Waco author and Baylor University English senior lecturer Maura Jortner doesn’t see writing fiction for young adults as dumbing down her stories or talking down to her readers. In fact, she finds a lot she likes in young adult fiction when authors treat their audiences and characters with a little respect.
“I read Young Adult fiction. It appeals to me,” Jortner said. “There’s a sense of the unknown. Characters are just becoming adults. Anything can happen.”
Teens populate Jortner’s recent novel, “The Life Group,” as high school student Rachel goes looking for her missing college-aged sister Leah last seen in the company of a church group and Tim, the group’s soft-spoken, persuasive leader.
It’s a page-turner, and Rachel’s daylong search with Tim takes an unexpected and dangerous turn with a dramatic conclusion on a city bridge not unlike the Washington Street bridge over the Brazos River.
Jortner, 46, will take part in the Waco-McLennan County Central Library’s Author Alley on Saturday, meeting readers, answering questions and signing books between 2 and 3:30 p.m.
Her characters aren’t squeaky clean. They’re familiar, if sometimes peripherally, with abusive boyfriends, pregnancy scares, heavy partying and accidental deaths. They sometimes curse and don’t always make smart decisions.
Jortner thinks young people can, and do, handle more than they’re given credit for, and that’s the group she has in mind when she writes.
“I’m around young people all the time, a lot of freshmen and sophomores, and they’re my characters,” she said, referring to her American Literature classes at Baylor. “I read a lot of YA novels. Not every teen is going to act in the same way.”
Real life, in fact, planted the seeds that grew into her story. There was the student who blamed his failure to do some homework, not on a paper-eating dog, but on time spent with a church life group. Then a colleague went missing for several days, and Jortner found herself distracted by that thought whenever she was downtown. The colleague was found, but the memory stayed.
“It was really gut-wrenching, the feeling not to know where this person was,” she said.
Jortner was born and raised in Salem, New Hampshire, a fictional tromping ground of novelist Stephen King, she points out, and she always had a love for books and words.
She studied theater, earning graduate degrees in it at Xavier University and the University of Pittsburgh, and her husband David teaches in Baylor’s theater arts department. Her writing bug didn’t kick in until about five years ago, she said.
Early efforts were unsatisfying, but things clicked during a November National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge. Her ideas for a book about a missing person and an inwardly focused youth group started to gel, and she knocked out a rough draft within the month.
A visual writer, Jortner picked up details for her book while driving daughters Felicity and Gabrielle to school and daycare and herself to Baylor.
‘Best thinking in the car’
“I do my best thinking in the car,” she admitted.
Readers will find echoes of Waco in “The Life Group:” the aforementioned bridge, Common Grounds coffeehouse, a south Waco church and surrounding neighborhood of small frame houses, and the now-closed restaurant Manny’s on the River.
After finishing her book came the long grind of finding a publisher, and after some 100 unsuccessful query letters, the Waco writer connected with Lakewater Press, a new publishing house shopping for writers.
“The Life Group” was published in January. Since then, Jortner has moved on to write a new book, “Northern Ghosts,” and has an agent now.
With a career that brings her in regular contact with college students, plus two daughters of her own, Jortner finds herself both inspired and motivated as a writer by young people.
“This is really fulfilling,” she said.