From northern Utah, Jennifer A. Nielsen is a New York Times Bestselling author. Since her debut novel, Elliot and the Goblin War, Nielsen has gone to write several bestselling novels. These books range from the serious historical novel A Night Divided (Scholastic) to the Young Adult/Fantasy book series Ascendance Trilogy and Mark of the Thief Trilogy (both published by Scholastic as well). Wanting to learn more about her career, her books, and her goals, Nielsen allowed me to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: When was the moment you knew that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a book, TV show, or movie that pushed you in this direction?
Jennifer A. Nielsen: I always enjoyed writing, but while I was growing up, I didn’t understand that writing was a career option for ordinary people like me. So I wrote for a hobby, but didn’t get serious about publication until I was in my late twenties. At that time, I had been doing a lot of reading, but found I enjoyed each book less and less. Not because the writing was bad in any way, but because I began thinking about choices I would have made if I had written the story. One day it occurred to me that the only way I would get the exact story I wanted, is if I was the one to write it.
Yanes: Your homepage mentions that your first novels were adult romantic suspense narratives. What attracted you to these types of stories?
Nielsen: I started writing those stories because those were the novels I had been reading. The problem was, that’s not who I am as a writer, so the stories I wrote weren’t that good. Once I shifted to writing for young people, everything began to come together for me.
Yanes: You eventually shifted to young adult and children’s fantasy stories. What made you decided to transition to these genres? On this note, when did you realize that this was a better fit for you?
Nielsen: Two novels found me at roughly the same time. The first was Lord of the Rings. My husband had always been a huge fan of the books so when the movies came out, I went with him, though I really wasn’t much interested for myself. I absolutely fell in love with everything about the stories – the weight of the plot, the peril of the characters, Aragorn – so much that I remember asking my husband on the way home, “Is this what fantasy is like? I’d never read much high fantasy before then and kicked myself for avoiding it for so long. The second thing was the inception of the Harry Potter books. I started by reading them as bedtime stories with my son. Gradually I started sneaking them for myself in the daytime because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Finally, I just admitted I was a bigger than him. The more these two books worked into my imagination, the more I realized I should be writing fantasy.
Yanes: You are represented by the fantastic Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Could you discuss the process of getting a lit agent? Specifically, what do you think you did right that others get wrong when approaching literary agencies?
Nielsen: I have to be honest – I don’t think there’s any trick to getting an agent. There are really two elements that must be in play. The first is you must have a good manuscript; one that stands out from other books already on the shelves and that is high enough quality that it should be published. I know a lot of people are reading this right now and yelling back at the screen, “But mine is good enough and I’m still getting rejections!” I get it – I did the very same thing. It’s so frustrating and disheartening, and you wonder if you’ll ever break through. If you’re getting rejections, then make your story better. If you can’t make it better, then write something else and make that one better.
The second element is luck. You want the right manuscript in front of the right agent at the right time in their career. In my case, I submitted to an agent who was brand new and aggressively looking to build her list and something about my manuscript caught her eye. But – and this is important – I think writers who depend only upon luck are going to be waiting a very long time. You want to have the best possible manuscript so when that lucky strike hits, you are ready to grab it.
It’s important to remember that agents are real people, who really hope when they open your email that you will have the manuscript that rocks their world. They want you to be that person. So give them a story that they can’t stop thinking about, one that stands out from every other submission they will open that day. And never give up trying. Never.
Yanes: The majority of your books have been published by Scholastic. Why do you think Scholastic is a good fit for your writing style?
Nielsen: The first time I spoke to my editor, Lisa Sandell, was immediately after we made the deal for The False Prince. She called on the phone and her opening words were, “Welcome to the Scholastic family.” That struck me as odd, to introduce her publisher, this huge business, as a family. But the longer I’m with Scholastic, the more I understand how true this is. There is a different feeling with the people who work at Scholastic, in all wonderful ways. Beyond that, I have a lot of trust in my editor. Even if I don’t immediately agree with her suggestions, I’ve learned that she is probably right so I ought to make the change because I’ll be happier with it in the end.
Yanes: Your most recent book is Mark of the Thief. What was the inspiration for this novel? When people finish reading Mark of the Thief, what feeling do you hope they leave the story with?
Nielsen: Mark of the Thief started with two facts about ancient Rome that I found interesting. The first is that most young boys used to wear a bulla, which was basically an oversized locket filled with gems and believed to bring its wearer good luck. The second thing I found interesting was that Emperor Julius Caesar used to claim he was a descendant of the goddess Venus, which, if true, would have made him a demigod. I wondered what if he had kept the magic of the Gods in his bulla, and if that bulla became lost after his death, then what would happen next?
Yanes: What are your long term goals for Mark of the Thief? Are there any plans to turn it into a movie?
Nielsen: I think this series will wrap up with the third book, which I’m in the process of editing right now. And I don’t currently have any movie plans with it. The False Prince is still under contract with Paramount Pictures, so it might be good to see how that goes before looking at any other movie deals. I do think it’d be an exciting movie though!
Yanes: The Ascendance Trilogy finished in early 2015. Since you’ve had a year to distance yourself from that world, how do you think these novels pushed you to become a better writer? Are there any characters or plots from these books you think about revisiting?
Nielsen: For most of the time that I was writing those books, I didn’t really have an appreciation for how much love they were getting from fans. I think I started to understand it by the third book, but really, I wrote those books just out of my personal love for the story and characters. The challenge I gave myself with each book was to keep it feeling as real as possible for the reader. I wanted them to think of the characters as people they know and care about. Sage is also a tricky character to write in that he must always hold the balance between being selfish, arrogant, and stubborn, and so infuriating you want to shake some sense into him, and the fact that you also want to hug him and tell him everything will be all right. I always wanted to push things as far as I could with him, but then bring him back into the reader’s heart in the end.
In the future, I may one day revisit the characters. All it would take is a whisper from Sage that he’s ready to get into more trouble, but so far, that hasn’t happened.
Yanes: One of your books that stood out the most to me is A Night Divided. What was it like for you to write about a family divided by the Berlin Wall and the terror they experienced at every moment?
Nielsen: The difference with writing A Night Divided was that I was dealing with a real place, and in a time that many people who are still alive lived through. Out of respect for that, I didn’t ever want the book to feel like a fantasy. I also wanted to keep it honest, so that a person who had lived in East Germany during the Cold War could read it and say, “Yes, that was similar to my life too.” Some of the best fan letters I’ve ever received have been for this book, from people who write me to say, “My life was just like Gerta’s in this way…”
Yanes: Reflecting on your career, what is the biggest benefit and difficulty of being a professional writer?
Nielsen: I am incredibly lucky to be able to do this job! It has allowed me to meet so many amazing people, students and educators, bloggers, booksellers, and readers. Holding one of my books is always a bit surreal – I cannot help but think of how it all started as an idea in my head. And I love hearing from a young reader who tells me how they didn’t used to enjoy reading, but thanks to one of my books, they now love reading – that’s a payoff a thousand times better than any royalty check.
Despite that, there are some difficulties associated with being a professional writer. One is that I’m always at work. This might not be true of all writers, but there are always characters inside my head, and story ideas just begging to be written. I know I will never live long enough to write all the ideas I have, and there is something rather sad about that.
Another difficulty is that while I love writing, I sometimes struggle with all the things that are now understood to be part of the writing career: launch parties, bookstore signings, travel, blogging, social media, fan letters, swag, school visits, Skype visits, writing conferences, etc. I don’t do all of that as well as I’d like, but I always try to respond to fans and I really enjoy school visits. Still, that all takes away from actual writing time, stretching those hours a bit thinner.
Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working on that fans can look out for?
Nielsen: The second book of the Mark of the Thief series is called Rise of the Wolf, and it will be out on January 26th. I’m so excited for the continuation of Nic’s story – he’s in so much trouble this time!
In August, I will release a standalone called The Scourge, a fantasy adventure about a girl and her friend who are sent to a quarantine island, suspected of having a highly contagious and deadly disease, but once they arrive, they find a secret far more dangerous.
I’m also starting work on a new series that I haven’t yet announced, and have some other projects underway. I can’t wait to talk more about them!