Today's interview is with Jo Knowles, author of Lessons From A Dead Girl. You may read my review of Lessons here. You may visit her official site here.
What inspired you to write Lessons From A Dead Girl? (Or how did this novel come to be…)
I got the idea for lessons when I came across an article about kids abusing kids. I was working on a nonfiction piece about child abuse and the article struck me in a really powerful way. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I went home and started writing that night.
How long did it take to write?
The first draft probably took about a year. I was working full time as a technical writer then, and wrote in the evenings. But it took me several more revisions (and years) to get to the story that was finally published.
Were there any surprises along the way on your journey to publication?
I met one amazing person after another—other aspiring writers as well as published authors willing to offer advice and encouragement. The children’s book writing community is an extremely generous one. I don’t know that I would call that a surprise, but it has certainly been a wonderful discovery. I guess right now the biggest surprise for me is that I actually have a published book out in the world. There were many, many times when I thought it would never happen. :-)
What do you know now that you wish you had known then? (If anything…)
That there’s no hurry. That you don’t have to be published by a certain age, or within a certain amount of time, to be a “success.” Everyone has their own path and no path is the “right” one.
Who has been your biggest supporter or mentor along the way for you on your road to publication?
My best friends Peter Carini (who is also my husband), Debbi Michiko Florence, Cindy Faughnan and Cecil Castellucci have been amazing sources of support. My agent, Barry Goldblatt, has also shown tremendous faith in me, especially at times when I had my deepest doubts. There are so many people who’ve offered just the right encouragement at just the right time. I couldn’t possibly list them all. But I’m forever grateful!
What do you hope readers gain from reading Lessons From A Dead Girl?
Oh, that’s a really hard question. Every reader is so unique and will hopefully take something different because of that. But overall, I hope reading the book will inspire people to look more closely at the souls around them. To realize that everyone has a story, a reason for how they became who they are. You never know what sort of secrets another carries. And on that note, I hope that any readers who are carrying something heavy inside will be inspired to get help by reaching out.
Is there anything you’d like to tell kids/teens going through such emotionally turbulent times?
Yes. Please know that you aren’t alone. Help is out there. And so is hope. Life can be so messy and hard and unbearably unfair, but it isn’t always. If you are in trouble, or need help, please talk to someone right away. If the first person you talk to doesn’t listen, go to someone else. Don’t stop.
I found the book to be very intense, difficult to read at some times because of the emotions involved. I thought you did a great job in conveying that to the reader. Of allowing the reader to witness such difficult things to share in the narrator’s emotions. Was it difficult to write? Or were parts of it difficult to write?
Thank you so much. Yes, it was definitely hard to write the uncomfortable scenes. I’ve learned, though, that the only way to tell this story was to tell it in the most true way I could, and that meant not taking the easy way. I think for the reader to really understand what Laine was going through, I had to tell it true, if that makes sense.
What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?
I love getting lost in a story. I love looking at things from lots of points of view and trying to understand why a character makes the choices he or she does. What is easiest? Hmmm. That’s another hard one! I’m not sure! I think the hardest times come when I know something isn’t quite working and I can’t figure out how to fix it. Usually the solutions come to me when I least expect them, like when I’m stuck in traffic or washing the dishes.
Are you excited that your novel, Lessons From A Dead Girl, has been nominated for a Cybil award?
YES. Of course! I think it’s incredibly cool. The whole Cybils concept is so unique and wonderful. It’s a real honor to be on that beautiful LONG list! Isn’t amazing how many YA books are out this year? I love it.
Does award-season (best of lists, awards, etc.) make you nervous or excited as a writer?
Oh, I don’t see myself as a contender among all those big books out there. I admit that I was totally floored when I found out I was nominated for BBYA and then for the YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list. To see Lessons listed among all those other incredible books blows my mind. Honestly though, my main concern right now is to just spread the word to let people know that my book even exists! :-)
What was your first impression of the cover art for Lessons From A Dead Girl?
I totally wasn’t expecting a door. I was expecting to see a girl, or two girls, or hands, or something similar to most of the YA covers you see. So the door kind of surprised me. But after about five seconds I realized how perfect it was for this book. I love that opening the book is like opening that door. It feels just right to me.
Have you always loved to read? Did you have a reading hero growing up? Someone who encouraged you to read, to lose yourself in a good book?
No, not at all. When I was young I thought I was a “bad” reader and so I avoided it. I spent most of my time outside making up survival stories with my neighborhood friends, riding bikes, building forts in the woods and having acorn wars. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I really got hooked on reading. I had a wonderful English teacher who had us read all the greats: The Chocolate War, A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye, Ordinary People, etc. From then on, I was a reader.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Has this always been a dream of yours?
I think I’ve always enjoyed writing but I never thought I could be a writer. I’d never known a writer. We didn’t have author visits at my school. The whole idea of writing for a living was pretty foreign to me. When I was in college, I took a children’s literature course and fell in love again with all the YA books I’d loved in high school. I also read many old favorites from my childhood that I remembered my sister reading to me. I decided to go to graduate school and study children’ s literature so that I could be an editor. But then I took a course on writing for children and... things changed.
Growing up, whose work did you admire most? Was there a particular author that made you say, “I want to grow up and do that!”?
Robert Cormier was definitely my favorite. I remember reading the Chocolate War for the first time and thinking, WOW, this person really gets it. He’s not afraid to tell it like it is, even when it’s ugly. I really admired him for exposing what to me felt like the real world.
What were some of your favorites growing up? And what are some of your favorites now?
As a child I loved The Little Princess and the Ramona books. But as I said, I didn’t read a lot on my own. I relied on my sister to read out loud whatever she was into. Luckily she mostly had good taste! I still love The Little Princess and just recently read it to my son. :-)
This one is for both you as a reader and an author. Do you write fan letters (or emails) to authors you admire? And have you received any fan letters from readers?
I’ve always been too shy to write fan letters, even now. I try to make up for it by writing about books I love on my blog. I guess I’m still really star struck, which is pretty silly since just about every single author I’ve met so far has been totally kind and warm and lovely. I’ve received several e-mails and one actual letter via snail mail. For me, hearing from someone who tells you that your book made them think or feel or see things in a new way is the best thing in the world about being an author.
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
Oh man, where to start? I guess I’d try to prevent the Holocaust. Could money and 24 hours do that? Probably not. I’d still try though.
Thanks so much for the interview and for participating in the Cybils, Becky! Your blogs are terrific! :-)