I’m so happy to be hosting Amalie Jahn, author of numerous YA books and the recently released The Next to Last Mistake (read my review). The Next to Last Mistake is a book full of chess, friendship, and cows.
Tess Goodwin’s life in rural Iowa is sheltered and uncomplicated. Although she chooses to spend most of her free time playing chess with her best friend Zander, the farm-boy from next door, her skills as a bovine midwife and tractor mechanic ensure that she fits in with the other kids at East Chester High. But when her veteran father reenlists in the Army, moving her family halfway across the country to North Carolina, Tess is forced out of her comfort zone into a world she knows nothing about.
Tess approaches the move as she would a new game of chess, plotting her course through the unfamiliar reality of her new life. While heeding Zander’s long-distance advice for making new friends and strategizing a means to endure her dad’s imminent deployment to the Middle East, she quickly discovers how ill-equipped she is to navigate the challenges she encounters and becomes convinced she’ll never fit in at her new school.
When Leonetta Jackson is assigned as her mentor, she becomes Tess’s unexpected guide through the winding labyrinth of disparities between them, sparking a tentative friendship and challenging Tess to confront her reluctant nature. As the pieces move across the board of her upended life, will Tess find the acceptance she so desperately desires?
Can you tell me the top three things you want readers to find in The Next to Last Mistake?
Wow! This is a wonderful question. The first thing I want readers to find in The Next to Last Mistake is themselves. I want them to connect with at least one of the characters in some way, large or small. One of the reasons I write for young adults is because I think it’s important for them to understand they’re not alone. No part of the human experience is unique and no matter what hardship you’re facing, someone else has not only experienced it, but made it through to the other side. There’s comfort in that, I think.
Another thing I’d like readers to find is an example of what true friendship looks like. I think it’s important for teens to have high expectations of their friends, which includes being a good ally and accomplice when things get tough. Like any relationship, unless good behavior is modeled, it’s often hard to know whether you’re truly being a reliable friend (or whether your friends are filling that role for you!)
Finally, I want readers to find hope. At the end of the day, it’s all we truly have.
A large part of The Next to Last Mistake is centered around chess. Can you talk about the inspiration for this focus on chess and the plot of the book as well?
Believe it or not, I don’t actually play, but my husband and daughter do, and I’ve always enjoyed watching them bond over the intricacies of the game. As most people know, chess involves a lot of planning, to include anticipating your opponent’s next move as well as your own. Many times, this requires players to “see” what’s happening many steps ahead which I thought was a nice juxtaposition for the real-life situation Tess finds herself in at the beginning of the book. Her family’s move across the country comes at her from out of the blue, and as someone who thrives on being able to plan and anticipate what comes next, she’s forced to learn how to not only adjust to this new way of life but ultimately accept and embrace it.
Lili here, I definitely enjoyed this book even though I am not a fan of chess! I really liked what Jahn did by making chess a way to represent how Tess looks at the world.
Friendship is a huge part of Tess’s life – the willingness to be open to new people – for those who haven’t read the book, can you tell us who Tess would be friends with if she went to other YA novels?
I LOVE this question!!! At the beginning of the story, Tess would probably hide herself away in The Next to Last Mistake and refuse to explore other books, but by the end, I know she’d be ready to head out! I think she’d be especially interested in getting to know the characters from books set in extraordinary places, like Nathalie Baudin, the teenager who hunts down a Parisian serial killer in Jodie Lynn Zdrok’s Spectacle. She might also befriend Melati Ahmad, the music-loving teen searching for her mother during Kuala Lumpur’s historic race riots in Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky. The character I think she might befriend the fastest, though, is time-jumping Jack Ellison, of Jason A. Reynold’s The Opposite of Always, since he knows all about making hard decisions in the name of friendship.
Lili here, wow this is a fabulous list of characters and, surprisingly, I have read all of them! This would be such a dynamic friend group and I totally agree that her and Jack would hit it off!
Tess grew up taking care of a dairy herd on a farm. Does this come from your own personal experiences? What kind of pets do you have, or want to have?
I had dogs growing up, three to be exact, and a menagerie of other small animals like guinea pigs and rats and mice and hamsters and fish. When I left home for the first time, I adopted a kitten and have kept a houseful of cats ever since. I did grow up in a pretty rural setting, similar to Tess, and my friends and I used to walk down the road to the neighboring farms to feed the horses carrots and sugar cubes. These days, I live inside the city limits but one of my neighbors happens to keep a pet bull on his property. His name is Newton, and believe it or not, when I call to him, he comes running across the field at a full gallop to see me. In the time I’ve known him, he’s taught me there’s nothing quite as therapeutic as giving a good neck scratch to a friendly bovine. I guess Sunshine teaches Tess the same thing.
Was The Next to Last Mistake a book that had been bouncing around in your brain for a while, and you finally just got back to it, or was it a completely new and sudden idea?
Most of my book ideas stem from a desire to honor the people in my life in some way, and The Next to Last Mistake is no different. The time I spent with the women who inspired the book was probably the most transformational period of my life, and the friendship we shared changed my entire outlook on life. Although we were only together a few short years, the impact we had on each other’s lives is something I think about nearly every day, and I always knew at some point it was something I wanted to share with the world.
With a few books under your belt, can you reflect on your writing process and how it may have changed from your first book all the way to The Next to Last Mistake? Has there been any discoveries since then that has made your writing process better?
I am now and will probably always be a pantser. My books are largely character-driven which means I take time getting to know them first before ultimately letting them steer the direction of the story. Frequently, they make decisions I wouldn’t make and more often than not, I let them. In the case of The Next to Last Mistake, however, I knew going in I wanted to write a book without a lot of drama-filled plot points. I wanted the story to be about the ordinary Tuesdays that make up all of our lives. The truth is, many times it’s not the monumental, earth-shattering life experiences that shape us into who we are. It’s how we handle the slow monotony of making it through each day alongside the other people in our lives.
How do you practice self-care as a writer? Writer’s block?
I never beat myself up about not writing. In addition to being an author, I wear a lot of other hats every day and sometimes writing is the very last thing on the triage list. I used to let it upset me, but I discovered pressured writing was inevitably not my best writing and that it was better to give myself grace. When it comes to writer’s block, the same principle applies. I don’t force it. I let ideas sit and simmer. I talk with friends to try and flesh them out, and ultimately, when the time is right, the words flow.
Find The Next to Last Mistake on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound & The Book Depository.
About the Author
Amalie Jahn is the recipient of the Literary Classics Seal of Approval and the Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal for her debut novel, The Clay Lion. She is a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post, Southern Writers Magazine, as well as a finalist in the 2015 Kindle Book Awards. A TED speaker, human rights advocate, and active promoter of kindness, she lives in the United States with her husband, two children, and three extremely overfed cats.
When she’s not at the computer coaxing characters into submission, you can find Amalie swimming laps, cycling, or running on the treadmill, probably training for her next triathlon. She hates pairing socks and loves avocados. She is also very happy time travel does not yet exist.