Interview: April 2010
Judy Blundell enjoyed much success with her 2008 novel, WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED, which won the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category. Her new book, STRINGS ATTACHED, introduces Kit Corrigan, who is caught in a mix of love, mystery, Broadway glamour, and Mob retribution when she leaves Rhode Island for New York in the 1950s. In this interview with Teenreads.com's Donna Volkenannt, Blundell talks about the intriguing historical setting of her novel and the pains she took to make it as realistic as possible. She also discusses the power struggles Kit encounters and her personal belief in "luck," while advising aspiring writers to set small goals for themselves.
Judy Blundell: Inspiration came from several places --- one was the glamour and excitement of New York City during that period. When I was doing research for WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED, I came across stories of teenagers who left home with maybe 50 bucks in their pocket to move to Manhattan in the early 1950s. They were aspiring actors, dancers, writers. That intrigued me. I imagined how difficult and courageous and exhilarating that must have been. They weren't coming to go to college, or live with a relative --- they were totally on their own. I wondered how a teenager would be able to handle a fast-paced adult world.
JB: I think you answered the question in the question! Intrigue, danger, betrayal, glamour…it's all there. The postwar years were a time of great change in the United States --- and that makes a great stage for a writer.
JB: While I'm researching and writing, I only read books that are about the period I'm writing about, or written at that time, or books my characters might have been exposed to. I listen to the music, I watch the movies, and I also haunt eBay and order old Life magazines. Research is not just about dates and places and clothes and slang --- it's getting a feel for the pulse of the time, what people were thinking and feeling, and the rhythm of speech.
JB: The names are an homage to my grandmother, Kathleen, and her siblings. I actually had a great aunt Muddie. And a great-aunt Doodie, but we don't want to go there.
JB: I don't base characters on myself at all. That's the fun of writing --- to leave yourself and inhabit other lives!
JB: That's a big question. I believe in luck, but I also believe that luck happens most often if you work hard and place yourself in its path. Delia is specifically referring to a religious concept of grace --- in the sense that the Corrigans have fallen away from God. It's a hint into what comes later in the novel. For me, grace has to do with accepting your humanity in a deep way --- in practicing kindness and thoughtfulness in a way that's a daily conscious effort.
JB: I think that young women today can see that they have many more options than they would have had in 1950. They might know that intellectually, but I want them to feel it, how a young woman can find herself cornered. The power struggles Kit has, however, can still happen today. No matter how self-confident you seem, it can be hard to say no to someone who you want to please…or someone you're intimidated by.
JB: I think she'd be in less of a hurry to leave home. She'd be studying voice and dance, and applying to colleges with great theater programs. Or maybe she'd be auditioning for "American Idol." She certainly has the necessary nerve for it.
JB: A fantastic benefit of winning that award was that I have met so many more readers, librarians and booksellers than I ever have before, at conferences and book festivals and readings. For a writer, there's nothing better than to have someone connect to the book, to literally hug it in front of you and say how much they loved it.
JB: When a story forms in my mind, it usually is grounded in a specific place and time. I didn't set out to write a novel set in postwar America, but as soon as Evie in WHAT I SAW and Kit in STRINGS ATTACHED began to take shape, I knew exactly where and when the story would be.
I did love studying history in school. I liked reading about how people moved through their time on earth and how what was happening in politics and culture impacted them in a daily way.
JB: Jude Watson is the name I use for my middle-grade books. Using Judy Blundell for YA makes it clear to readers that the book is for older readers.
JB: Well, the first thing that's different is the research. It takes time to really delve into another period. And then to imagine yourself there --- to put yourself into the minds of your characters, to imagine what they know, how they would speak. It's really fun to research the little details, like what telephones looked like, or what songs were playing on the radio, or what lipstick or perfume was popular. It's all about making the past come alive, so that it's as real and fresh to the reader as if they were living it.
JB: There wasn't a lot of YA around when I was in high school, so I gobbled up both popular fiction and classics. I read lots of Vonnegut. I loved Joseph Heller's CATCH-22, Salinger and Dickens. I basically read everything I could get my hands on.
JB: Lots of pacing. And sometimes pretzels.
I make tons and tons of notes --- I have a notebook for each book I write. I never, ever wait for inspiration. I sit down and write. If it doesn't go well, I pace or go for a walk.
Basically I wake up and start writing and write until my daughter comes home from school, with a break for a walk.
JB: Every writer would say read, read, read. You can't be a writer if you're not a reader. But I also think that young writers can often be on fire with a great idea and start something --- and then have trouble finishing it. My advice is to give yourself small goals --- words add up. I started my first book with a simple goal of two pages a day, five days a week. But even if it's just a paragraph or two, those paragraphs add up. Just keep going!
JB: I was thrilled when Scholastic asked me to write a novel in the middle-grade historical Dear America series. That's my next project, but I don't have a publication date. As for my next YA, I'm at the "I'm making notes but I don't know what I'm doing" stage.