Wisconsin native Jess Riley has been a waitress, a blue cheese packager, and currently, a grant writer for non-profits and schools. She worked at a mall-based toy store during the Tickle Me Elmo craze of 1995 and lived to tell about it. She has also worked as a teaching assistant with special needs inmates at a medium-security men's prison, which was much less stressful. Jess graduated from UW-Oshkosh in 1998 with dual degrees in English and history. Because she didn't get the memo that you're supposed to move after graduating, she still lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her husband and a neurotic terrier. Her first novel made its debut in 2008 as a trade paperback original (Driving Sideways, Ballantine Books); selected as a Target Break-Out book, it returned to press for four printings within three months of release. Since then, she has completed two additional novels that broke the rules for commercial women’s fiction while remaining true to her vision and style.
Q. What inspires your writing?
A. Oh man, you’re opening with a tough one! Pretty much everything. A bit of overheard conversation, a movie, a song on the radio, a personal observation about human nature, my husband, friends and family
Q. What is your favorite thing about being an author?
A. Meeting readers and other writers. The behind-the-scenes support network I’ve forged with other authors has been invaluable, and I absolutely love hearing from readers who were touched by something I wrote. I always wanted to be a writer, and I am so fortunate to have had success with my debut novel, DRIVING SIDEWAYS.
Q. What is the toughest part of being an author?
A. I’ve recently heard it said that it’s easier to get published than it is to stay published, and my experience is bearing this out…still, I keep trying. You’ve also got to develop a thick skin and high tolerance for criticism, field requests from total strangers wanting help writing their memoirs, and the ability to keep writing despite set-backs and disappointments.
Q. If you could not be author, what would you do/be?
A. A Grant Writer. J (Which is what currently pays the bills.) But actually, my dream gig would be field research on mountain gorilla populations a la Dian Fossey. (Minus the whole “hacked-to-death by a machete” part.)
Q. What would the story of your life be entitled?
A. The Hungry Little Caterpillar that Could
Q. What is your favorite book of all time?
A. THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll
Q. Which character from ANY book are you most like?
A. Honestly, I’m pretty boring! Not a very exciting character for a book, that’s for sure. Most days I feel a little George Bailey-ish. Always dreaming of taking that trip to Africa, India, Europe—if only there weren’t all those pesky responsibilities and bills to pay…
Q. What character from all of your book(s) are you most like?
A. Definitely Leigh Fielding, the protagonist of DRIVING SIDEWAYS. We share the same wry, warped sense of humor.
Q. What is your favorite season?
A. Early autumn—just as the last wave of tomatoes are being picked, mums and pumpkins begin to appear on porches, and the monarchs are migrating through.
Q. Tell me something funny that happened while on a book tour or while promoting your book(s).
A. A few weeks after my book came out I set up a slew of readings and signings. One Wednesday in June I set up a reading at The Book Cellar in Chicago—I wanted to take my new project (MANDATORY RELEASE) for a test-run, see if people would laugh at the right parts, see if I had further editing ahead of me. It was a great night—fun, full crowd, Jen Lancaster and my brother came, the wine was flowing, everyone laughed at the right parts. I introduced myself with, “I was inspired to write my next project based on my stint in prison (pause for effect) as a teacher.” Ba-dum-bum…meaning, I had gainful employment teaching inmates for awhile in college. After the reading, two women came up to me to ask what I did to be sentenced to prison. “You don’t look very Mary Kay Latourno-ish!” Ugh.
The very next night I had a reading at the public library in Stevens Point. My in-laws live there, and fabulously dragged many of their friends from church, Curves, what have you. So I’m reading, and NOBODY is laughing. A woman in the back didn’t crack a single smile. I could feel my face heating up, sweat trickling down my sides…yet afterwards, people came up and told me how much they enjoyed the book.
Moral of the story? If you want a rollicking, laughing crowd during your reading, get them drunk first.
Q. Are you working on something new?
A. I just finished a novel this past October, and it’s currently out on submission to editors. ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE tells the story of a woman who 'divorces' her awful siblings after their mother dies, so she subsequently posts an ad on Craigslist for a new family for Christmas. The ad is answered by an elderly iron sculptor, a suicidal graduate student, a transgender woman, and a character inspired by Zack Galifianakis. ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE is about family--those you make and those you make peace with.
No rejections yet, so fingers are tightly crossed while I wait! I also have plans to completely overhaul another novel I wrote years ago, releasing it direct-to-eReader this summer. Set in a medium-security men’s prison, MANDATORY RELEASE tells the story of an acerbic wheelchair-bound social worker and the emotionally-damaged teacher he secretly adores. Inspired by my work in such a prison, MANDATORY RELEASE is a darkly funny love story about broken people who work in a dangerous place.
E-publishing is new to me, but many authors I know truly enjoy the freedom and control they have over content, cover art, editing, and pricing. There’s still a stigma with self-publishing, and there’s the sticky point of getting reviewed and getting the word out amidst a crowded field, but the more I read about other authors who have tried it, the more it seems like a good fiscal experiment to try. Also, since legacy books tend to have three months to “hit” after their release (at which point bookstores begin shipping them back to make room for the newer releases), you feel a lot of pressure to succeed in that timeframe. E-publishing is less a sprint and more a slow-burn. There’s no pressure to sell big out of the gate, you’re available online as long as you want, it’s free (unless you hire a freelance cover designer and editor, which you should), and YOU have the proverbial bull by the horns. Which is highly appealing to a control freak like me.
(E-publishing guru JA Konrath has much, much more to say on the subject, so I’ll refer you to his blog if you’re curious about the subject: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/)
Q. Anything you want to say to followers of this blog or those that are just stopping by?
A. If you’re writing for publication, never. Give. Up. Go to conferences, hone your craft, and then hone it again. You can ALWAYS improve as a writer. Build a support network of other writers to decrease those feelings of isolation. (Writing can be such a lonely endeavor.) Carve out the time to write every day. If you have talent, patience, self-awareness, and a little luck, you will have increased your odds of achieving your goals.
If you’re a reader, I love you.
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Driving Sideways tells the story of Leigh Fielding, a twenty-eight year-old kidney transplant recipient who—six years, hundreds of dialysis sessions, and a million bad poems after being diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease—finally feels strong enough to pursue a few lofty goals she’s been mulling for years: find herself, her kidney donor’s family, and the mother that abandoned her over twenty years ago. And what better way to do just that than a solitary road trip across the country? Well, maybe not entirely solitary, because Leigh suspects she may have inherited more than just an organ from her deceased donor. It’s this sneaking suspicion that takes her trip down some unexpected detours—and the juvenile delinquent who blackmails Leigh into giving her a ride is only the beginning.
About Polycystic Kidney Disease: Researchers are on the cusp of finding a cure for polycystic kidney disease (PKD), the disease that affects my protagonist and 12.5 million people worldwide. By raising awareness of this life-threatening and common genetic condition, perhaps we can help hasten the march to the cure. To learn more, visit: www.pkdcure.org.
Come see Jess at the FOX CITIES BOOK FESTIVAL
TUESDAY APRIL, 2012 at 6:30p at Menasha Public Library
This is a MUST attend event...do not miss out on the festival! You can see Jess and numerous other fabulous authors.