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First Stories Features BRAINS – What? – and Jocelyn Rish

The holidays are fast approaching, schedules are filling up, and the weather is growing colder. Many animals are settling down for a long winter’s nap, but others must use their brains to survive the harsh weather. My guest on First Stories today is Jocelyn Rish! Hooray! She’s here to discuss her BRAND NEW release – Battle of the Brains!

JOCELYN RISH is a writer and filmmaker who loves researching weird and wonderful animals and sharing what she learns. Her first book was BATTLE OF THE BUTTS, about ten animals that do weird things with their butts. Her second book, BATTLE OF THE BRAINS, is about ten animals with mind-blowing brain abilities. When she’s not writing, she tutors kids to help them discover the magic of reading. Jocelyn has won numerous awards for her short stories, screenplays, films, and novels and lives in South Carolina with her dog.

Me: Hello Jocelyn and welcome to First Stories!

Jocelyn: Thanks for having me!

Me: I can’t wait to get to the brainy part of our conversation, but I don’t want to skip how you got there! So, Tell me about your “first story.” The one that really pushed you to consider publishing. What inspired you to write it? What was it about?

Jocelyn: When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher did a unit on short stories, and we had to write a story every week. I can’t remember now if we had prompts or not. I wrote a story called The BP Bank, in which a couple need to buy something that costs an arm and a leg, so they take out a loan from the bank. When they can’t pay it back, the bank comes for their child, who was the collateral. They chop off an arm and a leg and three fingers for interest. At the end we learn the BP stands for Body Parts Bank.

Mr. Kaple read it to the class and everyone was captivated. Then he asked people to guess who wrote it. Of course everyone guessed several of the guys in the class. Then … my crush guessed it was me! Everyone was SHOCKED that the quiet, mousey nerd wrote such a gruesome story. And of course it added fuel to my crush because he “got me” (spoiler: he never asked me out).

Even though I LOVED to read, I’d never considered being a writer at that point. But seeing the power I had over everyone through my words stuck in the back of my mind for years. It wasn’t until about ten years later that I decided to take some writing classes and give it a go.

Me: What a fantastic story about a first story! It’s even got a twist at the end. And what a great teacher to select a few stories to read, demonstrating the uniquely captivating nature of words.

Where is The BP Bank now?

Jocelyn: Of course nothing happened with that story because I didn’t even know about writing and publishing back then. I need to see if I can find it in my parents’ attic to reread it now. I have such fond memories of it, but I bet I’d roll my eyes at its awfulness now!

Me: Ooh, I hope you do track it down, cause I’m intrigued! I love mysteries and thrillers, so this story sounds right up my alley. I know you wrote it awhile ago, but are there any themes in that story that you can see in your writing today?

Jocelyn: It’s funny that my two published books are nonfiction picture books because even four years ago I would have hurt myself laughing if you told me that (at both the NF part and the PB part!). I was a fiction gal, specifically a YA novelist. It’s what I read. It’s what I wrote. And the fiction I write today does share many of the same elements of The BP Bank – horror/thriller, some gory scenes, and a big ol’ twist at the end.

On the surface that first story does not seem to have much resemblance to my BATTLE books, but all these years later my writing still has the same quirky humor and attempts to elicit an “OMG, can you believe this?!?” reaction.

Me: I had to include the cover of your first picture book, which released in 2021, Battle of the Butts. It certainly has that “WOW! What?!” factor you were just describing! I remember when this released, I thought to myself, “That is hands-down the best idea I’ve seen in a long time!” So much fun!

Back to The BP BankLooking back, what elements of that first story made it unmarketable? Did you receive feedback on that story? What did that feedback teach you?

Jocelyn: Answering these questions, I now really, really want to find that story and see if I can turn it into something marketable! Although I’d probably get accused of ripping off Repo Men, even though I wrote my story twenty years before that movie came out!

My English teacher did give me feedback because at the end of the unit, we had to turn in one of our stories with revisions for our final grade. I can’t remember now his feedback or the changes I made based on it, but it was my first experience learning that first drafts are not final drafts!

Me: Hooray for two things – finding this story and an amazing teacher! Wow!! An English teacher who assigned creative writing AND walked you through a little bit of the revision process? That’s pure gold right there! Mr. Kaple – if you’re reading this, I salute you!

Why is that “first story” special to you? How was it important for your writing journey?

Jocelyn: I spent most of my free time lost in books, so I knew about their power, but I’d never thought about the people behind the books wielding that power. As Mr. Kaple read that story out loud, it was the first time I’d seen people hanging on my words. They were on the edge of their seats. I was controlling their emotions. And it felt really good. While it took me ten more years to figure out I wanted to do that for a living, it was the spark that lit the fire.

Me: What an invaluable lesson to learn early – that books are a unique relationship between an author and a reader. Kate DiCamillo had this amazing quote online – “I have come to understand that there is an unspoken promise between my readers and me. The promise is this: I will tell you the truth and I will not leave you. We are in this together.”

Even though I’ve written for my whole life, I mostly wrote stories for myself. The kind of stories that itch and scratch their way out of you. And you feel wholly better for having transferred them to a page.

But I never thought much about books as a relationship, or as Kate says, a promise from the author to the reader. This idea inspires me. It has transformed how I write. And what a gift to be given that insight early!

Now we come to the crux, to the heart, or maybe the brain…I would love to hear about your upcoming book release – BATTLE OF THE BRIANS! What can you tell us about this book? How did you come up with the idea for it? Does it relate at all to your “first story”?

Jocelyn: BATTLE OF THE BRAINS is about ten animals with mind-blowing brain abilities. I selected animals that each exhibit a different type of cognitive skill (from the talking of African Gray Parrots, to the memories of elephants, to the total weirdness of octopus brains) in order to show that intelligence comes in many different forms. I hope readers see that just like the animals excel at being different types of “smart,” individual human brains also excel in different ways. No type of intelligence is more important than the other, and all of our brains do incredible things.

Basically, my first book BATTLE OF THE BUTTS inspired me to write BATTLE OF THE BRAINS. From the start, I hoped there would be multiple Battle books, and then luckily my editor was interested in doing another one. I wrote up a proposal for several different body parts – eyes, tongue, feet. As I was doing that, my agent and one of her colleagues were chatting about an article they read about raccoons picking lots, which made them think brains would be another BATTLE possibility (plus it had the alliteration). So at her suggestion I added brains to the proposal, and that’s the one Running Press Kids picked!

I’d say it relates to my first story because of my desire to blow people’s minds – whether it’s with a gruesome twist or an incredible science fact. It’s fun to have people read your words and go “Wha?!?” because they had no idea about what was coming.

Me: Combining learning with a fun premise and so much kid appeal = a winning story! This book sounds (and looks) so delightful! Where can we purchase a copy?

Jocelyn: You can order BATTLE OF THE BRAINS online at bookshop.org here.

Me: Anything else you want to share about your writing journey?

Jocelyn: It’s been all about experimenting – different formats, genres, age groups. I always thought I was a YA novel writer, but it’s when I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone to try something new that I’ve had the most success. Screenplays, short stories, nonfiction picture books. So I always tell writers to try new things. It helps you improve other aspects of your craft and could lead to unexpected successes!

Me: Jocelyn, thanks so much for chatting with my about your First Story!

Jocelyn: Thanks so much for having me!

Jocelyn is kindly giving away a signed copy of BATTLE OF THE BRAINS to one lucky winner! To enter, comment below OR retweet the link to this interview OR both! The contest will close on Monday, November 21, and the winner will be announced on Twitter on November 22.

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