“Make Kindness Your Superpower”: An Interview with Jo Knowles

If life were a teen movie, Jo Knowles would be the kind, smart, somewhat shy girl in the back row who offers the new kid half of her sandwich at lunch, then stands up to the bullies who try to take his hat. (She’d get that hat back without ever throwing a punch.) Then later, she’d bust out a poem in English class that had everybody going, “Whoa.”

In her career, Jo has faced down book banners and fought for intellectual freedom. She’s also been writing beautiful, quietly powerful books, which are testaments to humanity in all its flawed, impossible, hopeful glory. In case you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of hers, and not just because she makes a mean chocolate chip scone. 

Jo’s new book, SEE YOU AT HARRY’S, comes out today.

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it, “pitch-perfect…Prescient writing, fully developed characters and completely, tragically believable situations elevate this sad, gripping tale to a must-read level.” Word, Kirkus Reviews, word. You can also enter to win a free copy of SEE YOU AT HARRY’S simply by leaving a comment in the comments section. Winners will be selected by random number generator. Think of it like the claw game in Toy Story.

I sat down with Jo to talk about her new novel, her writing process, censorship, and compulsive hair touching. These were her answers.

(*Note: Sorry for the formatting issues. It has taken me 1 1/2 hours to try to format this %*&* thing. LiveJournal sucks. Also, I am the least tech savvy person on the planet. Please do not leave me irritated comments about the crappy formatting. Those comments will NOT be chosen by the Loving Claw of Possible Book Winning. You have been warned.*)  

LB: This book should come with a warning about the tear-shedding quotient. I mean, seriously—I went through a lot of tissues, Jo. There was a small snot-rag mountain by my bed. Why do you like to make us sad? Why? And what do you think your punishment should be for this?

JK: I do not like to make you sad! I promise!!!

You know, I set out to write a humorous novel about growing up in the restaurant business, per request by your husband/my agent. I really did. I thought, This is going to be a tribute to my brother. I’m going to incorporate a bunch of funny stories from our childhood, and then I’m going to reinvent the past and give us a happy ending. Well I guess you know that didn’t happen. While I had no trouble moving the story away from our literal truth, I couldn’t steer it away from our emotional one: loss. That is not the book I wanted to write. But it turned out to be the one I had to.  It was the most painful thing I’ve ever written, and also the most cathartic.

As for punishment: Make me buy stock in Kleenex?

LB: I really love the familial relationships in the book. There’s snark and in-fighting as well as a surprising amount of love and support, and all of it feels unique to this family yet universal. Did you draw from your own sibling relationships in any way?

JK: Oh yes. There was a lot of snark and infighting in our household. But there was also so much love. It took me a very long time to realize just how much love there was. I was the youngest of three. My brother was 5 years older than me, my sister 3. My sister and brother fought like maniacs. And my sister and I had our moments too–I still have a scar from our worst battle. But we also loved each other just as fiercely. We stood up for each other. I think we had that sense that it was OK for us to throw insults at each other, but damned if anyone else did.

LB: You are a very compassionate author. (Not surprising as you’re one of the most compassionate people I know. Lucky me. J) I once heard George Saunders, my personal writing deity, defending heart in novels. (I think he was answering a jab about being sentimental.) In our post-modern-with-a-side-of-ironic-foam world, do you think there is a place for books that proudly wear their hearts on their sleeves? How do you find the heart of your novels? And what, for you, makes a story stay with you?

JK: First, thank you. ❤ Second, I love your way with words. “Post-modern-ironic-foam world!” *dies* Ummmm YES! There is a place for books with hearts up and down their sleeves, spines, jacket flaps. We NEED books with heart. We need more compassion in the world. My God. When a book like the Hunger Games can feel a little too possible, you just know it’s time to get back to Charlotte’s Web and find some Humble. To remember what friendship is. And love. To remember what it’s like to cheer for Fern and that helpless runt Wilbur. The more books we read, the more compassionate we become. The more thoughtful. The more introspective. The more, well, aware of each other and each others’ feelings. 

I think since I am a fairly open person who does where her heart on her sleeve, the heart in my books just tends to be there. It’s not something I’m conscious of trying to expose. I have a feeling that makes no sense. So… I’m not sure how to answer?

Books that stay with me are ones that feel real. That I believe in. Books that don’t try to be beautiful or pretty, but whose beauty and humanity comes through in the honesty of the telling. Marcus Zusak is a master at this.

LB: The emotionally tone-deaf dad embarrasses his children mightily in HARRY’S. The scene in which they have to make the TV commercial is cringe-worthy. What embarrasses you? What embarrassing family or teen stories do you have? C’mon, Jo. Open up. Humiliate yourself. It’s only the Internet.

JK: My list of embarrassing moments is kind of endless. When I was in high school, some of my friends even had a phrase for times when they did something embarrassing that reflected back on me because I was apparently the queen of it all. So, for example, if they spilled chocolate pudding down their shirt, or tripped in front of a cute senior, they would say, “Oops, I just did a Jo.” I’m not lying. Here are a few examples of how this came to be: My dad once ran over my foot with his car. In gym, I was trying to pull off one of those ridiculous mesh things that shows which team you’re on and by mistake I pulled my shirt off too, revealing that I still wore an undershirt and not a bra. It even had a little bow at the chest. During a basketball game, the elastic on my underwear broke and my undies were slipping off under my shorts. Jeez Lib. Must I go on? Thanks for bringing up all of these suppressed moments of horror. *waves to Internet*

LB: You’re not only a writer but you’ve also been a teacher. You’ve taught teens, adults, and you’ve taught at a women’s prison. What do you find rewarding about teaching? How does it inform your writing? Any advice for those of us in the trenches?

JK: This is going to come out sounding a little chest-puffy, but I love being able to give students the freedom to simply write. Here’s an example: I can give a writing prompt to a group of students and say, “You have 7 minutes. Go!” And they all just start writing! And then when they share their work, I’m just blown away! Everyone comes up with completely different pieces. There is a room full of stories that didn’t exist 7 minutes earlier. Talk about rewarding. Even more rewarding is when someone is so inspired by what they wrote from a prompt I gave that they create a whole novel or picture book out of it. That’s just the best. And it reminds me to try these techniques, too. I tend to forget that it’s important to have FUN with writing and not just focus on whatever novel I’m struggling with. Writing exercises can remind us jaded writers that writing is actually enjoyable! Sometimes, I think we forget that.

My advice: When someone gives you a writing prompt, don’t poo-poo it. Try it!

LB: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being a writer? The most rewarding?

JK: I sweat the stuff I can’t really control, even though I know there’s nothing I can do about it. Like reviews and publisher support or publicity stuff. I think there’s so much easy-access to book chatter, authors can get bogged down in career comparisons and stuff they really shouldn’t be worrying about. The most rewarding aspect has to be hearing from readers, especially reluctant ones. The first time a teen told me my book was the first novel she’d ever finished I cried. As a reluctant reader myself, knowing that I helped a person reach that kind of milestone feels pretty darn great. The other one that always gets me is when a teen tells me he or she feels less alone after reading one of my books. That’s really what it’s all about. Connecting.

LB: I know you’ve taken up the guitar recently. I’m not going to ask you to bust your best Angus Young moves—though I’m sure you could work that school boy outfit just fine. But I do want to ask you what would be playing on the jukebox at Harry’s Restaurant? Did you have a playlist for the book? 

JK: What? You aren’t going to let me play my rendition of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”? *cries* Oh wait. That’s Neil Young. Never mind.

I’m going to sound like an old fogey but there would be a lot of Grateful Dead, UB40, and Bob Marley. When I was in high school I worked at this little health food restaurant called “For Every Season and this is the music that was always playing in the background, so these are the songs that came to me as I was imagining Fern’s family and what their background music would be. In truth, I listen to Vermont Public Radio all day. I work at home alone and it makes me feel less lonely to hear people talking in the background. Please don’t judge.

LB: Let’s talk about book banning. I think we’re both in agreement that it’s a bad idea. You’ve been banned a few times and had to face down those who think Farenheit 451 is a how-to manual rather than a cautionary tale. What do you say to those who want to ban books, especially books for young readers? What do you think we can do to fight back?

JK: Oh gosh. Book banning. It’s so crazy! WHY, people? WHY????  PLEASE STOP IT. I think a lot of people are terrified. They want to protect their kids and they unwisely think that keeping their kids from reading books that expose them to the real world will help do that. Actually, I think it does the opposite. As I always say, books shed light on the darkness, they don’t perpetuate it. Censorship does that. The more we write books that reflect reality, the more conversations we start, the more light we shed, the more we make that reality better. If anything, so-called “dark books” are preventative. When one kids says, “I feel less alone now,” and maybe even gets the courage to finally tell someone what’s going on in his or her life, and asks for help, we’ve done the right thing. That’s how we fight back.

LB: You also have written a fair number of LGBTQ characters. In SEE YOU AT HARRY’S, Holden, Fern’s 14-year-old brother, is gay and faces bullying. Can you tell us about the importance of writing LGBTQ characters? What are some of your favorite LGBTQ-friendly books?

JK: Well, my brother was gay, and so was one of my best friends growing up. I really wish they’d had books with gay characters in them when we were kids. I think they would have felt less alone, too. Less “different.” I like to depict gay kids being kids. Getting by just like everyone else. But I also have to be realistic. It’s not easy being gay. And that sucks. There are a lot of gay kids in the world and a lot of them feel pretty scared and isolated. One way for them to feel a little less so is in a book.  My favorite LGBTQ books are by David Levithan. I love his honesty, and hope.

LB: I am not going to give any spoilers, but something truly terrible and unexpected takes place in the book and shatters the family, making a sharp line between “before” and “after.” There is a great deal of shame and guilt along with the guilt. I was reminded a little bit of Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe, which also deals with issues of guilt, blame, rebuilding, and, ultimately, redemption. I think many of us, especially in our teen years, have experienced overwhelming shame/guilt at times, and it can cripple. Have you ever experienced something that divided your world into a before and after, something that crippled you emotionally, if that’s not too simplistic? How did you cope?

JK: There have been two big moments in my life where I felt these things. The first was when I was in high school and a classmate committed suicide. I felt, and still feel, tremendous guilt about his death. Why didn’t we know he was hurting? What stupid thing might I have said in those dark teen years that might have confirmed his own dark thoughts? I don’t know. I will never know. It still eats me up.

The second is when my brother died. We didn’t really know how truly sick he was. He was living in Chicago at the time and when he went into the hospital, we thought he had pneumonia, and would get well. But he had AIDS. And he didn’t. When his doctor called to tell us we should get out there, my mom and I got on the first available plane, but we were too late. He died while we were in flight. I will never forgive myself for not pushing harder to find out just how ill he really was. There are so many “what if’s” with death. So many should haves and could haves and if only’s. I still haven’t learned to cope effectively. But I cling to our final conversations on the phone. The “You know I love you, right?” sort of things we said to each other. That’s all I have.

LB: Was there a book or books that defined you as a teenager? A book that saved you or made you feel less alone? Which characters spoke to you?

JK: Robert Cormier’s THE CHOCOLATE WAR, for sure. And John Knowles’s A SEPARATE PEACE. And of course J.D. Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE. I cringe that those are all by men. But those were the ones that got me. They were so much about facing the ugly, the gritty truth, you know? About what people are capable of, and finding a way to say no to it all. Each of the main characters in those books were so utterly misunderstood, and that’s how I felt a lot of the time, too. But when I read those books, I felt less so for the first time.

LB: Have you ever wanted to touch my hair? Be honest.

JK: Yes. Yes I have. *reaches*

LB: The lovely and delightful Nova Ren Suma wanted me to ask you which of your books was the easiest to write? Which was the hardest? (She also wanted to know if you know just how awesome and amazing you are.)

JK: Oh, Nova Ren Suma! When will we meet? YOU are amazing.

As far as easy and hard, none have been easy. But certainly SEE YOU AT HARRY’S was the most emotional. I re-opened a lot of wounds with this one. But I also found myself remembering a lot of great times with my family, too. Writing this book turned out to be a truly necessary step in understanding and learning to live with my own grief.

LB: Fern feels unnoticed and lost in the shuffle. She doesn’t have superpowers. She’s not particularly snarky or beautiful or crazy talented. She’s a very decent, searching person. Her bravery is of the hard-won, quiet sort. You do such a nice job of giving voice to characters who ride along just under the radar quietly trying to make sense of themselves and the world. What is it about these extraordinarily ordinary characters that draws you to them? Were you such a child/teen? And what would you want to say to teens who might feel the same way?

JK: This is one of the nicest things anyone has said about my work. Thank you! Fern has a lot of the qualities I had as a kid: Quiet. Trying to be good. Feeling invisible. Noticing too much about my world for my own good and getting a little depressed by it. I think I was never as “good” as Fern but I wanted to be. I wanted to be the hero who stood up for her brother. Who didn’t put up with unkind people. I was far less brave. I guess she’s my ideal me.

I would say to teens who feel the same: You have the ability to make your world less dark. It’s actually not so hard. Start by being a good friend to someone who needs it and go from there. It doesn’t take much to spread some light. Make kindness your superpower.

LB: One of the things I marvel at in your writing is how spare it is—it’s so restrained, yet so much is said in the unsaid. It’s quite beautiful. Reading PEARL and SEE YOU AT HARRY’S reminds me of an Andrew Wyeth exhibit I saw once; there is a cumulative power in those spare images, the clean lines. That you’re both New Englanders seems interesting to me. Do you think that’s a New England thing? A Jo Knowles thing? How do you approach writing? Do you do a lot of revision/editing to skim the fat?

JK: That is a really interesting question. You know, the word “spare” has been used a lot in reviews of my work and I’ve always thought it was a nice way of saying “simple.” But we’ve talked about this, and you, Robin and Holly have all assured me that’s not what it means. I’m grateful for  that! Honestly I just write what I see and feel as I imagine each scene playing out. My style isn’t intentional. It’s just me.

LB: Where and when are you at your happiest?

JK: 1. Reading to my son as we sit on the deck at our house on a perfect summer day.

2. Spending an evening with my family, making dinner together and then snuggling in to watch a movie. I know it sounds boring, but I love those together times.

3. Searching for sea glass with my extended family during our vacations in Maine, laughing and basking in the sea air.

4. Writing across the room from you, dear Libba. J

LB: What is your #1 pet peeve?

JK: Hypocrisy.

LB: Is there a book you’re dying to write? A medium you’d love to try?

JK: I’ve been toying with a project for many years (had the initial idea 8 years ago), and I’ve finally started to work on it a bit. There are ten points of view, so it’s very challenging. But I’m having a lot of fun.

LB: You are willing to take on tough issues, and you do it with nuance, respect, and refreshing honesty. JUMPING OFF SWINGS deals with teen pregnancy and with female sexuality. LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL explores the murky boundaries of power and dominance within friendships, the slippery slope into abuse. PEARL deals with sexual identity, family secrets, and the lasting impact of self-loathing. HARRY’S also explores sexual identity as well as familial negligence and forgiveness.

What drives you to write about these difficult issues? (Full disclosure: If somebody asked me that question, I would want to drive my head through a window. Please don’t drive your head through a window, though, Jo. It’s such a nice head. And smart.)

JK: *pulls glass shards out of head* Be right back. I need a band-aid…

…Hi! I don’t know how to answer this, to tell the truth. I don’t really set out to write about an issue, necessarily. I just get these story ideas in my head and start writing. Well, back up. That’s not totally true. I think I get a character with a problem in my head and can’t get her/him back out. I think a lot about the character’s plight, and how he or she got into the situation, and how he or she will get out. I tend to explore what could have made a person do something, or say something, or be a certain way. The more questions I have, the more curious I get. For me, writing is the process of learning more about a character and helping him or her find a way through. 

LB: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

JK: Lost.

LB: What’s next for you?

JK: I’ve written a companion novel to JUMPING OFF SWINGS, which is in the “final” stages of revision. It’s currently called LIVING WITH JACKIE CHAN, but I don’t know if it’ll keep that title. It follows the character of Josh his senior year, when he goes to live with his uncle. Of all the characters in JUMPING OFF SWINGS, readers most often ask what happened to Josh. I decided I wanted to know, too.

It has been really great talking with you, Libba! Thanks for the thoughtful questions and for making me think about all this stuff. It’s been fun! Can I touch your hair now? 

Yes. Yes, you can, Jo. *waits for Jo's magical touch*

Don't forget to leave your comments below for your chance to win a free copy of SEE YOU AT HARRY'S! 

2 thoughts on ““Make Kindness Your Superpower”: An Interview with Jo Knowles

  1. Pingback: Crying, Mentors, Read-Alouds, and Revision – A #NerdyBookClub Interview with Jo Knowles and Cindy Minnich | Nerdy Book Club

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