Alexandra Mae Jones’s debut novel THE QUEEN OF JUNK ISLAND is a story of self-discovery and coming to terms with identity in challenging circumstances. These are similar themes to my own debut, which may not be that surprising since we share the same editor, Claire Caldwell at Annick Press. Besides a wonderful editor, Alexandra and I also happen to share a childhood love of the Animorphs book series and the work of Laurie Halse Anderson.
I’m so incredibly thankful to Alexandra for answering so many of my questions about her debut journey — not just in this interview, but in the last few months I’ve known her. Check out our interview below to learn more about THE QUEEN OF JUNK ISLAND and Alexandra’s unique path to publication.
Maya: What first got you interested in writing? What were your early influences and which authors made you feel seen?
Alexandra: I actually can’t think of an initial spark that got me interested in writing, because I can’t remember not telling stories! When I was really little, I would draw my own superhero comics about my cat, inspired by Captain Underpants. Between the ages of 11 and 18, I pretty much always had a novel draft on the go. At one point I tried to write my own version of the Warrior Cat series, which I tragically had to abandon when I realized that there was probably only room for one giant series about clans of feral housecats warring in a forest.
I read pretty much everything put in front of me, from Sweet Valley Twins to Animorphs. As a teenager I was drawn to a lot of more serious contemporary stories, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak” and “Wintergirls”, but I admit I also loved the melodrama of series such as Twilight and other paranormal romances that were very big at the time. (Also, the second I realized fanfiction existed, I was all over it, and it really helped my love of writing bloom.)
In terms of authors that made me feel seen when I was little, I have very fond memories of a series that started with a book called “Dealing with Dragons” by Patricia Wrede, about a princess who ran away from her stifling life to live as a dragon’s housekeeper. It was a funny subversion of the expected narrative of a princess being kidnapped by a dragon, and my mini-girl-boss-proto-feminist self was very taken with it.
Maya: When did you first get serious about pursuing traditional publishing?
Alexandra: I did try to give the first chapter of my novel to Eric Walters at the award ceremony for a local writing contest he judged when I was around 15 or 16, but in terms of my adult career, I probably got serious when I went to grad school. I applied basically with the singular goal of coming out of the program with a novel that I could start querying with.
(Eric Walters was very nice about turning down the once in a lifetime opportunity to read a handwritten novel with no paragraph breaks written by an over-eager gremlin.)
Maya: Can you talk a bit about your writing history? How many books have you written with publication in mind?
Alexandra: Most of my writing history is in short stories, a few of which I’ve had published over the years. I have technically completed three novels (shout out to 14-year-old me and that one NaNoWriMo book I wrote at 18), but I’ve only written one book where I believed so strongly that it had the necessary spark that I kept fighting to perfect it. And that book is my debut book.
Maya: What is your writing process like? Are you a pantser or a plotter during the drafting stage? How did you approach revisions to get your manuscript submission ready?
Alexandra: I’m definitely a pantser who dreams of getting it together enough to be a plotter. I’m very much someone who thinks of individual scenes and then comes up with a bigger piece as an excuse to get to write them. I do some plotting in later drafts in terms of figuring out things like in-book timelines to keep things consistent, but for the first draft I tend to write in big bursts for the scenes I’m obsessed with and then spend three hours on one sentence in a transitional scene while actively hating myself.
Maya: I would love to hear about how you connected with Annick Press. Any advice or tips for writers submitting directly to publishers?
Alexandra: I had a unique (see: unhelpful in terms of giving advice) path to connecting with Annick, in that I met my eventual editor, Claire, through sheer happenstance. She saw that I was working on a YA manuscript through my bio for a literary event that I was reading a short story at, and actually reached out to me. We met for coffee, and I essentially pitched the entire book to her. At this point, I was still working on the book as part of my MFA in creative writing at the University of Guelph, so I didn’t actually contact with her again for over a year and was worried I’d wasted a good opportunity. But when I felt the manuscript was ready, I reached out to see if she’d be interested in actually reading it, and luckily for me, she was! And luckier still, she liked it!
Maya: Can you share a little bit about the process of working with your editor?
Alexandra: Apart from me, Claire is the person who knows this book best in the entire world. I could tell that we had a similar vision for the book and a similar understanding of its style and goals right from the beginning in our first phone call after she read the draft I sent her. That vibe helped me be confident in making the big, specific changes for pacing and scene placement that she suggested up front, and she was totally right about them.
I know I definitely caused her some grief later on in the process when we got down to the details and I had to be dragged away from beloved sentences and story elements kicking and screaming, but the million drafts that we emailed back and forth were so worth it. She was very patient with me!
Maya: I definitely have had a similar experience working with Claire. Right from when we first spoke I knew she understood the story I was telling. She’s the best! So back to your journey, what inspired you to write THE QUEEN OF JUNK ISLAND?
Alexandra: Honestly, part of it goes to that very first question: “Which authors made you feel seen?” And the truth of it is that as a queer person growing up in a rural area, none of the books available to me made me feel fully seen. I didn’t accept that I was bisexual until I was 18, and I do think part of that is that I can’t remember there being a single bisexual character in any books I read growing up.
The YA scene has changed so much since then, and there are a lot of queer characters for teens to relate to now, but for me, this book is the book that I needed when I was 16 and couldn’t accept that I was bi.
I also kind of wanted to heal my own coming out experience in a way — I had a less than stellar time coming out to my own mother, and I wanted to give Dell a different outcome. (My mother and I have a great relationship now!) I think having that goal going in is definitely part of the reason that QOJI revolves so heavily around the mother-daughter relationship and those layers of intergenerational trauma that can just keeping cycling if mothers and daughters are unable to talk openly about sex and sexuality.
But those things don’t make a STORY by themselves. I knew I didn’t want to write the stereotypical “coming out” book, and I’d always loved books set in a realistic world with just one facet that is off — a hint of the supernatural, a whisper of magical realism, something that serves as a catalyst to force characters to face themselves — so those ideas all helped me come up with the layers of side plots and interconnected threads that (hopefully!) all come together at the end and make the story a bigger one than just the played out narrative of a queer character afraid of their parents’ reaction.
Maya: What advice would you give to yourself as a writer when you were just starting out?
Alexandra: You think you’re an introvert, but you actually thrive in a writing community and need that energy around you! Find people who are also creating, whether that’s through creative writing classes or online fan communities, because it’s the best fuel.
And submit to everything. You never know if the right person might read your bio for a literary event.
Maya: What’s something great you read recently?
Alexandra: The other day I read “Orpheus Girl” by Brynne Rebele-Henry and was really taken by the writing style, very poetic and stark at the same time. Definitely heed the warnings on it if you check it out though, as the content can get very disturbing! I’m also still thinking about Tess Sharpe’s “The Girls I’ve Been,” which I got for Christmas and read in one day.
Maya: Thanks again, Alexandra!
The Queen of Junk Island is out May 3rd, 2022. It’s available for order here.