The Happy Writer with Marissa Meyer

Writing Realistic Middle Grade with Jessica Vitalis - Coyote Queen

November 20, 2023 Marissa Meyer Season 2023 Episode 179
The Happy Writer with Marissa Meyer
Writing Realistic Middle Grade with Jessica Vitalis - Coyote Queen
Show Notes Transcript

In this week’s episode, Marissa chats with Jessica Vitalis about her latest contemporary middle grade, COYOTE QUEEN. Also discussed: how to pronounce ‘coyote’ (which is not as simple as one might think) and fascinating coyote facts, digging deep to put difficult emotions on the page and how much of a challenge that can be, mining lived experiences for fiction, how books build empathy, creating ongoing tension, and so much more.

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[00:10] Marissa: Hello and welcome to the Happy writer. This is a podcast that aims to bring readers more books to enjoy and to help authors find more joy in their writing. I am your host, Marissa Meyer. Thank you for joining me. Quick bit of self promotion today. My, my duology, gilded and cursed, just came out in a very beautiful box set that just happened last week. So if you have been waiting to get your hands on these books, or maybe you're looking for a holiday gift for a fantasy or fairy tale lover in your life, I hope you will check them out. They also come with a bonus poster, so that's cool. Bonus. As for what is making me happy this week, I'm going to be super thematic with today's episode because we actually have a pack of coyotes that lives nearby, and we hear them howling and communicating with each other at least a couple of times every week. And they sound so cool. So a lot of times we'll just open the windows, we'll gather around the whole family and just listen to them. And I don't know, I think they're such a cool animal. I love hearing them. So far, they haven't eaten any of our cats. So, you know, if one of the cats disappears, I might feel a little differently about our Coyote friends. But for now, they really do make me very happy to hear it. And of course, I am so happy to be talking to today's guest. She's the author of the award winning middle grade novel the Wolf's Curse, and her newest novel, Coyote Queen, came out last month. Please welcome Jessica Vitalis.

[01:55] Jessica: Thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here.

[01:57] Marissa: Thank you for joining me. And before we get too far into a discussion, I have to ask you, Coyote or Coyote?

[02:07] Jessica: Okay, that is such a huge question, and I actually have an answer.

[02:11] Marissa: Okay, tomato.

[02:13] Jessica: You would not believe how passionate people are about this question. And there's actual research about it.

[02:20] Marissa: It's a whole big thing.

[02:20] Jessica: I went down a rabbit hole. The short answer, in the midwest, people who live in more rural environments, particularly farming communities, say Coyote. Coyote tends to be urban areas and people on the East coast, but it's not exclusively that. Like, there's a lot more nuance to it. And there's even some different pronunciations for people down on the southern border. So I used to say coyote because the portion of my life where there were a lot of coyotes, that's what we said was coyote. But I find traveling around, doing school visits, when I say coyote, the vast majority of time, people don't know what I'm talking about. So I've switched to saying coyote.

[02:59] Marissa: Oh, interesting.

[03:00] Jessica: Yeah.

[03:01] Marissa: So I've grown up on the West coast my whole life and always heard Coyote. And it was not that long ago that I heard Coyote for the first time. I did go and look it up in the dictionary in advance of this talk today. And the dictionary says either or. It doesn't say that there's a right or a wrong, but, no, it is funny how it is one of those words that people, you pick aside. It's kind of like caramel and caramel. Yeah.

[03:31] Jessica: The thing that I find really interesting about it is people who say coyote tend to understand when I say coyote. But people who saying coyote don't understand when I say coyote, they say, what's a coyote? And they go, oh, you mean a coyote? I don't know. It's just a whole very interesting thing.

[03:50] Marissa: That is interesting. That's word nerd gold right there. What does it mean? Let's dig into the etymology. All right, Jessica, before we start talking about Coyote or Coyote Queen, I would like to hear your origin story. As an author, how did you become a published writer?

[04:15] Jessica: Sure. Well, my story started, like, for so many authors, way, way back in childhood. I had a really unusual childhood. We were very transient, so my family moved all the time. And in fact, my mom and I sat down and counted once, and I had lived in 22 different places before I reached fourth grade.

[04:35] Marissa: Oh, my goodness.

[04:37] Jessica: Yeah, that was a lot. And we were also very poor, so we lived in some really weird situations. We lived in a camper we pulled behind our car. We lived in a bus. We lived in a one room cabin with no electricity, with no running water. ANd I also wasn't safe a lot because there was an adult in my life who didn't take very good care of me. And so I turned to books, like so many people do, because it was an escape and it was a safe place. And part of that was also writing. I loved to read. I loved to write. And I think I had sort of a spark for writing. I knew that I wanted to be an author on some level, but at the same time, I remember saying that I wanted to be an author. I might as well have said, I want to go live on Mars, because I didn't know how either of those.

[05:21] Marissa: Could ever be published.

[05:24] Jessica: But there were a couple of things that happened in my childhood that kept this idea of writing alive for me. And one was that I had a teacher who had me write a poem, and I got an A on this poem, and I was showing it to my homeroom teacher. And he liked it so much. It was a poem about friendship. He liked it so much that he asked me to write it out on a big piece of poster board, and he hung it on his wall. And that was a really powerful moment for me because it gave the sense that my words mattered and that I had something to say. But the really cool thing was, well, this part isn't cool. I, of course, moved away again, but I kept in touch with some of the people in that school. And when I graduated high school, many years later, one of them contacted me and said, hey, do you remember that poem you wrote for Mr. Peterson way back in 6th grade? And I said, well, yeah, I remember. And they said, well, he was our commencement speaker, and he read it to all of us. And that was just such an important moment for me to know that my words, like somebody had cared about them enough to save them.

[06:24] Marissa: But at the same time, I still.

[06:25] Jessica: Didn'T know how to become a writer. And I thought that because of my childhood, I wanted to go into business because I thought that was how to make money and have a really good life. And so I started going down that path. And I remember being in class with a writing teacher in university, and he asked me to write an article for his college textBook. And so that was another light bulb moment for me where I thought, wow, maybe this writing is something I could do, but I still didn't know how to do it. And so I pursued my career in business. And it really wasn't until adulthood, well over a decade later, that I finally got serious about writing and decided I was going to try to write a book.

[07:03] Marissa: And what do you think was about that time in your life that made that switch turn on that you're like, okay, well, now I'll give it a shot. What changed?

[07:13] Jessica: I think there were various times, I mean, I never completely stopped writing. I was always toying with scripts and books and poems and trying to be a writer, but never in a serious way. And I ended up attending Columbia business school. And I was in a class there that was very unusual. It was called Creativity and Creative Mastery. And it was led by a marketing professor by the name of Dr. Shrikimar Rao. And he is sort of a self help expert, I guess, and just a really neat human being. And one of the exercises he had us do was to design our ideal career. But it wasn't just, here's what I want to be when I grow up. It was, what does your day look like? What kind of clothes do you wear? What kind of food do you wear? And at that time, I had been in film and television production. I thought that's what I wanted to do when I got out of business school. But every time I tried to do that assignment, I was just like, well, yeah, I could do this. It would be fine. But it wasn't until I let myself play with the idea of what would my life look like as a writer, as an author that it finally clicked for me. And it still took me a couple of years after that to actually deep dive into it. But I think that really was sort of a turning point where I realized I hadn't been willing to admit up to that point that writing was my passion and this was something that I secretly really wanted to do.

[08:30] Marissa: I love that assignment so much. Every young person should be required to do that assignment.

[08:39] Jessica: Every assignment in that class was like that. It was all about self discovery. Another assignment in that class that I think everybody should do is called, it's about your mental chatter. And so you carry a notebook with you, and every single time you're aware of what your mind is telling you, you have to write it down. And then at the end of the week, analyze your thoughts. And that can be really enlightening and also really horrifying because we're really mean to ourselves a lot of times. Yeah. It's really powerful to look at the messages you're sending yourself.

[09:10] Marissa: Yeah, no, that could be powerful and scary, potentially, to really do a deep dive into our own psyche like that.

[09:19] Jessica: Yeah, absolutely.

[09:20] Marissa: Yeah. The things it could uncover. Yeah. But I love that, that assignment, the first assignment you talked about, because there is something so magical about just envisioning what does contentment look like? What does personal freedom look like? How do I want to be prioritizing my hours? And it is so easy to get caught up in life and never really take the time to step back and look at the choices we're making if we're always just trying to fill the to do list and move on to the next thing. And sometimes it's so valuable to really pause and ask yourself, what am I actually wanting right now? Yeah.

[09:59] Jessica: And I think that's more important than ever now in this particular moment in the society we live in, when there's such a focus on external rewards and success and material goods. And it can be really easy to sort of overlook or just not pay attention to our creative side or the things that really make our souls sing.

[10:19] Marissa: So true. And also, and I think I said that it would be such a great assignment for every young person to do. But I think anyone, no matter, even if for me, I'm living my dream job, have my dream career, but I can still see the value in pausing every once in a while and thinking, okay, but how am I spending my time? And could I be doing other things that might bring more life satisfaction or. It's never a bad idea to just get a little bit more perspective. I had never thought about that.

[10:49] Jessica: But you're absolutely right, because it could just be a matter of not so much 100% changing what you're doing, but just taking a look at where your focus is and whether there are things you want to cut out of your life or add to your life to find more success and happiness and contentment.

[11:03] Marissa: Yeah. Oh, for sure. No, I love that. Okay, so here we are now, your second novel has just come out. Will you.

[11:12] Jessica: Sorry to interrupt you.

[11:13] Marissa: Third? Your third. I just looked it up. What was the third other one that I missed?

[11:20] Jessica: The first one was the wolf's curse. The second one was the Rabbit's gift. And then Coyote Queen is number three. So they came out in very quick succession. 2021, 2022, and now 2023. So all jammed together.

[11:33] Marissa: Okay. Because what was I looking at? Was I on Amazon or something? And it looked like the Rabbit's curse wasn't out yet.

[11:40] Jessica: Oh, interesting.

[11:41] Marissa: Yeah, maybe it was like a special edition or something that I was looking at, or an audio edition. You know what?

[11:49] Jessica: The paperback of Rabbit isn't out yet, so that may offend it. That comes out in March.

[11:54] Marissa: Yeah, I bet that's what I was seeing. My apologies. Your third novel just came out. Would you please tell listeners what is Coyote Queen about?

[12:06] Jessica: I would love to talk a little bit about Coyote Queen. So this is a book that is very much inspired by my childhood. It is the story of a twelve year old girl named Fud. And Fud is living in a very rural, isolated trailer with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, who is an abusive, aspiring boxer. And his name is Larry. And Larry brings home a rusted out boat that he plans to fix up and turn into their permanent home. And Fudd is absolutely horrified because she knows that this boat is going to turn into a floating prison. So she decides that she is going to do something about this, and she enters a local beauty pageant. Even though she is very much not the beauty pageant type, she is determined to win the prize money that she and her mother would need in order to leave, and so she does that. But meanwhile, really strange things are happening to her body and she starts to develop a better sense of smell, and she starts to go colorblind. And then eventually she has to figure out how she is going to win a beauty pageant, even though she has grown a tale.

[13:19] Marissa: All right, so I'll just start by saying that I totally cried reading this book. And honestly, it's been a long time since the book made me cry. It's not super common. And, yeah, the last 20 or so pages really got to me. And at one point, my husband looked over and it was like, what is going on? Oh, my goodness.

[13:41] Jessica: This is sorry, not sorry situation.

[13:43] Marissa: Right? I know. No, it really was so emotional. So well done with Kleenex. Yeah, no, it is a bit of a tear jerker. I haven't read your first two novels. Are they kind of in the same very high emotion? That's not a genre, but just kind of the same type of story that just really tugs on those heartstrings.

[14:11] Jessica: The first one definitely is the Wolf's Curse is a twist on grim Reaper mythology, and it's about an invisible great white Wolf trying to trick a boy into taking her job. And it's told from the point of view of this wolf, who's the omniscient narrator, but it really follows the story of the boy that she's trying to trick, who has just lost his grandfather. And I very often receive emails telling me that people read it with a box of Kleenex nearby. So that one is definitely a tear jerker. Also, the second one, the Rabbit's Gift, is kind of the opposite of that. It's a twist on stork mythology, so it's more about birth and our connection to the Environment, and it has a lighter, more magical fairy tale feel. So you do get a break with the Rabbit's gift.

[14:54] Marissa: So I know this is like one of those questions that, as an interviewer, I shouldn't ask because it's so impossible to answer. But if you could Humor me.

[15:04] Jessica: How.

[15:05] Marissa: Do you go about digging into these emotions, really getting your reader to feel and experience what the characters are going through in such a very realistic way?

[15:17] Jessica: For me, that depends on the story. There are so many answers to this question. Oh, my goodness. Okay. One of them is that that is not a strength for me. That is something that I had to work very hard to achieve because I am very plot driven and plot comes easily to me. Character, not so much. And so I actually wrote for 13 years before I published my first book. And I really believe that my journey was so long because it did take me so long to learn to tap into those emotions. And a big part of that was critique partners and critique groups who just kept saying, yeah, but what's she feeling? Yeah, but what is he experiencing? Help us get into the body. And so I really had to rely on them to sort of see that I wasn't doing it so that I could practice doing it. And apparently, I'm a very slow learner. It took me a really long time. But also with coyote Queen, it was a long process. Mean, of course, I've never turned into a coyote, and I also never joined a pageant. But so many of the things that she experiences are organic to my own childhood. And so in order to survive those types of situations, you build a lot of defense mechanisms and you put up a lot of walls. And so for me, a lot of the process was therapy, to be honest, and breaking down those walls and feeling comfortable exploring the really messy, hard emotions. And then when I actually sit down and write, it comes down to, I have to be able to see a scene play out in my head as a movie. And then I try to write down and capture what I see. And then I usually have to go back in and layer in those emotions that I tend to leave out, because it's just so much easier to leave out the emotions.

[16:58] Marissa: It can be definitely. It's kind of a different brain process than just getting the story down.

[17:06] Jessica: Yeah, it really is.

[17:09] Marissa: So, of course, we hear all the time that we should write what we know is one of the most common phrases thrown around the writing world. And here, this book, as you've mentioned a couple of times, draws a lot of inspiration from real experiences that you had as a child, but very difficult experiences. And that had made me wonder. So often we hear this advice to write what you know, because in theory, that will be easier for you. You already know these things. But in this case, I wondered if that would actually make things much more challenging.

[17:46] Jessica: Yeah, it took me many, many years, in fact. So my journey with this book started back in my early 20s, when I was still toying with writing. But one of the things that happens when you're living in a really difficult situation, particularly as a child, like I was, I learned that it was really much safer to be silent and invisible, and I wasn't very good at that. I wanted to be seen and I wanted to be heard, which is why I did so much writing, because that was a way to give me the power and the control. But I also thought as I got older and started looking at what types of stories do I want to write. I thought, well, I'll write a memoir because that will give me sort of the sense of being seen and heard that I didn't have as a child. But it turns out that writing a memoir is really hard because life does not follow a neat narrative arc. So I didn't have the writing skills at that time to write a book. And also, I didn't know how to package my life into a story that made sense, so I ended up setting it aside. And that's when I turned to fiction and wrote a number of other books. But this idea that I had a story to tell kept eating at me, and I realized that it wasn't that I needed to tell my exact story. It was that I really needed to shine a light on kids who were experiencing the same types of things I was and give them a voice. And so that's when I came up with the idea of fictionalizing the story. And I just plucked a few things from my childhood and from that first memoir. And once I fictionalized the story and Fudd became a fictional character, it became much easier for me to separate myself and tell the story that needed to be told. Not my story that I needed to tell, if that makes any sense.

[19:29] Marissa: No, absolutely. That makes a ton of sense. And I know, having talked to other memoir writers, that is frequently the dilemma of trying to stay truthful, almost to the detriment of what it is that you're trying to convey. You have to kind of walk this line between cold, hard facts, but this is what's actually important. And it would be easier to show that to the reader if I didn't have to stick to facts all the time.

[19:58] Jessica: Yeah, exactly. It's about the story you're telling, I think, sometimes, and you have to decide, is it telling my story that matters, or is it fictionalizing the story and sharing something that will show some emotional growth? Because, for me, I didn't have an emotional character arc as a child. That kind of healing simply didn't happen until I was an adult. So a memoir just wasn't on the table in any sort of meaningful way. And it took me a long time to figure that out.

[20:24] Marissa: No, that's interesting. That's a really interesting point. So you mentioned that there's an importance to showing stories, having stories like this for kids like you or kids who are in just terrible situations, who are dealing with abuse and domestic violence and alcoholism, bullying. I mean, there's so many things that Fudd is going through and trying to overcome. Can I just take a stab in the dark. Were there many books like this that you can remember having access to as a child?

[21:01] Jessica: I mean, if there were, I didn't ever see any of them. I didn't have any sense that other people were experiencing what I was experiencing, which is why it was so important for me to write this book.

[21:13] Marissa: Yeah. What do you hope that this book can do for kids who are able to find it, who maybe really need to hear this?

[21:22] Jessica: Well, I hope, number one, I hope it does show them that they're not alone, and I hope it shows them that there is help out there and that they can rely on their community and reach out to people for help. I also think this book is really important for kids who are living more privileged lives, because it's really hard to know what's going on behind closed doors. So I hope this book will sort of open people's eyes and let them see that if kids are acting out, it's not always because they're just inherently a bad kid. It's because it could be because they're dealing with some really tough stuff at home. And so hopefully, it will help all the readers out there develop more empathy and maybe reach out a helping hand if they have the chance.

[22:05] Marissa: Yeah, I agree 100%. And not even just privileged kids, but privileged adults, too. I know. For me, well, we went and adopted our kids through foster care, and so I was raised in a very privileged life and very loving, stable home. And I remember just the eye openingness of going through the foster care system and learning all of these stories and how prevalent it was in our own community that before then, I'd been completely unaware of. And so books like this for anyone, I think, really shine a light on that. Poverty does exist. Hunger does exist. There are problems happening, and it's not just in Third World countries or it's happening right in our communities. And that can be a really difficult thing for people to grasp and to come to understand. But I think books like this really help to humanize all of that.

[23:05] Jessica: Yeah, I really hope so. And thank you for saying that.

[23:10] Marissa: All right, let's talk about Coyote. There is this magical element in the book in which, over the course of the story, Fudd is slowly, gradually turning into a coyote, and you leave it very ambiguous. Is she actually turning into a coyote? Is it all in her head? Is this just, like, writer symbolism? Talk about that. And your decision to keep it so ambiguous. Yeah.

[23:43] Jessica: The coyote was a really interesting journey for me because it didn't exist in the first. Once I decided to fictionalize this story, I didn't have that coyote aspect to the story, but it still very much just felt like one bad thing happening after another. And I was trying to work around how to get around that. And I kept thinking back to the coyotes from my own childhood. And so when I first added the coyotes in, I had a very external coyote. It was sort of like Crenshaw Catherine ApplegatE's book about how he has an imaginary friend that shows up and he's dealing with homelessness and some other things. And a friend pointed out to me, another reader pointed out to me, that I was really taking away from the power of the story, which is Fudd's emotional journey, by having this external thing. And that's when I realized that the coyote experience really needed to be something internal. And I realized that it was actually a metaphor for her really intense desire to escape. But I also wanted to leave it open ended. I want the reader to be able to decide, was it a real thing, just like you said, or was it something that perhaps was a symptom of the trauma that she was experiencing? I mean, for me, it really is a metaphor. And part of the fun in writing the story was writing it in such a way that left it open ended.

[25:03] Marissa: No, I can imagine. It's a great metaphor. And I mean, coyotes in particular. Well, I'll ask you, why, of all the animals, why a coyote? Why not a mountain lion? Why not a wolf?

[25:16] Jessica: Well, for me, a lot of the types of things that I was writing about in this book took place during periods of time when I was living in Wyoming. And, in fact, that one room cabin that I had talked about earlier and a trailer, that's the setting for this story. And so, as I was looking for ways to make this story come to life, I kept thinking back to the howling coyotes. And, in fact, there's a specific story that inspired it, which is that when we lived in this one room cabin, we had to cross an open field to go to the bathroom. And we had a plank that was set across two rocks with a hole in it. And that was sort of a makeshift outhouse. It was outdoors. And so there were a couple of problems with that besides just all of the obvious issues with it. One is that we were in Wyoming, and there's a lot of rattlesnakes, and they really like to sun themselves on rocks and flat surfaces. And so there was going to be a rattlesnake when you went to relief yourself. So that was a major problem. The other problem with this setup was that at night, I could hear these coyotes howling around the cabin, and I was absolutely certain that they were waiting outside the cabin, ready to eat me if I stepped outside. And so I know now that that's not the case. In fact, coyotes are really cool. They have an ability to make themselves sound like a huge pack, even if there's only one or two. And they were probably miles away, even though it sounded like they were right next to us. But the coyotes just kept coming up for me. And so there was never a consideration of any other animal like I knew because of how important coyotes were to my experience, that that had to be the animal that Fudd was connecting with.

[27:03] Marissa: Yeah, no, what a great story. I mean, kind of a. But no, I mean, I think it's a great choice. Coyotes, they're such survivors. They've got that scrappiness to them, and I love them. I think they are really cool. And I loved how much information you were able to work into this book. I learned so much about them.

[27:30] Jessica: Yeah, I actually learned a tremendous amount. Coyotes, too. I mean, my favorite fact about them was the fact that they actually can control their litter size. So if they are in an urban environment where there's a lot of food, they can have very large litters with several pups. And if they're in an area where it's really hard or there's not a lot of food, they're in a lot of danger. Then they can choose to have just one or two pups in their litters. And I just find that endlessly fascinating.

[27:58] Marissa: That is so interesting. How does that work? Is that, like, an actual thought process that they. I think I'll have two today. Thank you. Yeah. And just imagine if we had that capacity. I know. Oh, my gosh. That is so interesting. Something else that I want to talk about is, so we've got Fudd, who enters this beauty pageant competition. There are two other girls in the story. We've got Fudd's neighbor and friend Lee, entering the competition, and also her kind of school nemesis, bully Ava, entering the competition as well. And what I thought was so Great was that even though these are more minor characters, you're giving us Fudd's thoughts and impressions of who these two other girls are. But then there's also this ongoing theme throughout the book that we don't know. Fudd doesn't know what is going on in their lives that we are not seeing. And you give little hints to remind the reader, like, just because this girl is a bully, there might be something else going on there. Just because this girl seems to have a perfect life. Let's keep in mind that we're not seeing everything. And I thought that was just such a great way to kind of carry these themes throughout the whole book.

[29:19] Jessica: Yeah, that was really important to me because all of my work tends to end up focusing on sort of socioeconomic issues. Having grown up in such extreme poverty, I had such a vision of how perfect life would be if only I had money. And that the idea that money solves all the world's problems, and now that I live a more privileged life where I don't have to fight every day for survival and I don't have housing insecurity or food insecurity, I know that that's not the case. We all have our own sets of problems and issues. And so it's always really interesting to me, and I think that's really important to humanize even the antagonists in our stories, to realize that they have their back stories and the reasons they're the way they are. Also, and I guess we all just have our emotional wounds. Right? It doesn't matter if you're rich or if you're poor or somewhere in between. We're all struggling with life.

[30:16] Marissa: No, definitely. And it's so important to remember to have empathy for people when you really have no idea what it is that they might be dealing with. Which I think is one of the most wonderful messages that books can help to convey to readers.

[30:32] Jessica: Exactly.

[30:34] Marissa: Speaking of even the antagonists, I don't like Larry at. So I don't know, I guess he is humanized. He is also dealing with things. But OMG, how much you make us despise, despise this person. Was he a difficult character to write?

[31:04] Jessica: He was not hard for me to write. One time that I'm really good at writing awful antagonists. Yeah. Goodness, I don't even know how to answer that question. He just is who he is. And I think when you are somebody who has the level of pain and the sort of outlook on life that he has, one of the things that I was very aware of with Larry from the very beginning is that he manifests his pain through controlling people. And so his character from the very beginning was very clear to me. And I also knew that I really wanted to accurately depict emotional abuse, and that's very often through trying to control the people around you. So I really didn't struggle to write him. It was a little bit hard, I will admit. I really did want to give him some backstory to humanize him, and that was important to me. But coming up with that backstory was challenging. Actually, it's funny. The backstory that I ended up giving him, which is his aspirations to become a boxer, stemmed from my grandfather, because he was a professional boxer back in the 1930s, and I don't know anything about him or his life, but I just thought being a professional boxer back then must have been hard, just as I imagine it would be hard now. And so that seemed like the sort of perfect fit for Larry in terms of his anger and acting out and needing to control and abusing.

[32:34] Marissa: Yeah, no, and it's interesting, even just to hear you talk about him, because even though he is just this despicable antagonist of a person, and as a reader, you just get so angry about him. But even to hear the way that you talk, it's clear that you were really giving thought to, well, where is his pain coming from, and what are his needs? And why is he acting this way? And so even there, it's not just a cut and dry well, he's evil. There's a lot more layers to it. Yeah.

[33:07] Jessica: And I think that, again, goes back to my own. I feel like this is a therapy session, but going back to my own therapy. Right. That was. I mean, that was a big part of my own healing journey, though.

[33:20] Marissa: Right.

[33:21] Jessica: Is realizing that the people who caused me pain had their own emotional wounds. And so I really did want to portray Larry as somebody who had this can never be excused. His behavior is not okay, and there is no excuse for it, but he does have emotional pain that he's ineffectively dealing.

[33:40] Marissa: Then. I mean, even going back to what we were kind of talking about earlier, how this book so puts the reader into the shoes of Fudd, our main character, and feeling the various emotions she's going through. But one of the things that were so impactful for me in reading it was mean. There were certain chapters where I would have that tightness in my chest, just this growing dread feeling like nothing bad has happened for a few pages, what's coming? And that sense of always just walking on eggshells, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. And, I mean, it was so well done, the way that you were able to maintain that suspense even when nothing bad was happening.

[34:30] Jessica: Thank you.

[34:32] Marissa: I know that wasn't a question, but how did you do that, Jessica?

[34:39] Jessica: I think that was very intentional, because what I was really trying to get at is that's the lived experience of physical and emotional abuse. It's not all bad 100% of the time. The problem is that you don't know when the other shoe is going to drop and when things are going to explode. And so creating that sense of tension and just helping keep those elevated levels of anxiety up are part of the experience that I wanted the reader to have. So, again, sorry, but also not so sorry.

[35:12] Marissa: Well, it was really well done. I mean, it's honestly the sort of book that I can see writing teachers using as a guide. Let's see, how do you establish this tension and keep it up without just having to throw more things at the protagonist all the time? It was really well done and just made me really emotional the whole time.

[35:38] Jessica: Thank you so much for saying that. I think, again, that was a lesson hard learned. I mean, the earlier drafts really were every page, every chapter, just one bad thing after another. And I realized that really wasn't serving the story. Like, the readers don't need to be experiencing trauma after trauma after trauma. Just establishing that that trauma is there and knowing the potential for more is there is enough to keep the reader turning the pages.

[36:06] Marissa: Sure. And, of course, having the addition of the boat and just the fact that there is this boat sitting in her front yard slowly being fixed up. And as a reader, and, of course, Fudd, we know what this is going to turn into. And just this horrible sense of, yeah, no, it's smart. And I think you said that the boat was part. Was one of your real experiences.

[36:33] Jessica: Yeah, the boat was really interesting for me. So when I was trying to pick out which pieces of my childhood I was going to include in the story, and I made that list that included the coyotes and the bathroom story, one of the other things on the list was this boat. And it was this giant, rusted out boat that showed up in our backyard at one point in Wyoming. And the plan really was to fix it up and sail it down the Mississippi and live on it. And I was terrified, like, absolutely petrified that this was going to happen. Luckily for me, no progress was ever made on that boat. And, in fact, I saw it about ten years ago sitting in an abandoned field, and it still looks exactly the same, which was a weird experience. But the big was sort of like, okay, somehow this boat really matters to me. It keeps coming up as an important part of my childhood, even though nothing happened. And I realized it was that fear. And so it was important for me to include that in this story and that you're right, that's a big part of the tension, is knowing that this was coming down the pipes like this eventually was going to become a reality for fun. And something that she very much had to deal with. And I think that's so authentic to childhood where there's these big things that our parents decide for us and we have no control over it. And that's such a mad, sometimes frightening, frustrating thing that I really wanted to dive into that.

[37:51] Marissa: Yeah. No, absolUtely. All right, my last question before we move on to our bonus round. At various points in the novel, there's different possibilities for how this might end. With the boat. Does she escape? Does she not escape? Does she become a coyote and run off with the pack? Does she win the pageant? Does she not win the pageant? Does she get the money? I mean, there were just so many different ways that it could have gone. And of course, we're not going to spoil anything for people who haven't read it yet. But I'm curious, did you play around with different options? Did you ever have a different, like, how did you decide on how you were going to resolve Sud's story?

[38:34] Jessica: The very first fictionalized draft had a really cheesy, awful ending where Larry was arrested after starting a fire. And Fudd. I can't remember if she won the pageant or I think she might have won some consolation prize, so she got some money or something. And I knew even as I was writing it that it was not the right ending for the story, but I just needed to get through it and put the ending down on paper. And then I sat with it for a while, and it was when I added the coyotes in and came back with the magic that I really had to be very intentional about the ending because, again, I don't want to spoil anything, but it was really important to me to be honest and not give kids false hope, because when you're in that type of situation, there's very rarely a sort of immediate happily ever after. But at the same time, I wanted an ending that did give them hope and hopefully encourages them to turn to the people in their lives and express what's happening. So, yeah, the ending was very intentional.

[39:42] Marissa: Yeah. No, I could tell that you put a lot of thought into it and not just thinking about Fudd and of course, how we want her story to end, but also writing it for kids who might be reading this story and really needing to hear what the story is telling them.

[40:00] Jessica: Yep, exactly.

[40:02] Marissa: All right, are you ready for the bonus round?

[40:05] Jessica: Let's do it.

[40:06] Marissa: What book makes you happy?

[40:09] Jessica: Okay, I want to talk about the book that I just finished reading, which is Cloud cuckoo land. Have you read Cloud Cuckoo Land?

[40:17] Marissa: I have not even heard of this, no.

[40:19] Jessica: Okay. Michael Dor. I think that's how you pronounce his last name. He wrote all the light you cannot see. This is a book that has multiple timelines, multiple main characters, multiple plots that the entire time you're reading it, your mind is spinning. You're trying to figure out how it all ties together. It does brilliantly at the end, I cared about every single character, and a lot of times I get really confused with books that jump around a lot in timelines and a lot of characters. These were all so distinct and so well drawn out that the book was just an absolute joy to read. So I highly recommend it.

[40:59] Marissa: That was a phenomenal pitch. I will go add this book.

[41:04] Jessica: I'm curious. You'll have to let me know what you think of it.

[41:07] Marissa: What are you working on next?

[41:09] Jessica: I actually have a novel inverse coming out in 2024. It comes out October 29, 2024. So that's a huge departure for me from two fantasies and this very gritty, realistic story. It's going to be a historical novel inverse.

[41:26] Marissa: Oh, wow. Two big changes in genre.

[41:29] Jessica: Yeah, apparently I just can't stop playing around. But this one is. It feels a little bit more like Coyote Queen, I think, in that it's also inspired by my childhood. But instead of playing with domestic violence and abuse, it's really focusing on the socioeconomic issues that come with not feeling good enough and not being able to compete in our society in terms of how you look and the kinds of things you can participate in. And it's set in 1985. It opens the day after the discovery of the Titanic because panic was so much about socioeconomics in terms of it was. Let me think about this. 25% of the third class survived and 75% of the first class survived. That theme just really allowed me to really dig deep into my character's feelings about her poverty and her very weird hippie family. And it was really a lot of fun to write. It's called Unsinkable Cayenne.

[42:29] Marissa: Oh, I like that title.

[42:31] Jessica: Thank you.

[42:32] Marissa: Lastly, where can people find you?

[42:34] Jessica: I am@jessicavitalis.com and I'm still over on the Twitter X thing. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I am still there, but mostly find me on Instagram. I'm at Jessica V. Author. And then also I'm playing around a little bit on Blue sky, but I don't know my handle mean.

[42:58] Marissa: What blue Sky? What's blue Sky? Is there a new one? I'll let there be a new one. There's a new one.

[43:04] Jessica: It seems to be where a lot of librarians are headed. And I like librarians an awful lot, so I've just been following them over there.

[43:11] Marissa: Okay, well, I like librarians, too, but whenever there's a new social media platform, like, no, I can't do it, I still haven't joined TikTok.

[43:23] Jessica: No, anything that involves video is not an option for me.

[43:26] Marissa: Oh, my. It. I know it. All right. Wonderful. Jessica, thank you so much for joining me.

[43:32] Jessica: Thank you for having me. This was really a fun conversation.

[43:35] Marissa: Readers, I hope you will check out Coyote Queen. It is available now. Of course, we encourage you to support your local indie bookstore. If you don't have a local indie, you can check out our affiliate store@bookshop.org, slash Shop Slash Marissamayer. And with the holidays coming up, I hope you will also check out our merchandise on Etsy, Instagram and t public. If you're enjoying these conversations, please subscribe and follow us on Instagram at Marissa Meyer, author and at Happy Writer podcast. Until next time, stay inspired, keep writing, and whatever life throws at you today, I hope that now you're feeling a little bit happier.