Jake Burt is the author of Greetings from Witness Protection!, a new novel for kids. He is a fifth grade teacher, and he lives in Hamden, Connecticut.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Greetings from Witness Protection! and for your main character, Nicki?
A: As a teacher, one of the most onerous parts of my job is proctoring standardized tests. It's basically cycling around my classroom for predetermined chunks of time, telling kids, "Sorry, I'm not allowed to answer that," every so often.
In one particularly boring stretch (I think it was during the quantitative reasoning section), I started thinking about the phrase, "high stakes testing." I asked myself, "For whom might this test have the highest stakes?"
From there, I jumped to a kid in witness protection - she endangers her family if she fails, and she endangers her family if she succeeds spectacularly.
Once I started letting that idea roll around in my head, Nicki (the novel's protagonist) just sort of hopped in there fully formed, eager to tell me her story.
As I was writing, it felt like I was listening to her and recording what she said as much as anything, which made a lot of fun to "discover" what she wanted to reveal about her story.
Q: How much has your work as a teacher influenced your writing?
A: My work as a teacher has influenced my writing considerably. Not only has it been really helpful in allowing me to craft believable school settings, but it's excellent for learning just how far kids will go, what they will and will not say, and how they respond to adversity.
I hope that authenticity comes through, regardless of the trials I force my characters to deal with.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: While the ending of the novel didn't change, there were several major revisions along the way. In particular, Ms. Drummond (Nicki's language arts teacher at Loblolly Middle School) occupied a much more significant place in early drafts, playing the part that Archer does now in driving the plot.
My agent, the incomparable Rebecca Stead, and my brilliant editor at Feiwel and Friends, Liz Szabla, suggested relocating that aspect of the story to a student antagonist, and I think the plot is that much more effective for it.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?
A: I'm an avowed Anglophile, and growing up I was all about fantasy literature. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Sir Thomas Malory. . .that was my wheelhouse.
More recently, I really enjoy Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman's work. Closer to home, Cathrynne Valente, Nic Stone, Mark Twain, and Neal Stephenson are all favorites, too.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We just finished copyedits on my second novel, due out in fall 2018, and I've sent a draft of book three (fall 2019) to my editor. Fingers crossed!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: A bit of random Greetings From Witness Protection! trivia for you: the name of Nicki's stuffed cat, Fancypaws, actually began as the name of a cat in one of the class assignments I created to teach writing critique etiquette to my students. I liked the name so much I decided to transfer it to the novel.
Thanks for the opportunity to answer some fun questions about Greetings from Witness Protection!, Deborah! Happy reading!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb