Jen Bryant lives in Pennsylvania where she writes picture books, novels and poems for readers of all ages. Her biographical picture book: A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, received a Caldecott Honor in 2009. Her recent novel, The Fortune of Carmen Navarro, is the winner of the 2011 Paterson Prize for Young People , grades 7-12 category. Visit Jen on her website.
Q: There’s something intimate about a novel narrated in verse. Can you comment on this sense of intimacy?
Yes, you’re right. Most of them are written in the first person (in my case The Trial, Pieces of Georgia and Kaleidoscope Eyes all have a single narrator and use “I”) which in and of itself is more intimate than the third person. But even in the case of Ringside 1925, which uses nine different narrators, the reader does have a closer, more vicarious experience, I think, because he/she experiences everything through the eyes of each of the nine narrators. In addition, each speaker has their own distinct poetry form, one that reflects their personality and beliefs, and thus makes them immediately identifiable to the reader. The free verse style also necessitates a more condensed, “intense” word choice and phrasing, so I suppose this also contributes to a sense of intimacy between the reader and the characters. There’s less room here than in traditional prose to beat around the bush or to avoid emotion.
Q: What inspires the voices behind your stories?
I would say that varies from book to book. For me, the voice has to be there before I can make the other elements work. I’m not a writer who works from an outline, so the voice—and also the setting—drives the story forward. In Pieces of Georgia, for example, all I knew at first was that Georgia would live on a horse farm (a setting I knew well as I’d been a horse-crazy teen) and that someone would give her an anonymous membership to the Brandywine River Museum (another setting I loved and knew well) and that the reader wouldn’t find out who it was until the end. I then spent several weeks exploring her character through rough poems in which I incorporated these settings, and once I struck upon a voice that worked, I knew the rest of the book would work itself out as long as I remained true to it. In this story, I was also drawing on my own (very trial-and-error, very unorthodox and self-guided) experience in learning how to become a professional writer. I didn’t go to school for writing, so I did my best to study the writing masters . . . just as Georgia studies the Wyeths, in order to learn how to become a visual artist.
Q: Do you write stand-alone poetry? If so, can you tell us about this poetry?
Actually, most of my novels-in-verse have come about because I was writing individual poems about the subject matter first. My historical novel The Trial, (about the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping) began as a series of poems I was writing for adults, with the intention of sending them out to literary magazines. One afternoon, I walked into my office and saw them scattered across my desk, and I realized just how many of them I’d written. That got me to wondering if I might be able to tell the whole story in poems, to make it a novel-in-verse for young people.
Sometimes this even happens with picture books. When I showed several poems I’d written about the artist Georgia O’Keeffe to my friend Eileen Spinelli, she told me: “if you can come up with a beginning and an ending, these could become the manuscript for a picture book!” The result is Georgia’s Bones, a poetic biography of the artist, which I then dedicated to Eileen.
Q: Do you approach these poems differently than when writing a novel?
To illustrate how these forms intersect and cross-pollinate, here’s a stand-alone, adult prose poem I wrote about the Lindbergh case. The poem imagines Anna Hauptmann, the wife of the man accused of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby on the night of March 1, 1932 in Hopewell, NJ, greeting her husband as he arrives to pick her up that night, in the NYC bakery where she worked:
“MARCH 1st, 1932″ (by Jen Bryant)
Bells tinkle. The door swings opens, shuts. She smiles up at him, hands him a rag and broom. He helps her scrub tables, sweep crumbs from the counter, wrap the day-old pastries in sleeves of wax paper. Locking the last cabinet, she thinks of home—how good to be off her feet, to kiss their small son goodnight. Asleep in his crib next to the bed, Richard curled against her back, she will slip closer to his quick, steady breaths.
And now here’s the page from The Trial, my novel-in-verse, where I drew on that poem to describe how people reacted to Anna’s testimony of her husband’s whereabouts that night:
“Anna’s Alibi” [excerpt, p.106, The Trial]
When Anna Hauptmann
took the witness stand,
she told us where her husband was
on the night of March 1, 1932.
“My husband Richard, who is a carpenter,
came to Frederickson’s Bakery
to drive me home.
I work there a few days a week, and on Tuesdays
I work late.
He arrived around eight.
I locked the shop,
and we went home for the rest of the night.”
All the newspapers say
that Anna Hauptmann is a loving mother
and a hardworking, loyal wife.
So wouldn’t she say anything?
Wouldn’t she lie to save Richard’s life?
Q: Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or classic?
Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kunitz, Galway Kinnell, Yusef Komunyakka, Ruth Stone, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, William Stafford, Billy Collins, Gary Soto, W. S. Merwin . . . (I could go on, but you get the idea!)
Q: What are some of your favorite verse novels?
Karen Hesse’s Out Of The Dust and Witness; Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog and Heartbeat; Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade. These represent the great “Masters” of the form.
Q: You primarily write middle grade novels. Do you think middle grade readers are more or less likely to pick up a verse novel than a YA? How do you make poetry accessible to this age group?
I can’t know for sure, but I imagine it’s about even for different reasons. There are many very intelligent middle-grade readers who nonetheless aren’t inclined to do much discretionary/ unassigned reading. So when they DO choose a book to read on their own, a novel in verse appears more ‘do-able’ because it has more white space and yet delivers the same emotional impact as a longer, more traditional prose novel. Older teens, on the other hand, have jam-packed lives with less free time to read for fun. For them, a novel in verse is just as satisfying and yet takes less time away from their other obligations than a traditional prose novel does.
Q: You’re respected for writing verse novels. Why did you decide to write The Fortune of Carmen Navarro in prose?
I found that I enjoyed writing in the multiple-narrator style of Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial and wanted to do more of that. I had struggled to stay balanced throughout the book with nine different voices, however, so after I finished that one, I made a mental note: “If I ever do this again, it’ll be with fewer characters!” When my editor at Knopf, Joan Slattery, and I met one evening during the NCTE conference to discuss the next project, I threw out several ideas. Joan loved the idea of a young adult novel based on the “Carmen” opera. “Carmen” has been a favorite of mine ever since I was a child.
Within that same week, I’d sketched out the four characters who would eventually narrate the story. In doing so, I also found myself writing these “other” paragraphs that were in their voices, and those first attempts made me decide to try this one in prose. I’m hopeless at outlining, so like most things I’ve published, the early work is a bit of stumbling and bumping around until the right form and voice presents itself. In truth, wish I were more scientific about it—but my brain wiring seems to be too circular to hope for that!
Q: You’ve also written picture books, including the Caldecott Honoree A River Of Words, a biography of poet William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. What’s different about the process of writing a picture book?
For me, a picture book text is like one long poem. There’s usually a single, accessible, yet flexible, image that I try to carry through the story and which ties things together (bones in Georgia’s Bones, my book about O’Keeffe, and the river in A River of Words.) It’s a very intense kind of writing where every word and every punctuation mark has a purpose and the poetic elements of rhyme, rhythm, simile, metaphor, etc. are usually more evident. These same elements and use of imagery are also manifested in a novel-in–verse, but I have a lot more pages in which to develop them, so they are not always as apparent one any one page.
Q: Your book, Kaleidoscope Eyes, was a Chapter & Verse selection in 2009, one of our “Newbery contenders.” That book takes place in the 60’s and involves an exciting pirate treasure hunt. What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
The research for this book was a BLAST. I grew up in a small NJ town in the 60’s and 70‘s, so my memory was my first touchstone for the setting. I also read a lot of books, on-line articles and archives, and listened to a lot of music from the sixties—specifically from the summer of 1968, which is when the story takes place. I also read a ton about pirates, and in particular the life of Captain Kidd (coincidentally, one of his ships was found submerged of the coast of the Dominican Republic as I was writing the story.) I visited an awesome exhibit about pirates at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where I saw several examples of real pirate ships, treasure chests and even a pile of 17th century Spanish silver (arghhhhh!). Lastly, I had to read about rivers and how they can change course over time, a small but crucial plot element, which I invite readers to explore for themselves when they get the book!
Q: Writing a verse novel seems like a process with unique challenges. What advice do you have for writers who would like to write a novel in verse?
I came to verse novels through poetry, and I’m grateful for that. Most verse novels are well-written, but I do think it’s critical to have at least some fundamental understanding of poetic devices, elements and forms so that your novel doesn’t come off as merely chopped-up prose. Every page doesn’t have to be “publishable-on its own” quality, but each page should lean on the basic elements of poetry to a certain extent. So—read lots of master poets—work on your own poetry. That’s my advice.
Q: What have you read lately that you enjoyed?
I’ve been reading a lot for two projects I hope to do in the future (sorry—can’t tell you about those yet). But I also read and enjoyed Marcelo In the Real World (YA novel), William Stafford’s poetry collection Even In Quiet Places (for the fifth time), and The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate, by J. Kelly (awesome historical fiction.) I also re-read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
(Parts of this interview were first published in an interview with blogger Emily Kristin Morse in April of 2010. Jen Bryant has slightly revised and updated some of those answers for this interview.)