Hi guys! In exactly one month, I am going to be off to Washington, D.C., with my choir, and I am super stoked about it! I have always wanted to visit our nation’s capital, and I am super blessed that I have this opportunity to go there along with my fantastic choir that I have definitely bonded so much with over the last few months. Speaking of the government (haha, Kester, good/cheesy segue), today I am having Jake Burt, author of Greetings from Witness Protection! on the blog in this exclusive interview, and I am so excited to have him because if you had read my review of his debut, you’ll know why I loved it so much. I hope you enjoy this interview!
About Greetings from Witness Protection!
Nicki Demere is an orphan and a pickpocket. She also happens to be the U.S. Marshals’ best bet to keep a family alive. . . .
The marshals are looking for the perfect girl to join a mother, father, and son on the run from the nation’s most notorious criminals. After all, the bad guys are searching for a family with one kid, not two, and adding a streetwise girl who knows a little something about hiding things may be just what the marshals need.
Nicki swears she can keep the Trevor family safe, but to do so she’ll have to dodge hitmen, cyberbullies, and the specter of standardized testing, all while maintaining her marshal-mandated B-minus average. As she barely balances the responsibilities of her new identity, Nicki learns that the biggest threats to her family’s security might not lurk on the road from New York to North Carolina, but rather in her own past.
1. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?
First off, thanks for hosting me, Kester, and for all you do to support MG and YA literature! To answer your question, I fell in love with stories first. My dad used to read aloud to my brothers and me every night – stuff like The Hobbit and excerpts from Mark Twain’s Roughing It. It was easily the highlight of my day. Then, when I was in grade school, I discovered that I could create my own stories. I had a string of really good teachers who encouraged me (or, rather, at least tolerated my nascent attempts at authorship), and that allowed me to develop a love for the written word.
2. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?
Books: The Hobbit. Le Morte D’Arthur. James and the Giant Peach. The Last Unicorn. Charlotte’s Web. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Snow Crash. Are You My Mother? The Golden Compass. Faeries. Tuck Everlasting.
Genres: Fantasy. Sci-Fi. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.
Authors: Tolkien. Malory. Dahl. Pullman. Basically anyone who wrote one of the above books. I’ve also got a special place in my heart for the authors of the books I devoured when I was a kid – sprawling Dungeons and Dragons fantasy novels by R.A. Salvatore; Lone Wolf game books by Joe Dever; sci-fi short stories by Bradbury, Vonnegut, et al. Given all that, you’d think I’d be churning out middle grade fantasy novels, right? I thought so, too. And yet, here I am with MG contemporary…and I couldn’t be happier with the stories I’m telling so far. As far as the writers who had the greatest impact on me and my writing style, though? If I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably TV writers – those behind-the-scenes authors of dialogue I’ve found particularly memorable, of scenes that have stuck with me long after the show is done. It’s often teams of people, so I don’t know precisely who to credit, but I can name characters on shows about whom I think, “I want my MC to talk like that,” far more than passages in books about which I think, “I want to write like that!” (not that I’d turn down having my descriptions compared to E.B. White’s, or anything…)
3. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?
I’m not sure if I’d describe writing as a job. It’s more like a passion. And lest that come across too tritely, I’m talking about the “If I don’t write this story down and get it out of my head, I’m never going to stop obsessing about it” kind of passion, rather than the “The heavens are my muse, inspiring me to the glory that is” sort. Writing IS work, of course, and often times it’s hard work. It just never feels that way to me, because it’s never monotonous. The same goes for my day job – teaching 5th grade. I love both of them, and for similar reasons: they’re nothing like the hardest job I’ve ever had. That dubious honor goes to working a hydraulic press in a gasket factory one summer in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was hard for me because it was repetition. The sameness of it about drove me mad; I have incredible respect for people who can manage it. I couldn’t, so I’ve spent most of my life engaged with careers that allow me to be as intensely creative as I can be. Writing and teaching provide those opportunities.
4. Your debut novel Greetings from Witness Protection!, which released last year, follows Nicki Demere as she joins the Witness Protection Program’s Project Family and adopts a new identity to help protect the Trevor family from those seeking to kill them. How did you research and learn more about WITSEC as you conceived your story? How did you figure out how to portray WITSEC for middle grade readers without sacrificing a thrilling story to avoid anything too “graphic” or “adult?”
I did what research I could on WITSEC, but as you can imagine, there’s not much to go on. It’s not like people in witness protection are lining up to let an author of middle grade fiction interview them about their experiences. I did access the US Marshalls’ website, Google Earth’ed the facility in Glynco, and read whatever accounts I could get my hands on, but much of what I did in portraying WITSEC and the witness protection program was fashioned after how it has been portrayed in other books, movies, and television shows. I figured if I couldn’t get at the truth about WITSEC (and that I couldn’t is decidedly a good thing!), then I could at least portray a version of it that was consistent with the rest of the body of fiction. As far as keeping it kid-friendly? I don’t necessarily know that I did. I hoped that my readers would be able to handle what I put my characters through, and as long as I was honest about the emotions behind it – Nicki’s desire to be part of something, Jackson’s anger, Brit’s trepidation – then it would read true for them. Those are real for kids, and I trusted that they’d relate. This sentiment was explored beautifully by Matt de la Pena in TIME recently, and both his essay and Kate DiCamillo’s response are modern-day required reading for MG authors, as far as I’m concerned. Check them out here: http://time.com/5093669/why-we-shouldnt-shield-children-from-darkness/
5. Before Nicki, a.k.a. Charlotte, became a part of the Trevor family, she was placed under a foster care system that put her into five families, which all did not work out. She struggles with kleptomania, making friends, and fitting in with her new family as she adjusts to her new life. What do you want readers, both younger and older, to take away from Nicki’s story of perseverance in the face of trial?
Far be it from me to tell readers what to take away from anything they read – I think individual interpretation and connection is one of the most magical aspects of any book. I dearly hope, though, that readers might see that the hardship Nicki has had to endure is the single greatest factor in preparing her for the trials she’s going to face. All of those difficulties she’s come through, and all the tolls they’ve exacted on her personality and psyche, are what make her strong enough to cope with what WITSEC asks her to deal with, and what her new family needs her to be.
6. Would you like to describe to us what’s it like being a fifth grade teacher? How has your teaching career and your interactions with young children influenced Greetings from Witness Protection and you as a writer?
Fifth graders are awesome – old enough to get my sense of humor, young enough to still believe in magic. Being around them all day helps give me perspective into what they find funny, what they find compelling, and what they’re capable of doing (which is often quite a bit more than people give them credit for). They’re also flat-out weirdos, in the best way possible. In one scene of the book, another kid in Project Family is caught spinning himself around in a swivel chair, grunting the chorus to “We Will Rock You.” I can say with as much authority as I can anything: that is very much a thing a kid will do. I have actually said to a student in my room, “Buddy, you’re blowing bubbles with your spit in the middle of a spelling test. Again.” There’s often that sense missing in MG fiction – fictional characters don’t engage in the acts of utter, joyous randomness that real kids do. They make noises just to hear what they sound like. They take their shoes off in the middle of class and pick their toes. They flap their arms at wildly inappropriate times, because their body told them to do it and they hadn’t developed the innate sense of social decorum that squelches such impulses. It’s one of the most glorious things about them, and I pirate all of these quirks as inspiration for my novels.
7. If you had the chance to be a spy, would you take it? What would be your dream mission, and what are some skills you can bring to the task?
If I had the chance to be a spy, I’d give it as hard a pass as I possibly could. I’d never want to go through what I put Nicki through – I’m perfectly content living vicariously through her. If I had to take a mission, and I couldn’t cop out by saying, “I’d like to spy on my family, by being the same old banal husband and dad I always am. Primo cover that, no?” I suppose I’d select something that put me in an awesome locale – China, maybe, or Ireland, or Argentina. I’d be able to use my skills as a mediocre people person to bumble my way through every situation, thereby convincing my enemies beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m nobody of consequence.
8. How would you “sort” your characters into Hogwarts houses?
Nicki is a Slytherin; that one’s easy. There’s a bit of Snape to her, with all that entails. Jackson is a Griffindor – stubborn, ideal-oriented, even when it threatens his family, even when he knows it’s going to take WAY more Slytherin to get by than any Griffindorian altruism. Brit is a Ravenclaw, and Holly? She’s as Hufflepuff as it gets. There is no one who has Hufflepuffed as hard as Holly.
9. Your bio says that you are a banjo player and an ultimate frisbee player. What inspired you to do both? What are some of your favorite experiences with both of those hobbies?
My family, in both cases. My dad is a John Hartford fan, and I picked that up from him. The banjo was a natural extension. Ultimate frisbee came from my younger brother. He’s exponentially better than me, which is always a great motivator for an older brother. My favorite banjo experiences are of the developmental sort; once I can play a song through from memory, doing the lean-back-n’-pick sort of thing, it makes me happy. The best ultimate frisbee experiences have come as a result of the friends I’ve made playing it. Everywhere I’ve played I’ve met the kindest, most welcoming people. There’s a laid-back camaraderie inherent in the spirit of the game that is unmatched by any other sport. Plus, I’m way better at it than soccer, at which I stink.
10. Are there really references to the Knights of the Round Table in Greetings from Witness Protection!? I noticed many of your literary allusions throughout the book, but I didn’t know there’s a few specifically for the Knights! Could you give me any hints on where to find them?
Just a few hints, sure. Riddled throughout the Arthurian Romances are references to the knights’ hands. More specifically, injuries to hands as symbols of flawed heroes. I’ll also say that my favorite knight is Sir Gareth of Orkeney, the one who hides his identity and pretends to be a kitchen boy in order to infiltrate Arthur’s castle and learn from the knights…Take those two kernels and read through Greetings!, and I think you’ll find a few parallels.
11. Your sophomore novel The Right Hook of Devin Velma is slated to release this Fall! What can we expect from you in your upcoming book? Are there any secrets you could give us?
It’s a very different story, though it’s still MG contemporary. Expect a main character who is far less confident than Nicki, but who manages to be heroic in his own way. Also, expect a major twist, a friendship on the rocks, and the Double Barreled Monkey Bar Backflip of Doom.
12. Before you go, would you like to share any advice you have to any aspiring authors or writers?
Try not to fall into the trap of thinking your work is “done.” Before its published, be willing to revise, re-envision, and regroup. Even after it’s published (congrats!), be prepared to notice things you’d like to change; your brain will always be chewing on that idea, long after it’s codified and on shelves.
Thanks so much, Jake, for coming onto the blog! I’m so happy to have you here today!
About the Author
Jake Burt is the award-winning author of Greetings from Witness Protection! The Right Hook of Devin Velma is his second novel. He lives in Connecticut, where he also teaches fifth grade, plays the banjo, and runs around on the ultimate frisbee field. Check him out at www.jburtbooks.com and on Twitter @jburtbooks.
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