Jennifer Baker’s debut YA novel, Forgive Me Not, traces the fallout for siblings Violetta and Vince after Violetta causes the death of their youngest sibling, Viv, in a tragic drunk driving accident. In hopes of gaining her family’s forgiveness, Violetta enters a rehabilitation program called the Trials to assess her ability to take responsibility for her actions through various emotional and psychological tests. Meanwhile, Vince struggles with his own grief as his family makes difficult decisions about Violetta’s future that he opposes. We spoke with Baker, a publishing industry veteran and a 2019 PW Superstar, about society’s imperfect ideas around forgiveness, how her research helped reshape the context of the story, and the necessary distinction between accountability and punishment.

As a longtime publishing professional, what was your experience pivoting to writing?

Most of my publishing career has been in production, which is very different from the demands of acquisitions, and can pull you every which way. I sold the book when I was still a managing editor. I was doing revisions as an acquisitions editor, which was hell, if I can be completely transparent, because you’re dealing with words all day. And that’s not necessarily to say that’s a bad thing. I think, for some of us, we have a certain point where you’re expending all this energy enmeshed in books that aren’t your own. I’m reading stuff that’s kind of in the rough stages and needs work. It is inspiring to an extent, but I’m looking at that as an editor and in analytical and promotional [terms] and all these other things; you’re not just experiencing the work, you’re constantly worried about what you can do for it and for the author. Then it’s like, “Okay, now go figure out these plot holes in your own book.” And you’re like, “No, I’m tapping out.”

It’s that hard balance of compartmentalization. Like, I’ve worked on everyone else’s stuff, and I’m going to do that Monday through Friday, and really keep it to that. Then on Saturday, I’m going to do the Pomodoro method, and every hour I’m gonna write, take a half-hour break and write, and give myself that space. I needed to be out, I needed to go walk, or engage with other people. I needed to read poetry, to read stuff that I love in order to produce to get inspired and to incite a new way of thinking.

What got you thinking about the concept of forgiveness?

There was this show called Forgive or Forget. It was a syndicated show, and it was hosted by this woman Mother Love. Basically, it brought someone on who’s like, “I cheated on my wife and I’m coming on this TV show with a live audience to tell you what happened in the hopes that she will forgive me. And I’m going to tell you the story.” You can hash it out a little bit and Mother Love acts as a mediator. The live audience is there and everyone’s like, “She can forgive him, right?” She could or she cannot. My thought about this was just, why [are they doing this]?

But it was intriguing to watch, right? I was thinking, what if this was how things worked in the criminal justice system, but specifically for teens and young people, because they have even fewer choices. These are [processes] that are adult-made: council people, mayors, governors, Congress, [witnesses], all these people are factions of how these decisions get made. But I felt like young people would have, theoretically, the least power. If we’re talking about guilty or not guilty we’re not talking about forgiveness. What happens when you do something, and you admit you did something wrong, but we can’t get beyond that?

Did your feelings around the concept of forgiveness change at all as you worked on this book?

I knew I didn’t have any clear answers. I just really wanted people to think about what this looks like. Under these circumstances, what might you do? And how does the system that’s currently in place utilize similar elements to make people feel like they don’t deserve anything? Like they don’t deserve the right to vote. You always have to check that box on a job application or anything, and people have fears about that. This follows you. It isn’t the incident alone that happens to Violetta. She has to live with that forever. Right? I really want us to look at criminality and the justice system, but also, what does it take for people to be able to move on—maybe not forget, but move on? I will say that what changed was my awareness as a person with privilege. I’m still ignorant about a lot of things, but I was a hell of a lot more ignorant where I started than where I ended, to the point where the book looks different. Even though the voices, characters, and plot were the same, it looks very different.

How did you conduct research about abolition and the juvenile detention system while writing your book? And how did you utilize all that you learned to shape Violetta’s experience?

I started mostly with book research. If you look at what people can be arrested for, it’s wild. The actual corrections sites, and how they categorize things, and how long you could be charged. A lot of it is based on what is currently seen as unlawful in that regard. I was reading a lot of books about the carceral systems. Most of those are about adults, but they also talk about the criminalization of Black kids in general. Monique W. Morris’s Pushout is one of the biggest books that focuses on Black girls. I usually found more material when it came to Black folks than other communities. There are a lot of articles especially for folks who are persecuted more than others.

I [also was] talking to someone who worked at Rikers, and she gave me very good feedback. People who were formerly incarcerated read this as well and gave me insight about the emotional impact, because the logistics feed into the emotions. What we call freedoms are gone. Legitimately gone. [In my book], the girls can’t leave their door open. They can’t travel without escorts. That moment where Violetta’s at the commissary and realizes she has to ask for menstrual products—what is that like to have to go up to someone behind the gate and have all these other people witness you asking for something that I can just go and buy?

I really want us to look at criminality and the justice system, but also, what does it take for people to be able to move on—maybe not forget, but move on?

Why was it important to give Vince, Violetta’s brother, a voice in the story, especially as the figurative mouthpiece for the rest of the family?

Violetta and Vince’s voices really did come in tandem. And what’s wild is they’re both dealing with the same thing and they’re in [the same] family, but they’re not talking about it. With Vince, I think I wanted to explore misogyny. I didn’t want to be heavy-handed with it, but he’s charming. And he’s doing [bad] stuff too. His guilt is like, “I didn’t get found out,” and “will I be found out?” At the same time, he’s angry at Violetta for not being better at hiding it, because he’s so good at hiding what’s going on. I wanted to see how those differences appear. Vince found track, but what if he wasn’t good at sports? What if he didn’t enjoy sports? Would he be more similar to Violetta, or would he find another way to shine? And, also, he was good at track, and he got elevated. And now he has to fulfill what he’s been prophesized to do, and he has to fulfill the expectations of him.

Violetta goes through a lot that was hard and that’s why it’s dual perspective. Because I’m like, “I can’t stay with you this whole book.” I don’t think the reader necessarily needs to; it’s her story, but I think it’s very critical to have Vince give you an outside perspective. So you as a reader, too, can be like, “I guess I’m okay. I’m going out of the space for at least this chapter and then we’ll go back. [I wanted] to provide some… not levity, per se, but just like that relief.

The fact that Violetta’s victims are her own family adds an interesting conflict to the idea of forgiveness. What does it say about our society’s ideas on leniency and empathy?

­­By making it the family, those are the highest stakes ever, because if they are removed, it doesn’t lessen the story, but it changes it. I really wanted to be as close to the conversation as possible, in a way that affected everybody. Not to say that it doesn’t affect the family if Violetta is incarcerated. But again, if they’re the ones making that decision, that’s a whole other level of angst that comes into play. I wanted them to think about how they’ve looked at the system. You’re making a decision because you believe in the system, but do you understand how it works?

Within the world of the book, there are six themes of Trials that offenders can face: Endurance, Volition, Comprehension, Benevolence, Humility, and Accountability. Why were these the concepts you selected as necessary steps for earning forgiveness?

When I first thought of the Trials for Violetta, she actually had even more. Then I thought about the categories, which came pretty early on. It’s really these ideologies of wanting to be understanding but it’s all about obedience. So everything is a word that sounds good. Comprehension and humility. It’s almost like those biblical phrases people use. If I went to a podium and presented to you these categories, with the word “rehabilitation,” [it sounds good], but this is not rehabilitation. This is off, but they know what words to use to make you feel safe.

What was the most challenging scene to write?

The second Trial for Violetta, because it’s a public trial. I had to think about certain things like, what would that look like? How do those pieces fit together? That was the hardest scene because I don’t want to be gratuitous and just be putting in violence. I don’t want to do that any in any way, shape, or form. And the Trials had to make sense [in relation] to what occurred. So it’s [thinking of] the reasoning for the Department of Correction. Like, what did someone do? What [Trial] would fit that?

Your author’s note offers a reminder that, in spite of the many topics this book touches on, at its core Forgive Me Not is a story about family. Why was that important to emphasize?

I feel like we connect more when we care about the people, especially in fiction. The plot and the writing matter, and everyone has their strengths when it comes to all these elements of writing. For me, I tend to write very character-driven things. I want you to see what the family is dealing with, because these things affect families, especially Black families, with the numbers we’re looking at. And if they’re making the decision [about Violetta’s rehabilitation], let’s understand where that’s coming from and how it’s being influenced, because I think they can just be vilified in a very specific way if we only hear Violetta because she’s isolated. Unfortunately, even though there’s this big loving family, everyone’s suffering silently.

What’s next for you?

I have a two-book deal with Nancy Paulsen. It will not be in the same world, but it’ll be contemporary again.

Forgive Me Not by Jennifer Baker. Penguin/Paulsen, $19.99 Aug. 15 ISBN 978-0-593-40684-7