A Conversation with Jessie Andersen

By Ashley Reynolds

Jessie Andersen’s first novel At What Cost was a USA Best Book Awards Finalist. It follows a pregnant teenager named Maggie who is faced with the difficult decision of abortion. I met Andersen at a YA lecture held by her at the local library. I was lucky enough to discuss her first book and learn from her experience in the publishing world.

What was it like publishing your first book?

It was a whirlwind of ups and downs. Querying agents and getting lots of rejection: down, finding my agent: up. Waiting and waiting and waiting for everything in the publishing process: down, landing a publisher: up. Having to cut a third of my story for editing and revising: down, writing a story I loved: up. I had a goal from the very start of working with a traditional publisher, but doing so meant learning a lot about the business, getting lots of rejection and waiting. And that’s all after I went through the rollercoaster of actually writing the story. I got stuck and had to rework a lot of it. The whole process taught me a lot of patience, though I still call myself impatient.

Is there any advice you could give to writers who have yet to publish their first novel?

Don’t give up. Everything in publishing moves at a snail’s pace. If I’d have given up after the first few rejections, I never would have reached my goal. Also, learn grammar and study the language. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read about how to write, read fiction, read cereal boxes. Read with a critical eye. When you find something you like, figure out why it works. All of it will help your writing.

Your novel, At What Cost, deals with a teenager’s struggle with how to react to an unplanned pregnancy. What made you decide to write a novel on such a controversial topic?

God told me to. Maybe that sounds crazy, but to me it makes perfect sense. When I began discovering that I had a true desire to write, I began praying about it. I prayed, “God, if you want me to write, give me a topic.” The first thing that popped into my head was the abortion topic. (That’s how God works; he puts the bug in your head and won’t let you forget it.) My reaction: “NO WAY!” I wasn’t going to have my first novel be about something so controversial. I planned to start out with something more normal and maybe get established first. Then I’d be willing to come back to it. But God kept harping on me until I relented. From the time I was a teen the abortion and teen pregnancy topic has been on my heart. I don’t even really know why. I didn’t even know anyone who was a teen mom back then. But I think there’s something that God places in all of us that fuels our passions. For me, this topic does it. It’s different for everyone.

How did you research for your novel?

My husband was on the board of directors for the Women’s Services of Jamestown, so we knew the director down there. I spoke with her and she gave me a boat load of information ranging from pamphlets and books, to videos and interviews. The interviews were what really made my book come alive for me. I was able to speak with real women who’d been there, who’d been a teen mom or who’d had an abortion. They were willing to share their stories with me in excruciating detail. I spoke with women who both regretted and didn’t regret their decision to abort, which I believe is really important. The funny thing about the interviews is that a lot of their experiences came together to form Maggie’s experience, from the phone conversation with the receptionist to the chapter titled, The Gauntlet, those descriptions were taken directly out of interviews with women who’d been there. That’s what made this book real for me.

Did you find that it was more difficult to publish a book with a strong conservative opinion on teen pregnancy than it would have been for someone more liberal?

I'm not quite sure how to answer this because it's not a clear yes or no. Let me explain. In some ways it was more difficult. I knew I had a story that was from a conservative standpoint. There are many people in publishing who hold to a more liberal belief system, so my search for both an agent and publisher was going to be difficult that way. I needed someone to believe in my work and my story and someone who wouldn't want to change it to something unrecognizable. That's part of the reason I went with Astraea Press. They loved my story as is and didn't try to make me change all sorts of things about it. On the other hand, it was easy because I knew I was standing up for what I believed in. Doing this gave me confidence. Though I had a lot of ups and downs, I felt called to write this story and was able to see it through to the end. 

What is the most important message that you hope teenage girls would get from reading your book?

It’s simple: If you find yourself with an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy, there is more than one option.

You are able to write with a clear adolescent voice. How are you able to get in the mindset of young adults? Do you find it easier or more difficult than adult fiction?

Apparently, I speak and act like a teen. J I try to surround myself with teens, and I pay attention to the way people talk and act. Besides, I was a teen. I remember how I thought back then. As for adult fiction, honestly, I don’t read much of it. I love YA. There’s something about the way teens look at the world that’s unique. I love the way they work through their struggles, the way they tell it like it is.

What do you do in your spare time that contributes the most to your writing?

I read. I also try to pay close attention to how people interact with each other. I listen to dialogue. Try it sometime. It’s interesting. We often overlap each other or we respond with something that sounds totally irrelevant because it answered a question asked twenty minutes before. It’s capturing those idiosyncrasies that make it more realistic.

What was the best advice that you’ve ever received?

Eek, that’s a tough one. My mom always told me “Remember whose you are and what you represent.” She’d whisper it in my ear whenever I’d walk out the door. It was like saying, “what you do is a reflection on those around you and on who you claim to be.” In my case, I was and am a Christian, so the things I did and said were not only a reflection on my parents but on God as well. That’s not to say I haven’t made my fair share of horrible choices, but that’s another story! Those words still linger by my ear when I’m writing. Do the things I write reflect well on the person I claim to be? I hope so.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a Dystopian series. It’s called the Unviables. Here’s a rough copy of a blurb for the first one. I’m currently writing the second.
When seventeen year old Creation Science student Katherine Dennard discovers The Institute is using unapproved DNA to create the newest generations in their laboratories, she knows they’re up to something sinister. But when she discovers it’s her DNA they’re using, it becomes personal. In order to save the “unviable” children from brutal disposals, she’ll have to trust Micah and his band of underground Natural Born Rebels. If the Institute discovers her betrayal, the next body being disposed of could be hers….


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