Bec Stafford interviews Jo Knowles, author of the award winning YA novel, Living with Jackie Chan.
I’ve read that, in planning your novels, you’re immediately aware of your characters’ emotional story arcs and note which will be the strongest emotions in each scene. Fans and critics alike have said that your books, including See You at Harry’s, are incredibly moving. Why do you think you’re so attuned to your readership’s emotional responses and able to create such emotionally complex characters and situations? How emotionally involved do you become with your characters when you’re writing?
Oh, that’s a really hard question! I guess the stories I want to tell have always come from a very emotional place to begin with. Usually it’s a troubling feeling that first stirs the story up in my heart. I live with the idea for a long time. It’s like finding the piece to a huge jigsaw puzzle. You have no idea what the rest of the picture looks like, but there’s something about the piece you have that calls to you to find the other pieces to discover the bigger picture and it becomes almost an obsession until you do. I become extremely attached to the people I’m writing about and feel a huge responsibility to help them find their way, so I guess in that sense I am very emotionally involved.
Your award-winning novel, Living with Jackie Chan, tells the story of Josh (who we first met in Jumping off Swings) a high-school senior who is coming to terms with the fact that he has fathered a child. Can you tell us about the process of writing this story and what challenges you faced dealing with this confronting subject?
After Jumping Off Swings was published, I began to hear from readers who would write to me and ask, “Is Josh going to be OK?” and I always struggled with how to answer because I really didn’t know. I think the question rooted itself in my heart and I began to think deeply about what might have happened to Josh. We leave him so lost and alone at the end of Swings; I suppose that wasn’t really fair of me. Slowly, I began to imagine a life for Josh beyond those pages. We leave him when he’s about to go off to live with his uncle. Who would his uncle be? I was trying to imagine that when one night I went to watch my husband and son test for a belt in Karate. I hadn’t met their instructor yet but when he came bounding in the room, full of life and encouragement (especially toward my son), I thought, HE’S THE ONE! This is the uncle Josh needs. As soon as I knew who Larry was, the story just flowed out of me. I really didn’t feel like there were challenges in confronting the subject. If anything, I was eager to explore it, as so often the boy’s point of view is lacking in literature about teen pregnancy.
Jo, I’ve read that you try to read a novel a week, and that you’d recommend this activity for aspiring writers. Do you keep a list of the books you’ve read? What have been some of your all-time favourites, and why? What are you reading right now, and what’s next on your to-read list?
I do try to keep this up though sometimes it’s very hard, especially when I’m teaching. I used to keep track of the books I read on GoodReads and LibraryThing, but I admit I’ve really fallen behind. I recently read a book that will be coming out in March called Lighting The World, by Merle Drown, which is a very raw and gritty exploration of a boy on the edge and also Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash, which is a graphic novel memoir. Both are just really honest about the ugly spaces, and people I suppose, that occupy our lives. I really appreciated the bravery in that, but also the kindness and understanding given to even the less likable people. Everyone has a story and a reason for why they are the way they are, and I always appreciate when authors acknowledge that and give us a glimpse of those lives, too.
Which of your fictional characters Burns Brightest in your mind and why?
Oh gosh, I can’t choose. They all burn in different ways! I think my big goal in writing is to shine light on dark places. The dark truths that are part of all of our lives. If we could only admit that they are there, confront them, we’d come a long way to preventing them in the first place. I think the more we do this, the less alone so many readers will feel.
Jo Knowles is the author of Jumping Off Swings and its sequel, Living with Jackie Chan, as well as See You at Harry’s. She lives in Vermont with her family.