Tell us a bit about your childhood/young adulthood.
I was born in Robbinsdale, Minnesota just outside of Minneapolis and lived in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota until I was six. My family relocated to my dad’s hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. My mom was from Cedar Rapids, Iowa and so we spent many weekends on B Avenue in CR. I grew up playing sports, especially hockey, and attended Dubuque Senior High School (FUN FACT: Home of the very first Heisman Trophy winner) and graduated in 1999. My family were all avid readers, but my mom and Grandma Hayslett were constantly passing books back and forth to each other. I have vivid memories of my grandma slurping 7 and 7’s and reciting poetry by heart written by her favorite British poets, as she was extremely proud of her English heritage.
And although I’m now an English teacher who grew up around books and read the newspaper almost every morning before school, I can confirm that I read only two books in four years of high school: To Kill a Mockingbird (3 times) and The Catcher in the Rye.
What is your educational and career background?
I declared in the first grade that I wanted to be a teacher and that’s what I am; although, I wanted to teach elementary school until fourth quarter of my senior year of high school when I decided that I wanted to teach high school English. I attended the University of Northern Iowa and also spent a semester at the University of Wales-Swansea. After graduation, I taught at West Delaware High School for four years as a reading recovery teacher and at-risk coordinator. I am currently in my eleventh year as an English teacher at Marion High School where I teach American Literature, senior English, and Creative Writing. I have also coached high school soccer for fourteen years and coached middle school cross country for nine years.
What prompted you to begin your writing career?
Growing up, I devoured Calvin and Hobbes and FoxTrot comic strips and always drew cartoons and comic strips. My first “published” piece was a short story entitled, “The Boy Who Loved Hockey” in the Washington Junior High newsletter in 1993, in which they misprinted the final line of the piece about the protagonist scoring the winning goal in the championship game as: “He shits! He scores!”. My mom thought that was hilarious.
I never wrote in high school- not once. And I didn’t actually think I could write anything of substance until I discovered Nick Hornby when I was nineteen and instantly realized that the way he wrote was how I thought about things in my head. Nick Hornby inspired me to try and write for the first time in my life. So, I changed my minor and began taking Creative Writing classes at UNI. And I still wasn’t sure I could write, but I knew that I wanted to try. I looked at writing from the angle of: “I know what movies I like and what songs I like and if those movies and those songs were written about me, what would my story be?” That’s how I started. I also had really encouraging writing professors who approved of my bad college poetry and stories with too much swearing in them and just continued to push me in my writing philosophy.
What is your preferred genre and why?
My favorite thing to write is bildungsroman, which is a really fun German word for: stories about coming of age. I just think those years when we grow spiritually and behaviourally are fascinating. And whether those years occur when we are in middle school, high school, or when we’re forty only adds to the fascination.
What advice would you give to emerging authors/writers/poets, or even students in your own classroom?
Always begin by writing what you know! Don’t write about cowboys in Wyoming if you’ve never been one or don’t want to do the research. Create characters that blend personas of people you know and characters you love and aspects of your own personality. Also, find a “writing place”. Find a place where you only write, not your bed or in front of the TV or somewhere that you associate with other activities. And… listen to lots and lots of music from all musical genres.
What work are you currently promoting/publishing?
I have been working on a novel called Teenage Anthem for the past four years. I think I am finally done with it (or very close). I have self-published (with the help of others) in the past, but would really like to do something different with this book and have been sending it out to potential agents. If anyone reading this wants to publish a book about the last day of high school and that feeling of teenage freedom and its accompanying fears about the future, let me know!
How does your work with high schoolers impact your writing?
I think it keeps what I write young. I like to be around the high school experience because it’s constantly changing yet never really does. My high school experience was much like my parents in the late 60’s, and kids today are having the same experience that I had in the late 90’s, it’s just that the times change, as well as the technology and lingo and clothing. I think a really well put together coming of age story resonates whether it was written in the 1940’s or in the 2000’s. Working with high school kids and getting to see what they write helps me reflect on what I’m writing because many of them are just as talented as me, and some are more talented than I am. They inspire me in many ways with their originality in storytelling.
What would you like your readers to know about you, as a person/author/self-publisher?
I never thought in a million years that I could write and put together a book. But I did… five of them technically. The first thing I wrote I self-published because I wanted for my dad to be able to read the book without me having to send him a computer file or print out 300 pages and put them in a binder. That’s legitimately the only reason I did it, but then I realized it’s really self-rewarding to hold a material object in your hands that you created. I would assume it’s the same feeling that woodworkers and auto mechanics and musicians have when they create a piece of art. But I also realized once I started writing that it was incredibly therapeutic, and the first large piece that I wrote was done so after the unexpected death of my mother and I was able to expel so much of my anger into those characters, who are not the most likeable people. But the anger disappeared into them, their poor life choices and habits, and that was a safer place to keep those feelings than inside of me. Tim O’Brien talks about how if literature is written well, it touches people no matter where they live; I believe him.
Music is incredibly important to you, and you even have soundtracks that go with your books. How does music influence your writing specifically, or serve as an inspiration in your creative process?
Growing up, I was an avid tape collector and trader. I would tape songs off the radio and transfer them to another cassette tape and then sit and wait and wait and wait for the radio to play the next song that I knew I wanted on the mixtape and repeat. Sometimes making a mixtape would take me weeks to complete. I still have many of these tapes. When I first started writing I realized that I had created hundreds of soundtracks that I had already made. I read once that Quentin Tarantino makes soundtracks and then writes movies based around them; I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’d like to think so. When I write, I can hear the music that’s playing behind the scenes. When I create characters, I know what’s on their mixtapes and what songs represent them. It just made sense to me to include soundtracks to all of the things I write, because those songs are hidden in the work already.
In one of my books, My Top Five Reasons, I include top five lists of some of those characters’ favorite things: books, movies, albums, etc. and so I want to leave this interview with my top five list of writers, in no specific order: 1) Nick Hornby, 2) J.D. Salinger, 3) Langston Hughes, 4) Paul McCartney, 5) Tina Fey.