Jodi Lynn Anderson began her career as an editor at HarperCollins and 17th Street Productions, but now devotes her energy to writing YA and middle grade novels that celebrate the magic of real life. Among her published works are the May Bird and Peaches trilogies, as well as many standalone novels, including My Diary from the End of the World, The Vanishing Season, and Tiger Lily. Her new novel, Midnight at the Electric, is told in one volume, but spans more than a century, from post-WWI England to the 1934 Dust Bowl to near-future 2065 Kansas, telling the story of three young women whose lives intersect across time. Anderson spoke with PW about the importance of a sense of place, working with multiple editors, and finding the connecting thread between three distinct characters and settings.
What draws you to writing for kids and teens? Can you talk about the difference between writing for teens and for younger readers?
They’re very different, but I feel passionate about both. I’m in my 40s now, but I can easily put myself in the place of being 10 or being 16. Those are two very different emotional places, but they’re still very alive inside me and so much a part of how and what I think about. Those ages draw me in a way that adulthood doesn’t; there’s something so vivid and magical about being young, intense and raw.
As far as the difference between the two, while writing YA I put a lot more effort into pacing and tension, making it a bigger part of my plotting. I want there to be tension to draw the reader forward. When I write for children, I focus more on humor and quirky details.
You’ve written a middle grade trilogy and a YA trilogy, but most of your books stand alone. Do you prefer standalones? Does the intended audience age factor in?
Writing a trilogy is a very different experience than writing a standalone. For me, choosing what to write is similar to how I pick what I’m reading. Sometimes I gravitate to a really long book or series because I want to dig in and stay there for a long time. Other times I want something I can race through, that will keep me up all night but has a concrete ending. The seasons, my mood, and even my previous project factors in; I really like a lot of variety. Sometimes a certain story will get stuck in my head. Ultimately, the story always knows what it’s meant to be.
Your novels vary widely in terms of genre and style. Do you find inspiration in specific places?
I always start with a place or scene. It’s very visual. Places have a mood and a spirit and are an integral background to certain moments and stories. I build out from there.
The Vanishing Season started with Door County, Wisconsin. I visited for a few days and found it so striking; I wanted to spend time there. I was there at the end of the tourist season, when everyone was pretty much gone. It was quiet and there was a sense of isolated beauty and a haunting and spooky mood.
How did the concept for Midnight at the Electric emerge?
I started picturing Catherine, the protagonist from the Dust Bowl, in the middle of her barren yard next to a dead tree. Everything was empty, but I felt this magic around her. Not supernatural magic, but a sense of life, desire, and hope. There was something threaded through the scene that I needed to figure out.
At the same time I had a couple of other characters and stories in my head, like a young woman with a slightly contentious relationship with a grandparent, angry about climate change and the mess her generation had inherited. This idea evolved into Adri’s story.
I knew these two stories had to go together, despite their being set a different times. That was part of the magic—this feeling that something deeper was holding the two stories and women together. The themes of electricity and parallels of environmental destruction were eventually layered beneath these individual stories of hope.
Did the third perspective emerge last?
Lenore’s perspective did come last. My last book was a middle grade story called My Diary from the End of the World, which, like Lenore’s story, touches on the Industrial Revolution. I’m very interested in this period, the advancements that the Industrial Revolution brought and the destructive effects. Lenore is living through a time when industrialism is really starting to thrive. She’s towards the beginning of the thread, whereas Adri is towards the end. I wanted to emphasize the positive and negatives of the revolution.
How did you keep the multiple points-of-view and time periods within Midnight at the Electric organized? Had you always envisioned the narrative structure in this way?
It took some time to pin down the structure, but it was the first thing on paper: how the stories would work together. There’s a tortoise that factors into all three stories, but I didn’t want three stories just linked by a tortoise. I wanted one continuous story where the fates of these women were intertwined.
I’ve always loved books that are structured in interesting ways. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which I looked to for inspiration, does such a great job of taking separate stories to make one narrative.
Can you talk a bit about the research process for the different time periods and settings in the novel?
I read many books during my research for Midnight at the Electric. One of my favorites was The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, which is a first-person account of the Dust Bowl. It’s beautiful, very personal and intimate. Then I read a couple of books about the future and Mars colonization, including The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin, which made the idea of colonizing Mars very accessible and realistic. The more I read, the easier it was for me to picture a near future in which Adri’s story could exist.
Early on in your career you worked in publishing. Can you talk about that a bit and how it has influenced or informed anything for you as a writer?
As an editor I learned so much about structure and plot. It was like going to school in a way. I gained a sense of audience and the importance of being aware of who you’re writing for. After that experience, the big challenge was balancing that knowledge with the personal side of writing.
Your books have been published with multiple houses. How do you handle working with a variety of editors who have differing editorial styles?
I work with two houses: Simon & Schuster publishes my middle grade, while HarperCollins publishes my young adult. I’ve been very fortunate that there is great balance between my two editors, Liesa Abrams [at Simon & Schuster] and Jennifer Klonsky [at HarperCollins]. They let me pursue the books I want to write, even though the ideas may sound quirky and strange at first. At the same time, both editors offer a lot of expertise and feedback. Liesa nurtures my quirkiness, while keeping me on task. Jennifer keeps me on track with character development. It’s beneficial to have two different editors critiquing my writing because I can cross-pollinate their feedback.
You’ve now published 11 books. How has your writing process or approach to storytelling changed over the years?
I completed my MFA about three years ago, which was an experience that taught me to trust my voice. At the beginning of my career, I was heavily influenced by what I thought people wanted to read, but as I’ve grown, it’s become more pressing for me to express what is unique inside me. Margot Fonteyn said, “Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art.” I feel like I’m always getting closer to that goal, but it takes a lot to steer away from the pull of outside influences. I’m trying to be grounded.
Which books and/or authors have influenced your style and technique?
I admire authors who write about real issues and real life, but with magic underneath, like Francesca Lia Block, Tom Robbins, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie. I just devoured Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, which was smart and colorful. I gravitate towards books like that. I try to write a subtle idea of vividness and a sense of magic in real things, which these authors excel at.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
I wouldn’t say I’ve had writer’s block—that’s a very scary phrase that I hope I never have to experience—but I do suffer from laziness. I’ve heard writing described as “holding a beach ball underwater.” Sometimes I feel like I’m letting the beach ball float, writing down nonsense. Staying focused, digging for what needs to be put down, is a challenge.
I also have fairly debilitating insomnia, which has been a challenge to the logistics of writing. The nights that I sleep well, I work on structure and making sure threads aren’t unraveling. The days I don’t sleep at all, I focus on the emotional pieces and mood—things that I can still access when I’m really sleep deprived.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working on the first book in a middle grade trilogy, in which there are 13 witches who embody all the terrible things that happen in the world. It’s the story of a girl whose mother is losing her memory and the girl’s realization that the memory loss has something to do with the witches.
Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson. HarperTeen, $17.99 June 13 ISBN 978-0-06-239354-8