Jennifer Longo’s What I Carry is the beautifully realized story of Muir, a self-reliant 17-year-old girl who’s about to age out of the foster-care system. But when she’s placed into what will likely be her final foster home, she finds herself making new connections that challenge her well-worn sense of independence. The author of two previous YA novels, Longo holds an MFA in Writing for Theatre from Humboldt State University, and her plays have been staged by California’s Fair Oaks Repertory Theatre.
We spoke to Longo about creating her protagonist, writing about the foster-care system and capturing authentic teen voices.
Muiriel is a wonderfully original protagonist. Contrary to what might be expected of a child in the foster system, she isn’t searching for a permanent home or longing for a family. She’s fiercely independent, with a sense of integrity that belies her 17 years. How did you develop her character?
Well, great. Question one and I’m already crying. Come on! OK but for real, I am thrilled you felt about Muiriel what we tried so hard to convey. I say “we” referring to my editors at Penguin Random (Jenna Lettice, Caroline Abbey and Chelsea Eberly) and my editorial agent, Melissa White (at Folio Literary). No author is an island, and thankfully those women are also authors, and they can write the hell out of a character arc.
We began to create Muiriel with me talking with and listening to kids currently in or who had aged out of foster care. Every single child’s life in foster care is unique, but I heard again and again from the kids I corresponded with about how the narrative of a foster or adoptive parent as “savior” depends on the corresponding narrative of a sad and yearning orphan who just wants a loving family to “rescue” them. And yes, of course, there are kids living in the system who absolutely need and want a family. The thing is, it’s not every single kid, and also most of them want their family—they just want to go home. No matter the reality of the situation, home is home. Parents are parents. Or if they’ve been in the system for years, jacked around (intentionally or not) by nearly every adult they encounter, sometimes those kids learn instead to depend on themselves for themselves—because clearly adults are not the answer.
The problem about the myths surrounding foster kids is that they’re created and told to us by the adults who get to frame reality the way they see it, or how they want it conveniently to be, in order to make themselves look heroic or blameless. All it takes is talking to even one kid to watch that story fall apart.
I have talked with and watched so many interviews with kids aging out in which they express this frustration and justifiable anger that no one is listening to us. These are young people with integrity, bravery, anger and fear just like anyone, except they are blamed and judged for the circumstances of their life that they did not choose, because adults have kept these untruths alive and well. Muiriel’s voice is a culmination of the many kids’ voices who kindly let me listen to the truth.
You have a young daughter whom you adopted. Can you talk about how that experience informed your writing here?
My daughter straight up said to me years ago, “Aren’t there any books about kids in foster care that aren’t so . . . yell-y? And molest-y?” And believe me, I know there are some beautiful fiction books about kids in foster care written by better writers than I could ever hope to be. I just think, and my daughter does, too, that there’s room in the canon for as many stories as there are experiences in foster care.
I was specifically told by a former foster child, “It is possible to live a life in foster care and not get molested.” I mean. That’s a statement.
While meeting, fostering and adopting our daughter, my family’s personal experience with social workers and foster parents is that there are many adults working in the system who sincerely have the best motives—doing the most and best they can for each child. Like kids in foster care, the entire system and every adult involved get a mostly grim portrait painted of them by the media and Hollywood, drawn in broad strokes and without much nuance. Muir’s life is held in sharp relief to consistent love and happiness, like my daughters’, and that’s a story worth telling, too.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of What I Carry.
What I Carry presents a very nuanced portrayal of the experience and mindset of a child in the foster care system. What sort of research did you do to create this portrayal?
Thank you so much. The hope I cling to most as What I Carry nears publication is that I did justice in showing at least an approximate reality of some kid’s, one kid, any kid’s life in foster care.
A writer’s job is sometimes described as “professional listener and question asker,” and for this book, that’s what I did for research: I listened. Not to adults—I’ve talked to countless wonderful and not-so-wonderful adults working in the system in every capacity, and I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on that. I am one of them, and we’ve had our say.
For this research, I listened to who this book is trying to give voice to—the kids in or out of foster care. I listened and asked and read and watched what they had to say. I listened to my daughter, my nephew, to kids and adults kind enough to write me emails answering my questions. I watched interviews and documentaries and YouTube channels produced by former foster youth. I read memoirs and books. (There is a bibliography in What I Carry for details.) They talked to me, my daughter talked to me, and their stories became Muir’s story.
I loved Francine, Muir’s final foster mother, as well as Joellen, Muir’s social worker. Can you discuss some of the choices you made as you crafted these adult characters in Muir’s life?
I’m so glad you loved these women! I do, too, and mostly because they are modeled after women who built my family. Francine is modeled after our daughter’s third foster placement (we were her fourth), and Muir’s social worker is modeled after our daughter’s, the real Joellen. Our Joellen worked a razor-thin, nearly impossible deadline, putting her own job at risk to get our daughter into a safe home. No good character is perfect, but these women in real life—and Francine in the book—are the gold standard of when foster care is working the way it should.
Your ability to create authentic teen characters is remarkable. How do you channel teen voices? What are some of the challenges of writing from that perspective, and what are some of the pleasures or rewards?
First of all, good grief, thank you! If I’ve had any success with this, it is only by reading better writers than me and listening to teenage girls and my editors and agent. Also, I have been a lifelong journal keeper. I have a box of 20 spiral notebooks I’ve kept from elementary school until college, and those are full of language and details I depend on.
“A writer’s job is sometimes described as ‘professional listener and question asker,’ and for this book, that’s what I did for research: I listened.”
My main challenge writing about that time of life is that I absolutely struggle with and often resist writing romance plotlines and romantic scenes involving my teenage characters. I always have to add it in later, because as a teen, I had bad experiences with that stuff, so it’s hard for me to know how to write a young woman, a high school-age person, being in love and also staying true to her own humanity. I dread the idea of centering romance over the value of a girl’s own life, her own priorities and conflicts and challenges.
Conversely, my greatest pleasure is writing for myself as a teenager. I write what I wish someone had been able to tell me at that age: that I was worth more than I knew. That I should be spending my teenage years not making sure my boyfriend was happy but instead figuring out who and what I wanted to be, building relationships with girls and mentors, spending time with my friends, having fun and learning and truly feeling like I was smart and had value to the world as a person on my own. Instead, all through high school, I was isolated and trapped by my own lack of self-worth in an absolutely ridiculous and unhealthy relationship with a boy, just this mediocre white kid, to whom I surrendered my whole teenage life and sense of self.
I write my main characters like that lady in “The Twilight Zone,” riding the horse over the hills, screaming at her past self, “Get your shit together and don’t waste your precious youth!” I have learned to write the romantic situations I wish my younger self could have had—maybe a bit unrealistically healthy, a little aspirational, but maybe that’s a good thing to read about and know exists. I wish I had. I love writing YA lit, and I hope I’m contributing some stories of value.
You’ve published two novels prior to this one (2014’s Six Feet Over It and 2016’s Up to This Pointe). What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about the craft of writing over the years or about yourself as a writer? How do you feel you’ve grown as a novelist?
I am so lucky to have the most amazing people guiding me to be a “real” writer, and so many authors I read and writer-friends I learn from. But the women who taught me how to be a novelist are Melissa White of Folio Literary, and my editors Chelsea Eberly, Jenna Lettice and Caroline Abbey. They are all writers and have taught me a million things. My favorites are about being brave, not getting trapped in the story the first way I see it and learning to not insist the story stay cemented the way I began.
Each of these books were torn down and rewritten several times, which at the beginning I was shocked by and thought I would never be able to figure out how to do. (While writing Six Feet Over It, I once opened an editorial letter at a Peet’s Coffee and burst into tears at the impossibility of the changes. The barista came over and handed me a wad of napkins and asked who died, and then I could never go back to that Peets again.)
Melissa, Chelsea, Jenna and Caroline taught me to calm the hell down, that novels are not the plays I was used to writing and that the process of trying a story path, reaching a dead end, and then going back to try another path is a reality a writer has to get good at. It’s a muscle to build and strengthen and not freak out about. Some stories come easier, some need more work, but being scared will not get the work done. I have learned to make my ego STFU and accept the smart, constructive, needed edits and guidance from these women, the professional people who are part of the team making these books. I have learned to trust myself to trust them because they are right pretty much every time.
“The process of trying a story path, reaching a dead end, and then going back to try another path is a reality a writer has to get good at.”
And then I’m still learning to let go of being embarrassed that I need so much hand-holding and help—because again, the lesson is that no writer is an island. No good book is truly written alone. Now I can open an editorial letter in any coffee shop, and I can see where the edits are taking the plot, and I get excited about the challenge of making the story better without sobbing. Mostly now I only cry about my inability to spell, so that’s growth!
What prompted you to start writing YA fiction? What appeals to you about the category?
I wrote my first book thinking it was straight-up literary fiction, but my agent Melissa thought if I aged the character up and revised, it could make a great YA story. I hadn’t read any YA since Judy Blume in the ’80s, so Melissa gave me a list and I began reading some current YA to figure out what was going on there. It was a whole new world.
I started with Sarah Zarr’s Story of a Girl because I was living in the town where that book takes place, and holy cats, I was so jealous that as a teenager my generation didn’t have books like that! (I mean, aside from Queen Judy, of course.) Gorgeous writing, a strong and realistic female protagonist . . . I read it so fast and moved on to more, and I started revising.
What I love most about YA is the reverence so many of these authors and books have for the most powerful people on the planet: teenage girls. Young women whose lives are central to the plots, in so many circumstances and challenges and how important and valued they are. I think YA lit is on its way to the forefront of publishing becoming what it should be, which is a more accurate representation of the human population, no longer just canonizing the lives of white men. We are nowhere near where we should be, but the tide is turning, and my daughter, who is not white, not heterosexual, is able to find more and more books she can see herself in. That makes me proud to be a YA author.
“What I love most about YA is the reverence so many of these authors and books have for the most powerful people on the planet: teenage girls.”
You were an elementary school librarian! What was that experience like? Did it influence your decision to start writing, or your writing itself?
Oh my goodness, that was the greatest job ever! I volunteered at my daughter’s elementary school library, shelving books twice a week, because there’s no place I’d rather be than in a library. When the librarian retired, I applied for and was offered the job.
Now, I have to say here that actual trained librarians are always, always preferable in school libraries or anywhere, but this school district legit had no money. The retiring librarian taught me the most important part of her job, which was repairing books—because they had not been able to order new books in, like, five years. We took donations, and parents bought us books from the book fair once a year, and the librarian and I bought books with our own money, but the situation was bleak. Still, I was a lifelong Dewey Decimal nerd, and I’d volunteered in libraries all my life and worked cheap, so I was the district’s best option at the time.
I loved choosing books to read for each class. That was the highlight of my day, and shelving is very meditative for me. I was querying agents when I got the job and was shelving books when my agent Melissa offered to represent me. Then she subbed my book for a year, and I was checking in books for a line of hilarious and excited first graders when I got the email that Random House was interested. To be in a library, surrounded by books, and getting messages that I could maybe have my own book on a library shelf one day that people might read was surreal and magical.
Do you have a new book in the works, and can you give us any hints about what to expect?
I have been working forever (“Sounds about right,” says my agent) on a literary fiction book about my favorite autumnal holiday. I dream that one day, Oprah will say, “Hey, do you have to go home to visit family this fall? Lock yourself in the guest half-bath with this book and save yourself!”
It’s the book my dad, for decades, begged me to write. He passed away a couple years ago, but he is in my ear every day as I write and rewrite this thing for him. It is my gift to him and myself and readers like me who love a good family drama, and working on it is bittersweet and wonderful and healing. So, you know, just how it’s supposed to feel.