Author Interview: Jennifer Richard Jacobson on Stained

Stained by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Atheneum, 2005). Jocelyn loves Gabe, loves Benny, but Father Warren sees her as a demon child, a temptation, in league with Satan, all bad. Or is that just a diversion from his own agenda and manipulations? Ages 12-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Sometimes an event will spark an idea for a story — and yet no trace of the inspiration exists in the final form. That’s what happened with Stained. I had a dream in which a childhood friend (clearly distressed) told me that a marriage of thirty years was ending. He also said that he would miss the close relationship he had with his father. The next morning, I learned that my friend had died that night. We were both thirty years old.

For years I tried to write a ghost story around that dream. As you can see, there is no trace of a ghost, a dream, or a premonition in Stained. But somehow the many, many attempts to tell the first tale led me to the story I needed to tell.

Incidentally, my working title for Stained was Flying Dreams.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I had the dream in 1988 soon after my daughter was born. I had decided not to return to teaching and instead set out to write and consult (educationally) fulltime. I spent many years off and on trying to write this novel, but the Jocelyn’s voice eluded me. All of my drafts sounded tinny and well, shallow. I published two picture books and eventually two young novels, but Stained languished.

Around 2000, I read Joanna Beard‘s wonderful memoir The Boys of My Youth and something went right through me. She writes of her childhood in first person present and you feel as if she hasn’t forgotten a single detail. Experimenting, I began to write some scene’s from Jocelyn’s youth. These scenes had a power, an energy that had not existed in my earlier drafts. Her voice emerged. It was then that I started alternating chapters from Jocelyn’s past and present. (Later I discovered a dream journal I had kept in my twenties. Jocelyn’s voice is identical to the voice I used when recording my dreams.)

Franny Billingsley, who had heard early chapters of Stained at a writing retreat, introduced me to Richard Jackson at an IRA convention. Dick expressed interest in seeing my story, but I didn’t have a completed manuscript. I couldn’t get the ending. Not wanting to blow my chances, I continued to work on the story for two more years. My agent, Barry Goldblatt, read the story helped me revise a draft, and we FINALLY decided to send it off.

Dick called to say that he loved the story — until page 136. He didn’t like the ending. But, if I was willing to make a significant change (no spoilers here), he’d would be happy to work on it with me.

I imagine that we worked on the story together for a better part of a year (I have no sense of real time when I think of the writing of Stained. It is the only project I have allowed to grow entirely in its own time.) What did that look like? Mainly, Dick asked questions and I went in deeper for answers. My mantra that year was: “Is it true, yet?”

I didn’t want to drive my characters – they couldn’t act as vehicles for the story. I wanted to be true to their natures. All three of the kids in Stained were carrying shame, and shame causes us to act in confused and sometimes destructive ways.

Before we were done, Ginee Seo at Atheneum had also weighed in on the ending. She asked: What’s Jocelyn’s position in the community now? Is she more of an outsider than ever before, or is she more accepted? Essential questions like these helped me to continue to focus on hope.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Like most writers, I experienced challenges on both a logistical level and an emotional level. The alternating chapters proved to be the greatest challenge of craft. When I wanted to insert a scene from the past, I had to write another scene for the present and visa versa. And they couldn’t be just any old scene. My goal was to have each scene from the past inform the present, and each scene in the present hint of the past. Sometimes I felt as I was constructing an elaborate puzzle. I don’t think I’ll use such a rigid structure again!

On an emotional level, I struggled with the larger themes: abuse, sexual identity, coming of age, faith. What did I want to say? Interestingly, one of the themes that interested me most, and has been largely ignored by reviewers, is misogyny. The early seventies is often referred to as a time of free love, but Jocelyn was caught in that psychological double standard that existed then and does so today. She was “in partnership with the devil, cheap.” Today girls call one another sluts – and it’s still meant to degrade. What does this do to the female psyche? How does it operate in our collective consciousness?

I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the 70’s and recalling the details of my teen years. I had a wonderful copyeditor who doggedly researched the details. Fortunately, she caught an error right up front. In my very first chapter, I had an answering machine. Although they were invented in 1975, middle-class families hadn’t acquired them yet. Thank goodness for copyeditors.

Cynsational Links

I Am Alexandra Feodorovna AKA author Libba Bray’s WriteFest report, posted to her Live Journal. WriteFest is the Leitich Smith novel workshop. (See more on WriteFest at spookycyn; see primary workshop posts from June 14-19, including the participant roster).

Bartography: the blog of Chris Barton. Chris is the author of The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2007). Happy belated birthday, Chris!

Come to Your Senses from Out of My Mind, Sharon A. Soffe’s blog. On integrating sensory details into your writing.

The Quill Awards from Create/Relate, Anastasia Suen’s blog. A listing of nominees, including: September Roses by Jeanette Winter (FSG, 2004); The People Could Fly: The Picture Book by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Diane and Leo Dillon (Knopf, 2004); Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt, 2005); Gentle’s Holler by Kerry Madden (Viking, 2005); Pinned by Alfred C. Martino (Harcourt, 2005); The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart (Delacorte, 2005); Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005); So Hard To Say by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster, 2004); Spin Control by Niki Burnham (Simon Pulse, 2005); Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005). Mark your calendars! Voting begins online August 15.

Sarah Sullivan Official Author Site: new debut site from the author of Root Beer and Banana, illustrated by Greg Shed, and Dear Baby, illustrated by Paul Meisel, both published by Candlewick, 2005. Includes school visit information.