Monday, May 3, 2010

In which I chat with YA author JT Dutton

Full disclosure - Jen Dutton is awesome! She's my class of 2k9 pal, my email buddy, and one of those people who share my quirky sense of humor and warped world view. We've commiserated about writing, life, and child-rearing. We laugh a lot. Interestingly we do this all in print, but that's the glory of the writing life! Jen's debut YA was Freaked (HarperTeen) and her second novel, Stranded (HarperTeen) will be out in June. I had the privilege of getting to read the ARC and I'll be reviewing it tomorrow for your reading pleasure. (hint: I loved it) But today, Jen and I are sitting down (picture it, people!) to talk about writing, Stranded, character creation, and other stuff.

So - welcome JT Dutton!!

Joy: Both Freaked and now Stranded are filled with dark humor. Does this reflect the actual JT Dutton?

Jen: I think I keep most of my weirdness in my head but I’m not sure. I get strange looks sometimes, when someone sees me talking to my dog. I don’t try to hide my weirdness completely because I live way out here in rural Ohio, where you know, every town expects a crazy person.

Joy: I've heard you say that while Kelly Louise is your narrator, you really see Kenny Stockhausen as your main character. Can you elaborate on this?

Jen: I set out to write a “girl” book, but I was frustrated by the many books for teen girls that end with a boy to validate the resolution of the conflict. I believe that there is something “true” in this arc—that girls see themselves in relationship to others. Plus, a hot romance makes for a very satisfying read. But in real life—where the heck is that boy? There are many, many literary and real girls like Kelly Louise who are funny, plucky, intelligent, and courageous. But there aren’t many boys in the real world like Edward in Twilight. Or if there are—no, there just aren’t any boys like that.

So here comes Kenny, bursting into my imagination. Fully human, fully boy—sort of an inside out of the Vampire model. And it’s his presence in the book, his likeable but sort of repulsive realness and his inability to keep a damsel in distress from becoming distressed that acts as catalyst for Kelly Louise’s story. A side message of this book, at least in my own head, is that it is better to love things as they are than to love them for what you want to them to be. Illusions are ultimately soul-destroying because they breed disappointment. Kenny is way sexier than Edward, if not in looks and suave vampire aloofness, at least in real flesh and blood deliverable vibrancy. You can find boys like Kenny working in the back of any restaurant kitchen. I believe that he exists and I believe Kelly Louise matures and evolves when she recognizes and relates to his realness instead of seeking out the Vampire.

Joy: Where did the idea for Stranded come from? Are there certain things that inform your writing more than others?

Jen: A friend recently called me a transgressive writer, probably what I get for hanging out with smart people. I had to go the dictionary to figure out the definition of the term. What he meant was that my stories are informed by people who develop moral codes outside the bounds of society (as a result of transgression). And I guess that’s true. Stranded was inspired by a series of news stories and editorials I read concerning a young girl who had abandoned an infant, gotten caught, and gone to jail. The public reaction included fury at her behavior. Was she a monster? Was she a victim? The question triggered something in me. I felt emotionally connected to her story, like there were lessons in it.

Joy: Why Iowa?
Jen: It’s more a question of why not Iowa? Babies are just as apt to wind up in cornfields in Tama County as they are dumpsters in Cleveland. People sometimes forget that, but maybe it’s better if we don’t. If we equalize our conceptions of place maybe we can take care of everyone and be less divided about who owns the right to call themselves citizens of Heaven.

Joy: So what is it about these bedraggled, stoner, morally ambiguous guys that attracts you to create them as your characters?

Jen: Some of these guys have impressive careers in the arts or restaurant fields after their periods of disaffection. Some keep smoking pot. Either way, they’ve made a break and rebelled against the machine.

I’m equally attracted to Principal Gruber and Knees, quieter men in each of my books who have also chosen to take the road less traveled by. They are themselves in a world that wants to rubber stamp them. They seem to do this without anger, as if they would hang on tighter to society, if society would hang on to them.

People should write their own moral codes, think for themselves about the rightness and wrongness of things. Humans have an instinct for good and I believe the quality is one of those mysteries of the planet that is larger than ourselves and the societal definitions we would inflict on it.

Joy: Chocolate or peanut butter?

Jen: Both should always be used in the same sentence. A person should never choose between the two. They are the yin and yang of existence.

Joy: Pop culture influences? Were you in fact a fan of Gilligan's Island reruns?

Jen: Recently I watched a Mad Men episode in which the characters talk about Marilyn Monroe vs. Jackie Kennedy. Good girl vs. bad girl. Betty vs. Veronica. It’s one of those weird archetypes. The Ginger vs. Marianne dynamic stuck with me as I coped with the differences between Natalie and Kelly Louise. I was forced to watch many, many, hours of reruns of Gilligan’s Island because my parents only let us near the television between 5 and 6 pm on weekdays. I am also programmed to think of life in terms of Hogan’s Heroes, Mash, and Star Trek. Over-aired television has definitely shaped my world view.

Joy: Stranded is a slightly risky endeavor - as it touches on religion, hypocrisy, underage sex, loss of virginity, homosexuality and other juicy topics. Do you consider those risks as you write, or do you just tell the story that needs to be told?

Jen: I love the line in The Lorax where the Onceler says “Now listen here, Dad, all you do is say bad, bad, bad.” Because it’s true. That Lorax is a freaking broken record of doom and gloom.

But somebody has to save the Trufalla Trees.

We don’t really want that Lorax to go away.

If social change can happen via the wit of a teenage girl who is obsessed by sex and scandal, why not let it?

I might toss bad, bad, bad into my storyline, but all I want is good, good, good, to come out of it. Sometimes that’s how discovery works.

Joy: What are you working on next?

Jen: I decided to write a novel narrated by Kenny Stockhausen. I just couldn’t leave that guy alone. Fleeing the law for a crime he only sort of committed, he gets himself a job in a horse barn at an all girls’ summer camp in Maine. I’d let you in on more, but I think I better leave it at that and give the full elevator pitch at the end of the summer—the lessons he learns, the drama he faces.

Joy: Anything else about JT Dutton that you'd like readers to know? Like where the JT came from, perhaps?

I chose just J. Dutton first, but I liked the ring of J. T. (even though J. T. is the name of my neighbor’s dog.) When people ask me about the T, I tell them it is short for Tiberius like Captain James Tiberius Kirk. All of my initialing is just a crazy attempt to obscure my real identity.

Please feel free to just call me Jen.

Joy: Thanks, Jen! Some of the best answers I've ever gotten! And it explains why we get along so famously - I too, spent time lying on the carpet watching reruns of Star Trek. So what I should have asked was: favorite Star Trek original series episode. For the record, I have two: Trouble with Tribbles and City on the Edge of Forever. (gotta love that Joan Collins. and Spock in a cap. and William Shatner over-acting during the tragic ending...)

Tomorrow, we'll talk Stranded review. Admittedly you've gotten some hints today!

Til next time...
And until then, check out this video from Harper Teen, where Jen chats some more about Stranded!


Susannah said...

Great interview! I was smiling at 5 am!

Edie Hemingway said...

I'm smiling, too, and wanting to read STRANDED!

Lauren Bjorkman said...

Fab interview! I love how quirky you both are. Hope we can quirk together soon :-)

Jeanne said...

I've had time to think about it and I have to go with the Joan Collins episode too. A two parter and it set the precedent for all those messed up time/line episodes that came later. Plus--Spock in the hat.

I also liked the one with the misunderstood monster blob in the mine mourning her broken eggs. I like the Spock Mind Meld scene in that one.

Jeanne said...

by the way, Jeanne is Jen.