We're here to celebrate today's release of Jenn Bishop's middle grade novel 14 Hollow Road.
The night of the sixth-grade dance is supposed to be perfect for Maddie: she’ll wear her perfect new dress, hit the dance floor with her friends, and her crush, Avery, will ask her to dance. But as the first slow song starts to play, her plans crumble. Avery asks someone else to dance instead—and then the power goes out.
Huddled in the gym, Maddie and her friends are stunned to hear that a tornado has ripped through the other side of town, destroying both Maddie’s and Avery’s homes.
Kind neighbors open up their home to Maddie’s and Avery’s families, which both excites and horrifies Maddie. Sharing the same house . . . with Avery? For the entire summer? While it buys her some time to prove that Avery made the wrong choice at the dance, it also means he’ll be there to witness her morning breath and her annoying little brother.
At the dance, all she wanted was to be more grown-up. Now that she has no choice, is she really ready for it?
Jenn, this is a fabulous premise. Can you tell me where the story came from?I’m an avid listener of This American Life and years ago remember listening to a very memorable episode about a tornado interrupting a prom in the heartland. One minute, you’re dancing the night away, experiencing this seminal life moment, and the next, everything changes. Fast forward several years to 2011, and an unlikely tornado crossed the street where I grew up, and where my parents still live. Thankfully they and their home were spared, but the experience lingered with me. What if there had been a dance that night, but for middle schoolers? The first 15-20 pages flew out of me as I imagined these events happening in a hometown like my own in rural Massachusetts. I brought those pages to my next-to-last workshop at VCFA, with A.S. King and Alan Cumyn. I loved using the first 15-20 pages of a new story idea as a workshop piece—it served as a great litmus test for whether or not the concept really had legs.
I remember that This American Life episode! How fabulous to take that idea and play through the "What ifs" scenarios. As you developed the story, who became your favorite characters to write, and why?
I had a lot of fun writing the middle school boy characters in this one, particularly Gregg, the boy in Maddie’s class who has a bit of a crush on her. There’s something about boys that age—I spent a lot of time around them as a teen librarian, serving grades 5 and up. They can be so self-assured at times, and usually with hilarious results. We see that with Gregg, but we also see the flip side with Avery, the object of Maddie’s crush, who she ends up living with for the summer. There’s a tender core to boys and their emotional experiences that I think our culture is uncomfortable around sometimes. On the outside, Avery tries to live up to the cultural standards, but in his downtime, he’s crumbling a bit under the pressure and struggling with his uncertain future, having lost his home in a tornado.
Your affection for that "tender core" is clearly an important motivating force in your creation of these endearing boys. Can you tell me what was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
This was the first project where I had to really reshape the entire middle of the book in revisions with my editor, which seemed scary at the time. Plotting still doesn’t always come easy to me, and my editor, rightly, pointed out that the friendship thread in 14 Hollow Road needed to build to a satisfying climax instead of just being filled with momentary tension. To rectify this, I ended up changing the relationship between the three girls (Maddie, her best friend Kiersten, and Gabby), so that Gabby was now the new girl who threatened Maddie’s longtime friendship with Kiersten. So now, not only was Gabby, in Maddie’s mind, going after the boy she liked, but she was also gunning for her best friend. I tend to struggle with seeing the way the parts of my book create a whole—I think that I’m often just too close to see it—so it was a good challenge to have to reframe a plot thread.
Clearly you are continuing to challenge yourself as a writer, and to keep learning. When we're at VCFA, we are encouraged to read like a writer. Tell me, when you are reading other authors, who do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?
Sentences: Lois Sepahban. Her debut last year, Paper Wishes, was so spare and lyrical and moving. For plot: Rebecca Stead. I’m in awe of When You Reach Me and Goodbye Stranger. And finally, character is a toughie. There are many writers who do character well, but one I keep coming back to is Elizabeth Strout.
On the subject of VCFA, you graduated in January 2014 as part of the M.A.G.I.C. I.F.s. Can you tell us what was special about your graduating class?
Can my answer be everything? My VCFA classmates are simply the best. It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than three years since graduation. I’ve had the chance to see many (most?) of them in the time that’s elapsed. What’s particularly impressive about our group is that we show up. We support each other, trekking across the country to celebrate each other’s launches and convening for writing retreats. I feel so fortunate to have met this amazing group of writers.
Lastly, what advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
Try everything. That was the advice given to me by alums and it is something I adhered to as much as possible. Still, I wish I had spent a semester focused on picture books. You know there’s something in the water in Montpelier when just a few years out of the program I’m already crossing my fingers to someday come back and do the picture book semester. (Once I’ve paid off my VCFA loans, I tell my husband. Only then! Promise.)
Thanks so much Jenn. Congratulations on 14 Hollow Road!
Jenn Bishop is also the author of The Distance to Home, a Junior Library Guild selection and a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book. After many years in Chicago and Boston, she now resides in Cincinnati, OH. http://www.jennbishop.com
14 Hollow Road is published by Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House.