We caught up with Jo about her career as a writer!
What program were you in at Simmons?
I got my BA in English and MA in Children's Literature.
When did you know you wanted to write young adult fiction?
At Simmons! I studied Children's Literature as an undergrad and fell in love — so I enrolled in the graduate program. I hoped to be either a children's book editor or librarian. Then, I took a writing course and was encouraged to keep writing when our class ended, so I asked Cathie Mercier for permission to write a young adult novel for my master's thesis. She said YES. It would still be a while before I really believed I could become an author, but that encouragement was a spark.
How did Simmons help prepare you for your career?
Anyone who has been through the Children's Literature program knows it's incredibly rigorous. But for someone who loves Children's Literature, the rigor is also inspiring! It was the first time in my life I WANTED to work hard, read more and be challenged. Simmons showed me that when you find something you're passionate about, the rigor is not only fun, but endlessly rewarding.
Tell us about your latest book.
Still a Work in Progress
is a return to middle-grade, or "tween" fiction for me. The book was inspired by a personal friend, but also my son, whose middle school was the inspiration for the setting. It's a coming of age book that fits my own life experiences as well. I remember having all these school worries, like Noah, Sam and Ryan, about fitting in and trying to figure out what's right and wrong. And then at home having this other worry no one would talk about. I think a lot of kids live this way — with a school life and then a home life, each with its own stresses and worries, some you talk about and some you can't, or don't know how to.
What are some challenges you faced with your writing?
Gosh, I think that question might be easier to answer if it was what challenges haven't I faced? Every day is a challenge for me. I am constantly questioning my ability to tell the story I want to tell, to deliver the speech I want to deliver, to create the kind of work I will feel proud of and not want to hide from six months from now. But ultimately, I return to what I learned at Simmons: to take joy in the hard work and struggle because it's only through that kind of deep determination that I can create the stories I need to tell, in the way I want to tell them.
Why is young adult fiction an important genre?
I think books are important for every age group from babies on up. Fiction that reflects the teen experience is crucial because it's one of the most significant times of life. The world cracks open when you reach adolescence. Everything changes. Readers need books that reflect and explore all of it — the dark and the light.
What's the best career advice you've gotten along the way?
If you want to be a full-time writer, treat writing like a full-time job: show up for work every day and put in a full day's work. At the end of the week, ask yourself: "If this had been any other job, would your boss fire you today, or give you a promotion?" Adjust as necessary to keep your job.
Any tips on work/life balance?
Be flexible. Especially for writers, schedules and demands are constantly shifting. During a book season, there's often a lot of travel and evening events involved. If you do school visits, that's another pull from your writing and family. I think it's really important to discuss every invitation with loved ones, weighing the pros and cons and all agreeing on what you'll do and won't do, and then supporting each other once you've made an agreement. It's so hard to juggle it all, and especially to say no to invitations to speak, since that's important for promotion. But your writing time and time with loved ones is also important. Try to keep things in perspective and do what's right for everyone, not just you.
What woman do you most admire?
Libba Bray is probably the hardest working and most brilliant writer I know. I've seen her work during tremendous pressure and she never waivers in her commitment to her craft. She never limits or censors herself or makes compromises when it comes to the projects she takes on. But above all that, she is probably the kindest person I know, and she's taught me to always try to be my best self, in writing and in life.
What's your Simmons Moment?
When I was in graduate school I was lucky enough to work as Cathie Mercier's teaching assistant and help teach the course that drew me into the program in the first place. It was such an honor to work with someone I admired so much. I had the privilege to learn how she prepared for classes, and how she approached commenting on student work. At the end of our semester, Cathie told me I was a natural teacher. That's always stayed with me, as it felt like such high praise coming from the best.
I've had other Simmons mentors who have helped give me the courage to believe in myself, too, such as my thesis advisor, Lowry Pei. He once wrote on a paper, "You are an artist." I've cherished those notes, those brief but powerful affirmations, all my life. It's so much easier to believe in yourself when someone you admire already does.
I am forever grateful to my teachers at Simmons for giving a shy young woman with virtually zero confidence just the right amount of positive encouragement to set her on the road to follow her dreams. I think that's what Simmons is all about.