A few weeks ago I reviewed Jenn Reese’s A Game of Fox & Squirrels. It was so unlike what I usually read, and I sincerely enjoyed reading it. I was super excited when Jenn Reese agreed to answer a few questions about her book and writing. Please enjoy the interview below.
If you were asked to complete the sentence, “Fox & Squirrels is about ….,” what would you say?
A Game of Fox & Squirrels is about the reverberating effects of domestic violence and how one girl finds the courage to embrace new definitions of “family” and “home.”
I’d love to hear why you thought Fox & Squirrels needed to be written.
I started writing about 25 years ago, and one of the first short stories I wrote was about growing up in an abusive household. It felt so good to finally put into words the thoughts and feelings that I’d been hiding my entire life. But I was a new writer and it was a very bad story. Every few years, I’d try again, because I knew I needed to not only tell this story for myself, but to tell it for everyone else who couldn’t find their own words. With A Game of Fox & Squirrels, I finally found a way into the story that, when combined with my growth as a writer, allowed me to the express my experiences in a way that felt true… even though it involved magic and talking animals. The process was tremendously healing. I was finally able to give voice to a huge, formative part of myself. Of all the stories I’ve ever written, this is the one I most needed.
What reader did you have in mind when you wrote this book?
When I was writing the first draft, I’ll confess that I was thinking primarily of my younger self. I was trying to write a book for that lonely, frightened girl, so she would feel seen. I wanted her to know that life could change and improve, that there was plenty of love and safety to be found outside the confines of the world she felt trapped within.
But I knew not everyone would share Sam’s experiences. (Thank goodness!) I wanted those readers to get a sense of what growing up in an unsafe environment feels like, so they could more easily empathize with people like Sam, who had. For example, although my partner and I had talked about my childhood frequently, he said that he hadn’t really understood what it was like until he read my book.
There are so many references to other texts in the book. What would you say your mentor texts were for Fox & Squirrels?
Much like Sam relies on books in A Game of Fox & Squirrels, I survived my own childhood by sinking into epic stories. My favorites were fantasies where heroes went on adventures and fought evil and had each other’s backs in battle. I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings so often that I sometimes thought orcs were about to storm the hillsides where I lived. I also devoured mythology and fairy tales, read The Phantom Tollbooth and The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wizard of Earthsea so many times that my books fell apart. It’s impossible to say which book gave me my first talking animal or which story first blended fantasy and reality in my mind. They were the foundations of my creative self.
But as a writer, it was contemporary books like Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs and the graphic novel I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura that gave me the confidence to write my story the way I was building it in my head. To let fairy tale creatures be both metaphors and their own selves at the same time, and to tackle big, dark issues with the bravery that readers deserve.
What would you say to readers who think Fox & Squirrels covers too many topics for a middle grades read?
Life is messy! It’s a weird mix of funny and scary and hopeful and sad, usually all at once. A Game of Fox & Squirrels tries to reflect that. One of the themes running through the book is that no one is just one thing. The fox is not merely charming. The fox is not merely dangerous. That’s a big part of why it’s hard to know what to feel and do all the time – because we’re dealing with a lot of emotions and factors all at once. Readers are more than capable of taking it all in, and especially young readers who have such open, eager minds.
But I also think A Game of Fox & Squirrels is quite laser-focused on one girl, Samantha, and the handful of people who surround her in a tiny house nestled in a big forest. Because when you’ve grown up like Sam did, you can’t really see the world outside of the small space in which you live. Everything that happens to you – from eating your morning eggs to walking in the woods – takes on an almost mythic quality.
What are your writing practices? Are you in a writing critique group?
I’ll admit right up front that I don’t write every day. Some days are for thinking or for playing video games or for doing freelance work. Some days are for writing 100 words, and others for 2,000. I used to set word count goals, but after a while, they fell away. Now all I have are overall deadlines and a drive to tell the story. Maybe that sounds glib, but here’s my trick:
- I always know the ending of my stories;
- It’s always a scene that I can’t wait to write; and
- I’m not allowed to write it out of order. I have to actually get to the end.
The last scene (plus the epilogue) are the biggest dangling carrot ever. I chase after them all through the manuscript, fighting my way through the start and the middle even when I want to give up. Getting to write the end of the book is my prize.
In terms of critique groups, I have a large number of far-flung friends who I rely on for advice, critiques, and shoulders to cry on. One of those friends convinced me to be brave enough to write this book. Another read every chapter as I wrote it and cheered me on. Still another helped me polish specific scenes when I just couldn’t look at it another time. They are my found family. It took years to find them, and I’ll do anything for them.
What advice would you give to writers who want to be published?
Practice finishing. So much of our industry is focused on starts – on first pages and first chapters and shiny new ideas – so most writers practice beginnings all the time. But you can’t know the shape of a whole story until you have the ending, and you’ll never know if you have the right opening if you don’t first know how a story ends. So finish what you start, even if it’s painful. The beginning may be what hooks agents and editors, but endings are what stays with readers.