Jessica Shirvington: AWC student and author of the popular Embrace series

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Jessica ShirvingtonJessica Shirvington is the author of the popular Embrace series for young adults. This five-book series follows the life of Violet Eden, a young woman who, on turning 17, discovers she’s Grigori – part angel and part human. The first book in the series, Embrace, was picked up by author agent Selwa Anthony in 2010 – not long after Jessica completed two creative writing courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Since she scored an agent and a three-book deal with Hachette Australia, Jessica has published five books – four in the Embrace series (with a fifth on the way) and a stand-alone novel, Between the Lives. In just four years Jessica has gained a huge following, with her books being published in the US, UK and Germany.

Click play to listen. Running time: 22.28

Between the Lives

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability.

Danielle:
Hi, I’m Danielle Williams from the Australian Writers’ Centre. Today I’m speaking to Jessica Shirvington. Jessica is a former Australian Writers’ Centre graduate. She’s also the author of five young adult novels, and today she’s going to speak to us about her latest. Jessica, welcome.

Jess:
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Danielle:
Tell us about the latest novel.

Jess:
OK, so my latest novel is my first stand-alone, it’s called Between the Lives, and it’s about a girl called Sabine, who lives in two realities. She lives everyday twice, 24 hours as a first of her, and 24 hours as second of her. So on a Monday morning she’ll walk up and her life, she’s in Roxbury, in Boston, not such a great area. And, she’ll have her family, she’s got a little sister, her friends and at midnight each night she shifts and restarts her day. But her second day is in Wellesley, a really nice area, just outside of Boston, where she has family, two brothers, everything is different, school, friends.

So she’s lived this way her whole life, and this book is about her trying to work out if she died in one world, would she live on in the other? And all of the things that happen to her in the process of making this decision, and the crazy things that she does.

Danielle:
It’s a really interesting premise. Where did this idea come from?

Jess:
It just… it came from originally wanting to explore the idea of a very kind of insular behaviour about all of the things that could happen in life, and you’re actually so obsessed with what’s going on in your own world that you’re not paying attention to all of the things happening around you. And that was a big part of it. And then that sort of developed into the idea of her having two lives, and that complication coming in, and the idea of wanting to… I guess I wanted to explore the idea of suicide but from a point of view of wanting to live. And it was a really unusual way to do it, but that originated from coming across a statistic which was that suicide actually is more often than not a result of someone just simply not wanting to go on, not actually that they want to die. So I guess it kind of stemmed from all of that.

Danielle:
Yeah. And, it’s a tricky topic, especially for teen readers.

Jess:
Yeah.

Danielle:
So you must have felt some sense of responsibility in writing?

Jess:
Yeah, I did.

Danielle:
How did you manage that when you were writing this?

Jess:
Yeah, I mean, look, I tried to be responsible. I did. And I think that went into taking the time. There is a scene where she’s overdosing on medication and she’s doing that purposely, but I took a lot of time deciding what medication that would be, what the effects would be, what the side effects are. You know, whether it would be an over-the-counter or prescription medication, all of those things, not wanting to send out a message to impressionable minds that this actually might be a good idea.

So obviously I didn’t pick something that would have this great high associated with it, so everyone is kind of writing down the name and heading to the local pharmacy. It was just – yeah, cautionary in that sense.

But also in the sense of going there with the story. I definitely went all the way.

Danielle:
Yeah. So you mention that this is your first stand-alone novel and the series, the Embrace series, or Violet Eden.

Jess:
It’s both.

Danielle:
How different is it to write a standalone novel?

Jess:
Really different. Really different. And I think that’s why I really wanted to do it. I enjoyed it a lot. You’re not sort of thinking ahead, you’re just thinking of this story, in the moment, and while I was writing it I contemplated whether I wanted it to go beyond my book, and then I just realised I wanted to put that thought aside, and just really focus on this story. You keep it tight, and you’re looking for a conclusion at the end that’s going to be satisfying for the reader. For me, that was a refreshing challenging from the series. And the series is a different type of challenge, because that’s just these building blocks. But each book in itself is its own story, so it’s different.

Danielle:
Did you find any similarity between Sabine and Violet from the series?

Jess:
Not a lot. I’ve got a tendency to write strong lead characters. I like the female… I mean I write generally first person, so far that’s the way I’ve written. So I like them to be strong but definitely flawed. In that sense they’re similar, but their strengths and their weaknesses are very different.

Danielle:
Going back to when you first started writing, you got your first publishing deal in 2010.

Jess:
I did, yes.

Danielle:
And you’ve published four since then?

Jess:
Five.

Danielle:
Five. Just tell us how this all came about, the process to your publishing deal and suddenly being a modern day sensation.

Jess:
Yeah. I know, it’s crazy, isn’t it? It’s been really cool, really, really cool. I just started writing one day and it was literally a one day, a one moment, one minute decision that just… I opened the laptop and I started writing. At the time I had been reading copious amounts of books. I mean I was just churning through them and I think in a way… I had just sold my business in London and we had moved back to Sydney. And I just had my second daughter, any downtime I had I was just reading. And I think, in a way, looking back I actually probably had a bit of baby blues.

And it was just my coping mechanism. And I read a great article in the paper the other week about how… I think the title was ‘Don’t pop a pill, read a book’, maybe that’s what I was doing.

It was just keeping me kind of centred and giving me a bit of escapism. I don’t know, maybe I went through a bit of a run where I wasn’t reading the book I wanted to read. I just finished my book one day and I open my laptop and I started writing.

Danielle:
Wow. So, you never thought you wanted to be a writer? There was never anything before then that…

Jess:
No. No, I mean I always loved stories, and I’ve always… and I went through a stage in school where I was really into poetry and always writing a lot of poetry. But then it kind of faded out and I was working, and I had a business, I got married, you know, having a family. I just hadn’t – I just didn’t consider that it was an option for me. And, I think that was the luxury of moving back to Australia and having some time to have my second daughter. And for the first time not working crazy hours. I just had a little bit of time to actually consider what I wanted to do. I opened my laptop and I started writing. Apparently that was it.

And then, I don’t know, at some point, very close towards the end of the first draft of the manuscript, which ended up being Embrace, I realised I might be writing a book.

Danielle:
So was that the point when, and this is a moment to gloat, because you did some courses with the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Jess:
Yes, I did. I did.

Danielle:
Was that the point when you decided you needed to do a course to keep going?

Jess:
Yeah, because I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’. And I was writing a story and I was so passionate about it. I really believed in it, but I was like, ‘I don’t know. Do I have any writer friends? No’. ‘Do I know any authors? No’. ‘Do I know any journalists I can talk to? No’. My family and my friends, they’re just all in different professions. I just didn’t have a network to sort of turn to and say, ‘Look, am I crazy?’. I mean, when I asked my family and friends they said, ‘Yes, you are. ‘Yes, you are’.

So I thought, ‘Well, I just need to… if I want to give this a go, I’ve got to just put myself in this writing world’. And so that’s why I approached you guys. I was a little bit nervous, and I was traveling at the time with Matt, my husband, so I signed on the do the online creative writing course. And, that was a great way to start, because I felt anonymous and I wasn’t sort of throwing myself out there. But what was really great was because I’m a procrastinator, and I like to go back to things a lot, was that as people posted their work, it was there, so if I could go back and read it again, I could read the teacher’s comments.

And I could see what she was picking up on, what was working, and what wasn’t. And that sort of just helped. And in a lot of ways it was to give me extra confidence in what I was doing, or send up a flag, you know? ‘OK, that’s a bad idea’. Just things like that. And I think more than anything just being in that kind of environment, where it’s actually OK to, you know, want to pursue something like this, and everyone’s really passionate about it. That was really a good start.

And then so when I came back from travelling and I was working on the manuscript, I finished it and I started to think, ‘Well, I should probably do something with this’, and I started to think about getting an agent. And then spent as much time as I spent writing that manuscript on trying to figure out how to write a query letter – my God, every writer’s worst nightmare… still haven’t worked it out, still.

Danielle:
Yeah, it’s a tough thing to nail.

Jess:
They really are, you know? Almost as bad as writing a synopsis… also can’t do that.

And so I thought, ‘Well, if I really want to keep going with this I just need to keep myself in this world,” like I can’t let myself out of it, in a way. So, I signed up to do the second course in creative writing and I did that here. And so then I was coming in sort of once a week, and I was surrounded by 10 other people who were writing, and passionate about it, and we were just talking through stuff. At that time I then sent out my manuscript, and it was during that course that I actually got picked by my agent. And it was just great because I mean it was just the right environment for me to be in and it worked really well.

Danielle:
How important was having that new network?

Jess:
I think in a way it’s just a confidence thing for me. And also I got to ask just normal everyday writing questions. And it was just nice to have that sort of sounding board. And I got an insight into the way other people approach their writing, and how I felt about that and what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t. And I got their reactions to things that I wrote as well, which is something that every writer has to do. Reaction is very important if you want to put it out there to be read by others, so yeah.

Danielle:
So when you set out on this writing journey, did you always intend to write for young adults?

Jess:
Yes. Well, I didn’t intend to write for anyone, it just never occurred to me to write a different story and I think it’s because I had always read… the majority of my books are YA, I just really enjoy reading YA. I think it’s really cool, writing stories at that coming-of-age time, it’s really awesome. And because I love a good love story thrown in there as well, there’s nothing like a first love to…

Danielle:
Yeah, very romantic.

Jess:
Yeah.

Danielle:
How do you research your characters? Do you find it difficult to see the world through a teenager’s eyes and put them on the page? Do you have any tricks that you use to get that right?

Jess:
I met my husband when I was 17. I think a lot of that comes into it in terms of the intensity of the feelings that go with young love. For me, that’s really been a part of it because I believe that at that age you can meet the person that you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life with, and I believe that you can know that at that age. And so I think that has strongly influenced the way I approach relationships.

And in research on the whole, I mean for every book I’m working out that it’s very different. For Between the Lives the research was, as I said, like going into things that… when dealing with some of the tougher issues, actually spending the time to research those from a psychological point of view, or medical standpoint, whereas in my series, it’s much more sort of, you know, biblical folklore, lots of fire and hell, all of these sorts of…

Danielle:
Are you still researching every new book in the series?

Jess:
Absolutely. Yeah, it’s an ongoing thing. And sometimes I’ll write scenes and then almost write them into a completely fictional way, but then go back and research from that point of view and I’ll find things that support it. So, it’s really… sometimes I almost go backwards to go forwards. It’s weird.

Danielle:
You have published a lot of books in quite a short space of time. What’s your writing day like? Do you stick to a routine everyday?

Jess:
No, I don’t. No, because it’s impossible. I’ve got… usually I’ve got one book that I’m writing, and one that I’m editing at the same time, plus every time one of the books is released in the United States they re-edit it. So I can have stuff coming in from them at any time, and when it comes in from them usually I’ve only got a week to turn it around. So often I’ll have to stop what I’m doing and do that, and then get that sent back.

So I can be working on sort of three or four things at one time, so it’s impossible to really lock in a set time. But with all of my books I try to have at least a sort of two to three month window where I can pretty much be focusing on the core manuscript for it, which is what I’m trying to do now.

Danielle:
What are you working on now?

Jess:
So I’m working on Empower, at the moment, which is the final the book in the series. Yeah.

Danielle:
Right. Any surprises in there? This is definitely the final, because it did start as a three-book series.

Jess:
Well, it never started as a three-book series, it started as a three book deal. And I always knew that they would be between four and six, and I just wanted to leave it open so it would finish up at the right point. I didn’t want to drag it out, but I also didn’t want to just tie it up in a neat little package. So, five.

Danielle:
So if readers came back to you after book five and really, really pushed you, put the pressure on, do you think you would revisit it?

Jess:
It’s hard. I mean I haven’t written the last word of the last page yet, so it’s hard to answer that. I love the characters in the series. I think this is their time… this is their time to end. I can’t see myself in all honesty ever writing another book after this one from Violet’s point of view.

Or, the core characters there.

I mean I look at some of the characters sometimes like Spence, or things like that, and I wonder if they might have a story to tell themselves that’s very different, but, for now, I think we’re done. Yeah.

Danielle:
If you had to make the choice, would you prefer to keep going with the stand-alone novels, or do you think there might be another series?

Jess:
Well, I have a two-book series, which is going to be coming out next year. The first one will come out next year. Yeah, which is different again. So, that’s two books. So, I’m just mixing it up. I’ve gone with the five-book series, stand-alone, now the duology.

Danielle:
I’m just curious, because I mean you say you don’t have a daily writing routine, you’re working on three or four things at once, for many new writers that might seem completely overwhelming.

Jess:
Yeah.

Danielle:
Like, how do you do it?

Jess:
It’s really overwhelming.

Danielle:
OK. I mean you obviously enjoy it, because you’re still doing it.

Jess:
I love it. Yeah. I love it so much. I mean I just… I really love it. And it is overwhelming sometimes, like the workload can be a bit like this as well because, you know, you’re waiting sometimes for rounds of editing to come, or things like that. You’ve got to plan ahead, and I’m not awesome at that, which is why I like that I’ve been able to release quite a high number of books in a short period of time, because it keeps me really focused, so I have to keep going all the time. I don’t have that sort of flexibility to be able to slow down and put my feet up. God knows, once I sit down and put my feet up, I mean, they’re not coming down for a while.

Yeah. So, no, it’s good. It’s good. I’m doing what I love. Yeah.

Danielle:
Just one final question, what’s your advice to new writers?

Jess:
Do what you want. Do what you want and do it big, I think. And don’t be afraid to do the thing that no one’s done before, because the rules of fiction are there to be broken, I think. So, you just go for it. And, I think the thing that I’ve learnt is you can be completely out there, you can go to such an extreme in a completely fantastical setting, and bizarre situation, you can have the world crumbling around you, but the emotions in the relationships in that can be so real. And, I think that’s important to books, so that’s something that I would say, always keep the emotions real.

Danielle:
Yeah. That’s excellent advice. Thank you very much, Jessica. Good luck with the latest book.

Jess:
Thank you.

Danielle:
And also with the fifth one in the series.

Jess:
Thanks so much! Thanks for having me.


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