My review of Skyscraping went up last week on the blog and you can read it HERE. I read the book recently and absolutely loved the story along with the way it was told in verse. I found it to be captivating and heartbreaking. We are lucky enough to be given the chance to speak to author, Cordelia Jensen about why she writes in verse, who inspires her and the process she goes through when starting a novel. Here’s what she had to say!
What made you want to write a YA novel?
Coming of age stories have always been my favourite. Plus, I worked with teens for a long time and I have a degree in counseling for that age group. I then went back to receive an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, which is when I wrote the first version of SKYSCRAPING.
I found there were some very serious topics discussed in your novel and they were handed brilliantly. How did you find writing about topics such as AIDS and the impact that has on a family?
Thank you for saying so! My own father died of AIDS in the summer of 1994, and SKYSCRAPING began as a memoir, which I then made the choice of fictionalising. It was hard to write about such painful topics but it was also easier in some ways because I had lived an experience very similar to Mira’s. Mostly, through the revision process, I had to learn how to change aspects of my own life to make a more impactful, engaging story. That was pretty hard, too.
What are some of your favourite topics to discuss or that are discussed in a novel?
I teach Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College so I absolutely love talking about story elements generally. My favourite topics to teach though are character development, literary archetypes, image construction and verse novels. I also really love picture books and I love reading those aloud to my students and discussing why the books work well.
Did you already have a clear idea of Mira when you started writing? Or did she develop as you went along?
Well, when I first started writing Mira was me as a teen. After I began fictionalising though, she changed quite a bit. She became more reserved and secretive as the revision process went on. This made her “fall” after she learns the truth about her family more emotionally charged.
Who was your favourite character to write about that wasn’t Mira?
It was probably most fun to write the dad’s character because he, in many ways, was similar to my own father. Therefore, I got to have conversations with someone that has been gone now for many years.
Have you always written in verse?
I studied Creative Writing at Kenyon College, primarily poetry. So, I was always a poet who wrote narrative poems. But I also always have preferred to read stories. Therefore, the verse novel really appeals to me as a style. I like how it feels like a series of snapshots. And how you can build an image system that reflects a character’s emotional development through an arc of a narrative. I think this is the magic of the form. I also love playing with white space; when you write in verse, you can sculpt with words.
What interests you about writing in such a unique style?
I love the challenge of blending poetry with story. The process really is a push and pull between language and narrative. You revise for language and lose the story; revise for story, lose the language. It is a kind of dance that is energising to me as a writer.
Are there any authors that you take inspiration from?
When I play with words I think about e.e. cummings and how he approached language in new, remarkable ways. I love stories that are both beautiful and sad. Some of my favorite YA authors are Sara Zarr, An Na, Karen Foxlee, Jandy Nelson, Laura Ruby. As a teen, I loved Pat Conroy’s novels and other family dramas like Colleen McCollough’s The Thorn Birds.
When starting to write, do you have an exact idea of where you’re going to take the story or do you see it develop and change depending on how you feel at the time?
I usually know how the book will end emotionally, how I want the reader to feel when it is over. I do both. I do some outlining but I also allow the characters to take me where they want to go. I think too much outlining can detract from the initial creative process. Usually the first 50 pages I allow myself to just write. Then, I get confused and have to start charting what happens….
For those people who want to write, do you have any advice to give them?
Mostly I would say this: don’t be precious with your words. Write when you feel like it and when you don’t. If you get stuck, write the scene you are excited about writing, or even just the sentence. Free write from different characters POVs to get to know them better. Don’t expect perfection every time. Write your way into what you want to say.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Cordelia for doing this little interview with us! We absolutely loved to read her responses to our questions and find out more about the writing process and her development of characters. We also appreciate her sharing more personal information about what inspired her novel.