Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Interview with Jo Knowles, Author of Lessons From A Dead Girl and Jumping Off Swings

In the age of edgy YA, Jo Knowles has given us two books to devour. Each has characters who remain etched in your mind long after the last page.


Lessons from a Dead Girl
Candlewick Press, Fall 2007

FF=Friends Forever. That’s what Leah tells Laine when she writes the letters on her hand in the fifth grade. But theirs is a complex and abusive friendship, and it’s only after Leah is killed in an accident that Laine begins to make sense of their complicated past.

How long does a childhood promise written on the palm of a hand last? Is there really such as thing as friends forever? Only Laine can answer. To do so, she must explore a troubled friendship, find its core, and decide whether she can forgive Leah—and ultimately, forgive herself.

Jumping Off Swings

Candlewick Press, Summer 2009

ISBN-10: 0763639494; ISBN-13: 978-0763639495

From the publisher: One pregnancy. Four friends. It all adds up to a profound time of change in this poignant, sensitively written YA novel.

Ellie remembers how the boys kissed her. Touched her. How they begged for more. And when she gave it to them, she felt loved. For a while anyway. So when Josh, an eager virgin with a troubled home life, leads her from a party to the backseat of his van, Ellie follows. But their “one-time thing” is far from perfect: Ellie gets pregnant. Josh reacts with shame and heartbreak, while their confidantes, Caleb and Corinne, deal with their own complex swirl of emotions. No matter what Ellie chooses, all four teenagers will be forced to grow up a little faster as a result. Told alternately from each character’s point of view, this deeply insightful novel explores the aftershocks of the biggest decision of one fragile girl’s life — and the realities of leaving innocence behind.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with OPWFT, Jo. We’ll start with questions about the book for the fans.

Q: What inspired you to write JUMPING OFF SWINGS and LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL?

A: Thanks for having me! For both books, I wanted to write about topics that were important to me. In the case of Lessons From A Dead Girl, I wasn’t aware of any other stories that explored abuse among children. But I’d read articles and knew of enough instances to know that it happened probably a lot more than we think. With Jumping Off Swings, I wanted to explore how a single event affects more than just one person, sometimes in profound and unexpected ways.

Q: Is there a part of the teenage Jo in your teen characters? How do we see your teenage experience reflected in your story?

A: That’s a tough one! I guess the simple answer is of course she’s there, how could she not be? Whenever I’m writing, I feel the familiar nervousness and uncertainty I often felt (and still feel) as I navigated the waters of growing up. So I think it’s just natural that any time I’m writing about a particular emotion I draw from my own experience feeling those things. But when I’m writing from a character’s point of view, I always feel like I am that person and not me. I guess that’s the best way I can describe it.

Q: What is your favorite scene in each of your books?

A: My favorite scene to write in Jumping Off Swings was probably “the kiss” scene at the playground. I wasn’t actually expecting it to happen and it made me so happy when it did because it felt like a surprise gift to the two characters, who’d been through so much and really deserved that moment. In Lessons From A Dead Girl, it’s the final scene, which I don’t want to give away. But I remember as I wrote it the first time, I felt a tremendous weight lifted off me. I wasn’t worried about Laine any more, knowing who was waiting for her with open arms.

Q: What is the message you would like your readers to take from your books?

A: I don’t actually write with a message in mind, but I guess what I hope most is what I’d hope would happen when people read any book, which is that they walk away with a little more compassion for others.

Q: What do you have up your sleeve next for our reading pleasure?

A: My next book is called PEARL, and it’s set to come out in Spring 2011. It’s another realistic YA novel about a girl who lives with her mom and grandfather and what happens when her grandfather dies and family secrets are exposed.

For fellow writers, I’d like to ask about your journey to publication and writing style.

Q: How long have you been writing? Tell us about your non-fiction work.

A: I took my first writing for children class in 1994, and began writing my first novel for my master’s thesis at Simmons College in 1995. For many years my main source of income was writing about health and social issues for a publishing company in Massachusetts. I still do freelance work in that area, including my two non-fiction books. But more and more I’ve been focusing on my fiction and teaching writing for children.

Q: Do you outline or wing it?

A: I wing it and create a big mess. Then I outline to clean it up.

Q: Do you prefer to write in first person or third? Present or past tense? Why?

A: I don’t really have a preference, but for some reason every time I’ve tried to write in past tense I’ve wound up rewriting the entire thing in present. I’ve done this with three novels so you’d think I’d learn my lesson. And I’ve always written in first person, because that’s usually how the voice comes to me.

Q: Did you or do you have a critique group? Do you see a benefit in having one?

A: Yes, I’ve always been a part of some sort of critique group. I used to belong to face-to-face groups, but as life got too busy, I’ve come to rely on just a few people whom I share work with via e-mail. However, we try to organize writing retreats about once a year to get some face-to-face time as well.

Q: Writers sometimes struggle with bad habits, like using too many adverbs, or passive verbs. Do you catch yourself having a writing habit that you try to break?

A: I tend to use the same word too many times. Like, recently I noticed every time any of my characters laughed they “cracked up.” I’m not sure what that was about.

Q: Do you edit while writing, or leave editing until after the first draft?

A: A little of both. Sometimes if I know something isn’t quite right but I can’t figure out how to fix it, I’ll put a note in brackets and just keep plugging along so I don’t let one small problem slow my progress. I find that if I spend too much time trying to get everything “right” the first time, I take way too long to produce a first draft. Besides, half the time what I thought was right ends up wrong in the next revision, so why spend time polishing something that is likely to end up on the cutting room floor?

Q: What advice do you offer writers journeying into edgy YA fiction?

A: As with any project, I think your biggest responsibility to yourself and to your readers is to be honest and true to the subject and characters you’re writing about. I think if you’re going to write about a tough topic then you have to be tough, too, and tell it true.

Q: What professional organizations are you a member of?


Q: What kind of networking do you do, and how do you interact with your readers?

A: I have a blog and I’m on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. I’ve met tons of other writers through LiveJournal, which has a fantastic writing community. My readers usually reach me via Facebook and MySpace.

Just for the fun of it…

Q: What is your favorite color?

A: All the shades of green I can see from my window right now.

Q: Favorite flavor of ice cream?

A: Almost anything Ben & Jerry come up with.

Q: Mexican, Italian or something else?

A: Love it all! Thanks for the interview!!

Thanks again for talking with us! Congrats on the success of your books.


Original interview published on Old People Writing for Teens by GotYA contributor Jamie Blair. To read the original post and reader comments, please click here.

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