Why would I interview a New Yorker who writes about Hollywood for a website about the South? Because Jen Calonita is just like the rest of us: daydreaming about life in a coastal North Carolina town where boys named Dawson or Pacey are just a canoe ride away. Dawson’s Creek reverie aside, Jen’s latest series of books takes place in the fictional Southern beach town of Emerald Cove.
Jen was a former Senior Entertainment Editor for Teen People, where she interviewed everyone from Reese Witherspoon to Zac Efron. It was her work in the entertainment world that inspired her first series of YA books, Secrets of My Hollywood Life, about a teen starlet who grows weary of the fame game, but loves being an actress. Jen has also published two standalone novels: Sleepaway Girls and Reality Check.
That brings us to Jen’s series of books set in the South. Belles came out last year and is available in paperback this month. The next book in the series, Winter White, arrives on book shelves in October. Our Southern Spines readers have a chance to win both books. Contest details follow this interview with Jen.
SS: How important was it for the setting to be like another character in your book?
JC: SO important! I like to say that the town of Emerald Cove is like one of the main characters in this story because Izzie’s life changes so much when she comes in contact with this town. I spent a lot of time researching coastal towns in the South and also visiting small towns along the coast (from Sag Harbor on Long Island to Stone Harbor in New Jersey) to get a feel for what I wanted both Emerald Cove and Harborside to look like. I loved the idea of towns on the water with picturesque streets with small boutique shops, great restaurants and bakeries that the girls could hang out in. I wanted you to feel like everything the girls needed was right there waiting for them. I would absolutely love to live somewhere like Emerald Cove–if I could afford it!
SS: I’d love to live somewhere like Emerald Cove too; it sounds so relaxing and comfy. Okay, next question: Why did the South serve as the perfect backdrop or landscape for your writing?
JC: I have always had a fantasy of living down South and still talk about moving somewhere like North Carolina. Maybe I’ve romanticized that notion a bit through my research, but I just love how my friends who live there, or who have gone to school there, talk about the strong values, ties to family, and the excellent weather. I would not mind having a longer season at the beach!
SS: Very true. The South and its traditions will put a spell on you! On that note: What Southern themes were beneficial to your writing; were there any that proved difficult?
JC: Particularly in Winter White, which follows Mira and Izzie as they go through cotillion, I had a hard time figuring out exactly when one does cotillion or goes to a debutante ball. It seems like it differs depending on town and state! I spoke to many former debs, and read a lot about the cotillion and debutante process, and everyone had a different answer for me. Some did cotillion in eighth grade and became a debutante at sixteen. Others did cotillion in sixth grade and became a debutante in college! I always worry about being true in my writing, but what I took away from every interview was how much was involved in making your cotillion and debut. It’s not just about the white dress (although Mira sometimes wishes it was). There is etiquette classes involved and dance lessons and a way of life that Izzie must make peace with. I think both she and Mira learn a lot about themselves through the process. I finally decided that I could have a little fun with the tradition and allow the girls to do cotillion sophomore year–and my favorite part about their cotillion is the secret society of former debs who put them through a few paces before the girls can make their debuts!
SS: Secret societies and cotillion; how fascinating! You are being romanced by the South. Have any Southern writers or books set in the South inspired you as a writer?
JC: Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides was one of my favorite books for the longest time. I also loved Beach Music. The way Conroy introduces a setting and a place–you just want to drink it in. I think that was the first time I really fell for the South–even though that book has so many hard issues and themes! My aunt turned me on to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, which was great. I also loved The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Such strong themes of friendship and loyalty and respect. I could not put that book down!
SS: And now a little about you: Did you grow up in a rural area, or a larger city? How, if at all, did this influence your writing of the South?
JC: I am a New Yorker, born and raised. I have always lived in the suburbs of Long Island, but worked for ten years in Manhattan. I always thought there was no place better than home until I went to college in Boston, Massachusetts and loved the New England lifestyle too. That’s when I realized that maybe I could live somewhere else in this lifetime and the more research I’ve done on the South, the more I think the South could be it!
SS: Just for fun: What’s your favorite comfort food?
JC: Oh, there are so many things! I love shepherd’s pie on a cold day. I’ve never said no to mashed potatoes or chicken noodle soup. Don’t even get me started on desserts. I’m not a huge pie person, but key lime is my personal favorite.
SS: More fun! Which artist, or genre of music, is your favorite?
JC: My iPod is filled with so many different artists from Flo Rida to Michael Buble! I always like Taylor Swift though and her new single, “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” is brilliant!
SS: And lastly, do you have any last words on the world of Belles for your readers?
JC: For those who have read Belles, I think you will get a real kick out of this next chapter in Mira and Izzie’s lives together. Watching Mira, who is the perfect Southern belle, and Izzie, who is the anti-Belle, both go through cotillion is so much fun. I love all the fun dares the girls have to do to get ready for their cotillion experience, especially the one involving Lady Gaga!
Learn more about Jen Calonita and her YA books at her author website: jencalonitaonline.com.