Author Interview: Jeania Kimbrough on "Van Diemen at 17"

Ana: Jeania, an excerpt from your novel “Van Diemen at 17” was submitted in the ABNA 2010 contest - you didn’t win, but the novel was published later that year to extremely positive reviews, including my own. The novel tells the story of Kara Jagger, an American exchange student in Australia, as she struggles to find some form of love or acceptance among strangers. I was completely blown away with your realistic and heart-wrenching tale of depression and despair as Kara finds herself isolated by school officials, classmates, and host families more interested in labeling her a “problem student” than in actually getting to know and understand her. Can you tell us more about your novel? What themes do you explore and what do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?

Jeania: Thank you, Ana, for interviewing me and your kind words. The theme of aloneness that you describe very well in your review is a big one in this novel. Kara was once a “model student” who takes a hard fall -- literally and figuratively -- from the comforting sense of self she seemed to have before she was an exchange student. When she loses her sense of self, she loses control. Loss of control leads to self-harming behaviors. She gets involved in a taboo romance that in some ways only reinforces those original feelings of not fitting in, of not having a normal experience. And the coming of age part is the ability to recognize and take stock of what has happened to herself. She gains some objectivity in her perspective.

What I really wanted to do with this novel is dramatize the life of an exchange student in a non-stereotypical way. One might argue that she doesn’t need to be on an exchange for what is happening to her to take place, but she is and I think it enhances the experience.

Ana: I completely agree that Kara's story applies well outside the "exchange student" framework - I think one reason I connected so strongly to “Van Diemen at 17” was because I personally experienced a different-but-similar situation at a small private college. As a result, I identified intensely with Kara and I was struck by how incredibly real her story is - of all the “coming of age” YA novels I’ve read in the past few years, yours seemed by far the most real, the most raw, and the most likely to truly connect with readers. What was your inspiration when writing your novel? Were you influenced by a specific author or work that inspired you to add your voice to this genre?

Jeania: Thank you, that is quite a compliment because I know you are a prolific reader! I was inspired to write this novel for a few reasons. A few years back, my mother gave me a stack of letters she’d saved from when I was an exchange student in high school. Around the same time one night I had these wild dreams -- one set about things that never actually happened on my exchange but nevertheless brought me vividly there to an emotional experience again, and another set involved an old friend from my college days who I hadn’t seen in several years because he’d fallen out of contact due to a drug problem. That friend showed up at my door the very next day, there to tell me he was trying to get sober. Both sets of dreams, the foreshadowed visit, and reading through those old letters started me introspecting about youthful idealism and a period of time when life spins out of control. My main character, Kara, was born.

I wasn’t consciously influenced by a specific author for this story. In fact, I remember doing some preliminary research on the Web and Amazon to see what kind of novels might be out there already featuring exchange students and couldn’t really find anything but a couple of memoirs. The movies and TV shows I noticed that included exchange students always stereotyped them a bit by making them really happy or very funny/odd, sometimes overly-sexed and usually minor to the plot. For me I wanted to write a book grounded in the exchange student experience, but that comes at it from a relatively unique perspective.

Ana: I hadn't thought of that, but you're right - the only exchange students I can think of in recent popular media are stereotyped or "exoticized" ones. In my initial review of “Van Diemen at 17”, I drew a comparison to Margaret Atwood - your writing style reminds me strongly of some of her “heavier” works where she really utilizes every aspect of the prose to make the depression of the piece something immediate and visceral that the reader is forced to acknowledge and cope with. If you could compare your novel to any other existing work, which one would it be and why?

Jeania: It’s difficult to do, Ana. As an author, I don’t feel like I am the right person to make a comparison between my wrting style and that of another. That said, two elements that I admire in other books that I tried to pull off in "Van Diemen at 17" are 1) a troubled, yet resilient female voice (think Girl Interrupted, Willow, and Speak) and 2) the element of forbidden romance (i.e. Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, or Notes on a Scandal).

I’ll add that I also admire Margaret Atwood’s work, for many things, but especially the way she leads us to examine human nature and objectification of women.

Ana: Is this your first or only finished work, or have you written other novels? If you have written other novels, how do they compare to this one? Do you have any more novels planned, either as a follow-up to this one, or as a completely different novel or genre?

Jeania: This is my first novel and I am now working on a second titled "Luz". It is also Young Adult and retains the character Kara, but the setting and other characters are different. As opposed to a coming-of-age novel, it is about “coming home” and realizing the world as you knew it is gone and that you aren’t the only one who has changed and shifted just because you’ve been abroad. I want Kara to grow up just a little more. ;)

Ana: That should be exciting - they do say you can't go home again. I was first introduced to your novel through the Amazon Breakthrough Award contest of 2010. What prompted you to enter the contest, and what were your overall feelings towards the contest in general?

Jeania: I think I first heard about the contest on the Internet, probably through reading some publishing industry-related blog or site. I think the contest is wonderful and is one of the few that is really big and doesn’t cost anything to enter. Of course, as a business owner, I think it is a brilliant PR and advertising strategy for Amazon, which introduces many an aspiring author to their self-publishing arm of business, Createspace. In fact, the contest builds the brand in so many ways through their online forums, reviews, reader, publisher and author buy-ins, etc. This is the kind of idea that makes Amazon the number one online book retailer that it is and an architect in the rapidly changing world of publishing.

Ana: Where can readers obtain a copy of your novel? How can readers “sign up” to be notified when your next novel becomes available?

Jeania: Amazon (paperback and kindle), Barnes and Noble (paperback and nookbook), Borders, independent bookstores like Powell’s and Changing Hands, and library suppliers like Follett and Brodart all sell the novel. It is also available as an ebook in many outlets (Google, Smashwords, ibookstore) including the above. I do have an author Facebook page as well as a website and blog that people can visit and like or sign up for an rss feed which will serve in notifying them when the next novel is available.

Ana: Jeania, thank you so very much for being willing to participate in this guest blog interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jeania: Just that I have really appreciated your encouragement and support throughout the publication journey of this novel. When I entered the ABNA contest I had no expectation that a Vine reviewer was truly interested in finding and helping to promote new authors like myself, let alone that she would be someone I would connect with personally. I love talking to you about books, Ana! I always learn something.


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