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Interview: March 2010

March 2010

Drawing upon her previous career as an entertainment journalist, Jen Calonita’sSecrets of My Hollywood Life follows teen starlet Kaitlin Burke on her adventures in and out of the spotlight.

In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Donna Volkenannt, Calonita describes where her fifth installment, BROADWAY LIGHTS, takes her protagonist and discusses how her characters have grown and changed over the course of the series. She also shares some back story on the books’ stylish covers, compares and contrasts writing fiction with magazine articles, and reveals what she has planned now that the Secrets stories will be coming to an end soon.

Teenreads.com: BROADWAY LIGHTS is the fifth installment in your Secrets of My Hollywood Life series. What gave you the idea to write these books, and what was your inspiration for BROADWAY LIGHTS?

Jen Calonita: Before I became an author, I worked at a teen entertainment magazine where my job was to interview teen stars and cover movies and TV shows. I loved what I did and couldn't get enough of the teen stars I got to meet along the way. Their lives, their pressures, the idea of constantly living under a microscope, inspired me to create the character Kaitlin Burke and the Secrets series. The secrets Kaitlin reveals are all real secrets that I learned during my time as an editor and since then. For BROADWAY LIGHTS, I felt like it was time to take Kaitlin out of Los Angeles and let her experience New York celebrity life for a change. Kaitlin learns a lot during her summer in the Big Apple, and I think it's a really fun installment in the series.    

TRC: Teen star Kaitlin Burke is an engaging and complicated character. In BROADWAY LIGHTS, she and her staff move to New York for the summer, leaving behind her boyfriend, Austin. Without giving away too much of the story, what can you tell us about Kaitlin's adventure in the Big Apple?   

JC: Kaitlin is tackling Broadway! After losing her beloved TV show and having a bit of a meltdown in PAPARAZZI PRINCESS, she slowly finds her footing again --- acting and otherwise --- in BROADWAY LIGHTS. It's fun to see Kaitlin struggle with her acting ability as she learns the pressures of doing a live show. She also faces off against a trained British stage star who thinks Kaitlin does not belong anywhere near the theater! As for her and Austin, they definitely have a bumpy summer, but I don't want to give too much away about that!   

TRC: The descriptions throughout your books, especially relating to fashion, entertainment, trends and technology, are vivid and up-to-date. Tell us a bit about the resources you use and the research you perform to keep current with what’s hot and what’s not.

JC: I still do interviews and keep my toe in the entertainment world when I'm not writing novels. I am always talking to my friends who are still in the entertainment world about what's hot, what's not, where the “it” restaurants are and what designers Kaitlin should be trying. I also swear by my own entertainment bible of sorts (like Nadine!), which is People and US Weekly. You get the best info there!    

TRC: Writing in first person, present tense gives Secrets of My Hollywood Life a fresh, insiders feel. Was it a conscious decision to write the series this way, or did the strong voice of the main character demand that the story be written this way?   

JC: I really felt like a Hollywood story felt the most true when it was told by Kaitlin. I like seeing that world through her eyes and hearing her emotions.    

TRC: The covers of the books in your series are amazing, including those for the overseas markets, which are distinctly different and eye-catching. Who is responsible for these designs, and do you have any say in them?  

JC: Thank you! We have an incredible designer named Tracy Shaw who comes up with all the covers, and I adore every one of them. Wait till you see the cover they're cooking up for the final Secrets! For the US versions, it's all Tracy and the Poppy team, but they keep me in the loop on everything and that's how I write each cover --- disguised as a handbag --- into the story. For the foreign editions, I don't see them till they arrive on my doorstep! I'm particularly obsessed with the Japanese and Russian covers.

TRC: A related question to the cover design: Is there any special significance to the fleur-de-lis that appears on the first book in the series as well as on your website?

JC: I love fleur-de-lis, but I didn't suggest them for the cover. When they did use them, my web designer decided to incorporate them into my website, which I thought was a nice touch.   

TRC: When you are writing, do any of your characters take over and surprise you? If so, do you follow their lead or stick to your outline?

JC: I would have to say that Sky has surprised me the most throughout the series. She was definitely the villain when we started out, and over the course of the books she's become Kaitlin's frenemy and now a trusted friend. I love the turn their relationship takes, and how it affects Kaitlin's relationship with Liz, in BROADWAY LIGHTS. Readers seem to really enjoy Sky, as do I, and to keep her around, I knew her relationship with Kaitlin had to grow and change.    

TRC: Before you began your career as a novelist, you were a reporter and then a senior entertainment editor. How did your journalism background prepare you to write such successful YA novels?   

JC: I always tell teens who are interested in writing to start out by writing what they know. My background was entertainment, so I think writing a Hollywood story was a nice segue way for me. I also like to say that the more you write, the more comfortable you feel. Writing a story is very different from writing a magazine article, but the comfort level I feel when I start typing is the same I think because I've been writing for so many years now. That said, I definitely have my freak outs! It usually happens when I'm starting something totally new, like the new series I'm working on. I want the story to be perfect, and fun and relatable, and I always worry that I'm not striking the right chord at first. Once I relax, the writing begins to flow.

TRC: Technology has transformed the way we communicate. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and book-related websites such as Teenreads.com have changed how writers connect with their readers. Please tell us about your Internet presence and talk about some of the ways you interact with your readers.  

JC: I haven't succumbed to Twitter yet! I feel like I don't have anything important enough to say that would attract enough Twitter followers! That said, I do update my Facebook status all the time, and keep up with MySpace and my website. I find that readers really appreciate finding tour info and information on upcoming books on my pages. It's the best way to stay connected.   

TRC: Throughout your career, you’ve interviewed countless stars and entertainers. Do you have any favorite experiences or stories you would like to share?

JC: There are certain interviews that stick out in my mind because I enjoyed them so. Interviewing Zac Efron on the set of High School Musical 3 was a pleasure. He was just so down to earth, grounded and polite. It's nice to see someone grateful for their big break and watch them grow as an actor. I still get goosebumps when I think about the interview I did with Orlando Bloom when he was promoting the first Lord of the Rings all those years ago, and I always admired how well Hilary Duff navigated her teen years.    

TRC: Most writers are avid readers. Who were some of your favorite authors growing up, and who are some of your favorites now?  

JC: I was obsessed with Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High series growing up. It's definitely inspired the new series I'm working on, which is about two very different girls in the same family. I loved Judy Blume too, but who didn't? Today, I like a lot of writers who make me laugh, smile and just plain feel good. I'm a fan of Meg Cabot, Sarah Mlynowski, Ally Carter, Lauren Myracle, Sara Shepard, the list goes on...   

TRC: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? The worst?

JC: OUTLINE, OUTLINE, OUTLINE. I think it really helps if you map out a story! As for the worst, I think you can over-edit yourself. I've learned not to rewrite a chapter too many times before the whole novel is done. You need to see the big picture before you start picking apart things. Now I write straight through the novel and then go back and make changes.   

TRC: What is most gratifying about being a writer? Most surprising or disappointing?   

JC: I love hearing from readers who adore my books and I like hearing how it has inspired them or changed the way they look at things. Nothing is disappointing! I really feel like the luckiest person --- I get to work from home, in my pajamas if I need to, and be near my two small boys, while I write. I love creating characters and stories and I feel so fortunate to do what I love for a living. 

TRC: What are you working on now, and what’s next in the Secrets of My Hollywood Life series?

JC: My next novel comes out in June and is called REALITY CHECK. It's about four best friends who get their own reality TV show and what happens to their friendship. I really hope readers like the behind-the-scenes look at reality TV shows, which I'm totally hooked on as well. I've also just started a new series that will debut next year. It doesn't have a title yet, but it's about two very different girls living under the same roof and what happens when their two worlds collide.