Ep 274 Meet AWC alumnus and former Buzzfeed editor-at-large Jenna Guillaume, author of ‘What I Like About Me’.

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In Episode 274 of So you want to be a writer: Australian literary festivals to add to your diary. Meet Jenna Guillaume, AWC alumnus and former Buzzfeed editor-at-large and author of What I Like About Me. Valerie tries to impress Allison with more “Word of the Week” prowess.  Plus, we have three copies of Gravity is the Thing by bestselling author Jaclyn Moriarty to give away.

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Show Notes

12 Australian literary festivals for your 2019 diary

Shoalhaven Readers and Writers Festival

Writer in Residence

Jenna Guillaume was editor-at-large for BuzzFeed Australia, where she wrote about very important things like pop culture, identity, feminism, social media, and Chris Hemsworth’s biceps. Previously, she spent more than half a decade in the features department of Girlfriend magazine, editing the sealed section (yes, all those questions are real), and writing about everything from bullying and body image to bad kisses and boy bands. She was also a contributor to Girlfriend Life Hacks, an essential guide to navigating a girl’s completely-awkward-but-totally-awesome teen years.

What I Like About Me is her debut novel.

Follow Jenna on Twitter

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Jenna Guillaume has been working and writing in team spaces for more than a decade, first in the features department at Girlfriend magazine, and more recently as editor-at-large at Buzzfeed Australia, specialising in pop culture, identity, feminism and social media. Her debut YA novel, What I Like About Me is out now through Pan MacMillan. Welcome to the program, Jenna.

Jenna

Thank you for having me.

Allison

So debut novel. This is very, very exciting. Tell us how What I Like About Me came to be published.

Jenna

Well, I started writing it I think 2014 or 2015. I wish I had taken more notes of when I did the whole process. But I think around then. I would kind of write a little bit, be overcome by self-doubt, put it away for six months. And basically get it out every so often and keep rewriting it. I basically rewrote that introduction like five times.

And then I think in 2017, I had had enough of never moving forward with the story. And I decided to actually make a schedule for myself and force myself to write every day. And that was when I finally finished it.

And then I met my agent in May of 2017 and she read what I had written and was really keen to represent me. And then once I had finished it, I officially signed with her and she pitched it to a bunch of publishers and I got four offers. And then I had to decide which one to go with. And I went with Pan MacMillan and they’re publishing it.

Allison

Wow. So that’s a bit of a dream run, isn’t it? So who is your agent and how did you meet your agent?

Jenna

So my agent is Danielle Binks. She’s with Jacinta di Mase agency. And I met her actually, I first met her online, just on social media. And we had been chatting for a while, just about our mutual love of Pacey Witter and Dawson’s Creek. And different pop culture. And our love of YA and romance novels. So I got to know her that way.

She’s from Melbourne and she was coming to Sydney for the Sydney Writer’s Festival and I messaged her and said, do you want to meet up if you’re in town? And we were both going to the Melina Marchetta event as part of the Sydney Writers Festival. So we attended together and that was when we officially met in person.

And as part of that day, that conversation, she asked me if I was working on anything. And I gave her a very brief description. I was only about 30,000 words in at that stage and I was still very raw. And so I gave her a very brief description and straight away she said to me, that reminds me of Dirty Dancing. And I was like, it just felt like this click. Because if you’ve read the novel, you know that Dirty Dancing plays heavily in it. And I actually hadn’t mentioned that at all to her and the fact that she said that straight away, I was like, oh wow, this feels like something special.

So at that stage, that’s why she read what I had written. Because we had already connected so strongly. And it was history from there.

Allison

So it’s interesting. Because one of the things we often talk about on the podcast and in various things is the importance of social media being a social thing. And about the fact that you make connections and this is why we’re often telling people to start today, even if your manuscript’s not finished and stuff. And sort of start to get to know people. Because it is actually about a connection, isn’t it? It’s not about necessarily a “I’m going to stalk you because you’re an agent and I’m going to chase you down and shove a manuscript under the toilet at the Sydney Writers Festival for you.”

But you obviously had a connection over various things. The kind of thing that you are writing is the kind of stuff that she’s interested in and so therefore, as you say, here we are, history.

Jenna

Absolutely. Because I actually had started talking to Danielle long before she was an agent. When she signed me, she was actually a pretty new agent. And I had just connected with her as a person over similar interests. And so that was then a fruitful relationship for both of us.

But I think it’s so important to connect with people as people. And not in a cynical way of what can I get out of them? Because that’s just not pleasant for anybody.

Allison

No, it’s not. So was What I Like About Me the first fiction manuscript that you’ve ever written?

Jenna

It was, yes.

Allison

Wow.

Jenna

Yeah. I had done… I actually did a course at the Australian Writers Centre a few years back.

Allison

Woohoo!

Jenna

And as part of that, I had kind of started a couple of things. But I wasn’t really ready at that stage to dive totally into it. And I abandoned those. I probably had about 5000 words on different bits and pieces before that, but this was the first one that I actually completed.

Allison

So completing the book is an important part of actually getting the book published.

Jenna

Definitely a good step.

Allison

So tell us a bit about the book and where the inspiration came from.

Jenna

I initially wanted to write an Aussie summer romance, because I’m such a big consumer of YA and rom coms in general and love summer romance stories. But I felt that there wasn’t really anything out there that represented the Australian experience of a summer. It’s all very…

The kind of rom coms and teen stories that are out there that are set over the summer are all very American. And I just wanted to see my own culture represented, I suppose. I wanted to have the Australian Christmas and New Year’s and everything that comes along with that. And I thought that was much more interesting from a story angle, as well. It’s such a big time of year. Especially with New Year’s, I think there’s this pressure on everyone to make big decisions and have special moments and that kind of thing.

So I decided that, yeah, I hadn’t really read it, so I wanted to write it. And from there, I started developing the characters. And it actually kind of morphed. I mean, it’s still an Aussie summer romance story. But it became something quite different as well, in terms of the main character and the journey she goes on. And through developing her character, it felt her journey with herself and her own body and loving herself was actually just as important if not more so than the romance with the guy.

Allison

Okay. Well, that’s definitely something that I wanted to talk to you about. So we’re going to come back to that. But just while we’re here in the writing the book and the inspiration, it’s a journal format. So the voice of Maisie, the main character, is obviously key to this. You need to nail that voice, and the character, otherwise…

Was that something that came right from the start? Or is her voice something that developed as you wrote and then perhaps as you edited or redrafted or whatever it was that you did?

Jenna

It definitely wasn’t there from the start. I think I mentioned that I rewrote the first 10,000 words about five times. And that was purely trying to find the voice. And trying to find my way into the story.

It originally started not in a journal style. It was a pretty straight forward first person past tense, I think it was. And then I’d play around with present tense. And I very briefly dabbled in third person and felt that wasn’t right.

But I was just trying all these different things. And then I think it must have been probably late 2016, early 2017, I was visiting my parents and my dad nagged me to clean out my boxes of school work that I had stashed under the bed there. And I was going through that and I found a year 12 assignment that I had done. It was a journal that I had kept for English. And it was on alienation and belonging, which is the module I studied then.

And I was reading it and I was actually kind of surprised at how much of a smart arse I was in it. Basically, there was this one entry that really stuck out to me, and was the a-ha moment for me in terms of writing What I Like About Me. And this entry was… So I was 16 or 17 when I wrote it. And it said something like, we had watched Waiting for Godot in class. and we were supposed to write down what we got out of it in terms of alienation and belonging. And I had written, the only alienation I noticed was when I was watching it and I felt totally alienated because I didn’t understand it at all. But then I looked around the class and I felt a sense of belonging because no one understood it.

And I was just kind of shocked that I had handed this in. And basically it gave me the idea to write the manuscript as a journal style, but also as a school assignment journal where the character was a bit of a smart arse about it. And that really unlocked the voice for me. And it just clicked into place and it was from there that I was able to just move forward with the story and finish the novel.

Allison

That’s interesting. Because one thing I found, having also a background in magazines, was that when I came to write fiction, I almost had to unlearn a lot of the stuff that I had learned in writing for an audience, and come back to that intimacy of voice that you need, that you have to be able to tap into. So it’s almost like you found that in that diary from your younger self, which helped you to find the voice for the YA.

Do you feel like writing for that teen audience, for Girlfriend and things like that, did it help or hinder when it came to putting this book together?

Jenna

I think it definitely helped. It helped in a broader sense in that I was so familiar with the audience and with young adult in general. I had stayed on top of it. And I was working at Girlfriend at the boom of the Twilight mania. So it was a big time. So I think that helped in a broader sense.

But I definitely think that some of the voice that I developed for Girlfriend filtered into What I Like About Me. The kind of style at Girlfriend at the time was to write like a slightly older sister. So I probably had to make it that little bit younger. But yeah, I think it definitely helped me. To the point where I was a bit worried. I was like, what if this is the only voice I can ever write?

Allison

Oh well, you know, if it works, go with it!

So as far as the writing process for the novel, you said you started the whole thing several times until you got hold of that voice. Did you then plan it out? Or did you then allow it to unfold? Because a diary structure is actually not that easy to wrangle when you’re having to manage dates and how much time has passed, and who is doing what and who is where. Did some of that come together in the editing process? Or was it there right from the start with your first draft?

Jenna

By the time I was moving forward with the story, I had already been thinking about it a lot. So I had it in my head very broad strokes of where I wanted the story to go. But I don’t consider myself a planner. I didn’t have anything down on paper. Although, at that stage, when I realised the diary format, I did get out a calendar and looked at the dates and wrote down, okay, well, this is how many days of the school holidays there are, this is when Christmas is, this is when New Years is. And I immediately recognised that in terms of where the story was and how it matched up with the dates, that New Year’s Eve was going to be almost the climax of the story. So that did help me structure it in a way.

And also, I think when I was initially writing it, it was just a straightforward first person narrative, I was struggling a little bit with moving from scene to scene. Like, well this scene is done, how do I move on? And the date structure actually helped me with that, because I could have… And the journal style itself. Because I could have her write, oh, I’ve got to go do this now. It almost became part of the story in itself, the act of writing.

Allison

Now, we touched on this before. One of the big themes in the book is body confidence and body love. Did you set out to write… You didn’t set out to write a book about that, per se, did you? It was something that emerged as Maisie’s voice emerged, yeah?

Jenna

Yeah, exactly. As I said, initially the very germ of the idea was purely an Australian summer romance. I didn’t know anything beyond that. What the characters would be, how they would interact, or anything like that. So it was as I was developing the character of Maisie and her voice, I realised that she wanted to love herself as much as she wanted to love anyone else. And that’s where that came through.

Allison

Okay. Is that something… Why do you think that’s emerged? Is that something that you’re very aware of because of your work in pop culture? And obviously as part of your role with BuzzFeed and stuff, you’re on Twitter a lot. I see you there a lot. You’ve got a big following. You’ve got a big following on Facebook. And these are ideas that are discussed at length in those sort of forums. Do you think that’s part of the reason why it filtered through? Or is it the work at Girlfriend? Obviously because it’s a big theme, or has been or was a big thing with those magazines as well.

Jenna

I think all of the above. When I worked at Girlfriend, it was a massive issue for us and something we frequently covered. And I also edited the sealed section of Girlfriend, actually, and so I was the one that was receiving letters from teens saying what their problems were, what their concerns were. And so many of them were related to their body image, and how they felt about their bodies and were their bodies weird or gross? And were they normal? It all added up to this giant scream of, am I normal? Is there something wrong with me?

And so that definitely, that’s always stayed with me. And then through my work at BuzzFeed I think I definitely became more conscious of it, even on a personal level. Because I became more visible myself on social media and also just through my work at Buzzfeed. I was in some videos on YouTube and that kind of thing.

And I was really shocked the first time I was in a BuzzFeed video on YouTube and it was a taste test of different American sweets. Just a fun video. And I got all these really nasty comments about my body and what I was eating and that kind of thing. And I think that was quite a horrible experience for me. But I think that kind of crystallised for me how important it is to be part of this body positive movement. And also filter that into my work.

I think a lot of those feelings of insecurity and the hurt that I felt by those comments went into the book. And then also my journey since then of really focusing on trying to love myself and to promote works and people who are body positive and make people feel good about themselves.

Allison

Okay. So you’re exploring ideas here that are big for teens. With self-love and love and friendship and growing up and all of those kinds of things. And you’ve done it with a lightness of voice which does make your book stand out I feel at the moment in YA fiction. Because there is a lot of dark challenging gritty stuff going on in that space.

Was it a conscious thing for you to do that? Or is that just how it all came out?

Jenna

It was a conscious thing to write a fun book. I myself am drawn to romantic comedy and to contemporary romance and feelgood stories. I think the world is stressful in itself and feels quite dark at times. So when I’m turning to fiction, I want to escape.

That’s not to say, I think serious books and challenging books definitely have a place and I definitely want to consume them and think they’re important. But I think by and large I want something that’s going to make me feel good. So I wrote a story that I wanted to feel good writing and hopefully if people read it that they felt good when they read it.

And I think the kind of bigger ideas, I suppose, just came through quite organically in the development of the characters, and trying to develop them as real people with real hopes and dreams, and real insecurities. And all of that. It was quite organic. I never wanted it to be didactic or this is the lesson that people are going to take from it.

Allison

Okay. All right, so given the number of words a week that you were no doubt writing for BuzzFeed and all the other things that you were doing, how did you get this manuscript written? Because I can imagine there must have been times when you thought, well, I’ve written 12,000 words this week – because I’m channelling myself in the same boat – I’ve written 12,000 words this week, there’s no way that I have any in my mind here for fiction. I can’t do this. Or did you have a routine and you just got it done?

Jenna

It was definitely a challenge initially. I’ve talked about how I would just get it out every six months, and part of that was working fulltime and not having the time or the mental energy to do it. Not just working full time but writing full time.

And I think I was trying to figure out a way to make it work for myself. I tried a lot of different things. I’m actually very much a night person, so I had it in my head that, okay, I’ll get home from work and I will work on this and just do a little bit every day. And I tried that so many times and it just never worked for me. Because I would get home and I would be so mentally wiped that I just had nothing left to give.

And so what I actually did to get it finished was I had to let go of this notion that I could only work at night-time and that I was a night-time person, and train myself to be a morning person. Which was a massive challenge.

Allison

That’s really hard.

Jenna

Yes. I am not a morning person. Speak to anyone that knows me, they will tell you I am not a morning person. But I basically made a schedule for myself, just like I did in high school and uni. I had this is the time I’m waking up and this is how much time I have for breakfast, etc. Right up to bedtime. And trying to get to bed early, turn all my screens off half an hour before bed, all of that to try to… And it took a few weeks to get into that routine but I ended up doing it.

And so I basically just got up an hour earlier than I needed to to get to work on time and just wrote for an hour every morning. Which was very counterintuitive for me, but it’s what got it done.

And also I found that when I was writing in the morning, I felt like I was going to work feeling like I already had something achieved and was really excited about it. And so I was then, when I came home, more energised to keep coming back to it because I’d already worked on it that morning and I remembered where I was at and I was excited to continue. So it actually got me writing at night-time as well.

And so once I did that, I finished it within a couple of months. But having said that, as soon as I finished it I was like, oh, thank god! I can go back to my natural routine now! And kind of played myself a little bit. Because then when I was trying to write the second one, the second book, I had found it very hard to get back into that routine.

Allison

Oh, okay. All right, so you do have a big online presence, partly due probably to your profile with BuzzFeed. But do you have some tips for building that social media presence? I mean, we talked about proper actual connections. Are there any other sort of things that you would offer for other authors who are hoping to build a presence?

Jenna

I think it’s important, first and foremost, just to be a person. And to think of it not as social media but as people. And so you wouldn’t walk into a dinner party and say, hey, buy my book. So don’t do that on social media.

Yeah. Just go on there because you genuinely want to be on there and you genuinely want to talk to people. And just connect with them on a human level. And I think that is how you build communities, that is how you build connections. And also just have fun with it. I think people tend to overthink it.

And it’s really just doing what comes naturally to you. I have a big Twitter presence. I’m not as big, say on Instagram, because I’m not really as much a visual person. So I focus my energies on Twitter. And a little bit on Facebook. I’m still on Instagram, but it’s not as big a thing for me. So focus your energies where it feels natural and fun to you.

And I think also I’ve ready some really bad advice about social media, especially in terms of Twitter. I read recently someone said, to get people to follow you, follow them and then if they don’t follow you back within a week, unfollow them. And I think that’s really bad advice, because it’s so cynical. Follow people because you want to follow them and talk to them. And actually, yeah, have conversations with them. Reply to their tweets. And even if they don’t follow you back, if you’re having good valuable and fun conversations with them, they’re going to remember you. So it’s not always about who follows you, it’s about who you connect with.

Allison

Yeah. And I think your comments at the start of the interview, where you were talking about how you connected with Danielle over your love of Dawson’s Creek and things like that, those things where you actually talk about things that are you, and that you’re passionate about, that have nothing to do with writing and nothing to do with… I mean, you know, that’s why I share pictures of my dog. But you’ve just got to find those things that other people are going to relate to that are not necessarily about you and your book, right?

Jenna

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, TV is a really good example. If there’s TV shows that you love watching, tweet about them. And especially if they’re something that you can live tweet, say, for example, The Bachelor. I know a lot of people get really into that on Twitter. And if you like that and are part of that and do some funny tweets, you’ll get followers that way and connect with people that way.

There’s lots of different avenues like that where it’s just pursuing your own interests beyond writing that will form really unique connections that you don’t know how they’ll pay off in the future. Maybe they’ll pay off as just being a great friendship or a good online connection. And that in itself is valuable.

Allison

So switching gears slightly, have you done your first author talks as yet?

Jenna

I have done a couple of panels. I haven’t done a solo talk. But I’ve done a couple of panels at the Sydney Writers Festival last year. And I did some Girls Write Up events with the Stella Prize.

Allison

And how did you find the panel experience? Doing it for the first time?

Jenna

I was very nervous going into it, but then once I was into it I was really comfortable and I found it a lot of fun.

Allison

Excellent. So you’re looking forward to doing more?

Jenna

Definitely. I definitely want to do more. Stay tuned.

Allison

Okay. And given that you’re writing YA, you’ll be looking at school visits as part of your book promotion?

Jenna

Yeah, I definitely want to do school visits. I haven’t lined any up yet, but I am working on that at the moment.

Allison

Excellent. So what are you working on now? You mentioned that you were writing a second book?

Jenna

Yes, I am. So I have a two book deal with Pan MacMillan. And it’s going to be another standalone. And I’ve pitched them the idea and I’m just waiting to hear back on if they like it. But I have started writing it, so hopefully they do like it.

Allison

Ooh, fingers crossed on that then!

Jenna

Yep.

Allison

Okay. And now let’s finish up with our final question which is of course your top three tips for authors.

Jenna

So my top three tips I would say, number one is figure out what works for you. I spent a lot of time when I was beginning worrying over what’s the best way to write, what’s the best way to finish a novel, and how should I do this? And am I doing this the right way? And I just think, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. You’ve got to find what works for you.

And definitely listen to other people’s advice, read books on advice and listen to this podcast and take on board what everyone says. Btu only take on what actually works for you and discard the rest, basically. It’s like I said in terms of I thought I was a night person and that I should work at night-time. And I had to actually totally let go of that notion and find something that really worked for me before I was able to finish.

Allison

Fantastic. All right. Second?

Jenna

And number two, we’ve already talked a lot about this, but I would say don’t overthink social media. I see a lot of people being like, oh, should I be on Twitter, how do I do this? I’m overthinking everything I’m saying. Just be yourself. Be a person. Talk to other people like they’re people and not agents or publishers or authors or anything like that. Just connect on a human level.

Allison

Excellent.

Jenna

And number three, I would say write for the sake of writing. I kind of had these goals in my head that I wanted to be published by a certain age. And that didn’t happen. And that really got me down for a little while and I beat myself up about it. And I thought, I had this thing in my head that if it was meant to be it would have happened by now. Which is totally absurd. Because it’s not necessarily meant to be, it’s how you work to make it happen.

And it was only when I let go of those ideas, and let go of the idea of, oh, I have to be published. I think when I was younger I was writing because I wanted to be published. Whereas once I let go of that and thought, no, I want to write because I want to have written this book. And even if it never gets published I’ll be satisfied that I have done it. That was the only time that I was actually able to finish it. And then, you know, I ended up getting it published. But the fact that I let go of that goal and just wrote for the sake of writing really helped me and made the whole process much more satisfying.

Allison

Fantastic. Those are all excellent tips. Now, where do we find you online, Jenna?

Jenna

You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @JennaGuillaume. It’s a bit of a tricky one. And I’m on Facebook under that name as well. And JennaGuillaume.com is my website.

Allison

Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your time today. Best of luck with your debut novel, What I Like About Me. And go forth. Do fantastic things.

Jenna

Thank you so much. Thank you.

 


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