Johanna Parkhurst joins us today to talk about her 2014 book Every Inferno, a contemporary mystery with a hopeful story of second chances at its heart.
In Every Inferno, fifteen-year-old Jacob Jasper Jones is seen as depressed, defiant, and possibly alcoholic. Lately, though, JJ has a new term to add to the list: detective. He’s been having strange dreams about the fire that killed his parents ten years ago, and he thinks he finally has the clue to catching the arsonist who destroyed his family. The dreams lead to secret meetings with his estranged sister, an unlikely connection with a doctor who lost his daughter in the fire, and a confusing friendship with McKinley, a classmate who seems determined to help JJ solve the mystery. All JJ wants is to shake the problems that have followed him since that fire, and he’s convinced he must catch the arsonist to do it. But as he struggles to find the culprit, JJ realizes there’s more than one mystery in his life he needs to solve.
Every Inferno is available now.
Every Inferno tackles a number of tough issues, including the loss of loved ones, teenage alcoholism, and grappling with personal identity. How did you get into JJ’s head to explore these issues? Was it difficult to balance JJ’s very real problems with the book’s lighter moments of humor and romance?
I think balancing humor and darkness is one of the hardest things authors do. For years I’ve admired Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because he achieves that balance so beautifully. I definitely had Alexie and a few other mentor writers in the back of my head while I was writing Every Inferno.
How does it feel to look back on a story you wrote years ago? Has your perspective on this book evolved with time?
Every Inferno started as a book about grief and what grief does to us as humans. It became so much more than that. If I were writing it today there are lots of things I’d do differently, but that’s just because I’m not the same writer I was then. I love Every Inferno for what it is and who I was as an author when I wrote it…if that makes any kind of sense at all.
How have readers responded to Every Inferno? Does the response of readers impact you as a writer?
I’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback from readers about the fact that the book tackles alcohol addiction so openly. It was important to me not to beat around that bush. The response has definitely pushed me to stay the course with not shying away from tough topics in my writing, even if that means my books get banned from a library or two.
JJ writes and rewrites the same poem over the course of the book. In the process, he works through some of his anger, uncertainties, and fears. What inspired you to use creative writing as one of the mechanisms for JJ’s growth and self-discovery?
I love poetry, and my husband hates it, and we have this ongoing argument about what the value of poetry is. JJ’s line about how poetry is a genius code for writers is my nod to why I made JJ a poet—he doesn’t know how to say what he’s feeling, but he can say it when it’s in “code.”
Has your approach to writing changed since this book? If so, in what ways? If not, what has stayed the same?
I do more daily writing now than I did back then. When I wrote Every Inferno I was working a crazy schedule, so very often I had to do my writing in long “binge writing sessions” on the weekends. I still binge-write on occasion, but I don’t have to do that anymore. Which is nice.
What have you worked on since Every Inferno? Can you share any details about your current project(s)?
Currently I’m writing a middle grade novel, which is new territory for me. It’s fun/seriously terrifying, depending on what day you ask me.
Do you have any advice for new writers on the twists and turns that a career in publishing can take?
- Regrets get you nowhere.
- Go with it. Things are gonna be okay.
- Be as vague as possible in your advice to new writers.
Seriously, though, publishing is like riding a roller coaster while it’s being rebuilt, so you never have any idea where it’s going to go next. I used to let this fact drive me nuts. Now I spend more time closing my eyes when I’m freaked out and just trying to enjoy the ride.
Who do you hope will find this book?
I wrote this book for my students who were struggling with grief, but I like to think it’s for everyone who believes in the power of the human spirit to overcome anything.
What else would you like readers to know about Every Inferno?
McKinley and JJ’s high school—where McKinley is out to everyone and incredibly popular and absolutely no one cares about his sexuality—is the school I have always dreamed of teaching in. I haven’t found that school yet, so I wrote it.