When I read a book as a teenager with raging hormones and strict parents, I was looking to experience love alongside the character, because in my childhood household, dating was not an option. But while reading Neesha Meminger’s Jazz in Love, I was swept up in Jazz’s dilemma as her mother implemented the Guided Dating Plan to find her a suitable match, which often had me wondering, what kind of teenage boy would my mother have picked for me?
I caught up with Neesha Meminger to discuss matchmaking and how she achieves a deep layer of emotional truth in her novels.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer.
I started out, like most writers, keeping a journal. And because English is my second language, I spent a lot of time constructing phrases, tinkering with word rhythms and, in general, figuring out how to wield the English language to the best of my ability. I grew up knowing the power of language because I saw my parents’ struggle outside of the house when they fumbled to say what they needed to authorities, school administration, bureaucrats, government officials, police officers, neighbors, etc. It was tough to see parents — two people I admired and knew were strong, intelligent, capable souls — being reduced to bumbling, nervous adults facing irritation and/or hostility from people in positions of relative over them. So, I worked very hard to gain a strong hold on the language I would need to protect and defend myself in the world outside my home.
And yes, I totally write full time. I am also a full time mother, I promote my books a huge chunk-of-time, try to run a home the other chunks-of-time, and desperately search for ways to find a balance between all that and my own personal need for quiet time, growth and rejuvenation.
How did you come up with the concept for Jazz In Love?
Jazz is a wise-cracking, wayward 17-year-old who keeps getting into trouble with her parents as she, ironically, tries to keep them happy (and meet her own needs at the same time). She is caught hugging a childhood friend in public and, because the friend is male, Jazz’s mother freaks out. She pulls out the big guns and sets out to find Jazz a suitable date so that Jazz doesn’t go poking around in unsuitable waters. What ensues is hilarity, a zany and hare-brained scheme involving Jazz’s own match-making, a celebrity, and a television show. At the end of it all, Jazz has to figure out what she really wants, and what she’s willing to do to get it.
What’s your process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where/when do you write? Where does your inspiration come from?
My typical writing day depends on where I am in the cycle. I have writing, rest, reading, and networking cycles, and sometimes a cycle of just complete daydreaming. But the typical day always starts with waking up far too early for my liking, and then:
1) taking the kids to school,
2) coming home, and starting the tea and breakfast ritual
3) eating and sipping while I catch up on email and visit my regular internet haunts
4) plunging into the work of the day
5) stopping when it’s time to pick up the kids
6) being on mommy-duty for the rest of the day
7) putting the kids to bed and mucking around on the computer for fun (or doing interviews like this one *smile*)
Oh my gosh, there have been so many surprises. But mostly I’ve enjoyed the process with all its ups and downs and loop-de-loops. In a nutshell, I wrote an epic novel over ten years ago, featuring three generations of Indian, Punjabi, Sikh women. I sent that to every single agent and editor I could find and was summarily rejected by each and every one of them. I revised, tweaked, started something new. I sent that around, again, to every agent and editor I could find. That, too, was soundly rejected. I continued like this until, eventually, the rejections became more personal and kind, and very helpful. I incorporated whatever feedback I received from the rejections and revised. I sent the revisions around again, to some new agents and editors who’d come onto the scene.
And then one of those agents contacted me. She said that I really had a knack for the teen protagonist’s voice and would I consider revising my manuscript to focus on her? I said, “HELL YEAH” (in my head) and sent her a nice reply saying Yes, I’d consider that and would she be open to taking a look at the revision? She said Sure. So that’s how it began. I signed with an agent, we worked on polishing my manuscript together and then sent it out. It was rejected in the first round of submissions. I was discouraged, but my agent said, “Why don’t we try another round before giving up?” So we did. And then we had interested editors.
The surprising parts for me are how hard I still have to work, even after publication. I must have thought things would be easy after that magical moment when the agent calls and says, “We have an offer!” But it was more work after that. And more work, still. Different kinds of work, to be sure, but lots of work, nonetheless.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
Write the truth. Even in fiction, what people connect with is emotional truth, or something that rings true to them – and a writer can only provide that by writing the honest, brutal truth. That’s the best advice I’ve ever received and I wholeheartedly pass it along.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
I absolutely adored Tuck, Everlasting and Judy Blume’s books and Paula Danziger and Lois Duncan and S.E. Hinton and . . . Oh, sorry — you said “book.” Without an “s.”
I just finished re-reading (because it’s so awesome!) Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and will begin John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story next.
Here’s another surprise — I had no idea my work load would DOUBLE with the release of another book! But it has, and I’ve been busy trying to play catch-up. So I really haven’t had a chance to think about what is next, but I am hoping to do a follow-up novel to Jazz In Love somewhere in there. Super-excited about that.
Due to the ethnic content of your fantastic books, did you have trouble placing them at publishing houses? Is the myth of the “one ethnic book” per season alive and well? Was it harder to place Jazz In Love even though it was second book?
The answer to this is a complex. The publishing industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it is part of a larger system of beliefs and attitudes that have taken centuries to form. The challenges in the publishing industry are no different from the challenges of marginalized or under-represented folks in film and video, music, dance, theater, business, politics, etc. There are dominant, prevailing beliefs and assumptions in all of these areas. So, do I think that these perceptions affected the sale of either of my novels? They had to; we are all products of our environment. There’s the belief that books by people of color don’t sell, that books with covers featuring people of color won’t be bought, that only the group written about will be interested in buying a book about that group, and so on. These are real challenges and barriers for authors of color. It’s much like what publishing was like for women in the early days of publishing. In a male-dominated industry, the belief was that women’s writing wouldn’t sell, that men wouldn’t want to read work by women. As a result, women started up their own independent presses, they self-published, they founded collectives . . . they went directly to their readers without waiting for the okay from the male-dominated presses of the time.
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
Abso-frickin-lutely. I joined the Debs as soon as I realized there was a group of debuting authors, and that has been nothing short of a god-send. Truly. I would be much more insane if I didn’t have this community. I highly, HIGHLY recommend joining a writers’ group, or at least some sort of forum or community where you can voice your uncertainties, ask questions, toot your successes, and throw pity parties. It is an absolute necessity if you’re really serious, and if you’re in this for the long haul. I forget who said it, but this writing gig is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And trust me, you’re going to want some friends along on the journey.