I recently reviewed Jake Burt’s debut novel GREETINGS FROM WITNESS PROTECTION! I especially loved the blend of humor with the life-threatening suspense as 13-year-old Nicki Demere handles a professional hitman with the same sarcastic, streetwise way as she does the bullies at her middle school. I wanted to read more of Jake’s books so I checked out his website www.jburtbooks.com and learned that his second novel THE RIGHT HOOK OF DEVIN VELMA will be out on September 4th, 2018.
Please welcome author Jake Burt to our 4-1-1 series.
Middle Grade Mafia: What is the inspiration for this book?
Jake Burt: First, thanks for having me! I’m a big fan of MGM!
The inspiration for GREETINGS! came from a variety of sources, but all of them relate back to challenges kids face at school. In particular, I wanted to explore that performative pressure that I felt in middle school: to be ‘normal’; to ‘fit in’ someplace. For me growing up, that pressure seemed so intense, and so I envisioned a scenario wherein that need to be normal had stakes as life-or-death as they often feel.
MGM: What is your writing process?
I start with storyboarding. If I can’t do a complete, chapter-by-chapter outline from start to finish, I know I haven’t thought enough about whether the concept for a novel will work. In other words, I have to know where I’m going before I hop on the bike and try to get there. Not all authors work that way – some generate a great concept or awesome character, then sit down and see where the story takes them. I admire that method, but I also find it terrifying, so I stick with planning.
That bike metaphor, by the way? Not really a metaphor. I do all my writing on an exercise desk. In fact, I’m typing this response right now while spinning the pedals. I find it keeps me focused, since I tend to be pretty high-energy – sitting still long enough to write a novel at a regular desk would be daunting for me.
MGM: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received regarding writing?
JB: I have an amazing agent and a fantastic editor. Their advice for me has been consistent from book to book: One asks me to delve deeper. The other suggests I simplify things. Now, those might seem like they’re at cross purposes, but when you really think about it, they both cut to the heart of what the best writing is: simple, yet profound. They’ve helped me aspire to both.
MGM: How long from when you started writing the featured book until it was published?
JB: I began Greetings from Witness Protection! in 2014. It was my debut novel, so it was what I queried with to find an agent (Hi, Rebecca!). Once I did, and after another round of revisions, we went out on submission. That didn’t take long – Nicki and company found a wonderful home at Feiwel and Friends – but even then, it took another two years to revise, copyedit, send out ARCS, and ultimately publish in October of 2017. In short, it took three years.
MGM: Have you been in witness protection or trained as a pickpocket? I have to ask because the details seemed very real in the book.
JB: Thank you! I’m glad both aspects came across authentically! Full disclosure: I’ve never been in witness protection, and I tested my pickpocketing skills on my daughter, who caught me every time. I was horrendous at it. So, void of any real experience (or acumen) with either, I relied on research. There wasn’t much out there about witness protection – not a whole lot of people in hiding who are willing to blow their cover for a children’s book author, and the US marshals aren’t particularly forthcoming in describing how they conduct their business. Thus, I opted to study other portrayals of witness protection in mass media. That is, I watched a bunch of movies and read a lot of fiction that featured WITSEC and people in hiding. I figured if I couldn’t nail how it is in real life, I could at least be faithful to the fictional concept of witness protection.
For pickpocketing, I scoped out a ton of YouTube videos. My absolute favorite pickpocket is an expert by the name of Apollo Robbins. His last name might be a little on-the-nose, but he’s still a ton of fun to watch, and he does a great job explaining all the techniques a pickpocket might use. His insights were certainly a source of inspiration for Nicki.
MGM: Can you share a fun photo of yourself?
JB: Absolutely, and thanks again for the interview!