestselling authors across all genres, and I never do so without reading their work. I’ve found it’s wonderfully beneficial as a writer, and enjoyable as a reader, that this forces me not to box myself in. I find much to admire in the never-saw-them-coming twists of Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner, the happily-ever-afters of Susan Mallery, the nostalgia of Sarah Dessen. My own tastes are broad reaching as well, but my work is best defined as “book club fiction”—or, if you want a real mouthful, “upmarket women’s fiction with elements of suspense.”
6- How did you go about finding a literary agent? Did you send many query letters out? How much time did it take to hear back/edit/receive an offer from an agent and then a publisher?
The agent who sold Almost Missed You is actually my second agent. I had an earlier, unsold project that did help me land my first agent, on a revise-and-resubmit request (which really was more like a complete rewrite based on his feedback, which had resonated strongly), but ultimately he was unable to place the book and we went our separate ways for largely unrelated reasons. I had garnered many rejections for that first project, both from other agents and from publishers—I never kept count of how many, so as not to discourage myself further, but always tried to look to the next possibility.
With Almost Missed You, the only agent I approached signed me, and she sold me in a two-book pre-empt two weeks later. After years of waiting and being told no, I’d stopped getting my hopes up very high—it was completely unexpected!
7- Do you listen to music when you write to create a mood? Or do you have the TV on? Do you prefer silence?
I close the door of my writing room and aim for silence, though I don’t always get it! I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and do as much of my writing as possible when they’re asleep—but if they aren’t, I say a silent thanks to my husband for holding down the fort and do my best to tune out the noise.
8- Which comes first? Plot/story or characters.
I simply can’t separate the two—they are intrinsically linked.
9- What are some of your favorite TV shows/Movies/Music/Actors?
I’ve fallen woefully behind on both TV and movies, given that I work all day and write weeknights until bedtime—I really only have a chance to relax in front of the screen on weekends, so often stick to one thing at a time. Right now I’m loving the new season of “Better Call Saul,” and eagerly awaiting the new seasons of “This Is Us,” “Z: The Beginning of Everything” and “Mozart in the Jungle.”
10- When writing do you ever envision certain actors as you characters? If so, who?
I do not, but this is a popular topic at book clubs I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with! It’s fun to hear their own casting ideas (though to be clear, my work has not as of yet been optioned for film).
11- How different is Almost Missed You from your previous novel? Any previews for your next stand alone book?
Almost Missed You is completely different from my unsold “drawer novel” (or “practice novel,” as Jane Smiley calls them), which was a very internal, first person, present tense story.
Not That I Could Tell, forthcoming in March 2018, has much in common with Almost Missed You—again asking the question of how well any of us really know anyone else, and alternating voices between three characters—though it takes a completely different approach. While Almost Missed You centered on our closest relationships (namely, our spouses and children), Not That I Could Tell looks to our friends and neighbors and raises some tough questions about the line between caring for those around us and minding our own business. It’s also a more linear story, in a more confined setting and on a tighter timeline, whereas Almost Missed You moved around in both place and time quite a bit.
12- Any general advice to debut authors trying to get published?
Believe you can do it; persist.
13- Any advice for writing with young children and trying to balance it all?
It’s not easy; sacrifice is involved. I suppose my best advice is to know your priorities (my first one is always my children), to not hesitate to make your writing one of them (which does mean learning to say no to outside obligations—including, sometimes, quite appealing ones), and not to be too hard on yourself when something falls short.
14- Do you miss your characters when a book is complete?
You know, I really don’t. I try to leave them where I feel as if they can take it from there—and I love nothing more than hearing from readers who are imagining futures for these people beyond the page. The fact that they have become real to someone other than me is the greatest compliment I could receive, I think. (And given your questions at the end of this interview, that includes you, so thank you!)
15- Is there a character of your own or of someone else’s that you think you are very similar to?
I think if authors are doing their jobs well, their characters are relatable in that they are like us, but also so apart from us that we can’t point to them as mirrors or archetypes of ourselves.
16- I love your use of Gatlinburg and Asheville (since I am from Knoxville which is relatively similar and close) are these some of your favorite travel destinations? What made you want to feature them in your story?
The characters live in Cincinnati, as I do, and both Gatlinburg and Asheville are popular spots here for a long weekend away, which is what I needed for the purposes of my plot. That said, I do love them both, and it was great fun to write about Asheville especially.
17- Do you think Finn romanticized his relationship with his ex (Maribel)?
That is, by design, for the reader to decide, rather than for me to say.
…The rest of my questions would be spoilers! So I didn’t share =)
Interviewed by – Audra McElyea
Audra McElyea @AudraMcElyea is a writer, personal trainer, blogger, contributor, wife and mom to two young boys. Her women’s fiction novel When Lilies Bloom is currently in the querying stage. She is a proud member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and she is the host of Book Moms #BookMoms @BookMoms & Women’s Fiction Wednesdays. #WFWed @WFWed
Her work has appeared in national online publications, including SheKnows magazine. When she isn’t endlessly editing her novel, you can find her in Tennessee cleaning up after two wild, little boys, or teaching Pilates. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads