Finalist Spotlight

J. L. Esplin

J. L. Esplin is a writer of books for kids and teens. She lives on the edge of town in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and kids. Besides writing, she enjoys teaching guitar and traveling to new places with her family. 96 Miles is her debut novel.

Follow J. L. Esplin!

J. L. Esplin on her Whitney Awards Finalist novel,

96 Miles

What was the inspiration for your Whitney Awards finalist novel?

The inspiration for 96 Miles came from a childhood memory of my dad showing my siblings and me where to find water around the house in the case of an emergency. He gathered us into the bathroom at one point and told us we could drink the water in the toilet if we were really desperate, as long as we boiled it first. We were all pretty horrified by the idea, as you can imagine.

Decades later, I was trying to come up with an idea for a new manuscript, and this sentence suddenly popped into my head: “Dad always said if things get desperate, it’s okay to drink the water in the toilet bowl.” I had no idea what the story was about. I just started writing based on that first sentence.

What was the tipping point that turned this novel from “just an idea” to a project you HAD to complete?

I guess the tipping point was the first sentence. I wanted to know who would be desperate enough to drink toilet water and why, and the only way to find out was to write the story.

 How did this book evolve into the final story? Did it end up the way you thought it would, or did the plot or characters change along the way?

I didn’t have an outline or plot prepared before I started writing. I discovered most of the story along the way by continually asking the same question: “What would make this situation worse?” The story begins 21 days into a massive blackout. Thirteen-year-old John and his eleven-year-old brother, Stew, are scavenging water from a toilet in an abandoned trailer in middle-of-nowhere Nevada (and not getting along very well), when siblings Cleverly and Will enter the same trailer looking for water. This happens because I thought not only would it be a little embarrassing for John to be caught in the act of scooping water from a toilet, but now he’s also faced with a moral dilemma: Does he keep what little water they have for him and his brother, or risk their survival by sharing it with two complete strangers?

That said, I did know some very important details about my characters, John and Stew, right from the beginning, even though I don’t reveal those details until much later on. I use flashbacks to gradually reveal more about them, and show how they ended up in that trailer on day 21 of the blackout. I wanted to write a high-stakes page-turner with a bit of mystery, but at its heart, 96 Miles is about these two brothers and the love between siblings. In that sense, the story never changed or veered away from that idea.

Who is your favorite secondary character, and why?

I feel bad picking a favorite! But I will say that Cleverly was fun to write. She has kind of an interesting name. “Cleverly” was the first name that popped into my head as I was writing. I thought it was too weird, but since the words were flowing, I just used it as a sort-of placeholder and meant to go back and change it later. But I never did. I guess it grew on me because I liked her so much. I’ve always thought that if I ever found myself in an emergency situation like the one in my story, I’d handle it terribly. I’m kind of a wimp. So in writing Cleverly, I got to imagine myself doing brave and hard things, beyond what I believe I’m capable of doing.

If your book was made into a movie, which scene would you want to be a background extra in?

There aren’t a lot of background characters in this story, since it mostly takes place in the Nevada desert. My only option would be a flashback scene, in which John and his brother attend an emergency community meeting in their small town of Lund, Nevada. It takes place three days into the blackout, mid-summer in the desert, no air-conditioning. I’d have to look all hot and sweaty and like I haven’t showered in three days. If given the option, I’d probably just let my dad take my place. He really wants to be in the movie, and wouldn’t care about looking sweaty.