Interview with Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Posted by Goodreads on July 13, 2015
To all you aspiring teen writers out there: It can happen.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes wrote Golden, published in 2006, when she was just 19 and a college student. In the decade since then, she's managed to pick up a degree in cognitive science from Yale and start a Ph.D. program while writing six popular book series, including The Naturals, about a group of teens who crack cold cases.

Her latest, The Fixer, centers on a 16-year-old version of Scandal's Olivia Pope, who cleans up problems for the children of the rich and powerful at Hardwicke Academy in Washington, D.C. Read on for more about the new book, plus her answers to your questions about profiling people in real life, her best writing advice, and her feelings about Chase from Raised by Wolves!

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Lilly: Any tips on how to profile people in the real world [like Cassie in The Naturals]?

In terms of learning about real-world criminal profiling, I would recommend reading memoirs written by actual criminal profilers, such as John Douglas. Getting to see the thought processes of professionals in this field is extremely illuminating.

If you're more interested in developing a greater understanding of human psychology (or as Cassie would say, Behavior, Personality, and Environment) in the noncriminal domain, I'd recommend doing some reading on the field of personality psychology. There are THOUSANDS of fascinating research experiments out there, looking at how personality develops, the different factors that constitute personality, and how different traits tend to cluster together.

My final recommendation, when trying to develop your own BPE skill set, is to constantly remind yourself that you don't actually know what's going on in someone else's head and that human beings don't always operate based on predictable rules. I think it's often easy to trick ourselves into thinking we know other people—who they really are—far better than we actually do. And because the human brain operates with what psychologists call a confirmation bias, that means that once you develop a theory about someone, you're likely to search out information that confirms that theory and systematically ignore everything else. That's why I think it's really important for anyone wanting to learn about profiling to also have a really good understanding of their own psychology and biases.

Melissa: Why did you choose those specific traits for Cassie's teammates to have in The Naturals?

Developing the characters in the Naturals series was a really interesting process. I started with the skills I wanted each of the Naturals to have and then asked myself what kind of childhood would have led a person to developing those skills. Once I knew something about the way each character had grown up, I started to flesh out their personalities. So, for example, based on my familiarity with the psychology of emotion, I knew I wanted to have an emotion reader. It made sense to me that in order to become as good at reading emotions as Michael is, that ability would have had to be honed in an environment where the ability to read emotions was a matter of survival. So I knew from very early on that Michael had grown up with a father who was physically abusive, unpredictable, and eerily good at masking his own emotions.

Similarly, I knew that I wanted one of the characters to have an ability that wasn't social in nature. Sloane's numerical abilities (and large bits of her character) were inspired by research on the relationship between systemizing (understanding of rules-based systems) and empathizing (understanding of people). Sloane is eager to please and wears her heart on her sleeve, but she doesn't understand people the way she understands numbers, and I thought a lot about how that might have affected her growing up.

I chose Dean's background—and his affinity for the darker aspects of profiling—because I wanted someone whose past mirrored Cassie's, but flipped things around. Her mom is a victim. His father is a killer. There's a twisted symmetry in that, and you can see it play out in the way each of them profiles.

As for Lia, she was a surprise. The initial proposal for the book series only had four Naturals: Michael, Dean, Sloane, and Cassie. And then when I got Cassie to the house, Lia just appeared on the page. I knew immediately that I wanted her ability to be deception detection, because there's some fascinating scientific research on that topic. And it made sense to me that the lie detector would be someone who doesn't trust people, holds them at a distance, and is incredibly proficient at lying herself.

Melissa: And why [spoiler alert!] did she end up picking Dean over Michael?

Ask me again after Book 3 comes out. But until then, my lips are sealed!

Karina: What is the hardest part of the publishing process, and how do you overcome it?

Creatively, I think revising a manuscript is the biggest challenge for me. The first draft doesn't have to be right; I just have to put words down on the page. But when I sit down to revise, I really tear a book apart at the seams, trying to get things where they need to be. I get rid of plotlines, completely redo characters—with The Fixer I tore out about a hundred pages in the middle of the book and wrote them again from scratch. For me as a writer, the best way to overcome any reluctance or fear I might feel at revising is to remind myself, over and over again, that revision isn't about fixing what's wrong. It's not, to paraphrase Taylor Swift, about putting Band-Aids on bullet holes. It's about taking a book to the next level. And there is always a new level.

In terms of publishing (rather than writing), I think the biggest challenge is coming to terms with the fact that writers control very little of what happens after their books go out into the world. And for me, the "fix" for that is concentrating on what I can control: writing the next book and making it as good as I possibly can.

Duchessbookworm: What made you go to college for cognitive science?

I had no idea what I was going to major in when I went to college. My freshman year, I just took a bunch of classes that sounded interesting to me (Intro to Film Studies, Hoaxes and Fantasies in Archaeology, Bioethics, Intro Psych, and Comparative Cognition, to name a few). I also started working in an animal cognition laboratory because someone had told me that I would get to play with monkeys, and I thought, "What is college for if it is not to randomly play with monkeys in academic settings?" And it turned out that I just fell in love with cognitive science, which is the interdisciplinary study of the brain and thought. I ended up taking a ton of psychology classes and some philosophy and linguistics classes, and I became obsessed with the way the human mind works. And the rest is history!

Maryum: How long does it take you to develop the average book?

The first stage of my creative process basically involves coming up with ideas and deciding which ideas to pursue. For instance, right now, even though I'm working on Naturals #4, I'm also playing with two to four other book ideas. I'll write a bit on each of them, get to know the characters, and at some point one of the ideas will pull into the lead. This can happen immediately, or it can take a few months. Once I have a premise and have developed the characters to go with that premise, I start thinking about the plot. And eventually I sit down to write the book. I can usually write a first draft in eight to ten weeks. I need at least two months to revise the book, and since I do a LOT of work in revision, I usually do at least two revisions, one focused on big-picture plot and character issues and one more focused on fleshing out emotion, cutting out excess words, and the like. With my latest book, The Fixer, I came up with the concept and began developing the book in December of 2012/January of 2013. I had a proposal ready by late February. My editor at Bloomsbury, Catherine Onder, bought the book in September of that year. I wrote the first draft primarily over Christmas break, then spent the spring semester revising based on editorial feedback.

Jordan: What's the greatest piece of writing advice you've ever received?

I think the greatest piece of advice I've received as a writer didn't actually have anything to do with writing at all. My parents have always been very supportive, but when I sold my first book (which I wrote when I was 19), they strongly encouraged me to pursue another career as well. And doing that was the single best gift that I've ever given myself as a writer. I'm passionate about psychological research, and that passion gives me a whole host of things to write about and enriches my understanding of human emotions and relationships. As a psychology professor, I research the psychology of fiction, and I cannot begin to explain the effect that has had on my writing. And I am a much happier writer by virtue of having lots of passions in life. So…thanks, Mom and Dad. You were right.

Delia: What do you want readers to take away from The Fixer?

The Fixer is a political thriller, but it's also a family story. It's about the families we're born to and the families we choose and the risks we take by loving other people. So I would say that I hope people take away some sense of closeness to these characters and the idea that even when love isn't perfect, it's still an incredibly powerful force.

Gcorno: How do your characters first appear to you?

It depends a lot on the character. In The Fixer I was telling two stories: One was a story about a girl with a knack for problem solving getting caught up in the family business of "fixing" political messes, and the other was a story about that girl's relationship with her older sister. The character of Tess fell pretty naturally out of those two halves of the story. She had to be someone with a natural knack for solving problems and a reason for doing so—namely, that she hates bullies and can't help fighting for the underdog, even when she really wishes she could stop. Based on the fact that the book begins with Tess going to live with her older sister, I quickly figured out that Tess was a person who'd lost her parents when she was young, was in the process of losing the grandfather who raised her, and had been abandoned by her older sister several years earlier. That told me that Tess would probably be someone with quite a few emotional walls. She's more likely to stay quiet and stare you down than wear her heart on her sleeve. She's independent. She doesn't want to need anyone—especially Ivy.

For me, character development—particularly of a protagonist—often works like this. I know certain things about a story's premise, and I try to figure out the kind of character who fits that premise and who that character would have to be to survive or thrive in the world they've lived in. Bryn in the Raised by Wolves series and Cassie in The Naturals were very much the same way. What kind of human girl could survive and thrive, growing up in a werewolf pack? What kind of childhood would someone have to have lived to become a natural profiler?

Secondary characters, on the other hand, often seem to just show up on the page fully formed. That was the case with both Vivvie and Asher in The Fixer. I knew that Asher's twin sister was going to attempt to hire Tess to keep him out of trouble, and that told me pretty much all I needed to know about Asher from the get-go. I never had to wonder who Asher was, because from the very first scene he appeared in, he was 100 percent Asher.

Claire: Where's your favorite place to write?

I do a lot of my writing at Panera. Free refills! Cookies! Outlets! These are the things a writer on deadline needs.

[WARNING: Major Raised by Wolves spoiler alert!]

Readers miss Chase! Was it hard to kill him off? Would you ever consider writing a short story from his POV?

Killing Chase off was very hard. In each of the Raised by Wolves books, I hit a moment where I thought, "I don't want to do this. This is what would happen in the world I've built, but am I really going to do this?" And each time I ultimately decided to be true to the characters and the world I'd created. [MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ALL THREE BOOKS] In Book 1, the moment I didn't want to write was the moment when Callum has Bryn beaten. In Book 2, it's the moment when Bryn kills Lucas. And in Book 3, it was the moment when Shay kills Chase. I don't regret any of those choices, but they were just as hard to write as they were to read. The werewolf world in that series was very brutal. It was dangerous and animalistic, and the earlier books had established that being alpha was about making sacrifices. Callum had warned Bryn that being alpha was heartbreakingly hard. He'd warned her that being an alpha was isolating. And throughout the series—especially in Trial by Fire—we see that Bryn is willing to die for the pack and that Chase is willing to die for Bryn. In a world that brutal, those weren't empty words. There was real danger. And as a writer, I felt that I had to be true to those characters and that world.

As for a short story, I'm not sure! I would be tempted to write Chase's death scene from his perspective, and that just seems cruel!

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Louisa (new)

Louisa Oh, I really want to know if an idea for a story arc post-Taken by Storm is percolating!

Duchessbookworm I really do miss him!

message 3: by Melinae (new)

Melinae Very good interview! I just love The Naturals and I can't wait to read the next book about them.

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