Episode 76: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (Script)
Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the New York Times bestselling author of the Book Scavenger series and Sisterhood of Sleuths. Book Scavenger was an Indie Next Top Ten pick, an Amazon Book of the Year, a Bank Street College Book of the Year, an NCTE Notable Book, and has been nominated for over twenty state award and honor lists, among other accolades. The series is also being translated into more than a dozen languages. Jennifer’s debut picture book, A Good Deed Can Grow, illustrated by Holly Hatam, will be published in 2023. She holds an MFA in creative writing and has worked in a variety of roles with children and in publishing. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer now lives in Colorado with her family and so graciously took time out of her busy schedule to sit down and chat with us.
While we would have loved to present her interview in an audio format, because of the corruption of audio when recording, we were unable to use the audio in our usual podcast segment. However, we couldn’t keep you from her infectious message of perseverance, and amazing talent, so in lieu of a recording, we will be sharing her journey via extended show notes and a unique blog post format! We hope you enjoy!
Bekah: Thanks so much for stopping by to chat with us, Jennifer! While we’ve gotten the chance to talk and get to know each other, let’s play a quick game of ‘Would You Rather’ for our new-to-you listeners and give them a chance to get to know you a bit better before we start. Are you ready?
Jennifer: Yes, let’s do it!
Bekah: Would you rather crack the spine of a paperback book or ruin a hardback’s dust jacket?
Jennifer: Crack the spine.
Bekah: Would you rather never be able to re-watch Gilmore Girls or only watch a horrible remake?
Jennifer: Rewatching Gilmore Girls is my comfort TV, and I would miss not being able to do that . . . I guess I’ll take the horrible remake?
Bekah: Write in a cafe or a quiet beachfront town?
Jennfer: Quiet beachfront town.
Bekah: Would you rather only be able to eat mint chocolate chip ice cream for the rest of your life or never be able to edit your book before it goes to print?
Jennifer: I always want to be able to edit my book before it goes to print! I will take the hard sacrifice of eating mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Bekah: Meet your favorite author for lunch or your favorite literary character?
Jennifer: This is hard--I was going to say literary character, but I think I’ll go favorite author and they can bring the characters along with them.
Bekah: I love your thought process there. So, tell us a little bit about yourself, where your roots are, and why you decided to start writing?
Jennifer: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in a town called Mountain View, which many people are familiar with now largely because of Google, but when I grew up in the 80s it was a suburb not many people had heard of. As a kid, I loved consuming stories, writing, drawing, and I loved the idea of creating my own stories, but I really identified as a reader more than a writer. I didn't feel especially talented at writing, so I didn't take myself seriously in that sense, but I did do a lot of writing to amuse myself and as a form of play.
When I was in college, I had the option in my freshman year to take a creative writing class instead of a research paper writing class, and creative writing sounded way more fun. That class ended up re-sparking my love of stories and reconnecting me with much of what I loved about books and playing with stories when I was a kid. I went on to take as many writing workshops as my school would allow, and my writing professor encouraged me to apply to MFA Creative Writing programs and so I did. I got into one and went there for two years. It was a great experience for me and really solidified my resolve to do this. To create stories and try and get them published. The publishing part ended up taking me time, but I stuck with it.
Bekah: That’s amazing! Every journey has to start somewhere and while some of us find out what we want to do right from the start, for others it takes a little longer to find your place and that’s totally okay. Why middle grade though? What drew you to the genre and when?
Jennifer: I’ve always been drawn to middle grade as a reader, but I didn’t realize that’s where I belonged as a writer for quite a while. At first, I wrote short stories in college and graduate school thinking my audience would be adults. But in my first year of graduate school, I came to realize that pretty much all of my stories had young protagonists. At the same time, I also started a job in a children’s bookstore, and was nannied for a family with enthusiastic middle-grade aged readers, and it finally clicked that children’s books is where I was meant to be.
Initially, I was especially interested in writing picture books, and that’s what I started sending out to publishers and agents. I had one picture book in particular that I was certain would be the one that took me from unpublished to published. It got close to acceptance with two different editors, but both ended up passing. And I was too new to the process of submitting my work to realize that those almost-but-not-quite moments were very good signs. If I’d kept submitting that picture book to more editors maybe it would have been my breakthrough. Or maybe the next picture book I submitted would have been. But I didn’t keep submitting that picture book, or any of my picture books. Instead I stopped writing them and almost stopped writing entirely.
But before I gave up completely I asked myself: "If I could write anything, what would I most want to write?" The answer was middle-grade mysteries. In particular, I was thinking about books that had been some of my favorites growing up: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, and The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. At that time, I lived in San Francisco and thought a story similar to those and set in that city would be really cool. I was excited about this idea and decided to try writing it, and that was the beginning of Book Scavenger.
Bekah: I admire your tenacity and perseverance! I don’t think I could have hung in there that long and think our word for the day should be ‘perseverance’. *laughs* I also think middle grade can be mistakenly described or thought of as an easy genre to write, however, as someone with a sister who is a children’s book writer, I know this is NOT the case. That said, is it easy for you?
Jennifer: I don’t think any genre is easy to write if you have a lot of respect for it and the audience you’re writing for. I love middle grade as a reader, and I love spending time with kids that age, and I love writing for that age audience. I have ambitious ideas and am always pushing myself to write the best version of the story I’m imagining possible.
Bekah: What was your journey to publication like? Easy? Hard?
Jennifer: I worked on Book Scavenger for ten years before I submitted it to any publishers. I wrote four different drafts before I felt I’d solidified the story and had something strong enough to send to agents. My now-agent, Joan, had read the pitch on my website and was interested in seeing it, so I sent it to her. Joan loved the story but also wanted me to do a pretty significant revision. She felt the version I sent her was too long for a contemporary middle-grade mystery. What I’d sent her was around 75,000 words, and she wanted me to get it closer to 50,000 words. That revision was a huge undertaking because she liked the story! I had to figure out how to essentially tell the same story but with 25,000 less words. That was daunting, but I figured out how to do it, and Joan signed me as her client. After I signed with her, I did another revision to the ending and then finally, after ten years of working on it, Book Scavenger went out on submission. Once it went out, it sold very quickly. We were hearing positive responses from editors within a week or two, which I felt very lucky about. It was validating, you know, feeling like all my hard work was paying off.
Bekah: Again, perseverance! How long would you say it took you to write Sisterhood of Sleuths, your latest novel? I know your first book was around ten years in total, so was this one similar?
Jennifer: It’s different for every book. I started writing Sisterhood of Sleuths in 2013 and it actually sold as part of a pre-empt deal with Book Scavenger. The plan was for it to be my second novel, however, there was a lot of enthusiasm for Book Scavenger when it published, and my publisher asked if I would consider writing the sequel next, instead of my Nancy Drew book. I agreed and did that, and then they asked for a third book in the series, which I was thrilled to write. So while it has been almost ten years since I started Sisterhood of Sleuths, I completed other projects between then and now too, so it was a much different experience and process than with Book Scavenger.
Bekah: Your love of Nancy Drew is clear to me through the reading of this novel and as a fan of her when I was a kid, I know I would have gobbled your work down like candy. What made you want to incorporate her into your book since Sisterhood of Sleuths is noted as being your “Nancy Drew” book?
Jennifer: I loved Nancy Drew as a kid too, so there was definitely an aspect of wanting to write about something that had been meaningful to me when I was young. But what really impresses me about Nancy Drew is how she has endured. When I visit schools, many kids still know who she is. Many kids are reading the current series of Nancy Drew books that are being published. And there is something about that that just makes me feel . . . triumphant almost? That this teenage girl who was concocted in 1930 has endured. The fact that I have a hard time thinking of other young female characters in pop culture who are well-known by so many different generations says a lot, I think. And then the history behind Nancy Drew really inspired me too. She was conceived by a man named Edward Stratemeyer who ran a publishing syndicate. He published lots of popular series in the early 20th century—one of them being the Hardy Boys—and after the success of that series, he wanted to create a similar series but with a female sleuth. And so Nancy Drew was born. He hired ghost writers for his different series, and a woman named Mildred Wirt Benson was the first Carolyn Keene. She wrote the first three books, which were all published at the same time. And then a couple weeks after the Nancy Drew books were published, Edward Stratemeyer died. He more or less had been running his business by himself with the help of an assistant, and that could have been the end of Nancy Drew right then. Except his daughters took over his business. They weren’t trained for it, but they figured it out. And they kept his various series going, including Nancy Drew. And there’s much more to it than that, but that history feels significant to me. That Edward Stratemeyer opened the door for Nancy Drew, and this team of mostly women brought her to life and kept her going for years until she was solidified as a household name.
Bekah: That’s so cool! As much as I loved Nancy Drew, I never really dove into the history behind her so that was a really fascinating tidbit. Who was your favorite character to write?
Jennifer: Maizy, my main character, was a lot of fun to write. My most favorites are probably the three little kids Maizy becomes an accidental babysitter for. All the characters in this book were fun to write, really.
Bekah: Well, rest assured, I loved them as well. You wrote them so vibrantly and they were such a hoot. What are your secrets to writing believable twisty mysteries?
Jennifer: Well, thank you for saying that! I wish I could say I have an organized way of doing things and wisdom to share, but honestly, my process feels like a bit of a mess to explain. But it works for me. If I have a secret to writing my mysteries, it might be having great critique partners. Especially with a mystery, it’s important for me to see how my story is coming across to the reader. It’s helpful to hear if their suspicions and predictions are what I’m hoping for.
Bekah: You have many accolades and awards to your name—not to mention being a NYT bestselling author! Have you ever struggled with imposter syndrome and if so, how have you worked to overcome it?
Jennifer: Yes! Many times. Almost my entire first year of graduate school I felt like an imposter. Like someone had made a mistake and I wasn’t supposed to be there. But then at the end of my first year my professors chose me as their nominee for a New Voices award, and that helped me see maybe those feelings about being an imposter were just in my head. Maybe I really did belong. So, I think my first bit of advice is to just stick with your goal. To keep going, keep showing up. Even if you feel like an imposter, if you care about what you are doing, if it matters to you, stick with it. We can’t let our internal voices of doubt or fear be the ones we listen to. And we also can’t rely on or wait for external validation—that nomination helped me with my own self-perception, but it also didn’t mean that my classmates who weren’t nominated were imposters. None of us were imposters—we all deserved to be there. We can’t internalize the absence of external validation to mean we don’t belong, or that our voices and stories aren’t welcome.
Something else that helps me with imposter syndrome is writing to please myself. Our writing is not going to please everyone. It’s just not, no matter how great a writer or storyteller you are, what you create is not going to be for everyone. And I think we’re better writers—more authentic writers—when we write for our inner reader, versus trying to impress other people or write what we think they want to see from us.
Bekah: I think I have an idea of what you are going to say here, but what is the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring writers?
Jennifer: Persevere? *laughs* That’s our word for the day, right? Write the thing that intimidates you. Don’t be afraid to fail. Take your time. Remind yourself often of why you like writing—reread the books that inspired you and made you want to be a writer. Figure out what made them so special to you. Surround yourself with things that remind you of the part of you you’re writing for. And keep going.
~ ~ ~
Jennifer and her publisher were kind enough to share the first chapter with us just in case you need a little tempting to go buy it. Which, I can guarantee you’re going to want to do, because that ending…
Hanging out with Izzy lately has been like putting on a favorite sweatshirt that doesn’t feel quite right. Like maybe it shrank in the dryer, or a seam has begun to unravel. So when Izzy calls to see if Mom and I need extra help at the shop this morning, I’m too surprised to wonder why.
“You want to help?” I repeat.
Izzy hates spending time at Alter Ego. It’s a vintage store, and she’s convinced some things are haunted just because they came from deceased owners. Like the floral-painted handheld mirror that’s been in the shop for over a year. She refuses to go near it because she says our spirits will get trapped inside if we look at our reflection.
Izzy is dramatic that way. It’s one of the things I love about her, and one of the things that kind of bugs me too.
“I know it’s the busy season,” Izzy says.
Which is true. In addition to vintage odds and ends, Alter Ego rents costumes. But not the cheap kind you can buy in a bag from a party store. These are true period pieces, castoffs from old stage productions, and really nice homemade outfits. September and October are always busy months for Mom, with people renting costumes for Halloween and homecoming events.
“We can go to Scoops when we’re done,” Izzy suggests.
This makes me pause. Ice cream on a Saturday morning in the middle of September isn’t the sort of thing she would normally want to do. But Scoops is where my brother works—at least for a few more days, until he goes to college—and Izzy and I did go there sometimes over the summer. If there wasn’t anyone else in the shop, Max gave us free ice cream and we had the arcade games in the back all to ourselves. I really want to believe this is Izzy, the old Izzy, eager to hang out and be our normal selves together.
“Sure,” I say. “And we can make plans for Shellfish Holmes. We need to figure out the rest of the plot.”
“What’s to figure out?” Before I can answer, Izzy reverses course, her voice turning a corner from annoyed to fake calm. “Sure, Maizy. We can talk about your movie.”
“Our movie,” I say, in case part of the awkwardness between us is that she doesn’t feel like I include her enough.
Izzy and I make plans to meet at Alter Ego in an hour. I whistle while I lace my shoes, trying not to think about how she snubbed me at school yesterday. Izzy said she didn’t. Maybe she didn’t. She probably didn’t.
I keep whistling.
“You’re in a good mood,” Dad says as he helps load stuff into the back of Mom’s car.
“It’s going to be a great day,” I say.
And I almost believe it.
The parking lot behind Alter Ego is mostly empty this early on a Saturday. It’s just me, Mom, and the cars of people in the yoga studio that’s on the third floor of the old building that houses her shop. Alter Ego is on the ground level, and the second floor is private offices for people who usually aren’t here on the weekend.
“Can you carry that?” Mom raises an elbow to point at a shopping bag in the wayback of our SUV. Her hands are full with a large shadow-box-like frame my dad built to display marbles in the store window. I grab the bag—it’s filled with quilts Mom must be adding to the store’s collection, and on top of those rests a plastic tub of the marbles that will fill the frame.
As we cross the parking lot, I’m mulling over the problem with my movie plot.
“Do you think it matters how somebody dies? Or just that they died?” I ask Mom.
She pauses mid-step to boost the frame up with her knee.
“Of course it matters. It matters to the people who love the person.”
“But would it matter to you in a story? Or a movie? Do you need to know how the character died, or just that they’re dead?”
Mom considers this as she rests the marble frame against the building and unlocks the back door. “I guess it depends on the story. If it’s about their death, then yes. It would matter a lot.”
“That’s what I think!”
Mom holds the door open for me as I continue.
“Izzy says it doesn’t matter if—”
I step forward like I’ve done a million times before entering the storeroom at the back of the shop, but this time the lip of wood grabs the toe of my sneaker. I stumble inside, surprised, and launch the bag into the air. It lands with a plomp, and the tub falls out. Marbles spill everywhere.
“Maizy, what in the world?” Mom flips on the light switch and looks around as if there’s a tripping culprit lurking. Other than the marbles lolling around, the space is tidy as usual. The walls are lined with shelves that hold inventory and supplies organized in orderly bins and baskets, and an empty worktable sits in the middle of the room. Marvin the store cat patters in to investigate.
“Are you okay? What happened?” Mom asks.
“Wood sprites,” I reply, scooping up a few of the marbles that Marvin is now batting in every direction. “Pretty sure that was wood sprites.”
“Wood sprites?” She shakes her head and laughs. “Too bad those years of ballet lessons didn’t help with your clumsiness.” She winks and picks up the fallen bag, leaving the marble tub on the floor for me to refill. “I’m going to set up the rest of this stuff.”
I call after her as she walks away. “For the record, it was only months of ballet! In first grade. And they did help—I trip with style!”
I hear Mom laugh again from the next room as I crawl around, corralling marbles—except for the rainbow-swirl one Marvin is galloping after—and get back to thinking about death. Specifically, the one that happens in Shellfish Holmes.
Shellfish Holmes is our latest screenplay—my screenplay, really. I wrote it. But Izzy acted out the dialogue very dramatically, which was helpful too. It’s going to star Lois, the stuffed lobster I got as a souvenir when Izzy and I went to the aquarium a couple of summers ago. We always use stuffed animals and toys to cast our movies.
We’ve been making movies together since third grade. But Shellfish Holmes needs to be our best one yet. It’s for a group project in language arts. We’re supposed to pick a genre—like comedy, mystery, science fiction—and a storytelling method to create an original work. Everybody in class will vote for their favorite (not their own, of course) and the winning project will be shown as part of a school fundraiser at the Curio.
The Curio is an old movie house that was going to be torn down until a bunch of Larksville residents banded together to save it. Now it’s been renovated, and the lobby doubles as an art gallery and the theater has both live concerts and plays and also retro movie nights. Once a month, the feature is a movie made by local teenagers. It’s a big deal to have your movie selected, and as soon as I’m old enough, I’m entering my films.
But if Shellfish Holmes gets the class vote, then I wouldn’t have to wait. I might be the youngest director to have a movie shown at the Curio.
Our script has everything a good mystery needs: Detective? Shellfish Holmes. Mystery setup? The leading lady of a play mysteriously dies. Suspects? The director, a castmate, and a boyfriend (because Izzy says there has to be a boyfriend).
We even know who did it and why: It was the castmate who wanted the lead role for herself. She tries to frame the director for the murder, because he didn’t cast her, and she’s hoping her boyfriend will become the new director. To help herself look innocent, she’s the one to hire Shellfish Holmes in the first place.
It’s brilliant! It has everything! Everything except how the starlet dies.
Izzy says that doesn’t matter; most people won’t notice. She says we need to move on from the script and start filming, because we only have two weeks left to work on it. But I say every detail counts. Even if our audience doesn’t care, I want to know.
I reach for the last marble, but Marvin zooms over, his fluffy butt skidding past me as he paws the marble into the next room.
“Marvin, you’re not helping.” I crawl into the costume room, but Marvin gets to the marble first. He scampers after it into yet another room, so I stand up, and I’m about to head back to get the marble tub when a loud thud comes from the front of the shop.
“Mom?” I call at the same time she yells from the quilt room, “Maizy, what happened now?”
“That wasn’t me! It’s probably Marvin.”
It actually sounded more like someone trying to shove open the locked front door. Maybe it’s Izzy, even though she knows to come in through the back when the store is closed.
Marvin’s at the front, tail swishing, so I expect to see a face in the window, but nobody’s there.
Before I do anything else, I scan Main Street. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe with my murder mystery on the brain, I’m on extra-high alert for suspicious things. But it’s just the same old shop-lined street, beginning to wake up. Mr. Lim sweeps the sidewalk in front of Scoops, someone from Abuelita’s Tacos sets out a fresh bowl of water for dogs, and a couple exits the coffee shop, to-go cups in hand.
Marvin paws at the door and meows. There’s a large package of some sort out there. That must have been the thud. I unlock the door and open it, shoving the package far enough away that I can step out. It’s a heavy box, and I have to lean into the door to move it.
Marvin brushes past my leg, going outside to rub against a corner of the cardboard.
“Who left this?” I ask him.
Mrow? he replies.