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Interview: October 2010

October 2010

Jennifer Donnelly is wowing critics once more with REVOLUTION, her second novel for young adults, which follows the stories of two teens who were born in two separate countries nearly two centuries apart, and weaves them into one unforgettable account of life, loss and enduring love.

In this interview with’s Sarah Rachel Egelman, Donnelly dishes on the questions that inspired her to write her latest book, elaborating on the issues that were raised by the discovery of Louis XVII’s heart and how having her own daughter has changed the way she sees the world. She also talks about the difficulty of balancing an 18th-century Parisian with a present-day teenager from Brooklyn Heights, and explains why she framed her novel with quotes from THE DIVINE COMEDY, speculating on why Andi Alpers is --- in a way --- comparable to a modern-day Dante. There are so many ideas that you successfully bring together in REVOLUTION: the French Revolution, the loss of a loved one, the power of music, mental health and romance. Which theme or themes did you start with? What inspired you to write this novel?

Jennifer Donnelly: I actually didn’t start with any themes --- I never do. I wrote REVOLUTION because I needed answers.

About 10 years ago, I saw an article in The New York Times, “Geneticists’ Latest Probe: The Heart of the Dauphin.” The article showed a picture of a small, dried human heart in a glass urn. It was long-rumored that the heart had belonged to Louis XVII, the young son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and it had just undergone DNA testing…which confirmed that it was, in fact, his.

The article explained how, after his parents’ executions, Louis Charles was kept in prison --- in solitary confinement. Worried about plots to liberate him and restore the French monarchy, Robespierre essentially had the child walled-up alive. He had no companions, only abusive guards. And no playthings, with very little food. Eventually he got sick and lost his mind --- he died in prison at the age of 10.

This blew me away. I couldn’t believe that the noble idealism of the French Revolution –-- Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all –-- had devolved into such cruelty. I wondered what kind of messed-up, 18th-century world allowed such a thing to happen.

I felt there might be a story in this, but I couldn’t work on it right away because I had another book due. And I had a child, which changed me forever in several good ways. One of these ways was that, after I had my daughter, I became much more sensitive to the existence of all children. Suddenly every news story about an abused child, or a child caught up in political violence, really undid me. And I found myself wondering: what kind of messed-up, 21st-century world allows such things to happen? Does this world of ours ever change? Does the violence ever stop?

These questions really ate at me. I started to obsess about them. I needed answers. I decided to get them the only way I know how: by writing a story. And that story turned out to be REVOLUTION.

TRC: In REVOLUTION, the experience of a young, French woman during the late-1700s is contrasted with that of a young American woman today. What do these two time periods and cultures have in common, or is it the characters Andi and Alexandrine you wanted to compare?

JD: I wanted to compare Andi’s and Alex’s different times in order to say that the world goes on, and it’s stupid and brutal, but we don’t have to.

The world can be a cruel place. This was true in the 18th century, and it’s true today, and that’s hard to accept. It’s hard to sit in your kitchen and watch the nightly news and see pictures of violence and death from around the world and feel powerless to do anything about it.

REVOLUTION is about a girl, Andi Alpers, who undergoes a tremendous change –-- a revolution of the soul, if you will. Andi changes from a suicidal teenager, who sees no reason to keep living in what she sees as a brutal world, to a young woman who learns that, while she can’t change the brutality of the world, she can change herself. And maybe that’s enough…enough to save her own life, enough to have an impact on those around her.

TRC: Many writers of historical fiction imagine the lives and conversations of historical figures…you do that, as well. But in REVOLUTION, as in A NORTHERN LIGHT, you also weave an entirely fictional story around history. What does that style or method allow you to accomplish, or how does it help you tell the story you want to tell?

JD: It allows me to rewrite history –-- or, at least, just a bit. And to have something good come from a tragic event. In A NORTHERN LIGHT, that something good was Mattie. Grace Brown lost her life on Big Moose Lake, but her letters and her story helped Mattie live hers. The story of what happened to Louis Charles –-- a defenseless child –-- is horrible and incredibly sad, but I hope that by re-telling it, by having it be the catalyst that allows my two characters, Andi and Alex, to find answers, it might also help my readers find answers.

TRC: For Andi, music is a balm and an obsession; her musical tastes are far reaching and her knowledge almost encyclopedic. Are you musical, and do you share Andi's love of all music?

JD: I am not musical at all, but I absolutely share Andi’s love of music. Music delights, comforts and inspires me.

TRC: As you were writing, did you hit any stumbling blocks that you can share with readers?

JD: I sure did! I had my historical character, Alex, in my mind from the beginning of the story. And I knew, as soon as I saw her in my head, that she was the one who would tell Louis Charles’s story. I was pretty sure then that I had a historical novel in my hands, but as I continued to work on the story, I started having some doubts. The story felt thin, and because it was set in the past, I had no way of commenting on the present --- on drawing parallels between past and present, which I wanted to do.

I told myself I’d solve these problems eventually, but then I encountered another, bigger problem: Andi. She suddenly showed up in my head, and she wouldn’t leave.

Andi wasn’t from the 18th century. She was a modern-day, Brooklyn girl. She was standing stiffly and holding a guitar in one hand. Anger and sadness came off her like heat from a radiator. She had a story, too.

I didn’t want Andi to stay in my mind. She messed things up. She made me think I’d been all wrong about my novel. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be historical…maybe it was supposed to be contemporary. So I tried writing it that way, from Andi’s point of view. But again, it felt wrong. I missed Alex’s voice. And I needed her to tell me about the revolution --- and about Louis Charles.

I was really stuck. I was trying to get one of the girls to leave my head, but neither girl would leave. Neither would surrender, so finally I surrendered. And when I did that --- when I gave in and gave the book to both girls --- the story came together and came alive.

TRC: You frame the novel with quotes from Dante's THE DIVINE COMEDY. Why? What does that story mean to you, and why did you want to share those quotes with your readers?

JD: THE DIVINE COMEDY is one of my favorite poems. Dante is depressed and on the verge of ending it all, and then along comes Virgil, the writer he most admires, who says, “Come on, Dante, man-up. We’re going on a road trip. We’re going to get you out of this.” I mean, imagine’re at your lowest point, and the artist you most admire takes you by the hand and leads you through Hell, and when you come out, you can “re-behold the stars.” Amazing. I wanted Andi –-- who is led into the underworld by her own Virgil –-- to travel on much the same journey. For better or worse, I went along with them --- getting this book written was at times an emotionally crushing experience. But like Andi and Dante before her, when it was over, I could finally see the stars once again. 

I love the idea of reaching back to our artistic ancestors, like Dante and Virgil, for help and comfort and guidance. I’ve been sustained by the work of other writers my entire life. Andi is sustained by generations of musicians, stretching from Johnny Greenwood all the way back to Malherbeau. If there’s one thing I really want to get across to readers, especially teenage readers, is that this priceless legacy –-- be it music, or paintings or books –-- exists. And it exists for you. If things are bad, reach for it, hold on to it, and let it carry you

TRC: Are there really schools like St. Anselm's, the school Andi attends, where students debate about “metafictive paradigms” and tautology and have their movies produced, or where they’re able to get through to heads of state on the phone? Or were you using things like this to try to capture the amazing pressure that is put on kids today?

JD: Both. Yes, there are such schools, and yes, I am trying to make the point that high-schoolers are under a great deal of pressure. While I was writing the book, I hung out in cafes in Brooklyn Heights and watched and listened to teenagers from two very elite private schools there: St. Ann’s and Packer. They were very self-possessed, very smart and sophisticated, but underneath it all, they were still kids –-- kids struggling with huge expectations that had been placed upon them.

TRC: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Did anything you learn about French history, music or any other subject surprise you?

JD: I did a great deal of academic research –-- like reading Schama and Carlyle and many other historians of the Revolution, for example, and looking up old maps in Paris archives to reconstruct the streets my character walked down. I read the text of letters from prisoners condemned to the guillotine, and viewed as much art and as many artifacts from the period as I could.

I also did a lot of non-academic research. I visited Paris and sat in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal at night, hoping for a glimpse of Orleans’s ghost. I tooled around in the catacombs. I went to Versailles --- spent time at outdoor markets. I sat by the Seine and in cafes and parks and at the Louvre, watching the Parisians for hours --- studying their faces and gestures, observing the way they eat and talk, and absorbing their attitude. 

TRC: Have you ever been in the catacombs under Paris?

JD: I have. Twice, and that’s enough for me. It is an overwhelming place –-- eerie, sobering and sad.

TRC: What other historical moments, figures or stories interest you enough that they might perhaps someday find their way into a novel?

JD: The whole, wide world interests me. I don’t really go after ideas, though --- they kind of come to me. I’ll hear something or see something or read something, and it takes hold of me and stirs up a lot of emotions and questions. I have to deal with all that the only way I know: by writing a story.

TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

JD: I’ve just finished making the final edits on THE WILD ROSE, my third and last book in the historical Rose series for grown-ups. I’m touring for REVOLUTION for about a month, and after that ends --- and I take a little break --- I’m going to start a new young adult novel. But it’s too early to talk about it!