Jennifer Echols was born in Atlanta and grew up in a small town on a beautiful lake in Alabama—a setting that has inspired many of her books. Her nine romantic novels for young adults have been published in seven languages and have won the National Readers’ Choice Award, the Aspen Gold Readers’ Choice Award and the Booksellers’ Best Award. Her novel Going Too Far was a finalist in the RITA and was nominated by the American Library Association as a Best Book for Young Adults. Simon & Schuster will debut Jennifer’s adult romance novels in 2013, with many more of her teen novels scheduled for the next few years. She lives in Birmingham with her husband and her son.
Jennifer constantly flexes the best tool a writer has (next to craft): life experience. She learned to water ski at an impressive five years old, and once had slimy, yucky Bryozoa smeared on her. To find out how waterskiing and Bryozoa (mossy lake organisms) could be interesting, check out The Boys Next Door and Endless Summer for a YA summer reading getaway: a small southern lake town, a stubbornly-wild girl dealing with a couple of boys next door and hot summers.
More life experience: Jennifer was the first female drum major of her high school’s marching band. This shows up in her YA romantic comedy Major Crush.
And in 2012’s Such a Rush, Jennifer interviewed her dad and brother, both pilots and aviation lovers, for background on flying, plane crashes and everything in between. Southern Spines contributor Samantha Sessoms has more in this Q&A with Jennifer Echols:
SS: How important was the setting of Such a Rush?
JE: The setting truly makes the book. The heroine lives in a trailer park next to the airport. She’s only two miles from the beach, but she has no way to get there. Becoming a pilot and flying over the town is the way she gains perspective on where things actually lie in the town, and where she stands in relation to the rest of the world.
SS: That is quite the contrast. Heaven Beach, SC definitely has built-in tension for Leah! Did you grow up in a rural area, or a larger city? How, if at all, did the location influence your writing of the South?
JE: I was born in Atlanta and grew up in Alexander City, AL, on beautiful Lake Martin. There were no private schools and no neighborhood schools, so everybody went to school together. I had the privilege of sharing my childhood with people whose home lives were very different from my upper-middle-class one, and I think that still helps me get into the minds of my characters.
SS: What other Southern writers or books set in the South have inspired you?
JE: My grandmother wrote lush stories about growing up as the daughter of a Methodist minister in Birmingham during the Depression and the cholera epidemic. She also wrote about the Civil Rights Movement in tiny Tallahassee, AL, where she lived as an adult. She submitted one story to The New Yorker, was rejected, and never sent out anything again. Soon after that, To Kill a Mockingbird was published, and she always joked that Harper Lee stole her story. I grew up knowing that I could be a writer if I wanted, because if my grandmother could do it, so could I. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t. But I also knew I couldn’t give up. I would get rejected, but I couldn’t take no for an answer.
SS: That’s amazing. Cherish those stories! (and we’ll silently be pea green with envy that you get to read them, Jennifer) What does it mean to you to be a Southern writer?
JE: With so many negative examples of Southerners in pop culture right now, I just try to tell the South as it is–with its downsides, but also its beauty, humor and many brilliant and extraordinary people.
SS: Speaking of some of the negatives, what do you think is the biggest misconception about Southern literature?
JE: I was annoyed recently by a cartoon-like depiction of a Southerner in a mega-best-selling book written by a Northerner. I’m afraid people may think all Southern books are peopled with drawling half-wits, but Southerners ourselves largely aren’t guilty of perpetuating those stereotypes. Our characters are complex, like the real people we know.
SS: Now, for fun: What’s your favorite comfort food?
JE: Black-eyed peas. I’m not a good cook, like my mom before me and her mom before her. All we can make is dessert. But I was taught to cook a few Southern dishes by my mother-in-law, who is from Thailand.
SS: And because here at Southern Spines we must feed our iPod regularly: Which artist, or genre of music, is your favorite?
JE: I love all sorts of music. In fact, my next YA novel, Dirty Little Secret, is about bluegrass musicians in Nashville. My dad plays banjo and practiced incessantly when I was growing up, which I credit with my ability to tune anything out while writing. As a former marching band geek, I love any music with brass in it, like jazz and funk. You can’t get better than the Commodores from Tuskegee, AL, who played at my ex-boyfriend’s brother’s prom. But right now my favorite genre is alt rock, especially Incubus, the Foo Fighters and Paramore.
SS: Any last words on the world of Heaven Beach, SC for your readers?
JE: I hope you’ll enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed writing it!