Winter Blog Blast Tour: Jennifer Donnelly

It’s the final day of the Winter Blog Blast Tour and it is my pleasure to welcome Jennifer Donnelly, author of A Northern Light and Revolution (and more!), to Shelf Elf.

Welcome Jennifer!

What helps you to keep writing everyday?

Love. I just love to write books. Even when I hate it, I love it. Just thinking about a new story idea – like I am now – makes me want to jump out of my seat and dance around. Because I get to earn my living telling stories, to spend my days with words and paragraphs and characters and books. It took me a long time to get here. A loooooong time. Lots of setbacks and rejections. So it’s never a “have-to” thing for me, it’s a “get-to” thing. I get to write books. And I still can’t quite believe it.

I’m sure that Revolution required a significant amount of research. Could you tell us a little about that process?

Significant is an understatement – boatloads of research would be closer. I read and read and read. I started out with the major, well-known historical surveys – things like Schama’s Citizens and Carlyle’s French Revolution, and then dove into various biographies, accounts, letters, and memoirs, histories of Paris, of the Terror specifically, and on and on. I spent time in museums in Paris and in archives. That was the academic stuff, but I’m also very unacademic in my research. I also spent a huge amount of time at Paris street markets, because there the cheeses still stink and the chickens still have their heads and feet. Certain types of Parisians endure – butchers, shopkeepers, fashionable women – and I sit and watch them, note their expressions and gestures, the way they move, the way they laugh. It all helps me get back to the 18th century.

Music is such an important element of the novel. Did you make a playlist as you wrote, or were there a few pieces of music that you listened to in order to help you get in the right frame of mind for your story?

Music is huge in the novel. For most of the book, it’s the one thing that sustains Andi, the main character. She’s a guitarist, so though she understands and appreciates music as a whole, she’s also specifically interested in the work of people like David Gilmour, Jonny Greenwood, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards. I listened to Pink Floyd and Radiohead nonstop – because Andi does, and also because the complexity, beauty, and darkness of their music suited my subject matter and pulled me through when the going got tough. It was impossible for me to write about the abuse of a child without sinking into a very dark place. Albums like Wish You Were Here, Animals, and Hail to the Thief kept me afloat.

What pieces of music would you name as the most significant in your life?

I don’t know if I can limit it to pieces of music. It’s more about the whole body of work of certain musicians – Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Radiohead. Beethoven. Copland. The Who. The Decemberists. Kate Bush. Natalie Merchant. Bach. Lou Reed. Gillian Welch. To name a few. They acknowledge sorrow, loss, and darkness. They can sit in a room with it all. And I need that. I need some honest, grown-up acknowledgment of the state of things. I can’t bear too much happy horseshit.

You’ve spoken about how part of what inspired the novel was wondering how the idealism of the revolution could have broken down into something so cruel, how the world allows horrors to take place, and that you starting writing Revolution hoping to discover answers. Did you?

Yes, I did. When I started the book, I felt very much as the Duc d’Orléans does, that the world goes on, as stupid and brutal tomorrow as it is today. By the end of it it, I felt more like Andi, who comes to understand that yes, the world does go on this way, but I do not have to go along with it. Andi sees that she can’t change the world, but she can change herself. And maybe that’s enough. Enough to put her own life right. Enough to make a positive impact on a few lives around her. I like to think – to hope – that maybe that idea could become contagious.

If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

That’s a tough question…I’m not sure I can cover the whole writing thing here, but these are 5 things that inspired Revolution:

A tiny heart in a glass urn


Shine on You Crazy Diamond

My daughter


Is there a topic or genre or historical period that you have thought you might like to try writing in the future?

Yes to all!

What is the most difficult part of writing for you, and what aspect of writing is the most fulfilling?

It’s all hard for me. All of it. Plot, characters, pacing – you name it, I struggle with it. It’s all fulfilling, too – on the days when the work is going well. The very best is those times when I’m so lost in it, that I totally lose consciousness of myself, and everything around me, and disappear into the story completely.

What part of this novel are you most proud of?

My aim is get the characters off the pages and into people’s minds and hearts and souls. If I’ve done that, I’m happy.

Semi-related question… how much do you love Paris? Of course I mean the Paris of now, not the Paris of Alexandrine’s day? What are your favourite things about Paris? (I am Paris-obsessed, so I like hearing what other Paris-lovers have to say about the city).

Blindly and insanely. The place must have a fault or two, but I surely don’t know of any. I love the street markets with their strawberries and roses. I love the unspeakably funky cheese. The handsome boys in their linen suits at Mariage Freres. The groovy girls in the 11th. Ghosts lingering everywhere. Eye contact. The butter. Poilâne bread. Whiling away an afternoon in the gardens of the Palais Royal. Hearing the beautiful, beautiful language spoken everywhere I go.

Thank you so much Jennifer! Congratulations on another gorgeous read.

Revolution is published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Be sure to stop by the other Friday interviews, wrapping up the WBBT:

Marilyn Singer at Writing and Ruminating
Ted Chiang at Shaken & Stirred
Sofia Quintero at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Maria Snyder at Finding Wonderland

(photo credit: Doug Dundas)

10 thoughts on “Winter Blog Blast Tour: Jennifer Donnelly

  1. tanita

    The minute I read about this book, it struck me as “HUH! That ought to be interesting!” so I’m definitely looking forward to it. And I’m kind of cracking up at the list of things which inspired the book. Shine on You Crazy Diamond, huh? Oh, this will definitely be good!

    Thanks for the interview!

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  6. rhapsodyinbooks

    Thanks for posting this interesting interview! I have just been amazed at the amount of different extent of research that goes into her books. I just finished The Tea Rose and The Winter Rose (both of which are on my list for top ten reads of the year) and, having earlier read Revolution and A Northern Light, and then seeing these yet new areas of mastering period color and voice, well, I’m just floored! I’m just so happy, as a reader, to have found Jennifer Donnelly!

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  8. Doret

    Northern Lights was great. I haven’t read any of Donnelly’s adult fiction but another blogger, who’s opinion I trust loves the author’s fiction so much, I am going start recommending it to customers.

    Here is Jill’s gush filled review of Tea Rose.

    I am loving the snow

  9. Lisa Schroeder

    I love Jennifer’s books SO much. Thank you for this interview. And now I want to go to Paris more than ever!!!

  10. Jen

    I loved Revolution, and have enjoyed selling it since. Even though I tried to avoid my obsessive listmaking, about halfway through I had to start listing the songs and musicians that inspired Andi so that I could listen to them (some while reading). I loved the connection of classical to contemporary music, and reading how much the songs meant to the protagonist fit well with my own adolescent music obsession (one that I imagine many readers share). I even had a few Paris-inspired meals while reading; what fun to fall into the story so completely! I certainly applaud Donnelly and her success establishing a character so easy to cheer for despite feeling so dark.

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