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Author Talk: February 1, 2008

February 1, 2008

In this interview, Jennifer Donnelly --- author of THE TEA ROSE and its newly published sequel, THE WINTER ROSE --- describes what captivated her about the time period in which her latest book is set and shares how she managed to surprise even herself with the plot's many twists and turns. She also explains how she lives vicariously through her fictional characters, discusses some of their real-life counterparts and reveals the two things she absolutely must have in order to write.


Question: THE WINTER ROSE opens in May 1900. What drew you to this time period?

Jennifer Donnelly: All of history is fascinating to me, but 1900 is extraordinarily compelling. It’s when the Old World became the New World, when we began to recognize ourselves as modern people. Queen Victoria’s reign ended. The West had been through the Industrial Revolution. Women were beginning to demand the vote. Labor was making its voice heard. Artists challenged notions of acceptable subject matter, and social reformers demanded a more just society. The very foundations of the modern welfare state were being laid in this period, and there was a breathtaking sense of newness and possibility.

Q: How did you think of making your heroine a female doctor?

JD: Did you know that a hundred years ago, a pregnant woman often made out her last will and testament before going into labor? Imagine giving birth in 1900, facing unbearable pain without any hope of relief, and knowing there was a good chance that neither you nor your baby would survive. Childbearing was an extremely risky business in the 19th century, and I wanted to know how women coped with it, and how doctors delivered children without drugs, monitors, or the battery of modern tools and devices today’s obstetricians have. India Selwyn Jones, my main character, showed me the answers to those questions

Q: Your novel reveals that you’re knowledgeable about everything from 19th century medicine to ice climbing in Africa --- how do you go about your research?

JD: You know that saying, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread"? That’s me. I just rush in. I’m fascinated by so many things and my passion carries me along. I want to be a mountaineer. And a doctor and a tea merchant and a member of Parliament. But I can’t do all these things so I live through my characters. To create them and their world, I research extensively. I begin with broad surveys of the period to get a good overview, then I go deep. I haunt archives and libraries for things like old newspapers, photos, oral histories, notebooks, diaries, letters, memoirs, songs. These are what I use to bring a period alive. My goal is not to embalm history, but to make it live and breathe.

Q: I adore your character Mrs. Moskowitz, and dearly wish that she was real. If you could meet any of your characters in real life, which one would you choose?

JD: Well, I’ve already met Mrs. Moskowitz. She’s my mother. As for the others, it is so hard to pick just one. I want to meet them all. Even Jack the Ripper, so I could finally reveal to the world who he really is. Though I think I’d make his acquaintance from a safe distance

Q: Without giving anything away, did you surprise yourself with any of the plot twists?

JD: It’s the characters who surprise me with what they do. Freddie is far more vicious than I thought he’d be, and of course it’s that viciousness which drives the ending of the book. Fiona is more stubborn, and her stubbornness nearly costs her everything. India is braver than I thought she’d be. It’s not the danger of the slums or the challenges of medicine that truly terrify her --- it’s her own heart. She has to face a great pain inside her, one brought about by a very tragic loss, and finally, she does

Q: India is your second independent-minded and determined heroine. Did you deliberately set out to write about a strong female character?

JD: Independent and determined women are the only kind I know. I know women who’ve survived wars, who’ve survived abuse, who’ve run farms, run companies, delivered children, cooked and cleaned and performed on stage, and who did all of these things without anyone else’s say-so. So creating a heroine in the mold of Fiona Finnegan or India Selwyn Jones wasn’t really a conscious choice. These fictional women all come from real women I’ve had the privilege to know

Q: What’s your writing routine?

JD: I write from about 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. And then I usually go back to it after my daughter goes to bed, around 8:00 p.m. I absolutely need a pot of tea, made in my lucky teapot, and a brick of dark chocolate, or I can’t write. Not a word

Q: Who are some of the authors who have inspired your work?

JD: There are so, so many. And they’re all over the map: James Joyce, Stephen King, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Jeanette Winterson to name but a handful. Plus songwriters who tell amazing stories like Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen.

Q: Is there a message that you hope readers take away from THE WINTER ROSE?

JD: If there’s one thing I hope readers take away from this book, it’s the importance of faith. I don’t mean that in the religious sense, but more in the sense of keeping faith in yourself, seeing yourself through hard times, and having faith in the hard and simple things of life, love and courage among them

Q: What’s next for you?

JD: I’m currently working on a new young adult novel, and I’m also plotting out the final book in the Rose trilogy: THE WILD ROSE. I can’t be away from the Finnegans for too long. I miss them and want to catch up with them, and most of all, I want to find out what happens next!