By Rebecca Evans
Simon and Schuster
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Gloria Steinem and Aliens. Brenda Berkman and Peanut Butter. These are unlikely pairings, until you meet Jess Rinker and Joe McGee, a power-author couple who, despite their different approaches to craft and writing life, have found a way to thrive together, creating art that matters for our next generation.
Jess pursues contemporary trailblazing women, like Steinem and Berkman, for her picture book biographies. Joe captures a monster-approach through aliens, zombies, werewolves, and vampires for his picture books and his Junior Monster Scouts chapter book series.
Their passions, born from differing life experiences, have spilled over into support for one another. Last summer, I had the opportunity to attend their wedding, which included traditional Celtic-Nordic handfasting. The two of them wound an intricate rope, hand-made by Jess, signifying their bond. Interestingly, the term “tying the knot” sprouted from this tradition. More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing them, both with new books launching onto the children’s literature scene.
Their own weave, navigating art and life, is as intricate and beautiful as the symbolic bond that holds them.
Rebecca Evans: In the world of writing, rarely do two writers find success at love, so my first question is one of general curiosity; How did the two of you meet and were you initially concerned about becoming a couple, as creative artists?
Jess Rinker: Unironically, we met in our MFA program and once we decided to pursue a relationship, I told him straight out that two writers could never live together.
Joe McGee: She really did.
Jess: I knew how crazy I was, how much space I required to create and think, and how every day varied for me. I couldn’t fathom how two people could make my standards for art and creativity achievable.
Joe: It sounds daunting when she says it like that.
Jess: Truth is, I fell in love with Joe and, as we got closer, I knew there was no way in hell I wouldn’t give it a try. It became apparent that the amazing part of two writers living together outweighed my personal crazy.
Joe: A mentor of mine had told me that it is difficult for two writers to live together and that it most often does not work. But I’m an optimist. I decided, yes. Yes it can. Yes it will.
And it does. We experienced a learning curve, especially early in our relationship, before marriage. But we’ve learned how to share a healthy, productive, artistic life that is abundant with love and laughter and truly living.
Jess: We have. We share our trade, our struggles, and our victories in a way that only two authors can. Non-writers wouldn’t grasp this. They couldn’t comprehend how staring at a blank page is considered productive.
Jess: Or that reading a book is also studying, developing, creating. They wouldn’t perceive how bad the crush of a rejection feels or the incredulous high of a sale. Joe and I have shared it all. We’ve had some bumps in the road as a couple, but we’re at a place now that’s pretty easy-going.
Joe: We appreciate each other more all the time. We started off as instant friends with a rare and genuine and deep connection. We got to know each other on a level that was not influenced by romantic pursuits or any attempt to woo one another (but what we didn’t realize was that all the while we were falling deeply, deeply in love).
RE: How different are your writing processes? What works for each of you? What does not?
Jess: Night and day. I like to get out of bed, stay in PJs and a robe and move straight from dream-land into writing-land.
Joe: Man, I don’t even know if I have a process. I am a slow starter.
Jess: I prefer to sit on the couch. Coffee must be present and ever-flowing, as should silence. It’s best if I see no one and hear no one and interact with nothing but words for a couple hours. This is clearly impossible. I’ve had to modify and now, I focus on keeping my ass in the chair, toiling away. It also depends on the stage of the project. If I’m drafting a novel, I really need early morning quiet alone time. If I’m revising or doing edits, I’m much more flexible.
Joe: I like to fiddle with my planner, check emails, scroll through the news or social media, before I start. Once I begin, I’m pretty fluid. I can write anywhere, any time. I can write with a fox, I can write in a box. I can write on a train, I can write in the rain. I prefer to write at the desk we have in the upstairs office. I often sit there and write while Jess plugs away downstairs, on the couch.
I do have a constant flow of words in my head as I sort out story or ideas. I also keep a notebook in my pocket all the time. I drive in silence, affording myself quiet space to think about writing without distraction.
I also use an iPad with a separate keyboard to write, whereas Jess uses a laptop (but we’re both Mac people). Honestly, I could write in the middle of a mosh pit during a Metallica concert while sitting on a carousel (which would be a weird thing in the middle of any concert). I can write in the morning, afternoon, or night. I write whenever I need to, or have to, or can, mainly because of deadlines. Stories wait for no one.
RE: How do you support each other through the creative process? How do you bug each other?
Jess: I’ll admit, I’m very easily bugged.
Joe: She’s also very self-aware.
Jess: I’ve spent a lifetime alone and, now, living and working so closely with another adult is a change for me. I married young the first time. I was only 22 when I had children, so when I reference alone, I don’t mean without other people, but that I’ve maintained a lone-wolf existence; highly independent, fairly unsocial, and rarely seeking input. When I became serious about writing, I didn’t tell anyone. It was MY thing, something sacred and not to be shared. Over the last several years, this has shifted drastically, but my desire for silence still often supersedes my desire for closeness. Joe knows this. He understands this and disappears into the office when I’m cranky--which is one of the many ways he supports me. We’ve learned to trust this vulnerability and to allow a graceful generosity with each other. This goes a long way, for all couples, not just those who are writers. If you can master where a person is coming from and why they do the things they do, you’ll get a grasp of the things that make them tick. Or explode. These are attributes couples should figure out and develop patience with, much like creating a character.
Joe: The parallels to writing and life are endless.
Jess: One of my mentors once told me if I couldn’t access my own emotions, I’d struggle accessing my character’s. Best piece of writing advice and therapy I think I’ve ever had. It’s a solid approach for couples as well.
Joe: A big step towards support of one another is to understand each other. Writers realize the struggle, we speak the same language. Plus, Jess and I write very different content and topics, which avoids any level of “competition” between us. We both know the kid-lit world and can offer fresh perspective.
When two people recognize the pain of rejection, the crunch of deadlines, the need to get something down on paper or screen before it mentally evaporates, the opportunity for deeper connection is cultivated. We get it when dinner consists of pickles and cheese at 7:30. Or when one of us needs to retreat. We celebrate each other, inspire and challenge one another, and push each other, bringing out the best in each of us.
One other great thing is this beautiful tendency for accountability between us because we both want to see the other soar. We carry tremendous respect for one another.
RE: Both of you have a culture idea in mind – Jess with badass women trailblazers and Joe with monster-human identity theme – can you each speak to your universal hopes for your art?
Jess: When I first started, I didn’t have a specific intention in mind. Now, ten years later, my writing contains a clear point of being for girls. I do hope my books are read by boys, by everyone. But my stories focus on a young girl finding her way, finding her path. I hope that my readers will learn about my characters, these women who stood up for themselves, who listened to an inner voice. Honestly, these stories inspire and encourage, and I want to evoke that sense of hope.
I grew up in a violent home with an alcoholic family. I raised myself. Which has contributed to my desired quiet-approach to life. My stories are about people who “made it out.” It was these types of survivalist stories that had helped me through my own darkness – though I wasn’t aware of it as a kid. Those books offered a lens – a lens of hope. Island of the Blue Dolphin, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, My Side of the Mountain. They all held major situations and obstacles to overcome. Sad stories that turned hopeful.
Joe: I grew up with monsters and magic. Initially, Peanut Butter and Brains, was inspired by a situation when my son, Logan, was nine or ten and enduring bullying at school about wearing “non-cool” shoes. Regardless of the peer pressure, Logan wanted to keep the shoes he had and faced the ridicule. Not only was I proud of him, but I thought it was a great message to share: Be comfortable being YOU. Zombies are a great metaphor for people who don’t think for themselves. Peanut Butter and Brains grew into a book about identity, thinking for yourself, standing up for yourself. I didn’t intend to create teachable messages for kids (or adults). My first intention as a writer is to entertain. I want to excite and feed the imagination of young readers. I want to encourage them to write their own stories, invent their own games, explore their creativity. Kids are fascinated with monsters. I, personally, love monsters. Monsters are a great vehicle for me to tell a fun story with fantastical creatures. In a way, we are all monsters. No one is perfect.
Through my stories, I can feed children’s creativity and help them redefine labels. An alien is not a culture, or color, or gender. This type of “being” is universal. In my Junior Monster Scout series, the monsters are friendly, harmless, kind, and funny. Which demonstrates that identity tags, such as “monster,” is not so monstrous. In the end, the monsters teach kids something, like in Scouts, they are awarded badges for kindness, teamwork, etc.
The side effect leaves kids with lessons, covertly woven into the narrative. The last thing I want to do is be didactic, but it is important to allow our stories to help children navigate the world and themselves.
RE: How do each of you relate to your own topics?
Jess: My intention in my writing has become more of my mission to instill hope. It is now personal. Three years ago, with Gloria Takes a Stand, it was only an idea. Now, I’m seeking specific subjects for stories like this. I’m also writing fiction about girls figuring out their world or going on adventures of their own.
In some ways, I have risen out of a mess. If I’m honest, I’ve pulled myself up more than once. This is why these stories are relatable to me personally and passing that same inspiration along, especially during school visits, affords me an opportunity. This subject matter opens doors for communication, helps kids not feel alone and isolated in their struggles. It is a much bigger responsibility than I imagined. It is overwhelming and incredible at once.
Joe: I’m fascinated with monsters and the supernatural. I always have been. I write for the younger me, the stories and books that I would’ve wanted to read as a kid. In fourth grade, I was chosen to attend a Young Author’s day. It was a one-day series of workshops for budding creative writers. I wrote mythology, folktales and super hero stories. In sixth grade, I wrote short stories and read them to classmates at recess. I remember one story in particular, about a WWII pilot who was shot down and crashes on a remote island…filled with zombies. Weirdness has always inspired me.
I should add that I don’t live in this world. At least not completely. I always have one foot in the fantastical realms.
Jess: I’m submerged in reality.
Joe: ...and I’m not.
RE: Can you talk about your writing process?
Joe: it depends on what I’m working on. I’m a visual writer, so I use an iPad. I open a story-board style program and plot out my efforts on the screen. This helps me with pacing and a three-to-four act story structure. I use my Apple Pen and draw notes and doodles and scene cards. I consider this my story foundation, and I write from that. I’ll often write in a linear fashion, but I’m good if I skip ahead. I know I’ll return.
A visual approach is definitely my writing method, which is why picture books are easy for me. I gain a sense of the story through imagery. I see the entire draft in my head in pictures, much like a movie. If I can see it happening, I can write it. This is true even for chapter books and novels.
Once I feel I’ve mapped out my journey, I turn off my inner editor and finish the story. I’ll return later, clean it up, tighten it, edit.
Jess: I’m totally not that.
Jess: Describing a picture book biography is challenging, so I’ll talk about my process for fiction. I don’t lay out structure immediately. I begin with character. The character comes to me through a voice, a problem, a paragraph. I develop the character from that spark and once I’ve captured the character, I can sort through her story.
My process is a messy process. I look for the character’s problem. I seek out what she wants and then what prevents her from getting what she wants. I question my character and look for illuminated places in her design. I feel much like a paleontologist, dusting dirt from dinosaur bones.
Once I figure out the character, I can move onto story structure, the inciting incident, the arc, etc.
RE: Both of you teach writing, Jess at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program and Highlights Foundation, and Joe, at Rowan University and, also at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program. How do you balance your creative process with academic instruction?
Joe: Short answer: I just do. My approach is much like shifting gears in a car. When I move from teaching to writing or from creating to revision or from a picture book to a chapter book, I simply change gears. I don’t feel a strong “shift,” because I’m still driving, doing what I need to do. I just keep my foot on the gas and “go.”
I tend to stay project-oriented, task-driven, and deadline focused. I use a planner, but it has art, sketches, and color-coded doodles that mean something to me.
An important part of my writing process is that I continuously write, always engaging with my art. I drive in silence and shape story in my mind as I navigate traffic.
Jess and I don’t watch a lot of TV, maybe a movie occasionally, or a show with dinner. But we don’t even have cable. I quit watching pro sports years ago because it was a huge waste of time. Time is a valuable commodity, and with more work, more deadlines, it’s hard enough to carve out time in the day.
Jess: Up until now, I had to balance my job with writing, but now I write full time. I’m more creative in the morning, always have. I know when packets from my students are due. I’ve organized my writing enough that I always have one novel “ready” to send out. Unlike Joe, I’m not a daily task planner. I’m more of a big picture planner. For example, when one novel is in the editing phase, I hand my next novel over to the editor, and my third novel rises from the conception stage into shaping the story. I always have an idea of where projects are at, but I don’t keep a detailed plan.
RE: For someone interested in writing for children or teens, what book would you recommend they study and why? What are your thoughts on cross-genre writing – and studying other forms/genres?
Jess: For anyone writing anything – study other authors that you admire. I’d highly recommend everyone read, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Joe: I’m not big on craft books, but three books that prove universal to all writers, regardless of genre or style are Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, and On Writing by Stephen King. These three, especially Bradbury and King, help writers take themselves and their work seriously. Wonderbook is not only full of essays from writers about writing, but also offers a fantastic lens to look at craft, fiction especially. It is an amazing, quirky, visual book full of inspiration for all levels of writers.
Jess: There are numerous rules attached to younger reads like picture books. For example, word count and page count based on the age of the reader is critical. Middle grade and Young Adult carries more freedom. What mostly separates YA from adult fiction is the voice and age of the protagonist, capturing tone appropriate to the character.
Joe: Every writer should study as widely as possible. At SNC, we live in residency with multiple genres. All writers use poetic language, description, characterization, dialogue, etc. A non-fiction and fiction writer develop setting and scene details similarly. All writers employ the same tools, just in unique ways. It’s important to learn everything. A writer might decide two years after graduation that he or she want to write fiction or a memoir or poetry. Writers require wide skillsets and, to effectively achieve that, we need to study in all forms.
Jess: I’m writing nonfiction picture books, and fiction chapter books and middle grade novels.
Joe: I started off writing adult fiction. I’m sure I’ll write an adult novel. I may do a memoir eventually. I’m a writer. I write.
Jess: I’ve been writing a memoir my whole life.
Joe: If you’re a writer, learn to write. Learn to write everything. You never know what opportunity may come your way.
RE: Can you each talk about who has influenced your writing the most?
Joe: I’m going to go first.
Jess: No you’re not.
Jess: Okay, kidding.
Joe: Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing games have influenced me since I was ten years old. They offer incredible use of the imagination alongside collaborative storytelling. They encourage world-building and character development. Any time you play games like these, you create entire stories with the people you play with. This type of “play” keeps the creative gears of my imagination well-tuned.
Comic books, Roald Dahl, and Stephen King are at the top of my list of influences as well. When I was about 12, I met George Romero, the godfather of zombie cinema. I was best friends with his son, Cam, and when George came back to the east coast to visit him, he took us both to dinner and to see The Empire Strikes back. He gave me the graphic novel of Creepshow and props from the set, plus the screenplay and cast notes, pictures, etc. I was enthralled. That moment had a tremendous impact on me.
Jess: My childhood influences are different than my adult influences. As a kid, I grew up on a farm in the middle of the woods with a dysfunctional home-life. I relied on my own imagination, reading, writing, and singing. Despite my family’s brokenness, they were big on reading and music.
Once I decided to become an author, my influencers shifted to other writers, including movies and shows. Music is also a major source of creativity for me. In fact, music moves me even more than books. I’m not sure I could ever give up music.
After our house fire in August 2018, my books were destroyed, but I still had music. It felt like music pulled me through that.
My first few years of writing, I was creative ADD. Now I’ve learned to channel my energy into one thread. I’ve found my niche.
RE: What has been surprising in your writing so far?
Jess: I never thought I’d write picture books, especially nonfiction picture books. I set out to write novels. I’ll back up Joe’s philosophy, learn it all because you never know where you might land.
Joe: I agree. My biggest surprise was that my first few books were picture books. In 2010 to 2012, when I went for my MA (before my MFA), I entered into the program writing adult horror and sci-fi, much like Koontz or King. Discovering my strongest voice in children’s books surprised me.
I never set out to only write about monsters, but it felt a natural fit for me. Today, all of my books have monsters, which is both surprising and makes sense. I love sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.
RE: Advice for literary artists?
Joe: Carry a notebook everywhere. Pay attention to the world, ask questions, and take great notes. Or doodles/sketches. Be artistic in what you do, whatever that means to you.
Jess: Don’t get a puppy.
Jess: No. We love our new baby. Often the advice is to write every day, which is wonderful if you need the self-discipline and have the schedule to back it. But reality forces us into lives with obligations. Think of what is possible. What you need to do to keep going. Finish projects. Find an agent. Find an editor. If you want to get published, finish your book and put it into the world. For me, I had a book that didn’t sell. Great. I wrote the next novel. Be persistent.
Joe: Let me add to that persistence. Expect that writing will be difficult. There will be rejections. Writers get rejected. Editors get rejected. Agents get rejected. Let the rejections fuel you to strive harder for the next thing. Writing makes us vulnerable. We put ourselves out there. Allow this vulnerability to fuel your desire.
Jess: I’ve not always been great at this. I’ve asked, “was this a waste a time?” Get a grip. Rejection makes you a better writer for your next project.
Joe: unfortunately, there’s a tendency with many writers to feel like they are competing with one another. Instead of supporting each other, there resides unkindness. During the opening of a writing conference, best-selling author, Jonathan Maberry, reminded everyone that a rising tide helps all ships. We are not competing. If there is an abundance of good books, the industry will hire more editors. The stores will build more shelves. If you write a solid book, it will find its way into the world. We should celebrate each other. Lift each other up. More books equals more readers who want the next book. That book could be yours.
There is so much more to living life as an author, to being a professional writer. Anyone can sit down and write something. A professional offers more than just their words on the page. We are writing, giving something of ourselves to the world. So be available. Share yourself with your readers, with other writers trying to learn the craft. You should lift up the art. Lift up other writers. It is selfish to stay in your clique.
Artists go to the gallery and share their vision with their audience and other artists. Writers should too. As writers, we have much more to do. Our passion, our knowledge, our support of each other. If you want someone to celebrate and share your words, you need to do the same. Be a champion of the craft. Respect each other and the work we do.
Jess Rinker's debut picture book, Gloria Takes a Stand, a biography of Gloria Steinem, is available now. Her second picture book biography, Send a Girl: The Brenda Berkman Story is forthcoming in 2021. Both are being published by Bloomsbury. Jessica’s middle grade novel debut duology, The Dare Sisters, will be published in Fall 2020 and 2021 by Imprint/Macmillan. Jess has a BA in Social Welfare and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has won many awards for her work including short story, creative nonfiction, and most recently an honorable mention for the Katherine Paterson Prize from Hunger Mountain for her middle grade manuscript, The Young Traveler’s Club.
Joe is the author of the picture books Peanut Butter & Brains, Peanut Butter & Aliens, and the forthcoming Peanut Butter & Santa Claus (Abrams, Fall 2019) as well as the Junior Monster Scouts chapter book series, starting with book #1, The Monster Squad (Aladdin, September 2019). He is a former airborne Army officer and an amateur cartoonist. Joe teaches creative writing at Rowan University, in New Jersey, and at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program, in Nevada. He is allergic to mayonnaise and sharks.
Rebecca Evans served eight years in the United States Air Force and is a decorated Gulf War veteran. She’s hosted and co-produced Our Voice and Idaho Living television shows, advocating personal stories, and now mentors teens in the juvenile system. She held the title of Mrs. Idaho International and earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Boise State University, minoring in Psychology, and was honored with the BSU “Women Making History in Idaho.” Winner of the 2018 Cunningham short fiction story award, she was also a finalist for december Magazine’s 2018 Curt Johnson Prose Award and has made the short list as semi-finalist for American Short Fiction’s Short Story Contest. Her work has appeared in Tiferet Journal, Fiction Southeast, Gravel Literary Magazine, Scribes Valley Publishing’s Take a Mind Trip (Anthology), Willow Down Books’ Our World, Your Place (Anthology), and is forthcoming in The Rumpus, War, Literature & the Arts, among others. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Sierra Nevada College and serves on the editorial staff of the Sierra Nevada Review. She lives in Idaho with her three sons.