Ep. 281 The Characters Came Quickly with Jennifer Baker – Transcript

Podcaster and author Jennifer Baker discusses her novel Forgive Me Not, how she created its alternate juvenile justice system and what she wanted to teach young people about incarceration and grief. Plus, we hear about how Jennifer and her editor worked together to edit the book, the many ways in which publishing has changed and stayed the same, and who gets to decide who the villain is.

The Stacks Book Club selection for August is You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi. We will discuss the book on August 30th with Sam Sanders.


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*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.

Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are joined by Jennifer Baker. She is an author, editor and podcaster, who has a brand new young adult novel out called Forgive Me Not. The intense and captivating book shines a light on the lives of incarcerated black and brown teen girls. It tells the story of a family torn apart by tragedy and loss and their attempt to reconnect as they test the limits of forgiveness. Jennifer and I talked today about the world she created for her characters, how hope plays into writing for young people and her insights into the world of publishing after being an editor at a big five publisher and creating the minorities and publishing podcast over the last nine years. Remember, our August book club selection is you made a fool of death with your beauty. And I’ll be discussing that book with Sam Sanders next week, August 30. Right here on the stacks. Everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. If you want more of the stacks, join the stacks, hop over on Patreon. It’s just $5 a month and when you join you have access to our monthly virtual book club, the statspack discord, which is extremely active and you get our monthly bonus episodes. Plus, you get to know that you’re helping to make this show possible. The stats is an independent podcast, which means I don’t have the support of a big company backing every single thing I do. So if you want to help the show if you want to make the show possible. If you love what you hear go to patreon.com/theStacks and join us shout out to our newest members of the stacks pack. Laura Zug short, Steph Charlotte Roxboro crystal Orosco Rebecca M. And Ellen Wilson, thank you all so much for joining and thank you to the entire stacks pack. All right now it’s time for my conversation with Jennifer Baker.

All right, everybody. I am thrilled today to be joined by a person that I have known of for, basically since I started this podcast about five years ago, but we’ve never actually talked before. She is an author and editor, a podcast are generally just an important person in the world of books and publishing, especially for those of us who are not white and especially especially for those of us who are black women. I am thrilled to welcome the amazing incredible talented, smart, wonderful Jennifer Baker to the Stacks. Welcome.

Jennifer Baker 2:35
Thank you, Traci. It’s mutual admiration society right now.

Traci Thomas 2:39
I love it. Well, we’ll start with the book. You have a brand new book, it just came into the world as people are listening but when we’re talking it hasn’t come out yet. But the book is called Forgive me not will you tell folks in about 30 seconds or so what this book is about?

Jennifer Baker 2:53
Pressure- 30 seconds? Yeah. So forgive me not is a young adult novel. It’s dual perspective and you follow the lives of Violetta Chen Samuels and her slightly older brother Vincent Chin Samuels, unfortunately, Violetta gets into a drunk driving accident that causes the death of her younger sister. And I’m in this world, which is a mirror of our contemporary world. In Queens, New York, where I’m from, there is a juvenile system that is quote, unquote, kind of like restorative justice, but not quite, where you have the options of being forgiven. And then therefore you are free or not charged, where you might be incarcerated for a determinate amount of time, or where you may be decreed to get to enter the trials. And now the twist is the victims of said crime are the ones who make that decision. And for Violetta, it is her family.

Traci Thomas 3:48
Yes. Okay. I have so many things I want to dig into already from what you’ve said. But I want to start with just really basic Where did you get the idea for this book? Because it like you said, It mirrors our world, but it’s like slightly speculative dystopia II, but like, not a lot, like I kept being like, is this real? Are there trials or places? So I’m curious where you got the idea?

Jennifer Baker 4:11
Well, that’s the kicker, because I mean, I learned more about restorative justice, or I’m going to use air quotes around restorative justice. And overall, the criminal justice system in America as I dug more into it, and had to really understand more of the specificity of what’s going on in the state level law in this country. But the original idea came from the show called forgive or forget, did you ever watch it? It was syndicated? No. Yeah. So there was this woman named Mother Love, who hoped was the host and it was kind of Jerry Springer asked in terms of the whole setup, where basically if someone did something wrong, they would go on and apologize to someone in front of a live studio audience and say, Yeah, I cheated on my wife or I caused us to go bankrupt or or I did this or whatnot. So one familiar. So you may have you may have, yeah, yeah. And, you know, of course you do these things on live television. You bring in everybody who. And essentially, either the person would come on the show and maybe forgive you maybe not, but be willing to talk it out in front of that last studio audience, or a video would come up, and that person would say, I’m not coming there, I don’t forgive you, what are you talking about? So it was that kind of setup of, oh, you can literally go to the door. That’s how you would find out if the person came to, quote, unquote, forgive you or not. And then they will be like, Well, they didn’t come to forgive you, as you can see, won’t walk, here’s a video what to do that. And I said, Well, what if this was how it worked, if you were deemed guilty of a crime, and someone me is the victim of that crime, came up and said, I do not forgive you. And therefore you should deal with this, or you should do this. And so that’s where the gestation of all this came. And then you have to do all the work and all that, but the characters also came very, very quickly and vividly for me. So Vincent and Violetta were very fully formed in terms of voice and circumstance. But then I had to do all that plot building and character development and all that good stuff.

Traci Thomas 6:25
And what sort of texts were you looking to or what sort of people or information maybe they weren’t text movies, TV shows, were you looking to to kind of flesh out some of that quote, unquote, restorative justice stuff?

Jennifer Baker 6:36
I think what I realized the biggest thing is the stuff that we watched, like I watched the oz. Okay. Right. And that was HBO in the late 90s, early aughts. And that’s dramatic, you know, dramatic show. So you have that in your head, but then you start looking at the, you know, Department of Corrections sites, and you start digging into like, studies and, you know, the Brennan Center and what they’re writing about, and what what are the divisions of law and what are the criteria of what you can get arrested for for how long and what is this equal this so getting into that kind of technical jargon, which is really technical. How its worded and it’s just like, you’re like, Okay, you kind of deciphering it as a as a you know, MFA English creative writing major. And then I was getting into more books. I was reading a lot of Angela Davis and Angela writes more about what could this could be right what it should look like, you know, what resistance is what you know, true abolition looks like and so like I have this book, The One edited by her it’s from verso if they come in the morning, which is a lot of letters and prison. And then there’s another one which is the freedom is a constant struggle, which is more speeches and then you know, her autobiography, which rounds out a lot of her time. So she was like a main guiding point and I pay market press a lot because I love their books and their I love him so much. So as in various ones of these books are from Haymarket to their public republishing a lot of Miss Davis’s work and you know, Keeanga and I believe Mariame Kaba is the new press two.

Traci Thomas 8:31
Yeah she’s- We Do This til We Free Us.

Jennifer Baker 8:35
Till we’re free. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 8:40
That one is Haymarket and I know They’re on Their Stuff is New Press. And I think our newest one, Let This Radicalize You is also Haymarket. Okay, yeah.

Jennifer Baker 8:53
Those are like the two. And of course, I read The New Jim Crow. I don’t mention that mainly because I feel like that’s kind of a lot of people’s intro to criminal justice is the new Jim Crow. But yeah, I definitely read that one, too. So it was reading a lot of that going online, especially researching what the categories were. And when it came, you know, once the book was a book, asking people who worked at Rikers people who have been incarcerated to read as well, to get more of that immediate first person response of like, well, how is this reading as well, because you don’t want to re traumatize you don’t I don’t want to play off of right what I’ve seen on TV because I have seen the documentaries and I have seen like scared straight and what we’re doing for actual rehabilitation of you know, like the actor who we lost sadly from Lovecraft.

Traci Thomas 9:43
Right. Oh, Michael K. Williams.

Jennifer Baker 9:46
Yeah. Michael K. Williams. And he there was he had a documentary because he actually has this actual program that looked at but I had been near the finish line of the book by that point when that documentary came on, so a lot of stuff you’re seeing is kind of like scared straight, where I’m going to come in and help you troubled youth. Right. perpetuate that. Yeah. So yeah, much more helpful for me at least, than some of the shows I was watching because the shows weren’t really about those who were incarcerated. It was more about this feeling.

Traci Thomas 10:21
So then let me ask you this, how did you sort of like fight against those narratives that we’ve seen or the way that incarcerated people, especially young people are portrayed in the media and like to a broader society? How did you push back? Or how did you think about pushing back on that, as you were writing as you were fleshing out Violetta, and the other young women who are incarcerated with her.

Jennifer Baker 10:47
That was when I was in more conversations, because I started this book in 2014. Haha. So I had just joined, We Need Diverse Books at that point, I had started my podcast later that year. And as I was in these groups, you know, my community is expanding, even more and more, the discussions online are expanding even more, right, like we’re learning more about disability because there are more thinkpieces, there are more essays being published, and people are talking about the specifics. So it’s not as though you have to go to print journals, right solely on some of the stuff you can actually it’s like really at your fingertips in a much bigger way than it was in my childhood, or even in my early college years. So I’m now understanding my privilege to write because there’s a way that you can lean on racism, which exists and is a fact and is something we have to deal with. And at the same time, still recognize that I am cisgender, I am straight, I’m heterosexual, I am able bodied, you know, I have not always come from a middle class back or I come, you know, like I was homeless for a little bit in my teen years. So I understand like, there are times when I don’t know where I’m going to eat. And I didn’t have a firm address. And so there are things about class and race, I can understand. But then there are things about sexuality and gender and other aspects that I don’t understand that I’m coming to in my 30s At this point, right. And so as I talking to more people and in more of these environments, and hearing deeper discussions, and not just talking about literature, which is my life, but talking about the effects of that I’m growing as a human being and understanding what perpetuating as well, because I didn’t have to think about these things, right? And the moment you have to think about certain things that obviously ardently affect other people, you’re kind of part of the issue and not and that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. That just means like, Oh, we’re just not thinking about it, because we don’t have to. And it’s like, well, well, now let’s start doing it. And I think the biggest thing for me was that I wanted Violetta to have a loving community, in and outside, right. And as long as I stuck to that, I felt like I wasn’t playing into some of the issues that I had seen.

Traci Thomas 13:14
How’s the book changed from when you set out to write it in 2014?

Jennifer Baker 13:18
It’s gotten better, I’ll say much better. I mean, I was stuck for a lot of things. I talked to people about the what is it the arc, you know, rising action, falling action, you know, you there and then you get the hump and then you go down, right? Or Violetta elephants, they have their arcs. And for Vince, it was a bit easier. Because I said, Okay, I knew where he landed, and were violent. I knew where she started. And I knew where I wanted her to go. But there was this chunk, where I was like, Ah, what’s happening here, and I was very much stuck. And even when we submitted it, my agent was kind of like, think this is as best if we could do Jen and I’m like, Cool, let’s just submit it. Alright, see what happens. But it was very much this whole of I’m just, this is the point where Janice, doesn’t know what she’s doing.

Traci Thomas 14:09
I’ll help you with that your editor who comes in an editor, with you,

Jennifer Baker 14:13
Stacy, Barney, a black woman who’s just done amazing things in publishing, especially for children’s lit, she helped me because, you know, at first I tend to stuff a lot of things in there, and then reel it back. So there was a lot more characters who then merged to become one rather than like Vince having eight friends of core four, you know, or three or whatever, you know, like Violetta was in this woman’s group and then like, got rid of the women’s group and then make take one of those characters or I had this character who’s just kind of this ominous character, and I merged with Petra. Okay, so that was my thing. Like, I was just like throwing all these characters in to try and do things and then you’re like, Who the hell are they? And I got to describe that to you.

Traci Thomas 15:00
We’re getting rid of them. Thank you. I am famously like, there’s too many people in this fucking book. And I feel that way in this book. So thank you for pulling it in. Because I would have been like, I can’t keep track. I hate I hate that feeling as a reader when I’m like, I need to take notes on who’s in the book. But that is one of my pet peeves. I hate that.

Jennifer Baker 15:19
Writers hate it too. I think you know, a lot of writers do it.

Traci Thomas 15:24
I’m just like, can you cut them? Yeah, like, does your best friend need a best friend? I don’t know. I don’t know if you need a third degree sidekick.

Jennifer Baker 15:33
I wonder if it’s because they’re basing it so much on real life. They’re like, yeah, like, I have eight friends. But yeah, but you probably have a core two. Yeah, three, right.

Traci Thomas 15:41
But two of your friends are similar. And they could be one of your friends was rude to you last week at brunch? So she’s out? Like, I don’t know, can we sit down people help me help you. So the books young adult. And I’m curious about what you felt, or what you feel your obligation is to young people that’s maybe different than writing to adults, because I know you have a collection that you edited. That was for adults, I know that you, yourself are an editor of adult literature. So I’m wondering sort of like how you see the different role of the author and relationship to audience when it comes to young adults versus full adults, older adults?

Jennifer Baker 16:30
That’s a great question. Thank you for that. I talked to casein calendar about that. And casein, casein wrote some adult stuff. And I was like, hey, so this cat brutal. And you know, okay, so when the National Book Award for other, you know, some really beautiful stories that can be hard to read as well. And casein was like, I think what I’m going for is I’m more worried about the younger generation, and want to leave them with hope. And I always kind of remembered what Casey said in that way. Because I was like, Well, do I do that, too. We’re sometimes it’s not that you don’t care about your adult audience, but you feel like, there are things that an adult will have experienced or may be able to process in a way that you may not want to introduce to a younger reader, who may not, this may be the first book ever, that they’re ever, ever thinking about criminal justice or juvenile detention. And I didn’t want to do anything that was, like, say, gratuitous, right, I didn’t want to just have violence, to have violence, or anything. I really wanted everyone to have love for each other. So that was paramount for me, especially for a young reader coming into this to know that even though something really bad happened, and people really do care about each other here, it is just you are in the midst of grief of anger, you know, you’re probably going through the Kubler Ross cycles, right? All at the same time, perhaps. And I wanted the characters to make a decision for themselves, whether that’s very big or not in terms of action, it needs to feel big, so that the teenagers in this book have a lot of agency. And so those were the two things I said I wanted them to feel loved in the even in the midst of a lot of stuff, and also to be able to make a choice for themselves.

Traci Thomas 18:21
Yeah, it’s interesting what keys and calendar says, because one of the conversations that I’ve had multiple times with another beloved young adult and children’s author, Jason Reynolds, is that sometimes I struggle with young adult, because I feel like it’s got too tight of a bow at the end. But I’ve never really thought about that as being, like maybe a tool or an invitation for young people to stay with the work as opposed like, you know, giving them hope that there’s maybe more here for them or, or an opportunity for them as opposed to like, what how I read as an adult, which is I read a lot of like, very bleak stuff. And so I know how fucked up the world is. But I think sometimes I forget that for young adults, like, you don’t want them to necessarily like you want them to know that the world is fucked up. But like maybe that there’s an opportunity in that and I’ve never really thought about it as hope. But I also think that like as an adult, a lack of hope, which sometimes I have is really not helpful for action and like really not helpful for change. And maybe I wish sometimes adult authors would be nicer to me. ballad. I’d never really thought about it that way. But that is a really helpful framing for sort of the difference between young adult and adult is like that there’s maybe an opportunity or an invitation from the author for the young person to like, stick with it or like to know that there’s possibility here. I want to ask you about the family and the spokes At the end of the book, there’s an author’s note where you started off by saying like, this is a book about family. And I’m curious where that came from, for you why it was important for you to say that specifically, as opposed to this being a book about incarceration, or a book about personal shame or guilt or a coming of age or like, I’m just really curious why you wanted to expressly tell your audience, this is a book about family.

Jennifer Baker 20:27
You know, if I’m being completely honest, I think it was the publishing and me. I, you know, I know what folks are gonna say it is, I know how this might be marketed, I know. Categorize, for selling purposes. But I want you to know that when I Yeah, the premise came to me that the characters came to me. And the premise means nothing if I can’t find the vessels to be able to tell that story, because I tend to write very character driven stories. So if I have the voice of the characters, I’m good. And I might be flailing, because I’m not a great swimmer, I might be failing, or a bit about plot pacing. Ah, but I’ll get there. For the most part, I will. But if I have no character, and I have have none of that, I have nothing. I have nothing to offer you as a reader. And so that very much came to mind for me. And I do think as someone who guests because I remember that wonderful, more recent episode you did with Mary, I’m sure she’s talking about the connections we have, even though we don’t believe we have them to Criminal Justice, right? As I wanted to be very clear of like, I am not Angela, or Maryam or anger in that regard, right? This work for years, and you know, are just amazing at this. And I’m an all whenever I sit and hear them. And at the same time, I do want to talk about this, I am learning about this. And I do this through a family. And I want you to empathize and feel with this family because this is our family. They love each other, you know, and we have complications with family. And people really do think they’re they’re helping us when they are not like family or not. You know, I’ve dealt with this so many areas of my life where I’m like, You really think you’re helping right now you are causing damage? Right?

Traci Thomas 22:23
I have a hypothetical question, which I never usually ask authors about books. But this popped into my head as I was reading the book. So you mentioned how in this world, people who are convicted of crimes are essentially or at least young people are given the opportunity to be sort of sentenced by the victims or the families of the victims of the crime. What happens in this world? It is a quote unquote, victimless crime. Did you ever think about that? Was that something that I don’t? I don’t know if that came comes to you? Like I don’t know how far you take the world in your own brain? Because that’s not part of the book. But it was just something that popped into my head.

Jennifer Baker 23:04
Yeah, cuz for me, it wouldn’t work. Right.

Traci Thomas 23:07
Right. I was just thinking, Well, what happened?

Jennifer Baker 23:10
Yeah, I feel like there’s a complexity to that, that makes up such a great hypothetical or, and realistic, like, stylistic question, because I remember sitting there when I had way more characters, and being like, Well, what did she do? What did she do? That would be what caused her to be in? Okay, so what did she do? I can’t keep, you know, Adela and like, making up more and more, because they’re eight girls in a room, we may or may not see again, because at some time, it is a quote unquote, victimless crime. Right? At some point, it is something where it’s like, well, you know, you you burn this and No, no, and that’s not cool. But no one got hurt, technically, but is it on someone’s property? Because then we can get to the nitty gritty of that, right.

Traci Thomas 24:01
I feel like that’s part of like the problem. One of the problems with criminal the criminal penal system in America is that the system is always looking for a victim to make whoever did something out to be a, you know, a bad person, I think about, again, Miriam Cabo, when she was on she was talking about, and also in the book we read, which was prison by any other name. They talk about sex workers. And it’s like, yeah, like, you don’t have to actually arrest sex workers like that doesn’t have to be a crime, right? Like, and it is sort of a victimless crime. Right? Like, if you’re engaging in sex work on your own volition, and with another person who is a consenting adult who’s exchanging money with you. Like if you were to them and arrest the sex worker, they would have done a victimless crime. Right? Like, however, we still punish those people. For what and I think maybe, you know, the thing about abolition work is I feel like it is always building for me in my head. I’m like building on these different conversations I’ve had and books I’ve read. And so that that’s where that hypothetical sort of popped into my brain.

Jennifer Baker 25:11
But it’s a good question. I feel like if I explored this world again, yeah, that would be a really great topic. Right?

Traci Thomas 25:18
Like, it’d be interesting, right?

Jennifer Baker 25:20
It’d be like, Well, why am I even here, y’all? There were no victims.

Traci Thomas 25:26
Right, yeah, I sort of fear like how I was thinking about it in your world, as I sort of fear like those kids would be just locked away. Like they wouldn’t have an option for a trial. I sort of feel like that’s what happens. It’s just like, Oh, you did a quote unquote, victimless crime, like, Here you go 10 weeks or whatever, like that they would just have some punitive thing and it’s like, you don’t have an option for redemption because redemption is only through others or some I don’t know, like in your world, that’s sort of where my brain went.

Jennifer Baker 25:57
I absolutely believe that because they think they did a better job. And that was the biggest thing that I wanted to be be consistent about is that these folks believe what they’re selling. They believe it wholeheartedly they got that they have a product guarantee they have a presentation right?

Traci Thomas 26:14
Quote-unquote “data.”

Jennifer Baker 26:14
Yeah we got it all we gotta get back to the Randall who apparently talked to you right and he’s there as you know, mediator between that world and what this guy

Traci Thomas 26:30
Honestly, there’s a lot of people that are kind of fuck that guy in the book. But Randall I think everyone that Chen Samuels it myself we all just don’t fuck with Randall and that’s not really a spoiler. Nobody If you fuck with Randall, you don’t fuck with us is basically

Jennifer Baker 26:48
The most explicit one that was just like, Okay, well, I’m not really adding too much depth here.

Traci Thomas 26:54
Do you feel like you need that in a book? Like a fiction book? Do you feel like as a writer or as a reader that you like, need a villain? Or like an obvious villain?

Jennifer Baker 27:06
That’s the thing. I mean, my question to you, Tracy is is the villain what we decree them or do they see themselves as a villain?

Traci Thomas 27:12
I think it’s what the reader sees them as, okay, I don’t think anybody thinks they’re the villain. Right? Except for like, in a funny way. You know, it’s up for like, in a, you know, it’s me. I’m the whatever Taylor Swift lyric, you know, like, it’s like, in a sort of ironic way where it’s like, I’m, I’m the villain. This is my villain origin story. I don’t think anyone I don’t think anyone thinks that they’re a bad person necessarily. Because I think everyone thinks they’re doing the best they can. But I meant that question more and like, as a reader, or like, as an artist, do you feel like you need to create like an obvious sort of foil to the story?

Jennifer Baker 27:52
I don’t think so. No.

Traci Thomas 27:54
I like them. I like a villain. So I love when authors give me someone to like, hold on to a little bit. Yeah.

I think it’s fun. Oh, yeah.

Oh here’s this fucking guy. Let’s it’s on site, Randall.

Jennifer Baker 28:11
And that’s the even writing Rando. I had no feelings towards him. Because again, I’ve worked with Randall.

Traci Thomas 28:16
Right. We all know Randall. I think that’s what makes him so hateable. We all know a Randall.

Jennifer Baker 28:22
And what’s wild is you know, when Randall is at home or with his folks or whatnot. They’re like, you know, these are the good parts of Randall. And so that’s how I looked at it is like, I’m not less necessarily taking the time to let you get to know Randall and right complex or multi layered way. Not to say I wrote him one dimensionally.

Traci Thomas 28:40
No, no, no, I don’t think so.

Jennifer Baker 28:41
But like, I was just like, I just know this guy. And I know he really believes in what he’s selling. Yeah. And it makes the even the word villain to me be like, what is that I interrogate it so much more. Now, when you’re looking at who our politicians are. Right? And the people who I’ve worked with the people who, you know, engage with me in everyday life, but right, you know, like, you’re just like, Wow, you really don’t get it. Right. Get it, but maybe feeling like you are protecting someone.

Traci Thomas 29:13
Well, that’s what I was gonna say about Randall. So sorry, we’ve been talking about Randall, but people he is sort of that like adjudicator of the family. He’s the representative of the victim. So he goes with the victim’s family when they’re trying to figure out what should happen to the person who’s been convicted of the crime. So in this case, he is with Violetta as family and he’s helping them figure out what to do with her. And I think to your point, not only does does Rambo think that he’s doing a good job, but I also think Randles family probably thinks that Randall is a hero. Randall is helping get second chances for young people who have crit young criminals you know, he’s dedicated his life to these really difficult people and these difficult such like, I think that there is a book to be written by a different person with a different set of beliefs than he You were Randall is the hero and is the beloved most beloved character, which I think is what makes Randall so hateable for someone like me, because he’s a very small minor character. But for me, I’m like, You are fucking up my guy. Like you’re not helping. And like, you are part of the problem, you know? And like, so for me, it’s like, I think part of why I hate Randall so much is because I recognize that Randall to a lot of people, the majority of people is a good guy doing a good job and working extra hard to help this poor family. And I just don’t see it that way.

Jennifer Baker 30:37
Absolutely. Absolutely. I have no feelings towards him as it’s not that I hate him or love him or whatever. I just mean like, This is who he is. And he’s serves a very necessary purpose.

Traci Thomas 30:49
Yeah, yeah. Okay, let me ask you about the cover and the title. How much were you involved in the cover? How was the title? Easy? Did it come to you right away? Was it a long process? How did you land on it? Give me sort of that backstory.

Jennifer Baker 31:03
I’m not always great with titles. But this Stax, I called it Forgive me not. And it’s even through publishing. They were like, yeah, so this works. And I was like, wow, expect, right? I was like, ready. I was like, What do you got for me? Where are you going to tell you what this is gonna be? And I was like, love under lockup, like, what is it gonna be? Like, no, we really think the title works. And I said, okay, and then not the minute there’s one other book written by a woman. I think her name is Samantha, I forget but you came out years ago, in this century called Forgive me not. So there’s only one other book. In the United States, at least that’s called forgiveness. I don’t have to worry about that much competition. And our our covers are dramatically different. And hers was like a romance. So I think mistaken.

Traci Thomas 31:57
But you know, I put everything we talked about in the show notes, and I’m gonna have to find that book and link to it in the show notes for people just so they can see it. So you’ve done this to yourself. Don’t ever talk to her again.

Jennifer Baker 32:08
I think it’s a cyber issues. Right. Hey, I look for other people getting some sales.

Traci Thomas 32:12
Yeah. Shout out to maybe Samantha potentially some ham.

Jennifer Baker 32:18
That other book that is named after my book. Yeah. So the cover was a bit of a journey, admittedly. And I think what’s good is that everyone always wanted a black. Well be clear, like Violetta is Asian and Black. She is Chinese American black. So everyone didn’t want but she’s visibly brown skin. So everyone did want like a brown skin. Young woman on the cover. So that was like universally understood that. And we did look up models who are biracial who are part like part Chinese part East Asian and Black. So this was modeled over a photo a models photo by the artist, Michael Mangie. So he he modeled it, and so we have iterated that just weren’t working. Things weren’t working. It was too dark. It was to this and I didn’t my biggest thing. And sometimes you have to see it to No, no. We want it is that and then you start formulating and I will give a lot of credit. The especially my editor and the design team is that they listened. But we did this was a year, which is not necessarily normal to take that long to get to a final cover. But I didn’t want it to be stereotypical. I didn’t want it to focus solely on the fact that this was about incarceration. So yes, she’s wearing yellow, but it’s not. It’s a shirt that I feel like you can’t tell apart. Right that Oh, like, so that was the thing. It was like, well, it was orange, because then you think Orange is the New Black, right? Immediately like corrections that and I said, Can we make it yellow? Because there are corrections. And then I thought it would take a little bit away from that. And I think the biggest thing was like, I’m not trying to hide the subject matter of a book. I just don’t want it to be the sole thing that you’re gonna be a bi POC team that is brown skin. And bars. I was like I don’t like no I don’t want to be in a field of correction that oh are like holding on to it. I was like no, no, dude to have hope. You’re saying. So we got to this point where you know, it’s her primarily and then the chain and then the chains turn into birth at the top.

Traci Thomas 34:43
Yeah, I actually hadn’t noticed that until I asked you today but I’m like keep looking at the cover of the corner of my eye and I hadn’t actually noticed the birds until today, which is very nice touch. I like a cover where you can look at it over and over and find different things. I always think that’s really fun as a reader as well. actually as a slow reader, because I’m always picking up the book a lot, because it takes me a long time to get through books. Like I like when I look at the cover and I find new things. Okay, how do you like to write? Where are you? What are you eating and drinking? Is there music or no, it’s a rituals. How often what time of day sort of set up your writing life for us?

Jennifer Baker 35:26
Yeah, it’s very Helter Skelter, honestly.

Traci Thomas 35:28

Jennifer Baker 35:29
I work full time. And then I have other things I do. So it really is like, Oh, I have a scene, right? The scene, I don’t write an order. I might start a short story. I might write short and order, but I really write all over the place. So even forgive me not, was something where the beginning came to me fairly quickly. And it didn’t really change. It got refined, but it didn’t really change. But then after that, I’m just writing all these scenes. And I may listen to music. I may not I need noise of some sort. I live in New York City. Tech. So we always have. So I usually always have a TV in the background. That’s like the most soothing thing for me. So I’m what’s on the TV for you anything anything? Especially if I can ignore it. Right? So it could be the news, which I watch, and then I can tune out or it could be something I’ve seen a repeat of a show. I’ve seen 18 times TBS does all the syndicated Right, right, right, right, right. Friends will be off for eight hours straight until it’s evening or you know, big bang theory or whatever. So reality shows, you know, housewives that cooking shows that did that. And that can be and I could just sit on my couch or sit in my, my reading chair and just write and write a scene or write for an hour time myself anything like that. But I don’t really have a practice. I think the biggest consistency for me is if character and voice comes first, and I’m able to visualize scenes and then start putting it together, then I know I have something. But if I’m sitting there like struggling just like, I don’t know, trying to type because I have to type to a word count or time limit. It’s not sticking, it’s not gonna stick. So I just know myself and I’m like, Okay, this is flowing. And I may not know what 60% of the book looks like, but I know what 40 does. Right? Good.

Traci Thomas 37:25
Right? Do you have snacks and beverages? You avoided the most important part of the question.

Jennifer Baker 37:28
Oh, I love snacks. Okay, back into popcorn.

Traci Thomas 37:33
Just plain air pop purchase pop. Do you pop it in the microwave?

Jennifer Baker 37:39
It’s the yellow bag with the big pink lettering.

Traci Thomas 37:43
Oh, boom. Chicka.

Jennifer Baker 37:44
Whatever? Yeah, really? Boom. Chicka. Okay, at least one bag in my apartment all time. Okay. To just the plain, because not too salty. I do sodium. So that is like my favorite thing.

Traci Thomas 38:03
Okay, got it. And then what’s the word? You can never spell correctly on the first try?

Jennifer Baker 38:09
What is it? Well, I work at this job called Narrative initiative. So I’m always writing initiative. Just squinting at it like-

Traci Thomas 38:19
Narrative is also hard for me. I have questions about the number of Rs for me personally. Yeah, narrative is a tough word for me.

Jennifer Baker 38:27
Is that many vowels gets me Yeah, I have vowels back to back.

Traci Thomas 38:32
Yeah, that’s hard. That’s a hard you should tell your company to change their name be like, the shelling lead challenge need less? How about just like, Yay, words or something that that’s good? Yeah. Um, one thing that I didn’t ask you about the book that I actually do want to ask you about, because I thought it was so striking. And I can’t believe I didn’t talk about this earlier, is the element of grief. Grief is such a huge part of this book. And I thought you really did an excellent job of sort of like bringing grief to life and like, what it feels like and how it sort of like can haunt haunt you or like pop up when you don’t expect it. And I’m wondering how you were thinking about writing grief, especially for young people, because there are young people who unfortunately have experienced deep grief at a young age, but I can speak for myself. I know that when I was young, I didn’t have that experience, you know, in my team, so I’m wondering how you were thinking about writing that stuff, maybe for kids who have never had that experience.

Jennifer Baker 39:33
Thank you for that. So I think the biggest thing it goes back to that whole I was telling you about because I had Violetta, just enmeshed in. I’m awful. Yeah. And then it was supposed to be like, you know, this roundabout moment where it’s it’s not that she forgets but that you know, she the agency I was talking about, right? And I have her avoiding. For some reason, I can’t explain why I was doing this But I was doing it for several years, various iterations. And it wasn’t until like working with Stacey. And then she was asking those questions. And then I had her embrace fit. And that’s what was missing. And that closed up that hole. And so I think I was so wrapped up in plot that I needed to think about what the embracing of those memories instead of the avoidance of those memories needed to do. And that unlock something that allowed the story to do something more, because Vince was able to always think about it, but Vince wasn’t the one who caused the accident. Right? Right. So it’s different for him is that, you know, he’s living in his own guilt and grief. But for Violetta, because it’s like, this action of mine created this. It perpetuates a lot of things and propels the story in itself. And I lost my aunt to AIDS, unfortunately, we didn’t know until the very, very end, and this was the early 90s When people weren’t getting what they needed. Right. You know, this was I mean, Clinton was in office by this point, no, Bush, it was first Bush was in office when when she passed, unfortunately. And, and that was my first and they hit it, like my the adults hate it. They didn’t want us to do it. But then it’s like you learn someone died. And you’re like, well, we didn’t even get to process this in a real way. And I and the adults in my family weren’t really processing it, like some were crying and openly grieving. And then others were just like, handling it, right like handling the funeral preparation, handling where her kids were going to go handling of it. And then losing more people over time. I think unlocking that embracing for Violetta to write to VIV and to like have something for herself and to talk about the memory is something I wished. Interesting we did. Because we did talk about people, it wasn’t like, Oh, they’re past, we don’t talk about them. Right? That immediate moment of loss, there was just this weirdness of like, we can’t really show feelings, or we just want to protect the children. And we don’t want to show we it. It was weird. I don’t want to do that. Here.

Traci Thomas 42:11
Yeah. Okay, we have a few minutes now towards the end to talk about your podcast and your work when you are in publishing. And your podcast is called minorities and publishing. You started the show in 2014. And I’m curious to know, what is surprisingly stayed the same. And publishing to you. I think a lot of people talk about like, what’s changed or what needs to change? But I’m curious, like what has surprisingly stayed the same. And that could be positive or negative. I’m just curious, like what’s been consistent.

Jennifer Baker 42:42
So much. Because the ebbs and flows of publishing, like I think any business have been consistent, because right now we’re 2023. Right? This is like 2008. I was in publishing for 20 years. I mean, I’m kind of adjacent to it. Now my new full time job. But I literally from the time I graduated, to like as have to say, again, still to this day, or as of last year. Yeah, like this immediate going to, well, we’re not making money, we gotta let people off. And I think when you’re in it, you’re you’re working with a machine that technically does work, right, you’re producing books, editing them in the warehouse, you’re Yeah, things are selling, we’re making profit, right? Someone’s making money.

Traci Thomas 43:32
Somebody was making money in publishing, and I’m gonna do a fucking oral history to find out who to talk about. Because I get keep getting told there’s no money in publishing. But I don’t understand how it’s a billion dollar industry. But also nobody’s making money.

Jennifer Baker 43:46
But this lack of distribution is ridiculous. So I think what’s stayed the same is the workflow has not really changed. I think there’s an adaptation to like what we have to deal with now, but it it just brings up more questions and concerns. So we can say that, like, the workflow is very much the same. Like some of the systems have been in there since I was born. I can say this for a fact, because I was there. And they’re like, yeah, we’ve had this system for 30 years. And I’m like, right. These systems that actually make things happen in terms of getting your book from A to B, how are we even going to start to change the thinking?

Traci Thomas 44:26
Yeah, speaking of the money, I think, you know, I am considered press for a book, right? Like, I’m part of like the marketing and publicity budget if someone can’t or like that realm, so I don’t deal with books pretty much at all until it gets to the marketing and publicity team, which is really interesting, because I know there’s so much that happens before that, but because that’s where my interest is and I think like I you know, you wrote a piece earlier this year about black women and publishing for electric literature. That was fantastic. And you talk a little bit about like, you know, Black Books are still being told, like, well, either you’ll find your audience or you won’t or like, there’s like a call for more. There was at least in 2020, a call for more books by black authors, which I think has maybe fizzled, but I don’t know for sure. It’s just anecdotal to me. But I’m wondering, like, can you talk a little bit about how the money allocated to books and marketing and publicity, like how that impacts a book, because I think that sometimes people think, Oh, this book was picked as like a diverse read, or, you know, or it’s being featured on the stacks, or it’s being featured on X, Y, and Z. And that that translates to New York Times best seller, or that people maybe don’t understand that there is a financial aspect of getting a book to be a best seller. I think a lot of people think if the book is good, it’ll be a best seller. And I know that that’s not true. But I’d love to hear you speak to that, and to my audience. And also, let me just say, really quickly to people, I am publicity, so I don’t get paid for having people on the show. I just want to clarify that because it sort of sounded like I was part of a budget, but I’m not nobody pays me at publishing. So yeah, if you could speak to sort of that aspect of it. I would love to hear from you.

Jennifer Baker 46:10
Oh, yeah, sure. So first off, there’s the book advance, right. So when you see like someone who might be able to talk openly, or chooses to, I should say, talk openly about how much they got, that’s a separate budget. Like if someone gets a million dollars for a book to write that book, that is all a whole other realm of money, right? That is not connected to marketing and publicity, marketing, publicity. Budgets are determined for the most part, this can vary year to year, or budget year to budget year, which may not be the same as a calendar year. And that’s the side of a whole other bunch of people. You know, I when I was in acquisitions, and buying books, I had to go to my publisher and say, I want this book up, the money’s gone up, I’m in an auction, oh, my God does it right. And that’s where that and that’s for that moment, right. And then the book is coming out a year, two years, three years, whatever later. And now we have to deal with what’s what’s this budget, you’re looking like, budget year where people are getting laid off is not a good budget year. Versus Oh, we have a lot of money. That may be a better budget year, but it really determines it is determined by whoever makes those decisions, which can be very high up, that’s trickle down of it. But it’s not editorial. And it’s not sometimes even the marketing director or the publicity director, it is coming from a higher power. And people are negotiating, trying to get more money for their books, and even with publicity that might be Tor. So that’s not like you said, you, Tracy, that might be do I have money to send someone on a tour, I have money to get wine at a bookstore. Everybody to sit get you on an Uber in an Uber? Like that could be publicity, you know, and then marketing is more of like ads and partnerships. And like those cool boxes, you see, yeah. And that’s determined, like do we think this book is going to sell a lot? Do we think that this is commercial? And so we should do these cute boxes? And do these kinds of things? Do we have other money coming in? That can really help us be do we have book club support. So you know, you see the Oprah’s the GMA is, you know, that’s part of marketing, because it helps propel, like, actual sales in a different way. But it might be publicity to either way, one of those departments sends the books to the book club. And then that’s all part of the marketing and publicity. And so it’s it’s what people I don’t think get instead including production, right? Like the design of my book and the production, that’s a different budget. These are all separate budgets, right? From what people are getting, what the author gets paid, how the book is produced, how the book is marketed and publicized, all different departments are deciding this. And it’s still probably coming from a top top level, that is saying, yes, you could spend this much or guess what we need to spend less. And that affects you in a big way, based on those decisions. You have no control, or as an author.

Traci Thomas 49:05
And if you’re let’s say your book advances really big, does that you is that usually more or less or more often correlated to how much money then is put behind your book for marketing and publicity? Because like, why would a publisher spend a million dollars on an advance if they’re like, here’s 35 cents, and good luck getting, you know,

Jennifer Baker 49:28

Traci Thomas 49:31
Doing with it as you’d like.

Jennifer Baker 49:35
It’s not always corollary, it’s not I mean, you think so. And I was in meetings where the assumption is, if you have a celebrity, a celebrity being, you know, even a tick tock or with a million might be considered a celebrity versus what I may think of a celebrity on TV. And so that may be this kind of default of well, you have all these followers already and this Audience built in audience already. So it’s not to say we won’t give you money, but we are leaning on the fact that your celebrity status in and of itself might bring us something. So you can still have a celebrity book that you’ve paid seven figures for. And you could send them to two cities rather than send them on to 10. Con it when I was acquiring thing, I might have had huge hopes and dreams, and then republishing it. And I’m like, I can’t control this. I’m not the publicity director. I’m not that. Do y’all love the book? Hopefully y’all love the book. I love the book. And that’s what editors are doing. You’re getting everyone to love the book, because also you have to deal with sales. And then sales is going to bookstores. So you’re dealing with publicity, but bookstores and libraries, they’re dealing, you know, like what Hannah said she has a sales rep and the book is a sales rep. So that’s a relationship. I as acquisitions editor brought in this book, I have no control.

Traci Thomas 50:53
Right? But are you going into the budget meetings, whatever? And being like, no, no, no, you guys are wrong. This book is great. Like, are you? Do you have to go in there and advocate or do they even let you in? They’re like, well, Jen is gonna say it’s great no matter what, because she acquired it. Like how much is the editorial team involved in these types of budgets?

Jennifer Baker 51:12
Not have any at all a director might be so like a punisher or editorial director, like usually the heavy hitters are in a meeting. And what you’re doing as an editor, is when you present the sales because there’s, there’s these seasonal meetings where you present your titles for the season of next year. So it’s like, we’re in summer, I’m telling you about Sabbath 2024. And that’s what I’m kind of pleading my case and giving you samples of the book and being like, love it as much as I do. Right. Right. Right, right.

Traci Thomas 51:40
It’s very Hunger Games. It’s very literary hungry.

Jennifer Baker 51:44
And it’s sad, because it shouldn’t be we should all have enough to do what we want for our books. But if we’re all bringing in 20 books, and it’s how many imprints how many editors, edits, but so much staff, it’s so many salespeople, many publishers, but so many, but so many podcasters. But but so many review places, right? So you have to think more innovatively, and if you don’t have the time or money to do be innovative, how does that affect the book? And that might land on an author in a very different way?

Traci Thomas 52:15
I don’t know if you know the answer to this, but I’m always curious, because I get asked this a lot like what books have you Tracy personally, like, put on and um, sort of like, it’s impossible to know, because there’s no way to track like, I don’t know, if I tell someone about a book and they go buy it three months later, you know, that kind of thing. But I’m wondering, like, what is the most impactful thing for a book to sell? Well, like, what if I guess that’s very anecdotal. And you know, but what do you think is the most powerful thing?

Jennifer Baker 52:47
I think what you do, obviously, like by having the facts and telling people what you like, and going to those review spaces and being like, Hey, I didn’t really didn’t like this book on Goodreads and Amazon. But I think people underestimate schools and libraries, especially now we need to really supporting them in a big, like curriculums are being attacked. It’s not just like waiting to die, you know, like curriculums curriculums are being attacked in right. So that is stripping us of learning that would lead you to a book like mine, or like Miriam’s, or a book like it, like it will strip you of that. So I think something that and it’s something authors, when I talk to I think in children’s lives, we think a lot more because we’re right to reach the younger audience, but an adult, like I talked to people, especially when I was an acquisitions, and I was like, you know, it’d be really great to get your book in universities and schools or even high schools, because I think they might need your memoir or like your poetry or something like that. And be like, Oh, really a dub? Like, yeah. Yeah, we need to think about these communities because they they know, and then their communities working with the schools even more now. So I think if really look at those community development centers, who’s putting on shows and who’s bringing authors in like the house of speakeasy here in New York, they bring authors and they buy a bunch of our books, and we talk to teens for a couple hours, and get to talk to them about writing whatever they want, and then they all get a free book. Yeah, at the end of the day, like that’s the kind of stuff like you want to support those places to have like, Oh, we’re on the ground. We’re giving kids books, they come to Jamaica, Queens. I’m like people will come to Jamaica Queens like that. I love the house of speakeasy.

Traci Thomas 54:34
Okay, we’re gonna wrap up now because we’re out of time, even though I could talk out I feel like you have to come back and do like a whole publishing thing with me but I feel like I gotta do it because I have like a thought I was like, what three questions can I ask her today? But we might have to do a revival tour. But back to the book. What I always ask people this what are a few books that you would recommend to people that are in conversation with Forgive me not?

Jennifer Baker 55:00
Oh, definitely running by Natalia Sylvester that came out in 2020. I love love that book and I love Natalia. Natalia is one of the best humans in the whole wide world. So I think that book, of course, the 1619 projects born in the water, it’s a picture book, it and I just adore it, you know, Nicole, Hannah Jones, Renee Watson, and Nicholas Smith. They’re the collaborators on that. And it looks at origins, you know, and it tells it in a very lyrical way, but looks at like, we were dancing, and it looks at the hard stuff. But it also brings it back to the beauty. And I think that roundabout way and consciousness that they went about that was really, really intentional and beautifully done. And then you know, I love Randy, Rebecca, who was also very nice to provide me a blurb as was Renee, you know, patron saints of nothing. He was a National Book Award finalist. And he looks at a lot of different things like with Filipino Americans, and also looking at addiction and, you know, secrets and so many things that are happening. So I’m so glad that that book got a lot of the attention it deserved.

Traci Thomas 56:12
Last question, if you could have one person dead or alive read this book. Who would you want it to be?

Jennifer Baker 56:19
Could I say Mariama Kaba?

Traci Thomas 56:22
Yeah, she listens to this show sometimes. From the show, Mariame. Read them. I love that. I love a- Hopefully we can matchmake that.

Jennifer Baker 56:34
I assume that Brooklyn book fest last year and I was just sitting there with her and Derek Capernaum

Traci Thomas 56:41
Another fave.

Jennifer Baker 56:42
Oh my god, they were just all wonderful. The whole panel and I was just I was y’all. Yes. Yes. Like it was one of those times where you’re not even taking notes. You’re just sitting and listening.

Traci Thomas 56:52
And ah, everything. Yeah. I love that so much. All right, everybody. Jennifer’s book Forgive Me Not is out in the world. Now. You can get it wherever you get your books requested at your library. Take it to your kids schools ticket to your kids, your friends, kids schools. Buy it online. Who reads the audiobook?

Jennifer Baker 57:15
Oh, it’s Tyla Collier and Ryan Alexander Holmes.

Traci Thomas 57:21
Okay. So there’s an audiobook, two narrators because it’s an alternating perspective book. Thank you so much for being here, Jenn.

Jennifer Baker 57:28
Oh my god, Traci, this is the best to finally-

Traci Thomas 57:32
Finally! Thank you so much, and everyone else we will see you in the stacks.

All right, that does it for us today. Thank you all so much for listening. And thank you again to Jennifer Baker for joining the show. Don’t forget The Stacks book club pick for August is You made a fool of death with your beauty which we will be discussing on Wednesday, August 30th with Sam Sanders. If you love the show on on inside access to it head to patreon.com/thestacks and join the stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcasts, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks follow us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram threads and tick tock and at the stocks pod underscore on Twitter and you can check out our website the stackspodcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.

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