Jo Knowles is a writer of many dimensions. She does freelance work, a large part of which is for educational use, teaches at Simmons College, and helped an incarcerated woman achieve her dream of becoming a published writer. Her first novel, Lessons from a Dead Girl, was published in October 2007, and her next, Jumping Off Swings, will be released on August 11 of this year.
Jo was kind enough to answer some questions for me as part of the Summer Blog Blast Tour.
In Lessons from a Dead Girl, Laine’s sister Christi and Leah’s sister Brooke are usually present, though not featured prominently. In your bio on your website you say that your sister read to you and that even now when you read your sister’s voice is often the one you hear. How has having a sister influenced your writing?
Growing up, my sister influenced me in lots of ways. She did everything first, and I followed. I remember when she went to college and took a creative writing class, she’d call me at home and read her stories to me and I would think: Someday, I want to write like that. I wish my sister would take up writing again because I know she would be a star.
One of the most important scenes in Lessons from a Dead Girl features Laine and Leah teaming up in a horse show. How did your own experience with having horses and a pony as a child influence this scene?
Well, like Lucky, my own pony, Smoky, was ornery, old, small and sort of embarrassing. But he was mine and I adored him. He was so tiny he fit in the front of my friend’s horse trailer where you’re supposed to store the hay and stuff, so even though I’d give him a bath and get him all pretty, he’d end up a dusty mess by the time we got to the various 4-H shows we went to.
Like Laine, I felt pretty out of place at those shows among all the fancy horses, but I also felt a little pride in being there, too. It felt good to mix things up. And I was grateful to my friend’s parents for letting my pony hitch a ride in their trailer. But unlike Laine, I got to keep the ribbons I won. :-)
In earlier interviews at Cynsations and Debbi Michiko Florence’s blog, you talk about the timeline for publication of Lessons from a Dead Girl. How does that compare with the timeline for the publication of your second book, Jumping Off Swings?
Well, once again it’s a fairly long timeline, because at some point I stopped submitting SWINGS to work on other projects. There were certain pieces of the story that just weren’t working, and I really needed to set it aside for a long time before I could look at it with fresh eyes to figure out what the problems were. Ellie’s chapters were originally written in free-verse, and I don’t think that worked so well. I also totally re-worked Caleb’s mom and Josh’s dad, thanks to my editor’s suggestions. Sometimes, hard as it is, you just can’t rush the process. Or at least I’ve learned that’s true for me.
In addition to writing fiction, you are also a freelance non-fiction writer. What is the most interesting thing you’ve had to write about as a freelancer? What is the hardest?
I wrote a nonfiction book for teens about Huntington’s Disease and that was by far the most interesting project I’ve worked on. Part of the assignment was to write about a famous person who had the disease, so I read Elizabeth Partridge’s biography of Woody Guthrie (This Land Was Made for You and Me), which was amazing. As far as the hardest thing, I’d say writing about chronic illness or potentially fatal diseases. Knowing that your readers are probably going to be people who’ve just found out they or a loved one has the disease can put a lot of pressure on you to get it right and to be positive, but realistic. You want to make sure your words motivate your readers to take care of themselves, but you also don’t want to scare or depress them. For the most part, I really enjoy learning new things with each project, and also knowing that hopefully the work is going to help people.
You’ve said in interviews that you are more of a "pantser": you finish the first draft of a book before outlining it. How does this compare to your process for writing non-fiction?
It’s almost the exact opposite, actually. Most of the time, I receive a “research report” from the marketing team, listing the key points they want me to cover, so I usually use this list to form an outline. With writing nonfiction on a very short deadline, I can’t afford the luxury of going down dead ends. I have to be as efficient as possible. So, I start with a page by page outline, organize my research and dig in.
You have kept a LiveJournal since 2004. How has that affected your experience as a professional writer?
Oh, in so many wonderful ways. I’ve met TONS of friends through LJ. Many I’ve gone on to meet in person. There is a wonderful writers’ community in LJ that has helped me during what seem like countless ups and downs over the past five years. When I moved to Vermont five years ago, I left many close friends and a strong writing community. Then, two months after we moved, my brother died. I was already feeling quite isolated, so add to that the extreme grief I was suffering and the isolation became almost unbearable . I finally decided to start an LJ account in hopes that it would help me keep in touch with the small handful of friends I knew who had accounts. As I made more connections, I felt a new community growing up around me. Even though it’s “virtual” I’ve met enough of my online friends in person to know they are all real and wonderful, nurturing people.
You try to read a book a week and recommend that aspiring authors do the same. How do you decide which books to read? What are your sources for book recommendations?
Well, my friends’ books are my first priority, so I always try to keep up with those. But I also like to read books that are getting lots of buzz, so I can stay in the loop. :-) I love my agent’s taste as well, so whenever he says he likes a book, I try to get right on it. My to-be-read pile is always overflowing, which is fine by me. I know a lot of people who read a book a day, but I’m a slow reader. :-)
Thanks so much for the interview, Jo!
Today’s SBBT schedule: Barbara O’Connor at Mother Reader James Kennedy at Fuse Number 8 Maggie Stiefvater at Writing & Ruminating Rosemary Clement-Moore at Bildungsroman Jo Knowles at lectitans Melissa Wyatt at Chasing Ray
Don’t forget the Guys Lit Wire Book Fair for Boys!