Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer DonnellyJennifer Donnelly writes historical fiction for young adults and children. Her novel A Gethering Light won the 2003 Carnegie Medal.

What comes first - plot, character or situation?

For me, emotion. Big, strong, boiling emotion. In A Gathering Light, the emotion came from Grace Brown’s – the murder victim’s – letters to her murderer. In Revolution, it came from an article I saw in the New York Times that showed a tiny dried human heart in a glass jar.

When you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?

Not at the very beginning, no. But I outline exhaustively before I write, so I know the ending before I start the actual writing.

Do you base your characters on real people?

I write historical fiction, so many of the characters in my books were real people – yes for those, but no for the fictional characters. My fictional characters are themselves. They come to me out of the mists of imagination fully formed. Though I often have to work to get know and understand them.

How much research do you have to undertake before you start to write?

Boatloads! Before writing, during, and even after – at the copyediting stage when everything has to be checked.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

All the way through. Though I work out the plot longhand.

Are there special conditions or places you need to be to write?

I need to be in my office, with my teapot, a vase of roses, a bar of chocolate and all my books around me.

Do you write to a set timetable – a certain number of hours per day

No. I just stuff in as much writing as I can during the day. Usually 8:30 to 5, then back at it again in the evening.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

I do get stuck. It usually means I haven’t done enough work on the plot. I go back, unravel the weak threads, and replot.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

The writing!

What is the best thing about being a writer?

The writing!

What is your attitude to kindles and e-books?

E-readers are very useful tools, especially when traveling. But I still like a physical book in my hands.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

Very, very, very unhappy.

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Little House books, A Wrinkle in Time.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read and write. As much as possible. All day long if you can. I couldn’t afford the money for grad school or the time for a writers’ group when I was starting out, but I always had masterclasses at my fingertips. All I had to do was go to my bookshelves and take down novels by Joyce, Hemingway, Winterson, Boyle, Byatt, Amis, Orwell – the list goes on and on. Shakespeare’s plays. Beckett’s plays. Poetry by Dickinson, Frost, Heaney, Oliver. Who better to learn from? That’s the reading bit. The writing bit is pretty simple, too – write. If you’re like me, you’ll get it wrong for a time. (In my case, a long time!) And then hopefully you’ll start to improve. Writing is the thing that makes you a writer.

Share this page: