Jen, herself a cheerleader, model and debutante as well as a kick-ass scientist, is strongly in favor of thwarting expectations and busting open stereotypes (e.g., "cheerleaders are airheads", "girls don't do science", etc., etc.) Here's what she had to say when we sat down for an interview.
1. You are, as best I can tell, prolific at everything: writing books, writing research papers, keeping current on which actors actresses have bangs, and more. On your website and blog, you talk about how writing fiction is relaxing to you, and how your desire to maintain one position (which you term "laziness") gives you extra time in the day because you seldom shift positions for non-defective straws and bathroom trips. I am willing to accept your proffered answers, but the burning question I have is "how to you manage to switch gears between projects and/or how do you keep all those objects in the air at once?"
Switching gears in between projects can be hard sometimes, especially if I'm really deep into something writing-related or something science-centric, but most of the time, for me, switching gears is kind of like scratching an itch. Once I start being productive, I like to be super productive, and if one side of my brain gets bored or antsy, I switch projects. There's a lot of metaphorical juggling involved, but that keeps me on my toes, and it keeps life interesting, which is the way I like it.
Kim Peek, Jenn, Me, and Lisa Schroeder at SCBWI LA Conference
2. Your most recent releases have been The Squad books (The Squad: Perfect Cover and The Squad: Killer Spirit), which features the adventures of teenage cheerleaders who just happen to be undercover government operatives. First, any further word on additional books in this series? (I know you have a few more ideas, but last I heard there was no official word from the publisher yet.) Also, any word on whether or not The N (home of Degrassi High and other teen-oriented shows) is going to exercise their option and produce a TV series?
There's no word yet on future books, or on the potential TV show. The people at the N have been very enthusiastic, and they've hired me on as a consultant to development, so I'm cautiously optimistic that there will actually be some development of some kind on which I can consult, but beyond that, right now, I'm just very happy to have met some really great film people who love the books as much as I do.
When writing these books, how much of your own wish fulfillment came into play in portraying cheerleaders as the peak athletes and intelligent beings that they are, rather than as the rather vapid individuals that usually turn up in teen movies?
As for how I see the books, I don't think it's wish fulfillment (although I do wish I could kick significantly more butt than my abilities would currently allow), so much as it's just something that struck me as very true. I'm a person who's used to being underestimated, and I loved getting to write about a group of girls who are underestimated at the peril of those doing the estimating– not because that's the way I wish things were, but because I'm a firm believer that underestimating someone really can be and is a dangerous thing to do in every day life (albeit usually not because the person in question is a butt-kicking super spy).
3. In January of 2009, Fate, which you've billed as "a companion to Tattoo," will come out. My understanding is that it's not a sequel, but that there is some overlap. Fans of Tattoo (including my M) are anxious to know more about the girls in Tattoo. How much will we see them in Fate? As a follow-up question, how much research into Greek and Roman mythology did you do in writing Tattoo and Fate, both of which involve the Fates?
Even though Fate is being billed as a "companion" to Tattoo, calling it a sequel would probably be just as accurate. I tend to like the word "companion," because I feel like it gives me a little more wiggle room to make the second book really different than the first. Fate is most definitely not "Tattoo 2- it has a different tone, there's a bigger concentration on the fantasy elements, and the themes are completely new. That said, it does focus on the four girls from Tattoo, though it concentrates more on Bailey than the other three.
The book is set two years after the end of Tattoo, and a lot has changed. As for researching Greek mythology, I did a lot more research for Fate than Tattoo, mostly because the girls (especially Annabelle) do more research in the second book. Any research they do, I try to do myself first, so I know exactly what comes up when Annabelle does a google search, and exactly how she would sort through books and online material to piece together different parts of the mystery. Beyond that, though, a lot of the mythology in this series involves things that I've absorbed over the years. I spot-check things and confirm that they're true, but without even knowing I was learning about mythology, I've picked things up. There have also been some really neat coincidences- like the fact that in Tattoo, the 3 Fates are actually faeries, and in Greek, the word for faery is derived from the term used for the Fates (or so my internet searches – and Annabelle's – tell me).
4. Next summer, the Chaos Theory series hits shelves with its first installment, Science, The Apocalypse, and Me. (By the way, do you get to keep the Oxford comma in the title? I love me an Oxford comma.) From conversations with you last summer, my recollection is that this book features a girl who is extremely talented at science, although the premise is not nearly so biographical because (a) the main character is still a teenage girl and you are older than that and (b) the main character learns that the future of the world is tied to her ability to master high school science, whereas to my knowledge, that wasn't the case with you. Can you spill some more information - say, the MC's name? Whether the high school science involved is chemistry or physics or biology or all of the above? How much actual science is included in the book (i.e., can reading the books actually help teens learn any of their high school science?) Also, any word on the following three books (a title perhaps?)
The book is still under heavy revision, so I can't spill too much, but I can tell you that my main character, Sadie, isn't exactly a science whiz or overly fond of the subject until fate steps in and kicks things up a notch. Beyond that, all I can really say is that it's my hope that reading the books will get readers more interested in science. Even though there's action and adventure and teen drama along the way, you can pick up quite a bit of actual scientific knowledge just by reading the story. The current plan is for each of the books to cover a different high school science, so with the whole series, you'll get earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics. I expect the physics book (still untitled) to be my favorite, because physics was my favorite high school science class.
5. In 15 words or less, explain the phylogeny of social cognition, including understanding of intentions, agency and animacy, and Theory of Mind. Or, failing that, explain in plain English what it is you're doing in order to earn your PhD at Yale. (Note to readers: that first question came straight from Jen's user info at LiveJournal.)
I study monkeys and kids in an effort to basically answer the question of how we, as human adults, come to be as socially competent as we are. I'm also starting to study the psychology of fiction and answer such all important questions as "why do people in pretty much every culture like stories?" and "is there an innate preference for happy endings."
Dude. Your answer to that last actual question rocked. And now, I have follow-up questions to it: Have you formed your hypothesis as to whether (or why) people from all cultures like stories? And do you think there is an innate preference for happy endings? Or merely for satisfying endings?
I'm at the very beginning of my research program at the moment, so all I have to go on is the data already out there and my gut instincts. I think that there's a verry strong tendency across cultures to engage in fictional stories for a variety of reasons- as a species, we're geared toward communication, and storytelling taps into that and can co-opt it in a variety of ways. I'm also of the opinion that there are cognitive benefits to engaging in fiction, and that those benefits may be related to why we like fiction in the first place. For example, fiction is prime ground for practicing our "mind-reading" abilities (interpreting others' behavior in terms of unseen mental states), and it allows us an opportunity to empathize with the plights of fictional characters, without having to back that empathy up with any kind of action. I think that fiction can affect the way you view the real world and interact with people in your everyday life, and I think it can have affects on the way you view and define yourself. How's that for a long answer?
As for whether or not there's an innate preference for happy endings, there's some (very low level) cognitive reasons to think that might be the case (for example, there's such a thing as a "recency effect"). My gut instinct, though, says that a preference for happy endings will be affected by two things- the first is the narrative structure in which the happy ending occurs- I think there may also be preferences for narrative, over non-narrative, action sequences, even at a very young age (or possibly even in monkeys- we'll see). The second thing that I think affects our reaction to a happy ending is whether or not it compromises the reality of the story in a significant way. We want fiction that feels real, and we'd probably prefer, in most cases, a happy ending that feels real to a sad ending that feels real, but a happy ending that feels forced would rank a lot lower. I also think that a preference for happy ending may be tempered in fiction "experts." I'd hypothesize that people who spend lots of time and effort engaging in fiction might view it in a slightly different way, and their preferences may be affected by their experience, and their view of a book as a piece of art that was constructed by the artist.
And right now, that's about all I've got! I'll keep you guys posted as the research goes forward.
Cheese or chocolate? Cheese. Growing up, I absolutely detested chocolate (weird, I know), but in the past year or two, milk chocolate has grown on me a little- still, I'm a cheese girl, all the way.
Coffee or tea? My first instinct is to say "neither," but if I was forced to pick, I'd probably go tea, in honor of the year I spent living in England.
Cats or dogs? Dogs- especially big ones.
Favorite color? Hot pink. This is probably the single girliest thing about me.
Favorite snack food? Depends on my mood – right now, Chex Mix sounds pretty good.
Favorite ice cream? Butter pecan, preferably with a super sugary topping.
Water or soda? Both, usually at the same meal.
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? This is typically a somewhat embarassing question for me, because my music taste is questionable at best, but right now, I'm listening to Jason Mraz, the Wicked soundtrack, Miley Cyrus, Carrie Underwood, Michelle Branch, and old school Liz Phair.
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Probably Juno, or maybe Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which had the craziest, most nonsensical dialogue I've heard in a long time.
Here are the other stops on the SBBT today:
Ben Towle at Chasing Ray
Sean Qualls at Fuse #8
Susane Colasanti at Bildungsroman
Robin Brande at HipWriterMama
Susan Beth Pfeffer at The YA YA YAs
D.L.Garfinkle at A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy