Q&A with Jennifer Donaldson

We’re so excited to host local author Jennifer Donaldson on Saturday, June 2nd at 6 PM to tell us all about her YA thriller, Lies You Never Told Me! This book is already a bookseller fave, perfect for a summer night binge-reading session! Mark your calendars and check out the Q&A with the author below. 

2: Book Modelin'

BP: How long has this story been tumbling around in your head? What inspired it?

JD: It started with the characters for me. Actually, it started with Elyse. Elyse is a girl I feel like I’ve known, and seen, and wondered at. Her story gets told in headlines all the time. She doesn’t usually get to tell it herself. So that was where I started: how would this girl tell her own story? At first Gabe emerged as a kind of complement for Elyse– someone from a different background, who had his own difficult relationship to navigate. A way to get another angle on issues of obsession and thrall. But as I got further along into the draft, he came into his own, and that was when the plot finally coalesced. Good characters resist being forced to be thought experiments, it turns out.

BP: This book is definitely a page-turner that will keep readers up at night, and it’s also highly visual and cinematic. What was your last binge read and binge watch?

JD: I have a toddler at home, so I don’t get to binge much of anything right now– but the most recent show I plowed through was Big Little Lies. I hadn’t seen it while working on the book, but a few early reviewers compared LYNTM to BLL, so I thought I should find out what they were talking about. And obviously I’m super flattered, because BLL was fantastic and I can only hope to write something someday that gets the name “Laura Dern” uttered at a casting meeting. As for binge read, probably the last thing I couldn’t put down was Greg Rucka’s Lazarus. Superficially it’s very very different from LYNTM— it’s a pretty desolate science fiction dystopia with a super-powered female lead– but at its core it’s about vulnerability in a brutally unforgiving world. Which, I’m coming to realize, is 99% of what I glom onto in any giving fictional world, and which is more or less what fueled LYNTM as well.

BP: In Lies You Never Told Me, we get to know multiple characters through alternating POVs. Why did you choose to go this route?

JD: Robert Frost has that quote about free verse being like playing tennis with the net down. I can’t attest to the truth of that in poetry, because I couldn’t write a poem to save my life, but at least for me, the only way to get through the roiling chaos of a first draft is to make some rules, however arbitrary. So the alternating POV thing was the biggest net I set up for myself. I thought it’d be easy– but actually, creating two narrative arcs that worked in relative tandem turned out to be quite a challenge, because I didn’t want one person’s story line to make the other person’s feel choppy or disjointed. I’d have a scene I wanted in Gabe’s half of the book, only to realize it would screw up the flow too much on Elyse’s side, or vice versa. But the upside was that it gave my writing some internal tension, a structure to work both with and against. Without that tension, it’d just be a floppy formless void of a book with lots of characters stewing in their own private anxiety. Which, let’s face it, is too much like real life to be of interest to anyone.

BP: We love reading books that are set in Austin! What was it like to write this setting?

JD: I loved it! Early on I knew I either had to invent a fictional place to set the book, or I had to root it in places I knew and loved. Again, there’s so much formless void when you sit down to write a book, and deciding on setting is one more bit of structure you can impart on the process to help organize it.

9781595148520_de870Some people relish world-building, and it’s a pleasure to read a fictional setting done by a writer who’s good at it. I am too easily bogged down in stupid, pointless detail. I would have set up a nice little pretend town for Gabe to live in and three months later I would have been looking up the history of American architecture in an effort to decide which housing styles are most in life with the 500-page pretend local history I’d written, fretting over the pretend town’s eco-system and coming up with names for the pretend town’s pretend regional businesses. Gabe would still be in the pool pruning up and Sasha would be getting her nails done. But setting it in Austin, I had a chance to write about the places and things  that feel like home to me here. The green belt. The tacos. The lakes. The creative, supportive, interesting people.

BP: And speaking of writing about Austin, what’s your favorite place to write IN Austin? And what’s your favorite reading spot in town?

JD: Nice try, but I’m not going to tell you which coffee shop I use. It’s already hard enough to get an outlet. But there are tons of great spots in Austin for reading. Obviously BookPeople is high on the list for me– I have been one of those in-the-way customers squatting on a footstool with a book more times than I can count. And I love sitting at Hamilton Pool or Barton Springs with a book.

BP: Without any major spoilers, who’s your favorite character in LYNTM and why?

JD: I love Irene. Even though she doesn’t get a ton of page-time, she was always fun to write. I actually had a few more scenes with her that ended up cut for the sake of the larger plot, and they’re probably the only edited material I really mourned. Her voice was a really necessary touch of snark in this book along the way.

BP: We love a creepy YA thriller, and your book definitely gets a little creepy, especially with Sasha’s character. How did you go about developing this character, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

JD: One of the insidious parts about abusive, manipulative people is that they’re good at gaslighting. It’s easier to create a narrative that excuses or normalizes their bad behavior than it is to confront that behavior. I based Sasha on a few people I’ve known– mostly girls and women who end up with a reputation for being “wild” or “daring”. In a totally different book, she’d be our manic pixie dream girl. I wanted her worst traits to exist under a mask of social acceptability. I couldn’t have written her if I didn’t empathize with her to some degree– empathize, not condone. Her personality is a million miles away from mine. But fear, pain, rage? Obviously we’ve all been there. And while I wouldn’t make any excuses for her behavior, I will say– it must be terrifying to be a person without the resources to do better.

BP: Some people have compared your book to Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars and Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. But we’d love to know what your influences are, and what authors you love.

JD: The thrillers I gravitate toward are neo-noir, often with complex and difficult female characters. Alex Maskell, Megan Abbott, and Gillian Flynn were almost always on my desk next to my laptop. Note: read anything former BookPeople employee and current LitHub blogger Molly Odintz tells you to. She does not steer wrong. I also went back, again and again, to some of my favorite YA romances, especially while I was working on the connection between Catherine and Gabe. Eleanor and Park is probably at the top of that list– it’s one of those books that spoke truer to my teenage experiences than most conventional romance does. Also I ate Jenny Han books like candy. I almost couldn’t finish the last Lara Jean book because I was so terrified to find out what would happen.

BP: What are you currently reading?

JD: I’m way behind the times, because as I mentioned, I have a toddler– but I just finished Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ and it just destroyed me, in the best way. I’m getting set to transition to some crime novels because I’m working on another dark YA thrilled and need to get in the zone. I’ve got Megan Abbott’s most recent one waiting for me on my nightstand.

Come meet Jennifer Donaldson at BookPeople on Saturday, June 2nd at 6 PM. 

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