A Chat With Jessica Leader, Author of NICE AND MEAN

I've been challenging my author friends—and myself—to take risks in crossing borders of class and race in fiction, but to do it wisely and carefully, respecting the inherent power of storytelling. It's lovely to find an example or two to showcase, like NICE AND MEAN, one of my favorite middle-school reads of 2010.

Sparkling with creativity and humor, this tween novel features two protagonists, Marina ("Mean") and Sachi ("Nice"), who is Indian-American. A pet peeve of mine is the insertion of a nonwhite character into a story whose sole purpose is to serve as a sinless foil for a main white character.  Sachi, in contrast, is a flawed but sympathetic middle-schooler. Author Jessica Leader gives her a first-person voice that's funny and true, and pays attention to cultural details as she invites us into Sachi's home. I asked Jessica to chat with us on the Fire Escape, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the conversation.

Briefly describe Jessica in middle school. Were you more like Sachi or Marina?

I must admit that there are times when I feel like I am still in middle school. As for the official 5th-8th-grade years, I would say I had elements of both Sachi and Marina. Like Sachi, I often felt completely different from the so-called popular kids. What was the coolness they saw in each other? Why did they all have such good hair? Like Marina, I sometimes felt frustrated with what I saw as my friends’ shortcomings and I may have tried to let them know it, just occasionally. Never with a nasty video, though!

One scene in the book made me squirm with old memories. I would have been *mortified* and *mad* (like Sachi was) if one of my born-in-the-USA classmates had come over while we were eating dinner as a family and my parents and I had to eat with our hands in front of her. Did you have good friends who were Indian? What kind of cross-cultural "research" did it take to write Sachi's character and family?

I’m glad that scene resonated, because I did a lot of research to make the Sachi-at-Home scenes ring true. At first, I read books and articles and eavesdropped on my Indian-American students. As the publication date got closer, I realized I needed more thorough verification and made connections with acquaintances who were willing to read the manuscript. They were very insightful about what rang true and what didn’t, and I’m still grateful for their help.

It’s funny that you mention the eating part. I actually didn’t know until late in the process that some Indian families ate with their hands, but I revised to put that in, because it opened up so many possibilities for deep emotion. I could just imagine how tough that would be for Sachi to do that with Marina looking on—on one hand, not wanting to feel ashamed for being different; on the other, knowing that Marina is not exactly the poster-child for cross-cultural understanding.

Your book made me want to take a class on making film! Have you ever made a video like the one you described?

Wow, you spotted my research topics a mile away! You must be some kind of writer or something.

Sachi and Marina are way more experienced at video-making than I am. I don’t think I’ve even used editing software! But I do have two friends who have taught video to middle-schoolers, and they helped me out with the details. One did so indirectly—I snooped around his classroom—and another read the video portions of the novel and corrected my errors. That included, “Jess, you keep saying that things are ‘offstage,’ but I think you mean, ‘offscreen.’” I wrote plays before I wrote novels, so I guess I had defaulted to theatre jargon.

What was one big change you made in response to your editor’s suggestion?

What kicks the action for Sachi is that she wants so badly to take Video Elective that she goes behind her parents’ backs. In my earlier drafts, Sachi didn’t have any big plans for her video; she was going to wait until she got a partner to decide together. (This stands in stark contrast to her partner Marina, who begins the first class with a plot, a title, and props.)

My editor pointed out that Sachi should know what she wants to say with her video. After all, she’s willing to lie to her parents, so she must have some specific goals. I figured out that Sachi would want to do something like last year’s video winners did—a video that challenged her classmates to think about the racial divisions in her school. When I realized this about her, it gave me more momentum for her character, and more of a chance for readers to say, “Holy Bleep!” when Marina comes along with her plan to spoof a fashion TV show.

Let's move on to the journey of getting the novel published. What was a high point? A low point?

Low point: no specific point that I can think of; just the years of rejection, wondering if I’d ever know how to make it all work and who would point me out of the woods.

The high point, aside from learning that the book was going to be published, was learning that it would appear on the Summer IndieNext List, which is how independent bookstores recommend books to each other and their customers. I’d done so much work to self-publicize, and here was a bit of publicity that seemed to have legs of its own. Plus, I love indie bookstores, so it was a thrill to get their endorsement.

What's next for Jessica in the world of Kid/YA books?

You can read excerpts of what I hope will be my next middle-grade novel, NOT THAT GIRL, in the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Sunday serial series, published this past August. So Dickenzian, no? However, readers will be relieved to note that I am not being paid by the word. The story, about an eighth-grader whose life starts to crumble when she gets her first boyfriend, is, I hope, as zippy as NICE AND MEAN.

Thanks so much, Jessica, for spending time on the Fire Escape. So glad you're taking risks in writing fiction for tweens! Looking forward to NOT THAT GIRL. (Note: A former teacher, Jessica's available for author visits, including Skype visits. Contact her for more information.)