Monday, August 25, 2014

Exclusive Q&A with Jennifer Longo, Author of Six Feet Over It + Giveaway

Hiya everyone! For this week's August Debut Feature, Jennifer Longo stops by our blog to talk about her book, Six Feet Over It, what sets it apart from other YA Contemporary fiction, as well as her foray into writing and publishing young-adult lit. Read on and enter the giveaway for a signed copy at the end of the post!

Jennifer Longo
Congratulations on your debut, Jennifer! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Thank you so much! I’ve had this book in my head for so long it is nearly impossible to imagine people actually reading it, and hopefully loving it. Interviews like this are the fun part of publishing, so I’m really grateful to chat with you in the blogosphere! I’m a California native, born in Huntington Beach then raised primarily in Northern California and have lived in San Francisco and on the SF Coast for the past twenty years where I worked as a literary assistant at SF’s Magic theatre, as a preschool teacher, and as an elementary school librarian. Last year my husband and daughter and I moved to Seattle, Washington and despite missing San Francisco, we love it here. I’ve been writing and telling stories from the moment I learned to hold a pen and speak, so I studied for a BA in Acting and an MFA in playwriting, then turned from writing plays to mostly prose about ten years ago. Six Feet Over It is my first novel, and I’m overjoyed it will publish on August 26th 2014 by Random House Books.

Six Feet Over It has a unique and interesting premise. What inspired you to write about a character who is working at the cemetery her family owns?

My parents actually bought our town cemetery when I was in sixth grade, in 1983 or so. We didn’t live in the graveyard, though my parents do now, but growing up my sisters and I worked there. It was honestly really nice working out in the fresh air, picking up rocks so the mower blades didn’t get dinged, planting flowers and bulbs. As we got older I did end up one summer in the office selling graves, and I helped dig a few graves. If ever there was an after school job rife with story possibilities, that was a good one.

What can readers expect from your debut?

I think they can expect a story that, as a friend once said, rolls out carefully. They can expect a story of quiet but sometimes shocking events during a year in a teenaged girl’s life whose current narrative is not one focused on boys and make-up and gossip, because those typically teenaged concerns have been railroaded by a sea change regarding where her home is, who her family is, and by a really unsettling realization about who she is – which may or may not involve living a really dark, lonely existence completely absorbed by guilt and fear; unless she can figure out a way to let people love her, and help her live. And also – it is really funny! I swear!

If you'd be one of the two kinds of customers that Leigh meets at work, who would you be, the Pre-Need or the At Need customer? 

Oh my gosh this is the best question ever! It truly speaks to the essential nature of ‘Are you a planner, or a let-things-happen-as-they –will kind of person’. Now, the unforeseen, un-plannable deaths of young people aside, I am absolutely an anxious Pre-Need person. I have watched too many absolutely catatonic people trying to go through the motions of picking out a grave, and a headstone, and come up with the money for it all even though I truly understand (As the gravedigger Dario does) that doing those things can actually help a person mourn and keep them from giving in totally to grief – I also know I am a huge baby, and I do NOT want my family to have to do all that stuff for me. My husband and I have directives in our will, and my body will be donated to science for med students to practice dissecting, then I’ll be cremated and tossed hither and yon. I want it all paid for, scheduled, done. I may even pre-pay for a deli platter in case they want to have some kind of party. Apparently I learned nothing from my book!

If you don't mind, would you like to share with us the one event that turned your world upside down?

Jeez Oprah, another wonderful question! I’m a sharer, so sure. I will say that nothing bad has ever really happened to me personally, I am incredibly fortunate. Any traumatic things I’ve experienced have been as a close observer, a family member or friend of a person who has had a really insane thing happen to them. That said, I think the event (or rather, the series of events) that made everything different for me was that I used to have to spend the summers with my sister at our grandparents’ house, and this one summer our teenaged cousin, who lived next door, died suddenly. I was ten, and this cousin was the first person I’d known who died. They had a wake, my parents insisted we view her body in the casket, and it was the most heartbreaking thing ever. She was dressed in clothes I’d seen her wear just days earlier, they’d put weird make-up on her and curled her hair with a curling iron. The adults were not well, they fought about who was mourning in the wrong way, why aren’t you more sad and why are you being such a baby and they were tense and crying and in shock and then right after that, like weeks later, a couple more unbelievably sad deaths happened. Children. Friends. And then my parents bought the cemetery. They did not want to hear any whining about any of it, it all happened in a brief window of time and was just – ugh. Not good. Left me scared of everything, timid and flinch-y. I’ve actively sought signs of hope and comfort in people and places ever since. Which is, essentially, what Six Feet Over It is about.

Melissa White. Taken from Foliolit
How did you find a literary agent? Can you share what it is like working with Melissa Sarver of Folio Literary??

I found Melissa via Ye Olde slush pile. I read up on agents who liked ‘Dark stories with a unique point of view and humor’ and she was right there in that pocket. I learned not to burn through my top agent query hopes right off the bat, so by the time she got the query and first ten pages of the MS, it had gotten some feedback and polish, and that plan worked – she called me right away when she read my query and obviously, as a first time novelist does, I nearly died of happiness. Then when she read the book and offered to represent me, three other agents offered – who all loved the writing, but all with caveats attached regarding changing the main character’s voice, the plot, the heart of the book. I became completely distraught that this book really sucked and I would end up writing a spec novel about zombies. So I wrote Melissa an email admitting my absolute confusion and asked her to break it down for me. She wrote me the most amazing letter in response, I printed it and put in on my wall above my computer and I still read it nearly daily – it’s essentially about trusting the reason you wrote the book, how the most important thing in finding an agent is having someone who loves it for the same reasons you do, and who understands and can communicate the changes it may need in order to tell the story you mean to tell. It’s a letter I plan to be cremated with I love it so much and it’s my heart, so I’m only paraphrasing here but long story long I let the time run out on the other three agents, graciously thanked them and joyfully signed with Melissa.

Working with Melissa is like having the really smart, no-time-for-screwing-around part of one’s brain personified. She is so hilarious, and she will not stand for being jerked around by industry nonsense but she navigates always with honest, gracious professionalism. I know this because everyone I’ve met in the publishing industry who knows her is instantly all, “Oh Melissa – I LOVE her!” She sticks up for me, for the book, and also isn’t afraid to tell me when I’m being ridiculous. She’s incredibly patient and ferociously smart – her editorial eye is insanely keen. And she should be writing a book herself, she worked out plot holes I was so frustrated by they made me cry. She has called me at like ten at night from a New York sidewalk as she’s running to catch a subway, just to keep me updated on the status of the book sale. I’m pretty sure she works every single day, and yet she’s always super enthusiastic and good grief – I don’t know how I ever tricked her into being my agent but I’m telling you, every writer should be this lucky.

You've become even more amazing in our eyes when we found out that you're an award-winning actress and playwriter! You also used to be a literary assistant and an elementary school librarian. When and how did you decide to become a YA writer?

Oh criminey, thank you so much! I’ve been incredibly lucky to do all those things. I was a dedicated ballerina from 8 to 18 and was acting in plays since third grade and I’ve always primarily read play scripts instead of books. I absolutely did not intend to be a YA writer! I wrote SIX FEET OVER IT as straight-up literary fiction, but the protagonist’s age and voice indicated to my agent and editor that it should probably be marketed as YA. I had to start reading some current YA to figure out what I was doing, I hadn’t read any since the 80’s and even then not very much of it. I loved Katherine Patterson and Judy Blume and Lois Lowery, but my childhood reading staples mostly consisted of play scripts and John Saul and Stephen King horror novels, and as an adult I read memoir and non-fiction. I know, super random. So Melissa, once she signed me, sent me some of her early clients’ work, including E. Lockhart, and my education began. Most of the revision of the book involved turning it toward a YA audience, which was an intense learning opportunity. I’ve realized that the books we read as young people shape the way we read forever, and writing for a YA audience is a humbling responsibility.

Could you describe the mundane details of writing: How many hours a day to you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a keyboard?

I tend to draft the story, or plot, like a play; acts and scenes building tension and conflict, and I always draft with pen and paper and I’ve recently discovered the joy of colored index cards! I’m a visual learner and I like to physically place the cards on the floor in the ‘shape’ the story takes – like my current WIP has a spine of blue cards with green and purple cards coming off like branches and then joining the blue cards and each other at specific points – it looks like a hot mess but (hopefully) makes sense for the narrative. Then I type once I’ve got a grasp on the order of events, ‘scenes’, what have you. Nuts and bolts wise, I run five miles every morning then take my daughter to school at 8am, do errands and pay bills and do laundry and all that till 10 0r 11, then turn off my phone and write either at home or a cafĂ©, until 3. With all that precious time you’d think I’d be churning out a book a year, but I’ve discovered I write incredibly slowly, and many days nothing worth saving comes of all that work. It can be so frustrating, but the good days are glorious.

So far, what has been the most surprising part of the publishing and writing industry for you?

This one’s easy! Being published by a Big Six (Big Five? Oh, who knows anymore) has been one surprise after another, but the one thing I never realized was how much work, done by so many people, goes into writing a book. Seriously, it is pretty shocking how many people end up reading the manuscript during revision, so many eyes on this thing creating a million ideas and creative problem solving and editing – once the book goes into copy editing, it’s read by a series of people with minds and eyes like literary sieves, nothing gets by these people and in the end they make you look like a much better writer than you may be in reality! My editor (Chelsea Eberly at Random House) works with Melissa so well, and she also needs to be writing a novel because she’s an amazing storyteller. No matter how many times she had to slog through this book, she dove in with boundless energy and enthusiasm and would solve problems or make things clearer, more intense, just – better – with each pass. And she’d say, “Oh I asked so-and-so to read it and they thought yadda yadda…” and I’d think good lord, is everyone at Random House working on this thing? Because that’s what it feels like – it’s been my experience with RH at least; like this book matters, it feels like it’s the Most Important Book Ever and all these editors and assistants love it as much as I do and we’re all trying to make it the best it can be, because that’s what readers deserve. There are so many jaded people in the publishing industry who had me expecting – I don’t know what, just being on my own with this thing and hoping for the best or something? But I was shocked by the passion and support and love for words that everyone who worked on my book seemed to have. Every time Chelsea reads it she’ll email me and say, “I love this book!” I could not be more amazed, or more grateful.

We here at Teen Readers' Diary are huge YA Contemporary readers. What sets this story apart from the other books in the genre?

I understand that a ton of YA contemporaries involve self-discovery and a largely internal conflict, which Six Feet Over It has as well. But I think it’s unique aspects come in the form of a romance not being at the center of the story, the cemetery setting, the dialogue and prose lacking in conjunctions (I am not a fan of those suckers. It’s a different reading experience but I love it and hope readers do, too!) and most of all, the often dark humor. I am unable to write a story without finding something funny in even a deeply sad moment, because (and yes this is trite but come on, it’s so true!) life is often just so, so messed up – hilarious things happen at the weirdest times. Even during funerals. Or in the middle of selling – or digging - a grave.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received? the worst?

Writing advice that I constantly remind myself of, which Melissa Sarver tells me all the time: Write the book you intend, the one you need to write which simply means that editing will come later, just write the story. Not for an audience, not for an editor or agent, but for the story itself. For the reader. Also? Stay the hell away from Goodreads! That thing will kill your soul and crush your self confidence like you wouldn’t believe. 

The worst advice I ever received was, “Trying to find an agent is too hard, it takes so long it isn’t worth it – just self publish and let your book be exactly the way you want it, on sale in ten minutes!” The reason this is bad advice for me is not at all meant to disparage self-publishing. For me, a brand new writer of both prose and novels, publishing this book “Exactly the way I wanted it” would have meant 110,000 words about changes in the weather, character’s food choices, and a lot of really excruciating descriptions of people’s facial expressions – with a thin thread of something vaguely resembling a story somewhere in there. No one would have read it. And they would have been right not to. What my agent and editor saw in my words was the very real potential of a story I could tell, a story that readers could love and dive into, if I could only let go of my ego and allow the story to live, without all my vocabulary gymnastics and rambling asides. And P.S., since when did it ever make sense to not do something just because it is difficult and takes a long time? That’s just lazy. And frankly stupid. People said that to me when my husband and I were starting our family. We wanted to adopt a child, and people were all, “But it’s so hard, and it takes so long! Just get pregnant and before you know it you’ll have a kid!” Come on. That’s so lame. (Also, have you heard the news? Having a baby is no picnic either!) In my experience, hard work and patience have yielded a book I’m insanely proud of that I think readers will love, and the honor of being the parent of a daughter so amazing and precious I can hardly believe it. Hard work: 1, laziness: 0 (Let me reiterate, I am NOT saying that self-publishing is lazy! I’m saying choosing self-publishing only because traditional publishing is ‘too hard’ even if you actually do want to traditionally publish – that is lazy. Send your letters of rage to my mom.) !

Are you working on something right now? What's next for Jennifer Longo?

My WIP is a novel about a ballet dancer who discovers her body will never do what it is meant to in order to be a professional ballerina. In short, she loses her moorings because of this, and goes to Antarctica to winter over in the dark and cold and figure out where she went wrong. I am having so much fun with it! Like Six Feet Over It, this novel began as a play in grad school and writing the story as a novel is so new and exhausting and I love it. I hope readers will as well. Also, this one has a narrative that involves plenty of romance, so there’s that!

Six Feet Over It
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 26th 2014
Home is where the bodies are buried.

Darkly humorous and heart-wrenchingly beautiful, Jennifer Longo’s YA debut about a girl stuck living in a cemetery will change the way you look at life, death, and love.

Leigh sells graves for her family-owned cemetery because her father is too lazy to look farther than the dinner table when searching for employees. Working the literal graveyard shift, she meets two kinds of customers:

Pre-Need: They know what’s up. They bought their graves a long time ago, before they needed them.

At Need: They are in shock, mourning a loved one’s unexpected death. Leigh avoids sponging their agony by focusing on things like guessing the headstone choice (mostly granite).

Sarcastic and smart, Leigh should be able to stand up to her family and quit. But her world’s been turned upside down by the sudden loss of her best friend and the appearance of Dario, the slightly-too-old-for-her grave digger. Surrounded by death, can Leigh move on, if moving on means it’s time to get a life?

You can purchase Six Feet Over It at the following Retailers:

About the Author 
Jennifer Longo’s debut novel Six Feet Over It will be in book stores, libraries, and your hands August 26th 2014 courtesy of Random House Books, Edited by Chelsea Eberly and represented by Melissa Sarver White at Folio Literary. A California native, Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Acting from San Francisco State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing For Theatre from Humboldt State University. She is a two-time Irene Ryan Best Actor award recipient and a Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Best Full Length Script honoree for her play, Frozen. After years of acting, playwriting, working as a literary assistant at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, then as an elementary school librarian, Jennifer told the occasional story at San Francisco’s Porch Light Storytelling Series and decided at last to face her fear of prose and actually write some. A recent San Francisco transplant, Jennifer lives with her husband and daughter on an island near Seattle, Washington and her every hour is consumed by writing, running marathons, walking her kid to ballet class eleven thousand times each week and reading every book she can get her hands on. Contact Jen at or on Twitter @jenlialongo

Follow her on these sites

One reader will win a SIGNED copy of Six Feet Over It by Jennifer Longo and ferries goodies
Open to US/Can
Must be at least 13 years old to enter
Ends 9/7

And also, check out these other giveaways running here on the blog right now:

Thank you for stopping by and we hope everyone have a great week ahead! 

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