Katerina Evangelou – Kissa interviews the world-renowned writer Jennifer Donnelly

It was the summer of 2006 that I first met Jennifer Donnelly. I was holding in my hands her first book, the one that was to become the beginning of her first saga, named “The Tea Rose”. I remember that the book’s title had not made any particular impression to me; however something deep inside me convinced me to finally buy it. And ever since that moment I gained one more writer for my list with my most favorite litterateurs.

The main reason that made me love her work was her true capacity to “translocate” the reader to previous eras. Her historical novel “A Northern Light” sets the perfect example of this elegance of speech that she masters. Worldwide recognition came along with several awards.

Jennifer is a quite simple, affable person, with an enormous love for the books, incredibly imaginative and with a huge sense of responsibility towards the reader. Part of these characteristics can be seen in her ten-year preparation before she published her first novel “The Tea Rose”, her fight through her internet site and her page at Facebook to “Just Add Books” to the “Teens Choice Awards” [1] (a goal that she accomplished but she was never officially acknowledged for that), her second epic story under the general title “Waterfire” Saga, that we are still waiting to be published in Greece.

It is with great pleasure and emotion that I thank her for this interview. The feeling of communicating with one of your favorite writers is unique, so I especially thank her for this gift.

[1] The Teen Choice Awards is an annual awards show that airs on the Fox television network. The awards honor the year’s biggest achievements mainly in music, movies, sports, television and fashion, voted by teen viewers (ages 13 to 19). Winners receive a full-size surfboard designed with the graphics of that year’s show. In 2011, Donnelly, unhappy with the lack of a books category on Fox-TV’s Teen Choice Awards, started Just Add Books on Facebook, in which she appealed to readers to write to Rupert Murdoch and request that a books category be added to the show. In 2012, the Teen Choice Awards added a books category. Fox has never acknowledged Donnelly or Just Add Books.

Jennifer Donnelly in a few lines:

Jennifer Donnelly loves spending time in the company of old dead people. In fact, she often prefers it to talking with living ones.

She caught the history bug in third grade when her mother took her to see the movie Mary, Queen of Scots starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. She loved the drama and the intrigue almost as much as the dresses.

She finds the only problem with a passion for history is that it makes it hard to live in the real world. “Who wants to do the dishes or vacuum the floor when you could be at the Battle of Agincourt instead?” she says.

Jennifer’s ideas for books all come from the past. “Something clutches at me and catches me. It’s usually a dark thing. I hear or see or read about someone or something, and it grabs hold of me and won’t let go of me – or maybe it’s that I can’t let go of it – and so to resolve my obsession, I do what writers do, which is make up a story,” she says. “At first it’s all ideas and imagination, which is exciting and wonderful, but then the ideas have to be converted into a book. I outline neurotically, blocking out each and every scene, fitting them together, taking them apart, smoothing and finessing, until I’m satisfied that there is indeed a story there and that it has a beginning, middle, and end.”

Jennifer also does a lot of research for her books. “There is nothing I like better than poking about in dusty old archives, reading yellowed diaries and notebooks and letters, hearing the voices of another time. A point eventually comes when I feel I have enough control of the facts to start writing, but I always have to stop researching before I want to stop. I like a certain level of richness in what I write and read. I don’t enjoy skinny books. I want to create believable human beings, and believable stories, and to do that, I need a lot of knowledge about the period in which I’m setting my story. It’s my job to create a seamless and compelling past. If I don’t, I won’t earn my readers’ trust.”   

Writing is something that Jennifer has always wanted to do. “I don’t remember making a conscious decision to become a writer,” she says. “It’s something that was always there. Words have always been a part of my life. I was read to as a child and my parents and many members of my extended family were storytellers, and so it seemed natural to me to go from hearing stories to telling them myself.”

What was it that made you want to write books and why did it take you ten years to publish your first book? I grew up in a family of storytellers. My father was of Irish descent, so his side of the family loved to talk and tell stories at family gatherings. My German mother is also a wonderful storyteller, so I grew up with an expectation of stories, and when I became an adult, I decided to tell some of my own.

It took me ten years to publish my first novel because I had to teach myself how to write. I didn’t have the money for graduate school, or the time for writers’ groups, so I got up at 4:30 a.m., and wrote every morning before work. Then it took me time to find an agent, and when we first submitted the manuscript for THE TEA ROSE, it got rejected many times. We put it away and waited a bit, and then my agent found an editor willing to take a chance on a new writer. I was incredibly excited and danced on my dining room table that night!

Do you get inspiration from different places for each book? Or do you first choose the subject of each book, then do the appropriate research, and then move on to the writing? I actually don’t get my ideas — they get me. I’ll read something, or see or hear something, and it affects me so deeply, that I have to work out the emotion the way writers do — by writing a story. I research and write at the same time, all the way through the project. I’m usually researching right up to the very end!

What messages do you think you pass on to your readers? I hope that my stories are telling readers to choose their own path in life, and to pursue it — no matter how difficult that may be.

How difficult is it to be a mother along with being a writer? Very difficult when you’re the mother of a newborn! And a little less difficult as your child grows up and becomes more independent. But I think this is true for any working parent, not just for writers.

Are recognition and making a living out of writing your goals? Do they keep you writing? The biggest goal is to write beautiful, emotional, true stories that touch readers deeply. After that, yes, I need to make a living, because I can’t keep writing if I don’t earn enough from it to pay my bills! Books and stories have meant so much to me throughout my life. They’ve really helped me and sustained me, and I’m beyond happy if I can do that for my readers. It’s that communion between writer and reader that I’m after.

Are you currently working on something new? What are your future plans? I’m just about to head off on a five-week long book tour to talk about a new book for children that I’ve written — DARK TIDE. It’s the third in the Waterfire Saga, a fantasy mermaid series I’m doing with Disney, and THESE SHALLOW GRAVES — a murder-mystery set in 1890’s Manhattan. I have a new project that I’ll be starting on in November, and which I’m very excited about, but it’s too early to talk about it yet!


It has been a great and pleasant surprise for me that our communication was so simple and unaffected. Please accept my many thanks for this honor. I wish you all the best.

Jennifer Donnelly (August 16, 1963) is an American writer of young-adult fiction best known for the historical novel A Northern Light.

Donnelly was born in Port Chester, New York. Her paternal great-grandparents immigrated from Dublin, Ireland to New York state and settled in the Adirondack region where her grandmother worked at a hotel on Big Moose Lake, the setting for A Northern Light.

Donnelly attended the University of Rochester, majoring in English Literature and European History and graduating magna cum laude with distinction in English Literature. She also attended Birkbeck College, University of London, in England.

Jennifer Donnelly’s first young adult novel, A NORTHERN LIGHT, was awarded Britain’s Carnegie Medal, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction and a Michael L. Printz Honor. Her second, REVOLUTION, was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, awarded an Odyssey Honor by the American Library Association, and named Young Adult Book of the Year by the American Booksellers Association.

Jennifer’s first novel for middle-grade readers, DEEP BLUE, was a New York Times bestseller, and is the first of four in the Waterfire Saga. The second and third, ROGUE WAVE and DARK TIDE, were published within 2015. THESE SHALLOW GRAVES, a YA murder-mystery set in Gilded Age Manhattan was also published within the year.

Jennifer has also written a picture book for children titled HUMBLE PIE, and a series of historical novels for grown-ups which includes THE TEA ROSE, THE WINTER ROSE, and THE WILD ROSE.

She lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley with her family.

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