In Conversation With JC Bidonde (Author Interview)
Join me for a lively conversation with the incredible thriller writer and USA Today Bestselling Author of Do You Follow?
Jessica Ceresino Biodonde is the USA Today Bestselling Author of Do You Follow? Which had the success that promptly landed her a spot in the literary psychological thriller category. Before stepping into her writing success, she worked as a blogger and in television at ESPN and MTV. Today we’re going behind the scenes of the successful debut and uncovering the author's story behind the novel.
A Quick Introduction to The Bestselling Thriller:
Alexa lives a sheltered life with her widowed father, feeling stifled by his helicopter parenting. When she secures a marketing job and apartment in New York City--much to her father's and therapist's concern--Alexa has high hopes of finally sneaking her way into adulthood. But her newfound freedom is cut short when her estranged twin sister Beth, after a long stint in a psychiatric setting, unexpectedly shows up at the doorstep of her tiny apartment.
Alexa, too, has spent time at the Weinstein Center. But she's determined to lead a normal life now and soon begins to date a YouTuber client. According to Beth, something isn't quite right with Curt, but Alexa shrugs her clingy sister's warnings off. It's Beth who's crazy, after all . . . As the sister bond grows strained over Alexa's relationship and career success, questions mount, and secrets unfold, revealing the wickedly dark shared history of the twin siblings. What exactly happened when the twins were only nine that set this vile trajectory in motion?
Things get more complicated, and one treacherous act threatens everything Alexa has been working toward. It will be on her--and Beth--to claw their way out of this situation.
Are you hooked yet? Let’s get this interview started!
Interview Format: My questions as the scribe will be in bold and JC’s responses will follow directly underneath
Hi Jess! We’re so excited you’re here. As a conversational warmup, might I ask you some of your all-time favorite reads?
This is so hard. When I think of all-time, I think back to books that changed me as a kid mostly. Number the Stars and To Kill a Mockingbird are two of my all-time favorites but more recently, I think Gary Janetti’s books have been such a unique experience. I laughed out loud with him but also felt intense emotion for what he went through as a young gay man in America. He is one of my favorite storytellers recently. I recommend his books daily.
I always love hearing where authors get their ideas from or when they had their big AHA moment for their novels. How did the inspiration or the ideas for Do You Follow? originally come to you?
Ah, this is a complex answer. I wanted to write a thriller but didn’t know where to start so I took a class online through Stanford. It was focused on developing the premise line. In this course, you essentially build your blueprint for the book in the paragraph that is the premise line. I have been fascinated with mental health and through my own mental health work, I’ve met some extraordinary people dealing with really complex issues. One of these issues I saw up close was Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or it used to be called multiple personality disorder. So in the first few days of the class, I had to come up with some kind of hook and I decided to go with the DID scenario where I could hopefully create something unique off the old good/evil twin trope…But when it came to writing it, I used inspiration from another favorite movie of mine - The Sixth Sense.
After I read it, I simply wanted to read it again. The novel features two different perspectives in the same timeline. What strategies did you use to navigate keeping those perspectives linear, while also making them very different?
This was really hard. I made Beth and Alexa very different in my head. Beth was always edgier than Alexa so capturing their voice was never too hard. But, keeping the logistics was very challenging…As far as strategy, I used index cards to map out my major scenes and I would chart whose voice to use for which scenes. Some needed both perspectives and others only needed one. I actually thought it was easier to storytell from each perspective. I had to be super diligent - and I worked with an incredible editor to help me sort through the maze. It was very challenging keeping it all straight so I highly recommend extra eyes if you can. I also read aloud the chapters leading up to whatever I was writing that day so I had them fresh in my mind. Only a couple before (I wrote) to remind me and put me inside their heads.
The importance of your ending in Do You Follow? really shines through. Without spoilers, what was the hardest part of the book for you to write that led up to the significant story landing?
I actually think the ending was the hardest part. The epilogue actually came to me super early on and I wrote it very early in the process. My editor suggested cutting it and wrapping up the story in a different way but while I left readers with a little bit of an open ending regarding Alexa, I needed to give some closure to at least part of her struggle. So I think the most challenging part was the final courtroom scenes and the one major reveal. Bringing Alexa to that moment was painful. I went back and forth several times with how to let that unfold. I didn’t realize the pressure authors have when it comes to deciding the fates of their characters. When I was in that premise line class, I didn’t know what was going to happen to Alexa so I think that had to be the hardest to decide. I knew Curt and Beth’s roles the entire time but sorting through Alexa’s ending was difficult.
You graduated with a degree in Journalism and an MBA in Marketing - intersectionality that seems perfect for your plot. Do you feel like your background led you to this book or had you always been planning to write a novel?
I had always dreamed of writing a novel. I definitely danced around the space with jobs in TV and marketing. I don’t know if they led me to this book or rather I made up a story that had some pretty strong pieces of me in it. I was shocked at how vulnerable I felt sharing a completely made-up story with people close to me. I don’t know why I didn’t expect them to pick up on all of the parts of me in the book but they did. Alexa’s apartment is recognizable to anyone who visited me at my first apartment in New York. The FLLW offices were inspired by my time at MTV. The nod to social media is from my time blogging. I have to imagine this is the same for all of us, you let parts of yourself out even if you’re writing something completely fictional. But, I definitely could not write a financial or science book so perhaps my previous work and studies led me here.
You’re great at incorporating present-day influence and language into your fictional narratives. Who have been the biggest influences on your work, in and outside of the literary community?
Thank you! Gosh, who isn’t an influence now?! I am a big fan of pop culture. I listen to lots of podcasts, watch a lot of TV and read a ton. I think the present-day influence is just how my brain works. I also think blogging probably prepped me for that. I have always written in a colloquial voice. I think I would really struggle to write any other way. There’s a certain voice a lot of my favorite authors use - one that feels authentic and not put on. Like you’re actually getting the real character, not the voice us humans put on for other people. I like that raw authenticity so I definitely try to achieve that in my writing. As for actual names: Gary Janetti, Ruth Ware, and Taylor Jenkins Reid. Taylor wrote Maybe in Another Life that I think about often. I actually use it as a reference often because it was so well done. She’s an excellent storyteller with modern language and influence.
Getting a novel out into the world is hard work. What was the most difficult point for you in your debut publishing journey? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I think writing it was the hardest part by far. Well, no, editing it was the hardest part. It’s a mind-numbing experience to re-read your own words thousands of times. As far as publishing, deciding how to publish was the most challenging. I dreamed of sitting at a big desk in NYC and signing my big book deal with Random House. But for some reason, I just didn’t want to query agents and wait. I had queried against for a non-fiction book tied back to my blog years ago and there was a lot of interest but they all wanted me to have more followers on social media. I then focused on social media for years and lost my main purpose and goal. That’s why I gave up blogging so I was probably a little scared to try that route again. Plus, my editor recommended a couple of awesome hybrid publishers. I interviewed a few and I really liked what they offered. It felt like I had a team behind me but I was the main person in creative control. I loved my experience with Greenleaf. I still dream of having an agent sell a book to a major publisher for me so who knows what the future will bring. I just had a gut feeling that going this route would be best and I think it was the right call.
I think I knew how long the process takes but I didn’t believe it until I was in it. It was a three-year process from that online class to my publication date. I’m not a naturally patient person so I think I would have known that even if you self-publish, it’s still a long process. I also think I would have written more freely knowing how many rounds of edits there actually are! I wanted it to be perfect and it still isn’t but I burned myself out early in the revision process and won’t be doing that next time.
What’s the best creative advice you’ve ever gotten? When did it come to you?
To listen to my gut and follow my own path. This may not seem like creative advice but I’ve been struggling since the publication of my second book. I have been stuck between people asking for a sequel and people asking for another thriller. I have a story that’s bursting to come out but it’s not a thriller. I’ve wasted months trying to make the story darker and spookier but that isn’t this story and finally someone I really admire said, who cares? Think of your favorite artists, is all of their art the same? Picasso had markedly different periods. Not every Beyonce song is a love ballad but she has a couple. So the bottom line is that artists aren’t to be told what to create, just create what's burning to come out. That advice freed me and I’m almost done with this second book.
I know that you love to read just as much as you love to write. What’s on JC’s summer TBR?
I love to read. My husband knows my weekends are for reading! On my current TBR it’s actually not my usual genres. I just started A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) and I have Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolfe) as my next up. These have been recommended to me for years and I’m finally reading them! As for new releases, I want to read The House Across the Lake by Riley Sager. I love reading thrillers but go through moods where I take a little break. I just read The Club, The Paris Apartment, and Good Rich People so I’m needing a little break.
Any open-ended commentary/advice for other writers and entrepreneurial creatives?
Just do it. We are a really rigid society and everyone wants to know what path or plan or steps to take. But I always tell people that I firmly believe everyone has a book in them, but you have to write it. So if writers or entrepreneurial creatives have a dream then do it. We need it. And do it freely without judgment. I was so hard on myself and still feel shocked when people leave a kind review. It’s art, it is supposed to be fun. So do it and have fun while you’re at it! (Not me currently laughing and telling myself to take my own advice!!)
If you follow J.C. on social media, you’ve seen her dogs, Stella and Stan. Can you give us an update on what’s going on in their lives right now?
Awww, my sweet sweet babies. I have sad updates on Stan. He’s been diagnosed with stomach cancer. We don’t really know how long he has - so I’m currently spoiling the heck out of him. Letting him snuggle in bed, taking him to the mall (it’s too hot for outside walks in Texas) giving him a little peanut butter, and overall just loving on him. I got Stan when I was single and living in NYC. He was such a good buddy to me during a really hard time in my life. I will be forever grateful for any amount of time I get with him. Stella is doing great. She’s just a big love. She looks so scary to people but she really is the sweetest dog. She’s been extra nice to Stan these days too. We still take her down to the lake every morning. She can handle the heat a bit better than little Stan.
We are definitely keeping Stan in our prayers and sending lots of love, recovery, and healing energy your family’s way. Here’s a sweet picture of the two:
(Stella on the left and Stan on the right)
Thanks for stopping by JC! I speak for all of us when I say that we learned something new from you today and are excited for your next work to cross into new spaces. I’m thrilled to follow your work throughout your career and know that the journey is going to lead you through and to some incredible stories.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out JC’s debut novel, linked at the beginning of the article.
If you want to follow JC further, you can check out her website jcbidonde.com or follow her on Instagram at @jcbidonde
Thank you for reading my author's interview. I have some amazing artists and writers lined up for interviews and I can’t wait to bring them to you in this newsletter. As always, thanks for being here and subscribing. No matter what level, it means a lot to me that you’re here and reading - that’s truly all I’ve ever wanted is a relationship with my readers. Thanks for giving me that. Sending love and a relaxing weekend your way.