Jennifer Donnelly has been making a bit of a splash in the book world lately. After some trying years and a good number of rejection letters, last fall saw the publication of Donnelly's debuts in both adult fiction ( The Tea Rose, St. Martin's) and children's picture books ( Humble Pie, Atheneum). Now comes her first young adult novel, A Northern Light (Harcourt), a piece of historical fiction that is also the first of her works to be adapted as an audiobook, read by actress Hope Davis. PW recently spoke with Donnelly about her latest project—and how it translates to audio.
PW: What inspired you to write this story?
JD: Stories about Grace Brown's murder [Chester Gillette was convicted and executed for killing Brown, his pregnant girlfriend] had always been part of the lore of where I grew up. I had heard about Grace as a child because I lived close to where she was killed in the Adirondacks. As I got older, I read her actual letters [to Gillette] and they completely blew me away. I also read Dreiser's book [An American Tragedy, also based on the Brown murder] and some nonfiction accounts that excerpted letters. I mean, how often do you get to hear a dead person speak? I was terribly upset that this lovely young woman was so brutally murdered because she was an inconvenience. I actually grieved for her; her words moved me so deeply. I dealt with my emotion like any writer does—I wrote about it. I wanted to change the past in a way. Grace's life ended on Big Moose Lake, but Mattie's [Donnelly's protagonist] begins there.
PW: How does it feel to be receiving all this recognition?
JD: It feels great. I struggled for a long time to get anything published. I feel like I've won the Derby! You put a book out there and you think 'Is anyone going to pay attention to it?' With A Northern Light, I've already heard from teenage readers, teachers, librarians—it's been so gratifying. It's amazing that you can take something that matters so deeply to you and make it matter to someone else.
PW: Had you always had the audiobook adaptation in mind?
JD: No, I didn't. My agent mentioned that Listening Library was interested and it took off from there. [Listening Library publisher] Tim [Ditlow] and [producer] Orli [Moscowitz] were wonderful. They included me on every part of the process. You naturally feel anxious with anything like that because it's your baby.
PW: Did you have any contact with Hope Davis?
JD: I was invited to the studio for a recording session and I was just astonished. I know it sounds silly, but she's just one person—how does she make each voice so distinct and true? She brought everything that Mattie is to the recording, a practical, wry vulnerability. I always pictured the cook, Mrs. Hennessey, as an Irish-American woman. Hope gave her an Irish accent and she changed the character for me, in a positive way. When it's all done, it just takes your breath away. By that stage, you've been through it a million times, but then someone brings new insights to it and gives it back to you as a gift.
PW: Are you an audiobook fan, in general?
JD: I had listened only to a small degree, sometimes in the car. But Listening Library sent some tapes for me and I really enjoyed them. Especially Hope Davis's version of Pictures of Hollis Woods. Listening makes you a little kid again—you get to sit down and hear someone read a great story. The sense of wonder comes back.
PW: What's next for you?
JD: I am traveling to England for the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival to do a reading there [May 28]. My book is being published in the U.K. by Bloomsbury as The Gathering Light. Then I'll be trying to work on two books at once: a sequel to The Tea Rose and a new young adult novel that, of course, will be historical. I just love historical fiction. And in addition to all that, I am expecting my first child later this summer. I'm very excited. I just know that this child is doomed to be a historian as well—I spend way too much time hanging out with dead people!