Monday, March 31, 2014

Interrogation Room #41: Janie Chodosh, author of DEATH SPIRAL

Janie Chodosh, YA mystery author
We have an exciting double debut here at the Sleuths, Spies & Alibis Interrogation Room today! A new author, and a new YA publishing imprint!

Janie Chodosh is the author of the YA mystery DEATH SPIRAL: A FAITH FLORES SCIENCE MYSTERY, which releases tomorrow, April 1. (Yes, we know it's April Fool's Day, but we're serious!) This is Janie's debut novel, and will be the first in a three-part series.  

DEATH SPIRAL also kicks off a new YA publishing imprint, The Poisoned Pencil, which is dedicated to YA mystery. (woo hoo!) You can find out about other forthcoming Poisoned Pencil books here and follow them on Twitter at @PoisonedPencil.

Publisher's Weekly has this to say about DEATH SPIRAL: "Sharp characterization and deft descriptions make this a solid addition to the amateur detective shelf." High praise! Intrigued? We were! Here's a bit more about the first book in this exciting new series:

Life is tough when you have a junkie for a mom. But when sixteen-year-old Faith Flores—scientist wannabe, loner, new girl in town—finds her mom dead on the bathroom floor, she refuses to believe her mom really OD'd. But the cops have closed the case and her Aunt T, with whom she now lives in the Philly ‘burbs, wants Faith to let go and move on.

But a note from Melinda, her mom's junkie friend, leads Faith to a seedy downtown methadone clinic. Were her mom and Melinda trying to get clean?

When Melinda dies of an overdose, Faith tracks down the scientists behind the trial running at the methadone clinic. Soon she's cutting school and lying to everyone—her aunt, her best friend, even the cops. Everyone, that is,  except the strangely alluring Jesse, who believes the “real” education's on the street and whose in-your-face honesty threatens to invade Faith's self-imposed “no-dating” rule. A drug-dealer named Rat-Catcher warns Faith to back off, but it doesn't stop Faith from confronting a genetics professor with a guilty conscience. When the medical examiner's body winds up in the Schuylkill River, Faith realizes if she doesn't act fast, she may be the next body in the morgue. Can Faith stop this deal gone bad from taking a sharp turn for the worse?

And now, Janie Chodosh faces our panel! (We'll go a bit easy on her today, since she's new!)

What was the original seed of the novel? Did you know from the outset that you were going to be writing a mystery?

The original seed for DEATH SPIRAL came from watching a documentary about the human genome project and about the decoding of our DNA—three billion pairs of A’s, C’s, T’s and G’s, and some thirty thousand genes. The knowledge of our inner biological workings seemed to me a Pandora’s box of medical and ethical questions perfect for fiction. When I watched the documentary, scientists were able to patent genes they discovered. (The Supreme Court has since ruled against this patenting of genes). My sinister (though I prefer to say imaginative) mind went crazy. I sat down right away and started brainstorming. If scientists could patent genes could they not hide information? Take advantage of a captive population? Science and medicine for profit, holding scientific information captive. All of these ideas intrigued me.

As young adult mysteries go, you’re a long way from Nancy Drew! Can you describe the process of writing about such topics for teens? Do you consciously tone down for your intended audience? Why or why not?

Teens, especially the upper teenage audience, are completely on board for real life topics and real life debates. I see the mystery of DEATH SPIRAL as one involving justice and ethics, and justice and ethics are topics that teenagers are very interested in. In this regard, I do not tone anything down. Today’s teens have so much to deal with, so much information, and they are exposed to so much. While I don’t write anything that I would consider graphic, be it sex or violence, I stay true to what I imagine Faith, my protagonist, an urban, 16-year-old who was raised by a junkie mother and no father, would experience. If that means swearing, then she swears. I always ask myself if what I am writing is authentic. If not, I delete. One topic I have thought a lot about is sex in a young adult novel. Should it be there or not?  In the myriad YA novels I’ve read, intimate relationships are almost always explored. This does not mean characters are sexually active, but sexuality and intimacy play a part of their growing identity. Since The Poisoned Pencil Press is geared to the older YA reader, I really felt that sex needed to be addressed. Whether they are sexually active or not, teenagers are curious and exploring this aspect of their lives.

What do you find to be the hardest part about writing mystery novels for a younger audience? Did you face any particular challenges, and if so, how did you overcome it?

Many of today’s teen readers want to be entertained, but they also want to be challenged and engaged. How do you accomplish this as a writer? Teens are smart readers, so how do you write a mystery that will hook, engage, entertain, not condescend, not be solvable by page ten, and make them read to the end? These things, for me, are all part of the joy and the challenge or writing a YA mystery. As I write, I’m not conscious of each of these things. I’m conscious of telling a good story with authentic characters. If I stay true to Faith and Jesse (Faith’s love interest) and their quirks and insecurities, and if I imagine my own quirks and insecurities as a teenager (and there were many) then I know I’m doing my job.

As far as the mystery of DEATH SPIRAL is concerned, writing about a teenage sleuth in a scientific mystery, where understanding the science is critical to understanding the book, I had to be careful to explain the science in a way that was not “boring” or didactic. One way I address this is to have Faith and Jesse learn the science together and talk about what they’re learning. This way I can use their voices, their language, and their way of processing, to make the concepts clear. Another challenge in a YA mystery is thinking about what tools teens have available to them. For example, can they drive? Do they have a curfew? Do they have to skip school to investigate a clue? These are things we as adults don’t have to think about.

We understand you have a strong interest in science. How did that interest influence your writing of the book?

To begin with I love natural history. I am an avid bird watcher, which even to me sounds geeky when it’s written down! But I love the outdoors and nature, so that interest always appears in my writing. Even if a character is squeamish in the outdoors; I always acknowledge the presence of the natural world. In terms of a mystery, my husband is a PhD geneticist. Some of the things happening today in what is called personal genomic medicine seem like fiction, maybe even science fiction. I love talking to him about the projects he is working on, and I know from my years as a middle school biology teacher, that genetics has a strong pull for teens. They are very interested in self-discovery, and what topic could address self-discovery better than learning about your own genetic code? I always felt it would be interesting and fun to bridge the gap between my love of literature and my love of science. So coming up with a mystery that revolves around genetics was very exciting. And then to be asked to make the book into a series, really blew me away!

Are you an avid mystery reader yourself? What have been some of your favorite mysteries, real life or fiction?

I have to admit that before I started writing DEATH SPIRAL I was not an avid mystery reader. I am, and was, an avid reader of young adult fiction, but I mostly read realistic fiction. Having said that, I believe most YA, and most books, have an element of mystery. I mean the story has to unfold and if there is enough tension and drama, there is mystery. Now, however, I read many traditional mysteries and I love doing so. I love to do what every good mystery reader does, and try to figure out who the bad guy is and to look for clues.  One of my favorite middle grade mysteries is THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION Recently I read CODE NAME VERITY, which was a fabulous page-turner. I loved the ultimate reveal because it was so not what I was expecting!

DEATH SPIRAL is the first in a series. Did you have an entire series in mind when you started writing?

I definitely did not have a series in mind when I started writing. When my editor suggested a series my first reaction was, “Um. Nope. Don’t think so.” And then, “Why not?” Initially I think I was confusing series with sequels, so when I understood that a series was the same character with a different mystery, I fell in love with the idea because I love Faith and Jesse. Both as individuals and as a unit, they did not feel “done” to me. Having a chance to carry their arc through several books is very exciting.

We don’t see many mystery series for older teens -- they're often stand-alones. What makes the idea of writing a mystery series with a teen sleuth so appealing to you? And are there any challenges in featuring the same teen sleuth across several books?

To be honest, I was worried at first about writing a series with a teen sleuth, or a series at all for that matter. How do you keep each book fresh? I did not want Faith to just happen to fall into another mystery, like OMG! There’s a dead guy, better investigate. I wanted whatever sleuthing she would be doing to be authentic and related to her life circumstances. So what I love about writing book two and thinking about book three is the overall arc of Faith’s story. Where does she need to go for her own healing growth process and journey? I don’t just mean where does she have to go emotionally, but physically. So book two takes Faith to New Mexico. It is in the authentic experience in New Mexico where she finds herself involved with not just one, but two mysteries.  (As if writing one isn’t hard enough). I also like to broaden the “whodunnit” aspect of mystery to personal mystery, in this case the mystery of Faith and her identity. I think teens can really relate to this idea of one’s identity being a mystery. Who am I? In Faith’s case, she does not know who her father is or even what her ethnicity is, so there is a lot of personal mystery for her to figure out.

What writing secret will you reveal only under the harsh lights of the interrogation room?

It takes me a good hour of puttering before I can get writing. I am not a putterer (is that a word?) or a procrastinator by nature, but when it comes to writing, I must, literally MUST, clean something before I sit down to write.

Janie, you can come clean our houses anytime! 

Seriously, thank you for coming in today, and we hope to have you back in here as a "repeat offender" when the next book in the series comes out! 

Here's where to track down Janie Chodosh:

Her website
Twitter: @jmegchod

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