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Part Two: Talking More with Jessica Blank, Author of "Karma for Beginners" and "Almost Home"

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Welcome back for the second half of my interview with author, Jessica Blank. You've now written two YA [Young Adult] novels. Your first, Almost Home , is being made into a movie. That's a thrill. Tell us about it.

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We're very excited about the Almost Home film that's in development! The novel came out in 2007, and was optioned by Jon Bon Jovi's film production company, which hired Erik and me to adapt the screenplay. We have a director on board who we adore (details still under wraps for the moment) - we are currently working with him to polish the script, and our producers are hoping to shoot the movie in 2010.

Adapting Almost Home was a great lesson for us in screenplay structure, and also kind of a wrestling match with the material. The book is a novel-in-stories about a group of homeless teenagers in L.A. - each chapter is a short story, told from a different kid's point of view. One girl, Tracy, figures prominently in everyone's world, but because there are several narrators, that also means there are several protagonists. Part of the idea behind the structure of the book is that the reader gets to piece together the larger story through the eyes of several different characters, all of whom are somewhat unreliable narrators (they're kids, most of them are from abused backgrounds, some of them struggle with addiction, etc.).

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In a conventionally structured movie, though, you need a single protagonist (or two, tops) on a single journey. So, for the screenplay, we re-focused the story around a central relationship - that of Tracy, the oldest and most hardened of the group - and Eeyore, a young girl (she's 12 in the book, 13 in the movie) who runs away at the very beginning of the novel and embarks on a friendship with Tracy that changes them both irrevocably. That relationship is strong in the novel, but the structure of the book doesn't focus solely on that friendship. The screenplay really became about the two girls, how they affect each other, and what will happen to Eeyore, who is in a lot of danger, unprotected on the streets. In reshaping the material, we got a lot of terrific feedback from our very smart producers, and later from our director (who is also a brilliant and incredibly accomplished screenwriter in his own right).

It's been such a gift working with Erik as a co-writer on the screenplay. At first I was a little nervous, just because the novel was my baby and I'd worked on it alone for three years. Erik and I have been writing together for almost eight years, but we also both write on our own, and Almost Home (the novel) was my first big solo writing project. But Erik was very patient with me and my loyalty to the material, and also very respectful of the essence of the characters and their world. Plus, he's a brilliant writer full of amazing ideas, and we bring different but complementary skill sets to the writing process.

Almost Home

Because we had to do so much restructuring (and because whenever you adapt any novel for film you have to cut a lot - novels are much longer than screenplays), having his smart outside eye to help discern which moments and events were really integral to the film version was totally invaluable. Erik's respect for the underlying material, combined with his distance from it and willingness to drop elements from the novel that didn't serve the film, really helped us create a script that stands on its own but is also very faithful to the world of the book.

Our producers seem on track to shoot the movie in the next year or so; they're fantastic, our director is brilliant, and we have a great team. It'll be amazing to see the book come to life this way. And it's definitely made Erik and me eager to do more adaptations together. We're hoping that someone will option the rights to Karma for Beginners - that book is actually already structured much more like a movie already, and after Almost Home, it would be a snap for us to adapt Karma.

Well, Jessica, it sounds like you chose the right partner, on all fronts! Your choice of subject matter has ranged from prisoners on Death Row, Iraqi refugees, homeless teens, and those left too much to their own devices. Do any of your nearest and dearest ever tell you to "lighten up?" What do you do for fun?

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Ha! Well, Karma for Beginners is kind of on the lighter side for me - though Tessa is struggling with some difficult stuff, there's also a lot of humor in it, and a lot of the cultural material (about '80s New Age culture, late '80s music, etc.) was a lot of fun to write. I also have a lot of fun acting - some of my jobs are dramatic, and others more comic. But acting is always fun, and it's always a bit of a relief to immerse myself in a role, which is one small part of something larger, as opposed to overseeing the whole structure and big picture (as you do when you're writing or directing). So, the acting helps balance out the writing a lot. I also feel really, really blessed to not have to have another job besides acting, writing and directing - all of which are really satisfying and fun.

On a purely recreational basis, though, I'm definitely a social butterfly; spending time with my close friends is really important. Because I work in collaborative mediums, often with people I'm close to, there's also a lot of overlap between my social life and my work life, and theater/film/TV people tend to have a lot of fun together, even (and sometimes especially) when the content of the work is serious. Erik and I are both big goofballs and we also have two dogs, both of whom are endlessly entertaining. I also have a weakness for HBO, Showtime and "South Park."

It's good to hear that you also have a lighter side, Jessica. And dogs are definitely useful in the keeping-us-sane-and-grounded department. Anything else you'd like to add?

Just that I just found out today that Karma for Beginners was nominated by YALSA [Young Adult Library Services Association ] as a 2010 "Best Book for Young Adults!" Thank you, YALSA!

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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