Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles

Jo Knowles' newest YA novel sensitively and tenderly explores the repercussions of teen pregnancy among four friends.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said "Absorbing from first page to last, this sensitively written novel explores how a teenager's crisis rocks her life as well as the lives of others. "

We're delighted to welcome Jo Knowles to the YA Authors Cafe!

Melissa W: Tell us about your book, Jumping Off Swings.

I always do a lousy job at describing my books, so here’s my publisher’s description:

“Ellie remembers how the boys kissed her. Touched her. How they begged for more. And when she gave it to them, she felt loved. For awhile anyway. So when Josh, an eager virgin with a troubled home life, leads her from a party to the backseat of his van, Ellie follows. But their "one-time thing" is far from perfect: Ellie gets pregnant. Josh reacts with shame and heartbreak, while their confidantes, Caleb and Corinne, deal with their own complex swirl of emotions. No matter what Ellie chooses, all four teenagers will be forced to grow up a little faster as a result. Told alternately from each character’s point of view, this deeply insightful novel explores the aftershocks of the biggest decision of one fragile girl’s life — and the realities of leaving innocence behind.”

I know that’s totally cheating and I am sorry. But really that’s much better than I would’ve done. :-)

Melissa W: Summaries are tough! I always say if I could tell the story in a hundred words, I wouldn't have taken up two hundred pages!Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?

The words aren’t the same but the scene is quite close. In early drafts, Ellie’s chapters were all written in free verse. I decided to change that form when it became too restricting for what I wanted to say and needed to accomplish with her chapters.

Melissa W: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

I think it’s different for every book. But with the last two manuscripts (PEARL, which is coming out with Henry Holt in 2011, and my current work-in-progress), it was getting that first draft DONE and then realizing one of the reasons it was so hard to finish was that I’d chosen the wrong tense to write it in. For both novels, I scrapped the entire manuscript and started from scratch. This actually happened with LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL too. I’m hoping it’s not my “process” because WOW, that is a very inefficient way to write! However, I will say that it helps me to rethink the story, to get closer to it somehow, to hear it in a new voice. And that has been extremely helpful.

Melissa W: What are you working on now?

My next novel is called PEARL and it’s set to come out in Spring ’11 with Henry Holt. It’s about a girl who lives with her mom and grandfather and what happens when her grandfather dies and family secrets are unleashed. There’s also a lot about friendship, mother-daughter relationships, love and row-boat rides in a smelly river.

Melissa W: Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Why?

I don’t think it was a questions of wanting to quit, but rather a question of whether I should quit. Just before I sold my first book, LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL, I was reaching the point of lots of close calls but no offers. I’d been with my agent for a while and kept thinking any day now he was going to drop me and I wouldn’t blame him. I think at some point, you just start to think, Well, I know I came close but I guess I just don’t have what it takes. But let me tell all you writers out there that this is the WORST thing to think because if you are having close calls, it means you are SO CLOSE to getting THE call. The only sure way to fail is to give up. So just stick it out. Keep writing. Keep getting better. Keep getting your best work out there. Sometimes, you just have to wait for the stars to align exactly right. Seriously. There is a lot of luck involved in this crazy business. But there is also a lot of heart and bravery and believing in yourself and the characters you love. Don’t give up on them and don’t give up on yourself.

Very true and wise. Thanks so much for stopping by the Cafe, Jo!

For more information on Jo and her books, please visit her website.

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, please feel free to post away in the comments!


Neesha Meminger said...

Great interview! That last bit on not giving up particularly resonated with me.

Jo, you tackle some tough topics in your books. Personally, those are the books I've always gravitated toward, and the ones that leave the deepest, most lasting impact on me, but my question is this: have you ever experienced any negative fallout (from agents you were querying with LESSONS, readers, reviewers, editors, whatever) from writing what people sometimes refer to as "problem novels" (hate that term)? And how do you deal with that? Does it ever make you want to write something light and fluffy, with kittens and puppies, and maybe unicorns? *G*

Paula said...

I'm glad you talked about how every book has a different process. And while your process - re-writing entire drafts, may seem daunting it's YOUR process. I always say, I can do anything for the short-term...much harder when there's no end date to it. So, if it turns out that this is simply the way you write best forever and ever amen, do you think you'd simply go with that flow or would you attempt to force a change in the process to make it more "efficient?"

I ask because I used to have a by the seat of the pants process and now I'm finding I've HAD to change a little and changing has been a challenge. Makes me wonder which of the two evils is best.

Jo Knowles said...

Thanks for the great question, Neesha!

I've never received negative fallout from my agent or editor, but there have been some reviews and reader responses from people who’ve had serious issues with the subject matter in my books. But I guess I wouldn't consider this negative fallout, despite how frustrating it can be. I think any time a book gets people talking, that's a good thing, even if the initial dialogue starts in the negative. For example, there was a reviewer on AMAZON who had a lot of problems with the content of Lessons From A Dead Girl, listing them page by page. That was pretty hard for me to read. But the cool thing was the comments that other people left in response there and on my blog entry about it. We talked about parents’ rights to chose what their own kids read, not what other people’s kids read, etc. So in the end, I think it sparked some really good discussion. The same book is facing a censorship challenge in Kentucky right now, and I have to say that the kids and teacher who have gotten behind the book have inspired me and lots of others to think even more deeply about the importance of books that address tough—but REAL—issues. So again, a positive outcome in the long run.

Sometimes, I do think I would like to write something a bit lighter because I LOVE funny books. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m very good at writing humor. ;-)

Jo Knowles said...

Ooh, that's a tough one, Paula. I'd like to think that with the next book, I'll be smart enough to figure out why something doesn't feel right before I spend a year going down the wrong road. Mostly because emotionally, it's exhausting and frustrating. With my current WIP, I ended up putting it aside for 2 months because I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I really beat myself up about it. If I can avoid doing that again, I will. In fact lately when I think of the NEXT book, I make outline-style notes about it. I've never done that before. I hope it helps. :-)

Is your new process working? I'd love to hear about it.

Neesha Meminger said...

Jo, I'm so glad you're seeing such ardent support for your novel. It amazes me how resistant adults can be to things that teens face (and casually shrug off) every single day at school and in the world. I totally get the responsibility thing, but IMO the most responsible approach is to use the text as a jumping off point for discussion.

Thanks so much for writing your books, and for sharing your journey!

Paula said...

Well, outlines paralyze me. So I've always avoided them. But lately, mostly due to time issues, I've found that if I'm going to get anything written I've got to do at least a prelim outline so I know whereabouts I'm going. So far, so good. Still, outlines make me feel boxed in.

I'm doing what I can to straddle two worlds - the outlined world and the spontaneous one. At this point, it's working. But maybe it's simply the process for this book.

Janet Gurtler said...

Great interview! I am such a fan of your work, Jo. You go deep into tough issues without fear or apology and most importantly, without preaching.

How do you research your books? Do you talk to teens?

Why do you think you are compelled to write about such tough subject matter?

Jo Knowles said...

Thanks J.E.!

I don't do a ton of research, but I do fact check to make sure some of the situations I mention are correct. For example, I had to look up abortion and adoption laws for Jumping Off Swings. I try to keep in touch with teens as much as I can, but truthfully I draw from my own experience as a teen and the challenges I went through myself. I don't purposefully write about difficult topics, but so far those have been the things that have called to me to explore and expose in ways that I hope are true and real.

Thanks for the great question!

Paula said...

It amazes me how resistant adults can be to things that teens face (and casually shrug off) every single day at school and in the world.

Me too. Just had a library visit yesterday and gave the teens three situations to choose from to discuss (all were examples from my books). One was an easy friend issue but one was about teen domestic violence. The girls there had been through both and had lots to say. Adults who think these books are the "problem" vs. a springboard to discuss them, are simply out of touch.

Heidi Ayarbe said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Jo, and the great interview (YA Cafe).

I loved reading how you struggle with your first drafts and the process of writing, in general. Do you feel a different kind of pressure now that you're a published author? (Somebody once said to me that it takes a lifetime to write a first book, then a year to write a second.) Has being published somehow changed how you work?

Thank you for your thoughts and time!

Jo Knowles said...

I totally agree. Just this morning I got an e-mail from a mom and here's part of her note:

"As I read your book Jumping off Swings I was thinking thank God there are books like this out there for young readers. As a mom it is hard to talk to my girls about certain issues, they are embarrassed or uncomfortable about taking about it or using certain words. Knowing that they can read books like this and learn from them is comforting for a parent. And then it can be talked about on a level that is not so personal for them, we are taking about the characters not about them."


Jo Knowles said...

LOL, Heidi!

If I could write a book in a year I would be SOOOO happy. Maybe someday. I know a lot of authors who feel pressured to put out a book a year. So far, I'm just not that high in demand! :-) But seriously, I feel lucky in that I have time to write the book I need to write the way I need to write it. I would be THRILLED if I could produce a publishable book faster, but I'm not there yet. Maybe if it was my full-time job, yes. Hmmmm...

Anna Staniszewski said...

I don't think you can ever hear enough on not giving up. Thanks for the reminder!

Jo, because you write about such personal issues, have people ever assumed that you're writing about things that actually happened to you? If so, how have you handled that?

Jo Knowles said...

You're welcome, Anna!

To answer your question, yes. It happens A LOT. I actually wrote an essay about it which you can read here:


eluper said...

Great interview and great following conversation! Jo, you rock!

Nandini said...

Melissa and Jo,
Thanks for this great interview!

Jo, It's really interesting to read about your experience with drafting and revisions. And the pep talk about not giving up when you're getting close--thanks again, needed that!

Given the issues you've tackled in your writing how important is it, to you personally, to have a hopeful ending for your protagonist? Does the journey of your main character effect you emotionally?

Anonymous said...

I had a medical problem about three years ago that pretty much completely destroyed by ability to write (I can't seem to formulate sentences as I once did). I would like to try and get back into it, but my confidence is shattered and my words are gone, so I don't know what to do.

I think I need a workshop or a class or something, to help me get started again. Problem is, there does not seem to be something like that were I live now (East Coast).

I've considered a writing group, but I can't write. That, and I can't think of anything to say. I know you have an amazing group of people you work with, but how did you find them?

Jo Knowles said...

I think hopeful endings are very important but I also think they need to be realistic. I think endings can be sad and hopeful at the same time. My main characters’ journeys definitely affect me emotionally. When I’m deep in a project, my characters are constantly on my mind. I spend most of my wakeful hours thinking about them and how I’m going to get them to the other side of whatever it is they’re dealing with. When I finish a project, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off me because I can finally let them go. And that’s when I know I’m finally done—when I can let go and not reach back.

I’m so sorry to hear about your medical problem and your challenges finding a workshop/class. There are lots of writing communities online and in person. If you write for children, check out the Society of Children’s Book Writers And Illustrators They have lists of regional chapters and within those chapters you can find the closest writing group in your region. There are also supportive online communities, such as Verla Kay’s famous Blueboard http://
You can introduce yourself there and let people know you’re looking for a writing group.
Hope this helps!

annawritedraw said...

Thanks for the Pep talk we all need to see that the journey can have a happy or at least hopeful ending.

See my blog today for another tidbit on banned books.

Anonymous said...

There are so many individuals who are affected by such serious issues. I think teens reading this book may realize that they aren't as alone as they may feel in any situation. I'm curious to know which characters have a 'voice', a chapter which they narrate? I'm wondering if the young father is heard? Family members? How did you decide whom should have a voice?

Jo Knowles said...

Hi Campbele,

The chapters alternate points of view between four characters: Ellie (the girl who becomes pregnant), Corrinne (her best friend), Josh (the boy gets Ellie pregnant), and Caleb (Josh's best friend). I chose these points of view because I wanted to explore how pregnancy affects people in different but profound ways.

I am sure you will have much publishing happiness in the future. And great post!

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