Tuesday Ten: Jess Riley

May 20, 2008 at 8:45 am (Tuesday Ten)

It’s a very special day here at Pam Writes Romance–I’m doing my first author interview and it’s also the release day for this author’s debut novel. Ten questions on a Tuesday Ten, that Tuesday being release day? That’s some major karma there, but I can’t take all of the credit. I think you’re going to be wonderfully enchanted by Jess. She’s got the off-center sense of humor and underlying determination that I really enjoy. In fact, when reading Jess’s replies to my interview questions, I kept feeling more and more at home with her, like she was somebody I could have sat down in a coffeeshop with and not left for hours because she was so much fun to talk to. So that you can love her as much as I do, let me introduce her properly and then get on to the interview.

Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways, a story about Leigh Fielding and how Leigh wants a life. Seriously. Having spent the past five years on dialysis, she has one simple wish: to make it to her thirtieth birthday. Now, thanks to the generosity of the late Larry Resnick and his transplanted kidney, it looks like her wish may come true.

With her newfound vitality (and Larry’s kidney) in tow, Leigh hits the road for an excursion that will carry her from Wisconsin to California, with a few stops in between: Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the Rockies, Las Vegas–and a memorable visit to thank Larry’s family for the second chance.

Yet Leigh’s itinerary takes a sudden detour when she picks up a seventeen-year-old hitchhiker, Denise, a runaway with a bunch of stories and a couple of secrets. Add a long-lost mother, a loaded gun, an RV full of swingers, and Hall and Oates’s Greatest Hits to the mix, and Driving Sideways becomes a hilarious and original journey of friendship, hope, and discovery.



1. Describe the spark of this project. Why kidney disease?


After my ‘practice’ novel hit the wall, I realized that should I write another novel, it needed a fresher, bigger hook. Once day I had a conversation with a coworker about cellular memory: that is, the possibility that transplanted organs can retain some of the energy of the donor, even contributing to new tastes in music, foods, and hobbies for the recipient. I thought, “What if a girl receives an organ transplant, convinces herself she’s channeling the donor’s energy, building the donor up in her mind, using these personal changes to tackle some life goals…only to learn nothing is what it seemed?” Thus, Leigh Fielding was born, but she needed a transplant. I did tons of research and discovered that kidneys were the most commonly transplanted organs. More research turned up Polycystic Kidney Disease—the most common life-threatening genetic disease you’ve never heard of—and Leigh’s story began to unfold for me.
2. How did you celebrate when you got the call? Did you buy your first boa? (Don’t all published writers go out and buy feathered boas when they get published?)
I was about to type, “Well, I’m more a garter snake kinda gal” before I realized you meant the FEATHERED kind of boa! (Sidenote—the girl my husband dated before me had five snakes. In fact, I’m writing to you now in the room that was once the snake room! Isn’t that kind of creepy?)
No, seriously, I think I felt both thrilled and stunned. It was a little strange, actually—it’s a moment you imagine over and over before you get there, and it’s never the way you imagine when you arrive. I was home alone, I remember, just returned from a meeting with a client, and it was snowing out. I thought, “Well, here we go!” I’m pretty sure my husband and I went to dinner and ordered whatever we really wanted. Oh, and then we built a garage, resided and reroofed the house, and finally got ourselves one of them fancy, new-fangled concrete driveways.

3. Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently? Did you break any rules along the way?

Other than nearly being orphaned and switching publishing houses (which delayed the book release for a year but kept me paired with an awesome editor who ‘gets’ the book), I am very lucky that things have mostly gone smoothly for me, and I don’t know if I’d have done anything differently. I think I’ll have some thoughts on things I’d do differently on the promotion-side of things, after the book’s been out for some time.

After the resounding rejections for novel number one, I became methodical about improving my writing and approaching agents with a polished, professional project. So, after a rebellious start, I became a real rule-follower. But I skipped the ‘write and publish short stories first’ rule. Instead I wrote grant proposals and entered a few contests, doing well enough to ultimately attract the attention of several agents.

4. What is your day-to-day writing process?

During the school year, when I’m writing grant proposals, I am too mentally exhausted to write much fiction. But I’m very fortunate to have summers off to write, and then I write daily until the muse closes up shop. Or the ice cream truck drives me crazy.

5. Panster or plotter?

Kind of a plotter, in a very broad way…before I start a novel I figure out the conflict & climax, but how the characters get to the end (which is still a mystery to me at that point) is very much done by the seat of my pants.

6. If an evil gremlin (gotta love a question that starts with an evil gremlin) came and took away the one thing that would cause you to give up writing, what would it be?

Hmmm…the one thing that would cause me to stop writing…death? J Actually, self-doubt … that would be really nice to live without, as far as its effect on writing.

7. What’s been your craziest writer moment so far?

This is a fun question. Probably getting a personal email from Marian Keyes with a fantastic endorsement for Driving Sideways. That was crazy in the ‘wildly fantastic and unexpected’ sense. Also, moving the book contract from HarperCollins to Random House. I had no idea that was even possible.  

I may have some really fun answers to this question after I’ve done some readings this summer.

8. What would you be doing in an alternate universe? Or maybe I should ask, in any of the alternate universes out there, what is Jess Riley doing in them?

Let’s hope she’s not procrastinating! I think the alternate me is an urban garden or native plant consultant. She’s a nerdy, walking encyclopedia about plant care and the fauna certain flora can attract, and she drives friends and family a little wonky sometimes.

Oh wait. I kind of do that now.

9. What’s next? What are you looking forward to? What are you not?

I’m working on a novel that takes place in a medium-security men’s prison, actually. (Sounds like a barrel of laughs, right?) I taught in such a facility in college, and discovered the setting was actually FULLof opportunities for warped humor and darkly funny storylines. The next novel focuses on the relationships between several staff members and examines how we heal after a particularly gruesome romantic betrayal. I’m having a blast with it.

So, I’m looking forward to finishing the next book. And I’m looking forward to connecting with readers…I’m not a natural salesperson, so I’m not really looking forward to some of the things on the promotion-end of the spectrum. But I’ll try to have fun with them anyway.

10. Wild card–what do we need to know about you?

Well, I don’t know if you need to know it, but it is something people get a kick out of: in the summer, I grow milkweed and raise Monarch caterpillars. Last year I released 48 butterflies in my backyard. 


Oh, and you won’t solve the ‘nature vs. nurture’ dilemma with me: my biological and adoptive fathers both were/are English majors and writers.




Now do you see why I’m going to be referring to her far and wide as my BFF? I’ve placed my order with Amazon today and have already started looking in my email for the tracking confirmation. This book sounds so funny and so sweet that I’m stocking up on Kleenex to both wipe away the tears and the diet Coke that spews out of my nose. And I was tickled to notice that she’s going to be presenting at RWA Nationals this year, so I get a chance to stalk, er, meet her in person.





And you can be darn sure I’ll be bringing my dog-eared, tear-stained, diet Coke-sprayed copy of Driving Sideways to have her sign.


  1. Robin said,

    Fabulous interview!

  2. Ilana said,

    That was fun!
    I’m looking forward to reading the book now.

  3. Caryn Caldwell said,

    That was so much fun! Oh, and might want to let Jess know that this is up today so she can post a link to it on her site. 🙂 And now I know why you didn’t enter the contest — you couldn’t wait that long! Not that I blame you. 😉

  4. Pam said,

    I’m going to have to do a book review when I finally get my hot little hands on it–hope I don’t have anything planned for that day!

    And Caryn–I loved your interview, too! I can’t wait to meet Jess at Nationals. I promise not to act like a 12-year-old who’s just seen Hannah Montana. 😉

  5. Jess said,

    Pam, thank you so much!!! Last night we hit the bookstores and I signed 14 copies at Barnes & Noble–what a surreal moment! My husband took a few pictures of me standing in the aisle pointing at the book with a goofy grin on my face, and later I of course emailed the photos to a bunch of people–and he said, “Oh geez, why didn’t you let me photo shop that first? Your face is all shiny!!”

    Oh, and I was so distracted / excited I left the house in my bedroom slippers…had to go back to put on more appropriate footwear.

    Such a glamorous life! LOL 🙂

  6. Melissa said,

    Lol. Yes, the life of a writer is beyond glamorous.

    Great interview!

  7. Ilana said,

    Bedroom slippers might be okay – if they match your feather boa. 🙂

  8. Katie Reus said,

    Great interview!! I think if Marian Keyes actually emailed me I’d hyperventilate. Congrats! 🙂

  9. Marilyn Brant said,

    Jess–your book sounds fabulous! And I just read your interview with Maureen on Drunk Writer Talk, also… Huge congrats on your release!

  10. Pam said,

    Ilana–as long as the bedroom slippers aren’t the ones that look like mice. Then the boa would be eating them. 😉

    Katie–I’m with you on the hyperventilating. And hysterical giggling, too.

    Marilyn–and soon this will be you! 🙂

  11. Ilana Stephens » An interview with Caryn Caldwell said,

    […] an autographed copy of Jess Riley’s Driving Sideways. Given the online interviews that Caryn, Pam and Robin have done with Jess, I can hardly wait for her book to […]

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