Interview with...

Here's where I interview some awesome authors! 

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Interview with Lisa Schroeder
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April 11, 2011

Interview with Jennifer Donnelly

With the recent success of her new book "Revolution", Jennifer Donnelly is riding high with praise and acclaim with both critics and readers alike.


1. What was that spark that inspired you to write "Revolution"? How did you first go about it?

Revolution got started ten years ago, although I didn’t know it then. I was reading the New York Times and saw an article: “Geneticists’ Latest Probe: The Heart of the Dauphin”. It showed a picture. Of a glass urn with a small human heart in it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
 The article said that the heart, which had been kept in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, had just undergone DNA testing and had been found to be the heart of Louis Charles, a son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  
  Before I read that article, I knew that during the French revolution, the king and queen were imprisoned, tried for crimes against France, and guillotined by the revolutionaries. What I didn’t know was that after the king and queen were executed, their children – fourteen-year-old Marie-Therese and eight-year-old Louis Charles were kept in prison.
  Marie-Therese would survive her imprisonment and would be released in 1795, after Robespierre’s reign of terror had ended. Louis-Charles was not so fortunate. As heir to the throne, he was seen as a threat to the revolution. It was rumored that powerful people were plotting to free him and rule in his name. To prevent this, the revolutionaries essentially had the boy walled up alive. He was kept in a dark cold cell. Alone. Without books and toys. Without  enough food, without a fire. He became sick. And he went mad. And eventually he died. At the age of ten.
 After Louis-Charles died, his body was autopsied, and while it was open, one of the doctors stole the child’s heart. Before the revolution, when a king died, his heart was cut from his body, embalmed, and kept in an urn at St. Denis. During the revolution, this didn’t happen. When Louis XVI was executed, his body was simply thrown into a common pit. It’s thought that Dr. Pelletan stole the heart because he wanted to safeguard it until the revolution was over, then take it to St. Denis. Things didn’t quite work out the way he’d hoped, though. Due to theft, violence, and politics, it took nearly two hundred years for that heart to get to St. Denis. It was finally brought there in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1999 that DNA testing confirmed that it did indeed belong to Louis Charles.
 This article really upset me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Couldn’t stop wondering how the idealism of the revolution had devolved into such cruelty. I went to bed thinking about it and woke up thinking about it. I wondered, as I never had before, what kind of world is this that allows such things? How do we live in it? How do we raise our children in it?
 These questions were haunting me and I had to find answers. So I set about trying to do that the only way I know how, by writing a story.
 All I really had to go on at that stage was a lot of emotion and one big fat question....
 Now what? How on earth do I tell this story? Should I tell it from Louis Charles’ point of view? No, I thought. That won’t work. He was too young. His frame of reference was too small. Should I tell it from someone else’s point of view? Whose? And where should I set it? In the past or in the present?
 Almost right away, I saw Alex inside my mind. She was walking down a narrow, cobbled street in Paris alone. She was carrying a bundle and moving quickly. It was night-time, but I could see that she was thin and her clothes were raggedy. She had dark hair and dark eyes and a haunted expression. She stopped and turned around and looked at me. And I felt as if she was weighing me up. Then she beckoned to me. And I followed her. 
 I knew as soon as I saw Alex in my mind, that she was the one who would tell Louis Charles’ story. I didn’t know everything about her right then – that would take time, but I knew she had been close to the boy once and that she still cared for him – so much so, that she would risk her own life for him.
 I was pretty sure then that I had a historical novel in my hands, but as I continued to work on the story, I started having some doubts. The story felt thin and a bit two-dimensional as a straight historical novel. And because it was set in the past, I had no way of commenting on the present, on drawing parallels between it and the past.
 I plowed on, telling myself that I’d solve these problems eventually, but then I encountered another, bigger problem – Andi. She suddenly showed up in my head and wouldn’t leave.
 Andi wasn’t from the 18th century. She was a modern-day Brooklyn girl. She was standing stiffly and holding a guitar in one hand. Anger and sadness radiated from her. She had a story, too.
 I didn’t want Andi to stay in my mind. She was messing things up. She made me think I’d been all wrong about my novel. Which is a really uncomfortable feeling. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be historical novel. Maybe it was supposed to be contemporary. So I tried writing it that way – from Andi’s point of view. But again, it felt thin and wrong. I missed Alex’s voice. And I needed her account of what it was like to be at Versailles before it fell and in Paris during the Revolution. Most of all, I needed her to tell me about Louis Charles. And why she risked her life for him.   
 I was really stuck, and was feeling really anxious and frustrated. I veered back and forth between the two girls, trying to get one of them to leave, trying to force the book to be one thing or the other. But neither girl would leave. Neither would surrender. So finally, I had to surrender.  
 And when I did that, when I gave in and gave the book to both girls, the story came together and came alive

2. Given the success of "Revolution" are you surprised?

It's extremely gratifying to me that readers have embraced the book. I poured my heart and soul into Revolution as I struggled to find the answers to some very hard questions, and to hear from people that the story inspired them and gave them hope...well, that really means the world to me.   

3. Is there any advice you can give to aspiring writers?

There’s only one thing that makes you a writer – and that's writing.
Writing – any kind of writing: journals, term papers, letters to your grandmother – will hone your ability with words. As you keep writing, you'll learn how to do more with less. You'll get a feel for simplicity and elegance, when to let rip and when to hold back, and how the subtle art of suggestion can lend incredible power to a paragraph or scene. These are all things I still struggle with. I have a tendency to overwrite, but when I do nail a scene, I can sense it, and it's a tremendous feeling.
Reading is also incredibly important. It shows you how other writers do it, how they succeed and where they fail. Whether it's a novel, a newspaper article or the copy on the back of a cereal box – it's all writing. Someone had to think about it and make choices. It's your job as a reader to decide how well the author did. You may not be aware of it, but every time you get lost in a story, or intrigued by a magazine article, you're also picking up pointers on structure, plot, and style. I couldn't afford to go to grad school, or take a workshop when I started trying to write, so I used what was available to me – good books.
Another crucial key to writing is finishing what you start. Lots people tell me that they have so many stories started. Started is good. Beginnings are good. But you have to finish. Finishing is what makes the difference between ideas and books. Force yourself to sit down at your desk – glue your butt to your chair – and work through the problems. It's very important. It's very good discipline. It forces you to see an idea through from beginning to end and to do the hard work of bringing the various threads of the story together in a satisfying way. Do this and you’ll become more confident in your ability to tell a story. The problems of structure and plot and narrative drive may not get easier for you – they certainly haven’t gotten any easier for me and I’m on my sixth novel – but with experience and a bit of confidence, you’ll become braver about facing them…and besting them.
Lastly, listen to your own thoughts and feelings very carefully, be aware of your observations, and learn to value them. Try to stand still inside all of that and hear your own voice. It's yours and only yours, it's unique and worthy of your attention, and if you cultivate it properly, it might just make you a writer.

3 comments:

Euphoria13 said...

OMG!!! You got to interview Jennifer Donelly?! AHHH!!! HOW AWESOME!!!

I LOVED THIS INTERVIEW!! :D

GREAT JOB RUTH!!

Jessi E. (The Elliott Review) said...

This is very interesting! I love hearing about how an idea comes to being in an author's mind. It makes me want to read Revolution big time now. :)

Vy (Vy's Blog) said...

I loved Revolution and reading an interview from her is just amazing! Really neat interview :)