Taylorville natives to deliver program Friday at TPL
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Jennifer Wilson and Frederic S. Durbin will read from their own books and discuss how their hometown shaped their work
TAYLORVILLE — At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, June 24 at the Taylorville Public Library, Taylorville native authors Jennifer Wilson and Frederic S. Durbin will deliver a program for the public, reading from their own recent fiction and discussing how their hometown has been formative in their work. Both authors will have copies of their books available for sale at the event. As a preview for the community, Durbin has interviewed Wilson about her young-adult novel Someday We’ll Find It, published this spring by HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
FSD: You’ve traveled and have lived in some different places. Given all your experiences, at this stage of life, what drew you to write a YA novel set in a town that is very much like Taylorville, your old hometown?
JW: I’ve had a long career as a teacher, but a few years ago, I decided to pursue my lifelong dream of writing books for children. At Hamline University’s Masters of Writing for Children and Young Adults, I attended a lecture about exploring the settings of our lives, and images of the corn and the soybeans and the sun streaming down on the wide-open landscape of Central Illinois came back to me from my childhood. It was like a chemical reaction: my main character, Bliss, came alive for me in that moment and started whispering in my ear, telling me her story.
FSD: I have a theory that writers find their way into their own stories through different “doorways.” To some, the main character is the first thing that comes to them. Some are plotters. Some have an idea that keeps nagging them. For some, it’s setting. I’m that last kind. It’s the place that usually starts speaking to me first, and that leads me to all the other parts of the story. Does my theory hold true for you? What came to you as the very first inkling of your novel?
JW: Many years ago, I heard of a child named Bliss, and I thought that was a fascinating name to give a baby, full of so many promises. I woke up one morning with the first line of Someday We’ll Find It in my head, and I knew immediately the character’s name was Bliss. I couldn’t rest until I knew who Bliss was, and what had led her to this point in her life. Those questions led me to the other characters, and their interactions suggested plot events. Once I had the setting, I could picture each scene as clear as a movie, and I was able to write what I saw.
FSD: Young Adult usually isn’t a genre I read. But your book grabbed hold of me right away and pulled me straight through. I think it’s appealing for readers of different genders and different ages. I found it very easy to turn the pages and follow you all the way. Is that ability to pull readers in something you learned in your master’s program, is it a skill that comes naturally to you, or is it something you worked on a lot as you revised your novel? Can you tell us about things you did consciously to make your book come so vividly to life?
JW: Thank you! I’ve always been a storyteller and a voracious reader (Mrs.. Shoemaker, my 6th grade teacher at West School, would concur: she caught me numerous times reading a book instead of following the Social Studies lesson). At Hamline, I was fortunate to work with many talented faculty (even some Newbery and Printz winners!) who gave me excellent critiques. My cohort from Hamline has evolved into a writing group (and amazing friends), and they walked me through numerous knotty plot problems. One friend even acted out a particularly troublesome scene with me so I knew where in the room all the action was happening. All this feedback helped me eventually build a strong plot that made sense for the characters I had created. FSD: Speaking of revision, are you willing to share something about your process there? How did you get your book from its roughest initial state to the polished version we have now? Do you enlist the help of other readers?
JW: Writing an entire novel is an amazing accomplishment. But revision is where that murky gem is cut into facets and polished to (near) perfection. I had a lot of help straightening out the plot of Someday We’ll Find It, even before the three rounds of edits I went through with my editor at HarperTeen. The first draft was almost 111,000 words long—most YA contemporary novels are between 80,000 and 95,000. I made many passes through the manuscript, cutting one word at a time, until I trimmed almost 20,000 words. I scanned each character’s arc to streamline it, and I must have cut at least 100 uses of the word “just,” among other useless words.
FSD: Do you have a favorite part of the writing process? Daydreaming? Research? The very first draft, when anything is possible? Rewriting? Line-editing? Is there a part of the process you particularly dislike?
JW: I love planning and researching; those first few character studies I write to learn my characters’ quirks and foibles and how they react to each other. Drafting is satisfying because the word count increases with each session, and there is a tangible goal (THE END). Revision pleases my detail-oriented side, but it can make me frustrated when I can tell what’s not working, but I don’t know how to fix it.
FSD: May I ask for a look into your writing space and methods? Are you writing with a pen? A keyboard? Do you work in a particular place? Do you work best at certain times of day?
JW: I sit at my dining room table, sometimes my office or couch, and work on my laptop. If a scene is giving me trouble, I will write it out in a notebook to jog things loose. Early morning or late at night, I find the line between my conscious and subconscious mind is a little more blurry, and I can often access new ideas more easily. Sometimes, I need to squeeze writing time in at odd moments in order to make progress.
FSD: Your main character, Bliss, is a girl near the end of her high-school career. You have more experience now than she does. I was bowled over by how real she feels. She truly seems like an 18-year-old who thinks like an 18-year-old. How did you pull that off? How did you get into the head of a teenager with a teenager’s hopes, anxieties, misconceptions, insecurities, yearnings . . .?
JW: I think we all still have access to our younger selves if we listen hard enough. Someday We’ll Find It is not autobiographical, and Bliss is not me, but I reached back and mined my memories and emotions and used those to see through Bliss’s eyes. I thought I would be wise by this time in my life, but I still have many of the same questions I had as a teen about life, love, and relationships.
FSD: This novel would appeal to readers living anywhere, but I feel especially privileged to read it having grown up in Taylorville. I find myself recognizing locations in your book and being absolutely sure that I know what place you meant, though you call the town “Lakeville.” Did you do any rearranging of the town to fit the needs of your story? Is Lakeville different from Taylorville?
JW: My family moved away from Taylorville when I was eighteen, so I created “Lakeville” based on my memories of Taylorville geography. When a location didn’t suit me, I moved it, and I added things that might not exist, now or in the past. Any mistakes are mine alone, and were made with the best intentions for the sake of the story.
FSD: You chose to set your novel not during the school year, but during summer. Tell us about that choice. What went into it? What is it about summer that is the canvas for telling this story?
JW: Summer in Central Illinois is so specific: hot, humid, stormy, the air so thick and stagnant it makes the air wavy. Bliss’s experience is similar: she is stuck with Patsy, with River, in Lakeville without her Mama, and she can’t see a clear way out.
FSD: Your story is told in present tense. Can you tell us about that choice? Is that a common technique in YA books? Why was it right for Someday We’ll Find It?
JW: Many YA books are told in first person, present tense—I wanted the immediacy and intensity that present tense offers. Things are happening now in Bliss’s life, and I wanted to show her reactions in the moment, rather than looking back from some time in the future.
FSD: I’ll assume Bliss is the most compelling character for you; it’s her story. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!) Of the other characters in the book, do you have a favorite? If so, can you elaborate? Were there any characters especially easy to write? Difficult to write? Were there any characters who wouldn’t cooperate with you, who told you their part was different from what you had in mind? (That has definitely happened to me!)
JW: I love them all! But Bliss’s story is the one I was most curious to follow. I love Patsy, and her cousin/sibling dynamic with Bliss. It was very important to me that my characters were not straight-up heroines or villains. Uncle Leo doesn’t get much screen time, but every one of his scenes just flowed. Aggie and Beth were a happy surprise for me: I love their relationship and had no idea they were going to appear. Mama was hard to write, because I felt her pain so deeply, and I knew Bliss needed things from her she just couldn’t give. I was also missing my own mom, who died in 2011, so Mama’s storyline was very important yet challenging.
FSD: If you had to pick two or three books and/or authors who have been most influential for you . . . ?
JW: Holes by Louis Sachar is a nearly perfect middle grade novel. A Wrinkle in Time is my favorite classic, and the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner is just brilliant. And everything leads back to Where the Wild Things Are.
FSD: What’s next for you on the writing front? Will there be any more about Bliss as she goes through life? Will there be more YA? Are there other projects you’re pursuing?
JW: I’m working on another contemporary YA in the same setting with completely different characters. It’s about the relationship between two girls and a boy who meet, form an intense bond, then watch their relationship dissolve over the course of their senior year. I have a middle grade fantasy and a YA fantasy novel drafted, but they both need major revisions. I’ve written about thirty picture books in my pursuit of one that’s good enough to publish, and I still love the wordplay of writing poetry.
FSD: The book absolutely speaks for itself and will touch and engage readers even when you’re not there, communicating the love, insight, and wisdom with which you’ve written it. But imagine that you’re signing a copy of the novel and handing it over to an eager reader who looks up at you and beams. You have this moment to say something to that reader. What would you deliver with your work? What do you want that fan to take away from that face-to-face encounter with Jennifer Wilson, author of Someday We’ll Find It?
JW: You matter.
Your body is your own, your heart belongs to you, and it’s okay to want things and take up space in the world. Dream some dreams, and take the steps to make them come true. Create something—cooking, carpentry, doodles, gardens, and more. Follow your Bliss!