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Author Jennifer Donnelly MAG
Jennifer Donnelly is a historical and young adult fiction writer, best known for her novel A Northern Light, winner of the Carnegie Medal. Donnelly's newest novel, Revolution, has already been declared a Best Book of the Month by Amazon.com. Revolution follows and interweaves the lives of two 18-year-old girls, one in present-day New York and the other in Paris during the terrifying time of the French Revolution.
What made you want to become a writer?
From early childhood, as far back as I can remember, stories and words and books were a part of my life. I was fortunate to have, and still have, a mom who is a born storyteller. She's German, and when I was a kid, she told me a lot of German fairy tales, and as I got older, a lot about her life during the war. She was a young child in Germany during World War II. So I grew up with words and stories and history in my life, and as I got older I realized that I wanted to write a few stories of my own.
How did you go about writing your novels? I have tried to write a couple of novels myself and I just kind of lose focus after a while.
I have the incentives of contract deadlines to keep me going – they are very strong motivators! But the most difficult novel to write was my first – The Tea Rose. I started writing that in my early twenties and really didn't know how to write. I was teaching myself and it took a long time. I had a double major in English and European history, which helped, because with those majors all you do is write.
After I graduated, I didn't have the money to continue with graduate school or the time to be part of a writers' group, so I would write really early in the morning before I went to work. I would get up around 4:30 a.m. and write on weekends and vacation days too. Long story short, it took me 10 years to write that first novel. It was a lot of trying and failing and ripping up and starting over.
At the end of that time, I had a manuscript I thought was workable. I found an agent, and he looked it over and said, “You can write, but you need to do a lot of work on things like structure and narrative drive and pacing.”
So together we went back to work on the manuscript and I spent another two years rewriting and trimming it. Then we went out trying to find a publisher who would buy it … and got rejected by pretty much every publishing house in New York City, which was devastating.
About a year later there was shifting of editors in some of the publishing houses, and an editor from St. Martin's Press bought my book for a small sum, but I didn't care – I was finally going to be a published author!
So I think your question was actually more about how to not get frustrated and give up. You get very frustrated, but you need to cultivate the virtues of stubbornness and persistence. And you need to never, ever give up, no matter how tough the going gets.
How do you overcome writer's block?
There is a great quote by Malcolm Gladwell, the author and columnist for The New Yorker. Someone asked him how he deals with writer's block, and he said, “I'm too much of a hack to have writer's block. I just keep plodding along.” I feel the same way. I just keep going. I can't allow myself to stop. This is not only my art, it's my livelihood, and I have deadlines and contracts to fulfill.
So generally, if the story's not working, there is a reason. Usually I haven't fully thought out some aspect of the book. So at that point, I get away from my computer, get a legal pad and a pen, and just start reworking the story line. What isn't working? What do I need to shift around? I do that for a few hours and eventually get a breakthrough. Then I can get back to the actual writing.
What experiences helped you grow more confident as a writer?
Getting published helps a lot! Initially seeing a novel through from beginning to end proves to you like nothing else that, yes, you can finish a book, you can write a novel. And, of course, receiving positive feedback from readers who tell me that they enjoyed the story, that it resonated with them, that it gave them inspiration or helped them or made them happy, is great for building confidence.
What is the publishing world like?
That's a good question. I'm still trying to understand it. I'm finishing my fifth novel, and I feel like I'm just beginning to get it. I do feel that writing is my art and publishing is my business. And I feel I'm better at the art end of my career than the business end. But I'm learning. It's an exciting, competitive, interesting world to be a part of.
Any advice for young writers as far as publishing goes?
Don't give up, don't quit. The entire world is going to be ready and willing to tell you you will never get published. Don't be the one to tell yourself no. Just keep going, keep faith in yourself and your work, and never ever give up.
How involved are you in promoting your book, and do you enjoy that part of the job?
I'm very involved. It's a constant thing. I never really stop. There's a lot of promotional work to be done before, during, and after a book launch.
I just finished a book tour that kept me on the road for five weeks, and am still doing interviews, blogging, pretty much anything I can do to get the word out. The book world is very competitive, and if you want to not only write books but also sell them, you have to be prepared to work very hard on promotion.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
I generally get started at about 8:30 a.m. with a pot of really strong tea. I try to take up the story wherever I left it the day before. I work until about 3:30. It's not constant typing – a lot of the time I am looking out the window, looking around the room, you know, being frustrated.
When I do hit my stride and it's going well, I lose all consciousness of time and place and my own existence and really become one with the story. It's wonderful. I live for those times.
How much background research did you do to write Revolution?
Oceans of it. Years worth of reading. My library on the French Revolution is huge. It took me a long time to even begin to wrap my hands around this event. I also spent time in Paris just sort of communing with the ghosts, and also working in archives and museums. I don't consider myself an expert by any measure, just a person with some understanding of it.
How would you like your readers to approach Revolution, and what do you want them to take away from it?
A few things. Revolution is about a teenage musician – Andi, and a teenage actor – Alex, both of whom are very talented and dedicated to their art. The love of their art sustains them through very difficult times.
So if teenagers are struggling, as teenagers do, with aspects of identity, finding their own artistic voice, depression, or possibly suicidal thoughts, what I want them to find here is what Andi finds in her music and what Alex finds in her acting – a love so deep that it sustains them when nothing else can.
I struggled as a teenager with depression, and literature sustained me. It still does. I guess what I really want to say to teenagers is that this artistic legacy, whether you are a musician, a painter, or a writer – whatever you are – it's there, so reach back to your artistic ancestors and clasp hands with them and let them carry you for a bit.
As I said earlier, graduate school and writers' groups were not options for me, but I could always go to a bookstore or local library, take Hemingway or Joyce off the shelf and have a master class right there in my hands.
What characters in Revolution do you connect with the most?
I connect with all of them, well, almost all of them. Not Robespierre. I connect most deeply with Andi and Alex, but I connect with characters like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette too. They were about the worst two rulers in the world, but to go to the guillotine knowing that your children are remaining behind in the hands of such brutal people … well, there is no greater punishment, no greater horror for a parent, than that. I obviously find my fictional characters fascinating. After all, I created them. But I also find the historical characters incredibly fascinating.