We met Long Island author Jen Calonita at the Barnes and Noble store in Carle Place recently. She just published her latest book, “Switched: Fairy Tale Reform School.” Her book series “Fairy Tale Reform School” and “Royal Academy Rebels” are so much fun to read.
What got you into writing?
I always kept a little journal or a writer’s notebook back when I was in elementary school and I would write short stories for my friends. Or fan fiction — I’d write about my favorite bands. And I just never really stopped writing. I decided to go work for a magazine. I worked at two different magazines growing up: People Magazine had a version called Teen People, and I worked at a magazine called Mademoiselle. Eventually I got my idea for a book called, “Secrets of My Hollywood Life.” It was really fun — I kept thinking about all the young celebrities I interviewed and I thought it would be fun to write a story about them. It inspired me to start writing books.
You have had amazing successes as an author. If you could choose another career, what would it be?
I used to always think about being a teacher. All of my friends at Boston College, where I went to college, were in the education program. And I would always study with them in the library and learn a lot about elementary education. I think I would have really liked to be in a classroom as well.
Where did you get the inspiration for your “Fairy Tale Reform School” book series?
When I was younger and we would watch Disney “Cinderella,” I always cried at the end of the movie. And my mom thought it was because I was really happy for Cinderella. And so one day she asked me why I was crying, and I said, "I’m not happy for Cinderella. I’m really worried about the wicked stepmother." And my mom said, "Why are you worried about her?" I said, "Well, she’s mean, but she’s not really evil. And she did let Cinderella stay in the house. And I’m afraid now she’s going to be thrown in fairy tale jail. And if she goes to fairy tale jail, who is going to take care of the wicked stepsisters? They’re going to become villains." My mom said, "Well, this is Cinderella’s story. If you want to write the wicked stepmother's story, you go write it." And when I decided to write about fairy tales, I thought about that story again. And I decided if the wicked stepmother could turn over a new leaf and be good, maybe she would teach kids on the path to becoming villains to be good as well. And they would all be in a fairy tale reform school.
Are any of the characters in your books based on real-life people?
I always name characters after kids I’ve met or kids I know. I have one friend, she has five kids. All of her kids have been main characters in one of my books. And I always keep a list of names when I’m at book-signings so if somebody has a name I’ve never heard of before, I might hold on to it. But for personalities, I think about my childhood, think about my friends. The character closest to me is a character named Mackenzie. She was in a series called “VIP,” which was about a girl who went on the road with her favorite band. It’s something I always wished happened to me, but didn’t.
What is your writing process?
I love Post-it notes, believe it or not. I plot all my stories with Post-it notes for a first draft. So if you had a wall and you had a bunch of Post-it notes, I think of them like a jigsaw puzzle. If you’ve ever done a large jigsaw puzzle, you always know the corners, right? I always consider that the beginning and the end of a story. It’s the middle that’s always really confusing. The Post-it notes help me figure out how to tell the story and see it visually in front of me. Once I have a lot of ideas, or a lot of Post-it notes, I start to move them around on the board until a real story starts to take shape. Once the story is set, then I start to write. I never start writing until I know what I’m going to write about. For me, I like to outline.
Have you ever had writer’s block, and if so, how were you able to overcome it?
I think all writers have writer’s block, and I think whether you want to be a writer or you just have a lot of writing projects for school, it’s something everybody faces. And the truth is, if you don’t leave the work until the last minute, you have some options. You could step away from the computer or the paper you’re working on and take a short break. I like to go walk my dogs. Or I’ll call up a friend or another writer, and even if they don’t know what I’m working on, I might say, "I’m having a lot of trouble with this scene. Can I explain to you what I’m writing about? You just hear me out." Sometimes just saying it out loud and having somebody else listen helps you figure out how to solve the problem.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It energizes me. There are days when I’m really excited to get the scene out of my head onto the computer. And then there are days when writing can be really hard, but that’s also fun and challenging in its own way because you’re trying to figure your way out of a scene that’s really difficult. I feel very lucky to get to do this for a living and write books that people get to read.
What are some of your favorite things to do when you’re not writing books?
I like to run. And I only like to run if I can wear a costume and there are fireworks. I like to run in Disney World. I run for a pediatric cancer charity and raise money for them. And then I get to run dressed as Princess Anna from “Frozen.” I run as Snow White. As Cinderella. And I love doing that. So I love a challenge, as long as it’s in Disney World. I love spending time at the beach. I really love the beach. And my dream would be to create a waterproof laptop so I can write from the pool. That would make me very happy.
Where do you like to write?
I write in different places. Sometimes I write at home. Sometimes I’ll go to a local coffee shop because sometimes I get really distracted at home. I think, oh, maybe I should make dinner early. Maybe I should do some laundry. Maybe I should go for a walk. If I’m out of the house, I feel like sometimes that’s very helpful to go sit in the coffee shop and write. It depends on my mood and the day.
What is your favorite book that you wrote, or the one you're most proud of?
You know what, I feel like the books are all like babies. I can’t pick one over the other, but I’m always excited about the book I’m working on next. I’m really excited for the next “Royal Academy Rebels” book, “Outlaws,” because Robin Hood is in it, and Red Riding Hood. And I’m also very excited to write the final “Fairy Tale Reform School” book, which will come out next year. I hate to say goodbye to these characters, so I never say it’s forever. But it’s really fun to see them finally get to fight Rumpelstiltskin and see who wins.
Would you ever come out with dolls or characters for your books?
I think it would be so fun to see a movie or a TV show being based on some of these characters. But it hasn’t happened yet. But if Hollywood comes calling I wouldn’t say no. Dolls would be cool, too.
Has anyone inspired you to write?
When I wrote my first book, one of my favorite authors was an author named Meg Cabot. She wrote “The Princess Diary” books. And if you’ve seen “The Princess Diary” movies, they’re based on her books. And I loved her writing. I loved that she wrote in a very conversational tone so it was like she was talking right to the reader. Last week I was in Key West, Florida, on vacation, and I messaged her on Twitter and I said, Hi. She lives in Key West. I said, "Hi, is there anywhere you think I should go to eat?" And she said, "Yes, you should come to my house." She invited me to her house and I was so excited. She was so nice and so lovely.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I try to write while my kids are at school every day. I write Monday through Friday, but sometimes I write on the weekends. It depends on the deadline. But I do like to write when no one’s home.
Bonnie Downs and Allison Whittle’s writers club, Tuckahoe School, Southampton