Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. After leaving home at 16, Vitalis explored several careers before turning her talents to middle grade literature. She brings her experience growing up in a nontraditional childhood to her stories. She explores themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socio-economic disparities. With a mission to write thought-provoking and entertaining literature, she often includes magic and fantastical settings. As an active volunteer in the kidlit community, she’s also passionate about using her privilege to lift up other voices. In addition to volunteering with We Need Diverse Books and Pitch Wars, she founded Magic in the Middle. It is a series of free monthly recorded book talks, to help educators introduce young readers to new stories. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters.
YEM was able to speak with Jessica about her most enjoyable part of the writing process, who inspired her to write the book, and some of her all time favorite books.
Young Entertainment Mag: When did you first know that you wanted to write a book and have it published?
Jessica Vitalis: Growing up, I read constantly, and I wrote a lot of poetry, but it never occurred to me that I could actually be an author; it wasn’t until college when I found out one of my professors was published that the dream started to take shape. It took me another decade to start working on a manuscript in earnest and another thirteen years after that to get my first book deal!
YEM: The Wolf’s Curse is your debut novel, what is it about?
Jessica: The Wolf’s Curse is a Grim Reaper retelling; it’s about a Great White Wolf who is very, very old and very, very tired. But in 800 years, she’s only found three people suitable for her job: one died early, one said no, and the other is a twelve-year-old boy named Gauge. Unfortunately, everyone in the village thinks Gauge is a witch. He’s been in hiding half his life, all because he once saw the Wolf—and then the Lord Mayor’s wife died. Now Gauge’s only protector, his beloved grandpapá, is dead too. The Wolf visits the boy again, this time with an offer––she can save him the pain of growing up. Now that he’s well and truly all alone in the world, it may be the only way to escape the bounty on his head. If only his grandpapa’s last words hadn’t been, Stay away from the Wolf.
YEM: When did the idea of this book first come to you?
Jessica: I was standing in front of my bookshelf, searching for inspiration, when my gaze landed on a worn copy of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I wondered what kind of story I would write with Death as the narrator, and The Wolf’s Curse was born!
YEM: What was the most enjoyable part of the writing process for you?
Jessica: Normally I would say the revision stage; that’s when the pressure to fill a blank page is gone and I’m able to play with words until I find exactly the right combination to express what I’m trying to convey. But with The Wolf’s Curse, even the first draft was a lot of fun. The wolf’s voice really drove the story and I was always eager to find out what might happen (or what she might say) next.
YEM: Was there a specific scene in your book that you are particularly proud of having written?
Jessica: This is a little like asking a parent to choose their favorite child! I guess if I had to pick, I’d say the very last scene; it was something I added at the last minute before sending it off to my agent, and I think it really adds a level of closure to the story that would have been missing otherwise.
YEM: What is something that you want your readers to take away from The Wolf’s Curse?
Jessica: If nothing else, I’d like readers to walk away with a sense of hope; no matter how dark or frightening life seems, there’s always room for healing. Oh, and the idea that family can be found in the most unexpected places.
YEM: Who is your favorite character to write for?
Jessica: I adore all of the characters in The Wolf’s Curse, but writing the wolf was by far my favorite (and also the trickiest). She’s sly and snarky, but I also enjoyed exploring her backstory so that she didn’t come across as one-dimensional. The fact that she’s omniscient offered fun opportunities for her parenthetical asides and the footnotes in which she directly addresses the reader.
YEM: What is some advice you have for someone who also wants to be a published author?
Jessica: Never give up! I wrote six novels over the course of thirteen years before landing a six-figure, two-book deal with a dream publisher (Greenwillow/HarperCollins); while I was working toward that elusive goal, I often reminded myself that the only way to guarantee failure would be to quit. Read as many books as you can and keep working on your craft—every draft you write moves you one step closer to your dream.
YEM: What inspired you to write this book?
Jessica: I talked earlier about The Book Thief inspiring this novel––what I didn’t mention is that I wrote two different novels after coming up with the idea before I started this project. Partly this was because there was another story near and dear to my heart that I felt ready to write, and partly it was because I’d never written a fantasy before; I knew this idea was really special, and I felt like I needed to develop my world building skills before I tackled it.
YEM: Who are some of your writing inspirations?
Jessica: I remember very clearly the day I decided to focus on middle grade literature; I’d just finished reading Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond, and I decided then and there that those were the types of stories I wanted to write. Shannon Hale, Gary D. Schmidt, and Tahereh Mafi are also authors I find endlessly inspiring.
YEM: What are some of your all-time favorite books?
Jessica: I keep a list of my favorite books on my website at www.jessicavitalis.com, but a couple of my all-time favorites include A Wish in the Dark and A Monster Calls; they are literary and gorgeous and tug at the heart strings.
YEM: What was something you learned about yourself during the process of writing The Wolf’s Curse?
Jessica: The Wolf’s Curse really taught me who I am as an author; prior to writing this story, all of my novels had been fairly dark and heavy. I thought I was ready for something light-hearted and adventurous––maybe even a comedy. Obviously that wasn’t what came out when I started writing; this book turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to examine my stories and my writing goals. The process culminated in the development of my own personal mission statement: to foster a love of books through entertaining stories that engage readers in meaningful reflection.