Melanie Crowder is the award-winning author of several young adult (Mazie, Audacity, and An Uninterrupted View of the Sky) and middle grade novels (Three Pennies, A Nearer Moon, and The Lighthouse Between the Worlds). Jumper is her first contemporary YA novel. It chronicles 19-year-old Blair Scott’s fierce determination to become part of the elite smokejumper squadron with her best friend Jason. Blair is dedicated to proving herself as capable as the other (mostly male) candidates and begins to make risky choices to prove her worth. But when a fire spins out of control, her choices lead down a dangerous path. Crowder spoke with PW about incorporating her personal firefighting experiences in the book as well as choosing for Blair to struggle with type 1 diabetes.

After your second year in college, you worked for the U.S. Forest Service fisheries because you wanted to be a marine biologist. Did you end up becoming a marine biologist? If so, what led you to writing?

Growing up in Oregon, from age 11 until I was 20, I was certain that’s what I’d do. But this was the early ’90s and women weren’t supported in the sciences. I transferred to a different college where I took art classes and earned a B.A. in fine arts. I even got to sing with the Vancouver Orchestra. My college classes were glorious, but I wasn’t employable and I ended up with a lot of different jobs. One weekend when I was 28, I read a shelf of children’s books at the local library—and I realized that’s where my joy was. So why not try to write? I had just finished writing my second book, a derivative fantasy, when I realized I needed to learn more. I got my MFA in writing. I’ve been on an amazing journey with twists and turns, learning how these enrich your experience so much. I’m still mining the experiences from all the weird jobs I had.

While working for the Forest Service, you were also trained to fight fires. Did your experience learning to fight fires inspire you to write this book?

I’m not the kind of person who sits down and makes a list of story ideas. I want them to come to me. We had just had a rough fire season—and I thought “what if, what if?” I read an article about fire jumpers and how understaffing sometimes put people in positions they weren’t qualified for. I got goosebumps. It was like I was transported back in time to fire camp—feeling the sweating, adrenaline pumping, fear and excitement. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable writing this without a visceral understanding of being there, on the fireline. I’m grateful for my wandering life, it’s excellent fodder for stories. But I never jumped out of a plane. I considered doing it for research, but I’m a mother now. If not for my kids, I would have. Blair is 1000 times braver than I am.

How did you decide that your main character, the highly driven Blair, would struggle with type 1 diabetes? Why did you choose that particular hurdle for her?

I always knew that Blair’s confidence is a fault. She’s a lone wolf. She believes that she can master any challenge put in her path. I had to throw something huge in her way. My first instinct was to give her a rib injury, but Blair’s journey is recognizing her strengths and weaknesses and how they can get in her way. My editor challenged me to make it an internal challenge. With her being diabetic, Blair feels like her body is betraying her—it’s a part of herself that she can’t control. She gets to a point of acceptance and sees the world not as a lone wolf, learning to rely on other people.

You added brief sections about firefighting (tools, strategies, training protocols) as well as scenes where the fire seemed to have its own personality. Why was it important for you to include those?

When you listen to people who work with fire talk about it, it is a creature they come to know on an intimate basis. They come to love it, even as they’re battling it. It’s important, tough work. Since I did fire camp, the view on fighting forest fires has changed. Firefighters have shifted toward working with the fire and sometimes a burn is the best thing for a forest. I wanted to deliver this information in a way that readers can access the story, to visualize those intense scenes. For instance, fire can make its own weather. But I didn’t want to stop the flow. I want them to see a world where anyone is viewed as tough and able regardless of gender or identity—that they can set off on an adventure that is waiting for them.

Jumper by Melanie Crowder. Viking, $18.99 June ISBN 978-0-593-32696-1