Lisa Jahn-Clough has been in the field of children’s literature as author, illustrator, and professor since 1994 and has published over a dozen picture books and three young adult novels. She has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and currently teaches at Rowan University. Lisa lives with her husband and their two dogs in a little yellow house in Portland, Maine in the summer and across from a cornfield in southern New Jersey in the winter. Your new young adult novel, NOTHING BUT BLUE (Houghton Mifflin, 2013), doesn’t fit neatly into any subgenre. Shadow, the telepathic stray that acts as your main character’s companion, doesn’t help clarify one, either. How would you characterize the book?
I suppose I am still waiting for someone to tell me what type of book NOTHING BUT BLUE is. In my mind it is a mostly realistic story about a character who survives a tragedy, with occasional magical elements. One reviewer labeled it as survival fiction, and yes, Blue is a survivor, so that could be right. Another reviewer said it has touches of the spiritual, which probably is a reference to Blue’s connection to nature as well as to the stray dog.
The lack of obvious subgenre may have been a risk, and it may very well confuse and annoy some readers, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I’ve never liked labels to begin with, so a part of me is pleased that you find this novel difficult to pigeon-hole. My goal has always been to write the story that works, and not have to define it as a certain type of story. I leave that to my readers!
However, there were things I wanted to attempt in this novel that may help clarify a genre. I wanted to eliminate all superficial materialism, which is why Blue has literally lost everything she owns. I wanted my character to live in the absolute present, which meant attempting a style of present-tense that had little to no reference to past or future. I wanted my character to go on a journey—every story takes a character on a metaphorical journey, but I wanted mine to go on a literal journey as well.
I also wanted to exaggerate feelings of isolation, which is why Blue is (mostly) alone. She walks approximately 500 miles with no money, no food, no phone, no memory, in a state of shock with limited resources. At first she is completely alone, but that is not sustainable for a novel, so I had to give her something to interact with. She runs into a motley collection of characters, but she needed something more constant, even if only to give her some dialogue to break up the monotony of narration. I was wondering who that would be, when I looked up to meet the gaze of my dog lying on the couch in my office. He raised his head at me, and I said, “Of course, a dog!” My dog seemed pleased with that and went back to sleep.
That’s where the telepathic stray dog comes in. It’s not clear if Shadow (the dog) is literally or figuratively speaking to Blue, but Blue needs companionship so badly that she believes he is. This is what gives the novel its possible otherworldly element.
The dog-human bond is really quite magical, especially if you spend a lot of time together—you begin to read one another’s moods and desires, so the level of communication can sometimes feel very real. I mean, I talk to my dogs all the time and often get a sense that they are communicating back to me. I wanted to try to capture this type of relationship between Blue and Shadow, yet make it somewhat surreal. But it really depends on how the reader interprets it. NOTHING BUT BLUE is told in dual narrative—sections alternate between Blue’s past and her present. What were some of the challenges of writing in such a complex POV?
A major tragedy occurs just before the novel opens. I wrote most of the present-tense “now” scenes first, not necessarily in order, where Blue has no memory of this event and can only focus on the absolute present. When I’d written twenty or so scenes, all in present tense from the point of view of a girl suffering from Acute Stress Disorder, I realized the reader would need more clues to sustain interest and to have an understanding of who Blue was in the past in order to compare her to how she is in the present. Blue is in the dark, but the reader shouldn’t be.
So I started writing sections in Blue’s past voice in the three months prior to the tragedy. Originally I thought they might be flashback scenes interwoven with the present, but for the sake of clarity I made them separate chapters. The story of the past and the story of the present eventually come together but not until the very end when Blue regains her memory in a final chapter titled, “Before and Now.”
One of the most fun challenges was to never reveal Blue’s real name in the entire novel. Blue is the name she gives herself in the present, but even in the “before” chapters I never once wrote her name. I do know what her real name is, but I won’t ever tell. In my mind, she leaves the past behind and transforms into her much stronger present self—named Blue. Your previous YA novel, ME, PENELOPE (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), was the target of a 2009 book banning in Orlando, Florida. What’s the most valuable lesson you took from that experience?
In ME, PENELOPE, the protagonist wants to lose her virginity before going to college and ends up having safe and emotionally healthy mutual sex with a very dear friend. The thing that the banners took issue with was not so much that she has sex, but that she has a desire to have sex, and that when she finally does have sex it is enjoyable. Honestly, I think if sex was forced on her, or she’d ended up having a bad experience and “learned her lesson,” it would not have been banned. There’s nothing graphic in the book at all.
I feel as though I went through a rite of passage and have joined the ranks of those who have a banned book—it is quite good company. But in the scheme of things it was not that paramount. It was just one county, and although I have received several “hate” emails it is nothing like some YA authors receive.
The main thing I took away was to not engage with readers who yell at you. Do not defend your work to those who approach it with an ideology already in mind. At first I wanted to explain to the parents and school board why I wrote ME, PENELOPE the way I did, but after several attempts at unsent responses it became very clear that I would never be able to explain my character’s choices, and nor should I have to, no matter how tempting it may be. I wanted to retaliate by defending by explaining free speech and intellectual freedom, etc., but when someone is so mad at a book, the writer’s defense will be useless. You’ve said that you’ve built your writing career around “a lonely character finding companionship through love or friendship”—and that falling in love with your now-husband derailed you for a few years. How did you move past the fear that “there was nothing else to write about”?
I am one of those writers that started in childhood. I liked people fine, but I never needed a lot of friends and I never liked superficiality (I still don’t). When it came to my work I was a complete loner. I need quiet in my brain, which means not being distracted or attending to anyone.
But the irony is that so much of my work, even as a young child, was about loneliness and finding connection. My melancholy drove my work. I wanted to connect with someone, but there was always this fear that if I did I’d have nothing left to write about. I thought if I ever had a serious partner I’d lose my creative self. I was also incredibly driven to have a career as an author and professor and a relationship was not my priority.
However, love is a strange thing in that it hits you at a time when you are both ready and not ready, and it happens both incredibly fast and painfully slow. And it wasn’t just falling in love that derailed me, although that was definitely a big change in my life and any big change, good or bad, causes a shift. At the same time, my editor retired after I’d been working with him for fourteen years. My now-husband, then boyfriend, took a job down south. I left my job and we moved together. [This] was a lot of transition. In fact I probably felt a bit like Blue—lost, confused and unsure of where I was headed and what I’d left behind. (Without the tragedy, of course.)
I was writing, but everything I wrote was crap that had no spark and no one wanted to publish. Was my biggest fear true—did love leave me with nothing left to say? Was it the relationship, or was it all because of my editor retiring?
Inevitably, after writing crap for a year, something decent will emerge. So I suppose I found my way back by writing. It just took longer than usual. The next picture book that found a publisher was FELICITY AND CORDELIA: A TALE OF TWO BUNNIES, about two characters who are friends from the get-go; their problem is how to balance being happy together with maintaining independent desires. It was definitely a different approach to my writing and it felt right, and it reopened the door to my career and paved the path to write NOTHING BUT BLUE. In addition to a robust career as an author and an illustrator, you’re an assistant professor of creative writing at Rowan University, in Glassboro, New Jersey. Which idea or concept do you find the most difficult to teach?
I teach both undergraduate and graduate level courses in creative writing and writing for children and young adults. In the undergrad classes the hardest thing to teach is how to be imaginative. I can go over craft issues such as tense, point of view, character, dialogue but those are basic necessities. Those are all things that can be taught and learned. But my ultimate desire is to allow students to feel free enough to let go of their preconceptions of what writing should be, and especially of what writing for children should be, and to take risks and be a bit absurd. I think I’ve been getting better at finding ways to inspire and getting them to find ways into the absurd. But it is still a challenge.
Voice is also a challenge to teach, and this is often where originality and quirkiness begins. Some students have a very natural, easy style to their writing that is very much from themselves, even if the writing has nothing to do with themselves. Others are clearly trying too hard. It is very difficult to explain “trying too hard.”
So more and more I want them to be playful. Having them write in-class, having them write outside of class, and having them read interesting books is the best way to do this.
I think writing is a lot about being comfortable and confident—two things that can be hard to force—and it comes with practice, trust, and faith. Download the discussion guide for NOTHING BUT BLUE here.
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