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.