Monday, September 7, 2020

Interview with middle grade author Jerry Harwood

Author Jerry Harwood is here to chat with me about his new middle grade (MG) book, Jam Sessions: Sometimes in Middle School, the Best You Can Do Is Survive.

Jerry Harwood was born in Ooltewah, TN. His mother was an elementary school teacher and he spent his afternoons reading books in her classroom or the nearby library. He currently is a writer, which makes sense based on the fact you are reading this here. He has experimented with other occupations: camp director, program director at a counseling center, college professor and middle school teacher. Jerry has backpacked Europe, taught in a Ukrainian University, worked in Rwanda after the genocide, is a first responder, sort-of remodeled a VW Thing, and has a love for Cherry Coke Zero that is only surpassed by his love for his wife, six children, and grandson.

Feel free to share your thoughts on the book with Jerry at or visit his website.

Welcome, Jerry. Please tell us about your current release.
Jam Sessions follows a middle school student whose mom moves him in the middle of the year. Middle school is always challenging, but especially when you are an outsider trying to find your place. Using humor, I attempt to also portray student anxiety, bullying, and the difficulty of finding your place.

I suppose no one says it better than the back cover…. So here is that:

Meet Phillip. His mom relocates him to a new school in the middle of the school year.

Things do not go well. Phillip lands himself a trip to the dean of student’s office when he tries to forge his mother’s signature. Maybe if he spelled her name correctly it would have gone better.

Phillip also finds himself having more and more anxiety. And the song some bullies are singing is certainly not helping:

Phillip Willip, Puddin and Pie.
Got a bad grade and made him cry.

There is one class Phillip has that is going well. It is with Mr. Filter, who starts each day with a writing prompt. These “jam sessions” allow students to be creative and enjoy writing. Phillip writes about being a basketball on a soccer field. Another day he writes about receiving two dragon eggs in the mail, one for himself and one for a particularly cute girl.

But will Phillip ever be able to make his real life go as well as his Jam Sessions?

What inspired you to write this book?
My previous career was as a clinic director / CADC II counselor. I semi-retired into teaching so I could start writing. This book blends those two worlds: counseling issues such as anxiety and bullying as well as middle school life.

Excerpt from Jam Sessions:
Here is Phillip’s first day:

Phillip walked into the room at 1:15. It was really late to start a school day and this looked nothing like his school.
“My skirt is ruined!” a girl exclaimed with a tear rolling down her cheek. Her eyes moved from the lump of blue icing on her bottom to the chair she was sitting in to a group of boys in the back. “It was those three!” she hissed, pointing. “Robert, Javante, and that Chuck.”
Chuck, Robert, and Javante all huddled together in a back corner. They seemed undisturbed that the girl just shouted their names. Phillip watched one of them give his best, “Who? Us?” look. The other two shrugged and smiled.
Phillip started taking very short breaths. He was standing in the door and needed to move.
Phillip’s eyes fell on a table with cupcakes. He locked on one with pink icing and walked to it without looking around. A parent cleared her throat and Phillip reluctantly looked up.
“Only take one cupcake, young man. Just one.”
“Yes ma’am,” Phillip said, though he thought his voice was barely audible. Not knowing where to go he stood awkwardly beside the table.
The mother moved away to the girl with the icing on her. “I’m sure no one did it on purpose, sweetie,” the mom said. She did not seem convinced of her own words and gave the three boys a second look. However, she did not pursue the boys or the case of the spilt icing any further.
Phillip watched as the mom turned away. He began eating his cupcake slowly. He needed to hold it more than he wanted to eat it. It gave his hands something to do. The boys in the back started pulling cupcakes out of a plastic carton.
A nearby girl looked at the three and said, “Chuck, you were just suppose to take one cupcake.”
“I only took ONE PACK. Not my fault it had six cupcakes in it!” came Chuck’s response.
Phillip moved his attention to the rest of the room. Everyone was collected in groups of three or four, talking. He had never felt so alone. The teacher was at her desk behind a computer screen and a name plate that said, “Mrs. Murray.” Phillip was pretty sure she never saw him come in.
Phillip moved to the back of the room against a wall. It wasn’t a seat, but at least he wasn’t front and center anymore.
“It was a sacrifice TOTALLY worth it,” the one Phillip thought was Chuck said, patting another boy who held an icing-less cupcake on the back.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I just finished a draft for a dystopian young adult. A trans male time travels to a future America where a major world event has enhanced women’s superpower but left men as near-children. Our main character is a gunslinger. A Texas Ranger, in fact. It is the first of a three part series.

My other work in progress is a Middle Grade book titled Freckles, The Dark Wizard. It is a comedic romp through middle school life. More Diary of a Wimpy Kid than Harry Potter.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
In 1992, a teacher I had in high school asked me why I was not enrolled in his creative writing course. I subsequently enrolled and fell in love with the art of writing. Like many, it became something I would “do later.” Now, in my late forties with my six kids teens or out of the house, I have decided to make time to follow the passion. Exactly when did I consider myself a writer? I think when that sixteen year old kid got a story published in his school writing publication and won the creative writing award for his graduating class at Baylor School.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I write full time in the summer. During the school year I teach 7am-3pm. One night a week I teach a college class on psychology. One night a week I attend drill / training as a volunteer fireman. Writing works in around family and those commitments. I do my best to write 1000 words per week during school and work on edits. In the summer, I aim for 2,000 to 2,500 words per day, six days per week.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I like to write out my manuscript by hand. I was classically trained, so some of my scribble is in Latin shorthand!

I prefer to write outside if at all possible when writing first drafts. I have a space heater on my porch!

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I attended a summer camp as a middle schooler. I loved my counselors and the fun I had there. I wanted to work at the camp when I was older. I worked there all through college. When I finished my masters, I became the camp director. I ran the camp for six years before leaving to do counseling. It still to this day was the best job I ever had.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
A few interesting notes personal facts:
- My oldest two are adopted from Ukraine independently. They were 8 and 11 when adopted.
- I was a dues paying girl scout.
- I worked in Rwanda after the 1990 genocide. It was a life shaping venture.
- I am a volunteer fireman / emergency service worker.
- I believe the power of story is immense and one of the few things that can really shape us individually and corporately.
- I love miniature candy bars but my wife thinks they should be banned.


Thanks for joining me today!

1 comment:

Jerry Harwood said...

Thanks for the opportunity!