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Q&A with Jenny L Howe - On the Plus Side

By Beth Moore

We are delighted to welcome Jenny L Howe to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, On the Plus Side, released on the 26th December 2023.

What Not to Wear and Queer Eye meet All the Feels in this sparkling romantic comedy by Jenny L. Howe, in which the new guest on a popular plus-size makeover show has her style―and her love life―transformed.

Everly Winters is perfectly happy to navigate life like a good neutral paint colour: appreciated but unnoticed. That’s why she’s still a receptionist instead of exploring a career in art, why she lurks but never posts on the forums for her favourite makeover show, On the Plus Side, and why she’s crushing so hard on her forever-unattainable co-worker. When no one notices you, they can’t reject you or insist you’re too much.

This plan is working perfectly until someone secretly nominates Everly for the next season of On the Plus Side. Overwhelmed by the show’s extremely extroverted hosts and how much time she’ll have to spend on screen, she finds comfort in a surprising friendship with the grumpy but kind cameraman, Logan. Soon Everly realizes that he’s someone she doesn’t mind being noticed by. In fact, she might even like it.

But when their growing connection is caught on camera, it sends the show’s ratings into a frenzy. Learning to embrace all of herself on national TV is hard enough; can Everly risk heartbreak with the whole world watching?

Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and your career, and, without giving anything away, about your new novel On the Plus Side.

I basically spend my life surrounded by books and stories. I have a giant collection of books (9 seven-foot high bookcases worth!) spread across the rooms of my house, and when I am not writing, I’m a professor of writing and literature, with a focus on children’s book and media.

I have been writing stories most of my life, but I began writing with an eye toward publication a little over a decade ago. I used to write horror as a teen, so thirteen-year-old me would be a little surprised to see what I am publishing today (though I’d love to find my way back to horror some day!). My first romcom, The Make-Up Test, came out in September 2022, and I am so excited that my second, On the Plus Side, will hit shelves soon!

I really did enjoy reading this book so much! I was rooting for Everly from page one. Where did her characterisation come from and how did you set about writing a character like Everly?

When I decided I was going to write a book about someone on a makeover show, I tried to think about who might be most impacted by this experience, and in what ways. And I was also thinking hard about how to avoid perpetuating fatphobic ideas about how plus-size bodies look, which can, unfortunately, happen on a lot of makeover shows when emphasis is entirely put on trying to make someone look slimmer through what they wear. I wanted to take a cue from Queer Eye, which was a big inspiration for the show in my book, and have the show’s end goal to be self-love. I wanted to have the show help Everly embrace her whole self, rather than just focusing on clothes and appearance.

To do that well, I needed Everly to be someone who was comfortable in her body, but struggling with being herself. This helped to make her journey about who she wanted to be and not what she looked like. Plus, as someone who, like Everly, worries a lot that I am too much, I know how difficult it can be to feel that way, and how big an impact it can have to see yourself through someone else’s eyes (and camera…😉).

One of my favourite things about Everly is her humour and quick wit. I thought she was really funny. Why did you choose to give her this trait and what about it was important to you?

I personally feel like humour is really attractive. There is nothing I love more than when someone makes me laugh. On top of that, one of my favorite moments in a grumpy/sunshine book is when the “sunshine” person makes the grump laugh for the first time. And given what a complete grump Logan can be, I felt like Everly needed to be really clever and quick to get that laugh.

I found the relationships between Everly, her mother and grandmother to be of particular poignancy. Generational influence and projection are very impactful. Women are so often conditioned to think and feel a certain way about their body, and it takes a lot of courage to break from this mould. Can you speak a little about how and why you chose to reflect this in Everly’s family dynamic?

I grew up living with my mom and my grandmother, and while my mother is quite different from Everly’s mother, I did have a very special relationship with my grandmother, whose name was Helen. It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve realized how much those foundational relationships have impacted how I see myself, my body, and the idea of beauty and attractiveness in general. I was in my late 30s when I stumbled across fat activism and body inclusivity movements online, and it was the first time that I really considered that I could see myself and my body and fatness in general in a new way. It was hugely eye-opening for me.

My whole life, and my mom’s whole life, and her mother’s whole life, we’d been trained to see fat bodies as ugly, gluttonous, and unhealthy. And while my mother and my grandmother never, ever body shamed me, the way that they talked about their own bodies impacted how I viewed my own. And that was something I really wanted to explore with this book—how much the way we learn to see ourselves and love ourselves is built from those early familial relationships.

In On the Plus Side, you really beautifully capture the importance of discussing and loving plus size bodies. Can you speak a little about why this was perhaps the driving force behind writing this novel and why you think a novel of this kind could be a really impactful read for many people at this time?

Fatphobia is, unfortunately, still rampant throughout so many elements of our lives. It affects how people are treated in medical settings, work settings, and everywhere in between. And, in the media, even now, fat people are either overlooked and not represented at all in stories, or fat characters are stereotyped as villains, comic relief, or the person who can’t find love or acceptance until they lose weight.

As an author and a literature professor, I believe strongly in the power of stories to change how we see the world and others, and to me, one of the most important ways we can challenge fatphobia is to tell stories that show readers/viewers that fat people are more than their bodies. That they can have adventures, they can fall in love, they can have dreams and go after them, that they have all the same experiences as everyone else.

And seeing stories through the eyes of a fat person can also help show people who have not lived that experience what it is to move through a world that was not built with your body in mind.

I’ve already had so many early readers, of all shapes and sizes, reach out to tell me how much they connected with Everly, which only reaffirms my belief in the power of stories. I think a lot of us have probably had a time where we struggled to love ourselves or lost sight of who we are, regardless of what our body looks like. I hope On the Plus Side, and other books like it, can continue to remind us that we all share similar experiences, similar joys and sorrows, no matter what we look like. And that we all deserve to have our stories told.

As a reader, I related to Everly in so many ways and I feel many other readers will. For me, what made Everly so endearing and relatable was her strive to find herself, her will to want to love herself whether that be through change, or just unlocking something that was always there. I think through Everly, you share a beautiful message, but is there any advice you’d like to give to a reader who at this time might have lost themselves a little or how reading On the Plus Side might help them with this?

I think it’s important to be kind to ourselves. We are always our worst critics, and never see ourselves as clearly as the people who love us do. So when you’re feeling bad about yourself, it’s okay to look to them for reminders that there is plenty about you to love.

And go for your dreams, no matter how big and out of reach they may seem. You never know what might happen or where they’ll take you.

There is of course also the romantic element to On the Plus Side. I know this is not your first romance novel, what is it that draws you to write about love and relationships? I know you have studied literature of this kind, perhaps you could add a little on the inspirations you’ve drawn from this?

As a reader, I am always most drawn to the characters and relationships in a book, regardless of the genre, so it is not a surprise to me that I ended up writing a genre that is so driven by these things. I also just love love! It gives my heart such a squeeze to see people happy together and to reread/rewatch the stories with the couples I love most, so I can watch them fall for each other over and over again.

From a writing perspective, I feel like good relationships can be such a great foundation for a story. The ins and outs of getting these two people together, or keeping them together as external and internal forces try to push them apart is so compelling to me.

I got my PhD in medieval literature and spent a lot of those years studying medieval romance, and it was fascinating to see how these stories about knights and ladies have informed the way we understand the romance genre now. Not just historical romances, which often take up this time in history, but how the knight-in-shining-armour and damsel-in-distress tropes have continued to thread their way into even modern romance. I was always most drawn to the medieval romances where the female love has some amount of power and voice—which is not always the case in those stories—and they have definitely influenced how I understand and write dynamics within a couple. To me, there’s nothing swoonier than a strong man in love with a woman who matches his power and agency.

I think anyone who reads On the Plus Side will develop a little bit of a crush on Logan. Can you tell us what inspired his characterisation and why it was important to represent the male love interest in this way?

I think vulnerability and steadiness are two of my favourite qualities in a man. So often, society tells men that they can’t talk about their feelings or share their traumas, and this can cause difficulties in a relationship, so I really wanted to have a male love interest who could be grumpy, but also open. At first, we see this through the way he interacts with his dogs, but eventually he shows this side to Everly as well, and his trust in her helps her to trust him.

One of my favourite moments in all of TV is from The Gilmore Girls, when Luke and Lorelie go on their first date and he shows her the horoscope she’d given him the first time they’d met. There was such a steadiness there, such a clear sense that he was all in, and not going to waver (I have a lot of complaints with where the show took them from there, but I do love this moment), and I felt Everly needed that in a love interest, given her own journey. She needed someone who would always see her fully, and none of it would shake him. And I think, as much as she learns to love herself on her own, his appreciation for all the elements of her he’d seen while filming for the show also helped her get there.

I see through social media that you have gorgeous rescue dogs! Rescue dogs feature in this novel, which made me wonder how much of yourself do you choose to let into your work and what is the process in deciding what you let in and what you keep out?

I have a tendency to put something of me in all my books. On the Plus Side got more than most, but I find it easier for me to understand my characters if they’ve got a little something that comes from me—whether it’s surface things like their likes and dislikes or something that more deeply impacts them.

I don’t really have a process for how I choose what I use and what I won’t, but more often than not, the pieces of me in the book are there abstractly. Everly shares a lot of my own fears about myself, but we’re very different people. In the same way, her relationship with her mom and grandmother comes from me having a close relationship with both of these women in my life, but what those relationships look like is totally different. This gives me enough distance to be able to tell the story and feel the character’s experiences authentically, but not feel like I am airing all my own anxieties, traumas, etc.

One part of Everly’s journey that I was particularly endeared by was her choice to get a tattoo! I think tattoos are such a unique and fun way to learn about a person. If it’s not too personal, do you have any tattoos and do you mind perhaps sharing what they are and why you got them?

I get a tattoo for every book I publish! In fact, my tattoo for On the Plus Side is the same one that Everly gets in the book.

I currently have two other tattoos. One is a book splayed open with the word “Believe” written above it, and the other is a scene of an amusement park with the words “some dreams do come true” around it. The book tattoo was to celebrate The Make-Up Test being published, and the amusement park tattoo is for my first YA novel, called Love at Full Tilt, which comes out in 2025.

If people enjoy On the Plus Side, do you have any other media you’d like to recommend to them or anything that inspired On the Plus Side?

If people enjoy On the Plus Side, I hope they also might consider picking up other books that have positive fat representation. Olivia Dade, Julie Murphy, Danielle Jackson, Alechia Dow, Sheena Boekweg, Crystal Maldonaldo, Talia Hibbert, Helena Greer, Jenna Miller, Mary Warren, Seressia Glass, and Laura Moher all write amazing stories featuring fat main characters.

I also really loved Survival of the Thickest on Netflix, which, like On the Plus Side, explores being fat in the world of fashion!

Finally, and just for fun, what is one song you’d use to describe On the Plus Side?

“This is Me” from The Greatest Show Man.

Jenny L. Howe first started scribbling stories into black-and-white composition notebooks with neon pink pens when she was in junior high and never really stopped. In college, she decided to turn her love of books into a career by pursuing a Ph.D. in literature, where she spent the next few years studying bizarre and entertaining medieval romances. Now, as a professor, she teaches courses in college writing, literature, and children’s media. When she’s not writing and teaching, Jenny spends her time buried under puzzle pieces, cross-stitching her favourite characters, and taking too many pictures of her rescue dogs, Tucker and Dale. The Make-Up Test is her debut novel.


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