Monday, July 21, 2008

GCC Presents: Jess Riley and Driving Sideways

I've mentioned Jess Riley and her new book (a perfect beach read), Driving Sideways, on the blog before, but I'm really excited to tour her today as part of GCC because her road to publication is awfully similar to a lot of readers' roads, which is to say that it was easy, but she persvered, and now, voila, here she is. Before we get to my questions and her answers, here's some scoop on the book:

Leigh Fielding wants a life. Seriously. Having spent the past five years on dialysis, she has one simple wish: to make it to her thirtieth birthday. Now, thanks to the generosity of the late Larry Resnick and his transplanted kidney, it looks like her wish may come true.

With her newfound vitality (and Larry’s kidney) in tow, Leigh hits the road for an excursion that will carry her from Wisconsin to California, with a few stops in between: Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the Rockies, Las Vegas–and a memorable visit to thank Larry’s family for the second chance. Yet Leigh’s itinerary takes a sudden detour when she picks up a seventeen-year-old hitchhiker, Denise, a runaway with a bunch of stories and a couple of secrets. Add a long-lost mother, a loaded gun, an RV full of swingers, and Hall and Oates’s Greatest Hits to the mix, and Driving Sideways becomes a hilarious and original journey of friendship, hope, and discovery.

1) What’s the backstory behind your book?

I started Driving Sideways in the summer of 2004, after a near three-year hiatus from fiction writing. Based on the lessons learned from my previous ‘practice novel,’ (which shall forever remain unpublished, and deservedly so), I wanted to tell a story that was both fun to write and a little different. So after my What-If moment (“What if a young woman has a kidney transplant and convinces herself she’s channeling the traits of her donor—tastes in music, food, hobbies, etc.—only to learn she’s completely wrong about him or her?”), I created the character of Leigh Fielding, who sees her new kidney as a catalyst to tie up the loose ends of her life by taking a cross-country roadtrip.

I wanted to make it somewhat outlandish, somewhat raunchy, somewhat heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful. The research for the book was fascinating, and I stumbled across the reason for Leigh’s failed kidney almost by accident—Polycystic Kidney Disease. It’s the most common life-threatening genetic disease in the world, and there is no cure, yet most people haven’t heard of it. I’ve been humbled by the book’s reception from PKD patients and their families, and it has since become a cause I support.

2) It seems that a lot of readers confuse fiction with real life, assuming that a novel must be an autobiography of the author as well. How many elements of your real life are reflected in your book?

Many of the amusing anecdotes are true, including some of the more off-the-wall bits (yes, there really WAS an ad campaign like that conducted by Geoffrey with a G, and the way the ‘real life’ Larry died was even more unbelievable than that in the story). I also took the same road trip my characters did, with my own best friend, at least twice (possibly more—it all blurs together now). Speaking of which, my best friend was the inspiration for Jillian, and she was a fantastic sport about it.

But I did not have a kidney transplant necessitated by renal failure, and both of my parents are living and still together. I don’t have an overprotective older brother, either. That said, people who know me well tell me that “Leigh is totally YOU!” (concerning her outlook on life, neuroses, use of humor as a coping mechanism).

3) A lot of my blog readers are aspiring or new authors. How did you land your first book deal?

First, I learned some hard lessons about craft and market trends by having my initial attempt at a novel roundly rejected. But four years later, I parlayed those lessons into Driving Sideways, the first three chapters of which I entered in two very different writing contests to ‘test the waters’ before querying agents again: the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and the Get Your Stiletto In The Door competition. I was floored to learn Driving Sideways was one of eight finalists (from 600 entrants) in the James Jones contest, and the only one of 200 entrants in the Stiletto competition to receive requests for the full manuscript by the two final judges (an agent and an editor). My goal was for the editor to like it enough to request the full manuscript, and as soon as I had that name, I subscribed to Publisher’s Marketplace and looked up every agent that had ever sold to her. I sent out 10 query letters, was able to choose between 4 agents (I was floored!), and we sold Driving Sideways at auction just before Christmas in 2005. It was very nearly orphaned when my editor left our acquiring house (HarperCollins) for Random House, but amazingly enough, I was able to shift my contract to Random. The book’s release was delayed by one year, but I got to stay with the editor who gets me and my book.

And now, the book’s been out for five weeks, and I just learned it’s going back for a second printing…I’m so, so glad I didn’t quit writing back in 2002, when I was so discouraged by rejection that I very nearly did!

4) I have a serious procrastination problem when it comes to tackling my fiction. What’s your routine? How do you dive it? Do you have any rituals or necessary to-dos before or while you write?

Oh, I hear you on this one!! Lately, my routine has been “Procrastinate all day with email, walking the dog, watching the cute wren family in the backyard, read a magazine, walk the dog again, write some blog entries, and talk on the phone.” But I do squeeze in some late-night fiction writing. In a perfect world, I will find a way to balance the promotion of book number one with the writing of book number two—I think I need to divvy up the day somehow. I have until October to figure it out, when I return to my day job.

5) Clearly, your book will be optioned for a multi-million dollar film deal! Who would you cast as the leads, if you were given creative control?
I wish there was a female equivalent of the Judd Apatow crowd—we need more quirky, salty, snarky Ellen Page-type actresses. A whole brat pack of ‘em. There are plenty of roles for young women in Hollywood, but comedy (think the girl version of Superbad or Swingers) remains elusive. I think Ellen Page would make a great Leigh, and Amanda Seyfried would make a great Jillian (or an unexpectedly fun Denise). Maybe Rainn Wilson as Chris? I like Paul Rudd and Vince Vaughn, but they’re a little too old for Leigh.


Larramie said...

This is such a fun book so many are discovering that Target is moving it from the “Break-Out” section to the “New Release Bestseller” section on August 12.

Jess has written a "winner!"

xxxx said...

Love this book!

And Ellen Page would be a PERFECT Leigh!

MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

I was just going to say, "OOH! Ellen Page would be GREAT!" but I see my BBFF Swish was already here and took the words right out of my mouth!