YEM Author Interview: Jen Braaksma chats about what draws her into writing strong female protagonists

Jen Braaksma is the author of Evangeline’s Heaven. Evangeline’s Heaven follows Evangeline who is torn between truth and love as she shakes up the Heavens. The book explores Evangelin’s journey as she must decide who she’s going to be: her father’s daughter, or her own person. YEM was able to speak with Jen about having her debut novel out, What it takes to create a fantasy world that will really captivate readers, and about her writing process.

Young Entertainment Mag: When did you first know that you wanted to be an author?

Jen Braaksma: I was eight years old. I wrote a story about Santa and his reindeer, and I was so proud of it! I ended up getting it “published” (My mom typed it up for me!), and it was even an award-winner (My dad put an “Excellent” sticker on it!). So, you know, award-winning published author at eight… ☺ But the experience made me fall in love with writing stories and I’ve been doing it ever since.

YEM: How does it feel to have your debut novel Evangeline’s Heaven out for people to read?

Jen: It’s a bit surreal! I’ve been writing for myself for so long that to finally have a novel out there in the world for other people to read is a bit strange. But it’s so exciting to finally connect with readers.

YEM: What is it that draws you into writing strong, female protagonists?

Jen: Strong, female protagonists merely reflect strong, female people already out there in the world. I like to show readers a mirror, to remind them that they’re seen, that they matter, even if their strength or their femininity is questioned. As a high school teacher for almost 20 years, I was around teens every day; I wanted my characters, especially my protagonist Evangeline, to feel relatable, real and relevant to readers like my own students.

YEM: What does it take to create a fantasy world that will really captivate readers?

Jen: Ironically, not focusing on the fantasy world. I loved building the Seven Heavens and thinking about the land and the people and the customs and the social order, but those details alone won’t captivate a reader. The best fantasy world is there to support the story, which is Evangeline’s journey and her inner growth. There’s no point in relaying all sorts of information about the angel education system if no angel in my story attends school. But because Evangeline went to a prestigious boarding school and felt like a misfit, suddenly the school and how angels are educated becomes very important. My story’s foundation is Evangeline; everything else, including the fantasy world, I built up from there.

YEM: What does your writing process look like?

Jen: I take time to research and brainstorm and jot down ideas, then I work on creating a short outline—but not just a list of what will happen in the story. It’s a two-tiered outline, where I summarize the main scenes in the story in just a few words, but then I also summarize why those scenes matter to the protagonist. Every story is about the inner journey of the main character, so I ensure my outline also reflects that character arc as well. After that, I write my first draft, and here I give myself permission to have it not be perfect. All I intend with this draft is to get words on the page. If I were to compare it to the final version, yes, it would look terrible, but this first draft isn’t trying to be the final version! It’s very freeing to think of it that way. Then I go back and revise, revise, revise. I fill in plot holes and flesh out characters and add new scenes and cut others and shape my story until it’s finally finished. And at every step, I work with a book coach, someone who supports and encourages me and keeps me accountable and on track. It’s exactly what I needed.

YEM: What is something that you learned about yourself while writing Evangeline’s Heaven?

Jen: That I don’t have to do this writing thing alone! When I discovered Jennie, my book coach, I found an expert, an editor, and a cheerleader all wrapped in one person. It showed me how much support there can be for writers. We don’t have to be creative on our own. That gave me the courage to keep at it.

YEM: Do you have any advice for those who want to become writers?

Jen: Have empathy for yourself! Writing is hard! We often think it’s easy to slap together a few pages et voila! You have a story. But every book we read didn’t start out that way, so it’s okay if you struggle or if you doubt or if you’re not sure of what you’re doing. Give yourself time and patience and take it step by step. As long as you remind yourself of the secret of writing, you’ll get there. What’s the secret? A.I.C.: Ass. In. Chair.

YEM: What is one takeaway you want your readers to have after reading your book?

Jen: Even though Evangeline is an angel, I wanted her and the rest of the characters to feel relatable. Even if your father isn’t the devil, you may still feel torn between your family and what you want to do. So I hope that readers can feel like maybe somebody else understands them. That they’re not alone. Oh, and that they simply enjoy an immersive experience.

YEM: What is a book that made you fall in love with literature?

Jen: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. I love how feisty and fiery and passionate Anne is and how, as an orphan, she came to find a home. I was drawn to Anne’s emotional intensity that I have loved about literature ever since.

YEM: Is there a line or quote from your book that is your personal favorite?

Jen: “If she cannot change her past, maybe she can alter her future.” As Evangeline starts to learn about who her father Lucifer really is, she struggles with his legacy and her own path. I love this line because it gives her agency, it allows her to take action, to take control of her own life. I think it’s a wonderful reminder for all of us.

YEM: Is there any part of your book that is inspired by your life at all?

Jen: Well, my father was definitely not Lucifer! No, there were no specific incidents or events in my life that led directly to the page. It was more the evolution that so many teens experience when they begin to recognize that their parents can be flawed—and then questions about what to do about it. And how to carve your own path. I can relate to Evangeline’s desire to chart her own course, even if my reasons were nothing like what she had to deal with. ☺

YEM: What is your favorite part about writing for a young adult audience?

Jen: Their passion and intensity! Teens often really, really love something or they really, really hate it. And I love tapping into those deep emotions to create my characters because my teen readers also experience those deep emotions. It’s wrenching heartache and soaring joy and everything in between and being able to reflect that back to my readers is exhilarating.

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