I first heard about Jared Reck when his book A Short History of the Girl Next Door came out. His most recent book, DONUTS AND OTHER PROCLAMATIONS OF LOVE is a must for any library shelf:
It’s easy to look at high school senior Oscar Olsson and think: lost. He hates school, struggles to read, and wants nothing to do with college. But Oscar is anything but lost—he knows exactly what he wants and exactly how to get it. Oscar and Farfar, the Swedish grandfather who’s raised him, run a food truck together selling rullekebab and munkar, and Oscar wants to finish school so he can focus on the food truck full-time.
It’s easy to look at Mary Louise (Lou for short) Messinger and think: driven. AP everything, valedictorian in her sights, and Ivy league college aspirations.
When Lou hijacks Oscar’s carefully crafted schedule of independent studies and blocks of time in the Culinary Lab, Oscar is roped into helping Lou complete her over-ambitious, resume-building service project-reducing food waste in Central Adams High School. While Lou stands to gain her Girl Scout Gold Award, Oscar will be faced with a mountain of uneaten school apples and countless hours with a girl he can’t stand.
With the finish line in sight, a relationship he never expected, and festival season about to begin (for good), the unthinkable happens, and Oscar’s future is anything but certain.
In addition to being an author, you teach 8th grade Language arts. In what ways, if any, have you found balance between teaching and your author career?
It can be tricky. I do most of my heaviest writing during the summer, but I’ve been incredibly fortunate in being able to keep my writing at the center of what I do in the classroom. I run my classroom as a Reading and Writing Workshop, which means my students have time to write every single day, and they have a lot of freedom in what they write every day. So I’m constantly modeling different parts of the writing process with my own work and composing new sentences for different writing activities with my current characters. My students are really my first readers, watching me piece together story ideas one sentence at a time.
I always fear that my process is too slow, or that I’m not working hard enough on my writing during the school year, but, honestly, I wouldn’t even be a writer if I hadn’t first become a teacher. It just wouldn’t have happened.
What a wonderful perspective! DONUTS AND OTHER PROCLAMATIONS is both funny and heartbreaking. What about this story did you love the most while writing it?
I’m completely character-focused in my writing—to the point where I’m still not convinced I understand how plot even works—and I love writing scenes that show the tiny, ordinary, day-to-day moments in my characters’ lives. For Oscar and Farfar (the Swedish grandfather who’s raised him since he was four), I loved writing scenes with the two of them playing MarioKart, from the time Oscar was a little kid to now. I loved writing scenes with the two of them on the food truck together. I just really loved figuring out their beautiful, loving relationship and the complicated past that led to it.
I also really love characters who are passionate about something—whether it’s basketball or baking—and are willing to work their butts off for it. There’s a whole giant subplot centered around cafeteria apples that I never planned, but I had a blast writing it—having Oscar work through this enormous task while thinking about how he might run his own kitchen someday. The whole thing just made me happy. (And hungry.)
Yup, I’m definitely hungry! I also loved the voice in your book A Short History of the Girl Next Door. How did the character of Matt originally come to you?
Thank you! I always wish I had a cooler answer for this, but Matt just came from a writing exercise in my classroom.
Every year in our Writing Workshop, we do a pretty in-depth unit on fiction writing, and we always start the process by developing a believable main character using a simple tool called a Main Character Questionnaire. It’s about twenty questions, and the trick is to answer in your character’s voice, almost like you’re sitting down across the table and recording whatever they say to you. (I still start all my stories this way, with about 20-30 pages of character responses before I ever try writing the first chapter.)
Over ten years ago now, I finished my first-ever short story with my students—a 30-page story about a dorky 8th-grade orchestra member sitting in in-school suspension—and I loved how it turned out. So when I sat down and started a new character with my students the following year, I ended up loving this kid even more: he was funny, and self-deprecating, and stuck inside his own head all the time, and he lived and breathed basketball. He was Matt—before there even was a girl next door.
So before I ever knew where I was going with the story—before I knew I’d even attempt to turn it into a novel—I had this character, this voice, that I loved. Oscar and Farfar started out the same way.
That’s probably why they’re so authentic. What are some of your current projects?
My current project is about a talented young artist who dreams of becoming a picture book illustrator, so he’s constantly drawing cartoons and doodling and thinking about ridiculous kids’ book ideas.
He also sees death pretty much every day. His mom runs a small hospice out of their home—for people with no means and no family coming to say goodbye—so he offers the barely conscious residents a simple act of kindness: he reads to them.
It’s a little weird. But I love the characters.