Vol. 110 (2021)

Five Questions for Novelist Jessica Strawser



Jessica Strawser's fourth novel, A Million Reasons Why, was called "a fascinating foray into the questions we are most afraid to ask" by New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult. Her prior novels became Book Club and Book of the Month favorites. With almost a decade of experience as the Editorial Director of Writer's Digest, and currently its Editor-at-Large, she also has written for the New York Times "Modern Love" and was the 2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio. 


Stay Thirsty Magazine was delighted to connect with Jessica Strawser for these Five Questions to explore her new book and find out more about her writing process and her advice for aspiring authors.


STAY THIRSTY: Your latest novel, A Million Reasons Why, has been called "powerful, poignant and profound." Where did the story of half-sisters reunited by a mail-in DNA test come from? How much research did you do before tackling such big issues as kidney transplants and the American healthcare system as the backdrop for your story?


JESSICA STRAWSER: Novel ideas rarely come to me fully formed; instead, I have random, disorganized lists of things that have caught my interest and that I hope might one day fit into a story. When mail-in DNA kits started taking off, I found I just couldn’t resist any headline about a family surprised by match results. From spontaneous Reddit threads to thoroughly researched memoirs (I highly recommend Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance)you can go down some fascinating rabbit holes and emerge convinced you could never invent any fiction more compelling than these strange but true stories.


I noticed, however, that people tended to fall into two camps: the ignorance-was-bliss families whose lives were upended by the fallout of their unexpected connections, and those who had knowingly or hopefully pursued the search for unknown relatives, thus embracing the results with open gratitude. And I thought: What if two strangers were linked and started out squarely in these opposite camps—but then, something made their roles reverse? With that, the concept behind A Million Reasons Why began coming together.


I did a fair amount of research up front to make sure the story I had in mind was plausible, and then dove deeper as my characters and their struggles took shape. I have a close friend who’s a renal dietitian who was enormously helpful in sharing her experience treating patients with Chronic Kidney Disease. She also put me in touch with a kidney donor who was generously willing to grant me a long, candid interview about her experience. I read extensively on the subject matter, listened to relevant podcasts, and attended The Big Ask, The Big Give seminar put on by the National Kidney Foundation.

Jessica Strawser

STAY THIRSTY: This is your fourth novel and things hidden, things left unsaid, fear of secrets revealed, mysteries of marriage, the consequences of choices run through your books. What role does fear play in your personal life and how are you able to communicate the emotions that go with it so well? What about secrets and the consequences of choices made?


JESSICA STRAWSER: I’m not sure I think of it as fear so much as questions with no easy answers. How can we ever be sure a choice was the best one? My real life might (thankfully) deal with this on a much smaller scale than my novels do, but I think there’s less black and white in the world than people think, and many rich shades of gray in between.



STAY THIRSTY: When creating your storylines and characters, are you drawn to tight outlines and clear progression or do you permit the characters to explore and encounter big thematic questions on their own? Do your signature twists and turns come about naturally or are you the puppet master? What factors make your books so popular with book clubs?


JESSICA STRAWSER: I’m not much of an outliner, though I joke that I wish I was! I try to begin with a synopsis, three to five pages, which is basically how I see the heart and hook of the story, where it’s going and how I hope to get there (which yes, usually involves at least one pivotal twist). But thinking all this through in advance has probably been my biggest learning curve as I’ve worked to grow as an author, especially as my books have become progressively more complex. Everything can and does evolve as I begin to write. I’m naturally a more intuitive writer—which can make for more enjoyable creative flow when it’s working, but a much bigger headache when it’s not.


I think book clubs simply prefer books that give them a lot to talk about. Because I tend to write from central questions—such as “Do we put too much stock in the ideas of ‘the one’ and what’s ‘meant to be?’” (Almost Missed You), “How much responsibility should we feel to know what’s really going on behind our friends’ and neighbors’ closed doors?” (Not That I Could Tell), “Can you ever really repair a relationship once you’ve grown dramatically apart?” (Forget You Know Me) and “What does it really mean to be a family, and what would you sacrifice to save it?” (A Million Reasons Why)—I think my books do that quite naturally.

STAY THIRSTY: With an extensive career in book editing, publishing, freelance writing and marketing, how difficult was it for you to make the leap to novelist? For aspiring writers, what three things are key to creating a story that turns into a published novel?


JESSICA STRAWSER: I spent years trial-and-error fiction writing by night before I dared show a word to anyone, let alone any of my respected colleagues in publishing. By the time I sold my debut novel, Almost Missed You, I was on my second agent and had already shelved a previous novel that had made the submission rounds with no takers. All of which is to say that there are really no shortcuts in honing your craft. My best advice:

1)   Perseverance is key.

2)   Insatiably read as much fiction as you can (I’m typically reading two novels at any given time: a print or digital book on my nightstand and an audiobook on my phone).

3)   Take advantage of the many instructional resources available to help aspiring writers learn the craft as well as the business. Especially now with so many conferences and other events turned virtual, quality instruction has never been so accessible and affordable to writers regardless of means. (And I’m a contributing editor for a wonderful website, CareerAuthors.com, where all the articles are free.)



STAY THIRSTY: As a writer, how do create an emotional bond with your readers? What criteria go through your mind that are necessary to have your characters plant an emotional flag in the reader's mind?


JESSICA STRAWSER: Curiosity, relatability, compassion. With A Million Reasons Why, the one sentiment I’ve seen again and again in early reviews is that the story really made readers think about what they might do in the characters’ situation. I can’t think of a stronger bond (or a better compliment to this author) than that.


(Photo of Jessica Strawser credit: Corrie Schaffeld)


Jessica Strawser      


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.