This Friday, January 26 at 7 p.m., Inquiring Minds Bookstore in New Paltz will host a launch party for Jennifer Castle’s latest Young Adult (YA) novel. Titled Together at Midnight and just published this month by HarperCollins, it’s the story of two teenagers, Kendall and Max, who feel survivor guilt after witnessing a fatal accident and are challenged by a stranger to perform seven random acts of kindness by midnight on New Year’s Eve. There’s a blizzard, and the sort of magical realism that people associate with Manhattan during Christmastime. Castle calls her story a “snowmance,” but it’s fundamentally a story about the importance of empathy.
Kendall and Max are supporting characters carried over from her previous YA novel, What Happens Now, the author explains. They have a history, but they’re both romantically involved with other people, so they have to figure out what their relationship is going to be going forward after sharing a traumatic experience. According to Castle, the germ of the idea for the story came from Rabbi Jonathan Kligler’s moving eulogy for New Paltz High School student Maya Gold, in which he urged local teens, “Look out for each other. Be brave. Risk losing a friend in order to help them.”
Together at Midnight’s narrative voice rotates primarily between the points of view of the two teens, a departure for Castle. And Max is her first-ever attempt to write from a male character’s perspective. The mother of two daughters but no sons, Castle is keeping her fingers crossed that she got it right. To prep, she says, “I read a lot of YA from a male point of view. A good character is a good character, right?”
The voice of Together at Midnight’s female protagonist, Kendall, who has attention deficit disorder, is in part inspired by Castle’s elder daughter, Sadie, now 12, whom she describes as “differently wired.” Kendall speaks in “long rambling sentences,” she explains, reflecting the character’s easily distractible train of thought. The author says that she wrote Max as the sort of person whose identity is caught up in feeling responsible for taking care of other people, for whom “empathy is almost a burden” — another connection that evokes the stories told by her friends and family about Maya Gold.
Castle, who has lived in New Paltz since 2010, is best-known for her contributions in the character-driven “realistic” subgenre of YA literature: books that deal with real-world problems common to adolescents, exemplified by the best-selling works of John Green and Sarah Dessen. Her well-received first novel, The Beginning of After (2011), which tells the story of a teenage girl who loses both parents and a sibling in a catastrophic auto wreck, was Castle’s response to the 9/11 tragedy. “This is where my storytelling heart is,” she says of YA novels. “I like to say that all literature asks the big questions; YA literature is desperate for the answers.”
Born in Briarcliff in Westchester, Castle says that she “started in fiction; that was my identity in middle school and high school.” But after getting her Creative Writing degree at Brown University, she took a 20-year detour to work in the film industry in Los Angeles. “I wrote a lot of spec scripts. I can’t even remember how many of them I wrote,” she recalls. But, as many aspiring screenwriters discover, very few such efforts end up getting made into films or TV episodes. “LA’s a great place to live when you’re young and penniless. It’s cheaper than New York…. Any day the phone could ring, and that could change your life.” But eventually Castle got tired of waiting for her big break and decided, “I’m not enjoying this anymore. I really missed writing fiction.”
So she signed up for a writers’ workshop at Big Sur that had been organized by a “kid lit” agency, and was encouraged to submit her novel-in-progress, which became The Beginning of After. She quickly found an agent, and then an editor with whom she has worked consistently ever since. Although that book has “gained a lot of accolades” from within the field, Castle says that she’s particularly gratified anytime she hears from a teenaged reader, saying, “Have you read my mind?”
Now that she has finished up her four-book contract with HarperCollins, Castle is exercising different writing muscles: Two short chapter books in a fantasy series aimed at 6-to-10-year-olds, called Butterfly Wishes and inspired by daughters Sadie and Clea’s explorations of the Millbrook Preserve in their own neighborhood, have just been released by Bloomsbury, with two more titles soon to follow. “Different kinds of stories told different ways: That’s my way of staying awake as a writer,” she notes.
Both daughters and some of their friends are expected to show up at the launch party, Castle adds. You and your kids are invited to join them this Friday evening. Inquiring Minds is located at 6 Church Street in New Paltz. To find out more, call (845) 255-8300 or visit www.inquiringbooks.com or http://jennifercastle.com.