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Writers on Writing: Q & A with Jo Knowles


I had the pleasure of meeting Jo Knowles at a Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing Novels for Young People Retreat more than a year ago. Relatively new to the children’s book world, I could tell she was a pro and I immediately bought a few of her books. I am embarrassed to say that, because I have a book buying problem, many get lost in the shuffle. Also, there’s no rhyme or reason to what I choose to read at any given time, which is part of the reason why it took me until recently to read See You at Harry’s.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long, because it’s a quick but incredible read.

 

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Here’s a brief description of See You at Harry’s from Amazon:

Starting middle school brings all the usual challenges — until the unthinkable happens, and Fern and her family must find a way to heal.

Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. It seems as though everyone in her family has better things to do than pay attention to her: Mom (when she’s not meditating) helps Dad run the family restaurant; Sarah is taking a gap year after high school; and Holden pretends that Mom and Dad and everyone else doesn’t know he’s gay, even as he fends off bullies at school. Then there’s Charlie: three years old, a “surprise” baby, the center of everyone’s world. He’s devoted to Fern, but he’s annoying, too, always getting his way, always dirty, always commanding attention. If it wasn’t for Ran, Fern’s calm and positive best friend, there’d be nowhere to turn. Ran’s mantra, “All will be well,” is soothing in a way that nothing else seems to be. And when Ran says it, Fern can almost believe it’s true. But then tragedy strikes- and Fern feels not only more alone than ever, but also responsible for the accident that has wrenched her family apart. All will not be well. Or at least all will never be the same. 

Knowles is a beautiful writer. Fern’s voice is so strong and the story is engaging, and the story is unique and relatable on so many levels. While reading it, I felt like I was part of the story, experiencing the highs, the lows, the annoyances and the love that Fern and her family share. Don’t get me wrongit’s an incredibly sad story that breaks your heart, but it also shows the power of family and friends in ultimately helping you heal when it seems like you may never.

EZ: You dedicated See You at Harry’s to your brother. Although the book is a work of fiction, how did your personal experience affect the story/plot and seep its way into 12-year-old Fern’s experience? Was this a story you had to tell?

JK: Many years ago, when I first created my website, I shared some funny stories about what it was like to grow up in the restaurant business. When my agent read the descriptions, he suggested I write a novel about my experience. I think he was excited about me writing something humorous for a change, as my books tend to be on the serious side. I began to collect stories from my family, but I didn’t really have an idea for a novel. Then, my brother died very suddenly and unexpectedly and I decided I could never write that book. It would just be too painful. There was a poem a woman gave me at the time of my brother’s death called Epitaph, by Merrit Malloy. One of the lines in it is, “When all that’s left of me is love, give me away.” For a long time, that was both unsettling and comforting to me. Slowly, as I began to move through my grief, I realized that one way I could give my brother away was by writing a story that reflected my love for him, one in which I could re-tell our childhood but give it a happier ending. Well I guess you know that didn’t completely happen. While I was able to move the story away from our literal truth, I couldn’t escape the truth of what we’d been through: loss. It was not the book I wanted to write, but it turned out to be the one I had to. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever written, and also the most healing. And I was able to contact Merrit and get permission to use that line of her poem in my book, which was very healing as well.

EZ: Have you found your writing process to change from book to book?

JK: Yes… and no. I think every book brings a very different experience, especially emotionally. Read Between the Lines was definitely my most complicated book, as it has ten different points of view, and it takes place in one day, with each chapter moving the day forward, and characters from previous chapters showing up as secondary and tertiary characters in each. I don’t think I’ve ever made so many charts and lists and storyboards and timelines in my life! It was also probably one of the most fun books to write for that very reason. One thing I relearn every time I write a novel is that it will never get easier because each book has it’s own challenge, whether structural, emotional, or, in the case of what I’m currently working on, research. I often write a very rough draft and then end up starting all over again from scratch. That sounds crazy, I know, but I think the first draft is really just a discovery draft. I can’t really know what the book wants to be until I attempt to tell it. Once I have something I can work with, I start to look deeper and ask the harder questions: What am I trying to say here? Why does this story matter to me, and how can I make it matter to anyone else?

EZ: Was there a moment when you knew you were/wanted to be a writer?

JK: I was an extremely shy kid and continued to be shy through high school and college.  During my sophomore year, a writing professor encouraged me to submit an essay I’d written to the college’s literary journal. When it was accepted, I was invited to read my essay at a special event. I was terrified! When I read the essay, I stared down at the paper the whole time. But when I finished and looked up, there were several people in the audience who were crying. As a teen, reading certain books that reflected my reality made me feel less alone. In that moment at college, seeing those strangers wipe their eyes, I had that same feeling. We were connecting through story. I realized that even though I’d grown up not having a voice, it didn’t mean I didn’t have one—and goodness knows I certainly had opinions! It was in this magical moment, connecting with strangers who had somehow been moved by my words, that I realized I could have a voice through my writing. I could connect with people. I could feel less alone, and help others feel less alone, too.

EZ: Where do you write? And do you listen to music or do you prefer quiet?

JK: I write sitting on the couch in my living room, usually with my dog at my side. There’s a field outside my window and it’s a very peaceful view. I can watch the birds and sometimes deer will pass by. I tend to listen to NPR in the background (I’m such a nerd), because it makes me feel less alone. Sometimes I listen to music but often music evokes such strong emotions in me that it can be distracting if those emotions don’t match what I’m trying to write.

EZ: What authors/books most inspired you to become a writer/learn the craft of fiction writing?

JK: Everything by Jacqueline Woodson, Robert Cormier, ER Frank, KL Going, Marcus Zusak, Toni Morrison, John Irving, Katherine Patterson, Lois Lowry, Cynthia Rylant, Tim Wynne-Jones and soooo many more.

 

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EZ: What are your favorite ways to stay active, or as I like to say, #moveitorloseit? And when do you typically exercise?

JK: I have a group of friends who meet three times a week to spin and do circuit training. I love it! I don’t think I’d be able to stick with any sort of routine if not for them. We just moved our routine outside and it’s so much fun! A few years ago I also started running, and have been doing a “Birthday Run” with two friends (pictured above from left to right is Knowles, Ferrilyn Sourdiffe, and Erica Walsh) every year on my birthday. We started with five miles, and have added another mile every year. This year we’ll be up to 9! My goal is a half marathon for my 50th. Being active is so great for my physical and mental health…I have such a solitary life as a writer, but I also have a lot of social anxiety. Getting myself out and being with people on a regular basis really helps with those issues. And I have to say I feel so GOOD after I exercise. It’s a lot like writing. Some days, it feels like it’s just too hard. But when I get the job done, I feel a million times better.

EZ: What’s the best part of being a writer for children?

JK: Connecting with readers. When I get a letter from a child or teen—or an adult for that matter—who has been moved some way by a book I’ve written, I feel such gratitude. It comes back to that feeling of not being alone, I think. For me, sharing stories is sharing a part of myself. When readers reach out, they’re doing the same thing. We share a common empathy, and it changes us. We become more thoughtful. And I believe, more kind.

EZ: What is the best advice you’ve read/received about writing? And what advice would you share to aspiring children’s writers?

JK: Oh gosh I’ve had so much over the years, but there are a few really key things that I think are crucial to all artists: Slow down and enjoy the process—your goal should be to create something you are truly proud of, publishing comes second. Listen to feedback when you get it, and be open to suggestions. Read as much as you can and study the work you love in order to learn from it. Do not measure yourself against others. Every artist’s journey is unique—and none is perfect.  Be kind to other artists you meet, and share in your journey together. Take joy in your work, be brave, and be true.

To learn more about Jo Knowles and her many books including See You at Harry’s, visit her website.

Cover image is of Knowles and her sister, Stephanie Finnegan, at a visit to a school at which Finnegan is a librarian; image of Knowles and her friends via Peter Carini.

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized registered dietitian nutritionist, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books and is currently working on her first novel. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook.

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