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Interview: February 2010

February 2010

While the historical coming-of-age novel WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED appears to be author Judy Blundell's literary debut, she has actually written over 100 books for children and young adults under various pen names --- the most widely known of which is Jude Watson of Star Wars and The 39 Clues fame.

In this interview with's Kristi Olson, Blundell explains how the idea for this work of fiction originated from a headache, and compares and contrasts the process of writing period novels with those of her previous works of sci-fi, mystery and adventure. She also discusses how her upbringing in New York as well as her time spent in the Palm Beach area helped shape her main character and setting, reveals how winning the National Book Award has affected her career, and names some of her favorite recent reads. It’s 1947 and World War II has ended. Fifteen-year-old Evie Spooner is just an average girl from Queens, New York, until everything changes on a family trip to Palm Beach, Florida. WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED is a coming-of-age novel set against a backdrop of mystery, lies and shattering reality. What inspired you to write this story?

Judy Blundell: Well, it all started with a really bad headache. I woke up in the middle of the night with a pain in my head and an image of a girl sitting in a deserted hotel lobby playing solitaire. I took a couple of aspirins, drank a glass of water, and went back to bed and lay awake for the next two hours figuring out who she was. The chapter when Evie goes to the dance is the result of that, as well as the relationship between her parents and the other mysterious couple at the hotel.

As the story evolved, I realized that what I was writing was really something that I’d been mulling over for a while --- what do you do if you suspect that someone you love and trust has lied to you? I knew early on that Evie was going to come up against that somehow.

TRC: WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED is very much a coming-of-age story set against a not-so-common backdrop with not-so-typical events unfolding. Were there any influences that led to your creation of the very authentic character of Evie?

JB: Evie was always a character I felt I knew instinctively. I think it’s because I placed her so definitely in settings that I knew well. I grew up in Queens, years after Evie, of course, but parts of Queens haven’t changed all that much. In addition to my research, I had my memory. I knew what the houses looked like, and the sidewalks, and that a manhole served as home base for stickball in the street. I knew that a day’s entertainment could be walking down to your nearest commercial street to the candy store. It didn’t matter that none of these things were specifically in the book --- they grounded the character. I would say that my own childhood played a big role in creating her. I just love Evie, and I feel strangely protective of her even now!

TRC: The setting of Palm Beach, Florida in the early fall --- all boarded up post-season --- truly adds to the tone and mystery of the novel. Was there any reason you chose Florida and not another place for this book?

JB: I was living across the water from Palm Beach at the time, so I knew the area well. Two things were especially fascinating to me when I thought about Florida: first, that the area was just on the cusp of change after World War II, for one simple reason --- air conditioning. I like the idea of a time and place that is just about to explode. Makes a great setting for a mystery!

And I’ve always been interested in resorts during the off-season. That’s when the towns and beaches empty out, and there’s something spooky and beautiful about resort areas when most of the people are gone.

TRC: This book has often been compared to a noir film. Did you have this in mind as you created the novel?

JB: No, not at the beginning. I was definitely striving for a mysterious atmosphere, but I didn’t set out to write a riff on noir.

Then once I had the story elements in place, I realized that I had incorporated some of the elements of film noir --- the mysterious stranger, the blonde, the fact that nobody is telling the complete truth. There are certain tips of the hat to noir films in the book that some people have noticed, but if you’ve never seen a noir film in your life, you don’t have to worry about it.

TRC: WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED won the 2008 National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category. Congratulations! How did winning this prestigious award impact you as a writer?

JB: It scared the pants off me.

TRC: You have written many books under the pen name Jude Watson, including books in the Star Wars and The 39 Cluesseries. What was writing historical fiction like compared to writing your other books? How did you tackle the research? Do you have any helpful research tips for people who might want to write an historical fiction novel?

JB: When I sat down to write WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED as well as my next historical novel, I wrote in a different way. I had a rough idea of where the book was going, but I didn’t rely on an extensive outline, which is how I write my Jude Watson books. It allowed me to really roam imaginatively, and in many ways though it makes the construction of a book much harder, I do think it prods me to take off my control-freak hat and follow my characters. And I didn’t rewrite as I went along. I wrote very messy first drafts, and then dug in on the revisions --- even before I sent the manuscript to my editor (the amazing David Levithan at Scholastic, by the way).

I have two tips for research. I’ll start with the easy one. I have a notebook in which I keep a record of every single piece of research I use, from websites to nonfiction to novels. On the left side of the notebook is where I take notes from sources, including any interviews I might do, and notes as I’m reading, or interesting quotes I find. On the right side, I keep all my original material --- character sketches, plot notes, things like that. This is important because I always know where I found something so I can go back and look it up if I have to, and also ensures that I never plagiarize, which can actually happen to a writer quite easily if you’re not careful. I always know where the stuff that came out of my head is, and the stuff that I read is.

The second tip is that while I’m writing the book, I only read books that were set in the period, about the period, or written in that period, or books my character might have read or been exposed to. That one is tough, because you can be writing a book for six months or longer, and arg, you have to pass up reading books coming out that you really are dying to read.

TRC: What does your typical writing day look like?

JB: Screams of anguish and howls of despair punctuated by bites of cookie.

Ahem. The first thing I do after I wake up is reach for my laptop. Usually the sun isn’t up, nor is my young daughter. I don’t look at the newspaper or check emails, I just plunge in. I find that getting down a few words or even just touching base with the story first thing --- even if I can only grab a half-hour before I have to get moving on with my day --- is the best way for me to enter the dream of the writing.

After having breakfast with my family and walking my daughter to the bus stop, it’s back to work until she gets home from school. Depending on where I am in a project, I’ll squeeze in more work while my daughter is doing homework or my husband is cooking us dinner. That’s a time where I’m interrupted often, but sometimes I can get some substantial work done despite being available for questions, jokes, and setting the table. I wrote a lot of my current book while sitting in the bleachers at my daughter’s basketball practice. Now that I’m a mom, I can work just about anywhere.

TRC: What is the most challenging part of being a novelist?

JB: Conquering fear and doubt. Doubt and fear. Doubt. Fear. And did I mention fear?

TRC: What books have you read recently that you’d recommend to others?

JB: You are catching me one day after handing my first draft in, so I have been in a long period of reading books about the early 1950s. I can tell you that on my nightstand right now is WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by David Levithan and John Green, and TANGLED by Carolyn Mackler, two books I’m dying to read. I am a total Hunger Games freak and can’t wait for the third book. Let’s see… I race to the bookstore when anything new by Laurie Halse Anderson, Nancy Werlin, E. Lockhart, M.T. Anderson, and um, I know I’m forgetting many dearly loved author favorites, but have I mentioned I just turned in a first draft yesterday? I can’t remember my own phone number. Oh, wait --- I can’t remember my own phone number anyway. One of the many small embarrassments of my daily life.

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

JB: I haven’t found the perfect title for my next book yet, so I can’t tell you that, but it’s about a dancer in New York City in 1950, and Scholastic, I am delighted to say, is publishing it in Spring 2011.

As Jude Watson, I have a book coming out in March called THE SIGHT, which is a repackaging of two novels I wrote a few years ago. The main character of both books is a teenager with second sight. In researching this ability, I was fascinated to read about how premonitions are so random --- the “gift” is outside the person’s control, to a large extent. It can be a terribly unsettling thing to have. I loved the characters in those books and I’m so thrilled that Scholastic is re-issuing both novels.