Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Lessons From a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles



Jo Knowles received her M.A. in children's literature from Simmons College. She was the 2002 recipient of the SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant for a Young Adult Novel, and the 2005 winner of the PEN New England Children's Book Discovery Award. She lives in Vermont with her husband and son. Lessons From a Dead Girl is her first novel. Kirkus praises it saying, “Clearly and concisely written, Knowles's provoking exploration of children abusing children portrays the tense and finely crafted dynamics between the two girls. Lainey's character is extremely well-developed . . . . A razor-sharp examination of friendship, abuse and secrets.”

Please join us in welcoming her to the Café.


Mary: Tell us about Lessons from a Dead Girl. What was your inspiration for this story?
Jo:
Lessons is a YA novel about an abusive friendship and one girl’s struggle to understand and forgive her friend, as well as herself. I got the idea from an article I read many years ago about kids abusing kids. I was working on a nonfiction piece about child abuse and the article just struck me in a really powerful way. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I went home and started writing.

Mary: Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?
Jo:
I do remember! And I believe the words are the same: “Leah Greene is dead.” So much has changed since the writing of the first draft, but that opening scene, with Lainey waiting in her bedroom to hear the news she already knows, has survived.

Mary: What kind of research did you have to do for this story?
Jo:
Well, the story itself was sparked by a news article, as I mentioned above. I then found several additional articles about kids abusing kids. But for the story, I did not do a lot of research. Lainey came right out of my heart. Her story was just there. Of course there were tons and tons of revisions and a lot of digging deeper, but she was always there with her story fully formed. Research confirmed the story but I don’t think it informed it very much.

Mary: What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Jo:
Not giving up. I’m not the most self-confident person in the world and a lot of times I just think, Well, this stinks. You really should stop now and try something else. I have to force myself to get through the first draft, and sometimes even the second. I am so grateful for those moments when I’m writing and I just fall into the zone and see the story playing out in front of me. At those moments, I don’t hear my doubts, I only hear what’s happening in the scene I’m writing. If only every writing day could be like that!

Mary: Amen to that! What one question do you wish an interviewer would ask you but never has?
Jo:
Can I treat you to dinner?

Mary: Well, heck, that’s an easy one. Let’s go! I know a great little Mexican place . . .

Tell us something about you that no one knows.
Jo:
I’m still terrified of the dark and I still believe stuffed animals come to life when you leave the room.

Mary: Kind of like Chuckie, huh? A writer’s imagination can be very dangerous at times.

How did you become a writer?
Jo:
You know, I’m not sure, really. I always liked writing poems and silly stories about my family and our pets when I was little. And when I was a teenager I wrote some really bad poetry about boys I loved and feeling all alone. When I started reading amazing books like The Chocolate War when I was in high school, I started thinking about the power of words. And then I think I was most inspired by my sister’s writing. She’d call me from her dorm room when she was in college and read me some of the short stories and things she was working on in class and I was just blown away. I think all my early writing in college reflects my sister’s style, which is funny because we went to the same school and had some of the same instructors. They never criticized me for it though. :-)

Mary: What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from this book?
Jo:
I think my favorite chapter is when Laine goes to the park with Web and Jess, and she watches the two young girls playing among the trees. While it’s a really painful scene, it’s an important tipping point. Laine doesn’t fully see it yet, but that moment sparks the beginning of being able to leave her own childhood friendship behind and embracing her new friends who are there beside her.

Mary: Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?
Jo:
I think the hardest scene to write was the final confrontation between Laine and Leah. I can’t imagine how many times I rewrote that scene. Then I had this great phone conversation with Holly Black about it. And she said something, asked a question really, that made me face the parallel between Leah and Sam and Leah and Laine that I’d been hinting at all along, but hadn’t quite been able to put into words, exactly. Or else I guess I was just avoiding them. But after talking to Holly, I knew they had to be spoken aloud and acknowledged by both girls. I couldn’t just hope the reader figured it out. That was taking the safe way out. Leah and Laine had to speak them out loud to make it count. I think that made all the difference. Thanks Holly!

Mary: What's on your nightstand right now?
Jo:
Some random pony-tail holders, one earring, a red wooden box that holds special memories, three framed photos of my son, an ugly lamp that really needs to be replaced, and several books:
The New Policeman
This Is What I Did
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair
The Plain Janes
The Princess and the Hound

Mary: Besides writing, do you have any other passions?
Jo:
I volunteer at a women’s prison where I run a writing workshop, and I’m also teaching Writing For Children at Simmons College this semester in their MFA program. I absolutely LOVE running writing workshops. Oh shoot. Does that count as writing? Since it doesn’t involve me actually writing, I hope it’s OK.

Mary: What are you hobbies?
Jo:
Oh my gosh, I don’t think I have any! Yikes. This is very sad. I tried to learn how to quilt but failed miserably. Ditto for knitting. I like to go on hikes but my son prefers to, in his words, “Observe nature though a window.” Can reading be a hobby? My favorite thing to do is sit on the deck with my son on a warm day and read to him for hours. We also play a lot of board games which I’m no good at. His latest obsession is Yu Gi Oh which I cannot for the life of me figure out the rules for.

Mary: Have you ever wanted to quit writing?
Jo:
No, I don’t think so. I’ve thought of giving up on certain projects though, that’s for sure. I’ve learned that sometimes it really is important to let go of something that isn’t calling to you anymore, rather than try to force it. If it was meant to be, it will start whispering to you again.

Mary: If you could be anything else besides a writer, what would it be?
Jo:
My son and I dream of opening a chocolate-dipped store, in which we sell all the treats we love dipped in chocolate.

Mary: What were you like as a teen?
Jo:
I think I was fairly quiet. Very insecure. I wasn’t that popular but I did have friends and probably did many things that I wouldn’t want my own son doing when he reaches the teen years. I think that a lot of the things I did as a teen were a result of my insecurity (kind of like the partying Laine does, even when she’s not that into it).

Mary: Which books influenced you most when you were growing up?
Jo: Definitely Robert Cormier’s books, and J.D. Salinger’s. There was this one year in high school when we read all of these amazing books in my English class. The first day of school our teacher flipped through this hugely thick grammar book (see how I used bad grammar there?) and read the headings of each chapter, then quickly defined anything important we needed to know. Then he dumped the book in the wastebasket, went to the closet, and handed us worn-out paperback copies of The Chocolate War. We spent the whole year reading books like Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, etc. I became a true reader that year.

Mary: What do you do to "unblock" writer's block?
Jo:
I ask my two writing partners to kick me. Seriously. They can be pretty tough. Usually they tell me to write 200 words. That’s all. And they tell me I can do it. I can almost feel them tapping their fingers as they wait. But it always works. I don’t think I get blocked so much as simultaneously really lazy and insecure. I’m lucky to have friends who believe in me and know that sometimes all I need is to be told I’m capable.

Mary: Do you do other types of writing besides YA?
Jo:
I’m a freelance writer and do lots of nonfiction writing. But as far as fiction goes, so far I’ve stuck with YA.

Mary: Can you tell us what you are working on now?
Jo:
I’m revising a new YA novel while I wait for notes from my editor on my second book that will be coming out with Candlewick probably in Spring ‘09, called Jumping Off Swings. The newer novel is a bit different from my first two, with a little more humor (I hope). I haven’t shared it with my editor yet, but hope to be able to soon.

Thanks for all the great questions, Mary! It was nice chatting with you. :-)

Mary: Thank you, Jo!

~~~Cafe Note~~ As a regular part of our interviews, featured authors will pop back in for one week after their interview is posted to answer any other questions blog readers may leave for them. So if you have any questions or comments for Jo, post them in the comments. She'd love to hear from you! And don't forget to visit her website.

53 comments:

Holly Black said...

So, what are you working on now? When can we expect the next Jo Knowles novel?

debbi michiko florence said...

Can I treat you to dinner? ;)

Great interview!

My question: If you could have a writing retreat anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Dot said...

Besides literature, what are some of your other favorite arts? Movies or Painting? Ballet or Comics? What?

And of those other favorite things, who are some of your favorite artists?

And can I say the word favorite a few more times in my comment? Is this your favorite comment ever?

Alex Flinn said...

Great interview! I vote for PRINCESS AND THE HOUND as your next read. It was great.

A question: What techniques do you use to make yourself write when you are frustrated?

slatts said...

You hint at it a bit in two of your answers but "how much more" of Laine is "you" or based on you?

Maybe this is too personal of a question....

I found her voice so real. And I suppose that should merely be chalked up to great writing -- a good command of your skills.

But it seems if fiction wants to sound truthful, it may help if there's some truth in it.....

Great book!

Jo Knowles said...

Hi Holly!
I don't know the pub date yet, but I did sell a second novel and it's called Jumping Off Swings (the novel formerly known as SLUT). And I'm working on a new novel tentatively called PEARL which I think you heard a little bit of at a Barry retreat a long time ago. :-) Barry gave me his comments and now I am... uh... pretty much rewriting it.

Debbi!
Can we skip dinner and go to SEE'S CANDY instead?? Lets have our retreat there, too!

Actually, I would rent a Villa in Tuscany and invite friends and family to stay and the writers could write and everyone else could go exploring—as well as cook for us and serve wine to us. Do you think that would be too much to ask? :-)

Dot is my favorite! :-)
I love movies but I almost never have time to watch any more. I can't wait until my son is older enough to go to the same movies I like. Though, I guess he'll be about 30 by then. My favorite visual artist is my husband, Peter Carini, who has filled our home with beautiful wall sculptures. I love abstract art and I adore picture book art. I miss living near the Eric Carle Museum and the Richard Michelson Galleries. Those were two favorite haunts.

Alex:
Thanks for the recommendation! I loved Mette's Mira Mirror so I can't wait to read The Princess and the Hound.

As for being stuck, I'm a bad person to ask because I just spent the last month not writing. What finally changed that was my two writing partners who were here this weekend for a writing retreat pretty much sat in the living room with me and made me start by their sheer presence. So I guess my answer is, when stuck, seek the tough love of friends.

SLATTS,
I know I'm going to get that question a lot. Lessons is fiction, but yeah, there's a lot of Lainey in me. I was like her in many many ways. But not in all ways. Is that a good enough answer? :-)

Thanks for the questions you guys!! Keep 'em coming!

stephhale said...

Great interview, Jo! And um..Tuscany..I'm totally in!

Steph~

eluper said...

If you could have any one superpower, what would it be?

tracyworld said...

Do you find the story changes much between the first and second drafts? Second and third?

How far do you have to get into the writing before you feel you really know your characters?

Christine said...

Great interview.

I've heard that you shouldn't give two main characters names that start with the same letter (in this case, L), to avoid confusion. Was that ever a consideration?

Kate said...

Great interview, Jo! I have a question to fuel my fascination with revision...

What did the first draft of LESSONS look like, and how different is it from the book that's on shelves today?

Anonymous said...

This is so fascinating, Jo.
I have one request: should you decide to open that chocolate dipping store (after you've finished your tenth novel, of course) could you let me know?

Rose Kent

Jo Knowles said...

Steph,
See you in Tuscany! Yay!!

Eric,
I think I'd take Wonder Woman's lasso and make the current administration fess up to all the lies.

Tracy,
I don't think the big story changes much from the first draft, but I do think it takes me several drafts to get deep deep deep under my characters' skin—deep enough for the story to feel completely honest. With each draft, I make a new and hopefully more meaningful discovery. I'm on draft seven of my current WIP and this feels like the big one. It better be! :)

Christine,
I've heard that, too. I gave them names that sounded similar on purpose. We are all very different and we are all a little bit the same. Sometimes in ways we wish we weren't. I guess I wanted their names to reflect that, too.

Kate,
The first draft is very, very different. The first draft started in the same way, with Lainey knowing the news before she hears it, but the flashbacks started much earlier, in grade 3. And in some drafts Leah isn't dead after all, but in the hospital. So. Totally different but in the end I went back to a draft that more closely resembled my first instinct.

Rose,
We will be sure to invite you to the grand opening. You can count on it!!

:-)

Paula said...

Hey Jo. Definitely want to hitch a ride to Tuscany with you.

Care to share what type of novel the second book is? Along the same lines as Lessons or totally different?

Anonymous said...

Hey Jo!

Great interview! I, too, have failed at the whole quilting/knitting thing. ;) And I'm also not the most confident gal with my writing. Or with promoting myself! I'd rather quietly write at home.

What's your thoughts on promotion and how do you balance marketing with writing and motherhood?

Take care!
Laura Bowers

Jo Knowles said...

Hi Paula!
Jumping Off Swings is quite a bit different from Lessons. It's about four teens (two boys and two girls) and how their lives change when one of them finds out she's pregnant. The novel is told from each of their points of view and follows them through the school year/trimesters of the pregnancy.

So glad you'll be coming to Tuscany with me! Hooray!!! ;-)

Hey, Laura!
I feel like I'm failing miserably at promotion. So far I've gotten very lucky in terms of people offering to interview me on their blogs (and I actually got brave and asked to be on YA fresh). The Class of 2k7 has definitely also helped in terms of setting up some group signings and just getting "out there" a bit more. But I constantly feel like I should be doing more. And I worry about only having one print review out there so far. But I think at some point the author does need to let go and realize there is only so much you can do without driving yourself crazy. My biggest goal is for the book to get into the hands of teens and adults who might like it. I know that reviews and attention and good placement at bookstores sure help on that front. But so much of that is simply out of our control, you know? As far as balancing the marketing things that I've been doing with work and family, I just try to squeeze it in. I'm far too disorganized to make a schedule. Sorry not to be more helpful! :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jo:

Can you share your process with us a little bit? Do the writing partners you mentioned critique your work, or are they mostly there to force you to write?

Rebecca Stead

Jo Knowles said...

Hi Heather!

Yes, I do share all of my work with my writing partners. I don't have any specific process but in general I write a first draft, then read it out loud on the screen, making lots of changes as I go. Then when I think it's in good enough shape to invest the ink in, I'll print it out and go through the manuscript chapter by chapter, taking notes, adding lots and lots scenes, and deleting lots and lots of scenes. What I end up with is a pretty big mess. Then I'll type in all the changes again and print it out again. This time as I read and revise each chapter, I'll hopefully need to make fewer changes and start to really see the story as a developed piece with a beginning, middle and end. I'll start to look for threads and how I can make each character more true. After I incorporate changes at this stage, I usually feel ready to share with my writing partners. When I get feedback from them, I start the process all over again. For a later draft, I usually try to share the manuscript with other readers who have fresh eyes, and to spare my writing partners from going nuts. When I finally feel pretty good about a draft, I'll share it with my agent. And then, well, it's usually back to the drawing board one more time. As you can guess, I revise a lot. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm still afraid of the dark--which makes going outside with the dog at night tricky! I keep imagining all sorts of things lurking out there.

amanda

Greg said...

I love this: Jumping Off Swings (the novel formerly known as SLUT). I think that should be the whole title!

Here's my question: if you could be a character in any book, what book would that be?

Good interview! See you on the shelf!

Jo Knowles said...

Amanda,
I know, right? There are so many, many, spooky possibilities.

Greg,
Maybe I should run that by my editor. ;-)

As for book characters, I think it would be quite exciting to be Hermione Granger during the Hogwarts years.

Kerry Madden said...

Great interview, Jo! I really like the 200 words idea to cut through writer's block. Very helpful. Can't wait to read LESSONS!

Have you read CHANNELING MARK TWAIN about a writing teacher in a women's prison? Carol Muske-Dukes...I wonder if your women's prison stories will be published one day? Would you ever write it as fiction? Or publish their stories?

All best
Kerry

Anonymous said...

Hi Jo--how did you solve the Harry Potter costume problem? Happy Halloween!!

=) Heidi

mrspilkington said...

Hi, Jo! I'm itching to get my copy of Lessons -- EVERYONE I know who's read it says it's can'tputdownably amazing (maybe they don't use those exact words, but it's exactly what they mean).

How about wool felt and fabric glue for the badge/patch?

Jo Knowles said...

Kerry,
Glad you are ok! The women's work is already published in a weekly newspaper, but it hasn't been published in book form. We've talked about it before, but long-term projects like that seem incredibly challenging given the short sentences most of the women have. Many of the women are with the group for just a few months and then get released. And although we give them our contact information, we've only ever heard from one woman. I'm also happy to say that so far out of all the women we've seen come and go, only one has returned. There are two women we're working with now who want to seek writing careers when they get out and Kevin and I are trying to find ways to help them get mentors on the outside. Thanks for asking!

Heidi,
I'm on the job right now!! Thanks!

Mrs. Pilkington,
Thanks for saying that! Wow!

I love your idea for felt and fabric glue, but alas I do not have either. I found a Quidditch badge that our friend Cecil sent and he seems to be willing to make a compromise. I need to go hem a graduation gown now... :-) Thanks for stopping by!

nancy said...

Hi. I loved Lessons From a Dead Girl. In so many ways, I *needed* this story. I really did. I am so very grateful that you've tackled this subject matter and put it out there for teens (and adults!) to read. My favorite line, when I just had to stop and re-read and take it all in, was "Web reaches for my hand and makes me let go of myself." So SO powerful.

So, my question: I'm intrigued by the work you do at the women's prison - was the writing workshop something you started?

Have a great weekend!
-Nancy

Jo Knowles said...

Nancy,
Thanks SO much for sharing your thoughts about Lessons. Hearing from readers is... just... I can't even find a way to describe it. Anyway, I'm very grateful.

The prison work began about four years ago when a friend who was already volunteering there on a garden project asked if I'd come and help one of the inmates write an article about the garden project. I said yes, and started meeting with her. Once she finished the article, she asked if I'd keep coming because she really loved writing and thoght she might like to pursue it when she was released. I said yes, and we continued to meet for several weeks. Then she told me about a friend who also liked to write and asked if she could join us. I said of course, and so the three of us started meeting. Then that friend said she had another friend... and so on. And the group continued to grow. We pretty consistently have between 7-8 women coming to the meetings. Once I began meeting with more than one woman, I asked the editor of our local paper if he'd be willing to come to the meetings with me. So the two of us have been working with the women together now for about three years. Kevin also publishes their work in his paper, giving them their own editorial column called "The Glass House." You can see a photo of the women the night I gave them all a copy of my book here: http://jbknowles.livejournal.com/223202.html

Thanks again, Nancy!

annawritedraw said...

Hey Jo!
I'll take tea, please. My question: Often I find myself leaving out details that others think are missing. I think my writing is concise, which is how Kirkus described your writing. How do you decide how much is enough or if you need more in a scene?

Carrie Jones said...

Hi Jo,

I've been trying every day to post here, but my computer seems to have a grudge against me. I'm so sorry.

There's been a bit of a hub-bub on the Vermont College MFA message board about the role of a children's author in society and I was wondering what your take on that was.

And I love-love-love LESSONS. It's such a great, beautiful, brave book. Thank you for writing it.
xo
Carrie Jones

Lisa Schroeder said...

Hi Jo!

I haven't read LESSONS yet, but I hope to get over to Powells this weekend and snag a copy. I can't wait! Great interview, btw.

I'd love to know if you have any advice for authors with a debut novel coming out next year? It's hard, waiting and wondering how it's all gonna go, you know?

Thanks!
~Lisa

Jo Knowles said...

Hi Anna!
Thanks for stopping by! That is a great question and I wish I knew the answer! I guess I don’t tend to offer all that much by way of descriptive scenes, it’s true. I tend to see and feel things through my character so I tend to only mention things I think she would notice or take note of, because those are the things that matter to her. But I also think that how much description you can get away with depends on the point of view and style in which you are telling the story. For first person, it doesn’t make much sense for the character to be describing, for example, all the minute details of a room he or she is already familiar with, unless he or she had a very good reason. And in any case, what would be the point unless all those details revealed something important about your character or the plot? Of course, in some books, setting is almost a character itself, and so in that case it’s a whole other story. :-) I think how much you need to describe all depends on how the details help to move the story forward or reveal something important about your character. If I describe the couch in my character’s living room as worn and scratchy and smelling of wet-dog as opposed to smooth, red leather and smelling of stale perfume you get two very different images in your head, right? I think it’s just enough, perhaps, to get your readers to develop their own impression of the place, to ground them in that room with a few comfortable or uncomfortable yet familiar details that can help place them there by your character’s side. But again, how much to describe all depends on the story, because each one is so different. Sorry to ramble! :-)


Hi Carrie! Glad you made it on! Thanks!
What an interesting conversation at the MFA boards. Wish I had access! ;-) Personally, I think all people, no matter what their profession, have a certain role in society. To be kind, honest and respectful to people, animals and the earth. Not knowing the specifics of the discussion, it’s hard to comment. BUT, do I think that because we write for children we have to try even harder to be good role models? No. I think we should do it because it would make the world a better place for everyone, not just children. :-) I think it’s unfair to say someone in one field has to behave any better than someone in another. We should all strive to make the world a better place. :-)

Thanks for your generous comments about LESSONS. You are the best.

Hi Lisa!
Oh, I hope Powells has a copy! I’ve heard how cool that place is. :-)
Oh man, I feel like I’m still a total newbie so what advice I give I’m trying to remind myself of, too. I guess my best advice is to find a community of writers to stick with on your journey. If you know published authors who’ve been down the road already, don’t hesitate to ask them questions and get advice. Use your support system! There have been times when I’ve really needed someone to just say, “It’s normal to feel that way.” Or “Stop Googling your book, you fool!” Or, “Amazon numbers are meaningless.” Or even just, “We love you. It’s all going to be OK.”

Linda Sue Park gave the best advice of all. She said celebrate every single step. Celebrate the day you see your cover for the first time. Celebrate the day your book goes up on Amazon. Celebrate the day you receive your ARCs, etc. etc. Every step is so exciting. It’s wonderful! Try to focus on all the amazing pieces rather than the scary parts. And DON’T compare yourself to other debut authors and “how much better” they seem to be doing. Someone else’s success does not equal your failure. Day dream about actual readers contacting you and telling you that your book meant something to them. Think about all your hard work paying off. Celebrate the fact that your dream is coming true. Enjoy!!! :-)

cecil castellucci said...

Jo-

You are a very active supportwe of the community - you do th Jonowrimo and post writing prompts on your blog. Where do you look for support, inspiration and strength for yourself?

barb said...

I'll be ordering your book soon. It sounds great!

I wish there were a way for you to publish the women prisoners' writing, such as a book of short stories. Or maybe, with their permission, you could use tidbits of their writing in a writing text.

My question:
Do you read YA fiction while yo're writing it, or do you have to take a break to avoid being influenced?

-- Barb

mrspilkington said...

Me again...Wondering if/how you're impressions or thoughts about childhood favorite books have changed over the years (if you're a re-reader). I'm definitely a re-reader, and can have wildly different responses to the same books at different points in my life. How about you? Any examples you'd care to share?

Jo Knowles said...

Cecil!
Thanks for stopping by. :-)
I get my support from the same people I offer it to. Mainly friends and writers in the Live Journal community. It's so hard sometimes (ok most of the time) to work all alone. It's nice to have a place to go to and say, "Hey, I'm really lonely." And have a bunch of people write back and say, "Don't be lonely. We're here!" And then of course there is also g-mail chat. ;-)

Hi Barb!
Thanks for ordering my book.
:-)

The women's work is published in our local paper, but I think doing more than that at this point would be really complicated. The women are writing for the moment, for themselves, and to show the community that they are real people. For now, that has been enough. But maybe someday...

As for reading YA books while writing, I do try to avoid books that I think might in any remote way resemble what I'm working on. I tend to read adventure, humor or fantasy-type books, or books that I know are wildly different from what I write. In between projects, I read read read anything I had been afraid to. :-)

Mrs. Pilkington,
Hi :-)
Well, yes, there have been a few, but I'd feel bad saying which ones I was disappointed in, since the authors are still alive ;-) I think there were some books that just captured my imagination so greatly that my child self gave my adult self an inflated memory of how good something was. But I've learned to listen to that child, because she seems to know that my son will love those books even if his mom won't this time around.

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Anonymous said...

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For several years , I earn money with the help of these programs.
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123 123 said...

Interesting story you got here. It would be great to read something more concerning that theme. Thnx for giving this information.
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Anonymous said...

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hi Jo!! i am doing a project over your book for a research and i wanted to know if you could please give me the titles of the names of the titles of the book in Lesson from a Dead Girl? please this would really help me out! thank you. this book is hands down one of the best books i have read!!

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ok.good job and hope you can keeping.

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