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Author Spotlight: Janae Marks

Our April spotlighted author grew up in NYC, dabbled in musical theatre, bakes some amazing cupcakes, and wrote a novel about a spirited girl who tries to get her dad out of prison. Who is it?

Janae Marks is the author of From the Desk of Zoe Washington (titled The Faraway Truth for UK readers), with another exciting novel on the way.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a poignant middle-grade book about a girl named Zoe, who's sassy, spirited, and loves to cook. A little while after her birthday, Zoe discovers a letter from her biological father, who she knows is in prison. When Zoe finds out that her mother has been hiding his letters, she sets out to learn who her dad really is.

Meanwhile, her next-door neighbor and ex-best friend Trevor won't stop meddling with her business and she's desperately trying to convince her parents to let her audition for a baking show. When she finds out her father never actually committed the crime he's in jail for, Zoe gets caught up in a whole mess of trouble. It looks like the only way out is for her to bake lots and lots of cupcakes...

This book is one of the best new middle-grade debuts (and not just because the main character's name is Zoe)! It was also featured on my blog post New Middle Grade Books You HAVE to Read.

Read on for Janae Marks's take on reading criticism, getting published, Broadway dreams, and more!

1. What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching for one of your books?

"The most interesting things I learned while researching From the Desk of Zoe Washington are two unfortunate statistics: 1) One in 27 children have a parent in prison. 2) Black people are 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people. Learning more about both of these facts inspired me to create Zoe’s story."

2. Do you have a favorite book you've written? How was your writing and publishing process different for each book?

"My current favorite is my debut. I wrote 3 novels before it, but looking back at them, I see how they were not the right stories. I’m revising my next book now, which comes out next year, and the process has been very different than it was for my debut. When writing From the Desk of Zoe Washington, I did not have a literary agent or publisher yet, so I could take all the time I needed to write, revise and polish the manuscript. I had time to get feedback from critique partners and publishing professionals at writing conferences. For my next book, which is already under contract with my publisher, I have a much tighter timeline for writing and revising it. It’s tough to write on deadline! But I now have an amazing editor helping me make the manuscript the best it can be."

3. Do you think you'll ever write for a different age range? Was there any thought process behind deciding on what ages you wanted to write books for?

"My debut is middle grade, but the manuscripts I wrote before it were all YA. I’d definitely write YA again, and I’d also love to write for even younger audiences - chapter books or picture books. I actually thought From the Desk of Zoe Washington would be a YA novel before I started writing it, but realized the story was more suitable as a middle grade. When deciding what age group a story belongs in, I think about how the age of the protagonist will impact their character arc."

4. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? What other dreams do you still have?

"Growing up, I actually wanted to be on Broadway! I was really into musicals and dreamed of performing on stage. As I got older, I eventually realized I wasn’t really meant to be a performer. I still love the stories behind musicals, so switching to writing stories felt natural."

5. Describe your experience first being published. What did you do with the first bit of money you earned from writing?

"I bought a new laptop! My old one was seven years old, and still worked, but it was heavy and had terrible battery life. I decided to use some of my first advance check to buy a refurbished Macbook Air. I love it!"

6. How many unfinished or rejected books do you have? Do you dwell on an idea for a while before writing or do you jump right in?

"Before my debut, I wrote and revised three manuscripts that did not go anywhere. And I have a few other beginnings of novels that I abandoned before finishing. I usually like to dwell on an idea for a while. I like to work on an outline before I write because it helps me know that the story has legs and is worth writing."

7. Is there any story behind your character's names? Do your characters ever seem real to you? What's the hardest thing about coming up with characters?

"There really isn’t a special story around my characters’ names. Picking names is hard! As soon as I find one I like, I usually go with it and try not to overthink it."

8. What were your favorite childhood books? What books/genres are you loving right now?

"I was obsessed with The Babysitter’s Club series when I was a kid. I also loved Roald Dahl’s books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach. Right now, I’m loving other recent middle-grade debuts, like Mary Underwater by Shannon Doleski, How to Make Friends with the Sea by Tanya Guerrero, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! By Jessica Kim, and The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane by Kate O’Shaughnessy."

9. Have you ever gotten poor reviews and how did you deal with it? What are your biggest tips with dealing with criticism in writing?

"After I read my first bad review on Amazon, I decided not to read reviews anymore. I think it’s best for published authors to avoid reading their reviews. But when I’m writing a new story, I appreciate all constructive criticism from my critique partners, beta readers, and editor. It can be tough to hear that something you wrote needs work, but if you take that feedback while you’re revising, it will help you make your book better."

10. Finally, what advice would you like to give to aspiring authors?

"My favorite advice to give aspiring authors is to keep going. It took me over eight years to get a literary agent and book deal, and I experienced a lot of rejection along the way. Success is not always a straight line, so there are going to be bumps in the road. To survive in publishing, you have to learn to pick yourself back up after each setback and continue to work hard to be a better writer."

Thanks for being such a lovely interviewee Janae! Hope everyone is staying healthy. Ciao, Zoe.

Can't get enough of our spotlighted author?

Check out her website, chat with her on Twitter, connect on Instagram, and take a look at her thrilling debut novel.

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