When I Was Summer: Q & A with J.B. Howard

When I heard about J.B. Howard’s debut novel, When I Was Summer (Viking Books for Young Readers, April 30, 2019) and saw the absolutely gorgeous book cover, I began counting the days until it would be in my hands. Intrigued by the promise of music and mystery (maybe some mating too?!), I pre-ordered the novel and anxiously await its arrival. If it turns out to be anything at all like its author–because what work of fiction doesn’t include at least part of the soul from which it comes–I can’t imagine it’ll be anything less than awesome.

Here’s a description of When I Was Summer from the publisher:

A relatable novel about unrequited love, rock ‘n’ roll, and what you find when you go searching for yourself.

Sixteen-year-old Nora Wakelin has always felt like an outsider in her own family. Her parents and older sister love her, but they don’t understand anything about her: not her passion for music, not her all-encompassing crush on her bandmate Daniel (who is very much unavailable), not her recklessness and impulsiveness. Nora has always imagined that her biological mother might somehow provide the answer as to why she feels like such an outsider.

Through internet stalking and leaps of logic, Nora identifies three women living elsewhere in California who seem like they could be her biological mother. So she sets out to track them each down, one by one, under the pretense of a statewide tour with her rock band, Blue Miles. Three cities, three gigs, three possible birth mothers–it sounds so easy.

But once they’re on the road, of course, it’s anything but easy. Nora wants to be with Daniel, she wants to find her birth mother, she wants to keep her parents happy, she wants the band to stay together, and she wants to know why she is the way she is. But she won’t be the first musician to find out that, while you can’t always get what you want, sometimes you get what you need.

I had the pleasure of doing an email Q & A with author J.B. Howard. Here’s what she had to say about being a debut novelist and about her writing life:

EZ: When did you first know that you were a writer?

JBH: The urge to tell stories predates my confidence in my capacity for prose-spinning. If I had to put the evolution of my authorhood on a timeline, I’d say that I probably first developed the urge to tell a story when I was a child, then felt I had something to say as a young adult, and finally developed a love for language itself in my early twenties. I’ve been lucky enough to have many incredible writing (and life!) mentors along the way, and most of them told me to call myself a writer long before I actually felt comfortable doing so. In fact, even with my debut novel coming out, I’m still probably more comfortable calling myself a professor than a writer. Being a writer feels like a gift that I have to wake up every morning and earn. Some days I earn it; some days I don’t. Then again, maybe feeling a bit like a fraud is the most writerly thing about me! It seems like we all struggle with that to some degree.

EZ: What made you want to write fiction for teens?

JBH: A combination of things! First of all, I think I’m just now recovering from (and understanding) my own teenage years. It’s amazing how long the heartbreak one experiences as a teenager can linger. Second, that remarkably brief period of life is so ripe with drama, lending itself to the thematic exploration of all the questions that most occupy me still, questions about identity, family, friendship, and fate.

EZ: With your writing, theater and musical background, you’re a triple threat. How did your high school interests and college (and MFA) experiences impact your debut novel, When I Was Summer, both in terms of actually writing it as well as the story you tell?

JBH: A triple threat! I like the sound of that! My interests all came together in the most fortuitous way for WHEN I WAS SUMMER, since it’s about a girl who plays bass in a band (and I also played bass in a band in high school), and they all meet while performing / playing in their high school’s production of GREASE (I also played bass in the stage band for my high school’s production of GREASE). Nora, my protagonist, is a much more proficient and confident musician than I ever was, but I think living in that world for some years gave me a valuable insight into how bandmates interact and the interpersonal problems that might arise when band members get too close or start to pull away from one another.

My formal education (playwriting, screenwriting, and music as an undergraduate and fiction writing as a graduate student) was crucially important at every stage of writing this book. My playwriting classes taught me about tension within scenes and gave me useful tools for the creation of suspense; my screenwriting classes taught me about structure and pacing; my fiction writing classes taught me about character and, hopefully, the effective use of language. That being said, there will always be more to learn. After I wrote WHEN I WAS SUMMER, I read Lisa Cron’s craft book STORY GENIUS and felt a thousand new little lightbulbs switch on. I’ve been keeping that book close as I develop the next project.

EZ: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel, and how did you fit it into your life (in the context of your creative writing career and family)? And what practices or habits helped you guard your writing time?

JBH: When I don’t get a chance to write at least an hour or two a day, I become very grumpy. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. So, even when publishing a novel seemed about as likely as waking up to discover I was actually Queen Elizabeth II, I would either get up at 4:00am to write, or I’d stay up until 2:00am to write. I never just… didn’t write. Fun fact: WHEN I WAS SUMMER was actually the fourth book I wrote all the way to the end, and before I found an agent and sold the book to a publisher, I’d written a fifth book. Setting aside the time to write has never felt like a sacrifice. In fact, doing other stuff (other than being with my family) is what feels like the sacrifice! My strategies: over the years, I’ve learned to say “no” to things I don’t need or want to do and distance myself from people who trail drama everywhere they go. I also quit all social media for a while, and that was AWESOME; though I’m back on Instagram, because the world (or at least my mom) needs pictures of my baby and I’m the only person who can provide that service. I leave my phone off as often as I can. I don’t do these things specifically to guard my writing time, but it works out that way. Basically, I try to do things that matter to me and try not to do anything out of simple guilt or FOMO.

EZ: Where do you like to write, and what conditions help you write your best? (Any must-haves on your desk or in your work space when you write?)

JBH: I love to write at my desk! It’s not a big space, but it’s mine, and somehow that makes all the difference in the world – just the existence of a writing-dedicated space. When I’m at my desk, I have a bulletin board in front of me, which I use for outlining, and on the desk surface itself (beneath a clear protector sheet thing) I have a diagram of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which I copied out of his Hero With a Thousand Faces and have annotated over the years, along with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet and Alan Watt’s structure questions. I also have Lisa Cron’s story definition taped up to the wall in front of me – “A story is about how the things that happen (plot) affect someone (protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (story problem), and how that person changes internally (theme) as a result.” I like to keep these things in front of me all the time, so I can pretend that writing stories is a de-constructible, repeatable, understandable process and not really just a big, fat mystery. Other desk/writing essentials: black coffee in the morning, water at all other times, plus my ever-lengthening to-do list so that if I get stuck writing, I’m more likely to fold my laundry than end up on my phone’s news app reading some unnecessary article about the one thing you should never ever eat if you want to live to be a hundred.

EZ: What did writing a novel teach you about yourself as a writer?

JBH: That I inevitably will not get it right the first time, but that I will get it right. Eventually. That I can trust the process.

EZ: The writing life can be a tough one filled with distractions, deadlines and rejections. What do you do to de-stress and get into a mindset that helps you write your best—or at least write—no matter what’s going on?

JBH: Coffee! Also, naps (in theory; rarely in practice). I also have an audiobook of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art that I will listen to whenever I’m feeling dejected or unmotivated. But probably the number one thing I do to de-stress and cope with writing/life is exercise. I used to love jogging, but I tore some cartilage in my hip a few years ago, so now I mostly lift weights or do other resistance cross training at the gym. I always feel better afterwards.

EZ: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists? (And what’s the best advice you’ve received or that’s been helpful to you on a practical level?)

JBH: Everyone will tell you to read everything you can get your hands on, and you definitely should. But something I figured out along the way was that it’s helpful to treat reading as research. I read with a pen or pencil in my hand and am always dissecting what I read. Character introductions, turning points, act breaks—so much can be learned just by paying attention to precisely how other authors pull these things off. I go back to the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway all the time, just to revisit how she seamlessly weaves Clarissa Dalloway’s past in with her present, advancing story while simultaneously building character. She makes it look so easy! And you know that when someone makes something look easy, it means they worked long and hard at it.

Other advice: Avoid people who make you feel insufficient in any way; nurture relationships with the people who feel like friends of your mind and soul. Take the craft seriously and yourself not seriously at all. Don’t worry so much. Keep going.

EZ: What are you most looking forward to about being a debut novelist? And what are your future writing plans?

JBH: Ah! I don’t know that I am looking forward to being a debut novelist! I keep thinking, in fact, that I should have written under a less obvious penname, because the idea of people reading my work is at once thrilling and terrifying. In writing workshops, I always tell my students not to qualify their work before distributing it; don’t say, “So, I wrote this quickly, and I know that it’s lacking for x, y, and z reasons.” Just distribute it! But here I am, about to have a book published, and I’d seriously like to affix a letter to each copy of the book that says, “Look, I know this isn’t perfect, but I really did try, and I promise to do better next time!” I wrote a YA noir book last year, but I’m sitting on it right now, because it needs to be better. I’m currently working on a YA sci-fi book that I am madly in love with, and I would love to tell you more, but I’d probably better leave it at that.

EZ: Which authors (living or deceased) most inspire/influence you and why?

JBH: William Shakespeare for depth of thought and poetic language. Jane Austen for her sardonic wit / keen sense of irony. I fell in love with Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy when I was in high school, for reasons that are hard for me to explain; I return to those books often, just to try to figure out why I like them so much! Virginia Woolf for her insight into the nature of the mind. I’m always excited for Zadie Smith’s next book and am impressed by everything Lauren Oliver does. I have a deep admiration for Stephen King’s powers of imagination, his commitment to good storytelling, and his obvious work ethic. I’ve heard, too, that he’s a pleasure to work with, just a really nice person, and I aspire to be that sort of writer, too—a true professional.

See what Kirkus has to say about When I Was Summer.

About the author: J. B. Howard studied theater, screenwriting, and music at the University of Southern California, where she produced her first two stageplays, Sparrows and Violetta Dying. After graduation, she traveled around New Zealand for one year; there, she briefly played bass and sang for an Auckland cover band, pruned grapes on a vineyard, waited tables, taught yoga at a women’s gym, spent one whole month living in a tent, and was an extra in a UK bank commercial, all while continuing to work on her writing. In 2013, she was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship at Chapman University, enabling her to earn an M.F.A. in Fiction. She currently lives, works, and writes in Southern California, where she is a Creative Writing lecturer at Chapman University. To learn more about J.B. Howard and her books, visit her website. When I Was Summer is available at Amazon, Indiebound or wherever books are sold.