Interview with Debut Author JJ Strong

Us Kids Know by [Strong, JJ]

“A gripping, tragic debut novel that will fascinate and trouble sophisticated teen readers.” —Kirkus Reviews

We all knew about Cullen Hickson.

Siblings Bri and Ray O’Dell are lost. Anxious. Restless. Ray—bullied at his Catholic school for being small and timid—wants to be someone people respect or, even better, someone people fear. Meanwhile, Bri knows that something is off about her friendship with the shiny, happy, sophisticated blond girls on her field hockey team. They don’t really understand Bri, and if Bri is being totally honest, she doesn’t really understand them either.

When storied delinquent Cullen Hickson enters the orbit of the O’Dell siblings, though, everything changes. Bri and Ray find an alluring, addictive outlet in Cullen, who opens their eyes to a world they didn’t know existed. For Ray, that means experiencing the singular thrill of crime—from breaking and entering to grand theft auto—while Bri quickly dives into an all-consuming romance with the enigmatic upperclassman.

As Bri and Ray become more and more entwined with Cullen’s antics, and their once-thrilling experiences grow increasingly dangerous, a series of life-changing events threatens to lead the teens down a dark path—one that could forever alter the course of their lives.

Available at Amazon

JJ Strong

JJ Strong

Briefly, what led up to this book?

Initially, it started with little more than a feeling. I wanted to write about the sensation of being a teenager and being angry for reasons that are almost too complex and deeply-buried to understand, and then, as a result of this anger—and despite being an otherwise totally rational, smart, seemingly “normal” kid—doing some really, really, really, really stupid stuff.

What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

I learned, thanks to my astoundingly astute proofreaders, that I have a very limited grasp on what words and phrases should and should not be hyphenated.

As for surprises… My whole life all I’ve wanted was to be a novelist, but I never anticipated that the actual moment of publication would be so nerve racking (nerve-racking? You see the problem). The days leading up to publication were some of the most anxiety-ridden days I can remember. It felt almost like the entire world had snuck into my bedroom overnight and stolen my diary.

What would you do differently if you had to do it again?

I didn’t spend a lot of time outlining this book and at times wished I had. I mostly forged ahead blindly through the text, which was, on the one hand, useful in terms of allowing my characters to come to life in new and surprising ways, but it also resulted in a LOT of revision and rewriting. At one point I more or less deleted the entire second half of the novel and rewrote it, which took a full year of work. I wouldn’t choose to do that again. But then, there’s no guarantee that outlining would have changed any of that. More often than not, these things are outside of our control.

What piece(s) of advice would you give authors seeking publication?

When I was 24, I was convinced—CONVINCED!—that my first novel, which was my thesis in grad school, would immediately be published to great acclaim and that the world would fall at my feet to worship my unparalleled, uncontested genius. It was a fun fantasy, but it was also a young person’s fantasy, and it would be another twelve years until my second book was completed and sold. It took me a long time to learn how to write a good sentence. And it took me an even longer time to learn how to tell a good story. And it took me an even LONGER time to learn that there are so many more important things in the world (like love and family and friendship and kindness and all that crap that seems so cliché when you talk or write about it but is really, in the end, all that matters) than publishing a book, and that it is possible to be attuned to those things even if publishing a book remains your singular, lifelong dream.

So… all of this to say: Be patient. And be humble. And don’t wait until your so-called “Big Break” to find happiness and fulfillment, and resist at all costs the temptation to root your self-worth in your success as a writer. And while you’re doing all this:  just keep writing.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on another YA novel about a girl who gets knocked unconscious during an earthquake and wakes up in an alternate reality where she’s wanted for the murder of her swim team coach.


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