Jennifer Donnelly: Take Another Little Piece of my Heart

Published on: 01 October 2010

This week we got the chance to interview one fo our favourite Teen/YA authors, the wonderful Jennifer Donnelly.

Jennifer DonnellyHi Jennifer, congratulations on the publication of Revolution. It's been a while since your last novel for young adults. How do you feel?

I'm really excited, this one was a long labour, it really took a bite out of me.

A Gathering Light was a great critical and commercial success. Was that encouraging or was it daunting to start writing again after that?

Neither, I don't look back. The books you've written before don't help you write the next one. It's new ideas that get me. My books are emotional responses to something I've seen or read. The ideas worry at me until I start to write about them and then the chase is on to the next story. It doesn't matter what has come before, it's just you and the story in front of a blank screen. It's the passion that keeps me going.

Revolution is a rich, complex novel set in Paris and New York about the French Revolution, with strong themes about depression, guilt, hope and love. It's quite a dark novel where did it come from?

(laughs) I have to laugh when you say that. I overstuff everything I do. I overstuff my books, overstuff people when they come to eat. I can't help myself, I'm a more is more kind of a girl. I want a rich, sumptuous feast for my reader, so I cram a lot in.

The inspiration behind the book was this article I read about a tiny preserved heart believed to have belonged to the ten-year-old son of King Louis XVI, who was killed during the French Revolution. Most people know about King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's fate but not so many know about the fate of their children after their deaths.

Their young son, Louis Charles, was locked away in a tower by the revolutionaries when he was eight-years-old and neglected in a terrible way with no books, no toys, no light or warmth and eventually went mad and died at age ten. This stunned me – how could these people who had the noblest aspirations for humanity; liberty, equality, fraternity; deny it to this one child. How these noble aspirations devolved into such cruelty churned in me.

I couldn't do anything about the idea right away as I had a book due, so I saved it and then had a child of my own, which changed me forever. I lost the protective shell which enables us to go on with life after witnessing terrible things. As a new mother I couldn't handle seeing anything about child cruelty and it made me ask – what kind of world is this and how do we live in it? The story of the tiny heart took on a new and symbolic meaning for me and the answer is in the book.

How come you chose to use Dante's Divine Comedy to structure the novel?

Dante's Divine Comedy is one of my favourite poems of all time. Dante is in a terrible place, on the brink of suicide and along comes Virgil, his favourite writer, and takes him on a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise and brings him back into the light and hope. Imagine your favourite writer coming and helping you out of a tight spot.

The parallels in the book are there – Andi is on the verge of suicide and her own Virgil comes and takes her underground and helps her get through her very own hell. Dante doesn't see anything good for a long time until he sees the stars. Anyone who has suffered depression or a despaired period in their life knows you can't see any light, but to come up from hell and look up and see the stars gives great hope.

Did this come from personal experience?

That comes from my own experience and of other people I've known. I suffered depression as a teenager and through periods in my adult life. It hits teenagers hard because they're at that transitional place before becoming an adult and have high expectations of them.

I was wondering who the dedication is for? ('For Daisy, who kicked out the walls of my heart')

My daughter who is now seven-years-old. She changed my life forever.

Revolution is set in the 18th and 21st centuries. What are the challenges of writing historical and contemporary fiction?

The challenge for both is the same thing – authenticity. You need the authenticity of voice, emotion and experience for both girls. As well as the authenticity of time period.

I used written sources to hear the rhythms of speech and words used in the 18th century and I would sit in cafes and listen to conversations between teenagers from the local private schools in Brooke Heights where Andi lives. They are urban, sophisticated, smart kids but you can hear the child behind them. There is huge pressure and expectations on them which I didn't have when I was growing up.

Music is a strong theme in Revolution. You write so knowledgably about classical and contemporary music. Has this come from research or practice?

I don't have a practical note in my body but I adore music. Andi came to me fully formed as a guitarist, so if I wanted to follow her, I had to understand music. I read a great deal and talked to musician friends.

I am in awe of musicians and convinced they are a different species, as they begin talking in words and then break into sound/beats to explain something. My daughter studies piano and I love watching the kids when they play. The accomplishment, seriousness, dedication and love they have for their music is inspiring.

A key point I wanted to make in the book through Andi's Music DNA thesis is the huge importance of the artistic legacy we all inherit be it in literature or music or any other art form. It's important that teenagers realise that other people have come before them and there is a whole body of work out there for them to explore and be inspired by.

Both novels have strong female characters and in particular A Gathering Light examines what it's like to be a woman in a particular place and time. Do you have strong feminist views?

That's a tough question. I get impatient with the gender divide. My point of view as a reader and author is that a good story is a good story and a good character is a good character and I don't care what the character's gender, age, race etc are if they compel me and the story compels me I'm there. I happen to write female characters because I'm female and don't yet feel qualified to write from a male perspective.

Mattie from A Gathering Light famously dislikes Austen and is relieved when she discovers writers that tell the truth about their lives. Do you like writers who tell the truth?

Yes I do. They are the writers that affect me most deeply. As a child I felt comforted by Grimm's fairytales or Stephen King, writers who acknowledge the darkness in childhood. As a kid growing up in the 60s, a lot of what I was told about life was sugar coated, and I felt uneasy about that. I found reading fairytales and stories that acknowledged the darkness in children's lives was a relief, as they were confirming what I had always suspected. Life isn't all happy, it isn't all sunny, and it certainly isn't all easy.

What did you read when you were growing up? What made you want to be a writer?

I loved Laura Ingles Wilder's Little House series, Nancy Drew and Stephen King when I got a bit older. I was given classics at high school but I didn't really understand them until I went to college. I had great teachers who introduced me to Shakespeare, Fielding and other great writers and I felt as though I had been given the keys to the kingdom. This period made me want to be a writer and understand myself as a human being too.

Do you set out to write a novel for adults or teens from the beginning?

It's the idea that leads me and the character defines the audience. The characters appear to me fully formed. Mattie came to me as a teenager and I wanted to speak directly to teens to tell them look at what happened to Grace. You must determine and follow your own path in life no matter how much other people want you to take theirs.

I write for teens to show them a glimpse of the complicated world they will soon be entering and I write for adults to give them a few hours escape that same world.

You write full time now – have you ever had a day job?

I've had a few. I've been a newspaper reporter and a copywriter. I've always made my way in writing. When I was working full time I used to get up at 4.30am to write before work, and at the weekends. I had no social life. It's wonderful to write full time and I have to give full credit to my husband who was in finance for many years and enabled me to write full time.

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