Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Talking with Jennifer Allison--Author of the Gilda Joyce Mysteries

I’d like to welcome Jennifer Allison, author of the quirky, fun Gilda Joyce series. Gilda is a psychic investigator of the best sort! A young lady with fashion sense and the ability to glean clues to mysteries in a most unique way. (Personally, I think Gilda should get together with Scooby Doo and the Gang for a milkshake. I’d love to hear their conversation!)

Ms. Allison agreed to spend a chunk of her valuable writing time to respond to some interview questions about her character and her writing process. Enjoy!


Carpe Keyboard: Gilda is such a unique, spunky character. Is she based on someone in your life? Do you know any fashionista psychics? Or … (lowering voice and leaning in for confidentiality)….are you a fashionista psychic?

Jennifer Allison: Some of my oldest and best friends inspired aspects of Gilda's character. I now think of Gilda as a completely unique individual--almost as if she's a real person--but I suppose she initially evolved as a compilation of beloved memories: the friend who wrote fat letters in longhand, the friend who made up hysterical stories, the friend who always made quirky fashion choices, the friend who read tarot cards and made psychic predictions. I would never call myself a "fashionista," but I do love to shop and put together outfits! I'm no professional psychic, but I've been told that I have some psychic abilities. I think we all do; it's just a question of how attuned we are to our intuition. Like Gilda (and like many writers), I pick up insights through dreams and through the process of writing. 

Which came first: Gilda or your desire to write mysteries?  In other words, did you have Gilda in your head and figure out she needed mysteries to solve, or were you a mystery writer first, and Gilda arose from your desire to tell mysteries with a great heroine?

Gilda definitely came first. In fact, the very first draft of GILDA JOYCE: PSYCHIC INVESTIGATOR was a story about a family coping with grief rather than a mystery. The second draft was a mystery (I introduced Juliet's character and had Gilda snooping around a mansion in San Francisco) but I still didn't think of myself as writing in the mystery genre. That evolved after I found a publisher. My editor wanted to play up the mystery aspect of the story, and I came to realize that what I was writing was actually considered "genre fiction." My first motivation was, and continues to be, to simply tell a strong, character-driven story.
I have mixed feelings about what the mystery genre has given and taken away from Gilda's character: kids love mysteries, and having a series helps attract a devoted audience. By the same token, mysteries continue to be unwittingly trivialized by reviewers who overlook the more significant thematic goals of the novels. 

Were there any books or TV shows that inspired you with your storytelling? I know I was a child of the 80s and grew up hooked on Remington Steele and Magnum PI…as well as the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie.

One literary influences for the GILDA JOYCE novels was HARRIET THE SPY. Like Gilda, Harriet is a writer and a sleuth of sorts, but what really inspired me about Harriet the Spy were the memorable portraits of characters and the humor of Harriet's observations. The short stories of J.D. Salinger were another literary influence: I have always admired his detailed observations of character, the intelligence of his characters, and of course, the oh-so-true and hysterically funny dialogue. That said, I'm sure that I'm also influenced by Nancy Drew novels (I read many during the summers of my youth) and any number of television sitcoms! In general, I am most inspired by comedy, and it is the pairing of the comic with the spooky that appeals to many of the Gilda Joyce readers. 

Do you remember your query letters when you were first trying to find representation for Gilda’s stories? What was your hook? Any advice on writing queries? (Not that I know any aspiring middle grade authors looking forward to publication or anything. Ahem.)

When it comes to query letters, you need to take off your literary hat and put on your marketing hat. Think about what might appear on the back of your published novel -- the "hook" that makes a young reader want to pick up your book. Now just include that pithy description in a brief, clearly written letter. It's often a good idea to quote yourself: use language from your novel to describe the main character and her exploits. Mention any publications or writing credits (your blog, for example). Do your research to find out which editors and agents represent the type of book you have written.

I love that Gilda has her own blog! She confesses in a recent blog entry that she hides her draft stories in her sock drawer before attempting revisions. What about you? Is there a new Gilda manuscript (or another project) lurking in your sock drawer even now?

I'm glad you like Gilda's writing blog! And indeed, my sock drawer (or my desk drawer) is always full of unpublished material. Some of it has great potential; some of it should be permanently relegated to the deepest, most mismatched corner of the sock drawer. 

Since we are talking about revisions…here is a question I ask a lot of authors:  I’ve recently learned (the hard way!) that the editing process is where a huge part of the art of writing happens. I think some writers would argue the magic is in the act of writing the first draft. What do you think?

An interesting question! I personally would use the word "craft" instead of "art": if we compare writing a novel to something like carpentry, then the editing process is akin to the labor of carving, whittling away fragments, analyzing structure to make sure the whole thing "works" and that it will hold the weight of someone who sits on it (or better yet, that it will be believable when someone reads it). By "magic," I assume that you mean the moments of inspiration (when you have an idea and don't quite know where it came from) and "flow" (when you're trucking along without that horrible "stuck" feeling). Certainly, the first draft is where lots of "magic" happens, but for me, there's also that fear of the "dark": the first draft is where I really have no idea what will happen next and I have to do the hard work of figuring it out. For me, "magic" and "craft" (or "art") are always in tension, and in each draft, I draw upon both. When the magic dries up, I lean on my craft to bring it back again.

When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

Honey, my ideal writing habits are so at odds with my actual writing habits, I hate to answer this for fear it will be a bad example to young writers. I do, however, follow a tip that was in one of Gilda's recent blog posts: keeping a small notebook nearby at all times so I can jot things down as they come to me. I record lots of ideas for stories this way. It's also a great way to keep a little journal that ends up being more interesting and authentic than a diary that you write in a more formal way. 

When I'm on a deadline, I sometimes do writing "marathons" where I stop looking at email and as many other details as possible until I push through to the end of the draft. This requires a lot of back-up since I have young children: I can't do it very often. It is a way to get a draft completed, however. When it's finished, I go back and start carving away -- fixing all the details. 

Thanks, again, Ms. Allison for your time and for sharing your experiences and thoughts about writing. And thanks for sharing Gilda with the world! I hope to read more of her adventures in the future.
(Note to CP Readers: Ms. Allison generously offered up a copy of her new book when it comes out later in the year for a drawing. Keep an eye out for a giveaway of the newest Gilda Joyce novel later in the year!)


  1. This sounds great. I'm definitely looking forward to that giveaway!

  2. Lovely interview - Love Gilda Joyce!

  3. I've seen Gilda Joyce at the library. The illustrations for her are WAY adorable!

    Thank you for the interview. I guess I'm going to have to check her out, now. :D

  4. Wonderful interview! Thanks for sharing

  5. Very nice interview. I can relate to the sock drawer. Some of my ideas are hiding in the darkest corners.

    Nice to meet you.