Interview by: Rosie
R: Where did you get the ideas for the Testing trilogy?
JC: I teach students singing and I work with a lot of teens as they’re going into college and are going through the college admittance process, and most of them want to go into music and theater, which sounds like kind of an easy path, except that the top schools you’ll have to audition for the program. Sometimes 800 kids will audition and they’ll get like 20 that they accept, so they get a lot of no’s, and some theater kids are more dramatic than others. So I had one have a meltdown in my studio. That was when she was starting to hear some no’s from her top schools and she only had one top school left that she was worried they were going to say no. And she just started to cry and say it was because she had done everything wrong, she’d been to 11 auditions, she had picked the wrong music, and that she had just done everything totally wrong and she’d ruined her life. I told her, “You know, the process is stressful. I know it is, it’s the most stressful I’d ever seen but it always turns out okay.” She did not pay attention to “it always turns out okay.” “Oh my God, if it’s this stressful now, what’s it going to be like when my brother goes to school?” By the way he’s fine. But I told her it couldn’t get any worse. And then after I sent her home, I wondered what would be worse, because that’s what you do. You’re like, as a nice teacher, you take the most humiliating moment of a student’s life and you turn it into a book. By the way, she did get into her other top choice school, she’s in LA now, she’s doing fine. She’s been in like Jane the Virgin and Lucifer and she’s doing just fine. But that was when I started like thinking about, like, everything you have to do to get into college and all the tests you have to take, and I thought about those tests, and I kill people in books, so I decided to create a scenario in which I might be able to kill people with tests. And that’s kind of how the testing came about.
R: What about Verify and Need?
JC: Need, I have crazy friends on social media. Like lots of them. Especially the ones that say this stuff online that they would probably never say in real life and you’re like, “What are you doing? People know it’s you.” And on Facebook especially there are always these links that people can click on where it promises them to get free stuff. I have friends who believe they’re going to get free stuff and click on it and then they get hacked and they wonder why. And like, they change the password and they apologize, but a week later, they’re doing it again. I have one friend who’s up to like time number 11. You would think at this point they’d get a clue. So I decided to write a book that really was what would they do if they did get free stuff and they were anonymous. And everyone was like, “Oh sure teens would totally do that,” well yeah I set it in teen world because it was easier to make in an enclosed school invitation only, feel safe kind of environment, but really it’s about my adult friends who are crazy.
For Verify, you know there’s a lot of things going on in the world, and I came up with it a while back and there were a few things that were happening at the same time. One, I heard a political leader say, “Don’t believe anything you read, only believe what I say.” And that struck me in a very much, like my head snapped toward the TV like, “What was that?” But also I’m the person that fact checks everybody on Facebook, and on social media. Everybody, doesn’t matter what political side you’re on, I will fact check you. One of my aunts posted a quote that she said was attributed to Thomas Jefferson. It was some meme. And I looked at it and was like, “I don’t think so.” So I went and looked it up. And then I even called the Monticello society because I’m that annoying because I didn’t want to say you’re wrong if you weren’t really wrong, and sure enough she was wrong. So I posted it said I’m sorry but Thomas Jefferson never said that. I totally agree with the statement, but he never said it. And somebody came on and said, “Well, if it’s morally correct, why does it matter who said it?” And I went, “Wait, really?” And I started really looking at all the facts that people are willing to ignore. Because it makes them more comfortable, to not have to deal with them and what we’re willing to accept. And we’ve kind of been careening a little bit as a society. And the devaluing often of words that’s happened, where people use the words over and over again, the word “fake” seems to show up a great deal and it has come to mean, a way for everyone to dismiss things that they don’t want to believe are real. And so I decided to write a book about that in which we do take words away because to me, we’ve devalued words a great deal. And words and literature are the first things that always go when society starts to careen off course. So I wanted to kind of examine that and kind of figure out for myself, how do you teach people who think they know the truth, how to look at it? I don’t know if I have an answer yet. I read the second book. I read it again, still, but I have some answers, but I wrote it to find out for myself because I really needed to know the answer.
R: So where do you get your inspiration from?
JC: Everywhere now, it’s funny because when I was in school I hated writing. I’m the least qualified person ever to be an author. I’m not kidding. I was a music theater major in college. I have an art performance master’s degree. I am the girl who was in honors program in college, which means that I never had an English class in college. Like, I’m really not qualified to write the book. I hated writing in school. I was good at it. I was good at gaming the system like figuring it out because writing in school is all about figuring out what your teacher wants to hear. Yeah, as much as your teachers want to pretend it’s not, of course it is. I was good at gaming and figuring out what they wanted to write. But I never really wrote anything for myself. And now that I do, right, it’s all questions that I need answered. Especially my young adult books. It’s funny I have seven adult mysteries that are goofy and silly and fun. Nothing like my young adult books. Totally appropriate for young adults but nothing like them. My young adult books really are trying to figure out the world. It’s figuring out questions that I have, whether it’s, “Oh, there’s my crazy friends going off the rails again on social media. I wonder what they would do if I really set it up correctly for them to really go off the rails like how far would they go?” Where would they draw a line in the sand and that’s me trying to figure out things. So the ideas are pretty easy. But no, really, it’s looking at the world around and trying to decide, you know, I have questions and then finding a story that allows me to try to explore the question I have that I’m really looking for answers to, which nobody else might need the answer to, but I do.
R: What’s your favorite place to write?
JC: Anywhere that has Diet Pepsi and popcorn. I love my deck in the summer. But I write anywhere but my office. I have an office. My husband uses it to play games. And I use the printer to print stuff but that’s about it.
R: What was your favorite book series when you were a teen?
JC: There are so many of them. The book that I still go back to now, but I remember devouring all of them when I was younger, well I guess the very first series I remember devouring was starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I didn’t start with book number one apparently, I had to figure out that that was not book number one but I read through those. But I think my favorite series as a teen would be David Edding’s fantasy series. That’s The Belgariad and The Malloreon. There’s five books and five books and it’s the exact same character but it’s a kid named Garion who thinks he’s an everyday person, but turns out he has magical powers and he has to defeat a god and you know, but nowadays it would totally be classified as YA but it was adult fiction, and still is classified as adult fiction. But there’s some sarcastic sense of humor in some of those characters that I greatly enjoyed.
R: When did you start writing? What were your first stories about?
JC: Oh, wow. I first started writing just before I turned 30. And I was doing music theatre professionally, and whatever else, acting, singing jobs I could do. I did a lot of strange things. It’s what you can do as an actor. I had sung for a lot of bizarre things. I’ve been on WWE wrestling, not as a wrestler but it looked super fun. But I got rejected from a show and started writing. It prompted me to think of something and I decided to try writing. It was more of a mental exercise for me, like, “I wonder what it takes to write a book,” because I hated writing in school. So I always liked to read so it became a morbid curiosity like I wonder if I can climb that mountain. The very first book that I wrote, my first manuscript was about women in the air. We had had so many strange things that were happening in this particular show I was doing, and a lot of, you know, kind of women’s issues. I was writing women’s fiction at the time books that make you cry. I want to make people cry. Yeah, no one would have cried except for how awful it was. And then I wrote a thriller, because I found the puzzle of writing fascinating. Like it suddenly wasn’t about gaming the system and trying to bear with my teachers wanted me to write about, I was writing my own thing. It was bad, but it was mine. And then I joined a writer’s group, and they were writing romance, because the first author I ever met was a romance writer. So she told me to join a writers group and I joined her group, and so I tried to write romance and was really not good at it, like as an overall genre. People who do it, do it very well and I’m better at killing people. So it took five manuscripts before I finally got published. But all of the early stories were just, you know, again, that very first book was me just exploring some ideas and some questions I had about the profession I was in at that time and specifically being a woman in theater, whether you’re in relationships or not, it seems to be more challenging for women than men.
R: Where do you get your inspiration for characters?
JC: The characters come out of this setting. It’s funny I feel like because I never took the writing classes, I do it wrong. Maybe it’s the actor mentality in me, but where a person, what the environment they are in when they grow up, or what they live in in that moment changes who those characters are. So I can’t create a character without having a setting first so I can figure out what person would be at the heart of that story in that place in that time. And then when I need to populate an entire story with characters after I’ve got my main character and I know where we’re at, depending on the stories I pull from, like people that I once used to know, not necessarily them as a whole like people that I knew in high school or throughout my life would never recognize themselves in the book, but I pulled their types especially like in Need, there are nine points of view. And so I started pulling the type. There’s a kid named Brian in the book, and he’s totally based on the kid that I knew that hung out in the library and couldn’t get a date in high school, but everybody loved him. Like he was every girl’s best friend and everyone thought he was the greatest guy, but nobody would date him. And yet, by the time he was 25, every girl was like, “This is the guy I want to marry.” I would go for those types. The guy, Sydney, well, he was technically named after my last valedictorian, because he was the smartest student I knew, but he actually was modeled after the guy I went to prom with who could just cause problems wherever he went, but he was super smart.
R: If you could choose one of your books you made into a movie, which one would you choose and why? And who would you choose to star in it?
JC: Well, I’d love Verify to be turned into a movie only because I mean, people get to be beat up with books. I mean, I feel like that would be super fun. But really, logically, I would say, the book that probably has the best chance and the one that I think I would like to see made into a movie is The Testing. My student who had the meltdown, she’s now 26, she will be 27 but she still looks like she’s 16. I feel like she should at least get a shot at the audition. I would prefer to be a teen actress that a lot of times nobody knows. Because then no one gets to judge her based on who she was and who she wasn’t. She’s just that character. I think it would just be easier for everybody involved but I don’t know who’s on Disney anymore. Like that always seems to be where they show up from is like the Disney Channel. I don’t know of any good teen actor names that would be young enough to play somebody that just hit 16.
R: How do you come up with ways to keep your books moving and engaging to readers?
JC: You know, as an actress, I was very aware. I did a lot of dinner theater. You have the intermission and people go to the bar or like they get snacks during intermission and you want them to come back. So really as an actor, you’re always very intent on really feeling like you’re pushing your energy forward going into intermission. That way people are totally psyched about coming back. You want to make it like when the light starts to blink, they all run for their seats. They’re not still hanging out at the bar. I feel like I try to focus on that in all of my books. I’m very conscious of chapter hooks and wanting to find something that I write into something happening. And then I write a reaction to it at the beginning of the next chapter, and then I write into something happening again. So it’s a lot of me trying to find what the thing is, that’s going to make someone turn the page. And then when I go back, and I edit, I just cut a whole lot of boring stuff. I’m really good at cutting things. I love cutting stuff. It’s my favorite thing. I feel very virtuous.
R: What Hogwarts House are you in and why?
JC: I’m a Ravenclaw, it’s the much more logical, have to think through things. I like to know stuff. People who hang around me know, they only have to hang around for a short period of time, anytime somebody mentions something I’m busy googling whatever, it’s like, “what is that? But what does that mean?” I need to know that and then go down the rabbit hole. I’m the person that like fact checks and googles every presidential debate which means I know a great deal about calculating the rate of poverty now, who is poor versus who is not, or what, you know, what states have what version of minimum wage and why. So yeah, I tend to be the Ravenclaw girl, I need to know how stuff works. I’m not good at making things work on my own, but I just like to know how they function and where they place in history.
R: Do you have any secret talents? And if so, what are they?
JC: Secret talent, I make fantastic popcorn. It’s gotta be the old fashioned in the pan thing. I make gingerbread houses, is that a talent? I don’t know. I sing, I don’t think that’s necessarily secret, though. You can find videos of me online doing the singing thing. I used to be the person that was freaked out about what everyone was going to say and like, you know, I’m 5’10 and have red hair, I stick out like a sore thumb. Even in school I was always waiting to be judged. I think my best talent now is I just assume I’m going to make a fool for myself and I’ve embraced that so I’m having way more fun.
R: What can fans expect next from you?
JC: Well, Disclose. I can’t wait to see what the cover is. I really can’t. I love the cover of Verify so much, and it’s the same artist that’s doing Disclose. His name’s Edel Rodriguez and I’m a huge fan. He does a lot of Broadway posters and stuff but he also does a lot Time magazine covers and things in Germany, if you look him up, you’ll know his work. They’re a little political. So depending on your political points of view, you may not love his point of view. But it’s very visually striking. No matter what, no one can deny the man is incredibly gifted.
And then I have 100 pages of a YA book that I’ve been working on. It’s kind of a time travel, where things have gone wrong in the future, and they’re trying to go back and fix things, but the way it works is they can only go back in hundred year increments, and they can only go back to a certain time and time is progressing. But can they figure out the thing that made the world unravel? It’s more about the littlest things. It’s not the big things that happen because you go back and take out Hitler a bunch of times, but there’s always going to be one because it was some circumstances around it. It’s the smaller things that people never pay attention to that get the ball rolling. It’s a little more reactionary as well to kind of me trying to figure out how we are where we’re at now. And then I have a middle grade, I guess, it’s a 13 year old that starts it. And it’s a fantasy novel. I think the title I have right now is Home for Misplaced Children. But it’s at 13 they all are able to pick a name and go off and be adopted by families after living in this home. And this one kid decides to strike on his own and try to figure out who he really was. And, you know, there is magic and there’s a little bit of climate change science my magic is based off, and the idea that sometimes the power of choice is the biggest magic of all. So we’ll see. I don’t know if anyone will like it. It’s like a new thing for me, but I have an 11 year old boy and he wanted me to write something for him. And I started it about a year ago, and I finally am getting back to it. I got about hundreds of pages of it and I want to finish because it’s fun.
“Embrace the horror. Be who you want to be.”
R: What advice would you give your teenage self or teens in general?
JC: I was so serious. I was voted “Most Sophisticated” which is so not me at all. But I was always concerned about being judged. I liked theater because I knew I can make a fool out of myself on stage but it wasn’t me. I was a character and that was okay. And then since then, really I have learned that you’re going to be judged no matter what, like you always are. And that’s okay. Trying to fit in is perhaps the worst thing you can possibly do. And yet, it’s the thing that we all try to do, especially with me, I still do it. Every time I come to festivals, I feel like, okay, all these authors know each other, and they’re all really good at this. They all know what they’re doing. And I still feel like I’m clueless, like, doesn’t matter that there’s “New York Times bestselling author” next to my name. You’re going to feel that awkwardness all the time. The best thing to do is just kind of assume if you feel it, everybody else does too. Embrace the horror. Be who you want to be. And I feel like teens especially nowadays, I wouldn’t tell this to my teen self. I actually didn’t do this, yay for me. I think nowadays especially, teens are warned all the time to try to automatically know what they’re going to do with their lives. Like, I feel like you guys are always like, from the time you hit middle school or before that even people want you to know. And whenever you decide to try something new, whether it’s sports, or it’s a club, or it’s, you know, to take art class, like people want to know why, like, what value is this going to have for your future. There’s like a transactional quality to it. It isn’t just, it helps you be a better human being and it helps you explore the world and it maybe will be a doorway to something else. I’m the girl who hated writing in school, and I never took an English class in college. The only way that you’re going to find out who you’re meant to be, and who you want to be is to explore, not let people feel like there is a right path, especially one that’s going to make you tons of money. You don’t have to go to college, you don’t have to do certain things just because everyone else says that you’re supposed to. And I know it’s always easiest to do it. So I would advise teens to– while parents are going to hate me for saying this, I have a kid and I’m totally giving this advice– to ignore feeling like you have to know what you’re going to do. And instead, try everything that interests you. Because that’s the most fun way to live. And it also just is the way to find you. Not who somebody wants you to be, but who you really are.