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Author Anna Jarzab MAG
Anna Jarzab is a newly published author but no novice to writing and reading. She developed her passion for the written word while growing up in Chicago and San Francisco. She currently lives in New York City, where she writes and works in book marketing.
In her first novel, All Unquiet Things, two teenagers reluctantly team up to investigate the murder of a classmate and the dark secrets of their affluent suburban community.
Aliza: I really enjoyed reading your book. How did you begin All Unquiet Things?
Anna Jarzab: I have been writing this book for a long time; I started it when I was a sophomore in college. The main character, Neily, was originally somewhat inspired by someone I knew, but now is no longer remotely like him. And the book was also radically different back then – it had a completely different plot, which I worked on for about three years.
When I finished it my senior year, I thought it was terrible. I said, “I need to put this under my bed and start writing something else,” which I did. But I kept coming back to Neily and Carly and thinking they were really interesting people and realized that just because the plot didn't work, that didn't mean that they couldn't work.
So I completely changed everything. The year after I graduated from college, I was living at home, working at a textbook publishing company, and I was bored. So I decided to take on this project. I realized there was a small mysterious element to that first version, and I thought, What if the whole thing is a mystery and Carly dies at the beginning and not at the end? And so I began from there. It took me about a year to figure out what was going to happen, and then it took me six months to write the first draft.
Joan: Besides Neily, were there any other real characters or situations that inspired this novel?
No, and Neily is not really like anybody specific. He is actually more like me. The town – Empire Valley – is completely fabricated, but it is based on this town that I lived in when I was in high school and a few other towns in that area. A lot of the details in the book are based on things that are familiar to me. But people, no, and plot points, definitely not.
Aliza: How you would like readers to approach your book? What do you want them to take from it?
That's a very good question. I didn't intend to give a specific message or to preach to anyone, but there were things I was thinking about when I was writing it.
I always wanted to write about forgiveness and what it means to make mistakes. The great tragedy of human existence is that we have an infinite ability to destroy but less of an ability to create or to correct our mistakes. And that was in my head the whole time.
Joan: Your novel shows teenagers experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Why did you choose to present this view of teen life to your audience of young readers?
It was a natural part of the story I was trying to tell. I'm certainly not saying that people should be drinking underage and using drugs or being violent. The book is a dark look at teen life and is not necessarily true of everyone's life.
I wasn't going for shock value, and I wasn't trying to push any boundaries. I was just trying to tell the story. I think that it's important for people to understand that just because you are in your teen years does not mean that your life is easy or free of worries. Everyone has destructive impulses and is being torn between good and bad choices, good people and bad people. Nowhere is that more obvious than to a teen because your whole world is much smaller than it is when you are an adult, so things seem more important.
Aliza: Does writing mystery and suspense pose any special demands?
Yeah, it's very difficult. I don't know how authors like Nora Roberts write three mysteries a year! There is a lot of plotting involved. Every time I revised this novel I would say, “Okay, now everything makes sense,” and then I'd get comments from my editor, saying, “This doesn't make sense.” There is always an inconsistency because you are trying to keep track of so many things. Everything is moving around, and when you change one thing, you have to change everything.
It's also very difficult to be in the situation as the writer where you know what's going to happen but can't reveal that too early. I don't know if I would be able to write 15 books that way. I had a lot of fun writing this one and my second book, which is also a mystery, but I don't know how many mysteries I have in me.
Joan: What drives you to the dangerous and the mysterious?
I don't know. I always think of myself as a funny, jovial person. And yet the books I write are dark. I guess I choose that kind of content because it's totally different from my own life. Maybe it's because that's where you can find the meatiest questions about who we are as people and as a society; that's where a lot of the depth is.
Joan: Did any particular experiences help you grow confident with your writing?
I have always kept my writing close to me. People knew I was writing and that I cared about writing and books. But I didn't show others what I was working on. I was always really protective of it – not because I was afraid that it was bad (although, you know, you constantly feel that as a writer), but I always felt like I would know when I reached a point where others' feedback would be helpful.
I took a couple of writing classes in college and none were particularly useful. It's not the best environment when you are in a class of new writers and everybody is jostling to impress the teacher. Finding a writing group can help.
Aliza: What advice would you give teen writers?
I would say you definitely have to read, read, read all the time. I read so much when I was in high school; that's how you learn to write. You observe what others are doing and you try it out and experiment with different things.
The other thing is you have to write all the time. I am not one of those people who feels like you have to write every day or you are not a writer. But it's important to experiment with different forms of writing like poetry, journaling, short stories, novels, and songs. The more you expand your horizons and practice, the better writer you become.
Read a lot, write a lot, and don't let anybody tell you that you are a bad writer. There is almost no such thing as natural talent in the sense that you are going to be perfect at something when you start it. There is definitely a learning process. I think that a lot of young writers suffer when they allow others to put them down and make them feel like they are not good. It's important to focus on your own feelings when it comes to writing.
Aliza: How much attention do you pay to positive and negative opinions of your work? When you write, are you thinking about whether your audience will like it, or are you writing for the sake of telling the story that you need to tell?
Definitely telling the story I need to tell. If you are constantly thinking about what other people might like, you can psych yourself out and stop writing the book that you want to write. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
Trying to make everybody happy will make nobody happy, especially you. You should always feel proud of your work and be happy with it, even if you look back two years later and say, “I wish I hadn't written it like that.” You are always going to wish that you had changed something or want to go back and fix something.
If you are talking about the J.K. Rowlings and Stephenie Meyers in the world, I don't know what that's like. I might have a totally different answer if I were writing a series that was very popular and I felt like I owed the fans something.
Joan: What is the biggest problem facing teens today?
Teens feel isolated from their peers and everything is kind of cliquey. The psychological warfare that happens in high school can be really damaging. A lot of teen books address that in one way or another.
Joan: Do you see any possible solutions?
Teens just have to realize that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. High school ends and better things begin. What other people think of you might seem to matter in the moment. But not being able to get beyond how you feel on a daily basis at school can hurt your ability to move forward.
Be strong and tell yourself that people's random views have nothing to do with who you really are and don't matter in the end.