The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Monday, October 18, 2010

An Interview with Jennifer Donnelly

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Although it's a few days late (my bad), here is the wonderful interview that Jennifer Donnelly did for The Daily Monocle. You may remember I reviewed Revolution not too long ago, and now we get to hear from the author. Enjoy! And don't forget to check out Revolution at your local bookstore. :D


Revolution's central concept is the French Revolution. How long have you been interested in the French Revolution?

Actually, the book’s central concept can be found in Alex’s last diary entry – and Andi’s eventual understanding of it – that “the world goes on stupid and brutal, but I do not.”

What inspired the book was not the French Revolution per se. It was an article in the New York Times about a small human heart in a glass urn that had been in the possession of the Basilica of St. Denis, in Paris, and which had been undergone DNA testing and had been identified as belonging to Louis Charles, the young son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

The article went on to explain the terrible treatment this child had received at the hands of the revolutionaries, and it really upset me. I couldn’t understand how a group of people who wanted liberty, equality and fraternity for all, denied those very things to a defenseless child. It raised a lot of questions for me, and provoked a great deal of emotion, and I had finally had to deal with it the way writers do – by writing a story.

Did you visit France before writing this book?

Yes, several times. Before and during the writing of the book.

One of the big themes in Revolution is grief. Is there a particular reason that you chose to write about grief and mourning?

It wasn’t really my choice. My subject matter, and my characters, dictated it.

Your main character, Andi is a musician, and much of Revolution centers around her musical interests. She shows classical influences in modern music numerous times. Do you feel a particular connection to music and history?
I’ve always felt an enormously strong connection to both music and history, and Andi does, too. Music sustains her. She sees and understands the rich legacy of her musical ancestors. One thing I would really like readers to take from the book is the idea that artistic legacies exist for all of us – in music, in writing, in painting. When the going gets tough, reach back and clasp hands with artists who have gone before you. Let them teach you and inspire you and carry you through.

Is there a particular reason you chose Mahlerbeau as a facet of your novel, instead of a non-fictional composer?

I don’t want to give anything away, but I needed a fictional composer because Malherbeau was someone else before he was Malherbeau.

Andi listens to a lot of under-the-radar bands. How many new musical artists did you discover while writing Revolution?

Loads! Including MGMT. Grizzly Bear. St. Vincent. Brother Ali. Arcade Fire. Spooky Ghost. Dirty Projectors. G. Love. John Butler. Some aren’t so under the radar anymore. Discovering these musicians was one of the big joys of writing this book.

If you could choose a theme song for Revolution, what would it be?
That’s an impossible question! But if I had to choose just one, it would be Shine on You Crazy Diamond.

Do you play any musical instruments?

Not one.

Each of your characters has a very distinctive name. Did you have to hunt for their names, or did they name themselves?
Yes, they do have distinctive names. That was very deliberate. Virgil is named for the poet. Like that Virgil with Dante, he leads Andi through her own hell and out again.

Marianne and Lewis...Max R. Peters...the new baby, Leroy...Jimmy Shoes and Jacques Chaussures....all echoes from the past.

Who is your favorite character?

I don’t have one. I love both girls tremendously.

A lot of writers feel a visceral connection with their characters, and their characters' emotions. Andi, in particular, is grieving for much of the novel. Did you find your emotions influenced at all by your characters?

Absolutely. This book took a huge piece of my heart. It was very difficult to write because of the emotional hell Andi and Alex go through.

How long have you been writing?

Ever since I was a young child.

About how long did it take you to write Revolution?

The idea was percolating for about ten years. The actual writing took about three.

Is there any particular time of day when you like to write the most?

I have a young daughter, so I write while she’s at school, and often go back at it at night.

Revolution isn't your first novel. How did writing this novel differ from the writing of your first novel?

I had slightly more a clue what I was doing. But only slightly!

Are you the kind of author who outlines her work before writing, or do you just go for it?

I outline obsessively. The plots and structures of my books are complex, and I need to know where the characters are going and how they are going to get there before I actually start writing.

Historical fiction novels that parallel lives from two different times are an up-and-coming trend. Were you conscious of this while writing, or did the story just come to you in this form?

I had no idea I was part of an up-and-coming trend. That would be a first. The form for Revolution came to me after I spent a great deal of time struggling to make the book either a historical novel or a contemporary novel. Neither character – Andi in the present, or Alex in the past – would give an inch of ground. So I finally had to. I surrendered and gave the book over to both of them.

Could you name three authors who have influenced your writing the most?

I can name three authors whose work I love and admire: James Joyce, Jeanette Winterson and Graham Greene.

If you were stuck on a plane with any literary character from any work—your own, or otherwise—who would you choose to fly with, and why?

Heathcliff and Cathy – what an interesting flight that would be!

If you could choose any artist—contemporary or historical—to paint a picture of your main character, who would you choose and why?

Van Gogh, because he had a huge, huge heart.

And just because I'm a huge fan of The Decemberists—do you really think that Picaresque is better than Castaways and Cutouts? And where does The Hazards of Love factor into all of this?

I’m a huge fan of the Decemberists, and no, I don’t think Picaresque is better – that’s Virgil’s and Andi’s argument. I love all their work and I think The Hazards of Love is total genius.

A big thank you to Jennifer Donnelly for interviewing with The Daily Monocle!


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Nice interview, JP! I've got this posted over at Win a Book for you. Thanks for the e-mail. Keep it coming!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

OMG, that is so funny about Heathcliff and Cathy! I think if *I* were stuck on a plane with them, I'd ask for a parachute! (for them, not me! LOL)

I *loved* the character of Virgil. Part of what is so wonderful to me about Donnelly's books is the unforgettableness of her characters.

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