The Writer's Practice: Justina Ireland
Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo


Hey. How do you feel about zombies?

Two years back, writer Justina Ireland launched this question at Balzer + Bray Executive Editor Jordan Brown. Ireland wasn't a publishing novice — Simon & Schuster had released several of her young adult titles — but she was coming out of a self-imposed hiatus and a recent split with her agent. "I went back to the well and said, 'What do I love about this process?' I took a moment." And then she wrote another book, a post-Civil War American young adult novel. With zombies. 

Zombies are amazing. 

"Amazing," Brown replied. Ireland said she might have a book for him down the road, and this past April Balzer + Bray launched Dread Nation, the first of a two-part series about Jane McKeene. Born into a post-Civil War America where shamblers (zombies) roam, Jane attends Miss Preston's School of Combat in Baltimore. There, along with other black children sent there by decree, Jane learns how to properly serve and protect upper class white women, and kill shamblers.

Ireland's book defies genre, possessing the well and singularly crafted prose of literary fiction, the strong-protagonist-coming-of-age trajectory of young adult fiction, the re-examining of the past undertaken by writers of historical fiction. When she set out to find her next publisher, she didn't look for someone who handled any one specific genre. She sought to find an editor producing books she liked, and she suggests fledgling writers do the same.

Cover Design: David Curtis & Alison Donalty, Photography: Gustavo Marx

Cover Design: David Curtis & Alison Donalty, Photography: Gustavo Marx


"I loved Jordan's other books," she told Spine. "One thing I think authors should do is read books that potential editors have edited, which gives you a good idea of where you fit." Ireland also appreciates an editor who edits, who comes to a story wanting not simply to launch it into the world, but to work with the author to produce the best version of the story she can produce. 

"If you have a good editor, they're going to see something in the story that you missed," she said. "Every time I go back to the story, I want to have something change. I want something to come through stronger. A good editor is so important. They're going to get in there and look at the book in a way that you wanted, and then the revision isn't hard."

For Ireland and for Brown, "revision" meant a heavy reworking of the middle section of the book, a section that typically gives Ireland trouble. "I write the first act into halfway through the second act, to a turning point. Then I write the entire third act. Then I come back and try to knit those things together." She knits, and knits, and knits, and the story grows longer and longer and longer and… "My middles are always slow. That second act is always murder."

Brown stepped in and helped her blow up that middle, dropping subplots, adding other subplots, building pressure between Jane and another student, and beefing up the zombie battles. She then used the new middle to shape her ending.

Near that end, Ireland leans readers toward a sequel, but ultimately finishes not with Jane, or even with a teaser for the second book. In an "Author's Note," Ireland encourages readers to explore the real-life history of the American Indian boarding school system, which began her own journey towards Jane McKeene and Miss Preston's School. 

From the book: "Beginning as early as 1860, whites would remove Native children from their homes and send them to boarding or industrial schools. The point of these schools was to destroy Native culture and force Natives to assimilate into white or European cultural norms."

"It was a terrible system," Ireland said. "And part of it was because nobody cared. The parallels between that and the way we treat black bodies, this could have happened to black kids." And so, in her novel, it did.

Read more about the American Indian boarding schools at the National Museum of the American Indian

Find Justina Ireland online at and on Twitter @justinaireland.

Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.