UGLY YOUNG THING brings readers back to the town of Grand Trespass, Louisiana where sixteen-year-old Allie is trying to piece her life back together after the death of her mother and only brother.
When the book opens, we meet Allie, a traumatized young girl forced to rely on her looks to survive. All she has left of her family are horrible memories from her traumatic upbringing, and disgrace from the infamy that now accompanies her name. That’s what happens when your mother and brother are both murderers, and you live in a small town.
Allie gets a break when a kindly older woman takes her in as a foster child. But is her new situation too good to be true, or does her new family have ulterior motives? This is a book that will keep you guessing right up until the shocking ending.
The Big Thrill caught up with author Jennifer James to talk about her new release.
You do a wonderful job portraying Allie as a sympathetic character despite her hard exterior. Was she a character that came to you fully formed, or did she take a while to develop?
Allie came to me fully formed. In fact, I’m a little surprised that I didn’t make her a bigger character in my first thriller, Never Smile at Strangers, where she first appeared. Although she was only a supporting character in the first book, she was very important to the overall story.
What was the most difficult thing for you in the writing of this book?
Finding the time to write it. My twins were three years old at the time; I was immersed in intensive nutrition studies, and in the middle of writing the book, one of the twins had open-heart surgery, so I had to make every spare moment count.
Your protagonist, Allie, has endured more than any child ever should. Was it hard for you to put her in some of the situations that you did?
No. Her character always spoke very clearly to me, so all I had to do was record everything I saw in my mind’s eye.
The scenes from the serial killer’s point of view were very compelling. What kind of psychological research did you have to do to make his point of view so authentic?
I’ve had a fascination with serial killers since high school, and have studied them ever since. While doing research for this book, I also sat down with two homicide detectives and a psychologist.
Still, the serial killer in UGLY YOUNG THING was a bit more difficult to write than the serial killer in Never Smile at Strangers. That first character lived in my head long before he appeared on paper. The character in UGLY YOUNG THING was completely new to me and revealed bits of himself much more slowly.
Did your background in health sciences influence you in the development of Bitty and her career as a health coach?
Absolutely. While studying at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I saw Allie returning to Grand Trespass and being cared for by someone who was mentally “healthy”—someone who was the polar opposite of her biological mother. That was when Miss Bitty was born.
It was really exciting for me to see if someone like Miss Bitty could help Allie turn her life around—and give her a second chance at a somewhat normal and happy life. I really wanted to see her succeed.
I have to ask—your bio states you were a dancing waitress. Could you elaborate?
Ha ha. Yeah, for a while I worked at a bar in a Washington, D.C.-area Sheraton hotel, called Studebakers. It was a 1950’s-style diner and part of the job was to dance on top of the tables and bars several times each shift.
It was kind of a painful thing for me because 1) I’m not a good dancer, and 2) I’m a bit shy.
But the money was great, and I needed to eat.
You were also a publishing consultant. Tell us how, if at all, that helped you in your own journey to publication.
Being a publishing consultant was helpful because it helped me learn how to write under a deadline. I also learned a lot about marketing.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Yes, many! I write best in a very quiet area (usually a back bedroom of the house), with a lit candle and a whole milk latte. If it’s remotely cold outside, I like to have a space heater roasting my feet.
I also always set a timer while writing. I use a personal version of the Pomodoro Technique; scheduling 30-40 minute writing blocks with 5-20 minute breaks in between. I use the breaks to clean, cook, bake, exercise, take care of laundry, pay bills, and handle some marketing or administrative work.
What is your favorite part about the writing process?
When a scene finally comes together. When I write a novel, there are many painstaking early versions. But it’s worth it when I can finally read a certain passage—or better yet, scene—and feel proud of what I’ve written.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs), Janet Fitch (White Oleander), Tawni O’Dell (Back Roads), Tess Gerritsen (Girl Missing), Diane Chamberlain (The Silent Sister).
Seriously, I could go on and on. I’m a voracious reader.
Your favorite movie?
Wow. Picking one is too hard! May I pick three? The Shawshank Redemption, Primal Fear, and Terms of Endearment.
I love movies that both surprise me and make me cry.
I have twins too, so I know what a blur the days can be. How do you find the time to write?
When finishing Never Smile at Strangers and writing UGLY YOUNG THING, I hired a mother’s helper—someone to watch the kids and help with chores for a few hours during weekdays.
Then, eventually, the kids started preschool part-time. Between preschool and my awesomely supportive mother-in-law, who usually watches them two days a week, I was able to complete UGLY YOUNG THING and am now on the second draft of my third thriller.
What keeps you up at night?
Always, a good book. I have three going at once. Usually it’s a thriller, a book on nutrition, and something on personal development.
What books would we be surprised to find on your nightstand?
7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen Covey) and Think and Grow Rich (Napoleon Hill). I’m definitely a personal development junkie.
What is the best piece of advice, writing or life, you’ve ever received?
To be persistent. It took me about ten years to get a book contract for Never Smile at Strangers, but the wait was more than worth it.
If you have a burning desire to become a full-time writer—or anything else in life—don’t ever let anything extinguish that fire.
As Confucius once said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
Since graduating from Old Dominion University with a BS in health sciences and a minor in management, Jennifer Jaynes has made her living as a content manager, webmaster, news publisher, editor, and copywriter. Her first novel, Never Smile at Strangers, quickly found an audience and, in 2014, became a USA Today bestseller. When she’s not spending time with her twin sons or writing, she loves reading, cooking, studying nutrition, doing CrossFit, and playing poker. She currently lives in the Dallas area with her husband and two sons.
To learn more about Jennifer, please visit her website.