We are excited to have Janet Fox, author of SIRENS (Speak/Penguin), for our first guest interview. SIRENS is set in 1925 Manhattan, when prohibition was in full swing. SIRENS is an amazing, fast-paced read, with fabulous characters. The book tells the story of Josephine, a teenaged girl who gets caught up in the world of flappers and gangsters. There’s also Lou, a gangster’s moll, who befriends Jo; and Lou’s brother, the very dishy Charlie, who captures Jo’s heart.
Hi Janet! Welcome to Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks. We’re glad to have you on board for our first author interview. First off, congrats on SIRENS. I loved reading it and I know it’s going to be a big hit. Now, on to the questions!
Hi, and thanks for having me – I’m delighted to be here! And thanks so very much for the sweet comments.
Like my blog sisters, I’m a big historical fiction geek. I’m interested in so many eras, but the roaring 20s has always fascinated me. Why did you choose to write about this era?
Actually, it wasn’t my idea – it was my publisher’s (Speak/Penguin). As my second YA was going to print my senior editor contacted my agent and asked whether I’d be willing to write a novel set in the 20s. I’ll confess, it wasn’t something that crossed my mind, but as soon as my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, contacted me I said “yes!” (Just so you know, I don’t always say yes.) I love the period, and knew I would love the research, and was excited from the start. And…I wanted to do something a little different with the ‘20s. Not just the usual flappers and prohibition thing, but something with a twist. I hope I succeeded.
Can you talk a little bit about how you do your research?
I do a lot on line, I’ll confess, mainly because I’ve been living in a remote cabin in the woods. But I also like to read primary sources, so I’ll track down books written in the time period. I love to check out period advertisements and videos (assuming there are any.) Newspapers of the time are particularly interesting and some of the smaller papers are easy to access. And for secondary sources, I like to look to the unconventional. So, for example, with SIRENS I was captivated by a recent biography of Howard Thurston the magician. And that led me to the spiritualism movement popular at the time, which figures in the story.
You captured prohibition in Manhattan so well. How did you get the setting down? I always find it inspiring to go to my settings and walk the same streets my characters would walk. Did you do that?
Ah…well there I had a certain hidden advantage. I was born in Manhattan, and lived there again when I was in college and the years before and after. And have visited many, many times in between. So I have walked those streets and I LOVE New York. It was very easy for me to conjure that feeling, and even feel the nostalgia for the setting.
I toyed with setting the story in Chicago, and even played with setting it in Butte, Montana, but New York sang to me. There will always be a piece of my heart in New York.
The Algonquin hotel is a big part of your story. Why did you choose to include it?
While I lived there in my twenties I remember going to the Algonquin and checking it out, searching for the place occupied by the Round Table. Even then, I wanted to be a writer, so the whole venue felt magical. It was as if by standing in the lobby some of those fabulous ideas might float into my brain and lodge there. Maybe they did!…
I enjoyed how you wove Jo and Lou’s story together. But I wondered why you chose to make Josephine the main character and not Lou?
That’s a great question. So many people have told me that they love Lou! I do, too. She appeared about halfway through my second or third draft. While I love her voice and her character, I didn’t want to write a book from her point of view entirely, or even primarily. She’s hard-boiled, hurt, needy. I wanted Lou to be what the more innocent Jo could become if Jo didn’t watch her step. Jo’s is the coming-of-age tale. Lou’s is the cautionary tale. Which is why, as Lou says, the story is really about her after all, but not in the way the reader might think.
Contemporary YA and MG writers have easy access to their subjects, but that’s not so for historical novelists. How do you get into the mindset of a teen whose life is set in the past?
The lovely thing about the human spirit is that it really doesn’t change from age to age. Sure, the language and clothing styles and mannerisms might change. But we all, as teens, long to find where we belong, find love and friendship, find our strengths and weaknesses, balance our lives between desire and obligation. Those universal truths drive my writing. In fact, at the moment, I’m writing about teens in the distant future. I don’t see them as any different at all.
What’s your next project?
Ah, well that’s the project I’m working on now, the futuristic story. The working title is ARK, and it’s set in 2500 AD on the moon and earth. It’s science fiction with romance and mystery. I’m excited about it but it’s very challenging, too, working in an entirely new genre, even if it is one I love.
After that, I may be back to historical, but we’ll see!
Thanks so much, Janet!
You’re so welcome, Sharon!
Janet S. Fox is a writer, mom, and former high school English teacher. Her first young adult novel FAITHFUL (Speak/Penguin, 2010), is a 2011 Amelia Bloomer list pick. FORGIVEN, a companion YA novel (Speak/Penguin, 2011), is a Junior Library Guild selection and WILLA Literary Award finalist. GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT, her middle grade self-help for kids (Free Spirit 2006) is a perennial best seller. She is a 2010 graduate of the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been a Regional Advisor for the SCBWI. She loves chocolate, hiking, music and gardening. Janet lives with her husband in the mountains of Montana. To learn more, visit her website: http://janetsfox.com.
Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, the story of an Edwardian teen who becomes a suffragette (Viking, winter 2014). She lived in the UK for six years, after meeting a British police constable and marrying him. She did extensive research on the British suffragettes with the help of the curators of the Museum of London—when she wasn’t working as a riding instructor at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace. Today, she is a full-time freelance writer in the magazine industry in the US and UK, and she has three non-fiction books published under her maiden name, Sharon Biggs: The Original Horse Bible (co-author Moira Harris, Bow Tie Press, 2011); Advanced English Riding (Bow Tie Press, 2007); In One Arena (Half Halt Press, 2001). She lives on a 10-acre farm in Northwest Indiana with her husband, Mark. You can find her at www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller.