Write what you know, they always say. So it’s no surprise that debut author Jessica Martinez — whose first book, Virtuosity, about a musical protege, came out a few weeks ago — is a gifted violinist. We caught up with the Florida-based, Canada-raised author to talk about protege pressure, catching the writing bug and balancing work, motherhood and and fiction.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, but it took me a long time to get serious about it. I studied English in college with music minor, went on to teach high school English, and then played violin professionally for a few years. When I started writing Virtuosity, I was mostly a stay-at-home mom, but playing as a sub with the Orlando Philharmonic and teaching violin too.
It was actually my obsession with reading that made me realize I had to write a novel. I couldn’t read without thinking, “This is beautiful — I wonder if I could do this?” Or “This isn’t that great — I think I could do better.” At the time, I had no idea how hard it would actually be to write a book!
Can you give us a quick synopsis of Virtuosity? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Virtuosity is about a teenage violin prodigy who falls for the one person who can take her dream away — her biggest competitor. She’s also dealing with a pressuring stage mom and an addiction to anti-anxiety meds that she takes to perform. With the biggest competition of her career approaching, she has to decide whether taking control of her own life is worth losing it all.
It started with a single image. I pictured the scene from the prologue: a girl lying on a balcony hanging her million-dollar violin off of the edge. As a violinist, I can think of all sorts of reasons she would want to drop it, so I started writing some of those reasons. I wrote a lot — almost a full novel — before I realized it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I could do better. It took several very different drafts for me to determine what kind of challenges I wanted Carmen to face and exactly who I wanted her to become.
Music obviously plays a major role here — do you play? Where did you draw from for this aspect of the book? Were you a child prodigy yourself? Talk about pressure!
I started playing the violin when I was three and played fairly seriously throughout my childhood and teenage years. Every moment I wasn’t at school I was at the music academy or practicing, and I went to a unique high school that let me do most of my work by correspondence. While I was a teenager I competed in major competitions, and performed as a soloist with professional symphonies. I knew lots of stage moms like Carmen’s (though my mother was not like her at all), I knew people who used anti-anxiety drugs, and I had teachers like Yuri. Actually, I had a few teachers meaner than Yuri. I also loved and still love music intensely, so Carmen’s dilemma is very real to me.
Pressure! What can I say? It was always there, and I’ve often wondered which of my personality traits (the good and the bad) I owe to it. I had trouble sleeping for most of my childhood, and although I learned to control my stage fright, that anxiety was a constant companion during my formative years. In many ways it separated me from my peers—their experiences were so different than mine — so I bottled it all up in and dealt with it in some less-than-healthy ways.
It wasn’t all bad, though. I learned to work hard in the face of discouragement and exhaustion. And I learned not to cry when being yelled at in public. That sounds sick, but seriously, I can always hold it together and save my breakdowns for later! I also had incredible experiences that shaped the way I saw the world, and still do. So, as difficult as the pressure was to handle, I wouldn’t change anything about my childhood. It made me who I am, and I kind of like that girl.
What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like?
I’m a slow writer, and I think drafting is brutally hard. Once I get to the editing, though, I’m in love. I plot, but I almost always change the outline as I go along.
I used to write just at night and during naptime when my two children were sleeping, but now I have three hours every morning while my youngest is at preschool. It is divine! I write at home, or at Starbucks if the piles of laundry are distracting me.
What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?
Finding an agent involved a good number of rejection letters, but once I’d revised my query (it was pretty lame at first), I got a bite from Mandy Hubbard. After revising, I signed with her, and she got Virtuosity to all the right people quickly. I was lucky, and it sold right away.
Honestly, everything about publication has been a surprise. My big dreams all had to do with the writing, so I don’t think I ever really envisioned what it would be like to go through the publication process and be a published author. I will say I’ve been amazed by how much work authors do to promote their novels. Generally, I’m more comfortable with the artistic side of things. I prefer to let someone else handle business aspects, so all the self-promotion has been a little difficult for me at times. I’m learning, though!
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
The best advice I’ve received is to write every day. I’ve learned writing is like any other skill — there’s no substitute for repetition and consistent hard work.
The advice I’d give other aspiring authors is to lay off the delete key. I was so self-critical for so many years that I didn’t produce anything at all — or I did, but I deleted it! You have to be merciless in the editing, but don’t let that mindset infect your drafting process. Just write.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
When I was a teenager I loved Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice — all of those romantic novels with spunky heroines. Now I alternate between contemporary YA and adult books. I just finished Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins and I’m downloading The Marriage Plot by Geoffrey Eugenides today. Oh, and I’m dying to read Past Perfect by Leila Sales, so that’s my next YA.
What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise)?
My second novel (title in the works) comes out next October, also with Simon Pulse, and I’m working on my third novel right now.
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
I’ve found that being a part of the Elevensies (debut YA and middle grade authors in 2011) has been incredibly helpful. Writing is such a solitary process, it’s nice to connect with people who are going through the same things as you are. Also, I’m touring with a group of YA authors who write about the performing arts called Stages on Pages. Getting out there and doing store signings and school presentations with other authors makes all the difference. There’s safety in numbers! As for critique groups, I’m not a huge fan, but I know I’m in the minority. I’m not opposed to them in theory, I’m just so busy, it’s all I can do to squeeze in my writing time.