“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!!!

Read more Jo Knowles…

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Subway

You know, they say sometimes March comes in like a lion; sometimes like a lamb. And sometimes she comes in like a crazed bitch with lighter fluid in one hand and a sequined skull-and-crossbones Zippo in the other, an XL Muammar Gaddafi-sized “Let’s Boogie Into Hell” gleam in her eye. Okay, March. I see you. Let me just pack my protective gear.

Last Tuesday (March 1st for those of you keeping score on the home game), I was just finishing up the last day of recording the audio book for BEAUTY QUEENS and was leaving the studio. As I crossed Broadway and 13th Street (near Forbidden Planet, most excellent NYC comic book store), I somehow collided with a dude crossing the other way. I tripped over his foot, which I’m going to pretend was the size of a small boat, and went flying, ending in a total face-plant on the street. I landed HARD, people. When you hear an actual crunch, you know you are in some deep doo-doo.

It took me a minute to register the shock of Wait, why am I face-down on Broadway? How did this happen? Then I had a moment of total embarrassment. That faded as soon as I realized that I was, in fact, not going to get up and walk it off with a chagrined smile. That, in fact, I was going to have to sit in the street by the curb and wait for an ambulance no matter how embarrassed I felt for putting everybody, including some NYC paramedics, out on my behalf. (I am allergic to fuss.) You’d think at least one of those Marvel or DC superheroes at Forbidden Planet could’ve busted out a move on my behalf. Where’s the love, Batman?

Now, let me restore your faith in humanity: While I waited, I had company, because every New Yorker in my radius stopped to ask if he or she could help in some way. I’ve long maintained that the bad rap New York City peeps get for being rude is an absolute lie. Yes, New Yorkers are direct and not shy with opinions. There are eight million of us and we are always in a hurry and jostling for space on a tiny island. But I’ve never not had one help me when I needed help. And Tuesday was proof. The dude whose foot I tripped over (I can’t remember his name, sadly, as I was dazed at the time, so let’s call him Bigfoot), stopped to see if I needed help. He called an ambulance and sat in the street right next to me to wait, trying to keep my mind off the pain with light conversation. A lady walking her dog stopped to help and stayed with us. Hearing that I was a dog person, she let me sit with her sweet pup, who even licked my face. (All together now: Awww…) And then something truly amazing happened.

We had been waiting for the ambulance for a good fifteen minutes or so when a homeless man stopped to see what was going on. I could sense that people felt tense and wary in his presence. The homeless man, who reminded me of Kris Kristoffersen, crouched down and looked at me. “Did you hit your head?” he asked. No, I answered. I told him I couldn’t move my arms without pain. “Can you move your fingers? Any numbness?” he asked. I told him yes and no, respectively. He had a great bedside manner. “Anybody call for an ambulance?” he asked. Bigfoot said yes. “How long ago?” Fifteen plus minutes. “Call them back and say this…” the man said, giving instruction. Then he said, “I may be on the streets but I was a paramedic for twelve years.” Bigfoot called 911 again. A minute later, we heard the sirens. Another New Yorker directed traffic so the ambulance could get through, and the homeless paramedic, seeing that I was okay, walked away. The EMTs said they had been out on another call and had just gotten the call directing them to my location about thirty seconds before. Then they trundled me off to the ER where a couple of hours and x-rays later, it turned out that I had fractured both elbows trying to break my fall. In a word, ouch.

But I am now haunted by this man. Who is he? Where is he? How did he end up on the streets? What is the trajectory of his story? I wish I knew. I hope when I’m healed, I can find him again up near Union Square. All I know is, he was a sudden angel–the right person in the right place at the right time, and I hope that one of us will be his right person in the right place at the right time.

So this is a story about a bone-headed fall. And yes, I will be in slings and going through physical therapy for the next two months and will be limited in my typing for a bit. But mostly, it’s a story about how there are still soft people in a hard world. That often, people stop in the whirl and buzz and chaos to do the right thing and then go on about their lives with no fanfare and no medals or even a theme song. (People who helped me, I would totally write you a theme song. However, you probably would not want to dance to it is what I’m saying. But still: * fist bumps heart * * then says “ouch” because of the broken elbows * ) Thanks for that, good people. And all of my lovely YA pals have stopped by with muffins and treats and company: Robin Wasserman, Barry Lyga, E. Lockhart, Gayle Forman, Dan Ehrenhaft, Natalie Standiford, Barney Miller. More have sent good wishes and Jon Skovron even made me a thematic CD. The hubby and The Boy have been total mensches. And our stalwart assistant, Tricia Ready, deserves her own superhero cape, which I intend to steal from Batman because he was asleep on the job.

I’m going to save my typing hands for working on THE DIVINERS. But I did want to let everyone know that the New York Teen Author Festival 2011 is next week, Monday, March 14th through Saturday, March 19th. All the information is conveniently located below, stolen from Barry Lyga’s blog. (Thanks, Barry.) I’ve put *** by the events at which I will be a participant, though I hope to attend as many as possible.

And TIGER BEAT will rock the 42nd Street NYPL on Wednesday, 3/16 @ 6 PM! Because rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t stop for broken bones. We will even be playing the debut presentation of the Copenhagen Interpretation’s "Words for Snow." I hope you can make that and many (or all!) of the other awesome events.

Until next week, I’ll be sitting here with my elbows on ice thinking about how much I’m going to enjoy being able to once again button my pants or hold a book or turn a doorknob. It’s the little things. ☺ Watch out for big feet crossing the street and take care of yourselves. March seems to be in a mood.

2011 NYC Teen Author Festival

Monday, March 14 (Chatham Square Branch of the NYPL, 33 E Broadway., 6-8): Finding Voice, Giving Voice: Speaking Up for Characters
featuring: Cathleen Bell, Jen Calonita, Cecil Castellucci, Brent Crawford, Elizabeth Eulberg, Brian James, Kekla Magoon, Melina Marchetta, Marie Rutkoski

Moderator: David Levithan

Tuesday, March 15 (B&N Union Square, 7-8:30):
YA Reader’s Theater
featuring: Holly Black, Judy Blundell, Gayle Forman, Eliot Schrefer (aka E. Archer)

Host: David Levithan

***Wednesday. March 16 (South Court, 6-8):
YA Rocks, featuring Tiger Beat!
Tiger Beat: Libba Bray, Daniel Ehrenhaft, Barnabas Miller, Natalie Standiford (Woot!) 

With music-related readings from: Philana Marie Boles, Libba Bray, Barnabas Miller, Jon Skovron, Jeri Smith-Ready, Rita Williams-Garcia

Host: Jack Martin / Chris Shoemaker

Thursday, March 17 (Five Borough Read, 10-12):

Seward Park Branch, 192 E Broadway, Manhattan, 10am
featuring: Alma Alexander, Philana Marie Boles, Leanna Renee Hieber, Lena Roy
Mark Shulman

96th Street Branch, 228 E 96th St, Manhattan, 10am
featuring: Violet Haberdasher, Kimberly Marcus, Micol Ostow, Eliot Schrefer, Natalie Standiford

Washington Irving H.S (in conjunction with Mulberry St Branch) – 40 Irving Place, 10am.
featuring: Eireann Corrigan, Jocelyn Davies, Anne Heltzel, Matt de la Pena, Patrick Ryan, Leila Sales

Muhlenburg Branch, NYPL, 209 W 23rd St
featuring: Alexandra Bullen, Helen Ellis, Sarah Mlynowski, Matthue Roth, Adrienne Maria Vrettos, Robin Wasserman

Central Branch, Brooklyn Public Library, Dweck Auditorim, 10 Grand Army Plaza
featuring: Cathleen Bell , Gayle Forman
Christopher Grant, Melissa Kantor, Jeri Smith-Ready, Melissa Walker

Bronx Library Center, 310 E Kingsbridge Road, Bronx
featuring: Margie Gelbwasser, Sarah Darer Littman, Arlaina Tibensky, Maryrose Wood

featuring: Brent Crawford, Barry Lyga, Melina Marchetta, Neesha Meminger

Staten Island
St George Branch, 5 Central Ave, Staten Island, 10am
featuring: Elizabeth Eulberg, David Levithan, Michael Northrup, Danette Vigliante

Friday, March 18th, morning (Scholastic, 557 Broadway), 10am
Scholastic Event

Alexandra Bullen
Judy Blundell
Libba Bray
Elizabeth Eulberg
Kim Harrington
Sarah Darer Littman
Michael Northrup
Patrick Ryan
Eliot Schrefer
Maggie Stiefvater

Signing only:
Eireann Corrigan
Aimee Friedman
Barry Lyga
Michael Northrop
Matthue Roth
Lisa Sandell
Samantha Schutz
Natalie Standiford
Suzanne Weyn

Friday March 18th, Symposium (South Court, 42nd Street, 2-6)

2:00 Introduction

2:10 – 3:00: Telling the Truths – Hard Topics, Illuminating Fiction
featuring: Eireann Corrigan, Donna Freitas, Sarah Darer Littman, Kimberly Marcus, Micol Ostow

Moderator: David Levithan

3:00 – 3:50: Debut Author Showcase
featuring: Jocelyn Davies, Margie Gelbwasser, Christopher Grant, Anne Heltzel, Kimberly Marcus, Arlaina Tibensky

Moderator: Jack Martin / Chris Shoemaker

3:50 – 4:00: Break

4:00 – 5:00: I Think I Love You (But Maybe I Don’t?) – Writing About Teens in Love
featuring: E. Lockhart, Terra Elan McVoy, Sarah Mylnowski, Patrick Ryan

Moderator: David Levithan

***5:00 – 6:00: Under the Influences: Discussing Influences on YA Fiction
featuring: Libba Bray, Alexandra Bullen, Susane Colasanti, Barry Lyga
, Carolyn Mackler, Lena Roy, Adrienne Maria Vrettos, Maryrose Wood

Moderator: Barry Lyga

Saturday. March 19th, Symposium (South Court, 42nd Street, 1-5:30)

1:00 – Introduction

1:10 – 2:00: The Ties That Bind, Part One: The Struggle Against Darkness
featuring: Kim Harrington, Lisa McMann, Maggie Stiefvater, Robin Wasserman

Moderator: David Levithan

2:00 – 2:45: The Ties That Bind, Part Two: Family Bonds
featuring: Melissa Kantor, Melina Marchetta, Alyssa Sheinmel, Natalie Standiford, Danette Vigilante

Moderator: Jack Martin / Chris Shoemaker

2:45 – 3:30: The Ties That Bind, Part Three: Friends and Community
featuring: Matt de la Pena, Torrey Maldonado, Michael Northrop, Leila Sales

Moderator: Barry Lyga

3:30-3:40 – Break

3:40 – 4:20 – Tribute to Michael Cart

Host/Opening: Jack Martin
Speakers/Readers: David Levithan and Jacqueline Woodson
Acceptance: Michael Cart

4:20-5:30: LGBTYA: Past, Present, and Future
featuring: Nick Burd, Michael Cart, David Levithan, Martin Wilson, Jacqueline Woodson

Moderator: Jack Martin / Chris Shoemaker

Sunday afternoon:
Books of Wonder Signing (1-4)


Lizabeth Zindel (A Girl, A Ghost, and the Hollywood Hills, Penguin)
Maryrose Wood (The Hidden Gallery, Harper)
Suzanne Weyn (Empty, Scholastic)
Danette Vigilante (The Trouble with Half a Moon, Penguin)
Maggie Stiefvater (Linger, Scholastic)
Natalie Standiford (Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters, Scholastic)
Mark Shulman (Scrawl, Roaring Brook)
Alyssa Sheinmel (The Beautiful Between, RH)
Kieran Scott (She’s So Dead to Us, S&S)
Leila Sales (Mostly Good Girls, S&S)
Patrick Ryan (Gemini Bites, Scholastic)

Marie Rutkoski (The Celestial Globe, FSG)
Lena Roy (Edges, FSG)
Michael Northrup (Trapped, Scholastic)
Sarah Mlynowski (Gimme a Call, RH)
Neesha Meminger (Jazz in Love, Ignite)
Terra Elan McVoy (After the Kiss, S&S)
Lisa McMann (Cryer’s Cross, S&S)
Kimberly Marcus (Exposed, RH)
Melina Marchetta (The Piper’s Son, Candlewick)
Torrey Maldonado (Secret Saturdays, Penguin)
Barry Lyga (Archvillain, Scholastic)

E. Lockhart (Real Live Boyfriends, RH)
Sarah Darer Littman (Life After, Scholastic)
David Levithan (Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, RH)
Melissa Kantor (The Darlings Are Forever, Hyperion)
Carla Jablonksi (Resistance, First Second)
Gwendolyn Heasley (Where I Belong, Harper)
Kim Harrington (Clarity, Scholastic)
Christopher Grant (Teenie, RH)
Margie Gelbwasser (Inconvenient, Flux)
Elizabeth Eulberg (Prom & Prejudice, Scholastic)
Helen Ellis (The Turning, Sourcebooks)

Daniel Ehrenhaft (Friend is Not a Verb, Harper)
Sarah Beth Durst (Enchanted Ivy, S&S)
Matt De La Pena (I Will Save You, RH)
Brent Crawford (Carter Finally Gets It, Hyperion)
Eireann Corrigan (Accomplice, Scholastic)
Susane Colasanti (Something Like Fate, Penguin)
Marina Budhos (Tell Us We’re Home, S&S)
Kate Brian (Book of Spells, S&S)
Philana Marie Boles (Glitz, Penguin)
Judy Blundell (Strings Attached, Scholastic)
Cathleen Bell (Little Blog on the Prairie, Bloomsbury)