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Interview: Jo Knowles

January 2nd, 2008 (01:57 pm)
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Current Mood: okay
Current Song: Hook Me Up by The Veronicas

Jo Knowles' debut novel, Lessons from a Dead Girl, details the complex and painful life-long friendship of two girls: Leah, the abuser, and Laine, the victim. Out of shame and confusion, Laine refuses to tell anyone what Leah does for years. It's a remarkable book, and anyone who reads the author's blog can tell that she's remarkably compassionate. I had the good fortune to speak with her at length.

What resources - books, websites, hotlines, support groups - did you use while writing your book?

You know, it's an interesting question. Many years ago, I read an article about kids who abuse kids. I'm not even sure where I read the piece. I was working on a freelance project about abuse and this article was included in the research package I was provided. The story just went right to my heart. I started thinking about how complicated childhood friendships can be. How incredibly binding they are, even when the friendship is far from perfect. So often as a kid, friends can be forced upon you based on family friendships and other circumstances. I don't think it's always true that you can pick your friends. Growing up, there were certain kids my mom made me invite over, or visit, for different reasons. Some of those, I really didn't want to be with. That's just how it was.

From there, a story emerged.

As I shared early drafts and chapters with other writers, one of the universal reactions I received was a name. Almost always someone would tell me about a childhood friend who bullied them, or who they experimented with, or who they were sure was being abused. I really don't think Laine and Leah's story is unique in substance, though of course the tragedy of Leah's death is.

One of my biggest wishes for this book is that it opens up some long-overdue dialogue.

Do you recommend any of these resources for victims of abuse?

There many resources out there. [Here are] two:

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and Hotline
1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)
www.rainn.org

For emergencies:
The National Hopeline Network
1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)

If the title didn't give it away, the first page does: Leah dies in a horrible accident. Laine then remembers how they met as children a decade earlier, and the book moves forward from there. Did you know from the beginning that Leah wouldn't survive?

Yes. In my heart I knew, even though at some point I rewrote the story creating a scenario in which she doesn't die. But those drafts didn't work, and I knew, painful as it was, the reason why.

Though Lessons from a Dead Girl is your fiction debut, it is not your first published work. How did you come to write a non-fiction juvenile book about Huntington's Disease for Rosen Publishing Group?

I do a lot of nonfiction writing for my day job, and a previous colleague of mine got an editorial job at Rosen. He offered the project to me. I'm currently working on another juvenile nonfiction book for Chelsea House on over-the-counter drug abuse.

Congratulations on the sale of your second novel! Does it have a working (or permanent) title yet? Will you reveal its premise?

Thanks! The current title is Jumping Off Swings. It follows four characters through one year of high school (two boys and two girls) and how they each react and change when one of them discovers she's pregnant. The story explores friendship, love, sex, abandonment, communication and family. Obviously, I'm still working on my elevator speech. :-)

What prompted your Weekly Writing Prompts, aka Monday Morning Warm-Ups?

A friend of mine was telling me about a writing group she belonged to and how they shared prompts with one another. Most of the people who read my blog are other writers, and I thought it would be fun to have a weekly prompt that we all did together. Sometimes people share what they wrote either in the comments section of my blog, or on their own blogs, which I love. I think it's great for those of us who don't write during the weekends to have a prompt to get us back into the writing mind as we begin our week.

Tell us about your special Tuesday night class.

On Tuesday nights, I volunteer teaching a writing workshop at a women's prison. I started going there about three years ago when I met with one woman and acted as a sort of writing mentor. One day she asked if she could bring a friend who liked to write, and the group grew from there. Now, I work with 8-9 women at any given time, and the editor of a local newspaper comes with me to help. His weekly paper publishes the women's essays in their own editorial column called The Glass House. The articles have helped give the women a public forum to share their thoughts and reflect on their experiences. Their words have also helped open the eyes, hearts and minds of many people in our community, so it's been a great experience for everyone.

Name a book you recently read to or with your son.

Oh, we just finished reading a really fun one! The Name of This Book is Secret by Psuedonymous Bosch. It's a really silly mystery, with some rather dark elements. My son loved it.

What are your ten favorite books?

Yikes. This changes all the time! I don't think I could possibly narrow it down to 10, so here are ten of my favorite authors:

Markus Zusak
Adam Rapp
Robert Cormier
E. R. Frank
Chris Lynch
Jacqueline Woodson
Kate DiCamillo
Natalie Babbitt
Lois Lowry
Jack Gantos

Oh, it's so hard to stop there! But I guess I've broken the rules enough for today.

Visit Jo's website to learn some more lessons.