Thursday, August 12, 2010

Interview with Jane Harrington


Bookworm: What was the inspiration behind 4 Things and My Best Friend?
Jane: When my middle daughter (Emma) was thirteen, I took her on a Mediterranean cruise. It was, like Brady's trip in the book, a "not mitzvah"--an event my husband and I made up to help out daughters feel that coming-of-age could be important even in a family with a mixed religious heritage. So, that was the inspiration for Four Things. The storyline is totally made up, but settings and characters are, well, familiar.
My Best Friend continues Brady's adventures, and is more imaged than Four Things, I guess you could say. I had our local high school in mind (TC Williams HS in Virginia, actually, which was the school from the movie Remember the Titans), and modeled some characters after neighborhood kids. Delia's sense of humor certainly mirrors that of one of Emma closest buddies. I had tons of fun writing My Best Friend: the characters were just off the map most of the time, and even I would crack up in surprise in the things they did and said. Hm...that sounds kind of crazy, doesn't it? Maybe the creative process is really just a form of insanity. A good insanity, though!

Bookworm: Where in the world have you traveled, and where would you like to go?
Jane: From the time I was born in 1959 until I graduated high school in 1977 I never traveled beyond the east coast of the US. And then I went to college locally, in the DC area, so I STILL didn't get anywhere. But I've been trying to make up for that since. I've been to various Caribbean islands, Mexico (Mayan ruins are COOL), and in 2000, I made it to
Europe. Ireland was my first venture across the pond, then Paris another time, then the Mediterranean cruise (Italy, France, Spain, & Malta), and then Ireland three more times. That has become a bit of an obsession.

Oh, yeah! And I've gone to lots of other awesome places IN the US now, like the Grand Canyon, which is AMAZING. We went on a family rafting trip down the Colorado River there in 2009, when my oldest daughter Meghan graduated from law school. We hiked all the way down from the rim to the river, and then spent a week whitewater rafting and camping under the stars--I totally recommend that! Next trip in the works? And Alaskan cruise. CAN'T WAIT.

Bookworm: Do you have a funny travel story?
Jane: Well, there are a lot of funny things that happened on the Mediterranean cruise with Emma, and I just had a fairly zany trip to Ireland with my three sisters (for instance, our mother bought us matching raincoats for the trip, which is both funny and not funny at the same time, considering we’re all kind of OLD for that), but I think I’ll share a memory from a trip I took with my youngest daughter, Lucy, since she hasn’t figured into this interview yet. She was 18 at the time.

We were in Ireland (of course), the summer of 2009, and we decided to climb a mountain to look for a holy well from ancient Celtic times. It was the kind of place where people used to “do rounds,” which was all about chanting and going in circles, and leaving offerings, etc. People did it to get cures for illnesses, or to appease the sidhe folk (which were always causing trouble to humans), or to get good weather, a bountiful harvest, stuff like that.

We had a map, so we kind of knew where the thing was supposed to be. It took an hour to climb the mountain, and once at the top we looked and looked and looked, but couldn’t really find this well. Then Lucy noticed a small fenced-in spot in the middle of a sheep pasture, so we figured that had to be it. (It had become very obvious that this well had not been so popular in modern times.) This sheep pasture was steep, and the grass was really long. But we were determined to see the well up close. So, we carefully made our way down to the fenced-in place, and, sure enough, it was a pretty little well with purple heather growing around it. Water trickled from a rock at its base. We made offerings and wishes, and were really, really satisfied with ourselves for finding it.

When we were done, we looked back up the grassy pasture, and then down to the bottom of it, where there was another trail. I decided that going down would be easier than going back up to where we came from. Lucy didn’t agree, so we parted—she headed up, I headed down. Very soon I came to realize that under the thick grass at my feet was a LOT of water. And it was moving swiftly. As these invisible currents pulled at my shoes, and it became harder and harder to lift my feet out of the matted sod, I started getting crazy thoughts about disappearing into a watery Celtic underworld where the sidhe would shrink me or turn me into a changeling, or
marry me off to a merman, or whatever it is that sidhe do in a situation like that. SO, I did what any normal human would do in a situation like that: I starting screaming. Looking back up the hill, I could see that Lucy was standing, quite safely, on the trail above the field, while I still had half the hill to scale in order to reach bottom. She was “encouraging” me to continue on—if you consider laughing at your mother a form of encouragement—and lifted her camera and began memorializing my predicament.

Okay, this wasn’t so funny for ME, maybe, but I do laugh at the memory. Here’s one of Lucy’s pictures (obviously, I lived to tell!):

Bookworm: What's next for you, writing-wise?

Jane: The book I’m working on right now is a departure from my past published works. It’s a lengthier mix of a contemporary story of a teen traveling to Ireland + a story of an Irish family just before their exodus from that land during the Great Hunger (a.k.a. the Famine) of Ireland. The contemporary story of the teen is not a new thing for me (though humorous antics are not part of her repertoire), but the historical fiction is what has become quite a project.

The nineteenth-century Irish family is based on the genealogic record of my own Harrington ancestors, so I have felt compelled to find out as much as I can about them. I had not done any genealogy work before I started on that quest. I love it, it’s fascinating, but it’s also addictive. I spend too much time trying to piece together their lives—both in Ireland and in the US—and not enough time actually writing about them. Every time I get a chapter done, I go back and ask myself questions like, “What kinds of berries would have grown around them? Where did they go to the get water for cooking and bathing? What did their clothes look like? Did they have shoes?” I don’t mind fleshing out characters, making up dialogue and putting them into scenes (it’s fiction, after all), but I won’t be satisfied with the work unless I’ve made it as authentically honest as I can.

The desire for this authenticity has also turned me into a wannabe Irish historian. In order to get inside the heads of my characters, I needed to understand why the Irish peasants were so poor, why they starved, why they fled in such great numbers. (A million left during the years of the Great Hunger, a million more died on the streets…in a country the size of New Jersey.) So, it took a lot of reading, and a lot of imagining, and searching newspaper articles in Irish libraries, and visiting memorials, and reading old manuscripts (some in the Irish language, which I had to have translated). Whenever I could, I made this a focus of my own English graduate studies—looking at the Great Hunger through poetry from the period, for instance. I have LOVED the research. But with my master’s degree earned now, four trips to Ireland completed, and a bookshelf and laptop computer chockfull of texts, it’s time for me to finish the writing. (I repeat, now, to myself: IT’S TIME FOR ME TO FINISH THE WRITING!)

Bookworm: What is your favorite part about writing for teens?

Jane: I guess what I appreciate most about the teen reader is her complexity. When I'm writing for teens, I know I have to earn every laugh, every tear. I've written for younger ages, and that's totally fun, but there's a definite satisfaction in knowing I've pasted muster with the high school crowd. That's my goal right now, with this latest work. So I better continue on with that. (And now for the requisite metaphor:) Though it may take some serious effort to get ther--splurch, splurch, AHHHH!--I can see that path at the bottom of the hill, and it's gonna feel GREAT to stand on it.

Thanks so much, Jane! Visit Jane online here


Anonymous said...

Jane sounds like a lot of fun! I look forward to more of her interviews and plan to continue reading her books.

Anonymous said...

Jane is awesome

Anonymous said...

I read her books all the time, and once I start them I can't stop until the end!!! I love her. <3