SBBT: Writing the True with Jo Knowles, Jumping off Swings, Lessons from a Dead Girl, and a Book Giveaway!!

I first discovered Jo Knowles when I read her first book, LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL, over a year ago. It’s a haunting tale of a friendship between two girls and what happens when there’s a breach of trust, of abuse. In some ways–Jo’s style–the way she let the characters deal with the emotional aftermath with unflinching detail, the way she was unafraid to write what was true, reminded me of one of my favorite YA authors, and I wanted to know more. Every once in awhile I would lurk on Jo’s blog and find her enthusiasm, her cheeriness, to be plain refreshing. 

Just last month, I had an opportunity to read the ARC for Jo’s second book, JUMPING OFF SWINGS. Jo has honed her style with this book and it is so powerful. This story is told in four different voices, which we all know can be tricky, but it worked so well in this book. I could picture each teen, caught in a trap of their own making, based on one girl’s decision, that ultimately changed each of their lives. Jo did a fantastic job keeping each voice, each personality distinct, drawing out the emotion, the conflict, the understanding. 

Look at the awards Jo has received for her books (as taken from Jo’s website):
  Jumping Off Swings (Candlewick, August 2009):
-The 2002 SCBWI Work In Progress Grant for Contemporary Fiction

Lessons From A Dead Girl (Candlewick, 2007):
-The Pen New England Children’s Book Disovery Award
-A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
-A YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
-A Gold Star Award for Excellence from
-A Georgia Peach Book Award Nominee for 2009-2010

I know you want to read these books. And here’s a chance to win a copy! Candlewick Press has been kind to offer a generous Book Giveaway for Jo’s books! (THIS JUST IN!!! Candlewick Press will give away 10 packages that will include a copy of LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL with an ARC of JUMPING OFF SWINGS!!!) Details at the end of the interview.
Last month, I had a chance to meet Jo, very briefly, at the NESCBWI conference and for lack of a better word, she’s so angelic–so sweet-tempered. Sure it was less than a couple minutes, but still, I’m a good judge of character. *grin* It made me wonder even more, how someone so delightful could write about such angst and I couldn’t wait to read her answers to my questions. Wait to you read what she has to say.

Without further ado, I give you…Jo Knowles.

HWM: What made you realize you wanted to write books for teens? How did you get your “break” into getting published?
Jo Knowles: I knew as an undergrad that I wanted to work in the children’s book industry, but I always thought I’d be an editor. I was particularly drawn to YA literature, so when I took a course in writing for children, I just naturally gave writing for teens a try. My instructor was so encouraging, she planted this crazy idea in my head that I could actually be a writer. So, for my master’s thesis I asked if I could write a YA novel instead of a scholarly paper. I was hooked.

As for breaks, my first big one came when I won an SCBWI Work In Progress Grant, which helped me land my agent. The second when I won the PEN New England Discovery Award, which connected me with my editor at Candlewick.

HWM: I’ve read that you were inspired to write LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL after you read an article about kids abusing kids. As a parent, it must have been very difficult to write. How did you keep focused so you stayed true to Laine and Leah, to your story?
Jo Knowles: After reading that article, I think Laine was just born inside my head. She came to me sitting on that bed, scared stiff and confused, and I was right there with her. We never let go of each other until I finished the story. I wrote the early draft before I became a parent, so it wasn’t really an issue. I try not to think about the reader when I’m writing those early drafts because it’s just too distracting. Don’t get me wrong, I care deeply about my readers and want to write responsibly. But I think that means writing “the truth.” When writing about difficult topics, it’s hard no
t to take the easy way out. But in order for the story to feel real, to be true, sometimes you’ve to go to the hard places.

HWM: What did you like about writing LESSONS?
Jo Knowles: I loved writing the first draft. The story came to me in such a strong and visceral way, that I couldn’t wait to get home from work each night to get back to Laine. It was as if she was waiting for me to help her find her way.

HWM: Your new book, JUMPING OFF SWINGS, is due to be released in August. Talk about powerful. Why did you decide to tell this story from four different viewpoints and what were your challenges?
Jo Knowles: I really wanted to explore the idea that no story is just one person’s story. We’re all affected by each other and each others’ actions. Sometimes, deeply so. I also wanted to explore how there’s always more to a person than we think. We’re all so good at compartmentalizing and then dismissing, you know? We take our first impression of someone, decide they are a certain “type” and then move on. But we’re all complex. There’s always more behind the face. Usually way more than we assumed.

HWM: This must have been another tough story to write. Why do you choose to write about such difficult topics?
Jo Knowles: Ooh, good question. I don’t think I set out to write about tough topics, but so far that’s just how it’s worked out. The stories/characters came to me and I had to write what they needed me to.

HWM: Who was the easiest character? The hardest?
Jo Knowles: In Jumping Off Swings? Hmm, I’m not sure! I think they all had their challenges. I guess my favorite character was Josh, because he kept surprising me with his big, troubled heart. I wrote the Ellie chapter first, and I really wanted to hate him, but as soon as I started writing in his voice it was clear to me there was a lot more to him than met the eye.

HWM: What type of research did you have to do for these books?
Jo Knowles: For LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL, I was actually researching something else when I came across the article that sparked the idea for the story (about kids abusing kids). For JUMPING OFF SWINGS, I had to check abortion laws and adoption practices in various states to make sure the plot would be plausible.

HWM: When did you know you had the right ending for your books?
Jo Knowles: When I could walk away from my computer screen and not feel like there was an invisible arm trying to pull me back. Or in the case of Jumping Off Swings, four invisible arms. 🙂

HWM:  What other projects are you working on?

Jo Knowles: I recently sold my third book, PEARL, To Henry Holt. It’s about a girl who lives with her mom and grandfather, and what happens when her grandfather dies and family secrets are unleashed. 

HWM: What do you like writing the most: the beginning, middle or the end of the story?
Jo Knowles: Definitely the beginning!

HWM: What is your writing process?
Jo Knowles: I really should have one by now, but it changes with every project. I’ve plunged, I’ve plotted, I’ve revised as I went. I think at this point, I know I don’t like plotting/outlining the first draft, but often in revision I’ll go back and do just that.

HWM: Describe a favorite fan moment.
Jo Knowles: Every time I hear from readers I’ve never met telling me my book helped them or changed them or made them think. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. And definitely I’ll never get tired of it.

HWM: What has been the biggest surprise of your writing career?
Jo Knowles: See my previous answer. Honestly I just wasn’t prepared for that feeling. It’s amazing.

HWM: If you could share any unique writing tip to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Jo Knowles: Keep writing. Oh wait. Unique. Hmm. That’s hard! OK, well, I think you should write what calls to you, not what you think will be the next bestseller. I know that’s not very unique advice, either. But it’s worth repeating. 🙂

HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Jo Knowles: To ask myself at the end of every draft, “Is it true?” Jennifer Richard Jacobson gave me that one and it has made a world of difference.

HWM: What question do you wish other people would ask you and how would you answer it?
Jo Knowles: 
Question: Can I treat you to a nice dinner?
Answer: Yes please!

HWM: If you found a way to go back to your teen years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Jo Knowles: I think I’m going to have to write a new book for that one because I definitely wouldn’t want to go through what any of my characters have so far. 🙂

HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Jo Knowles: Superpowers scare me. But I guess if I had to choose, I would want the power to painlessly knock sense into the leaders of the world so we could stop these useless wars, get everyone on board to clean up our planet, take care of our poor, and make this world a better place for EVERYONE.

Now for the FANTASTIC Book Giveaway (THIS JUST IN!!! There are 10 packages that will include a copy of LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL and an ARC of JUMPING OFF SWINGS), courtesy of Candlewick Press
1. Leave a comment on a time when you felt most carefree.
2. Only one comment per person.
3. U.S. destinations only.
4. Deadline for this Book Giveaway will be next Friday, May 29th.
5. Please spread the word!

Other SBBT interviews:
Maya Ganesan at Miss Erin
Amber Bensonat lectitans
Carolyn Hennesy at Bildungsroman
Jo Knowles at HipWriterMama
Sherri Winston at Finding Wonderland

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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