“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…

I am coming for your appliances. You are warned.

Yesterday, I nearly killed Holly Black’s coffee pot.

It began to wheeze and fill up at the top with brown water and refused to drip actual coffee into the carafe. Somehow I had managed to clog it up and my repeated attempts at resuscitating it were unsuccessful. Like “approaching catastrophic” unsuccessful.

I tweeted my distress and Cassie Clare tweeted back (with a certain sense of mirth, I feel), “Better run! Holly loves that coffee pot more than any human.” Which was super helpful. Thanks, Cassie.

You have to understand that upon waking, Holly lurches immediately toward the coffee pot and does not speak until the first cup is down. So I was sweating it. Holly woke up; I confessed I had possibly killed her beloved machine, and we set about trying to fix the coffee pot. In the process, we broke a glass bowl, I cut my finger, and we spilled water and coffee grounds all over the kitchen till it resembled a crime scene. All that was missing was a chalk outline. I was, of course, afraid I’d be the model for that outline. But Holly remained calm and kind, or possibly just still asleep, and we ran the self-clean (Self-clean! Who’d a thunk it?) and all was well. Holly turned to me and said, “Wait, don’t you have the exact same coffee maker? You don’t know how to run self-clean?” I immediately shoved a cookie in my mouth and looked lost in writerly thought so I didn’t have to answer.

This seems to be a metaphor for how the writing has been going lately: all jammed up and very messy with no delicious payoff. This explains my blog silence over the past month. I didn’t think blogging, “Today, I bang head into wall. Tomorrow, I bang head into wall. Friday, I bang head into wall,” would be terribly interesting. So I have come to Holly’s along with Jo Knowles, Robin Wasserman, Josh Lewis, and Cassie Clare, for an intensive writing retreat, away from all distractions. I’m not even allowing myself a trip to Super Target—that’s how serious I am.

See, I have a book due. Well, technically, it was due at the end of December. But really, who turns in a book at the end of December? David Levithan, that’s who. But that is because David is actually a collection of Davids who form a cottage industry of Davids who accomplish that which NO HUMAN BEING ever could on his/her own. David is my editor on this book, and he said, in his David-esque way, while simultaneously writing two novels and four short story collections, planning an author festival, and making 14,000 mixed CDs complete with extensive liner notes: “That’s okay. You can turn it at the end of January.”

Then January hit. It was a pretty awesome month what with that pretty pretty new Printz Award and my head was everywhere but in my book. (Thanks for all your lovely congratulations on that, by the way. It was so appreciated. Truly.) “That’s okay. You can turn it in at the end of February,” David said from some concert where he was taking pictures to compile into a short film while scoring his first musical and writing new books with John Green, Rachel Cohn, and each one of the Seven Dwarfs.

February included two snowstorms (and subsequent snow days off from school), President’s Day weekend, and one week home from school while The Boy recovered from the annual February virus. In addition, my book sucked. Like I looked at that sucker and went, “Oh, NOW I know the problem—this is a steaming pile of excrement!” I went into a writer’s despair spiral, which really should be an Olympic sport, just minus the feathers and repeated musical excerpts from Ravel’s “Bolero.”

“Wait a minute!” I said to the cats. “This was supposed to be the fun novel. The one about beauty queens whose plane crashes on an island. Drama! Sequins! Talent portions! Survival! Hair Extensions! I Just Want to Cure Cancer and Become a Celebrity Spokesperson! Step-ball-change!” And yet, it was starting to feel like Ibsen had kidnapped my book and taken it for a ride through a Wal-Mart checkout at closing time.

Mid-February, David and I went to a production of The Tempest at BAM and he showed me the 90,000 words he wrote on his new project just while he waited for me to go through the bathroom line. “How’s the book going?” he asked.
“So awesome!” I said hoarsely. I gave thumbs up and smiled. My lips trembled.
“You’re stuck, aren’t you?”
“No! No, I’m fine. Gosh, these sidewalks sure are icy. Could you arrange to push me in front of that car?”
“You will find it,” he said and then he turned that into a t-shirt slogan with a self-designed logo, which could be used to raise money for libraries across America, all while we waited for the subway.

This is why I’m at Holly’s, killing her appliances. For the past four days, I have written pretty much from 7:30 am until 1:30 am, with breaks for meals and laughter about things that only people who are all under excruciatingly tight deadlines find funny, like other writers occasionally shouting, “GAAAAHHHHH!” and falling over in a heap. But the novel is finally making some sense and it no longer feels like the Ingmar Bergman-directed version of “Glee.” I am, in fact, having a lot of fun writing it. Or maybe it’s the sugar high.

So, during the day, I’ve been working on BEAUTY QUEENS. And at night, I’ve been mapping out the first book of a new project. If you haven’t heard the news, last month, I signed a four-book deal with Little, Brown for a new supernatural historical series called THE DIVINERS. Here’s a little about that from Publishers Weekly:

“In The Diviners, a supernatural fantasy series set in Manhattan during the 1920s, Bray follows a teen heroine she says is reminiscent of two of the era’s most famous literary women—Zelda Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. Bray, who admitted to having always been fascinated by the Jazz Age, said she’s looking forward ‘to offering readers a wild new ride full of dames and dapper dons, jazz babies and Prohibition-defying parties, conspiracy and prophecy—and all manner of things that go bump in the neon-drenched night.’”

I’ve actually been kicking this idea around for a few years now. About two years ago, I started ordering research books and re-reading some of my twenties’ faves, like The Great Gatsby. Plus, it is very nice to write me some creepy again. Oh, creepy historicals—I just can’t quit you. Anyway, I’m really excited about it and looking forward to jumping into it in earnest after I turn in BEAUTY QUEENS. The first book in THE DIVINERS will come out in 2012.

People here are making noise about dinner. I should probably eat something other than the amazing cookies Jo Knowles made. I didn’t make anything except coffee. And I think we know how that turned out.

Okay. Back to it. Wish me luck.