Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Author Interview: Cordelia Jensen

by Jennifer Sheffield

Hi, Cordelia! Congratulations on the imminent release of Skyscraping! (Details below on the June 6 book launch party!) Here is my synopsis:

"Newborn stars / take millions of years to form ... / But the constellation of a family / can shift shape / in seconds." Mira starts her senior year on top of the world, ready for college, ready to preserve the glories of high school in perfectly laid out yearbook form. But then her world is rocked by family secrets, and, before she can overcome her rage and sense of betrayal, rocked again. And now she needs to pull herself back out of the chaos and get her world in order, while there is still time. Deeply powerful free verse novel about love and fear and family, and how to manage when the world turns upside down.

I know that Skyscraping began as a memoir. What prompted you to change it to fiction, and what was that process like? Did it change how you felt about the writing and about the story?

I changed it to fiction for the creative freedom that decision gave me. It allowed me to change characters and plotlines the way that made sense with the story, as opposed to having to be strictly true to life. It was also a healing process for me to change things—like my own father was too sick to attend my high school graduation but Mira’s dad sees her graduate. However, it was very hard, at times during the revision process, to not feel protective of the original story or characters. For example, my editor (rightly so) really pushed for Mira to act out more against her dad and be angrier with him. This was REALLY hard for me to do because I still miss him a lot and think of him mostly in a positive light now and I had a hard time dredging up the anger. I am glad I fictionalized it. I do feel like I could write a memoir version of the story someday, maybe in essay form or something, but it is relieving to work on my other projects (for now) that have less of a direct tie to my life.

Is it strange, in talking about your work now that it’s out there, to navigate the boundaries between Mira’s life and your own? I could see it being both powerful to talk about and overly personal at the same time.

It is strange! Thanks for asking. The strangest part is telling strangers (ha) about my own father’s death from AIDS. That is obviously not essential when I am blurbing the book, but I somehow think it is and end up telling people the memoir part of it all the time. Definitely overly personal; I’m pretty sure I’ve weirded some people out. :-) But generally I’m not shy about “getting deep quick” and have a hard time with a lot of superficial conversation, so maybe the weirding people out part is fine—it is pretty true to me.

I like a lot of the significant characters in the book and (well, mostly) the ways they treat each other. Are there characters you particularly identify with, aside from Mira herself? Were some characters harder to write than others?

Hmmm . . . well, there were some characters that were cut that were hard for me to cut. Mira used to have another friend named Shay, and Adam’s mom used to be a significant character in the book. So, those two were not hard for me to write but they were hard for me to lose. Cutting them, though, made Mira more alone in her story as well as streamlining some subplots. I think the Mom’s character was the hardest to write because I was most concerned with my own mother and what she would think of this character. So, again, more personal issues getting in the way.

There’s a playfulness to Chloe’s character (who is an amalgam of my best female friends growing up) that I identify with and I think in some ways I was more like a combination of Chloe and Mira because I was a lot more social than Mira is. I love April — and I really love my real sister Julia :-) — and I feel like her openness is more similar to myself today but not to who I was in high school. I feel most connected to April and the dad’s character, and their characters did not really change much from early drafts. I had fun writing Dylan who is really an amalgam of all my male friends in high school; it was fun to spend time with them again.

Last month, when you came to our YA book club discussion of Home of the Brave, I loved the insights you presented about the verse novel form. Was Skyscraping always written in verse, or did that evolve along with the shift in genre?

Thank you! I love talking about the elusive verse novel form! It was always in verse. It’s because the memoir emerged from poems I had written about my family over the span of around fifteen years. I also think verse novels are the perfect form for stories that tackle difficult subject matter: the form leaves the reader with some space to process what is happening and the form highlights the emotional arc of the character which, in trying life situations, is really what matters the most I think.

The way you play with space on the page is beautiful and powerful. I love the full moon page, and the word cascade of “Stranded”. What was it like working with words and space like this? How does it change your sense of story to work on the form at the same time?

I LOVE playing with white space in the verse novel form. Melanie Crowder just wrote a terrific blog post about this. It actually includes my own analysis of the white space in “Stranded.” I like how working with white space feels like making art. You go beyond the words and create the relationship the words have to space and use the space to actually be a part of your poem. It is like creating composition when you are painting. Maybe it is also how a sculptor feels as she carves. This is something you can’t do nearly as much when you are writing a novel. And I do miss it when I am writing regular prose.

What were the sources of your space and flight and time imagery? Did you, as Mira did with the yearbook, try out other images for framing the story before finding this one?

What a great question, Jen! I actually did take astronomy my senior year of high school from a really talented teacher named Mr. Thompson. He was one of those teachers that the whole school sort of worshipped. When I first started writing the fictionalized draft of the memoir (originally titled “Sundialing”) I wrote original versions of the poems “Where Windows Are Stars” and “Something Stellar” and it was through writing these poems that I figured out I could carry this celestial imagery through the book.

The emphasis on time came from yearbook itself. I was also the yearbook editor my senior year and I wrote some version of the poem “Capturing Time” and I started to think about how interesting it was that I sort of chose to spend so much time in high school doing yearbook (something so nostalgic oriented) while my father had this ticking time clock and so did my high school career. I sort of built the whole story on the idea that “everything was ending at once.”

But to answer your question, no, there was only ever that image system. Though I think as it became revised I extended it naturally to include any kind of sky image, not just space and time. I like how this image system also works with Mira’s existential crisis. I also took philosophy my senior year of high school from a very skilled teacher and loved thinking about Existentialism in particular. Not going to lie, though, I do own the book Astronomy for Dummies. Here’s a blog post where I talk about creating an image system in a verse novel.

What kinds of research did you need to do to build your story and the world in which it takes place? There are lots of details about Manhattan in the '90s and about the growing awareness of HIV that clearly read like the living of it, and then there are lots of facts about the disease and the stars. Were you going mainly on things you already knew and remembered?

It is definitely a combination of remembering things and Googling! I also watched movies that take place in NYC in the early-mid nineties…like Home Alone 2 and Green Card. :-) Google is amazing: I could Google the whole Phish show playlist from the New Year's show, I watched Tom Hanks’s best actor speech for Philadelphia, I looked at movie releases throughout the year. The most research I did, though, was astronomy related. I bought some books (see confession above) and spent a lot of time looking at astronomy term definitions. I listened to all my music from that time and made a playlist. I also kept extensive diaries in high school which I re-read and had my own senior year yearbook by my side throughout the process.

I also researched natural remedies and HIV/AIDS facts from that time. And how certain sicknesses worked. This was hard for me. Because I was a teen and not really sure what was going with my own father medically throughout the years he was sick (my father was HIV Positive in 1986 and really very sick from 1992-1994) I had to go back and try to figure out more about the medical part of it. And then alter it to match the book’s own timeframe. I also am very indebted to my friend Jenna Conley for taking time to fact check the medical part of the book.

Along with your writing and teaching, you’ve been running wonderful writing workshops for kids at the bookstore, and with your students you’ve created the Mt. Airy Musers literary journal. I love seeing how enthusiastic the kids are! Do you have other current or upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

Thank you! It is so fun to work on this journal with such enthusiastic young writers and artists. We have our second issue coming out at the end of May and hoping to do a third next fall. Other than MAM and teaching creative writing workshops for kids, I will be teaching a Writing for Children & Young Adults class at Bryn Mawr College for the second time next spring. In terms of writing, I have two other completed manuscripts that will hopefully sell sometime soon and I am working on another WIP. I’ll keep you posted!

Excellent! And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:

1. What were 3 of your favorite books from childhood/teen years?

Betsy & Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace; Just As Long As We’re Together by Judy Blume; The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you?

Denton Little’s Death Date by Lance Rubin, because it’s a real laugh out loud comedy despite harrowing circumstances; The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman because I really enjoyed the magical realism in this book and just the premise itself was, for no better word, COOL; None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio because the main character is SO relatable while being an intersex character.

3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work?

I would say e.e. cummings poetry had a profound effect on me when I was a teen, and I still think about the freedom he took with word play when I write; the first verse novels I read when I was writing my own helped me understand the form: Katherine Appelgate’s Home of the Brave was one of these as well as Kirsten Smith’s The Geography of Girlhood; I really am drawn to beautiful/sad stories like Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun or Karen Foxlee’s The Anatomy of Wings and I surround myself with the MOOD of these sort of books, carving a white space around me, as I write.

Thank you so much for joining us!

Thanks for having me, Jen. Such great questions!!!

Cordelia Jensen is a YA writer. She graduated in 2012 with a MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cordelia graduated from Kenyon College where she majored in English, with a Concentration in Creative Writing. Cordelia was Poet Laureate of Perry County in 2006 & 2007. She has also had nonfiction work appear in Literary Mama. Cordelia has worked with young people for most of her career; with a Masters of Education in Counseling, she has worked as a counselor and teacher and spent ten summers as a camp counselor in Central PA. She teaches writing workshops for children at the Big Blue Marble and loves being surrounded by books and people who love stories and language. Cordelia lives in West Mt. Airy with her husband, Jon, and twin nine-year-olds, Tate and Lily.

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to order a copy of Skyscraping. You can also come to Cordelia's Book Launch Party, Saturday, June 6, 7pm, offsite at local used bookstore Mt. Airy Read & Eat! If you can't make the party, you can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.

1 comment:

LinWash said...

Such a great interview! Loved the questions. I'm so thrilled for Cordelia. I well remember when she read from her manuscript during our time at VCFA. This is an awesome book.