YA readers could be among the biggest beneficiaries of bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard’s financial setbacks. After falling prey to a Ponzi scheme three years ago, not only were she and her family forced to downsize and move from Madison, Wisc., into a home on Cape Cod that she’d originally purchased to serve as a writer’s retreat, but she has had to look for other work to supplement her writing income. Last spring Mitchard met Adams Media publisher Karen Cooper through mutual friend Benjamin LeRoy, publisher of Tyrus Books in Madison, an imprint of F+W Media. Cooper quickly hired Mitchard to create an F+W imprint of her own, Merit Press, aimed at teens.
In late December and January, Merit – named for one of Mitchard’s daughters as well as for her aspirations for the quality of the writing – released its first five books. Last month PW had lunch with Mitchard, Cooper, and F+W Media digital marketing director Beth Gissinger on Boston’s Beacon Hill to talk about the move to the other side of the author/editor relationship. That’s not to imply that Mitchard has significantly slowed the pace of her own writing. In addition to publishing a teen novel in January, What We Saw at Night (Soho Teen), she’s also working on two adult novels. And she contributed a ghost story, her first, to Shadow Show, an anthology with contributions from various authors written in honor of Ray Bradbury; the collection was recently nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. “I am where I was when [The] Deep End of the Ocean came out. I have nothing to lose,” said Mitchard, referring to her first novel, published in 1996, which she wrote after the death of her first husband. It has sold more than five million copies and was the first Oprah Book Club pick.
While she may be best known for her adult work, Mitchard not only writes for young people but is especially passionate about the impact of books on teens. She arrived at lunch wearing a pair of earrings based on Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a personal favorite of hers. She told PW that she even named one of her nine children for the book’s protagonist, Francie Nolan. What Mitchard wants to do with her own imprint is to find today’s classics, the next The Outsiders. “When you look back on those books, they hold up now like they did a generation ago. It’s my hope that a few of those will fall in my net,” Mitchard said. She’s looking for books that express what she called, “the power and glory of real life, with maybe a little tinge of magical realism like Alice Hoffman’s. For a young person, everyday life is epic. They live in dog years, changing on a molecular level.”
Recognizing talented writers hasn’t been a problem for Mitchard: her imprint’s Twisted Lit series, which includes Kim Askew and Amy Helmes’s Tempestuous (December 2012) and Exposure (January 2013), has been written up by Forbes and USA Today, and she says that Merit novels have gotten better reviews from Kirkus than her own work. But how to find books wasn’t always obvious. “I came in the first day and said, ‘Where are the books?’” she recalled. “Karen said, ‘Maybe you should acquire them.’ I had no idea what to do. So I put out feelers to all my friends and some agents, and I told them, ‘I don’t want books you’ve tried at other places. We’re not going to pay much. But it will be a proud place to be published.’ We were lucky with the first five books that they fell into place, and most of them didn’t require much work.”
Mitchard says that working as an editor hasn’t changed her own writing as much as getting an MFA in creative writing this semester. She attended the low-residency writing program at South New Hampshire University, where she worked as a faculty fellow. She credits the faculty there, especially Wiley Cash, author of A Land More Kind Than Home, and Mitch Wieland, author of Willy Slater’s Lane and God’s Dogs, with helping her with her own work. “[They] were much more supportive than editors are,” she said. She plans to repay that help by publishing at least one of the students she worked with at SNHU.
As for the process of being edited, she doesn’t anticipate that to change even with her experiences at Merit. “[It] can be joyous or hell on earth,” she said. “I’ve been married twice and widowed once, and the most intimate relationship I’ve had is with my editors. If you had a normal ego that could be satisfied by normal things, you wouldn’t be a writer.” Despite having written more than 20 books for adults and teens, she said, “I still live with self-doubt. It’s not easier. The only thing that’s easier is that I know where to look for what I need for the story. And I know whether the story is good or bad.”
Mitchard plans to continue with both editing and teaching no matter how her financial circumstances might change. She will publish eight Merit titles this year, and 10 in 2014. Coming in April is Leah Konen’s debut novel, The After Girls, about what happens to two friends after the third in their trio commits suicide. She’s also planning to publish a book by one of her students. As she wrote in a letter to librarians and echoed at lunch, “I didn’t think it would be possible for me to feel as proud of another’s work as I am when I write my own books.” But it’s clear from the energy that she is putting behind her first lists, Merit titles are all her children.