I recently had the privilege to interview author Joelle Anthony, along with fellow Teen Ambassador Dorothy. Joelle Anthony is a playwright, actress, writing teacher, and author of three novels for teens, Restoring Harmony, The Right & the Real and Speed of Life (published under the pen name J. M. Kelly.) She is currently also an audiobook narrator. We discussed everything from writing advice to the process of audiobook recording, to even our favourite flavours of ice cream! Here are some of my highlights from the interview:
Dorothy: “How do you choose your topics for your books? Is it inspiration, and does it come suddenly, or do you have start with a basic idea?
Joelle: It’s a collection of different small things that all of a sudden come together. For Speed of life, for example, I used to ride the bus a lot when I lived in the city. I saw these teen mothers with their babies and they got on the bus, and they had these strollers and groceries and they just looked so exhausted. The looked so young, too and I thought… these girls are well past the point of “Oh my God I’m pregnant” and they’ve made the decision that “I’m going to keep my baby” and now they’re living with that. It struck me that nobody ever talks about what it’s like to live with the baby afterwards. There are books about the big decision, there’s the upheavals of family, but nobody ever really gives them their little moment for people understand like OK you’ve made the decision and now you can’t go back on it. I thought, this is what total exhaustion 24-hours-a-day looks like, taking the bus because you haven’t had a chance to go to University, or learn a trade, and buy a car.
There was that element I carried around for a while, then there’s the fact that I also love old cars. I come from a family that loves old cars and my dad did rebuild a Mustang just like that for my brother when I was in high school… Then I read about Jay leno’s scholarship program where he gives scholarship to the one college and the United States that has that program. Then I was like “Oh what if I put these two ideas together?”. And I liked the sister’s aspect because I don’t have any, but I watched all my friends have sisters… I saw the relationships and how different it was from the outside, especially from someone who doesn’t have a sister… no matter how bad they are to each other because, they’re so loyal to each other in a way that a brother-sister relationship sometimes can’t be. I just carried around all these little ideas…and then I wrote Speed of Life much faster than I’ve ever written any other book because it just seemed to come together as soon as I had all the pieces
Dorothy: How long usually would it take you to finish writing one book?
Joelle: Wow, that’s a tricky question. It really depends because Speed of Life I tried twice, and the third time I tried it, I wrote the entire draft in 13 days. I wrote all the time…I am one of those people who show up. I work like five days a week. I shut up and sit at my desk at work…I wrote that book everywhere; I wrote it in the forest walking home, I wrote right when my husband was playing music which I could never do if there’s noise… I wrote and revised it, and altogether it took me 21 days… You work on it for three to six months, and you get a draft handed off to your friends or your editor, or your agent. And then there’s months where they send it back so you’re working on something else or you’re taking a break and then you do revisions and then you send it back so there’s a lot of time in between. Usually, I would say it’s anywhere from two to four years between when you sit down and start writing and when you’re holding in your hand, but that’s if you’re lucky. Other books, I keep hearing that idea in my head for 20 years before I sit down and write it.
Inshal: We know you’re recording your second audiobook right now, called The Right and the Real, so can you walk us through how that’s been going?
Joelle: it would be going great if they weren’t building a house right outside my window… I’m working very odd hours, but I built a studio in my closet. I’ve been an actor my whole life really, and I’ve been a writer for 25 years and…development editor, all for the last 10 years or so. All of these things group and land themselves very well to audiobook recording. There was always a part of me that thought, in the future I’ll become an audiobook narrator. So, in 2018, when my husband died quite suddenly, my whole life changed. I went to Europe for a while and while I was in Europe, COVID hit, so I was actually stranded at an artist retreat. I came back to Victoria BC in May, and I didn’t have a place to live because I had plans to stay in Europe for another year, so I rented an apartment. I don’t know anyone here in Greenwich, I haven’t written in a while because of grief and travel, and so I just thought maybe this is the time I do audio narration. One of my good friends is an audiobook narrator, and it’s all the things I love… And it’s not writing which, right now creating content still seems very hard for me. I think actually the more I do the audio narration, the more inclined I am to write soon. So, I’ve been training for the last four months or so, taking classes from a guy in LA, training on audiobook narration and all that. He just booked my first job for the writer Eileen Cook (you guys may know her) I’m in the process of recording on of her non-fiction books right now. It’s a matter of prepping the manuscript almost like you would a film script or theatre scripture. Different people do it different ways, but I choose to put a lot of time into the prep and go through and highlight my characters in different colours. For Eileen’s book, I make notes of sentences that were hard for me to say, because they read well on the page but not so much when you started saying them aloud.
Inshal: Awesome. Wow, that sounds so much more complicated than I would imagine!
Joelle: It is way more complicated than I would have imagined, too. Like my husband was a singer/songwriter, so I spent a lot of time in and out of the studio. He would just go in and the sound engineer goes to play a song…but I didn’t realize this is really hard. A huge portion of my learning curve has been learning how to use the mic, learning to use this software, learning to use this digital audio workstation… Now I’m just learning from videos on YouTube.
Dorothy: OK so I think the next question I have is: what do you think is the most important part of a story? Is it the setting, is it the plot, is it the characters?
Joelle: I don’t think in a way you can separate them, because you have to have them all… but I think something that’s often overlooked is the dialogue. We all like good characters, we got to have a great setting but then people just throw out the dialogue and it’s usually too much stuff in there. They’re giving us too much information, and this I know from all my editing work as I do work as a story development editor. The biggest thing I find that people think they know how to do, and they do the worst, is the dialogue. You should read the whole thing aloud when you’ve got it done, but you must read the dialogue. If you skip everything else you have to read the dialogue aloud because you will hear all the things that aren’t working, you will hear yourself repeating things over and over. If you read them in your head, you’re never gonna touch that stuff.
Inshal: What advice would you give your younger self if you could go back in time? I mean both specific to writing but also more generally, what would you say?
Joelle: Slow down. Just do everything slower…I mean this whole idea of work ending has disappeared… I think I was more guilty of doing it myself early in my career because it was like I’m writing so I got to keep going, but now it’s become like your employer expects that.
Dorothy: How do you say write your characters?
Joelle: I have an idea in my mind and…I build miniatures. Like scenes from my book… *shows miniature example on camera* so this is from a book I’m working on.
Inshal: What is the one thing that every good story needs. If you strip every good book down to its essentials, what remains?
Joelle: Well, Eileen would just slap me across the face if I didn’t say conflict. Otherwise, you have slice of life, and a slice of life is not always interesting. It’s not going to sustain a whole book. Even in literary fiction, usually have inner conflict. So, you have a person who’s living a normal life…everything is stable. Then the conflict comes from wondering, are they going to graduate, are they going to get out of that neighborhood… then crystal finds out about the possibility of this college and suddenly we have conflicts! We have conflict on every level after that. She’s got conflict with herself, she’s got conflict with her time frame, she’s got Amber, and even with her family. Conflict at school, too. If that day at the office had not happened, her life would have carried on and I could have written about it, but it probably wouldn’t be that interesting.
Genevieve: I wanted to know what you use to make your dioramas.
Joelle: Scraps usually, like sometimes I have some art supplies like foam, or paper… but I do use a lot of found objects and scraps. I print little tiny things on the printer, too sometimes.
This interview was a wonderful experience, and both Dorothy and myself enjoyed it immensely. Joelle Anthony was very enthusiastic and generous with her responses, for which we would like to extend our warmest thanks. We wish her luck in all future creative endeavours!