Jennifer spoke with fellow author Sarah Nicole Lemon about her young adult novel, which was just published by Amulet/Abrams. Jennifer’s a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online group for YA and MG authors debuting in 2016. Sarah rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
Blue Riley has wrestled with her own demons ever since the loss of her mother to cancer. But when she encounters a beautiful devil at her town crossroads, it’s her runaway sister’s soul she fights to save. The devil steals Blue’s voice—inherited from her musically gifted mother—in exchange for a single shot at finding Cass.
Armed with her mother’s guitar, a knapsack of cherished mementos, and a pair of magical boots, Blue journeys west in search of her sister. When the devil changes the terms of their deal, Blue must reevaluate her understanding of good and evil and open herself up to finding family in unexpected places.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer is a lifelong fan of most anything with words. She’s checked for portals in every closet she’s ever encountered, and has never sat beneath the stars without watching for UFOs. Her stories have appeared in The Sun, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD is her first novel. She lives in Massachusetts.
SPEAK OF THE “DEVIL”
Tell me a little about your journey with writing? How did DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD come to be?
I’ve definitely taken the slow route to writing. When I was young, I wrote poetry. I didn’t want to be a poet, I wanted to be a novelist, but poetry was all that ever came out. I wrote it on scraps of paper and stuffed it in the books on my shelves, because I always reached a point where I would destroy it. Writing was a battle between what I wanted, and the words that came out, and the Infernal Editor who lived in my brain and hated everything I wrote. Eventually I just quit. Completely. For over a decade.
I did plenty of other things during that time. I had kids. I studied midwifery and started attending births as a doula. One winter I worked with multiple women who were writers. Something about that experience moved me from the idea of writing as a public destination to writing as a very personal journey. I realized I’d been telling stories for a very long time: to myself, late at night. I set out to write them down, a few key rules in place. One, no one could know about it. Two, I had to keep moving forward. No looking back over what I’d written, because the Infernal Editor might wake. I wrote my first novel in three wild months, racing the whole way to stay ahead of my destructive tendencies.
So, DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD is not my first novel. Or my second. I’ve written my share of novels at this point, and a number of short stories (links to my published ones can be found here). In order to write, I’ve had to cultivate an understanding that writing with honesty requires being open to learning on so many different levels. That it’s okay to feel like a mess with it sometimes, which is hard for someone with perfectionist tendencies. Whenever I start to move away from that understanding, I take a break until I return.
Are you a gardener or an architect? What was your process with writing this novel?
(Before answering, I need to say that gardener vs. architect is about ten zillion times better than pantser vs. plotter!)
This is the kind of gardener I am. I dig up a plot, plant some seeds, and then watch as everything comes up. Everything. Because you never know what might be growing, and isn’t it kind of fun to see what it is, even if nine times out of ten it’s nettles or burdock again instead of the carrots that are supposed to be there? Which, I think, gives you a pretty good glimpse of what my writing process is like.
Something like Blue’s story, this is how it happens for me. I carry around a bunch of pieces for a long time: walking old dirt roads, the feel of waiting at midnight for the devil, the souls of old guitars and what they might hold, anger at our refusal to address suffering in the world, gratitude for kindnesses small and large that have lifted me through hard times… All sorts of things. At some point a shape starts to coalesce in this experiential/dreamworld slurry. Once that comes, the writing begins.
And that has to happen over and over when writing a novel. Every new character needs to develop enough that I feel comfortable writing them. It’s like a continuously expanding map. The problem comes with revising, at which point I have to say no to all those really appealing side roads and narrow my vision to a single route.
You wrote a magnificent and quite realistic story of a girl hitchhiker, what kinds of research did you do for that aspect? Have you ever hitchhiked?
Thank you! I have not hitchhiked. I’ve picked up my share of riders, but I’ve never been much of a traveler. I have friends who’ve spent time on the road, so I had some practical reference points. Beyond that, I did research as though I were prepping to hitch my way west: lots of Internet, lots of nonfiction, lots of listening.
As for the people Blue rides with, they mostly formed themselves for me. Lou (the truck driver) is an example of someone who kind of barged into the story. Originally Blue was going to travel with the man with the bluejay feather in his hat. He came from one of my published short stories, and his role in life seems to be picking up kids in trouble. Anyway, he was there, in the parking lot, and then this woman showed up, with her unshelled sunflower seeds and her lectures on how to stay safe, and I knew she was the ride Blue needed.
I should add one other thing, which is that my husband used to drive vans for a transport service to and from airports. He heard a lot of stories from passengers, because secrets get heavy and people like to tell them to strangers they’ll never meet again. Those stories aren’t mine—I don’t know them—but the feel of the telling of secrets followed me into Blue’s travels.
Music is so important to this novel, and I LOVED the hints of great folk heroes gone by (this machine kills fascists) where did that inspiration come from? Is there a song that represents DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD to you?
I’ve answered this question about five different ways and deleted them all. It’s tricky for a few different reasons, not the least of which is that it involves SO MUCH MUSIC. Really, a lifetime of listening and absorbing. We could start with Pete and Woody and Leadbelly and my childhood. From there, all my parents’ records, the ones I listened to so many times that I still anticipate the scratches on the vinyl when I hear the digitized versions. Then comes the radio, and listening to it constantly as a teen, Eurythmics one minute, Led Zeppelin the next, Joni Mitchell and OMD and Sweet Honey In The Rock. Everything, because I’ve found little bits of myself in so many songs, and never feeling like I really fit because I wasn’t a fan of just one thing. Loving the lyrics, writing them in notebooks, learning so much about how to tell a story from so many gifted songwriters.
There’s all of that, and then there’s Pete Seeger dying as I’m trying to write this novel, and feeling like a member of my family is gone, and feeling like this country is a mess, and how can anything be fixed, and here’s Blue, standing on the side of the road, guitar in hand, seeing everything and not being able to speak, and there was the story.
As for a single song…that’s also hard. Because the story of Clary and Tish (Blue’s mother and her lover/musical partner) is so much the bones beneath Blue’s story, I listened to A LOT of Neko Case, Gillian Welch, and Patty Griffin. There was something in each of them—their voices, their songwriting—that contributed to my understanding of that history.
But when it comes to Blue? There were some changes I made after I made it through the first third of the story and had a sense of what wasn’t going to work. Before that point, I’d connected with a song my husband had found somewhere, and I listened to it whenever I needed to center myself with Blue. The lyrics don’t tie in quite as tightly as they once did, but the feel of something you’d play by a campfire on a guitar that you love is still there. The song is Old Friend by Casey Harper (you can watch a version here). If anyone out there knows Casey Harper, let her know. Better still, tell her to be in touch. I think Blue absorbed a bit of her and I’d love to tell her about it.
Any writing rituals?
I take my wedding ring off. Really. It’s a reminder that I write for myself.
Music or no music when writing?
None, unless I need to block out all sound. I’m too permeable when writing—I either start typing the lyrics or mimicking the style.
Cleaning cages and walking dogs at a veterinary hospital.
Coffee or Tea?
Tea. Never coffee. Caffeine is not my friend.
Favorite book as a teenager?
All of them, but let’s go with The Little Prince.
Favorite book now?
So many. If you really need one…ugh, depends on my mood. I’ll say…I CAN’T SAY! It’s too hard. Um, Under The Poppy (Kathe Koja), China Mountain Zhang (Maureen McHugh), Generation Loss (Elizabeth Hand)…
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
It was touch and go for awhile, but Sarah Nicole Lemon finally grew into her woods witch vibe and now spends her days merrily setting young girls to impossible tasks with dire threats if they fail. When not writing, you can find her drinking iced coffee in a half-submerged lawn chair near her home in Southern Maryland. Her YA debut, DONE DIRT CHEAP is about two girls caught between a motorcycle club and corrupt law enforcement in an unforgiving southern Virginia town and is coming from Amulet/Abrams in Spring 2017.