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Jenny Pollack grew up in New York City and graduated from the High School of Performing Arts and Barnard College. Back in the 80’s she got from Fiorucci, Macy’s, Sak’s, Bloomingdale’s, Betsey Johnson, Patricia Fields, Reminiscence, Aca Joe, Parachute and who knows where else. She hasn’t gotten anything since then. She is still best friends with her best friend. Jenny lives in Brooklyn with her husband Rob and son Charlie and their two cats, Mike and Harry. Klepto is her first novel.
Q&A with author Jenny Pollack
How long did it take to write KLEPTO from start to finish?
I guess about three years—but I should point out that is because I was always doing other projects at the same time. I acted in plays and directed some, so my writing was very stop-start until I knew I would be published, then I wrote pretty diligently for the last year.
You have said that KLEPTO began as a one-woman show called Goodnight Diary. How did the story change as it went from a play to a novel?
Goodnight Diary came from my real diary that I started keeping when I was about 11, so the one-woman show included a lot more about my life growing up in New York City before my teenage years. When I decided to turn it into a novel, I had to narrow it down to one main subject which I did: shoplifiting.
The dialogue in KLEPTO is particularly realistic and funny. Do you think your training as an actress helped you create such good dialogue?
Yes and no. I think it mostly comes from having a good memory. I love noticing the quirky and real way people speak, the words they choose and how they behave when they speak and I try to remember it. But I did have an excellent acting teacher (somewhat based on Ms. Zeig in Klepto) who used to constantly remind us to watch human beings being human and to “Watch like doctors!” It taught me that observing people was a very important skill for an artist.
Some of the characters in KLEPTO are based on real people. How did those people react to becoming characters in your book?
Most of them are thrilled. My real best friend [upon whom the character of Julie Braverman is based] has frequently joked, “Now I’m finally famous!” and I know her family is excited, too. I did a reading at my 20th high school reunion last June, and purposely read a section about [The High School of] Performing Arts where students were described but their names changed and I got thunderous applause. It was pretty cool.
KLEPTO is based on your real-life story. In the book, it’s hard for Julie to stop stealing. Was it hard for you? How did you stop?
It was really hard, especially because stealing felt so easy then and I didn’t think much about what might happen to me if I kept doing it. In the book, the character Julie P. stops abruptly, but I think in real life I stopped much more gradually.
What would you say to your readers who have tried shoplifting, or who might like to try?
I’d say, try to find a better (legal) way to feel that kind of excitement or adrenaline rush. When you’re a teenager, you tend not to think about the consequences to your actions (as I certainly didn’t), and if anything, the consequences to stealing are probably worse now than they were in the 1980’s. I consider myself very lucky that I didn’t get into any worse trouble than I did.
It is said that the difference between a good writer and a great writer is the ability to revise. You’re a really great reviser. How do you do it? Isn’t it frustrating to go back over the same scenes over and over? How did you keep yourself motivated?
It is really hard to keep working on the same sections over and over. One good tip I got is to change the font every now and then which gives your eyes a fresh look. But whenever I was really fed up with a certain section I would put it away for a week and then read it again. Staying motivated is also really hard— I try to just keep reminding myself that every piece of writing just gets better and better in the rewriting and I only want my writing to get better!
What advice would you give to your aspiring novelists out there?
I’d say keep a diary or journal, that’s a really good start. Write about what’s interesting to you and it will probably be interesting to us. Pay attention to people’s behavior and dialogue. Not just strangers in public but your own friends and family, too. Get yourself in a writing workshop or artists support group, that’s SO helpful. I would never have gotten Klepto finished if not for my group and support.
I know that as you were working on KLEPTO, you participated in several writing groups and workshops. Is it confusing to get so much feedback? How do you tell which comments to keep and which to disregard?
It can be tough but it’s a really good challenge and helps you to sharpen your “inner barometer,” that is, that voice deep down inside you that really knows what feedback to listen to and what to disregard. After a while you can tell immediately what feels true or right to you. This is the most important voice to listen to— your own.
In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Julie says, “Like, I know what I really am, deep down inside, but that’s not what people see. Whatever they see isn’t really me.” The person to whom she is speaking then asks, “Who are you, really?” and Julie replies, “Not good enough.” By the end of the book, do you think Julie’s opinion of herself has changed? Why or why not?
I think Julie definitely grows a lot in her first year of high school. I think she is much more scared and insecure at the beginning (as she is the first day of school) than she is at the end. By the end of the book she’s more confident in her differences from her best friend and that she doesn’t have to be exactly like Julie B. to be cool. I also think her experience with Josh helps her to grow and understand herself and what she wants.
Now that you’re a mom, what would your reaction be if you found out your son shoplifted (once he gets a little older, of course)? What would you say to him?
I’d talk to him about it and what his experience was and try to be as honest as possible about my own experience. Maybe I’d encourage him to talk about what he felt when he shoplifted and ask whether he liked those feelings. I hope I’m the type of mom that he feels comfortable talking to honestly once he’s a teenager because I know it’s a time when you need so much privacy. And when your parents are nothing but a source of embarrassment.
Some parents or teachers may not want teens to read this book because they (erroneously) think it endorses shoplifting. What would you say in response to this?
Although one could argue that Klepto makes shoplifting look easy, it’s important to remember that it’s set in 1981-82. I’d imagine shoplifting is very different now because of security guards and video cameras, ink exploding tags etc., things that didn’t exist in the 80’s. Nowhere in the book do any of the characters tell the reader “how to” shoplift in a way that would work today – and all the characters who do it have many feelings about it, not all of them comfortable. I meant to write a book about an aspect of the teen experience – the excitement, the devastation, the anxiety, the growth – the unbelievable roller coaster ride that I remember being a teenager was, whether you were a shoplifter or not.
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