Some very mild spoilers for Worth the Candle follow. Also, a warning that I wrote this while in the mood for some introspection, and none of it is very interesting.
Juniper is a self-insert, but a loose one, whose life is informed by my own, but not a direct copy. There are a few reasons that I didn’t just go with a direct copy, but the biggest one is in terms of timelines: I was born in the mid-80s, which means that I grew up during the 90s and went to high school in the early 2000s. If Juniper were a direct copy, then WtC would take place in 2004 rather than 2017, which would mean that I would need to keep on top of remembering what was and was not a thing circa 2004. It would probably lend some realism to the text, but would hamstring and limit the story in ways that I didn’t think would be to its credit. Generally speaking, WtC does its best not to be hyperlocal, grounded more in share reality rather than the specifics of my own actual upbringing and the peculiarities thereof. Most of the other changes were either made with that in mind, or because my own life has some narratively pointless elements.
There are a lot of knock-on effects of him being born later, some of them in the form of social changes, but others in terms of defining life events, or cultural touchstones. I was in high school when 9/11 happened, and watched it more or less live on a TV that was wheeled into the classroom. The Columbine shooting was shortly before high school, and colored a lot of what we understood about being edgy and antisocial. A lot of what happened during that time was just background noise, breaking news that passed me by without any real impact: the trial of OJ Simpson, the death of Princess Diana, things like that. I paid a lot of attention to Clinton’s impeachment trial, partly because it was salacious (I picked up a copy of the Starr Report at a used bookstore shortly before starting high school).
Media is a lot different too, and is one of the things I think about most frequently when I’m writing Juniper. I grew up with Toonami, and while I spent a lot of time on the internet, most of it was when the internet wasn’t in a recognizable state. Ask Jeeves was the most popular search engine, you would click through web rings to find new sites, and everything looked pretty terrible. In high school, I had a website hosted on Geocities, which was a rarity. The two most important movies when I was a teenager were The Matrix and Fight Club (released the same year), and superhero stuff was a rarity. I was just the right age for Pokemon, but never played it, and a bit too old to grow up with Harry Potter. (Juniper being an “authentic Zoomer” is not high on my list of priorities, in part because when I was growing up, so much of what I read was decades old when I read it: Asimov, Niven, Heinlein, Vonnegut, Brunner, Heller, PKD, lots of people who were veterans of WWII and whose writing was influenced by that.)
I grew up Mennonite, while Juniper grew up Presbyterian. None of my family are “plain people”, but I got a fair amount of contact with them (especially Hutterites) through my family, since they’re religious kin. For the most part, being Mennonite was tied to hardship and pacifism, which were themselves tied together. Both my grandfathers were conscientious objectors in WWII, put on work crews that had minimal government support and widespread public derision. The history of the Mennonites is one of being driven away, sometimes under threat of death, other times from less direct force. My family ended up in the Midwest because this was a place where they could be simple farmers with their own small communities, and no one would bother them too much about it. It would have been possible to write a story where that was relevant, but I stripped that stuff out, because it was easier to just talk about Juniper’s religious upbringing through a more typical Protestant lens.
I have a sister, who is three years older than me, while Juniper is an only child. My sister is important to me, but our relationship with each other was a bit complicated when we were teenagers, and none of it would have improved the narrative much.
My parents are different from Juniper’s parents, partly because some day, my parents might read what I’ve written. My parents divorced when I was ten years old, and my sister and I lived with my mom, seeing my dad for a weekend every two weeks, and a few times spending the summer with him. When I started high school, my dad got a job in the same town as my mom, and I switched between their houses every month, which was fairly weird and complicated to explain, and ultimately didn’t have that much to do with anything that was going on in my life, or at least, not things that I wanted to adapt.
I didn’t grow up in Kansas. From age three to ten, I lived in Silverton, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. I was the only white kid in an otherwise all-black preschool, apparently because my parents thought it would be a good experience for me (I have three or four fragmented memories). Kindergarten through third grade were at a magnet school, Fairview-Clifton German Language School, which brought in students from across the normal district boundaries. We took a short bus in from Silverton, fairly early in the morning, with the school itself being fairly close to the heart of the city. There are a ton of differences between that educational experience and the one Juniper had, partly in terms of demographics (roughly half black, to my recollection, a lot of variety in terms of class), partly in terms of curriculum (lots of German language integration), and partly in terms of how it affected social life (I didn’t go to school with anyone in my neighborhood, and my best friend from school lived far enough away that it was a big deal to take me there).
When I was ten years old, after my parents’ divorce, my mom moved to a small town in southern Minnesota, the kind of place in the Midwest that you usually define by telling people what bigger city it’s near. We had moved to be close my aunt, and closer to my mom’s family. The new town didn’t have a Mennonite church, so we went to a Presbyterian one instead. There were very few people of color and a kind of homogeneity that I wasn’t too used to, but it was a college town, so there was a lot of variety in class (farmers, blue collar workers, a smattering of tourism, and children of people who worked at the college). We were pretty poor, starting off in a small apartment until my mom could eventually afford a small house.
Juniper keeps only the small town aspects, for a few reasons. The biggest is that none of that stuff above is actually necessary, and if it’s not going to be a part of the narrative, then it needs to justify its place, and ‘because it’s true’ is not justification enough. The switch from Minnesota to Kansas was done primarily because people have thoughts about what Minnesota is like, many of which are wrong, or don’t apply all over the state (northern Minnesota is quite different from southern Minnesota).
There are lots of other changes that differentiate how Juniper was in high school from how I was, but because all the people in Juniper’s high school are invented, or remixed, or inspired-bys, the differences become too many to name. Juniper gets a lot of shit from people who read the story, but I was worse as a teenager in most ways. I still have some of the stuff I wrote from back then, and it’s hard to get through without cringing. Thankfully, nothing stays around forever online, and my old Geocities website is dead as a doornail. For the most part, I’ve tried to keep the character of Juniper true to who I was in spirit, if not literally true.
Most of the Earth stuff that Juniper talks about, or which is shown in flashbacks, happened, or close-enough to happening that you could at least take a stab at describing the emotional landscape I lived in when I was around that age. Things have been mushed together where that made more sense, and removed when life was a bit too messy to make sense as a proper story.
I should also note that almost everything got shifted down by a year or two: I was in college, not high school, but I went to college in the same town that I’d gone to high school in, had the same group of people playing games with me, and for the most part, I think it’s one of those things that would flesh out and expand on the real world part of the story, but which would also require introducing a few characters who ultimately come and then go without much lasting impact, or who have already been folded into the story as high school characters instead.
I’ve been writing the story long enough now that I don’t really think of Juniper as being myself any more. Part of that is because through the course of the story, he’s changed, but it’s also because all of the various changes add up to someone that has substantial enough differences that it’s easier not to think of him as a clone. I don’t really dip into old letters, notes, e-mails, docs, or anything like that anymore, though I did quite a bit at the beginning so that I could get him as accurate as I could. I will probably never write another self-insert, unless he’s much older than I am, more reflective of who I am now. But I’m glad that I’m writing this one.