Friday, May 15, 2009

16 Questions for MG and YA Author Kristen Kemp

I was lucky enough to take a magazine pitching class with Kristen Kemp, the author of 13 MG and YA books, who also happens to live in my town. Kristen’s seven novels include Breakfast at Bloomingdale's; The Dating Diaries; I Will Survive; and Genny in a Bottle, a four-book series. Among her six non-fiction books are Strut Your Stuff; Who Are You Really?; 2 Grrrls Guide to Friendship; and 2 Grrrls Guide to Style. Busy as she is with her writing, Kristen was nice enough to do this interview. Thanks, Kristen!

1. You published your first non-fiction book, Jewel: Pieces of a Dream (Simon & Schuster, 1998), only two years after graduating from Indiana University. How did you land the sale? Was it your first manuscript?

Oh boy. I was working as an associate editor at a teen magazine called Twist. I was really enjoying entertainment writing at that time. I had written a story for the magazine called “20 Things You've Never Heard About Jewel.” I loved Jewel, and I did tons of research. I kept telling the entertainment editor, Marc Malkin (way before his gig on The Insider), useless facts that fascinated me. He said, "You should sell one of those quickie books." I wrote up a proposal, sent it to YA book editors, and it got snapped up. I was thrilled because this silly little book gave me the in with editors I was looking for. I wanted to write fiction.

2. Tell us about the day you found out you sold your first novel, Genny in a Bottle, a four-part series, to Scholastic in 2001.

I honestly do not remember. I chalk it up to aging. I can just say that I was thrilled and then terrified. After I got this four-book deal, I had enough money to quit my job at Cosmopolitan magazine. I was associate editor there. Again, I was thrilled and then terrified.

3. After the sale, were you able to make a living as a writer? If not, what did you do to pay the rent?

Absolutely. I only made around $30K per year at my full-time magazine editing jobs. I started bringing in $2K to $3K per magazine story I did on the side. At that time, my books were about $7K to $10K a piece. I found I could put together $30K fairly easily. I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then I found another cute and cheap place in Jersey City. I definitely made the rent.

4. You're 35 years old and already have 13 books under your belt. What's your secret to being so prolific at such a young age?

I wouldn't say I'm prolific at all. I just get excited about ideas and get to work on them. I've taught a lot of YA students as well. The one issue I see that keeps people from succeeding and selling their work is that writers don't finish what they started. I cannot think of a project I didn't finish, for better or worse.

5. Almost all your books were published by Scholastic. Why is that? Are you under contract with the publisher?

My editor is David Levithan. Now he's prolific as an editor and a YA writer. He's a friend of mine who became my editor. He has a reputation in the industry for not letting his writers go. That's been the case with me. He likes my ideas, and he buys them, even outbidding other publishers.

6. Do you or have you ever belonged to a critique group? If so, did you find it helpful?

Yes, I have. It is very helpful. It keeps me on deadline and gives me amazing feedback. The one thing about critique groups, though, is that I sometimes get bogged down by the work I have to do. I try to just pick out the top 3 bits of advice, make a few changes, but most importantly, keep moving forward in my writing.

7. You wrote most of your books before your 3-year-old twin daughters and 1-year-old son were born. How has raising a family impacted your writing?

I had so much more time. That's the biggest difference. I didn't sleep a whole lot until the last six months. Not sleeping really hurt my ability to plot and think creatively. It's getting better now. It's just a matter of finding time for my YA writing. We all have challenges to our writing.

8. Do you have an agent now? Did you have an agent when you wrote your books or did you submit on your own?

I do have an agent now, Dorian Karchmar at William Morris.

9. What do you love most about writing books for children?

My teen years were so hard. I don't know why this is, but I love to relive them. In my writing, I can make all the wrongs of my teens right. It's such an impressionable, emotional time. It's very special. It's also very difficult. I like dwelling on it.

10. What's the most challenging aspect of writing books for children?

Hmmm. Probably finding good topics that haven't been covered before in teen novels. Fresh, interesting, fun books with great characters are key.

11. What's your typical writing routine?

When I'm on deadline with a novel, I have page counts that I have to hit each day. If the manuscript is due in eight months, I might need to write five pages four days a week. I really stick to that schedule, and the book somehow does get done.

12. Do you have any books in the pipeline now?

My last book, Breakfast at Bloomingdale's, is coming out this fall in paperback with a fantastic new cover. I'm currently working on a nonfiction proposal about a woman who has become a wonderful friend of mine. We are the same age and both from the Midwest. But when she was 18, she shot her sexually abusive father to death to keep him from raping her little sister. She went to prison for life without parole. Just last January, she was granted clemency and released. I'm co-authoring her memoir--it's heartbreaking, inspiring and setting me on a wild emotional roller coaster. But I think this is a story she has to tell. I wrote about her a few years ago for Glamour, and we recently went on Nancy Grace together.

13. Do you have any general advice for children's book writers seeking agents?

Write a short, snappy, one-page query letter. Blow them away with the title and the hook of your story. Every teenage story these days needs a fresh gimmick of sorts. Breakfast at Bloomingdale's had all of those things.

14. What are your favorite new MG and YA books?

Suzi Clue (a former student wrote it), Violet on the Runway, What I Saw and How I Lied. There are so many absolutely amazing ones. I also loved Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist--the book and the movie.

15. What's the best piece of advice you ever got as a writer?


16. What's your best piece of advice for aspiring children's book authors?

Write stories that you love and know. A book idea has to really get you excited and keep you up at night. That's a clue to you that you need to write it.


  1. Thanks, Bish. Glad you liked it.

  2. Kristen thinks one issue that keeps people from success is they don't finish what they've started.

    I bet we all have bits of stories that didn't work squirreled away. It's so easy to quit when you hit a rough spot. Takes patience and grit to figure out what's wrong and keep going!

  3. I agree, Gale. I love this quote, though I can't recall who said it: What's the definition of a professional writer? A beginning writer who didn't quit.

  4. Great interview. It's always so interesting to hear about processes that led to success.