When she was little, Jennifer Donnelly never wanted to go to Disneyland. Instead, she wanted to step back in time and live in history. Since scientists haven’t figured out how to travel through time just yet, Jennifer has decided to–lucky for us!–write novels set in the past instead.
Her first novel, “The Tea Rose,” is an epic 19th-century novel for all ages. Then came her first young adult novel, “A Northern Light,” which was awarded Britain’s Carnegie Medal, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction and a Michael L. Printz Honor. Since then, she has finished the The Tea Rose trilogy with “The Winter Rose” and “The Wild Rose,” and written another YA novel, “Revolution,” which has been longlisted for Britain’s Carnegie Medal. She has also written a picture book titled “Humble Pie.”
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? Do you outline, draft, revise? What is your favorite part it? Your least favorite?
JD: Something grabs me and won’t let go. In “A Northern Light,” it was Grace Brown’s voice, coming through her letters to Chester Gillette. In “Revolution,” it was an article in The New York Times that showed a tiny dried heart in a glass urn. These things stir up really strong emotion in me, and I have to deal with that emotion the only way I know how—by writing a story.
I start to think how what I’m feeling might turn into a story. Who will tell it? And how? Slowly, the characters and the storyline come. I start to read about the period in which the story’s set. And I outline obsessively—scene by scene by scene, so I can see how the plot lies on the paper. I love it all, and I hate it all—depending on the day and how the work is going!
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
JD: Yes, I have felt stuck. I’m usually stuck! I’m stuck more than I’m unstuck. But I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Being stuck is part of writing. It’s part of doing good work whether you’re a novelist, a software engineer, a musician, whatever. Being stuck means you need to push harder to progress. For me, it usually means I haven’t got my story right yet and I need to do more thinking, questioning and plotting. Or maybe I don’t know my characters and their motivations well enough.
When I’m stuck, I get away from my computer screen, pull out big sheets of paper and start writing questions to myself about the story. What’s wrong? Why is this character doing this? Why is this section flat? And answers usually start coming. Or I draw the arc of the story. The intersecting lines of the plot. Something about the act of physically writing—on paper with a pen—helps me think better. It helps me pick up the trail when it’s gone cold.
YARN: Your books call for lots of authenticating details, from what’s in a century-old kitchen to what Parisian streets your characters wander through. How much research is “enough” before you start the first draft? Do you continue to research as you write?
JD: No amount of research is enough. If there were no such things as deadlines, I’d still be researching for “Revolution”! I research before I start, as I’m working, when I’m editing and proofreading, and right up until my editor says, “Give it here! Now!”
YARN: And where do you do your research? How do you start?
JD: For “Revolution,” I started with big historical surveys of the period. For example, Simon Schama’s “Citizens,” or Carlyle on the French revolution. I plundered their bibliographies and footnotes for other titles to read. I went deeper and read primary sources—diaries, memoirs, letters. I traveled to Paris several times, visiting places with significance for my story. I looked up old maps of the city in archives. Visited museums to see art and artifacts of the late 18th century. Hung out in the Palais Royal, the Picpus Cemetery, on the banks of the river, watching and listening to Parisians to absorb their gestures and expressions. Soaking in every possible thing that could help make my story more authentic.
YARN: How is planning a trilogy different from planning a single-volume novel? Are they two different beasts when it comes to the actual writing?
JD: You’re giving me an awful lot of credit by assuming I plan anything! These ideas get me and I’m off. The planning is usually retroactive.
YARN: In “Revolution,” the main character Andi is a super-smart teen who’s deeply into music, and has all sort of esoteric knowledge about classical composers, rock bands, and musical composition. Was this something you had to research, or are you as into music as Andi? Were you as a teen as well?
JD: Both. I love music and always have, but I’m not a musician and had to do a great deal of research to understand Andi, to know what she knows. I read a lot—especially work by the wonderful music critic Alex Ross—and I talked with musicians.
When I was a teenager, I took what I listened to for granted. Now I’m simply gobsmacked by the talent that creates albums like “Wish You Were Here” or “In Rainbows.”
YARN: You’ve also published 3 adult novels. Do you find writing for young adults different than writing for adults? Do you see yourself continuing to write for both audiences?
JD: Not so much. My adult books have racier scenes and saltier language, and follow the characters into adulthood—those are the main differences. I’m still very concerned, in both categories, to hook the reader and keep her reading. I definitely see myself continuing to write for both audiences.
YARN: We’ve never interviewed a Printz Award nominee before. What was it like being nominated for “A Northern Light”? Did you have champagne? Rocky road ice cream? Also, did it freak you out about writing future books?
JD: It was wonderful to be nominated for ANL, but I don’t recall guzzling champagne or scarfing ice cream. I had an baby at the time. I think I answered the phone in a sleep-deprivation daze, thanked the lovely woman on the other end for her great news, and staggered off to puree some carrots. And no, it didn’t freak me out about future books. It’s a very nice thing, a big compliment on the work—not a voodoo curse!
YARN: Where do you come across your ideas for historical characters and their stories? “A Northern Light” is based on a real-life event, for instance—how did you find out about it, and how did it become fiction for you?
JD: I really don’t get my ideas; they get me. I found about ANL’s real life event—which was the murder of a young pregnant woman named Grace Brown by Chester Gillette, the father of her child—by reading Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” and then several non-fiction accounts of the case. The story became fiction for me because Grace haunted me. Her death broke my heart. I had to rewrite history. I had to have something good come from Grace’s death—and that something good was my main character, Mattie Gokey. Grace Brown loses her life in Big Moose Lake, but she helps Mattie find hers.
On YA and Other Books
YARN: Quick! Name 3 YA novels you’ve loved. No self-censoring!
JD: “The Hunger Games” (counting them as one!), “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” and “Octavian Nothing:Traitor to the Nation.”
YARN: On your FAQ page, you mention that you’ve always read a mixture of “mass and class,” which is awesome (us, too!), but except for Steven King, you mostly list “class” books as faves. What are some of your fave “mass” books?
JD: “A Woman of Substance” is another mass market book that I adore. I just read “The Lightening Thief” and loved it. I love the “Wimpy Kid” books, too.
YARN: Thanks so much for answering all our questions! We eagerly await your next YA novel!!
Jennifer Donnelly lives in the Hudson Valley with her family. She grew up in New York State, in Lewis and Westchester counties, and attended the University of Rochester where she double-majored in English Literature and European History.
Her first young adult novel, “A Northern Light,” was awarded Britain’s Carnegie Medal, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction and a Michael L. Printz Honor. Her second, “Revolution,” has been longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, awarded an Odyssey Honor by the American Library Association, and named Young Adult Book of the Year by the American Booksellers Association.
She has also written a picture book for children titled “Humble Pie,” and a series of historical novels for grown-ups which includes “The Tea Rose,” “The Winter Rose,” and “The Wild Rose.”