Author Interview: Jen Doll on Unclaimed Baggage

author photo of Jen Doll, credit: Sarah ShatzUnclaimed Baggage follows three teens–outspoken feminist Doris, new girl Nell, and football star Grant–over the course of the summer as they each find an unlikely job sorting and selling other people’s lost luggage at Unclaimed Baggage. It’s the breezy, funny, and ultimately moving unlikely friends story you’ve been waiting for. Today I’m very happy to have Jen Doll on the blog talking a bit more about her debut YA novel.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Jen Doll (JD): I was one of those kids who always wanted to be a writer. Like, ALWAYS. When I was little I would create books out of paper that I’d staple together and draw on. Eventually I moved up to spiral-bound notebooks, where I’d write stories, generally with kind of a magical bent. (I wrote a lot about an inch-tall human who could spy on people and get away with everything; I loved books like The Borrowers and The Littles, so, whoops, I kinda stole the concept! Uncool, young me.)

At one point, I told my dad I wanted to be a writer (it was kind of obvious). He’s very practical and was worried about me making a living, and I listened to his concerns and then was like, OK, I’ll be a librarian! Of course, being a librarian is a very important job and it takes a lot of training, and what I really wanted was simply to be surrounded by books, and to write them myself. Which, after going to college and then working in magazine publishing, I started to do again, first just as a hobby. I wrote fiction in my writers’ groups as I transitioned to journalism as a career. I worked at the Village Voice and The Atlantic as a staff writer, and in 2014 I published my memoir about going to weddings, Save the Date. But all along I wanted to write fiction, in particular, a YA novel; I read so much YA, I truly loved it, and I even started writing about it for The Atlantic. I started Unclaimed Baggage back in 2015, I think?… Books take a while! Which is a really good thing, because good things take time.

MP: What was the inspiration for Unclaimed Baggage? How did growing up in Alabama inform your writing of this novel?

JD: It informs it hugely, which is not to say that the town in Unclaimed is the same exact town I grew up in. I took bits and pieces of things, like the Unclaimed Baggage store outpost we had there when I was growing up (in Decatur; the main one is still in Scottsboro), and the great barbecue, and the wave pool and waterpark and balloon festival. But the town in Unclaimed is a lot smaller than Decatur, and the people aren’t based on anyone I knew … except maybe myself.

When I was in fifth grade, my parents moved us from Downers Grove, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, to Decatur. It was a huge social and cultural transition, and for a long time I struggled to fit in. That feeling, and how we all possess it in some way — no matter whether you’ve grown up in a place or just moved to it, no matter where you are in life — is what informs each of my characters and the book itself. We’re all trying to find our place. Friendships, letting in other humans, and being there for them in return, help you get there.

MP: Unclaimed Baggage alternates chapters between Doris, Nell, and Grant’s first person narration. How did you go about creating their three different voices? Did you have a favorite character to write in this novel? What about one you most resemble (or wish you did)? Anyone you’re especially excited for readers to meet?

JD: They were all there from the beginning, which is the sort of thing writers say I think but it’s TRUE. Doris was such a strong voice, she was the one I started with: I had this idea of a character in a small town who just felt like she wasn’t like all the rest. (That definitely comes from me.) Grant is the football star who suddenly isn’t, and I wanted to explore what that means, how it feels to have a fall from grace, and also what it feels like to have a problem—with Grant, it’s drinking—that you don’t know how to cope with. While I’ve never played football, I’ve certainly been in Grant’s place of feeling like the insides and outsides don’t exactly match. And Nell is the new girl in town, straight from the suburbs of Chicago. She’s had to leave her pretty great life and friends and boyfriend behind back North, and she’s annoyed that parents get to make those sorts of calls that totally disrupt teenage lives, without even really asking. (Been there, too!) I loved writing all three of them, as well as secondary characters, even Chassie, the mean girl. Real people are complicated, neither one thing nor the other, and I wanted to show this in all of my characters, who aren’t stereotypes or archetypes but, hopefully, people you can relate to and understand and recognize. (Except maybe one or two of the really rotten ones.)

I wish I was as smart and resourceful as Doris. I don’t know how to put up a tent, either.

I can’t wait for readers to meet a character who comes at the end of the book, who might himself not be YA, but who has a kind of YA heart.

MP: Do you have a favorite scene or a scene you are excited for readers to discover?

JD: There is a particular scene when Grant, Doris, and Nell first really start to let their guards down around each other and become friends. I think it’s hilarious, and I hope readers do, too!

I also really loved writing the suitcase secret. I will leave that at that!

MP: In addition to writing this novel you have published a memoir (Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest) and written for written for The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, and The Week among others. What was it like shifting from writing nonfiction to fiction? What is your writing process like?

JD: My writing process varies day to day and depends on what my first priority is, like if I have a big freelance deadline, that’s what I’m working on, and maybe that’s all I’m working on. Or, if I have a novel or book deadline, that’s what I’m going to have to do then. I’m always changing gears and distracting myself because when something’s due I’ll get really inspired about another project.

I dream of a time when I can get up and work 4 hours on a book, have a nice lunch and walk with the dog, and then do journalistic writing in the afternoon, or something like that. But there is never enough time, and I’m just not organized enough, so really I’m just like WHAT DO I NEED TO DO NEXT, OK, GO! The thing is, I think having all of these varied projects keeps them all interesting and exciting. If I’ve had a break from one, I can’t wait to go back to it! And they all inform each other. Writing is writing.

MP: Can you tell me anything about your next project?

JD: I have another YA novel that’s in the works, also with FSG … it’s too early to talk much about, but it definitely involves friendship between two characters who you might not think have much in common but actually do. And it’s set in a coastal town during the summer, so think beachy/watery/sunshiney vibes. Thematically, it’s about what we see—and what we think we see—and how those things aren’t always the same.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

JD: Keep writing. The only way to not write a book is to not write. The rest … well, if you keep going, it’s the only way it can come. Even published authors struggle, and think what they’re doing is silly or stupid and that no one is going to read it. Keep going! Also listen to the voices and think about the stories you keep hearing over and over again (even and especially the ones in your own head)… they’re trying to tell you something. Put it on a page.

Thanks again to Jen for for taking the time to answer some of my questions.

You can see more about Jen on her website.

You can also read my review of Unclaimed Baggage here on the blog.

Unclaimed Baggage: A (Blog Tour) Review

“Sometimes you had to give something up to get what you really wanted in the first place.”

cover art for Unclaimed Baggage by Jen DollNell, Grant, and Doris have nothing in common.

Nell is a Chicago transplant unsure what to do with herself in small town Alabama–especially when her amazing boyfriend is still back home.

Grant used to be the the star quarterback. His family and coach are keen to help him keep that persona by covering up his recent DUI. But he’s starting to think he might just be a has been.

Then there’s Doris. She knows she’s an outsider. How can she be anything else as an outspoken liberal feminist in her conservative small town? She doesn’t mind because at least she has free reign of Unclaimed Baggage where she works sorting through and selling lost luggage.

As the three become reluctant coworkers for the summer Nell, Grant, and Doris will have to work together if they want to manage all of their own excess baggage in Unclaimed Baggage (2018) by Jen Doll.

Unclaimed Baggage is Doll’s debut novel. The story alternates between Nell, Grant, and Doris’ first person narrations with smaller vignettes throughout detailing the many journeys that brought key pieces of lost luggage to the store.

Over the course of one summer these three unlikely characters become friends as their lives entwine in unlikely ways. Doris is still grieving her aunt’s sudden death last year, Nell is shaken up by the culture shock of her move, and Grant is trying (and often failing) to come to terms with his drinking problem.

Each character has a distinct narrative voice while the surprisingly compelling luggage vignettes have a more omniscient tone. Doll brings small town Alabama to life with its charms (notably seen at a balloon festival) and its small-mindedness as Doris struggles with the stigma she hasn’t been able to shake since a boy in her church group groped her and she refused to stay quiet (or return to church) and, later in the novel, another character is targeted in a racially motivated attack.

Unlikely friends, hints of romance, and a mystery surrounding an empty suitcase flesh out this character driven plot. Unclaimed Baggage is a charming slice-of-life novel about one formative summer and the small moments that can lead to big changes. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Jen about Unclaimed Baggage too!

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, Moxie by Jen Mathieu, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

For a Muse of Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Didn’t I tell you earlier? You don’t have to trust someone to make a deal with them. You only have to have something you know they want.”

cover art for For a Muse of Fire by Heidi HeiligWith luck and determination, Jetta hopes that she and her parents can parlay their fame as shadow players in Chakrana into passage to Aquitan where shadow plays are in high demand.

There are rumors that the Mad King values nothing so much as shadow plays and Jetta hopes that garnering the king’s favor could also give her access to the spring that has cured the king’s madness–something Jetta desperately wants for her own malheur.

But notoriety of any kind is dangerous with so many secrets behind the scrim.

Jetta’s puppets move without string or stick. Instead she uses her blood to bind recently deceased souls into her puppets–one of the old ways that is now forbidden in the wake of La Victoire and the imprisonment of Le Trépas at the hands of the colonial army from Aquitan.

With danger lurking everywhere Jetta will have to confront uncomfortable truths and terrible choices as she considers how much she and her family have already sacrificed to get to Aquitan and how much more they still have to lose in For a Muse of Fire (2018) by Heidi Heilig.

For a Muse of Fire is the start of Heilig’s new trilogy. An author’s note explains that Jetta’s malheur is bipolar disorder–a mental illness she shares with Heilig.

This series starter is fast-paced and high-action while also offering readers a thoughtful commentary on the long lasting ramifications of war and colonization. Chakrana and Aquitan are inspired by Asian cultures as well as French colonialism which comes through in cultural touchstones including food, dress, and language.

Jetta’s first person narration is broken up with various ephemera including telegraph transcripts, flyers, songs, and play scenes featuring other characters. This technique works well to flesh out the novel by offering a wider view of the story and allowing other characters to take over the narrative action whenever Jetta’s focus becomes more internal as she tries to negotiate both a dangerous world and her own malheur.

For a Muse of Fire is as engrossing as it is violent. Heilig’s world building is richly imagined and carefully layered with nothing quite as it seems. Jetta’s malheur colors not only her perceptions throughout the story but many of her actions with reckless decisions during episodes of mania and listless lows with clarity and introspection often coming too late.

For a Muse of Fire is a dramatic story with an inclusive cast, high stakes, and an intense cliffhanger that will leave readers clamoring for the next installment. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, Clariel by Garth Nix, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

*A more condensed version of this review was published the July 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a Starred Review*

Tell Me No Lies: A Review

This month I started reviewing for Washington Independent Review of Books so you may see more promo posts like this moving forward.

Tell Me No Lies (2018) by Adele Griffin.

Originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books. You can find my full review here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/tell-me-no-lies

I will leave you with a quote from my review and some read-a-likes:

Tell Me No Lies is an atmospheric ode to the joys of self-discovery and true friendships. It’s an ideal choice for anyone interested in the 1980s or looking for a compulsively readable piece of historical fiction.

Possible Pairings: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

Check, Please!: #Hockey: A Graphic Novel Review

Check, Please!: #Hockey by Ngozi UkazuBitty is a former junior figure skating champion, a vlogger, and a master baker. He’s also a freshman at Samwell University where he has a scholarship spot on the hockey team. Bitty is known for his speed on the ice, but he isn’t sure he’s ready for college hockey–especially if it means getting checked!

The Samwell team is . . . different than Bitty expected. There’s a lot of swearing and a lot of nicknames. Shitty (Bitty doesn’t know his real name and isn’t sure if anyone does), and Holster and Ransom are quick to welcome him, but Bitty still doesn’t know what to make of the team captain Jack who is as cute as he is moody.

As Bitty finds his footing in college and on the ice, Bitty starts to think he might just have found his place at Samwell. But only if he can get over his fear of getting checked and find a way to get past Jack’s aloof exterior in Check, Please!: #Hockey (2018) by Ngozi Ukazu.

Check, Please!: #Hockey collects part of Ukazu’s popular Check, Please! webcomic. The story is broken into seasons and this volume collects seasons one and two (Bitty’s freshman and sophomore years at Samwell). A second volume is set to follow which will cover junior and senior year.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Bitty or anyone else on the Samwell team when I started this comic. I never imagined I could actually become invested in a sports comic or laugh out loud learning about hockey butt and flow. But all of those things happened in this magical, hilarious comic.

Bitty is definitely an outlier on the team with his small stature and his penchant for baking. He’s also worried his teammates won’t accept him if they find out he’s gay. But Bitty, and readers, will be pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie and loyalty of the Samwell team. These guys are family and they are a damn delight to read about.

The fate of the Samwell team’s standing on the ice is interspersed with Bitty’s misadventures during hazing, inevitably bizarre course work, and some crazy intense tension with Jack. Is Bitty crazy to think they might become friends? Is it even crazier to hope for more?

Ukazu’s artwork is almost as cozy as Bitty’s kitchen with bright colors and smooth line work. The panels are often larger than you’d expect (especially for a story that’s adapted from a webcomic) and because of that all of the characters have extremely expressive faces too.

Check, Please!: #Hockey is a hilarious introduction to a series that is as entertaining as it is endearing. A must read for all–even the non-hockey fans. Recommended!

Week in Review: September 15

missprintweekreviewThis week on the blog you can check out:

Instagram was really fickle this week which was totally a bummer. BUT otherwise things have been going well! The National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature was announced earlier in the week. I was very excited to see A Very Large Expanse of Sea getting some much deserved recognition. I didn’t even think I was a fan of Mafi’s writing after attempting Shatter Me but I loved this book and it’s absolutely a must read. Are any of the longlist titles on your radar?

Even better, Blood Water Paint is on the longlist and I was lucky enough to have perfect timing to feature an interview with Joy McCullough about her debut novel this very same week.

In Pokemon Go news: I caught Celebi! It was very exciting and I now continue my quest for Level 40 and attempt to acquire the last two regionals I need for my Pokedex during a special event this week.

I had an eye exam this weekend (my eyes are fine, yay!) and now have to figure out where to get glasses because while my exam was completely free, the glasses would have been quite expensive. Do you wear glasses or contacts? Where do you shop for them?

I decided to try reading an audiobook this month. It’s still not my favorite way to process because I get distracted but it’s good sometimes on the subway when I’m not feeling quite well enough to read (or when the train is too crowded). I ordered a new set of headphones to help with sound in the subway because I needed to have my in-ear earbuds louder than I was comfortable with. After discovering I hate over ear headphones, I settled on this pair of on ear headphones. I’ve only tried them once so far but I’m pretty happy with them! I can even have my volume limit on my phone at 50% again which is great. Are you an audiobook reader?

Here are two of my favorite posts I shared on Instagram this week:

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What happens when your attempt to be a better person might be making you worse? ▪️ Nic Chen isn’t going to spend her senior year known only as the girl who cheated on her boyfriend with his best friend. She had enough grief when her mom left under a cloud of scandal. This year isn’t going to be a repeat of that. ▪️ To revamp her reputation with her Ivy League obsessed classmates, Nic has a simple plan: she will write college admission essays. For a price. ▪️ But as Nic learns more about her classmates, she realizes she still has a lot to learn about herself and her moral compass. ▪️ This debut novel is a shining verse novel and strikingly original story. Nic contends with painful memories from her past when her mother left, her last year in high school that changed everything, and her intersectional identity as a biracial teen. ▪️ Juleah del Rosario is definitely an author to watch. Be sure to get this one from your local library or bookstore when it releases on the 25th! ▪️ #instabooks #currentlyreading #amreading #instareads #bookgram #bookworm #bookblogging #bookblogger #bookstagrammer #bibliophile #booklove #bookphotography #instabook #reading #reader #booktography #bookstagram #igreads #booksofinstagram #goodreads #bookaholic #bookish #bookishfeature #bookstafeatures #bookstagramfeature #readersofinstagram #unitedbookstagram #500wordsorless #juleahdelrosario #kimmersbooks

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Tell me about your Friday! ▪️ I am excited for the and of the week. I did a lot of things I’d been putting off this week including scheduling an eye exam and dentist appointment. Neither of which I mind per se but I still wish I could just never go to the doctor and still have new glasses. ▪️ I also did a brave thing and took a leap which may lead somewhere or may not change anything. ▪️ Instagram has been bumming me out this week. I love all the pictures I’ve taken recently but my engagement has been way down so it feels like I’m just wasting my time while all the account that already have thousands of followers just giving each other likes and attention on a loop while everyone else struggles along. ▪️ Anyway here’s a picture of some fun endpapers that were a total surprise in the UK collectors edition of Vicious. ▪️ #instabooks #currentlyreading #amreading #instareads #bookgram #bookworm #bookblogging #bookblogger #bookstagrammer #bibliophile #booklove #bookphotography #instabook #reading #reader #booktography #bookstagram #igreads #booksofinstagram #goodreads #bookaholic #bookish #bookishfeature #bookstafeatures #bookstagramfeature #readersofinstagram #unitedbookstagram #veschwab #vicious #kimmersbooks

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How was your week? What are you reading?

And the Ocean Was Our Sky: A Review

cover art for And the Ocean was Our Sky by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Rovina CaiAs a young whale Bathsheba was all too eager to join Captain Alexandra’s crew hunting men for both vengeance and the raw materials used in everyday whale life.

But after years spent working her way up to Third Apprentice on the fiercest crew in the sea and sailing down toward the air-filled Abyss to hunt men, Bathsheba has begun to question the raw hatred that drives hunters in their constant war.

Bathsheba’s weary narrative is heavy with foreshadow and circumspection as she relates the events that set her crew on a fateful hunt for the man Toby Wick–the devil known to both whale and man for his terrible deeds and his fierce white ship in And the Ocean Was Our Sky (2018) by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Rovina Cai.

If you haven’t guessed yet Ness’s latest standalone novel is a very loose retelling of Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick where harpoon-wielding whales are hunters every bit as fierce as men themselves.

Ness channels Melville’s original language well and uses the structure of Moby-Dick as a framework for this fast-paced and streamlined retelling filled with philosophical meditations and cautions against both the violence of war and the power of prophecy–especially self-fulfilling ones. Although Bathsheba’s warnings often lack subtlety they remain powerful and timely.

Cai’s accompanying illustrations interspersed throughout the book bring the depths of the ocean to life with jarring, full color artwork that calls back to the haunting setting and anguished tone of the narrative.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a stirring counterpoint to the original text, rife with questions about the inexorable nature of belief and violence.

*A more condensed version of this review was published the August 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*