Interview with Jennifer Donnelly

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Jennifer Donnelly is an award-winning, best-selling novelist. Her books for middle-grade readers include The Waterfire Saga: Deep Blue, Rogue Wave, Dark Tide, and Sea Spell. She has also written three novels for young adults: A Northern Light (named one of TIME magazine’s best young adult books of all time, and winner of the UK’s Carnegie Medal), Revolution, and These Shallow Graves. Her novels for adults include The Tea Rose, The Winter Rose, and The Wild Rose

Donnelly’s latest publication, Lost in a Book, is an original novel set in the world of Disney’s new live-action film Beauty and the Beast. Lost in a Book features the same beloved characters found in the movie, as well as some new ones Belle discovers within the pages of Nevermore – a mysterious, enchanted book. Donnelly states that if she was reborn a Disney princess she would be Belle: “When Wikipedia adds an entry for ‘Nerdy Feminist Bookworm,’ it will have two names: Jennifer Donnelly and Belle.’”

Lauren Krause: I read in your Newsletter that Beauty and the Beast is one of your favorite classic stories. Was it your love of the original fairy tale that inspired you to write Lost in a Book?

Jennifer Donnelly: Yes, it was, as well as a huge love of fairy tales in general – and the grimmer, the better. It amazes me that centuries after they were told around the fire at night, these stories still resonate with us. I think it’s because they give voice to our deepest fears, but also help us resolve those fears. They acknowledge that monsters exist, but they also tell us how to beat them.

Lauren Krause: Did you know that there would be a live action film before you started writing Lost in a Book?

Jennifer Donnelly: I did. Disney contacted me to commission an original tale set in the world of the live-action movie. They had me at “Hello”. I loved the idea of working with these iconic characters – Belle and Beast, and was also excited by the idea of inventing a few characters of my own.

LK: In the story, you wrote the Beast’s character to enjoy the quest for knowledge through reading as much as Belle. I found that detail to be very interesting and thought it was an appropriate addition because it would give the Beast and Belle a foundation where they could grow a friendship that could eventually lead to something more. What motivated you to add this quality to Beast’s character?

JD: I read the live-action movie script before I started writing my story, and was delighted by the screenwriters’ (Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos) take on Beast. Their Beast is still angry and ferocious, but the more I got to know him, the more he felt to me like a cool loner  booknerd – a bit oxymoronic, I know – who has a clever sense of humor and a good grounding in the classics. I ran with that.

Samantha Montes: In the novel you utilize Love and Death as sisters who make a wager with the lives of Belle and the Beast. What inspired this idea and was this your initial idea in terms of how it would shape your retelling of this classic tale?

JD: I thought a lot about the central struggle of the Beauty and the Beast story, and it seemed to me that it wasn’t so much between Life and Death as it was Love and Death. And then the character of Death just kind of appeared in my head, as my characters tend to do. Her struggle with her sister and counterpart, Love, plays itself out in their eternal game—and the wager they make on it.

SM:  Can you elaborate on what the writing process was like for you with this novel considering you were working with such a classic and well-known fairy tale? Did you have special access to the material for the 2017 film while writing?

JD: I did have access to the script and to still and animated art from the movie, which I had to keep secret, and that was great fun. (I like keeping secrets more than I like telling them!) The writing process itself was intense. Because of a very tight production schedule, I had only four months to complete the first draft. That was pretty tough – but it was also an excellent learning experience. I discovered something important: it doesn’t matter whether you have four months or four years to write a first draft, because that first draft is going to stink either way. So bash it out as quickly as you can. Make a big ugly mess. Get it done. Then make it better. That’s what the process of revising is all about.    

SM: On your website you describe the excitement of getting to know the characters of Lost in a Book, of course Belle in particular. You have described a passion for research, including digging through archives and looking through old notebooks, so how did you get to know the character of Belle?

JD: A few ways – by watching the animated movie again, by reading the script for the live-action movie, and by listening to the music. The songs that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman created are beautiful, defiant, wistful, smart, and touching and they give you windows into many of the characters.

SM: Your knowledge and passion for the written word shows beautifully in Lost in a Book, and after reading the novel it becomes clear that the role of stories and storytelling is vital. Would you say that one way to keep classic fairy tales and other stories relevant to modern readers is to come out with adaptions like Lost in a Book?

JD: Thank you! Yes, I think that adaptations are one way to keep fairy tales in the public consciousness, but also….just read the originals! They are more than just fantastical stories. They access the subconscious and help us give voice to some of our deepest fears and hopes.

LK: A fun question I have to ask, since Tucson Tales is a Children’s Literature Publication, what were some of your favorite children’s books/authors while growing up?

JD: Where do I start? Grimm’s fairy tales, of course. The Little House books. Everything by Dr. Seuss. A Wrinkle in Time. Harriet the Spy. Nancy Drew. When I got a bit older: everything by Stephen King. The Scarlet Letter. Bartleby the Scrivener. The Grapes of Wrath. The list is endless.

LK: Are there any other projects you’re currently working on that you can discuss?

JD: Yes, I’m just finishing up a collaborative book titled Fatal Throne. It’s a retelling of the story of England’s Henry VIII and his six wives. I’m Anne of Cleves, who Henry divorced because he found her ugly and dull. I loved writing her story. Five other writers took the parts of the other wives: Candy Fleming, Stephanie Hemphill, Deborah Hopkinson, Linda Sue Park, and Lisa Ann Sandell. M. T. Anderson is Henry. Fatal Throne will be published by Schwartz & Wade Books, a division of Random House, in May 2018.

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