Jen Doll’s YA debut novel comes out in September, but she’s been thinking about YA for a lot longer than she’s been writing it. Doll wrote the YA for Grownups column in the Atlantic Wire, and in 2013 she wrote a much-cited article for New York magazine defending adults who read YA and explaining what she likes about it. Unclaimed Baggage combines heavy themes (racism, sexism, addiction) with romance, mystery, and a deep sense of place as it tells the story of three teens in small-town Alabama who spend a summer working at a store that sells, as the title suggests, the contents of suitcases that go unclaimed at airports. Jen spoke with PW from her home in Brooklyn about how her feelings for YA have evolved, sexism, and why she loves summer.
What is it about YA that you like so much?
I started reading YA when I was probably too young for it, and it just hit a sweet spot for me. YA is so heart-driven; it speaks to you in the moment that you’re in and it doesn’t couch things in the layers of repressed emotion we end up developing as adults, like you’re not supposed to feel this way or it’s not sophisticated to feel that way. YA allows you to be honest with emotions in a way you don’t have in daily life.
In your article for New York, you said that the books “have a way of cocooning their protagonists, navigating them—and by extension, the reader—to safety, and sometimes real happiness.” Is that enough, and do you still think that?
My feelings about that have changed. Before, I saw YA as an escape; now I see it as leading the charge, tackling things you don’t see in other books. Everyone involved in the process is really trying to do their best for kids, looking to represent and empower them. And YA can change ideas, even when you’re a grown up. Look at Front Desk by Kelly Yang: it’s about coming to the U.S. as an immigrant, as she did, and helping her family run a hotel. I was reading it and crying and thinking about how it was a message to do better. And adults need that message just as much as kids do. So maybe it’s not cocooning as much as teaching you, but from a safe place.
Have you read anything else amazing lately, either YA or middle grade?
Brendan Kiely’s new book Tradition is about toxic masculinity in a prep school, and it’s really good and really powerful. Kody Keplinger’s That’s Not What Happened tells the story behind a school shooting and how it’s different for everyone who experienced it. It really thinks about the question of who gets to tell the story.
What were you worried about when you started writing YA?
Everything. But I’m very lucky that I have a brilliant editor, Joy Peskin, and we both really wanted to get things right. As a blogger and a female writer, I’m used to internet criticism, but I was scared about reviews, what people would say. That said, I did feel I knew how to tell a story. My characters really spoke to me from the beginning, and I felt confident about them, which was empowering.
How did the book start for you?
It started from Doris’s voice, and the unclaimed baggage store in my town in Alabama. One of my best friend’s mothers loved going there, and it gave me this sense that there were mysteries all around us and that other people’s items contained stories. Why did they go missing? What happened? And there was this idea that a girl would be really good at finding things and yet still need to find herself.
All three characters are parts of me in different ways. I wish I could have been more like Doris. I’ve had friends who’ve had issues with drinking, and like Nell, I moved from a suburb of Chicago to a small town in Alabama. In high school, I was this strange liberal creature who started the first environmental club and wondered why they prayed at football games—what about separation of church and state?
What were you thinking about in terms of depicting a small Alabama town? You don’t stint on showing various forms of prejudice (not to mention a willingness to do whatever it takes to win at football), but the characters, even Doris, the town’s outspoken liberal, feel affection for the place.
I feel like the South gets a bad rap, like “oh, that’s where cousins marry each other,” that people think Southerners aren’t sophisticated humans the way the rest of us are. And that’s not true. I wanted to show a more complete view. Yes, the South has problems, but America has problems. I have a lot of love for the South and the town I grew up in and the people there. I wanted to show it as real as I could.
The town in Unclaimed Baggage is not my town; it’s much smaller and more insular than my town, but some elements are the same. The beauty of fiction is that you can kind of make things up and morph things.
Although the book is light in many ways and lots of fun to read, the plot threads—alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, racism—are quite serious. Were these in place when you started?
Those were there the whole time, and I was a little worried that people might expect a light book and then be mad because it was heavy. But we’re in a world that has issues and where bad stuff happens. Some of it came from my own experiences, like feeling a lot of sexism in my life.
That’s interesting, since the two female characters have a no-nonsense feminism. Do you think that’s typical of young women today or is it something you wanted to model?
My experience of teenagers is that yes, they are feminists. There’s a contingent of loud, proud, teen feminists online whom I’m in love with. But in a way there is a modeling—for myself when I was a teenager. I wish I’d been that bold, but there was often a sense of having to camouflage my opinions. Because of the way we’ve been treated, women (whether we’re adults or kids) often find ourselves not wanting to rock the boat. When Doris says, “You don’t get to say that,” that’s so powerful; I wish we could all be a little more like that.
What’s next for you? Anything you want to tell us?
I’m working on something new. It’s too early to say much, but it’s another summer book. I’m obsessed with the idea of summer, this discrete package of time in which things can change so directly. People grow up over the summer—there’s the feeling that you start at the end of May and by early September you’ve lived a hundred years. The days are longer, and it feels like so much can happen. This one is set on the seaside; it’s an exploration of what it’s like to live in a summer town as a resident rather than as a tourist, although this book isn’t set in Alabama, I do want to do another book set there. I feel like it’s important to keep showing parts of the world that we don’t see as much of in books.
Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.99 Sept. 18 ISBN 978-0-374-30606-9