About Joelle Charbonneau
Joelle has performed in opera and musical theater productions across Chicagoland. She now teaches private voice lessons and is the author of the New York Times best selling The Testing trilogy (The Testing, Independent Study, and Graduation Day) as well as two mystery series: The Rebecca Robbins mysteries and the Glee Club mysteries. Her YA books have appeared on the Indie Next List, on the YALSA Top 10 books for 2014 as well as the YALSA Quick Picks for reluctant readers.
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Did you always want to be a writer?
I am always embarrassed to admit that I never thought I’d be an author. Growing up, I loved reading, but I never was one to write stories or dream of being published. Instead, I was a theater and music girl. My undergraduate degree is in music and theater and my Masters degree is in Opera Performance. For most of my 20s I sang and danced on stage. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I had an idea for a book and decided to sit down and attempt to write.
What is the hardest thing about writing a book?
The middle. The middle of a book is the hardest part to write every single time. Starting a book is a true joy. The idea is fresh and new. The pages are blank. It’s all about possibilities and fun. After a few chapters, I tend to leave behind the bubbly excitement that has driven me and suddenly the books feels like the worst thing that has ever been written in the history of ever. Thankfully, the middle eventually gives way to THE END.
Where did the idea for The Testing trilogy come from?
The Testing concept came out of my work with my voice students. For years, I’ve worked closely with my private voice students as they navigate the testing, application and audition process required to be accepted into college. The pressure on our high school students is greater than ever before. The need to be better and brighter than the other applicants has never been more keenly felt. Students are hyper aware that every answer they give could impact the quality of their future. Some of my students handle the pressure better than others and it is never easy to see a student falter. The teacher and parent in me can’t help but be worried that the benchmark of success has risen too high and that soon it will be more than our youth can handle. The writer couldn’t help but wonder how much worse the process could become and what tests a future world might want to institute in order to select the next generation of leaders. And thus The Testing was born.
What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
Write an entire book. That seems simplistic, but it isn’t. It is the very first step in the process. If you have an idea for a story, write it. Get to the end. Then you can figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. Many writers get so caught up in making their writing perfect that they never get to the end of a novel. They are too busy revising the beginning. Often, once the novel is written, the beginning changes or gets cut. You won’t know if this is true for you until the book is written and you know where the story is going. Once you have the book finished, I recommend joining a professional writing group like RWA to help improve your writing and help you learn the business.
How much are your protagonists like you (or vice versa)?
Most people assume that Rebecca Robbins is a great deal like me. She has red hair and… and… that’s about it. The two of us have red hair, but I am totally jealous that she is shorter than I am. Being tall is great for reaching the top shelf at the grocery store, but it isn’t much fun when you are a theater performer. There are never enough tall leading men to go around.
Paige Marshall and I probably have the most in common because we are both stage performers. The big difference is while we both went into teaching to supplement our performance income, I love it. Paige is still adjusting to dealing with teenagers.
My young adult protagonist, Cia is about to turn 17. So I probably had more in common with her back in my high school days. However, I would like to think that I am loyal to my friends and want to believe the best in people. As for her mechanical skills—well, let’s just say she has me totally beat in that area.
Do you belong to any writers groups?
YES! Over the years, I have belonged to a number of writers groups. Currently, I am a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Sisters In Crime and SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).
Do you belong to a critique group?
I used to! When I was first learning the business of writing and through the first few years of seriously pursuing publication I belonged to a local chapter of Romance Writers of America. That chapter was a great critique group and taught me a great deal about my own writing as well as the publishing industry. Now, I am lucky to have an agent who reads and helps me improve anything that I write as well as an editor that is smarter than I am.
Why did you write a young adult series? Are these books similar to your adult titles?
My young adult series and my adult books couldn’t be more different. My adult books are light and funny. While I hope they have a gripping puzzle to solve, my goal is to make my audience smile while they read. My young adult books are far more serious and while there might be an amusing moment, the story questions are larger and more intense than a simple murder. (As if murder is ever simple!)
The truth is, I never believed I could write a young adult book, let alone a series. I’ve read a number of my friends books and didn’t think I could come up with a plot that appealed to teens. However, because I work with students that apply and audition for colleges every year, I see the pressure the process makes them go through first hand. Between the ACTs, the SATs, college applications, essays and auditions, the stress level of high school juniors and seniors is pretty high. Seeing that stress made me think about my own experiences with the college testing process and the hopes that I had when applying to schools. Suddenly, I had an idea for the book that became The Testing.
Why a roller rink?
Why not? Actually, the inspiration for the roller rink setting came from my mother, Jaci Charbonneau. She was an artistic roller skater who competed both in solo and dance competitions. She appeared on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and was even pictured in the World Book Encyclopedia under “Roller Skating”.
Is performing like writing?
Performing often feels like the same business as writing. There is lots of rejection, reviews and you have to keep an audience engaged enough to want to come back from intermission. The big difference is opening day. I find that I am far more nervous on launch day for a book than opening/press night for a show. With shows, you can gauge the reaction of the audience and bump the energy or dial things back according to those reactions. With books – there is nothing to be done but sit back and hope for the best. I do better when I feel like I can control things so pub day is always fraught with nervous energy.