203 Author Jennifer Donnelly
This is what book hooked you I'm broke Shelly and thanks for listening this week. I talked to Jennifer Donnelly who's the author of several books such as in northern light and The waterfire Saga her newest book is out. Now. It's called poisoned. It's a retelling of the Snow White Fairy Tail dead. So we get into that we get into her writing career her process and fairy tales. So listen in So Jennifer what book hooked to you the book that hooked me good and hard when I was young maybe eight nine years of age was The Brothers Grimm their collection details. I I love stories. My mother was a wonderful Storyteller. I had a lot of books and I read a lot of the sort of cleaner gentler Kinder more sanitized version of the old Grimms Tales the Disney version Little Golden Books and I loved them but when I got a bit older I was messing around in the library one day and talking to the librarian and she did you ever, you know, telling her what I like did you ever read, you know this collection of fairy tales and it was The Brothers Grimm and I I I took it from her and took it out and I got it home and it just changed my world. I think it was because when I was at age, I was a kid of the late sixties early seventies, and I really wanted the truth all the time. I wanted to, New Jersey. What was going on, you know with people in life in the world and and parents at that time, you know, they were a little they weren't quite the parents that that we tried be today sort of explaining things and going into death off with their answers not for any nefarious reasons or anything like that, but they were busy they were tired, you know, they were impatient they were working so I kind of felt things were being withheld from me and and the grown-ups weren't giving me the answers. I want I wanted to know things like you know, why why do Christmas carols make me sad and and white a my dad was just big, you know, tough state trooper sometimes cry and you know these sorts of things and being a kid who was growing up in the late sixties early seventies. I would watch the news at night. I sort of was sitting on the floor of my coloring book my parents would watch the news and I was here all these things about, you know, Nixon Watergate. Ad'ika the Manson family and have this feeling that the world wasn't quite as I was being led to believe it was and again wasn't getting the answers. I wanted them. From my folks not from the nuns not from you know count chocula or Bert and Ernie or mr. Rogers or anybody but I got those answers when I read The Brothers Grimm to me they the brothers I didn't hold anything back. They wrote they wrote down as I'm sure you know, they were collectors of tales not they weren't offering the Tails and the tales were describing a world that was different was very hard very, you know, often violent often bloody. That's how their world, you know could often be at that time and in the eighteen hundreds and it guided a deeper truth took me and I I heard from The Brothers Grimm a truth I sense but that no adults were sort of verbalizing to me that the world could be this very dark very hard at times very cool place, you know, they acknowledge that they were right up front with it, but it didn't rattle me it didn't, you know drive me to despair upset me or made me depressed or anything like that because within this very hard World Kid Navigating it you know kids like not Kings with armies but kids like Hansel and Gretel Little Red Riding Hood You Know Jack and his handful of beans and yes, the woods were dark and the war, you know, the woods were full of ourselves and monsters and witches, but these kids were triumphant, you know with with very little tools that their ability just sort of what they had inside them is what led them through that dark woods and enabled them to find their way home and I found those Tales incredibly comforting for that reason and very very truthful. That was a long Revolution your question. It was great. And so because that was sort of like a a break the glass moment, like, you know, you would kind of had seen the world in more clear up close because of reading Did that sort of? Spur on your kind of hunger for discovery of more more Tales more what was out there whether that be in the fairy-tale Fantasy Realm or whether would that would be life out in the real world. And what was really going on? Yeah, definitely, you know again, I wanted that truth. I wanted to know, you know, when you're a little and you hear things, you know, like again like adequate water you hear it you you maybe don't understand body counts and riots and and tear gas and and the Manson family and a president who tells lies. So I was always seeking for our sort of deeper answers a deeper truth. You know, it probably that truth. Probably started Dawning on me with the Grimm's Fairy Tales and then branched out into the wider world. It's why I wrote a book like a Northern Light why I wrote a book like Revolution. I wanted to get it harder grittier sort of deeper truth. And so as you how did your relationship with books changed as you birth? Up and you kind of became into your adolescent years that were books. So important to you are where there are certain genre. That was really your favorite or did you kind of grow distance because of wage teen-age social life and what it could become I've always depended on books. I always found comfort and solace in books. They were always there for me sort of, you know stories were very enduring and unbreakable and indestructible and and I still feel that way, you know as as a little bit older than a teenager these days especially now when the world with everything that's going on and the the difficulty so many people are facing the suffering the injectors you search for Hope and you search for truth and you search for meaning and I personally always found them in fiction and and I still do it's it's it's my go-to a good meeting novel is what pulls me through always has dead. And so then at what point in your life? Did you go from this love of books and love of story to wanting to create your own stories? Oh when I was like three years old. I had this I still have her she's still alive. Thank goodness. My mom. She's German and and she was an amazing verbal Storyteller and she would so funny. She would often tell me stories of her life in Germany as a small child during World War Two she grew up in this Life in a Northern Port town and it was heavily bombed by the Allies. So, you know, we'll all my little pals were settling down tonight, you know with stories like Cinderella or you know, the Three Bears I was getting this first-hand up close and personal account of life in Hitler's Germany during the Third Reich and she might tell me what it felt like to be eight or nine years old and running, you know for her life under the sound of wage of airplanes and and Sirens going off into a bomb shelter only to come out a few hours later and find you know that her house and everything in it had burned to the ground she might tell me about Her friend. I think his name was Herbert. He was like this the neighborhood snot-nosed who had joined the Hitler Youth and whenever he got into trouble he would run and put on his uniform because when he was in it, he was the property of the state wage and no one not even his parents could touch him and she told me a very harrowing story about a friend named Harold who was a small boy who had cerebral palsy and they would put him in a wheelbarrow and kind of push him around to where they were playing and she told me what it was like to see his mother come running in a panic and scooped him up and you know Rush him into the house and hide him in a closet because the Nazi Health Inspectors were coming to town and she knew her son could be taken away and you know some some people might feel that you know, these stores were too much and and and too strong and too harrowing for a kid, but I didn't feel that way. I was really interested. I was you know, I was just in my bed and I would say, you know, what did you do next mom and what happened and how do you feel and I think what was happening is that my mother was making a historian and a Storyteller out of me and showing me very much. History isn't things that happen to generals and kings and it's not about treaties and and it's about us it's about the everyday people and how these huge World forces work on us and shape us home. Sometimes save us sometimes Dumas. I think she was making intentionally or not a historian and a writer out of me at the same time. So then when did it The idea come to you that you wanted to be a published author and that was kind of a dream you chased. That was probably when I was older. I mean in my mind, I was an author, you know, as soon as I could write as soon as I could form sentences and and and you know, make them into paragraphs and make them into a little story. I was a writer it's it's it was as natural to me as breathing the expectation of words and stories was always there from from you know, being a tiny child and hearing my mother's voice telling me these stories. I loved it and I wanted to do it and it just felt very natural to me and I think you know as I get older I wanted to become a published author. I wanted to make my living I wanted to you know, spend every day writing and telling stories that was a little harder than just writing out, you know, your third and fourth grade stories, but I'm super fortunate that I managed to achieve that dream. Hm. Hm and your newest book is poisoned. So we'll talk about that. So First it's and obviously ties into what we were talking about earlier, but tell us first what this books about this book is about it's a retelling of Snow White and I I have to proceed carefully because I am is Rattle and and talked too much and spoil things and give things away. It's it's a telling of Snow White and in my version the Huntsman does exactly as he's told and Snow White has to go on a quest to find back this heart that he's taken from her to regain it and the idea of this story much like the idea for step sister came to me because of unanswered questions. I found when I was a kid with stepsister, it was very much wondering about those two ugly stepsisters. I love Cinderella and I felt so sorry for her when I was little five six years old hearing the story being off to me. I couldn't really, you know relate to her or identify with her because she was only so good and so kind and you know, I wasn't and I sort of really saw myself more in those ugly girls. Sisters who were sleeping in and didn't do their chores when they were supposed to and you know, they had big feet just like me and they had crazy here just like me and I saw myself in them and I wanted to know what happened to them. You know, what had made those girls so mean as we know now, you know mean girls are made not born, you know, if you scratch the surface of any villain you usually find a lot of damage. So I had that question, you know, and then for poisoned it was very much the scariest thing to me and that story wasn't the evil queen or the Huntsman and his order to cut out Snow White's heart it was that voice in the mirror that is that creepy, you know disembodied voice of authority and who was it? Where was it coming from? Why did the queen listen to it? And why did she allow it to have so much power over her she she believed it and she did exactly what it told her to do. And so that's scared me and I wanted to know, you know my whole life who was who was in that mirror who's talking so I wrote a storm. Poison to find out that answer and so you you mentioned step sister, which was the book before this one, which is also a retailing as you mentioned when you are kind of flushing out an idea like this where it is off their Source material. There's a there's a well-known Story how when do you know that you have enough to make it fresh and new enough that you want to go on that journey to write it. That's a really good question and a hard one to answer. I it's it's kind of oh, it's a process of getting the idea and it comes in kind of fuzzy or crackly and then It comes in clear. You start seeing the characters you start they start really drawing breath and color coming into their faces and living and breathing and talking to you and you realize that this person is sort of the embodiment of the question you had, you know, what made the ugly stepsisters mean and and who is that voice in the mirror and you get this feeling that the game's afoot and together you and this character are off and you're going to solve this and you have this amazing partner on this, you know, Incredible Journey to tell the story that's kind of a waffle answer to I can't pin it down more than that. It's just I don't know. It's just this this feeling you get of excitement and and this is going to work. This is going to live this is going to breathe we're going to we're going to do the story together this main character in me. Sure. And now I think by my account I think poisoned is your 15th, maybe sixteenth book or maybe maybe fourteen fourteen. Do you I'm thinking of it. I think under my question like this like, When we were growing up we go through phases and even as adults we go through phases. Do you feel like as an author you've gone through phases whether that's subject matter whether that's off your approach towards writing or when you kind of look back at your career. You kind of see kind of phases that you've gone in. Actually, I don't think I I have seen faces. I mean, I certainly have you know, kind of gone from genres to other genres back to the original genres out again sort of History to Fantasy. I'd say though with those sort of variations in genre and maybe subject matter. The one constant has been always telling the story of a young woman who Feels called to do something wants to do something wants to proceed in her life in a certain way and is is you know, trying to people around her are trying to dissuade her for that and she wants to be on this path and people are telling her. No, it's not for you home and she has to sort of be very still and you know, shut out those outside voices and listen to the voice inside and let it guide her to the Past she wants and that's usually the subject of the story and it's very much the message that I want to get to my young readers, you know, when you're a teenager everybody is telling you who to be in want to be in what to do and what to like and who you are and you need to shut that out and you need to be very still and very quiet and listen to the voice inside and let that voice guide you so I think that has been very much a constant throughout my work. And after after so many books do you feel has a I'll ask it this way. Has it gotten easier or oh, okay. I have a lot of books a lot of authors, you know every book just when you think you have it figured out you think you have a patented process. The next book comes along and totally throws it off. So you've I assume definitely found that by your reaction. It's super hard for me writing is so hard for me. It's oh my gosh, it's it's it never gets any easier. I'm still terrified of the blank page at this point. I have you know, the empirical evidence on the shelf that yes, I have done this. I've been through this I can do this. It doesn't matter half way through three quarters of the way through you know, I just get this this is panic sets in and there's no story here. And and now I've really lost it. I can't write anymore. Whoever told me I could be a writer and it's it's you know, it's a it's a dreadful burden. I think it's just a burden of every artist to Bear you you lose sight of yourself. You lose sight of your ability Those computer. Faith in yourself at some point in that process and it's it's harrowing and you just have to Buckle in and and try to get through it. Hm and you've been long as you've been writing and as you've been publishing Stories the market of why hey has obviously exploded like I remember I took a course that was called young adult literature wage and the books were the giver holes and I think The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle so but three books that and the fourth one. So three books that are now considered squarely like middle grade books, obviously and that was and then since then obviously middle Rya has become so much. So you've sort of been working in and seeing that so what happened like that in that category that you work in has just branched off and just exploded really from when you started out its glorious. It's absolutely wonderful because I remember being dead A teenager too and not having a whole lot, you know in the in the y a cannon and now I just it's like this, you know things have gone just Technicolor and and everybody I hope can see themselves represented in a story and a book everybody can find themselves or their experience, you know within the pages of a book which is just such a gift it is so wonderful because imagine being a child who never did see, you know, their story his story her story represented in pages and how defeating and depressing and and exclusionary that must be in heartbreak. So I feel just you know, I feel happy. I feel gratified. I just feel very fortunate to be alive to be working at this time with this is huge burgeoning this Renaissance of why literature home and as a writer that have written series and written Standalone. Is there one you sort of prefer as it I would I would imagine be stand alone just because Thursday, Just moving Parts obviously, but is there some comfort in revisiting the same characters and settings from book to book? It's really about the size of the story like how much room do you need to tell that story. And how many characters and you know, you need to focus the camera on one and then the other and then the whole group so with something like waterfire Saga I needed to spread that out. I think that was originally supposed to be a Trilogy and turned into a quartet and down like a northern light to me. That's exactly the size that you know, that story should be it went on for exactly how long I needed to tell that his story with exploring different genres between the age where they're still used to have like a wish list as an author of stories or genres. You still hope to kind of play in and explore that that you just can't maybe the idea is not there. I just don't have it fully formed. Is there an area that you're still kind of looking for a way in? Yeah, all of them. I have ideas backed up, you know, I can only work so fast. So they're sort of jostling. They're like these, you know puppies are off. Children and they're unruly and they want attention and they want to go first and yeah, my biggest fear is that you know, my life will end and I won't have gotten under paper all the ideas that I still have in my head. Hm. And having in the double digits now of books. Do you and as you are interacting with readers who you know, you're interacting with readers that may know you for a different book and is it is it sometimes hard to kind of like have to switch mindsets from you know talking about this book to a question about another book that was a little while ago and different characters and things like that. Like do you ever confuse your own books at this point? So sometimes I forget things sometimes read. It'll say remember when that happened, you know in chapter fifteen and books random like yeah, of course I do. So yes, I am a little forgetful so that can happen at times for sure at this point. Do you have well, the challenges are always still there and they're always changing. Do you have a process or a discipline for yourself as a writer processor disciplined? It's basically get up, you know and get to work as early as you can and stay at it for as long as you can particularly when that deadline is crushing. And so, you know, generally a hot drink and sit down at my desk and and just go take a break for lunch and keep going again when deadlines are coming up well into the night, you took the midnight oil really that's the writing process once I think I know what I'm doing and and the sort of idea inspiration process is just this Is wonderful phase of really almost like falling in love, you know when I've got this idea and I'm so excited and I'm so happy and it's all going to go great, you know, and then reality sets in it's like, how do I get this on paper? And I thought oh my gosh, look at this outline. It's not working and Yeah, it's it's just you know, this this process of being so excited thinking everything is so tremendous sort of falling off that ledge picking yourself back up again. I'm I'm sure it's something every writer goes through and so, how then does your reading life interact with your writing life. Do you try to read outside of whatever genre you're reading in home or does it really not matter or do you you know find that it's even hard to read at all during certain periods of the process how to how does your reading life interact wage? I wish there were some logic or something, you know to hit something that would make sense. It's just what do I hear about what excites me? You know, what do I crack open? And that voice on the on the first page and the first line is just so compelling that I can't look away. I can't put it down. I must have the story and I must read it. It's just this sort of passion for the story and this connection. There's there's no logic, you know. I read whatever whatever grabs me at whatever time and grabs me. I don't sort of make limits or nothing's off-limits to me as I'm doing my own work after working hard all day and a book. It's just so lovely to Thursday Boyd Along by someone else's effort and someone else's art and and and her beauty on the page very restorative. Is there a genre or a Trope are just some plot device that you would at least give the book a chance. If you know, it incorporates that that element something you have a soft spot for I think a soft spot off probably still historical very much. It's where I started out as a young adult author and if someone can take me you know with no with let's see how I want to phrase if if an author if it's if an historical author can take me back into her time. So they don't even know I'm being taken. I'm just suddenly there on unselfconscious of having Moved from you know, twenty twenty back into fourteen twelve or fifteen sixty. I'm gone. I'm hooked. I'm you know, I'm just putting in that person's hands and and took a few people can do that and is there and maybe it's in the historical fiction space or maybe it's outside. Is there like an author or authors that you either they have a back list of books that you just continually hold in high regard or they're still releasing and and you're just always kind of looking for that next book or just kind of enthralled by that person's writing. One of them is definitely Hilary mantel. I just finished her the mirror and the light which is the third and her Trilogy about Thomas Cromwell who was Henry the eighth's fixer and she is just a sorceress her her way with language her ability to delve so deeply into this man Thomas Cromwell to get us to look at a man who was really vilified for centuries, and it was actually dead. You know, maybe the the architect of of sort of the modern historical state is incredible to me. She's just an alchemist. She's a wizard with words. So she's one of the authors that I admire would read anything. She's she will write or has ever written great. Well wind things down though. Ask you a few questions as we do the first one. What is your favorite movie? That's based on a book on o hands down Silence of the Lambs at how old is it now thirty years. If it's not 30 years it's close to it. Cuz I'm trying to think is it was it I want to put it at somewhere between 88 and 92. So that sounds right to me and it's still just scares the pants off me every single time. I watch it. It's brilliant. I love that main character so much one of my favorite and Clarice Starling one of my favorite main characters of all times. It's just so beautifully wrought just so she's flawed but she's trying so hard and she's terrified but she's so brave and she just wants to fight the good fight. She's amazing. Awesome. Next question then is there a book or series you're willing to admit you've either never read or never finished. Yep, and that would be Moby Dick and not do it cannot do it never ended either never ended either know it's right the class notes with notes and ice when I used to teach high school. There were we would only make the kids read like a chapter of it. And so that's the only bit I've ever read is just what was in that literature Club. Like textbooks basically do it life is short know and finally, what is the last great book that you've read? Oh, I would have to go back to Hilary mantel. I mean I just finished it and it was amazing and I've already dead, you know, just wax so lyrical about her. But again, she's a an author who just seamlessly brings you back into the time. She's writing about and makes Cromwell so much a man of his time sites and I you know, so squarely within Henry's court but makes but but draws is incredible parallel to sort of modern people and how they operate to and you just you just hear those Whispers coming down at you from the century. It's incredible. It's time machine, right? Well Jennifer poisoned comes out on October 20th. Congratulations on this book and we can't wait to see what else you have for us. Thank you so much Brock. And that is a wrap on another episode. I want to thank Jennifer Donnelly for joining me again. Her newest book poisoned is out. Now. You can also check out all of our other books. You can find a link to a lot of those in the book shop.org Link in the show notes. Hope you'll check those out. Hope you also check out some of our other great episodes with wife and middle-grade authors. I'm from Chile and until next time keep reading.