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On Writing & Community: JC Peterson, Author of the YA Novel, Being Mary Bennet

   

On Writing & Community: JC Peterson, Author of the YA Novel, Being Mary Bennet

 

   

I

f there was ever a character that hit sharply close to home it was Marnie Barnes of Being Mary Bennet. From the start, I saw myself in this character so wonderfully developed by author JC Peterson. From hiding in libraries growing up and being scholastically driven, I’m fairly confident Marnie and I would have been friends in school. In fact, considering as a child, JC Peterson—or Jenny—attempted to forge her mom’s signature to get a library card, I’m sure we would have been friends too. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t work, but she’s been devoted to reading—and the occasional petty fraud—ever since.)

However, this isn’t a book about someone hiding out in a library (or even stealing library cards), but about a teenage girl in search of a change—within herself, her family, and her life. I enjoyed every moment in this novel and was captivated by the complicated family dynamics, the need to let go of who you think you are, and the importance of facing difficult truths.

Recently, I discussed my newest favorite character with the author, who graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in journalism, worked for years as an award-winning journalist in Oklahoma, and now lives in Denver, CO, with her husband and children. You’ll find out how she balanced her family and COVID along with writing, and what she learned while crafting her young adult novel, Being Mary Bennet, which earned her a spot in the popular mentorship program, Pitch Wars.

After completing the program, Jenny sold Being Mary Bennet in a two-book deal to HarperTeen, with the first release in March 2022 and the companion novel slated for winter 2023. I’m also excited to share the marketing tips she’s discovered along the way and the answers to my multitude of questions about the characters and world inside of her book.

*

WOW: First off, I wanted to tell you, after just finishing Being Mary Bennet, how much I could relate to your main character! Right from the start, she reflected aspects of who I am quite a bit in so many moments, including hiding in libraries growing up. While the Pride and Prejudice character Mary Bennet obviously inspired your main character, Marnie definitely stands out on her own. How did you give her a unique voice outside of the character she was inspired by?

JC: When you consider Mary in P&P, she’s such a minor character and is really there to be derided by others. But she’s always in the background; and I could just imagine how hard it must have been, trying to figure herself out while surrounded by all these very strong personalities. When I thought about her in modern day, she just made sense to me as someone who’s quite sharp and set in her ways, but desperately wanting to find the people who truly understand her.

WOW: I can understand the need to find people who truly understand who we are. You wrote a character that was both likable and unlikable throughout the book. How have readers responded to this character (or related to her, like me)?

JC: I LOVE writing characters who truly are unlikeable sometimes! But I always want them to make sense, even when you want to shake them for making terrible decisions. I want readers to understand where that unlikeable-ness is coming from. There are definitely readers who simply don’t like unlikeable characters, and that’s okay! But I’ve been so happy to connect with readers who get Marnie and care about her, even when she’s being verrrrrrry prickly or short-sighted on her journey.

WOW: Ah, and I can relate to both of those aspects of her personality! Did you start out wanting to write a book inspired by this famous novel? Or did weaving in Pride and Prejudice come later?

JC: Telling my modern-day Mary’s story was always at the heart of the novel. It started out as that core idea—Mary Bennet but modern—and grew from there.

WOW: How fascinating! So, I love the family dynamic you revealed within this story. It was so complicated but loving all at once. How did you manage to balance so many characters in the book?

JC: The Barnes family can be chaos! Honestly, I don’t usually deal with them all at once because that can be overwhelming to readers (and me, to be honest). But mostly, I didn’t want them to be ALL bad or ALL good. They’re a family who screws up, tries again, screws up in a different way, but they truly love each other. The funny thing is, my Lydia character, Lola, was never meant to show up so much on the page, but the minute she had a scene she was just so explosive. That’s why she’s the main character of my next book, Lola At Last.

JC Peterson

“I want people to read Marnie’s story and see that everyone—EVERYONE—deserves community and love. Sometimes you don’t find that in your family, but that doesn’t mean you’re not deserving. I don’t want anyone to give up trying to find their people.”


WOW: Yes! I agree completely—you can still find your “people,” even if it’s outside of your immediate family. In the book, Marnie becomes involved in a program called Bark Books. I’ve only heard of it through news programs, but I LOVE the idea. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you decided to make this a centerpiece in the story?

JC: Oh my gosh, can I be honest? I absolutely do not remember how Bark Books came to be in the plot. What I love about Bark Books is that it takes something Marnie unabashedly loves—reading and literature—and twists it a tiny bit to put her outside her comfort zone. I’ve always been a big fan of adopting animals from shelters, so setting the reading program in the shelter was important. Sir Pat is actually based on a real dog that my grandpa adopted!

WOW: How adorable! I love that you based a dog in the book on a real pup. That’s so charming! I also hope this aspect of your novel inspires people to adopt dogs from shelters. So, what was your path to publishing like?

JC: Very, very long. It took me more than a decade of trying before I sold Being Mary Bennet. It was a lot of trial and (even more) error to figure out not just the mechanics of writing a compelling story but also the business. I’ve always been a really voice-y writer, but it took three failed YA fantasy manuscripts to figure out I worked best in contemporary fiction. Once I moved to contemporary rom-coms, things just clicked. I was part of a mentorship program and signed with my agent from that.

WOW: You show so much tenacity by completing three novels before finding your niche in romantic comedies! You mentioned your mentorship program, can you tell us about how that helped you find your agent?

JC: I was accepted into PitchWars in 2019, which was an intense mentorship program that ended in an agent showcase where agents could see a sample of your work and “bid” on pages. I was lucky enough to connect with Amy Bishop, of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. From the first moment we talked, I knew she was the right agent for me.

WOW: What a beautiful first moment that must have been! What was your revision process like?

JC: I actually love revising! Even though it can be daunting to open up a seven-page (or more!) edit letter, I always find that if I take a few days to let it settle, I’m able to come back with fresh ideas and new ways into story problems. Like with my agent, my editor for Being Mary Bennet and my next book, Lola At Last, is collaborative, so I always feel I can talk things out and brainstorm with them both.

WOW: You must work well together in order to get such a good feeling opening up a lengthy editing letter. How did your agent work with you on developing the final version of your novel?

JC: Because I’d gone through PitchWars, there was lighter editing than normal. I really loved fine-tuning some ideas with her, but what I loved most was experiencing the editorial process with Amy. She’s really collaborative, which I wanted, and made me feel comfortable asking any questions.

WOW: That collaborative style is so important when working on those final stages of a novel! How did your story change from first draft to final draft?

JC: Ha! So, so much. I wrote the first draft while I was pregnant with my second son, and I took a full year off after I had him before really picking the story back up. In the first drafts, there was a whole other character who worked as Marnie’s mentor and a talking parrot who loved to swear. They lived in a little cottage at the school and everything. The mentor (and her parrot and their cottage) got cut when I started editing in PitchWars. That was a hard cut! But the story is so much better without her—though if someday I have a foul-mouthed parrot show up in a book, you’ll know where he was born.

WOW: I will absolutely be looking for that parrot! How did your journalism career prepare you for becoming a novelist?

JC: I love a deadline. I think being a journalist means I can work fast when I need to, I respect the place edits have in my story, and I’m not really precious about my writing. Like, I don’t go into anything thinking I’m some untapped genius. I’m one part of a team to hopefully put out books that make people feel seen and heard (and laugh).

JC Peterson

“I respect the place edits have in my story, and I’m not really precious about my writing. Like, I don’t go into anything thinking I’m some untapped genius. I’m one part of a team to hopefully put out books that make people feel seen and heard (and laugh).”


WOW: What a healthy perspective to have on the writing process! How did the pandemic shape, impact or influence your writing?

JC: Well, it taught me that I can edit a book at the kitchen table while one kid is in the living room on a Kindergarten Zoom and the other kid is running back and forth trying to shut big brother’s laptop. Also, I realized I never want to write a book set where I’m living. Writing books is a way to get out and explore a new place, even when you’re sheltering in place. Google Maps and I became verrrrry good friends during 2020.

WOW: You and me both! I love virtual traveling that way. What was it like to know Being Mary Bennet was being published by Harper Collins?

JC: I’m a debut author writing a rom-com, so I never went in expecting to be a lead title. I knew, even at a giant publisher with a huge reach, I’d have to handle a lot of the marketing work on my own. That’s just what publishing is today. But, personally, it was a big deal to me to be able to say I’m with Harper Collins. It feels like a good start to what I hope is a long career.

WOW: I certainly hope it’s a long career as well! You mentioned handling a lot of your own marketing. This is fascinating, especially since you’ve gone the traditional publishing route. So, what marketing have you done for your book so far?

JC: The Harper team handles all the big stuff—getting my book into the hands of bookish folks, professional reviewers, media, etc. That’s where the reach of a larger publisher really comes into play. I’d never know who to contact on my own! And I had a publicist who was so, so helpful in getting in touch with people for book launch events.

The thing I’ve learned is that just being visible on social media is important—at least in the YA market and when you’re starting out. I taught myself basic graphic design to be able to create short videos and graphics to support my book. (Some popular ones are Canva—what I use—and Adobe.) I also found that using a standard aesthetic (I run all my photos through a preset that I created using Lightroom) helps things feel cohesive. I am by no means an expert, but I’m learning.

WOW: Social media is definitely becoming a huge part of gathering an audience and building an author platform! How has social media influenced how you interact and engage with readers?

JC: I’m of two minds on social media! I legit like taking photos, so being able to snap photos or take video of book stuff to reach people on Instagram is fun. I’ve been able to get to know readers in a way I’d never been able to before. But I think, without being careful, social media can take up so much time and energy that you’re not actually focusing on the writing part of this whole gig. It can also be hard not to constantly compare yourself to others when you’re on SM all day. I’m not great at disconnecting, but I try to set limits.

JC Peterson

“I love helping newer writers through workshops, helping out with other author events, etc. That’s always my favorite when I can talk about my book a bit, but make that part of a larger event.”


WOW: Limits are so important when it comes to social media, but it’s such a challenge to manage. What have you learned so far from managing your social media?

JC: A friend and I talked a lot about this—the fact is, this is a business. So I’ve learned to treat my social media as one branch of my writing career. I try to keep a consistent voice, pay attention to posting at the right times, and have gotten over my reluctance to talk about my writing. That doesn’t mean that it’s nothing but self-promotion, because that’d be awful! I love to talk about books I’m reading, non-writing adventures, writing as a parent, and more, but I do consider if what I’m posting fits within what I’m developing as “my brand.” I’m still learning a ton, though!

WOW: I’ve never thought of the importance of having a brand on social media matching my own voice. What great advice! What has been the most effective way to gain attention to your book?

JC: This is hard to answer! When Being Mary Bennet came out, I called in all my favors. Journalist friends, amazing people I’d met through volunteering for creative groups, other writers. I set up events with people I admired and just made myself get over my fear of being annoying (ah, my constant anxiety). Here’s the thing, though, I’ve also tried to give back to my community too because I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without support. So I’ve also discovered I love helping newer writers through workshops, helping out with other author events, etc. That’s always my favorite when I can talk about my book a bit, but make that part of a larger event.

WOW: Giving back is so important and resonates so much with an audience! Thank you for chatting with us today! Do you have any lasting thoughts for writers frustrated with the publishing process?

JC: Oh man, don’t give up. I am a very logical person. I really pride myself on being even keeled. When I had my second son and hadn’t yet sold a book, I decided to stop writing. Logically, I couldn’t justify it anymore when I suddenly had two small boys at home. But over that year that I was “done,” I kept a notebook of ideas and lines and notes. I’d say, if someone is frustrated—give yourself some time off. Focus on something new. Even if you’re not actively drafting or revising or querying, you’re still a writer. It really is remarkable what a bit of space will do for your energy and ideas.

WOW: Giving yourself space is a huge element of maintaining a creative spirit! Sometimes a break is exactly what we need. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today!

Don’t miss out on Being Mary Bennet by JC Peterson! Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon or Bookshop.org. Or make sure you add it to your Goodreads list. Follow JC Peterson’s updates by visiting her website.

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Nicole Pyles

Nicole Pyles is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not hunting down the right word, she’s talking to God, reviewing books on her writing blog, watching movies, hanging out with family, and daydreaming. Her work has been featured in Ripley's Believe it or Not, WOW! Women on Writing, The Voices Project, Sky Island Journal, and Arlington Literary Journal. Read her musings at WorldofMyImagination.com.


 

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