Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Read it, love it- Driving Sideways by Jess Riley

I read so many good things about this book even before it came out. So you can only imagine how exciting it was when the author, Jess Riley, sent me an email asking if I would be interested in reading it. Did I even hesitate? Not a second. I have piles of wonderful books sitting next to me, books that I can't wait to dig into. But the timing was right and I packed Driving Sideways with me for a weekend trip to Las Vegas and I read it within two days. While my husband was wasting time and money at the Texas Hold Em table, I was sitting in my hotel room, snug in the bed reading. Who goes to Las Vegas to read? Me, that's who.

Jess Riley is as nice and funny as you would want the writer of a great book to be. It's a book about a roadtrip, a kidney disease, a juvenile delinquent and an absent mother. I'm not telling you any more. You just have to read it.

I love to hear how writers find their agents and become novelists. Tell me about your path to becoming a published writer?

Well, Driving Sideways isn’t actually my FIRST novel. My first attempt (what I now call the ‘practice book’) was written before I had any idea what makes a compelling novel: it was all scenery and character, no story arc to speak of, no real hook to make it stand out from the pack. But I secured enough of the right kind of rejections to both keep me writing and more importantly, teach me how to improve my craft. After the idea for Driving Sideways came to me, I wrote a few chapters and entered them in two contests: the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and one sponsored by the Chicklit Writers of the World, which appealed to me because the final judges included an agent and an editor.

Driving Sideways (then called Riding with Larry Resnick) was named one of 8 finalists from more than 600 entrants for the James Jones fellowship and placed first in category in the chicklit contest—I also had a request to see the full manuscript from the editor judge. I chose the contest route because I didn’t have much of a freelancing portfolio (unless you count grant proposals), and I wanted something to put in my query letter that would catch an agent’s eye…like the fact that an editor they know has already asked to see the full manuscript.

I finished the book, this time passing it by a dozen objective readers to make sure it was the best it could be—I subscribed to publishers’ marketplace, looked up every agent who had ever sold to the editor asking to see the full, and queried ten. I ended up being able to choose which agent I wanted to represent me, which I never thought I’d be able to do.

I love the photos throughout the book. How did your pictures make their way into the book?

Thanks! My editor actually campaigned for that addition, and I took the Driving Sideways road trip a second time to get the chapter opener shots and fine-tune the story before copyediting.

Do the feet on the cover belong to you? Because they really look like mine (with a pedicure). Except...I never hang my feet out the window. Dashboard, sometimes. Window, never.

Everyone who has ever seen my bare feet say that the cover toes look like mine, too! But no, I have no idea whose feet they are. They started out with bare toenails, however—I asked them to photoshop in some polish. (Nobody I know is a fan of the naked toenail.)

Why did you chose to write about PKD versus another disease? Do you have a personal interest in the disease?

I actually stumbled across PKD (Polycystic Kidney Disease) by accident, because I was working backwards from my story premise on the possibility of cellular memory in organ transplants. When I learned that PKD is actually the most common life-threatening genetic disease in the world—more common than Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and muscular dystrophy combined (and there is no cure)—I was shocked.
I’d heard of every one of the other conditions, yet I’d never heard of PKD. So I decided to include it in the story to help put it on the map for people like me who had never heard of it. Since I don’t have PKD, it was critical that I got input from people who do. Two wonderful PKD patients read early drafts of the book and I feel lucky to now call them friends. I have also discovered that other friends and colleagues have family members affected by it, and it’s now one of the causes I support.

If you could fast forward to Leigh's future, what would she be doing?

I like to imagine Leigh smiling more and worrying less…I do think she will be healthy (without giving too much of the story away), and I do think she will be in love. I’m actually thinking of having Leigh make a cameo in my next novel. She may have some good advice for a character at a crossroads in her own life.

What's the most difficult thing you have ever done in your life, so far?

Oh, this is a good one: telling my family that just one year after getting married, my new husband and I were getting divorced. Securing a publishing contract was also very difficult, but on a completely different level.

What is:
the last book you read? Suzanne Finnamore’s Split: A Memoir of Divorce. She writes so well I could weep.

movie you saw in the theater? Ironman, on my husband’s birthday. This was also the first movie I saw without prior vetting (I’m a Rotten Tomatoes addict.) I was very pleasantly surprised!

movie you rented? Oh, it’s been awhile! Lars and the Real Girl?
item of clothing you purchased? Probably a shirt at Target. I dislike my entire wardrobe right now, but I never find time to change it.

your favorite travel destination?
Bayfield, Wisconsin. Some people say Door County is the Cape Cod of the Midwest, but to me, I have to give that nod to Bayfield, way up north on the shores of Lake Superior. Bayfield has a vibrant artist community, no chain restaurants or motels, and dozens of quaint wineries, farms, bed and breakfasts, and shops. It’s peaceful and breathtakingly gorgeous.

Tell me some of your hobbies?

Wishing I could be less ‘class clown’ and more ‘elegantly polished author.’ I swear, some days I feel like the soundtrack to my life is the Benny Hill theme song—like the day I got lost in a parking ramp and couldn’t find my way out, driving around and around. These kinds of incidents always find their way into my stories, probably because I like to imagine someone reading merrily along and then suddenly laughing out loud. (I LOVE those moments in books! My own favorite laugh-out-loud moments were courtesy of Garrison Keillor’s Love Me and Paul Feig’s Superstud.)

But to really answer your question, my hobbies are pretty typical fare: gardening, hiking, reading, watching movies and bad reality TV, cooking. I always talk about taking up running, but that’s usually as far as it gets. One strange hobby I started last year was planting milkweed and raising Monarch caterpillars … and it turns out lots of people do this! They call it “Monarch Ranching.” By October, I’d released about 48 butterflies in my backyard. That was a hobby that got a little out of hand—i.e., “I must save them all!” And then my brother said, “Well, I guess if you want to do that…just don’t turn into the Silence of the Lambs moth dude.”

Ideally how do you want the next ten years of your life to play out?

I’d like to travel more, maybe start a family…I’d like to finish remodeling my house so that potential buyers don’t faint or run screaming down the street when they see the upstairs bathroom. And I will always be writing.

What were you like as a child? Did you like school?

I was a mischievous, talkative child. I loved school, but I was at odds with certain school policies and procedures—such as passing notes and talking during class. I had my name on the board with checkmarks behind it nearly every day. We recently found some of my old report cards, and nearly every teacher wrote this in the comments section: “Jessica enjoys socializing in class far too much.” Oh! And my kindergarten teacher wrote this: “Jessica is a fine student, but I don’t know where she gets the disturbing idea that parents who do not want their children BOIL THEM ALIVE.” (My dear, sweet parents never would have told me such a thing, so I don’t know where that came from, either.) Yes. Precocious. That was me.

If you won the lottery tomorrow, how would you spend the money?

In my current and previous careers (teaching in a medium-security men’s prison and writing grants for public schools), I learned that several states estimate the number of prison beds they’ll need in ten years based on the number of fourth graders failing standardized reading exams. That is a statistic that has always haunted me, so if I had a ton of money, I’d invest it in some kind of literacy programming for young children. I love what Dave Eggers has been able to do with his tutoring programs.

I’d probably also fix my upstairs bathroom.

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Blogger Jess Riley said...
Thanks so much Cindy! :) @ 5:03 PM  
Blogger Manic Mom said...
Great interview Cindy!

And Jess, the last movie you rented was Lars and the Real Girl... funny cuz the last movie I SAW WITH YOU was Lars and the Real Girl!!!!

See you in a couple days for the big book launch! @ 12:51 PM  
Anonymous Carlo said...
Good Job! :) @ 10:53 AM  
Blogger Laura S. said...
This is very cool. My daughter was just diagnosed with PKD so I was very interested in this book and how it can help spread awareness.

Thanks. @ 8:05 AM  
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