Novelist, playwright, stage actor: when it comes to arts and letters, Jenny Hubbard is something of a triple threat. And that doesn't even take into account her 17 years as an English teacher, both at the college level and at an all-boys boarding school, one similar to the fictional Birch School of her first novel, Paper Covers Rock (Delacorte), which has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Horn Book. The young adult novel went on sale just last week—one day before a play Hubbard wrote, Pinocchio's Sister, debuted on stage in her hometown of Salisbury, N.C. And later this summer, Hubbard will herself appear on stage in a production of August: Osage County in Charlotte, N.C.
Set in the early 1980s, Paper Covers Rock is structured as the journal of 16-year-old Alex No Middle Name Stromm, who is holding onto some secrets about the recent drowning death of one of his classmates. But the novel didn't start out that way: Hubbard originally began writing it as an adult novel, told from the perspective of a teacher at the school. "Like a lot of English teachers, I've been writing for most of my life," says Hubbard, who lives in North Carolina with her husband, Steve Cobb, a high school math teacher.
It wasn't until Hubbard started to rewrite the book from Alex's first-person point of view that it "really felt right." She attended a writer's conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2009, where she met instructor and author Kathi Appelt. Appelt, who Hubbard calls her "guardian angel," invited Hubbard to send her the book when she had finished revising it. Four months later, she sent the manuscript to Appelt, who recommended she contact agent Jonathan Lyons of Lyons Literary. Lyons signed up Hubbard (more revisions followed) and sold the book to editor Michelle Poploff at Random House in March 2010.
Even more revisions followed, but that wasn't a problem for Hubbard, who says she's used to being "raked over the coals" while working on her plays. "That is definitely one of my writing mantras. Revise, revise, revise. You can't take the English teacher out of the girl."
Although Hubbard left teaching in 2005 to write full-time, it's evident that her firsthand experiences directly inform the boarding school setting of Paper Covers Rock, as well as the crucial character of Miss Dovecott, who nurtures Alex's writing abilities, though Hubbard is quick to point out that the complicated relationships and circumstances the teacher finds herself in are entirely fictional. Still, she says, "There were only four other female teachers at the school [where I taught]. I really had to think about myself as a woman. I had never really done that before."
Hubbard is currently working on a second book, as yet untitled, about a girl whose older brother had been planning a school shooting before killing himself, which is due from Delacorte in 2012. As with Paper Covers Rock and Pinocchio's Sister, guilt is a recurring theme. "Why that is I can't tell you," she says. "It's so complicated, guilt is. Guilt is a great motivator. It's a good driving force for a story for me, and I think teenagers are just rife with it."