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March 29, 2016

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Jessica Spotswood

Kate Hart

headshot Jessica Spotswood

Jessica Spotswood's new anthology, A Tyranny of Petticoats, brings together a diverse group of authors and characters across several centuries of lady history, and the minute I saw the tagline -- "15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and Other Badass Girls" -- I knew she was a perfect fit for the Badass Ladies project. While I have my favorites in the short story collection, I'll let you decide which to read first: Just take this fun quiz at YA Highway.

But first, find out more about the rad lady who made it all happen -- and don't forget to enter the giveaway at the end of this post!


Wild Swans coverKate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Jessica: There are three parts to my career / working life right now. I work as a children's library associate in a neighborhood with increasing gentrification, which increasingly influences the way I see the world. And I'm the author of four young adult books. BORN WICKED, STAR CURSED, and SISTERS' FATE are a historical fantasy trilogy - the Cahill Witch Chronicles - about a young witch who lives in a society ruled by a group of a patriarchal priests who have outlawed magic. Cate spends the books trying to protect her younger sisters, also powerful witches, and trying to thwart a prophecy that one sister will kill another. My first contemporary novel, WILD SWANS, comes out May 3. It's about a girl with a complicated family history; all of the Milbourn women have been talented artists but have died tragically young. Her mother walked out when Ivy was two years old, but now, the summer before Ivy's senior year of high school, she returns home with two half-sisters Ivy's never met. I'm also the editor of the young adult anthology A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and Other Badass Girls.

My writing projects are pretty different in terms of genre, but they explore a lot of the same themes. I'm fascinated by complicated families, especially sister and mother-daughter relationships, and by how we define ourselves in relation to or opposition to our families. I also write a lot about prophecies and curses and the notion of fate. Most of all, I write stories about girls. Teenage girls and the things they love get so much disrespect. But you know what? Teen girls are amazing. They are strong and resilient and creative and smart. They feel things so intensely; they love wholeheartedly. I think writing about teenage girls - centering them in the narrative, treating them as powerful and worthy of respect - is a feminist act.

Kate: Do you have any creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Jessica: I am totally into the adult coloring book trend. I find coloring very soothing, especially when I'm anxious. I love the patterns and the creative choices. I am such a damn perfectionist - I have found myself getting frustrated when I "mess up," and then I have to remind myself that it's coloring. I think it's good for me… I also see a lot of theatre, because my husband's a playwright and an associate at three different theaters in DC. I studied theatre - specifically dramaturgy and new play management - in college and grad school and I sometimes miss the creative collaboration of it, though I think editing TYRANNY used some of those skills.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Jessica: My own brain. I've struggled with anxiety since I was a child, though I wasn't officially diagnosed with general anxiety disorder till I was 26. Writing and publishing is not always an ideal career choice for someone who tends toward anxiety; so much is out of an author's control, from reviews to sales to acquisition trends! There isn't much stability. I've written extensively about learning to accept and manage my anxiety here.

Born Wicked coverKate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Jessica: My debut book, BORN WICKED, sold in a major deal for the trilogy. I was able to quit my job and write full-time. It sold rights in thirteen countries. The publisher had extremely high hopes for it; they expected it to be a bestseller. I was sent on two book tours. But that indefinable buzz never materialized. It sold okay for a debut, and it got a starred review, but compared to expectations it was a failure. The publisher pulled most of their marketing support for the next two books in the trilogy and didn't buy my option book. Which doesn't make them a bad guy - this is a business and sales are their bottom line. But it was crushing for me. I loved my editor; I'd hoped they would be my publisher for my whole career (though that sort of partnership seems increasingly rare). It was so hard not to take personally. My feelings went from my sales aren't good enough to my books aren't good enough to I'm not good enough. Even though I was incredibly proud of the books I'd written, even though I got emails and messages across social media from readers who loved my characters, who told me that my books had made them cry or throw the book across the room, had gotten them through bad days and reading slumps and made them want to write stories of their own - I felt like a failure. I felt like I'd been given a chance at my dream and ruined it; I felt like I wasn't good enough at the thing I loved most.

But the thing is - this is not uncommon. Publishing is such a gamble; no one knows what will become a bestseller and what won't. People just don't usually talk about their perceived failures publicly. I get that; it's hard to talk about without blame or shame; maybe it's not great for business. But I have always found that talking about difficult things, sharing my struggles and bringing them into the light, is helpful to me and to others.

So, I learned that this happens to a lot of writers. Long publishing careers have a lot of ups and downs. And I realized that - while I would not turn my nose up at a bestseller - what I wanted more than that was a long publishing career. I set about diversifying my writing. Instead of a historical fantasy trilogy, my next book was contemporary and a standalone. I decided to try my hand at editing an anthology. And maybe more importantly, I decided to diversify my life. I got a part-time job as a children's library associate, which has been hugely helpful in terms of maintaining perspective. My entire sense of self worth no longer relies on the rollercoaster that is the publishing industry, which I think is much healthier!

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?

Jessica: The most memorable compliment I've ever gotten was when I was twenty and a guy told me that I was a combination of Cruella de Vil and the Dalmatians. Reader, I married him (six years later)… At the time, I couldn't have told you why this strange compliment pleased me so much. I think, in retrospect, it was because most people only saw me as a Dalmatian. I was always cute and sweet and nice and so happy. To some degree, that was the image I cultivated, but by my second year in college it was wearing on me. Cute started to feel condescending. Nice started to feel exhausting. A lot of it was wrapped up in an anxious, perfectionist need to please. So the fact that someone saw my Slytherin side - clever and cunning and ambitious - and liked that about me - it was revelatory.

A Tyranny of Petticoats coverKate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?

Jessica: I feel like my work at the library has been really eye-opening - and heart-opening. There's a housing project right behind our library and a lot of our kids live there. They face issues - poverty, racism, classism, violence, disparities in education - that I've been privileged not to have to face. Working with these kids has made intersectionality and Black Lives Matter and We Need Diverse Books more personal for me. I care so much about them; I want them and kids like them to grow up seeing themselves in books, in all kinds of media, and know that they do matter, that they are smart and funny and curious and awesome and creative… I also think Twitter has been really important in my understanding of intersectional feminism. I learn a lot just by listening to awesome women.

As for how it inspires and impacts my own work… it's important to me that my books feature diverse characters. With TYRANNY it was especially vital to make sure that our girls reflected, in some small way, the melting pot that is America. I wanted them to be diverse with regard to race and sexuality, but also class, historical era, geography, education, and the kinds of choices they make. In a lot of our stories, the authors were writing cross-culturally. I think they did their research and did a good job of it, though I am also open to hearing where we may have gotten things wrong. But if I'm lucky enough to edit a second anthology about American girls throughout history, I'd love to specifically seek out more own-voices stories and fill in some of the gaps that existed in the first anthology, particularly with regard to race, religion, and disability.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Jessica: Listening to women whose lives and experiences are different than my own is really key for me. Boosting the voices and work of women who have been marginalized because of their race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, class, or disability, without feeling the need to offer my own commentary. Accepting other women's choices, even and especially when they differ from my own - without taking that as a criticism of my choice.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Jessica: My dedication in WILD SWANS is
To all the girls with thirsty hearts
who worry that you aren't enough
(you are)

A Tyranny of Petticoats poster designed by Simini Blocker

Win a copy of A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS and the illustrated timeline poster! 
(US and Canada only, please)

a Rafflecopter giveaway


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Jessica Spotswood is the author of the historical fantasy trilogy The Cahill Witch Chronicles and the upcoming contemporary novel WILD SWANS, as well as the editor of A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS. She grew up in a tiny, one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or-most often-with her nose in a book. Now she lives in Washington, DC where she can be found working as a children's library associate for the DC Public Library, seeing theatre with her playwright husband, or-most often-with her nose in a book. Some things never change.

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