Q. What made you want to write a book for young people?
A. While I’ve always been an avid reader, books had their greatest impact on me during my high school years when I was struggling with big questions about meaning and identity and human connection.
I also feel like we’re still inundated with books wherein the romance plots revolve around beautiful girls and strong boys who like to look at those girls. I want to help diversify that narrative a bit by writing love stories for and about teen girls whose primary romantic value isn’t tied to their looks.
Q. Why did you think young people would enjoy this story?
A. Mostly when people read my work I want it to be an enjoyable experience. I try to put plenty of smiles and laughs on the page, even while my social criticism seeps through the flirting and banter. I find life quite challenging and I believe in the value of entertainment. As noted above, I think readers who are interested in a love story that revolves around complicated characters who don’t do and say all the right things might also find a kindred spirit in my writing.
Q. Why is this story important for this age group?
A. I have a lot of thoughts about the ways society impacts a young woman’s growth. We’re bombarded with images and articles about who we should be, how we should dress, what to say and what not to say, and how to hide or represent our sexuality. I think the more we’re aware of these messages, the more we can operate independently from them.
There’s a lot of pressure right now to be – or at least appear to be – happy all the time. Smile for your Instagram post. Boast about your latest success on Facebook. Say something cheerful and witty on Twitter. I think most people are more complicated than the version of ourselves others see on social media.
It’s possible to experience joy while also processing grief, questioning self-identity, and worrying about the future. I want readers to see this complexity represented in my characters, in the hope that readers feel a little less pressure to be anything but their unique, messy, unpolished, uncurated, complicated selves.
Q. What made you decide to write a re-telling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park?
A. The seed for Hearts, Strings was planted when a friend and I were discussing Jane Austen heroines.
My friend had recently re-read Mansfield Park and was frustrated with the passivity of Fanny Price after enjoying Austen’s feistier and more outspoken heroines. But I’d remembered relating to Fanny more than to Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse.
So I went back and read Mansfield. I recalled why I loved its heroine. She was like me. I wasn’t feisty and outspoken either. I preferred a book to a party. And I always had a crush on a guy who didn’t notice me. Or more than one guy. So I started thinking about how I could bring that character into a contemporary world, allowing more readers access to a heroine I was grateful to find when I most needed her, during my teenage years.
Q. How many times did you read the original?
A. This is hard to say. Only twice before starting the adaptation, but after that I read parts repeatedly. After a while, it served me best to let the source material go entirely so I wouldn’t keep feeling bound to it. Many things have changed since Austen’s time. The story needed to as well. Only by setting aside the original was I really able to make the retelling work on its own.
Q. What is it about this story that makes it timeless?
A. At its heart, Mansfield Park (and by extension Hearts, Strings) about falling in love, making choices – some of them bad, some of them good, some of them simply complicated – learning how to take responsibility for one’s actions, and speaking up for what one wants. None of that seems restricted to either the 19th or the 21st century.
Q. You’ve had an amazing career – playwright, screenwriter, comics artist and costume designer. What made you decide to try writing?
A. I’ve always been a storyteller, but in my career as a costume designer, I tell stories visually rather than verbally. There’s nothing I love better than developing worlds and characters, especially if I can do so with a group of collaborators.
About 10 years ago I developed Essential Tremor, which means I shake, and that shake gets a little worse each year. My motor skills decreased and I came to grips with the reality that drawing and doing detailed sewing work wouldn’t always be possible. I considered how else I might use my skills, training, and passion. Rather than take a script and extract the characters within, I began developing my own characters. Pretty soon the hours spent over a sewing machine shifted into hours with a laptop as my brain burst with ideas begging to hit the page.
Q. Did you find it difficult to write a novel after writing plays? What are the differences? The similarities? Is there one medium you prefer?
A. Ironically, when I first started writing prose, I got a lot of feedback on how I never described anything visually. With a script, the designers add visuals. A director adds blocking. The actors add gestures and tones of voice. A script isn’t a finished work. It’s a blueprint for production.
A novel is a finished work. Everything needs to be included. Once I learned that lesson, I had more fun with setting and clothes in my prose work. I enjoy going back and forth between mediums. There’s a unique challenge to writing a stage script and trying to get virtually every essential detail in to dialogue. Working on a script for screen involves making everything visual. Prose has more tools, which allows me into the head of a character. By shifting between the three, hopefully they inform each other.
Q. You work at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Theatre & Film. But you also “take any writing classes they’ll let” you into. How many classes have you taken? Which ones have helped you the most? What courses would you recommend other aspiring writers to take?
A. I think I’ve taken six writing courses at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Fiction, stage, screen, graphic fiction, and writing for children and young adults. The first course helped me the most because I was so raw and my learning curve was steep. It was a fiction course that also happened to be attended by 12 of the most amazing writers I’ve had the privilege to learn from.
Any course that allows a writer to get trusted, thoughtful, and clear feedback on their work seems useful to me. Crossing genres adds new challenges that can be brought back into the writer’s primary form. It’s all useful, as is having great critique partners, beta readers, and editors. As is being a careful reader.
Q. How many revisions did it take until the finished book? Is the book a lot different from when it started? If yes, how?
A. Wow. So many. My first draft followed the Austen really closely. The published version takes a lot more liberties. Henry plays a bigger role. Everyone liked him, even in an earlier version where I deliberately made him less appealing. Scenes with the heroine’s best friend got pared back. Edie’s musical journey also plays less of a role than it used to. I wrote a lot of lyrics for the book but without the music to accompany them, they didn’t resonate. Subplots came and went. …Ultimately, a lot of elements that didn’t focus on the primary love triangle went away to make more space for the central arc.
Q. Who is your favourite character in this book? Who reminds you most of yourself, if any?
A. Edie (the main character) is closest to my heart. As a bookish introvert who’s still trying to figure out what she wants and who she is, she’s the most relatable for me. That said, Maria and Henry were the most fun to write.
Edie’s based loosely on Fanny Price from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Fanny has very strict principles. Edie’s somewhat similar. She needs that trait in order to make the story work without tossing out the Austen entirely.
Henry and Maria have much more erratic moral compasses. Irreverence is great fun to write, as is unshakable confidence. The characters say things I’d never utter aloud in real life. Politeness and apologies go out the window, as does the need to please, impress, or get along. It’s liberating, and great for comedy.
Q. What do you think happens to Henry?
Oh, I know what happens to Henry, but whether I write the sequel or not will depend entirely on reader interest. Suffice to say that I put Edie, Henry, and Sebastian in very strategic positions for their upcoming year.
Q. Are you currently working on any other project? Do you have other novel ideas that you would like to write about? Will you only write for young people? Why or why not?
A. I write primarily YA, but I dabble in MG (middle grade) and adult. I like writing about firsts. First loves, first ideas about career goals, first big social gaffes. I also like the emotional accessibility. We accept a teen getting swept up in a romance more than we do an adult, who we would expect to be more cautious and rational about their decisions. I like the big emotions. The mess. The struggle to work through the mess. I have lots of other ideas and plenty of first drafts. What reaches readers will depend on what others are interested in.
Q. What is your favourite aspect about each of your jobs? Do they overlap each other? Are skills transferable?
A. All involve thinking carefully about what people do and why. How do we express ourselves and what do we chose to hide? This can manifest in clothing or words, so there are lots of overlaps. Writing helps me analyze a script when I’m designing. Designing helps me think visually and symbolically. It’s all linked.
Q. Anything else you would like to say?
A. If readers are interested in seeing the overlaps in my writing and design careers, they can check out my Instagram page @jfkillsdarlings where I’ve been posting and giving away some of the book-themed dresses I’ve made.