Visiting her daughter Rell, who was in her second year at the University of San Francisco, Encinitas resident Janet Eoff Berend was on Jack Kerouac St. when she learned she would be following in Kerouac’s footsteps as an author with more than one published book.
That January email came from a publisher called Breakaway Books, telling the longtime La Costa Canyon English teacher that they would be happy to publish her second novel “True Vert.”
“At heart, I’m a writer who teaches English … not an English teacher who writes,” said Berend, 50, who spent two years at San Dieguito High, has been at LCC for 21 years and had her debut novel “Vertical” published by Breakaway Books in 2012.
“True Vert” will be available on Amazon and at the Encinitas Barnes & Noble in early October.
After teaching English for many years, often focusing on creative writing, it wasn’t a huge jump to write her own novel. And it comes as little surprise that Berend’s characters are drawn from the high school kids she works with every day.
“What happens is you start deconstructing it, you start absorbing the language and the story, and you start noticing the way things are written,” she explained, adding that a creative writing course she took at Palomar Community College solidified her desire to write a novel.
She just didn’t know what she wanted to write about.
“It was always kind of gurgling back there in my brain … and then I was teaching sophomore English and I had these two boys who were these skater dudes, and they just absolutely fascinated me because at moments they would have these profound discussions about things that really mattered to them, but they would talk about it like skate dudes,” Berend said. “I thought that was so hilarious … and I thought, ‘Oh my god, these guys would be great characters.’”
Once she had the characters, she brainstormed stories and came up with the idea of “What would have to happen for (these young skater dudes) to not be friends anymore?”
A few weeks after posing that question to herself, Berend was driving away from LCC and suddenly she could hear the voice of her main character Josh saying, “I’m standing at the top of the vert ramp and I look around and see my town and think about (my friends) ...”
She immediately drove to Radio Shack, bought a recorder and continued that train of thought, eventually forming the basis for “Vertical.” The moment she had envisioned while driving became the book’s closing scene.
Berend spent a year and a half, writing and rewriting — she says she’s a big reviser — and finished that first book in 2010. It wasn’t published until 2012, when it found the perfect home at Breakaway books.
“People thought it was a book just for boys or a skate book ... (but) it’s just about a character struggling in high school, who happens to skate,” Berend said. “I’m really writing about what I see kids struggle with and how they go about resolving the things that come their way — really just growing up.”
In “Vertical,” Josh is going into high school and facing the challenge of managing life and relationships. He uses skating as an escape and a way to build relationships. However, his best friend, a fellow skater, falls in with a bad crowd and Josh struggles to decide how to deal with his friend, especially after a bad incident. Meanwhile, Josh develops an attraction to a bookworm named Erin and must learn how to deal with that.
“(These things) scare him, scare him as much as dropping into a vert ramp, so there’s the metaphor,” explained Berend, who surfs and snowboards in addition to playing drums in the band Super Nacho.
Some of the time, Josh and Erin discuss literature and meaning, which later applies to their lives. But they do it in a way Berend’s high school students can really relate to.
“I’m an English teacher, and I do all of these English teachery things,” Berend said with a laugh. “It’s trickery, I’m tricking these boys who like skateboarding, who pick up ‘Vertical’ and love it, but are actually reading something with meaning.
“If you read reviews of ‘Vertical,’ that’s what teachers like about it.”
Berend said teachers often ask her if there is a sequel. And now there is.
In “True Vert,” Josh has become a high-level sponsored skater, but is struggling to stay humble and fit in with his longtime group of friends, while also being tempted to become like the overconfident, shallow group of people he’s meeting in his new life. He’s also still trying to find the best way to connect with Erin.
“Really these novels are about friendship and relationships,” Berend said. “(‘True Vert’ specifically) is about learning to be who you are and not letting outside influences shape you.”
It’s an issue she sees all of her students struggle with during their high school years.
Berend gets most of her writing done in the summer, when school is out. During the school year, she uses portions of whichever book she is working on — she’s writing a third novel with new student-inspired characters right now — to supplement her writing lessons.
“It is so fun,” explained Berend, who also has a 16-year-old son Ben, who is a junior at LCC.
It’s not just her students that can share in Berend’s writing, as the author will be appearing at several local events in the next month.
On Oct. 15 at 11 a.m., Berend will read passages from “True Vert” at the Del Mar Library as part of Teen Read Week. Then on Oct. 23 from noon to 2 p.m., she will sign copies of the book and meet fans at Warwick’s in La Jolla.
Later that month, at the Encinitas Barnes & Noble’s 20th anniversary celebration on Oct. 29, Berend will participate on an 11 a.m. panel of featured authors and sign copies of her book.