08 CWIM Preview: Interview with Jo Knowles...
Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting previews of features and interviews that appear in the 2008 CWIM, which will be in stores in early August. (Just this minute Greg the Production Guy handed me two advance copies! A nice morning surprise.)
Today I offer an abbreviated version of my Q&A interview with debut novelist Jo Knowles. Jo's first book, Lessons From a Dead Girl, offers readers a powerful, often uncomfortable journey into the world of abuse and healing, chronicling the complex relationship between main character Laine and her best friend/tormentor Leah, who, Laine learns at the book’s opening, has died.
Jo's journey to publication was helped along by winning grants and awards including an SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant for a Young Adult Novel in 2002, which attracted the attention of her agent Barry Goldblatt. And she won a PEN New England Children's Book Caucus Discovery Award in 2005, which lead to a contract with Candlewick. She's a member of the Class of 2k7 collective.
Would you recommend contests and grants to other writers pursuing publication?
Absolutely! There are so many good things that come out of applying for a grant. First of all, you have to write a synopsis, which is very hard but really forces you to think about your manuscript and what it’s about. I guess that sounds pretty obvious but when you do it for the first time, it’s like a revelation!
Second, I think submitting a sample of your work, say 10 pages, makes you look at those pages in a really intense way, through the eyes of the most critical reader you can imagine. Every sentence counts! Since doing this I now revise my manuscripts in roughly 10-page chunks, which usually translates to two chapters for me. I look at those chapters and work on how they stand on their own. It’s a great exercise.
Third, getting that call is the biggest thrill! At the time I got the call about the SCBWI grant I had been through some tough times in my personal life and was feeling pretty hopeless. I remember hanging up the phone and sitting on the floor and crying. It was wonderful! And then soon after that I received a letter from Barry Goldblatt (he’d read the notice about the grant in the SCBWI Bulletin) asking if I’d be interested in submitting my work to him. He’d only been in the business for about a year or so at that point, so I was really lucky! And then when I applied for the PEN award I’d sort of sunk to that hopeless place again. I’d had some close calls with revision requests, but I was beginning to feel like maybe I just didn’t have what it takes. A good friend of mine, Cynthia Lord (author of the Newbery Honor-winning Rules), encouraged me to give it a shot so I decided to take a chance on Lessons from a Dead Girl, a manuscript Barry hadn’t actually shopped around yet because I had nearly given up on it. I was totally shocked and thrilled when I got the call and found out I won.
Any tips on catching the eye of judges?
Hand in your best work. I know that sounds a bit simple, but really I think you have to make those first pages sing, just like the first pages of any book. How can your first sentence hook the reader? What would make the judge keep going? Read the pages out loud, have someone else read them to you, read all the first chapters from your favorite books and think about what it is that makes those resonate with you. Don’t just hand in any old thing for the sake of submitting. Respect the judges’ time and only submit if you have something you’ve put your all into. Also, follow the rules to a T. Don’t hand in more pages than requested. Follow the formatting guidelines. If the submissions say the excerpt should come from a completed work, don’t hand in something you’ve only written the first chapter of. Be professional.You’ve admitted that you were a little nervous after sending me your manuscript to read. Are you apprehensive about your book arriving in stores?
Well, I’m a natural worrier but of course this is the biggie! I know that the subject matter of Lessons from a Dead Girl is a tough one, so there could be strong reactions to it one way or the other. This is a story that I felt had to be told though, and told with honesty, however painful or uncomfortable it might be. I look back to Robert Cormier and how brave he was to cut right to the truth in The Chocolate War and really in all of his books. He’s not afraid to write about ugly things. Ugly things exist. I think that’s the beauty of his work: he knows how to draw that curtain open and do it in a way that isn’t sensational, but real.
As a first-time author, were there any surprises during the publishing process? What has your relationship with your editor been like? With your agent?
It’s funny but I don’t think there have been too many surprises. The biggest surprise was getting an offer! My editor, Joan Powers, is wonderful. She is very straightforward, asks lots of questions, and trusts me to answer them in my revisions. I certainly don’t think she ever shied away from asking tough questions, and I really appreciate that. My agent, Barry Goldblatt, is terrific. He’s become a good friend who knows and cares about my career and me. Barry has a reputation for being “brutally honest” but I think I should set the record straight right now and say he also has a huge heart. You have to be honest in this business. That may sound harsh but dishonesty will only lead to disappointment later. Barry knows that, and I think by being honest up front he is giving aspiring writers a huge gift. Writing is hard, hard work. But if you keep at it, if you keep revising, keep listening to the feedback rather than feeling it, you will get better, and you will succeed.