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.