Authorgraph No.245

Jennifer Donnelly interviewed by Joy Court

Jennifer Donnelly may appear to have sprung fully formed onto the world’s stage as an award winning children’s author with her debut novel, A Gathering Light, winning the 2003 Carnegie Medal (and later to be included in the 70th Anniversary Top Ten in the public vote for the Carnegie of Carnegies) but, as I learned as we talked over Zoom in the diminishing light of an autumn day, she had served a long apprenticeship as a writer. But she then sold and published three books in two years and her first publication was a picturebook. Humble Pie, illustrated by Caldecott winning Stephen Gammell, is a deliciously dark cautionary tale. With a prescient fairy tale feel to this first book, Jennifer acknowledged that she feels she has come full circle with her latest book, Poisoned, the second of her deeply dark fractured fairy tales for teens, following the acclaimed Stepsister.

She had wanted to be a writer since she was tiny, fascinated by the shapes of letters and words and wanting to make her own, but more importantly, she was surrounded by storytellers from her Irish and German relatives. Her bedtime stories, from a mother who survived Nazi Germany, were true stories from her mother’s childhood and ignited a lifelong passion for history and an insatiable desire to get her questions answered. It was in London in the early 1980s that she was introduced to the East End, where

she found a deep emotional connection with the place and the stories that she wanted to tell. The Tea Rose was that first novel she laboured over for twelve long years. Eventually she found an agent who told her that she could write, but that she needed to work, for example on pacing, suspense and narrative drive - this was where she learned the craft of writing. Despite the work, the book was rejected everywhere, and it was in this period that Humble Pie was born. The Tea Rose was then sold and would be followed by two more adult novels in this series (The Winter Rose and The Wild Rose) As she said ‘ No one person can guarantee that you will be published, but one person can guarantee that you won’t, and that’s you.’ So, ‘never give up!’ is her message to all aspiring writers.

The picturebook sale prompted her agent to ask if she had any more ideas and she certainly did! There was another story ready to ‘burst’ out of her. She grew up in and around the Adirondacks and strolling around a bookshop in Old Forge with her mother one day, she was told she must read this, and a copy of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser was thrust into her hands. This was a fictionalised account of a famous murder case from the area in which a young man murdered a woman he’d made pregnant – a nineteen- year-old farm girl named Grace Brown. She was also given a non- fiction account of the murder which included excerpts from Grace’s letters, which she later tracked down and read in full in the archive at Hamilton College, and it was Grace’s desperate, brave voice that sparked

again that deep emotional connection. This resulted in

A Gathering Light and the character of Mattie, created to ‘give Grace some kindness on her final day’. Mattie is not very different in age to the heroines of her adult novels and I wondered what made her decide to write a YA novel in this case. She said it’s ‘who the story wants to be for’ and that it has always seemed to her that she writes for young people to see a ‘way into the adult world and for adults, a way to escape it’

It was a New York Times article that provided the emotional spark for her next award-winning novel, Revolution. Geneticists had proved a shrivelled relic to be the heart of the 10-year-old Dauphin, son of the ill-fated Louis XV1 and Marie-Antoinette. A ‘defenceless child’ who had been ‘destroyed’ by the revolutionaries. As a new mother, facing up to the unspeakable horrors of the Revolution and the fate of that child was a tough challenge and it proved to be the most difficult of her books to write. It is also the most structurally complex, telling the dual narrative of Andi from present day Brooklyn who has suffered the loss of her younger brother and Alex who lived in 18th Century Paris and witnessed one of the worst crimes of the French Revolution.

12 Books for Keeps No.245 November 2020

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