Somebody who is already famous: A conversation with Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Many Christian Renewal readers may be familiar with Janie B. Cheaney as a regular columnist for WORLD magazine. But you may not know about her multiple writing successes. She and another writer launched the RedeemedReader.com website to focus on children’s literature. She has written creative writing workbooks called the Wordsmith series. She has several published fiction books: two Elizabethan-era young adult novels (The Playmaker and The True Prince), a middle reader novel set in the WWII time frame (My Friend the Enemy), and two contemporary-setting middle readers (The Middle of Somewhere and Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous). She anticipates publication of another middle reader novel in June of 2015 (I Don’t Know How the Story Ends).

Booklist magazine chose The Playmaker as a top ten best young-adult books by debut authors, and it as well as The True Prince were on the list of the New York Library’s Best Books for the Teen Age. The St. Louis Dispatch named My Friend the Enemy as one of 2005’s top ten books for children, and the book was a finalist for the Pen award for best children’s novel. The Middle of Somewhere was nominated for the Texas Bluebonnet award, the Florida Sunshine State Young Readers award, and the Indiana Young Hoosier list. Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous was named a Junior Library Guild’s 2014 Fall selection.

Janie is not only a successful author; she’s also a humble believer invested in a local Reformed congregation, Gospel of Grace Church in Springfield, MO. Christian Renewal’s Glenda Mathes recently communicated with Janie about her work and faith.

Christian Renewal: Janie, you’re a regular columnist for WORLD magazine and have written several award-winning novels as well as a creative writing curriculum that continues to sell well. What’s the “secret” to your success as a writer?

Janie B. Cheaney: There’s a practical secret and a spiritual secret. I’ll deal with the practical first, because it’s the easiest. The easiest to state, that is; not so easy to do. The main secret of writing success is to show up for work. For beginning writers this is a tough hurdle because they haven’t established themselves as a salable commodity. Writing is a unique occupation in that the writer must produce a substantial body of work before the job actually begins. It could take years just to develop the craft and learn certain tricks of the trade. Then the sales job begins, during which you create a product and try to find a market. Over time you’ll develop a resume and a contact base leading to assignments, like any other line of work, but at the beginning the only thing that keeps you at your desk is your own conviction and determination. And, I might add, a certain inner need that all writers have; we are compelled to shape words around our thoughts and stories and to strive for our own trademark style. If you can keep going after months, or perhaps even years, of rejection letters and emails, you know you’re a writer.

The spiritual secret is this: if the Lord intends that you write, he will see that you get the opportunity. So much of publishing appears to the world like a matter of luck (dumb or otherwise): connecting with the right editor at the right time or catching a trend on the rise. For a Christian, all these mysterious hits and misses are divine appointments.

But you still have to show up for work!

CR: Most people who write for a living limit themselves to one genre or type of writing, perhaps for their entire career, but you may be writing a column for WORLD and a novel during the same week. How do you manage your various writing commitments or organize your time?

JBC: Organization is key, especially as your commitments increase; unfortunately I’m not an extremely organized person. One thing I must do is get up early so I can lay claim to the maximum number of uninterrupted hours. How early is early? Try 4 a.m. A detailed daytimer with each calendar day divided into time increments is also a big help to me. Writing down when I plan to do something doesn’t guarantee that I’ll do it, but at least I can imagine that it’s possible.

CR: Your method enables you not only to write efficiently, but also to write excellently. You’ve received several awards, and your recently-published novel, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous, was a Junior Library Guild’s 2014 Fall selection. You structure the novel in an interesting way with an almost-unheard-of nine points of view. Why did you want to portray so many characters?

JBC: Most of my children’s novels are written for middle graders, an interesting transition time. That’s when their primary loyalties are beginning to shift from parents to peers, and that’s a natural process even in the most loving families. It’s an identity issue: kids are beginning to wonder who they are apart from family, and they become almost obsessive about what their peers think of them. My idea was to take nine middle-graders (one for each month of the school year) who all live in the same neighborhood, many of whom have grown up together, and tell each one’s story over a year of shifting self-images and relationships. They are all tied together by a central mystery, which is, Why does the driver make the same stop on the way to school every morning, when there’s never anyone waiting there? She refuses to say, and it troubles some of her passengers more than others. Over the school year, each one of them will pick up a clue to the mystery of the empty bus stop, and by the end (of course!) it will be solved. We also learn who will be famous, but I’m not telling.

CR: The novel ends with an exciting and satisfying conclusion that finally answers questions raised in the reader’s mind at the very beginning. How did you decide on that crucial first scene?

JBC: The first problem with posing nine protagonists in a novel is introducing them. Most authors when beginning a story will be careful not to crowd too many significant characters into the first chapter, because a reader needs time to get into the story and feel comfortable with it. Throwing eight or nine people at the reader in the first few pages is more likely to frustrate than intrigue. After my first version of a completed manuscript had been rejected a couple of times, I decided to use a trick.

The climax of the story involves a bus wreck—in a driving rainstorm, the driver swerves to avoid a passing car, the bus hydroplanes and slides off the road and down a slope towards a creek. I decided to move that incident to the very beginning of the novel: the rain and wind, a highway patrolman receiving a message about a school bus and racing to the scene. No names are mentioned and only two characters from the bus actually appear; one limping down the hill toward the patrolman, and one trudging uphill. Then the scene shifts to “nine months earlier,” with eight of the children getting ready to board the bus on the first day of school. The idea is that the reader knows the wreck is coming, but who are these people and what will happen to them? Any injuries? Any deaths? I’m hoping that after the prologue the reader will be invested enough to keep reading, just to find out.

CR: While your juvenile fiction novels convey deep truths, they are not overtly Christian or marketed at Christian readers. What’s your writing philosophy, and how does your Christian faith inform your work?

JBC: I think a writer’s worldview will automatically emerge, whether or not she sets out to write an explicitly Christian novel. We sense a structure and purpose to life, and simply can’t end a story on a nihilistic note. At the same time a Christian should understand sin and evil better than an unbeliever; there’s a reason for tragedy, but redemption waits just over the horizon. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, and that’s where the wisest of nonbelieving authors end: with a conflicted heart. But God does not end there; he draws that line straight through the heart and ties it to Christ.

Since all my published fiction is for children (so far!) I can’t plunge into the depths of human depravity, but all children’s novels have the same theme: they are essentially about growing up. In the course of growing up, my main characters make mistakes and have to confront their own flaws. I never know what the theme of the story is when I begin writing; that will emerge from my embedded worldview and from the demands of the story itself. The Playmaker and The True Prince, my first published novels (both for a slightly older age than middle grade) are set on and around the Elizabethan theater, so the natural theme is about establishing your true identity in the midst of playing a part (as almost all young teens do!). My Friend the Enemy is a World War II homefront story involving a friendship between an all-American girl and a Japanese-American boy; it’s about seeing below the surface and determining who your friends really are. The Middle of Somewhere is a contemporary humorous novel about finding enchantment in the ordinary, and Somebody on This Bus is basically about adjusting one’s expectations. My next novel will be titled, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, and the setting is Hollywood during the last year of World War I and the early years of the silent movie industry. It turned out to be about accepting profound changes in life that are contrary to the “story” you imagine your life to be.

All of these have resonance for a Christian. The solution to the central problem might not be what the characters had hoped for, but it gives them hope, and sets them up for the next challenge in their journey to adulthood.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 34-36 of the February 25, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal. The following book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 37 of the same issue.

SOTB hi-rezA sweet treat for kids (and adults)

Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous by J.B. Cheaney; Sourcebooks; hardcover; 296 pages; © 2014

Take nine middle school kids, combine them in a bus, stir in diverse personalities, sprinkle with literary elements, drizzle in mystery, and shake well. That’s the basic recipe for J. B. Cheaney’s well-written Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous.

Few authors would attempt to incorporate nine different points of view into any novel, let alone one for middle grade readers, but by layering nine primary chapters—each focusing on one student and one month of the school year—Cheaney creates a delightful treat.

Another challenge with multiple points of view is introducing the characters, particularly when standard procedure is to keep characters to a minimum in the first chapter. Cheaney beats that problem by creating a gripping initial scene set in a terrible thunderstorm (the Storm of the Decade!). Readers learn only that a bus has crashed and children are hurt. They’ll have to read to the end to discover what’s happened, and by that time they’re heavily invested in all the various characters.

Cheaney keeps readers invested by lacing the plot with an intriguing mystery and spicing it up with realism. Believable action, dialogue, and thoughts reflect the wide range of problems and emotions experienced by these kids and the adults in their lives. The author garnishes the narrative with fresh literary elements that appeal to young readers. Many girls will identify with this one: “On the outside, she looked the same but was really a virtual human, trying to act normal while a snake wrapped around her quick-beating, mousy little heart” (p. 77). And most middle grade boys will enjoy: “It may be the kind of idea he should forget, but it’s like a booger that won’t shake off his finger” (p. 219).

Kids will enjoy the tasty writing, but parents and teachers will also have fun reading this delectable book to their children and students. Cheaney’s superior writing leaves a palatable aftertaste readers will continue to enjoy.

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