"Writing has always been my refuge to quiet the chaos going on around me"
Jennifer Steets has always been passionate about writing. After having trained with the US Womens Volleyball Team in Colorado Springs, CO, and working as a fashion model in Europe, NY, and Los Angeles, Jennifer decided to fulfill her dream to become a screenwriter. She took a ten week "Intro to playwriting" course with a Mark Taper Forum playwright, attended UCLA Extension courses, and several in home workshops with private teachers, all for writing. She has written a novel, a few short stories, and finally, her first feature screenplay.
And.. practice makes perfect! Earlier this year, Jennifer won Best First Time Screenwriter with Crickets, a beautiful drama about five happy sisters who share a week of life altering experiences while their parents vacation abroad.
We asked Jennifer to join us for an interview.
Jennifer, congratulations on winning Best First Time Screenwriter with Crickets. You demonstrated excellent writing skills! Let's talk about how you started out. Tell us about your background, what sparked your interest in storytelling?
Writing has always been my refuge to quiet the chaos going on around me, whether at home growing up, or in the world of modeling, business, or now as a mom to adolescent kids. I’ve got a softer low voice that often gets drowned out by others. Through my writing, I’m able to express things easily.
I grew up in Southern California in a tumultuous home, so I looked for ways to escape. I played club volleyball and was a member of the Junior National team. The day after I graduated from high school, I was on an airplane to meet my team. We traveled around the US, playing exhibition games. I never went home again. I played volleyball for a year at Pepperdine on an athletic scholarship and prior to that I trained at the U.S Olympic training center in Colorado Springs with the national team. During this time, I played hard, watched a lot, and listened to the events around me. And I’d write.
It was the same with modeling. The summer after my first year at Pepperdine, I was discovered by a vogue editor who wanted to put me on the cover of Vogue Mexico. That cover launched my career and I modeled for 7 years in LA, NYC, Milan, Paris and Germany. Modeling gave me backstage access to places and people others didn’t have, and it afforded me the ability to once again, observe and listen, then write my experiences down. Writing and reading was also a way for me to take care of myself emotionally in a career that can be very isolating a lot of the time, especially if you’re still learning the language.
Modeling in the 80's
After modeling, I was in a band and wrote lyrics for their music. For about two years, we performed in LA clubs, but I felt I needed to get a real job. I went into office administration because, as a writer, I was able to type well. Eventually, I landed in outside sales. I worked in commercial furniture rental, working primarily with entertainment companies and studios. I worked on the Academy Awards and sat in rooms with executives from HBO, Sony Pictures and Fox. While waiting for a client’s furniture to be delivered, I’d ask questions to the writers and producers about their process and sometimes I’d get to sit in while they batted around ideas. I was fascinated by how the entertainment business worked. I saw these moments as opportunities to capture fascinating people, cool places, and interesting conversations and weave them into my writing.
By this time, I had written a novel called “Nature of the Crime.” I was in a writing class for five years with that project and I would read sections of it at coffee houses. Someone at Random House took an interest in the story and wanted to help me get it published. It never reached that point and I moved on to other writing projects, but I’ve recently picked it up again and will be turning it into a screenplay.
Who are some of your favorite writers, and what do you like about their work?
I love Virginia Woolf. She recognized that women often try to write for the male reader in order for their work to be accepted. She would counter that by writing for the character, not the reader. She taught me to be true to the character as opposed to writing for a certain gender of reader. Her book “A Room of One’s Own” is one of my favorites because it is all about creating your space as a writer to write even though you’re going to have all types of obstacles coming at you.
“Wuthering Heights” is my all-time favorite novel and what inspired me to become a writer. I’m drawn to the intriguing and secretive nature of the love story, as well as the betrayal aspect, but it’s also just beautiful prose. For me, it’s like reading poetry cover to cover.
I also loved a more recent acclaimed novel, “Educated” by Tara Westover, which is about a woman who came out of a nightmare situation and flourished. Similarly, “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah features a female protagonist who takes risks to help soldiers get back home by going undercover. It’s assumed she is a man, but she is never caught. The plots have a similar theme to which I’m very drawn: women in difficult situations but who come out winning.
Do you feel your experience as a fashion model in New York, Europe and LA, along with your acting studies (at Ruskin Theatre, Santa Monica) made you a better writer? In what ways?
Yes. There’s a lot of down time in modeling where I could write, and I would find myself in beautiful places but where I didn’t speak the language. I would get my imagination going and create vignettes of things I was observing and write about that to keep myself entertained and not so lonely. I even watched TV that way as well, turning the sound off and making up what I thought was going on in the story. Also, when you don’t speak the language you also don’t know when the danger is right on top of you. You have to think quickly and use humor to get yourself out of sticky situations.
Acting taught me how to be real, to be honest and not fabricate situations, because the reality of the situations was good enough. Acting also taught me to trust my instincts, not set them aside. I wrote a couple of my own monologues in my acting classes because I knew what I wanted to say for a woman. And in writing these monologues, I found myself wanting to write the entire story. Everything I was doing was always supporting my writing.
It seems like my life has always put me in situations so that I could continue to write great stories.
Tell us about your creative writing process. Where does the inspiration usually come from? And what was the inspiration for Crickets?
I grew up at the tail end of a big family of mostly sisters – we had some crazy times and we also took a lot of risks. Being second to the youngest in a big family where my parents were less and less around, it lent itself to us taking bigger, more curious and dangerous adventures.
Like many writers, the inspiration comes from within. I’ve been fortunate to have a really diverse and interesting life experience from elite-level athletics, modeling, acting and music performance. The people, conversations, places and events in my life have all provided rich material from which to draw in my storytelling.
Jennifer Steets with her kids in England
In Crickets, five sisters lead the story. We called them the 5 M's (Melanie, Maureen, Mandy, Michelle and the youngest, Molly). From Maureen's "Tomboy" vibe to Michelle's wonderful energies, the characters are very different, each has her unique voice and yet- it's pretty easy to relate to all of them. What is your approach to character development, and how do you explore them through your writing process?
I think of people I know and have known and who I’ve been around and mix them all up. No one person I’m pulling from is exactly like one of my characters. It’s usually a mix of myself and other people I know. I also like to immerse myself in who they are by doing things like listening to music that would be typical of that character’s age and the time they’re living in.
We all have the same basic tendencies for good and bad, and I’m no different. I find that I can relate to every single aspect of each of my characters. Other people will, as well.
I develop the characters as I go along and as they find themselves in tough situations. As I get to know them, they teach me more about themselves through what they’re doing, the choices they make.
We loved the 5 characters, but if we had to pick one that stands out, it would be Michelle. She's courageous, somewhat spunky, takes risks, feisty and has a great sense of humor. ("Let's go Mandy. I told you he was an ass!")
But at the end of the day, despite this very loud energy, she is also the one that brings the family together. How do you come up with this rounded character, that feel so realistic? Is she based on a real person in your life?
Michelle is based a great deal on me and my personality and experiences at that age. I took risks with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and I was always looking up to my older sisters and wanting to be like them.
I’m also a mom to a middle schooler who is very energetic. She gives me new insights about someone at this age, how they think, and the decisions they make. I’m living this. I hear her conversations with her peers, the dialogue that’s constantly disjointed and electrifying. I can see myself in her.
With her dog Ivory
The whole story takes place in the 70's. Why did you choose this period?
I grew up in that era so I could draw from my own experiences from that time. It was a time where there were no cell phones and, as a result, there was less danger and yet more danger. It was a time when you couldn’t get or offer help right away or so easily. This provides a lot of opportunity to create drama and suspense.
The seventies also offered a type of escapism. The music and fashion of the era were easy breezy, everything had a pastel kind-of pallet with a pop of hard orange here and there. This lent itself to vivid storytelling and dialogue for me and allowed me to add humor and lightness when needed.
*Spoiler Alert* - At some point down the line, there's a twist in the plot- a tragic event that happens to one of the sisters (Michelle). Do you believe films should have a good/happy ending?
In real life, are endings really happy or sad? Maybe we can find ourselves somewhere in the middle. That’s where I wanted to set this ending. I like people to walk away and have conversations about what they think without me dictating that emotion too heavy handedly. That said, I did want to leave the viewer with hope and create an opportunity for dialogue – even debate. What was the right thing to do? Should they do this or that? I want people to talk to each other about these kinds of things.
Pretty early on, Michelle decided she is old enough and mature enough, and asks her sister to go on a date with Jim (instead of her)... (Will she regret that later on?...) What message did you want to convey through this case?
I think the message that comes through is that even the most lighthearted or innocent decision can have life-altering consequences. Taking a risk as a young person can alter the rest of your life or set it on an unexpected trajectory.
In your opinion, what are the ingredients to creating a good screenplay? Do you have any tips for other first-time screenwriters?
First and foremost, you must have and want to have a great story to tell. You have to be able to create characters that you like and that will draw people in by showing them at their best and their worst. Then weave the telling of your story in a compelling way.
Drive is key. You have to be excited about the story and have a sense of anticipation about how it’s going to go and how it’s going to end. You want to find yourself going back to it again and again because of the “page turner” aspect you’re creating.
My advice is to get into a writing class where you can share your work. That immediate feedback helps you identify and work through sections that are confusing or need more elaboration. It’s also great to see positive reactions to what you’ve written. If you hear laughter in the room or you see people get emotional, you know you’ve done a good job.
Be disciplined about writing and give yourself deadlines to keep moving your work forward. If you need to, give yourself rewards when you meet those deadlines, then do that. For me, the reward is getting to the finish line; I feel great when I get there. Never give up – always look for ways to continue as opposed to excuses to stop. Lastly, surround yourself with people who support your writing.
What's next for Crickets and what's next for you?
“Crickets” has been accepted into a number of film festivals and although it’s already won several awards, I’m doing another rewrite. In order to get an even higher profile for it, I want to keep making it better and better. My hope is that the right people discover it and a great team comes together to get it made into a film.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m also writing a spin-off screenplay to “Crickets.” It’s set in Milan, Italy, five years later and features Michelle, the younger sister and her older sister Mandy. Michelle is there beginning a modeling career but discovers that her sister isn’t doing well mentally. The story deals with false expectations and shattered ideals. It’s going to be a great way for “Crickets” fans of these characters to follow another compelling chapter in their lives. The play is called “Talk to Me” and I hope to have it completed and entered into festivals by early 2020.
Where can our readers follow your work?