Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jessie Ann Foley: The Morris Award Interview

Welcome to the 2015 Morris Award Interview series. Today's interview is with Jessie Ann Foley, author of The Carnival at Bray. She talks about music, setting, and her romance with the world.

On Thursday, January 29 Rachel Hartman interviews E.K. Johnston, author of The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim. 

The Carnival at Bray 

“Take the boy. Don’t ask permission. There will always be time to do the responsible thing. Before that, live.”
The Carnival at Bray is an electrifying story of loss and triumph, family and adventure, and of the earth-shattering power of music and love from newcomer Jessie Ann Foley.

It’s 1993, and Generation X pulses to the beat of Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from big-city Chicago to a windswept town on the Irish Sea. Surviving on care packages of Spin magazine and Twizzlers from her rocker uncle Kevin, she wonders if she’ll ever find her place in this new world. When first love and sudden death simultaneously strike, a naive but determined Maggie embarks on a forbidden pilgrimage that will take her to a seedy part of Dublin and on to a life-altering night in Rome to fulfill a dying wish. Through it all, Maggie discovers an untapped inner strength to do the most difficult but rewarding thing of all—live.
(Description from publisher's site)

Notice that there are TWO*** shiny silver award stickers on The Carnival at Bray. Winner of the Helen Sheehan YA Book Prize, it is the first YA novel published by Elephant Rock Books. 

The Morris Award is for a "first time author writing for teens." Was that your intended audience as you wrote this story? Do you think there is anything distinctive about "YA" fiction?

When I was a teenager, I wanted so badly to travel and see the world. But aside from two glorious trips to Disney World, I didn't really leave the Midwest, let alone the United States, until I was in my twenties. In the meantime, I had the next best thing: books. So if I think about it, my intended audience for The Carnival at Bray was young people who are just like I was--kids who are getting impatient for their romance with the world to begin, and who read books for glimpses into that world.

Musical culture is an integral part of The Carnival Bray. Are you a musician? Do you listen to music as you write?

I played piano when I was younger, but I'm so rusty now that even simple sheet music is painfully difficult—but painful, mostly, because I know that if I was a real musician, I would never have lost the ability to the extent that I have. I never listen to music when I write because I find it distracting, but as any writer knows, we probably spend more time letting our ideas percolate than we do actually putting the words on the page. While I was writing The Carnival at Bray, I did a lot of this percolating to music—in the car, mostly. I made some 90's playlists on Spotify and dusted off my old Case Logic CD books. I have to admit, I had better taste in music when I was a teenager than I do now. 

LISTEN TO THE PLAYLIST for Carnival at Bray 

Maggie has a terrible sense of direction and a broken compass in her pocket, but she sets off for Rome. Can you talk a bit about pilgrimage?

Dan Sean is the person who first uses the word "pilgrimage" to describe Maggie's trip. A devout Catholic, he couldn't conceive of going to Rome for any reason other than a religious one. But once Dan Sean uses that word, Maggie realizes that the description fits. She is not just going to see a concert, of course, but to pay homage at the shrine of Kevin, her beloved uncle for whom music was its own religion. 

The elders, Dan Sean, Sister Genev, and Nanny Ei are all important figures in Maggie's life. Why did you include such multi-generational figures in the book?

I really don't like reading YA novels where adult characters are totally one-dimensional, as if teenagers are incapable of relating to anyone who isn't their own age. Older people have so much to teach us, and I wanted Maggie to be the type of kid who is willing to listen and learn from those teachers.

I'm pleased to have another voice in this conversation: Carrie Mesrobian, author of Sex and Violence (shortlisted for the Morris last year) and Perfectly Good White Boy. 

Carrie to Jessie: 

Brava on the sex writing. Even the initial Paul scenes which were uncomfortable - they were real. What I took from this book was so much about resilience of young people. We often assume that everything that happens at that age is tragic and formative - and it can be! - but at the time it happens, we don't know that. And Maggie's resilience through her experiences of being new in Bray, of Paul being awful, of her Mom and Colm's relationship, of her uncle Kevin's issues, just shines through so wonderfully.

How did you negotiate all the settings in your story so well? You make great leaps from the U.S. to Ireland to Italy and I followed Maggie every step of the way.

Jessie to Carrie:

Thanks so much for that nice compliment! I think that most writers have some aspects of the craft that come easier to them than others. For me, I love writing description, building a sense of place for the reader, and I have a much harder time with, say, writing dialogue. I think that may be a direct influence of the Storyworkshop Method, which is a teaching method that is specific to Columbia College Chicago, where I earned my MFA. At Columbia, we often did an exercise called "Take a Place," which emphasized the idea of seeing in the mind; of beginning with a place, seeing it as vividly as possible--the close-up and far-away sounds, the smells, the objects--and then populating it with characters. If I look back at the first chapter of the novel, for example, which was originally written as a stand-alone short story, I can see that influence of Columbia in my writing. The other thing I will say is that the three settings of the stories are all places that I love, and I wanted to write them with love, as I saw and experienced them.


You are a teacher.* Is there one text you love to use in the classroom? Why?

I never, ever get sick of teaching Romeo and Juliet. I taught it three times a day, eight years in a row, and each time I taught it I learned something new. There's a hilarious piece in the Onion which totally captures the (somewhat sad) joy that English teachers get from seeing their students shocked, floored, or otherwise affected by literature. There are so many scenes in Romeo and Juliet that have the power to hook, and to awe, even the most skeptical kids. The language! The story! The tragedy! It is SO GOOD. 

What was the last song you added to your playlist?

'03 Bonnie and Clyde, by Jay Z and Beyonce. You know how a song just pops into your head out of nowhere sometimes, and you HAVE to hear it right then and there? Seriously, what did people do before Spotify?

The Ferris Wheel is broken, is there any other carnival ride that tempts you?

The Space Odyssey, which actually gets a mention in the first chapter. It's the ride that spins so fast you get stuck to the padded wall, and then the floor drops out from under you. As a kid it was my favorite. However, it's not really conducive to scenes of contemplation or romance** the way a Ferris Wheel is. 

What is your favorite picture book? 
By (author) E. E. Cummings, Illustrated by Mati Rose Mcdonough.
Published by Cameron and Company, Inc. 

I'm rediscovering picture books now that I have a little girl. I love the classics from my own childhood—Blueberries for SalThe Runaway Bunny, and there are also some great new ones. Press Here by Herve Tullet is adorable. So is Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman. But my absolute favorite is a picture book I have of e.e. cumming's poem, "I Carry Your Heart With Me." I get teary-eyed whenever I read it to my baby.

Have you ever slept in a barn with a goat?

No! But I have been kicked by one.

Writing advice in five words or less...

Read. Write. Every single day.

I haven't crunched the numbers, but it is fair to say that teaching is well-represented among the Morris noms over the years.

** Why do I feel like I've missed out since I never yelled "I love you! What is the meaning of my existence?" while on the Space Odyssey/Gravitron? I'm adding that to my to-do list. 

***Editing to say THREE! Today The Carnival at Bray got a Printz Honor. 

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