Today we have the wonderful Jennifer Mathieu joining us. Her debut novel The Truth About Alice won the Teen Choice Debut Author Award and tells an unforgettable story about the impact of rumors and bullying. Her other books include Devoted and the upcoming Afterward, due late this September. In addition to being a powerful voice in YA fiction, Jennifer also teaches high school English. We are so excited that she took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with us today!
James: The Truth About Alice deals with bullying and gossip, both of which are real-life issues that impact everyday teens. Was there a specific incident that prompted you to write about these topics?
Jennifer: The biggest seed for The Truth About Alice came from an article I read as a high school student way back in 1992. The article appeared in Seventeen magazine and was about a young woman in Minnesota who was harassed and bullied by her classmates. One of the horrible things they did to her was take over a stall in one of the bathrooms where they wrote sexually abusive and demeaning graffiti about her. The young woman went to the school administration for help and they did nothing and even implied that maybe she deserved it. She ended up suing her high school under Title IX and winning nominal damages. I remember being so upset by the article and horrified by how this girl was treated. Looking back now it was probably one of the sparks in my life that transformed me into a feminist and years later it became a spark for my first novel. Incredibly, this young woman learned about The Truth About Alice and emailed me to thank me for writing the book. I was really touched.
James: In addition to being an author, you also teach high school English. How has your experience with students shaped your writing?
Jennifer: Oh, for sure the writing and the teaching are intertwined. I'm very fortunate to spend my days with my target reading audience. Being around the rhythm of adolescence is very inspiring and helpful when it comes time to write in a voice that I hope sounds authentic. Teaching teenagers has reminded me that so many adults really sell teenagers short. Teenagers crave complicated, nuanced books about sensitive and tricky topics. It infuriates me when people think young adult novels are dumbed down literature. I think the people that believe that don't spend time with teenagers and don't read YA novels. I'm really lucky to have what I consider to be the two best jobs in the planet - teaching teenagers and writing for and about them.
James: Are any of the characters in your book based off actual students you've had in the past?
Jennifer: No, not at all, but sometimes I will see a student who reminds me of how I picture a character in my mind. A few times I have borrowed the physical mannerisms of some of my students when writing my books. But my characters are completely fictional. It is fun when I see a student and think, "That's just how I pictured Elaine," or "That's just how I pictured Kurt."
James: You write from five different perspectives in this book. Which perspective is your favorite?
Jennifer: Oh, that's easy! Kurt! He was so much fun to write and came so easily to me. Probably because he reminded me a bit of myself in high school. I was really in my own head a lot and valued academics quite a lot. I don't think I was as socially clueless as he was, but I think I enjoyed writing him because he reminded me of myself so much. The hardest character to write was Elaine. I wouldn't say she was my least favorite because I honestly love all my characters, even the mean ones, but Elaine was the trickiest because she was so different from me and, truth be told, she scared me a little!
James: Bustle wrote a great article entitled 7 Things "The Truth about Alice" (Unfortunately) Gets Right About Being a High School Girl, in which Caitlin White writes about the way that schools often don't take bullying seriously. What do schools have to do differently in order to address this problem?
Jennifer: This is such a complex and difficult question. First of all, I think the Internet has made things so complicated because schools don't always feel like it's their right to monitor what goes on online after school hours. But I think that it's so important for schools to create a climate where bullying isn't tolerated and that includes the online world. That said, I think beyond conduct codes and clearly set expectations, it all comes down to teachers in the classroom. I think teachers need to do their best to create relationships with students so that students feel comfortable to come up and talk about what's on their minds or what's troubling them. I've had students disclose bullying to me as well as difficulties at home, and knowing that they can trust me means that I can listen and try to find some way to help them. I work really hard to create a climate of trust and respect in my room, including setting norms for tricky conversations and modeling compassion. I hope I'm making a difference in some way.
James: Judging from the way he talks about Brandon, Josh seems to have a definite crush on the dead quarterback. Is he gay or bisexual?
Jennifer: I have had this question from so many readers which really surprised me! In my mind, Josh was so clearly gay, and yes, he had a crush on Brandon. But many readers have interpreted Josh as bisexual or are unsure about his sexuality. I don't think there is a wrong interpretation. I'm a big believer that once a book is out in the world it belongs to the readers, so if a reader thinks Josh is bisexual or questioning, that's not wrong. The bottom line is that Josh was so repressed he could not admit his sexuality to himself - something I find tremendously sad. My heart broke for Josh despite the mistakes he made.
James: What's the most meaningful compliment you've ever received from one of your readers?
Jennifer: I've been so fortunate to receive all sorts of kind and wonderful compliments. I value them all, but I have to say that the ones that have really touched my heart came to me from readers of my second novel, Devoted. In Devoted, I write about a young woman named Rachel who is raised in a very conservative Christian home. She has a crisis of faith and still wants to have a relationship with God, but her parents don't want her to wear pants, cut her hair, go to school, or be part of the secular world in any way. I've had young women who were raised like Rachel approach me in signing lines at events and burst into tears because they felt like they had finally read a book that validated their lives. Each time it happens I'm so amazed and it's been such a powerful experience.
James: Which scene in your novel was the most fun to write?
Jennifer: The most fun scene to write in The Truth About Alice was definitely the scene when Kurt gives Alice a first edition copy of The Outsiders and Alice orders them a Christmas pizza. It was the first time I could really let Kurt relax a bit around Alice and the first scene when I felt like their friendship was truly taking off. I smiled so big as I was writing it, I'm sure I looked like a total dork!
James: What books do you find yourself always recommending to other people?
Jennifer: The list is too long to include all the titles, but some of the young adult novels I recommend often and have used in my classroom include E. Lockhart's Ruby Oliver books, Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park, Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead, Andrew Smith's Winger, Julie Murphy's Side Effects May Vary, and Natalie Standiford's How to Say Goodbye in Robot. A recent favorite is Jeff Zenter's The Serpent King which totally blew my mind. I love realistic fiction with complex characters who tackle tough and sensitive subjects. I also love to read nonfiction, including anything by Chuck Klosterman. He's crazy smart.
James: What's your favorite place to read?
Jennifer: I'm so boring - in bed right before I go to sleep! It's so cozy. Reading doesn't make me sleepy though. It often wakes me up because I read like a writer, always trying to figure out how the book "works" and what I can learn from it. As a kid I always wanted to read in the car but it made me car sick. I still can't read on road trips which is such a bummer!