Debut author Jennie Wexler’s Young Adult (YA) romance, Where It All Lands, was one of PopSugar’s “Best Books of 2021” and was named in Buzzfeed’s “21 YA Romances We’re Looking Forward to in 2021.” Wexler knows how to make nostalgia fresh again. Reading this novel is like listening to a well-worn classic rock CD and reliving all of the feels. Parents who loved Pearl Jam and their teenagers alike will connect with high school friends, Stevie, Drew, and Shane, who tell this tale from alternating points of view. Where It All Lands is a modern-day story about “what-ifs” told in parallel timelines with different endings. Wexler catapults the prose into a relatable, emotionally charged journey.
Wexler lives in a New Jersey suburb and is a mom to an eight-year-old boy and a Havanese puppy. She graduated with an MA from Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Communications and spent the first part of her career producing television shows. She has written essays about her experiences as a mother for online publications, and she tapped into this journey when crafting her novel. Holly Rizzuto Palker caught up with Wexler via Zoom to talk about her love of music and motherhood.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: Where It All Lands is an emotionally nuanced teenage love story, and it comes to life through music. Readers can connect even if they’ve never played an instrument. What role has music played in your life, and how were you able to achieve that beautiful tapestry of emotions for the reader?
Jennie Wexler: I grew up in a very musical family. My dad plays the guitar, my brother plays the drums and the bass, and my mom plays the piano. I played the saxophone from age ten until my senior year of high school, and I took piano lessons before that. I was immersed in every genre—the blues, rock and roll, everything. Playing and listening to music have always been forms of therapy for me. I’m able to feel completely in the moment when I listen to live music. In Where It All Lands, I tried to capture that feeling in the concert scene. It’s important because we have so much going on in our busy lives that sometimes we don’t stop to feel the joy of being present.
HRP: How did you capture the feeling of music on the page?
JW: I listen to music a lot when I write. The characters are all musically gifted, impacted by playing in the band, and inspired by emotional lyrics from classic songs. A lot of times, before writing a scene, I would pick a song that made me feel similar emotions to what the characters were experiencing. I’d listen to it so that hopefully the emotion came through on the page. There is an instance in Where It All Lands where Stevie and Shane discuss Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” They’re talking about where they think you go when you die. And that song is about losing someone. I played that track over and over when I was writing that scene. The melody is sad but also hopeful. I hope I captured the emotion of the song on the page.
HRP: What does loss mean to you?
JW: I write to untangle my complicated feelings. Unexpected loss is something that I struggle with still because I lost a friend at 14 years old. It wasn’t something I could comprehend then, losing a peer. I still wonder if there is meaning to be found in the aftermath of tragedy. I wrote Where It All Lands to gain a better understanding of how to deal with loss. But I still struggle with figuring out the answer.
HRP: Teenagers sometimes make reckless choices because they feel invincible. Did the loss of your friend change the feeling of teenage invincibility in your mind?
JW: Absolutely. I was never a teenager who felt invincible. I’m sure I made a couple of reckless choices, but as a teen, I was afraid to take risks. I had an acute understanding of loss at a very young age. For me, that resulted in a lot of fear and anxiety. If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self to stop worrying and have fun.
HRP: What gave you the idea to explore two stories related to the same event—one is a love story from Drew’s point of view and one a love story from Shane’s—and also to base the characters’ fates on the outcome of a coin toss? How did you accomplish writing the book in a two-part structure, the parallel stories?
JW: I put the coin toss in because it happened to me in real life and was a moment I’ve always reflected on. It was initially a very small scene in the book, which was originally written in a linear format. After taking a workshop through Writer’s Digest, I sent a query and the first ten pages for critique with an agent. She liked the coin toss that I’d written about in the query and said it was interesting.
I think when someone close to you passes in a tragic way, it is very surprising. When you think of all the moments leading up to it, you wonder: What if someone had done something differently? That was my intention by writing both sides of the coin flip: to see different lives and how they could play out. That’s when I realized the coin toss was the inciting incident, but it was happening in the middle of the story. So, I split it up and rewrote the whole thing, putting the event up front. During each writing session, I only wrote from one character’s point of view, in one timeline. I then had to re-read each timeline/point of view separately to make sure it all made sense before reading the whole book through.
HRP: In the novel, Shane thinks, “Stevie’s been running her whole life and it hasn’t even been her choice.” He also thinks, “I wonder if Stevie ever comes first?” when talking about Stevie’s mom. That resonated for me because, as a mom, I’m always running and thinking of what I need to get done but not seeing it from my kids’ perspectives. What do you do with your son to make him feel secure and important so that he doesn’t feel like Stevie?
JW: I think every parent feels that push and pull. My son thinks he’s the center of my universe, and because he is an only child, I have the ability to focus on him. I think it’s a different ball game with parents who have multiple children. When I spend time with my son, I try to avoid the phone and focus on what we’re doing. When it’s dinner time, all the devices go off, and we have a conversation. We do things just the two of us. We go hiking, we hang out. It’s not so much a feeling of, I want to do this to make him feel important. It’s more a feeling of, I want to know and connect with my child. I have the best time hanging out with him. I think he’s the coolest individual.
HRP: You had a special relationship with your dad that flourished because you connected through music. Tell me about that. Do you carry on that musical relationship with your son?
JW: Yes, I force it on him [laughs]. Growing up there were multiple guitars and amps around the house. My dad and I would sing in the car, and he would teach me about his favorite music. My dad is a huge Jimi Hendrix fan, so we played that entire catalog of music. I think some of us are born with an innate love of music, and my father and I have always bonded over our shared love of certain bands like The Beatles and The Police. My son and I share that same bond. It’s a gift to be able to connect with someone else that way. My son and I have dance parties. If we’re bored, I can just turn on music, and then we’re singing and dancing; we both enjoy it. He also takes piano lessons, so I look up the chords online, and we try to teach them to ourselves. That’s really fun! It doesn’t have to be music though—having any shared interest with your child is so special.
HRP: What can you tell me about teen self-esteem?
JW: When teens have an outlet like music, sports, or any extracurricular that they love, they have a way to connect with like-minded peers and achieve success. That experience builds esteem and strong peer relationships. The gifted teens in Where It All Lands connect through music. They’re all dealing with pretty intense issues at home, and they all use music as a way to cope. Playing instruments also gives each character a sense of purpose and belonging. It’s something that’s entirely theirs that they can look to as a way to escape.
HRP: You said, in another conversation, that knowing your son will read Where It All Lands impacted your writing. In what ways?
JW: First of all, I was worried about the curse words. But, seriously, I wanted him to have this little piece of me that imparted the idea of living your life with passion, free of worry. I hope he grows up fearlessly chasing his dreams. I wrote him a little note at the end in the acknowledgments, which sums it up: just go for what you want, experience it, and live it. He was so proud of me.