A Note: This is Part 3 of a 3-part blog on the Beat Street Series, with Part 1 reviewing The Beat on Ruby’s Street, Part 2 reviewing Fool’s Errand, and Part 3 featuring an interview with author Jenna Zark.
Hi everyone! Please give a warm welcome to author Jenna Zark, who has graciously agreed to grant me an interview (my first!). It was a joy to read Jenna’s books and get to know her a bit through this interview. I hope you enjoy as well!
About The Author
Jenna Zark is a columnist, lyricist, playwright, and novelist. Her first novel The Beat on Ruby’s Street won the Gold Award in 2016 from the Wishing Shelf Awards. It is now joined by Fool’s Errand, part two in what has become the Beat Street Series. Both books are for ages 10 and up. Jenna’s play, A Body of Water, was published by Dramatists Play Service and produced at Circle Repertory Company in New York. Other plays were produced in the Twin Cities, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and elsewhere. As a former staff writer at Scholastic Choices magazine, Zark wrote extensively for middle school and junior high students. Zark is also a member of a lyricist’s collective in the Twin Cities. She’s still trying to figure out if it’s harder to write a play, a novel, or a song. To share your thoughts on that or learn more, please visit jennazark.com.
Q: The main character in The Beat Street Series, Ruby Tabeata, is 11 years old and loves the Beat poets and writers. When you were Ruby’s age, what were your favorite books and writers?
A: I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was 10 and loved it. That book proved to me that teens and tweens could write just as beautifully as any adult. I sneak-read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye because my sister was seven years older and she was reading it. I loved that book because I felt as though I’d found an outlaw who was also a cool guy, who wasn’t afraid to push back at the world. And I guess I’ve always been kind of partial to outlaws.
My sister was also reading The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain, and let me borrow it. I read that cover to cover and was completely enthralled. It’s about Satan visiting a small village in the Middle Ages—and it turns everything you think you know about Satan on its head. It’s still one of my favorite books. I also read Alfred Hitchcock mysteries and the Archie – Riverdale comics. And, like everyone else in the world, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, falling in love with Scout and her papa.
Q: Both The Beat on Ruby’s Street and Fool’s Errand deal with very difficult topics that most everyone has to come to grips with in life: the loss or changing of family, friends relocating, choosing to take a stand for something or someone you believe in. Are these themes important to you personally? Were they important to you when you were Ruby’s Age?
A: They were and are. When I was Ruby’s age, (12), I had to change schools, give up all my best friends, and start over again. All I could think of during my first year in a new school were how much I missed my old friends and how much I wanted to see them – but I couldn’t. When I got to high school, I started meeting people who were very political – and that got me thinking about how the world works (and doesn’t work) for people who are different in any way. My parents were kind of shy about making noise (politically), which maybe convinced me not to be like they were. I wrote for my high school paper and really liked speaking up about things – even if I got in trouble for it. As an adult I’ve felt the strongest protests I can make against injustice are as a writer – and I try to do that whenever I can.
Q: When did you decide Ruby’s age and that this would be a Middle Grade novel? What appealed to you about writing a Middle Grade over, say, a young adult or Children’s book?
A: It wasn’t so much that I decided to write a middle grade book as that the story decided it for me. I like writing about tweens because they are just coming into their own as people; usually they are less interested in love and romance and more interested in broader life-issues, art, dreaming big and becoming. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with romance stories, but that wasn’t the one I wanted to write. And Ruby being 11 going on 12 (going on 20, in her own way) was the perfect age to discover life and how she wants to live it.
Q: In your About Me page on your website you say writing The Beat on Ruby’s Street “turned out it was kind of rough–rougher than I thought it would be, and full of surprises.” What parts were rough? What surprised you?
A: Writing about Ruby’s parents separating and writing the scene with her father surprised me, as I hadn’t expected to become so emotionally involved. Saying that, I realize that in many ways, her story was colliding with my memory of divorce when my son was small – before his dad and I each remarried and were able to be friends again. I remember starting to cry when I wrote the chapter with Ruby’s dad and having to stop writing it for a while. I was also surprised at how it ended; I know that sounds nuts, because I’m the writer, but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen until I started going through the scene in my head, line by line. The last line was a total surprise to me, yet I knew it was exactly what Ruby (and her author) needed.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about writing books? What’s your least favorite thing?
A: My favorite thing about writing books is discovering how close you are to your characters’ lives and choices; to the way they speak and how they feel about life. I love the little quirky things my characters do – like Ruby watching the couple leaving a Checker cab – and seeing the world through her eyes, which of course are my eyes too. Only Ruby’s eyes are so much cooler.
My least favorite thing about writing is that having to knit everything together, whether you resolve it or not. With a historical novel, it also takes a lot of careful and comprehensive research. I like doing that, but it takes time, and what I like the least is… never having enough time.
Q: Do you have any young family or friends around Ruby’s age that have read the books? If so, what do they think of them?
A: After writing The Beat on Ruby’s Street I gave it to the daughter of my chiropractor. At the time, she was 10 years old. I asked her to read it and proofread it. She found some important mistakes that I hadn’t caught, which was really helpful. She also told her mother my book was her “second” favorite, which made my day; but her mom never told me the name of the first book! So I still have to ask her.
Another friend’s daughter read the book and I believe she was 11. She said she loved reading it and interviewed me for a blog she was writing. It’s really incredibly special for me to know that tweens who are Ruby’s age are able to connect to her story.
Q: Are there any other writing projects you are thinking about or working on outside of the Beat Street Series?
A: I am a playwright too, and right now, I am working on a musical (for adults) with a composer, which is being developed by a theater in Wisconsin. I don’t want to give away the plot but I can tell you it’s about a couple encountering rough times – personally and professionally — and it’s a comedy, which is much harder to write than anything else, I think – because you have to time everything perfectly to get your laughs. I’m also starting to think about part 3 of the Beat Street Series, which will be the final book in the trilogy. That’s going to involve Ruby coming up against how she wants her dad to be, versus how he is – as things are going to get darker. I also see her coming into her own more, as a Beat poet.
Q: Do you have any indie or self-published books you’d like to recommend?
A: Lots! For adults:
Right now I’m reading Irene O’Garden’s new book Risking the Rapids: How My Wilderness Adventure Healed My Childhood – which is resonating in thousands of ways with my own journey (though I never risked any rapids). She is an absolutely exquisite writer.
If you like cozy mysteries, I’d highly recommend Ellen Byron’s Cajun Country Mystery Series, because she too is a playwright and has a superb grasp of her characters (and her plots). Once I pick up one of her books, I literally can’t stop reading it.
For middle grade readers, I’d recommend Chris and Janelle Minich’s book The Misadventures of Princess Sydney because it’s a really fun read and tells the story from the point of view of the couple’s dog.
Kandi Wyatt’s Dragon Courage books are beautifully written fantasy stories that stay true to their characters’ journeys throughout the entire series.
And, going back to cozy mysteries again (for adults), Laurie Ann Marie’s cozy mystery series The Long Paw of the Law is a joy to read and she’s plotted them meticulously. There are more, but this is a good start, at least.
Q: What’s one thing you want people to know about you?
I write to save my own life. I couldn’t manage otherwise.
Thank you to Jenna again for granting me this interview, and thank you all for hanging out with us. If you’re interested in reading the Beat Street Series, you can find the first book, The Beat on Ruby’s Street, on Amazon. To learn more about Jenna Zark and her other projects, visit her website.jennazark.com.
Thanks again, everyone!