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Author Jennifer Donnelly MAG
Jennifer Donnelly is best known for her historical novel A Northern Light. The New York Times–bestselling author’s newest novel, These Shallow Graves, is a story about Jo, an American aristocrat with a bad case of curiosity about the world around her. Although Donnelly wasn’t alive during the 1890s, her story expresses the hardship and beauty of living in New York during that era.
What was the hardest part of writing These Shallow Graves?
Everything! Did you ever read this quotation – “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people” by the German writer Thomas Mann? That’s me. It’s all hard. Pacing, world-building, chasing the characters until they tell you who they really are, creating suspense, making a compelling and logical mystery – it all makes me rip my hair out. But still, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing!
Why did you choose historical fiction as the genre for your books?
I love history. It’s how I understand this world. I truly believe that we can’t know ourselves without knowing those who came before us. Not all my books are historical fiction. My Waterfire Saga, for middle-grade readers, is fantasy, but it does have a big historical component. I can’t resist sharing my love of history with my readers.
The main character, Jo, is an activist for female rights, in a way. She wants to report the stories that are considered unladylike and speak in a tone that isn’t proper. What was your inspiration for Jo’s character?
Women of the eighteenth century, so many of whom were silenced and shamed for trying to make their voices heard. The trailblazing reporter Nellie Bly and the novelist Edith Wharton were two major inspirations. So was an heiress named Consuelo Vanderbilt, who was forced into a miserable society marriage. And a working-class girl named Lizzie Schauer, who was arrested for soliciting simply because she was walking in Manhattan at night, alone.
The story takes place in the 1890s. How much research did you have to do in order to make it historically accurate?
A huge amount. If there were no such thing as a deadline, I’d still be researching. I absolutely love it. Finding an old book on etiquette or a diary, postcard, or magazine that gives me insight into the lost world I’m trying to recapture makes my heart thump.
In the novel, Nellie Bly is mentioned a lot, as she was Jo’s role model as a female writer. Why did you choose Bly to inspire Jo throughout the novel?
Nellie was one of the first female reporters. She became a journalist at a time when very few women did, or could. She was bold, exceedingly brave, daring, and committed to social justice. By her example, as well as her convictions, she was an advocate for women, the poor, and the mentally ill. She had guts and smarts, and I admire her every bit as much as Jo does.
What do you do when you feel discouraged as a writer?
Whine. Stamp my feet. Complain to my husband. And then get back to work. Work’s the only remedy.
What do you think makes a good story?
First and foremost, a true and distinctive voice. I’ll read anything if the voice grabs me. Also, characters compel me. I don’t need to love them, but I do need to be intrigued by them. Suspense. Surprises. A believable world that I can see, hear, and smell. A bit of humor. A lot of heart.
When writing, do you set deadlines for yourself or do you write when you feel creative or inspired?
Neither. I sit down to work in the morning and get as much done by night as I can. I learned many years ago, as a young reporter, to never, ever wait for the muse. Sit your butt down, start working, and she’ll show up.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It has taken me as long as 10 years. (That was my first novel. I was teaching myself how to write – at 4:30 a.m., before work.) And as little as nine months.
What are you currently working on? A new, top-secret story!
Any words of advice for young authors who are trying to publish their first book?
The road to publishing a book can be long and hard and full of rejection. I know this for a fact. No one can ever guarantee you’ll get published. But one person can guarantee you won’t: you. By quitting. So don’t. Don’t give up on yourself. The world is full of people just itching to tell you no. Don’t be one of them. For more advice, check out my website: www.jenniferdonnelly.com/faq.html.
What made you decide to become a writer? Did you always want to be a writer, or was there another path you wanted to take in life?
I did always want to be a writer. Though there are times – usually as I’m approaching a deadline – when I wish I were the owner of a cupcake shop. I was fortunate to have a mother who told me lots of stories, and I grew up with this love and expectation of stories and books and words, and when I got a bit older, I decided to start telling some of my own.
How do you get over writer’s block?
Writer’s block is like the monster under the bed – it can only mess with you if you believe in it. And I don’t believe in it. I do often get stuck, and when I do, I know it’s because I haven’t done my homework. I haven’t cooked up a good enough plot. I haven’t coaxed out a character’s deepest self. I haven’t done enough research. To get unstuck, I often get away from my computer, get some paper and a pen, and start writing down questions. They might address a specific concern with the book, or they might be super general, like: “Why does this book suck?” And then the answers come, and when I know what’s wrong, I can set about fixing it.
How often do you write something and realize it doesn’t work with the plot, or the character wouldn’t say something like that?
All the time. You just have to kill it and move on.
Do you read the reviews of your books?
Only the good ones.
Why did you choose the title These Shallow Graves?
My wonderful editor at Delacorte, Krista Marino, came up with that title, and I love it. It evokes the idea that if you’re going to try to bury the past, you’d better bury it deep. I’m pretty lame when it comes to titles. I’m good at long and involved, not so good at short and snappy.
What made Jo hard to believe? She had facts and a few pieces of evidence, but every time she told someone her story, they didn’t believe her.
Several people do believe her. Another one does but only appears not to. Some don’t. I think whether a certain person does or doesn’t believe Jo is a result of that person’s background and consequent perspective. Society people don’t believe a young society woman of good breeding could possibly have seen and done what Jo sees and does. People of a less sheltered background, who adhere to less rigid social roles, do.
Who are your favorite authors, and do you take inspiration from them?
James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Stephen King, Jeanette Winterson, Phillip Pullman, Mary Oliver, David Almond, Walt Whitman, John le Carré, Marilynne Robinson, M. T. Anderson, and I do take inspiration from them. I love, need, crave, and can’t exist without good writing.
What do you find easier to write: single books or series?
Both are hard. I never find writing anything to be easy.
Which was your favorite book to write?
They were all my favorite, at the time.
Would you like one of your books to be made into a movie? Which one?
It would be lovely to see them all made into films or miniseries – as long as they were good films or miniseries!