Monday, January 7, 2008

Author Interview: Jennifer Donnelly

Interviewed by Heather F.

Jennifer Donnelly is the author of The Tea Rose, The Winter Rose, and A Northern Light.

Heather F.: You create such strong female characters; Fiona, Mattie, India. How important to you is it to portray such intelligent and complex women?

Jennifer Donnelly: It's super important to me. Strong women are really the only kind of women I know. I was raised by one and I've had the privilege to be friends with many more. I marvel at them. They're mothers and wives and actors and singers and writers and wall street warriors and athletes. Some have survived wars and abuse and terrible loss. And I think the thing they have in common, the thing that for me defines their strength is not their achievements or their success, but their ability to take knocks and get right back up again. They're smart and brave, and they're stubborn, too -- an underrated quality, in my opinion.

HF: Barbara Taylor Bradford said of India, from The Winter Rose "India Selwyn Jones is a new breed of woman in London in 1900, a doctor practicing in the grim East End, and she captivates from the first page to the last." How much research went into the creation of India?

JD: An absolute ton. I spent a lot of time in archives in London sifting through notebooks and letters and pictures of late 19th and early 20th century women medical students. I also looked at early medical devices, read histories on gynecology and obstetrics, and read accounts of childbirth, labor, and child-rearing given by English working class women of the early 20th century. It was harrowing, and gave me a new appreciation for the advantages we 21st century women have. Research is not work to me. I live for it. I love delving into the past and often feel more comfortable there than I do in the present.

HF: I just have to know, how long does it take you to research the time periods of your books? How long does it take to write one? I imagine the Rose books took an extremely long time to create!

JD: The Tea Rose, my first novel, took me 10 years to research and write -- largely because I was teaching myself how to write a novel while holding down a fulltime job. A Northern Light took about a year and a half. The Winter Rose took three years -- I'd had a baby when I started this book and found writing on no sleep a bit challenging!

HF: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

JD: Yes, I travel for the research. And I usually travel when the books come out. Though I am trying hard to cut down on travel, as it steals a lot of time from writing.

HF: How exciting that "A Northern Light" / "A Gathering Light" has earned you some many awards, included the Carnegie Medal! Mattie is one of my favorite characters from your novels. She is such a lover of language and words. To what extent you identify with Mattie? To what extent do any of your characters reflect your personality?

JD: I identify strongly with Mattie, because she and I share a huge love of books and language, and we also share a love of the North Woods. But she is a far, far better person than I am. I think my main characters reflect a good deal of my personality -- especially India, because she is bossy and difficult!

HF: Where do you get your ideas? Your novels are so complex, were the stories born fully formed in your head or did they grow as you were writing them?

JD: I don't. My ideas get me. I read something, and it takes hold of me and doesn't let go until I resolve all the swirling emotion by writing a story. The stories aren't born fully formed, unfortunately. How I wish they were!!!! Some of the characters are, but not the stories. They are complex and they grow as I'm working on them. They're long and twisty and they take a lot of time and effort and thought to work through. A lot of late nights. Despair. Pacing. Whining. And ripping up of pages.

HF: "The Winter Rose" came out ages ago in England. "The Wild Rose" is scheduled for 2008. Why does it take so much longer for your books to be published in America? Also "A Gathering Light" vs. "A Northern Light".. Why the different titles?

JD: It's a long boring story and basically involves publishing schedules and the best time of year for books to be launched in various markets. Changes were made from the UK to the US edition. There were new rounds of editing. And a time of year was selected that will hopefully be propitious for the book. Fall and Christmas are very hard times to launch books unless you're a total superstar author -- like a JK Rowling or Dan Brown. There are simply too many books competing for too little space in newspapers and magazines. As for A Northern Light -- that's the books US title. It was changed to A Gathering Light in the UK to avoid confusion with Philip Pullman's novel, Northern Lights, which is known as The Golden Compass in the US.

HF: You have written books in so many different genres; children's, young adult, historical fiction.does writing for some many different audiences come easy for you? Is there a genre you feel more comfortable writing in?

JD: It does come easily. At least, I'm not conscious of shifting out of one voice to another as I write. My stories, whether they're in picture book format, or for young adult or adult readers, involve conflict and the need for a character to grow and change, to move forward. It's a process that we all experience, at all stages in our lives. Perhaps the circumstances are different at different ages, but the process of growth -- with its pain and fear and uncertainty, and ultimately -- hopefully -- its triumph, is something human beings of any age understand.

HF: Who or what has influenced your writing?

JD: Everything I've ever read. Mass and class. Bestsellers and classics and everything in between. I'll read anything. A great novel. The back of the Cheerio's box. Cheesy tabloids. The Economist. Anything. Every good writer I read makes me a better writer.

HF: What are some of your favorite books and why?

JD: The Passion by Jeanette Winterson because it is so full and glorious and beautiful. A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford because I've secretly always wanted to be Emma Harte. Emily Dickinson's poetry because she can knock you flat in four lines. A lot of Stephen King because I saw myself and people I knew (the regular Joes, not the vampires and killer
clowns!) in his stories. Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy because he's not afraid to tackle huge themes and tell a rip roaring story at the same time. Wodehouse and David Sedaris because they make me laugh so hard and I love to laugh. To Kill a Mockingbird because it so perfectly conjures childhood, and because I love Jem and Scout and Dill and Atticus and Boo Radley so much.

HF: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about his or her work?

JD: James Joyce. When I read him, I feel like I actually understand life. Just a little.

HF: What can your fans expect from you next?

JD: I'm currently working hard on a new young adult novel, and I'm feverishly plotting out the storyline of the third Rose book -- The Wild Rose.

Heather wishes to thank Jennifer Donnelly for her time. You can read more about the author and her work at her website.


Iliana said...

Great interview Heather. I was really excited to read this one as I've just gotten a copy of The Winter Rose. I think it'll be a great read.

Heather said...

Thanks Iliana! I hope you enjoy it. I thought it was a fantastic read. Even better than The Tea Rose.

Les said...

I loved reading this interview, Heather!! And I'm thrilled to learn that Donnelly is working on a 3rd in the "Rose" series. I have an ARC of The Winter Rose and can't wait to read it. I loved The Tea Rose and A Northern Light, so I have high hopes for this one. Glad you think it's even better than The Tea Rose.