Janae Marks writes contemporary books for kids and teens. After graduating college with an English Literature degree, she worked in children’s publishing in New York City, where she remembered how much she loved stories for children, and still connected with them – even as an adult. That love only grew when she got an MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. Her middle grade debut FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON will be published on January 14, 2020 by HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books. She currently lives in Connecticut, and when she’s not writing fiction or working in education, she’s spending time with her husband and daughter – at the beach when it’s warm enough.
Cathleen: Hey Janae! I’m so excited that I get to interview you, since we’re (sort of) neighbors and also both HarperCollins authors. Also because I read and loved your book! There’s so much I want to know about your process and your inspirations for this story. I know you’ve already written about how you originally conceived of this novel as a YA story, so I won’t ask you about that here, J.
Janae: Hi Cathleen! I’m so excited to have you interview me.
C: I am curious about how you created Zoe as a character. How much of Zoe comes from who you were in middle school?
J: Zoe and I have a few things in common. To start, we’re both only children, so since we don’t have siblings, our friendships mean a great deal to us. Also, while Zoe’s conflict with Trevor is completely fictional, I did experience friendship trouble back in middle school. In my case, there was a girl who felt threatened by my friendship with my BFF at the time, so she tried to sabotage me and get me kicked out of our friend group. I survived, but talk about drama. That story could be a middle grade book of its own!
Finally, I named Zoe’s dog, Butternut, after my own childhood dog.
C: What were your other inspirations for developing Zoe as a character?
Zoe dreams of being a baker, and she bakes some amazing cupcakes in the novel. You’ve said that you’re not a big baker. Why did you choose this particular passion for Zoe?
J: I’m going to combine these questions because one of my big inspirations for this book led me to make Zoe an aspiring pastry chef. When I want to relax, I love watching cooking and baking competition shows, particularly ones that feature children, like Master Chef Jr. and Food Network’s Kids Baking Championship. The latter show ended up inspiring the Kids Bake Challenge show that Zoe aspires to compete on in the book. What I love about these shows is how passionate and talented the kids are, even at a young age. I wanted to give Zoe a hobby, and add a lighter storyline to balance the heavier themes in the book. Even though I’m not a big baker myself, it was a lot of fun to research bakeries, and write those scenes.
C: What were you passionate about when you were Zoe’s age?
J: When I was Zoe’s age, I was really into musical theater and singing. That passion continued through high school, and I even thought I wanted to major in theater in college. I eventually realized theater wasn’t the right fit, but I still love singing along to music, and watching Broadway shows in NYC when I can.
C: I was so impressed with the story line you developed for Marcus (Zoe’s dad), and how and why he ended up in jail. I felt it was both believable and middle-grade appropriate. How did you go about developing this story line? What kind of research did you do?
J: I knew I wanted to write a story that touched upon the systemic racism within the criminal justice system, as well as wrongful convictions. But I didn’t want the story to focus solely on injustice. I wanted to show Zoe’s growing relationship with Marcus. That’s when I decided to add their back-and-forth letters to the story. I loved writing letters as a kid, and thought young readers would enjoy reading the letters in between the prose.
I decided to add the mystery around whether or not Marcus is truly innocent of his crime, because I’ve been hooked on true crime podcasts and documentaries. What makes them so compelling is not knowing the truth until the end. Sometimes, the truth is never discovered. (But don’t worry, my book doesn’t have that kind of open ending.)
As for research, I read articles and books about wrongful convictions. I read a lot about the work the Innocence Project organization does. I also watched the Ava DuVernay documentary, 13th. Not all of this research went into the book, but it was helpful background as I developed the story.
C: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
J: I am a plotter! I tried pantsing a book once and it was a disaster. For this book, I started by writing a pitch, sort of what you’d see on the back of a book. This helped me know that the story idea had legs. Then I wrote a synopsis, and broke it down into scenes and chapters. I started drafting from there!
C: Wow! I am totally a pantser. I would love to take a writing workshop with you! How long did it take you to write the draft of Zoe Washington that got you an agent?
J: I wrote the first draft in a couple of months, but revised it for another year before I began querying. While querying, I received an R&R (Revise & Resubmit) from an agent. I liked the suggestions, so I revised it again. That draft got me five offers of rep from agents, and I decided to sign with Alex Slater at Trident Media Group. Because I’d done so much revising already, Alex felt the draft was in good shape to submit to editors, so the book went on submission to publishers shortly after I signed with him. It only took one week to get our first offer, and the book went to auction! That part of the process was very fast, but before I wrote this book, I’d written three other novels. Overall, my journey to get published was long and winding.
C: There’s so much you can’t control about the publishing process! But as a writer, there’s one thing you can control: your writing space. What matters to you in your environment when you’re writing? Candles? Music? Snacks?
J: All I really need is my laptop, a notebook, headphones and a comfy seat!
C: And now a couple of questions about books. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?
J: I was really into the Babysitter’s Club series.
C: What books made you want to be a writer?
J: All of them! I’ve always been an avid reader. I didn’t start thinking that I could actually write a novel myself until I was in my early twenties, but all of the books I’d read until that point inspired me to go for it.
C: What are you reading right now and what’s up next on your tbr list?
J: One of the best parts of being a debut author is getting to read other debut books early. Right now I’m reading an advanced copy of Suzanne Park’s YA rom-com, THE PERFECT ESCAPE. Next on my list is the MG book FOREVER GLIMMER CREEK by Stacey Hackney. Both are out on 4/7/20!
C: I loved THE PERFECT ESCAPE! Thank you so much for this glimpse into your amazing novel and the writing process that got you to write it.
Congrats on the release of your debut book, Janae! You can visit Janae’s website for more info and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, as well as order FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. Lastly, don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!