Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
We’re chatting with Janae Marks, the author of
FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON
Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime?
A crime he says he never committed.
Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth. Even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family. Everyone else thinks Zoe’s worrying about doing a good job at her bakery internship and proving to her parents that she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge.
But with bakery confections on one part of her mind, and Marcus’s conviction weighing heavily on the other, this is one recipe Zoe doesn’t know how to balance. The only thing she knows to be true: Everyone lies.
Let’s talk to this amazing author about her fantastic book!
This is Janae. Everyone say, “Hi, Janae!”
© Jerri Graham Photography
Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Janae! Tell us about yourself!
Thanks so much for having me! I am an author, wife, mom, book lover, and Hufflepuff! I have an MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Children from The New School, and I also worked for a big five publisher for seven years. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, but now I live in Connecticut with my husband and daughter. FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON is my debut novel.
What was the inspiration behind FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON?
I was inspired by current events. Back in 2014, I was obsessed with the first season of the podcast Serial, which told the story of a young man who’s serving a prison sentence for murder, but many believe could be innocent of the crime. I also watched the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, which told a similar story. Both got me thinking about wrongful convictions, and how often they happen. I started researching the Innocence Project, an organization that helps overturn wrongful convictions. Since I write for kids, I started to wonder what it’s like to have a parent in prison, and what it would be like to find out that they might actually be innocent. From there, Zoe Washington was born.
What were you doing when you found out there was an offer on your book? (We love these stories here at Kick-butt Kidlit!)
I love these stories, too! I can’t remember exactly what I was doing when the first offer came in. My agent emailed me and I immediately hopped on the phone with him to discuss it. But I was lucky in that my book ended up going to “auction” – multiple publishers wanted to buy it, so my agent gave them a date to submit their best offer. I remember exactly where I was when my agent called to share the results of the auction – in my car in a Panera Bread parking lot! I had just eaten lunch and was about to head home when I got the call. So I heard about the offers while sitting in the driver’s seat!
Oh, wow! Congratulations! Fielding multiple offers must have been so exciting!
What were three interesting things you discovered while working on FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON?
While researching the book, I learned a couple of interesting facts that made me want to tell this story even more:
1) 1 in every 27 children has a parent in prison.
2) Black people are 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people.
I also learned a lot about baking while researching the baking scenes in the book. For example, while watching a TV show that went behind the scenes of a cupcake bakery, I discovered how they came up with new cupcake flavors.
If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?
Zoe’s friend Trevor is obsessed with chocolate, so it would be fun to send him and Zoe to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory from Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
That sounds like a recipe for shenanigans for sure!
Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?
I actually started writing ZOE WASHINGTON as a young adult novel, with a teenage protagonist. But then one of my critique partners told me that it sounded more like a middle grade story. She was right! Once I started writing it as a middle grade, it came together much faster. I realized that Zoe made more sense as a twelve-year-old, when she could be more naive about the injustices within the prison system, and have more room to grow as a character.
Now that I’ve published a middle grade novel, I can’t wait to write more. I love writing about characters in this age group, and connecting to young readers, plus teachers and librarians.
Any hints about your next book project?
My next book is coming out in Fall 2021, and it features a new friendship, a mystery and a main character who’s super into movie scores. I can’t wait to share more about it soon!
What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?
How long it took to get my agent and book deal. I expected to get both soon after graduating from my MFA program in 2010. But it took over seven more years! Talking to other authors, this is such a common experience. More often than not, publishing is a marathon, not a sprint.
What are you reading right now?
I recently finished reading early copies of two excellent middle grade debut novels, which both come out on March 24: THE DERBY DAREDEVILS: KENZIE KICKSTARTS A TEAM by Kit Rosewater, and MY LIFE AS A POTATO by Arianne Costner.
What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?
Keep going! As I said above, my publishing journey was long. But I kept writing because I truly believed that if I kept trying, one day I’d achieve this goal. I knew rejection is part of the process, and was determined to not let it get me down for too long. I’m so glad I never quit.
So true! And I know your readers are glad too!
Thank you so much for chatting with us, Janae!
Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON. It’s on shelves now!
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Contest closes Friday, February 28th at 11:59 pm EST
Thanks for reading!