Author Interview: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (Book Scavenger)

book scavenger 3dI’m so excited to share a recent conversation I had with Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, author of the fantastic new middle grade title, Book Scavenger.

This mystery-adventure story centers around Emily, a 12-year-old who just moved to San Francisco.  Her family has a plan to live in all 50 states so they are constantly on the move – and Emily is not happy about it. But, at least San Francisco is home to her favorite activity, Book Scavenger, a hugely popular online game that’s like Geocaching for books, and the game’s founder, Garrison Griswold. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Garrison is in a coma after being attacked right before he was to introduce a brand new book enthusiast game to the world. Emily and her new friend James stumble upon a clue to this unknown game that sends them on a wild adventure to figure out Garrison’s plans and the mystery of his attack.

This is one of my favorite books that has come out this year. I’ve been recommending it to lots of young readers, especially kids who love solving puzzles and mysteries. You can see my full book review here.  And, check out a sneak peek of Chapter 1 here.

Now, let’s talk with Jennifer!

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Jennifer, when and how did you decide to become a writer?

jenn.bertmanJCB: I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid, but I didn’t fully decide to become a writer until I was in college. As a kid it seemed like a fantasy occupation. I’d write letters to authors and one of them, James Howe (author of Bunnicula), wrote me back. Getting that letter was a really big deal. He took my questions about becoming a writer seriously and planted the seed that I could become an author one day too.
Then, in college I took creative writing to meet my writing requirement for freshman year. I enjoyed the class so much I added English as a second major and took as many writing classes as my college would allow. After college, I didn’t want to stop so I went on to get an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing.

What gave you the idea to write this story?

JCB: I had written a lot of short stories and picture books that weren’t published, but I really wanted to write a novel. I had started several, but the stories would stall out. I thought about what stories I liked best when I was young — The Westing Game, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Goonies, The Egypt Game–and why I liked them. Those stories are about average kids who get caught up in an extraordinary mystery or adventure. I lived in San Francisco at that time and walked the city a lot–half an hour, back and forth to work every day. The city struck me as the perfect setting for the kind of story I loved most when I was young, and then one day I imagined a scene of kids finding a hidden book and being chased by grown men. This situation captivated me and raised a lot of questions. What was the book? Who were the kids and why were they interested in the book? Why would grown men chase children over a book? Answering those questions raised new questions, and that set me down the path that began Book Scavenger.

What was the process like to write this book?

JCB: Well, it was a long process! It took 10 ten years from when I first got the idea to it being ready to submit to publishers, and then another two years from selling the book to actually being published. I spent four years writing the first draft. I was working multiple jobs as well as trying to figure out how to write a novel, and trying to figure out how to tell this particular story. There were many days I didn’t think I’d be able to figure it out. After I finished the first draft, I knew it needed more work. I ended up rewriting the book and that took two more years. Same idea and characters, but a lot of the book changed. I went through that same process twice more before I felt the story was ready to submit to a literary agent (a person who works with authors to get their book sold to a publisher.) The agent really liked it but thought it was too long. So, I re-wrote it again to tell the same story with 100 less pages. All of that work ended up paying off, though, because when Book Scavenger finally went “on submission,” it sold in two weeks.

Wow! I’m so impressed with your perseverance. Did you ever want to give up? How did you keep going?

JCB: I definitely thought about giving up! But, I cared about this dream of being an author too much. I felt the story was a good idea. It was a book I would have loved when I was young.  The hardest thing was believing in myself and trusting that I’d figure out how to tell the story. I had stretches where I had to take a break. But, I was hooked on this one story and always came back to Book Scavenger.

I also had tons of people who supported me along the way — my parents, my husband, friends, writing partners. There are the major people in your life who are supportive, and then there are also those brief conversations you have with an acquaintance or even a stranger, and those can have a big impact on your life too. I found support and encouragement in lots of places, and that helped me keep going too.

Did you move around a lot as a child like Emily does?

JCB: No, I had the opposite upbringing of Emily. I lived in the same house from age three to 18, but from the ages of 18-28, I moved around a lot. It rattled me to not have the stability of having a home. I had taken for granted the security and comfort of that. I thought a lot about that contrast – how would life have been different?

Which character do you identify with the most?

JCB: Probably Emily. We’re both observers who are bookish and like puzzles. Although, she’s a bolder and smarter kid than I was.

Was Garrison Griswold based on any real life characters?

JCB: If anything, he’s an exaggerated, imaginary version of myself. One of my past jobs was a recreation leader. I think of him as an extremely wealthy, well connected camp counselor with a bookish bent.

You already named a few favorite mystery books from when you were a kid. Any other favorite reads from your childhood?

JCB: I have so many favorites! The Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry, The Baby-sitter’s Club by Ann Martin, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, anything by Beverly Cleary, anything by Judy Blume, especially Superfudge and the Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

What books are currently on your TBR (To Be Read) pile?

JCB: I’m in middle of Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb. I love it. I’m looking forward to reading Friend or Foe, the next book in Jody Feldman’s The Gollywhopper Games series. And, I want to read the new Judy Blume book for adults.

I also read a lot with my three-year-old son. He loves books. Loves them. He has me carry a stack of them around the house so they are always nearby, even if he’s not looking at them. He’s very into Thomas the Train and pretty much any train story. Railroad Hank by Lisa Moser is one that’s especially fun for us to read together. He’s recently discovered the Elephant & Piggie and Pigeon books by Mo Willems. Monkey Truck by Michael Slack and Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter are currently in frequent rotation. Two that we’ve read together since he was a baby are All Through My Town by Jean Reidy and All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon. And Bunnies by Kevan Atteberry is another fun one to read together. It’s about a monster who is obsessed with bunnies, and there is a joke that gets repeated and built on. I remember on our very first read of it, that story prompted loud belly laughs and squeals of surprise, which is so much fun to hear as a parent. And the bunnies in the book hide from the monster who is trying to find them, and my son would call out to the monster, “They’re right there! One’s right there!”

Any plans for a sequel or another book?

JCB: Both! I’m working on the sequel to Book Scavenger. It should come out next year.  I’m also working on a separate stand alone middle grade mystery that should come out in 2017.

Bookopolis kid readers want to know…what’s your favorite:

  • Game to play?  Clue!
  • Type of puzzle to do? As a kid, I loved logic puzzles like James does in the book.  As an adult I do Sudoku puzzles a lot.
  • Favorite Food? Sushi!
  • Favorite Video Game, TV show, or Movie? I don’t have much time to play video games right now, but Qbert and Mario Kart are favorites. My all time favorite TV show is Gilmore Girls. I don’t watch too many movies these days, but I could watch The Muppet Movie, Clue, and The Goonies over and over.

What’s your thought for how the Book Scavenger game will grow?

I would love for it to become a popular, viable game, but I think it’s really up to the readers. People need to join in. It would be great if it was something kids wanted to do.

Readers — anyone can play the Book Scavenger game by hiding and finding books in your hometown. Check out the website here. For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, there will be 100 Book Scavengers hidden around town and listed on the Book Scavenger website starting June 26th. See details here. Try to find them!!!  And hide books of your own.

How can people follow you?

You can keep up with all things Book Scavenger on my blog: http://www.jenniferchamblissbertman.com/

and the Book Scavenger website: http://bookscavenger.com

On Twitter — https://twitter.com/jabertie

On Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/jenniferchamblissbertman

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Thanks, Jennifer.  It was great to talk with you. Good luck with your new book!

Want to read a sneak peek? Click here.

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