Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In Which I Review Faithful and Interview Janet Fox

“Sixteen-year old Maggie Bennet’s life is in tatters. Her mother has disappeared and is presumed dead. The next thing she knows, her father has dragged Maggie away from their elegant Newport home, off on some mad excursion to Yellowstone in Montana. Torn from the only life she’s ever known, Maggie is furious and devastated by her father’s betrayal. But when she arrives, she finds herself drawn to the frustratingly stubborn, handsome Tom Rowland, the son of a park geologist, and to the wild romantic beauty of Yellowstone itself. And as Tom and the promise of freedom capture her heart, Maggie is forced to choose between who she is and who she wants to be.”

Janet Fox’s debut historical fiction YA, Faithful (Penguin Speak), is a beautiful, beautiful novel. Fox has a lovely, gentle way of placing the reader into Maggie’s heart and head as she journeys from somewhat spoiled and shallow society girl to independent womanhood. Along the way, there’s mystery, romance, a band of robbers, an odious would be suitor named George Graybull, and a delightful homage to the doyenne of the Gilded Age, Edith Wharton. Fox’s eye for period details is sharp – from dress to mannerisms to the smallest of historical detail, she thrusts readers into that very specific period at the turn of the 20th century before the First World War. This period of great social and economic change serves as the perfect backdrop for Maggie’s story. I fell in love with this novel from chapter one and raced through it, drawn to Yellowstone’s wild and dangerous beauty along with Maggie, anxious to turn each page and find out what she would discover – not only about her mother’s disappearance (a truly surprising set of revelations there!) but about her own inner strength and fortitude and desire. Faithful is a wonderful read and would also be a fine novel to use in a classroom setting. Even its cover works well to evoke the novel’s central conceit – that starkly gorgeous image of a girl in a dress just slightly too bare, her back to us, her body drawn to the geyser in the distance. You will love this book.

And Janet herself was gracious enough to stop by and let me interview her about writing, Faithful, and some other cool stuff. Thanks, Janet!!
Joy: In Faithful, Maggie blossoms from a girl who basically does what is expected of her - even though it chafes - to one who follows her own heart. What drew you to giving her that particular journey? Is it something you see yourself exploring with other characters?

Janet: Maggie’s journey was my own. I was one of those “good girls.” I always did what was expected, even when it grated on my nerves. I wanted my mom and dad to be proud of their little girl. It took me a long time – all the way through my teens and well into my twenties – to learn how to listen to my heart, and still respect their views. I guess I was living again through Maggie, but she was able to find her own place in the world a lot sooner than I did!

I think all teens are looking for ways to follow their own path, to set out on their personal journey. We’re all on unique journeys, but fundamentally our stories intersect in the search. How do we find out what we really believe in? Will we like the person we are when we look in the mirror? All my stories, I hope, explore that same question, the question of identity.

Joy: I've mentioned to you that I see a definite homage to Gilded Age writers such as Edith Wharton, whose works are filled with characters trapped between the expectations of wealthy society and the longings of their own hearts. Any particular authors who had an influence on your writing of this novel?

You’ve already pegged me with the Wharton. J The Age of Innocence definitely influenced me with Maggie. Maggie’s last name is Bennet – an homage to Jane Austin’s Bennets, from Pride and Prejudice. And contemporary authors who influenced Faithful? Laurie Halse Anderson, Jennifer Donnelly, Kirby Larson. Even when their characters are not wealthy, they face society’s expectations, which are usually in conflict with their own dreams and desires.

Joy: It's evident both from the text and from your afterward material that you did a sizeable amount of research for Faithful. Do you enjoy researching? Which parts did you enjoy most?

I do love research! I love burrowing into material, whether it’s historical or contemporary. With Faithful, I spent tons of time in museums, reading literature of the period, reading about the era and setting. I read old newspapers; I looked through hundreds of photographs of the period. I found museums where I could handle and study the period costumes. (Alas – I have yet to actually don a corset. Not that I want to wear one.)

True confession: I have a museum fetish. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about past or future – some of my favorite museums are science museums. I love going into those semi-dark places and letting my imagination wander. How did our ancestors live – for that matter, how do people in other parts of the world live today? What was it like to churn butter, to weave on a loom, to spin thread? What was it like when dinosaurs walked the earth? How would we live on Mars or explore the far reaches of space?

Research is all about expanding the imagination, stretching what is into what is possible.

Joy: Why Montana? Why Yellowstone? For that matter, why the Gilded Age setting? You go into the some in your afterward as well, but if you could elaborate a little for my readers?

Janet: Montana: our family has a cabin there, and we love it. We really love it, and I think that love shows up in Faithful. Yellowstone: The first time I went there, I felt like I’d entered some special, magical world – all those geysers and weird animals – like something right out of a fantasy. Like I’d stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia. What better place to set a novel? The Gilded Age: it was a turning point. Women were just becoming emancipated; people had just discovered flight, telephones, cinema; the world had not yet experienced the horrors of a world war. In some ways it was the Age of Innocence; in some ways it was the Age of Ignorance. It was the age of the balancing act, and the beginning of change.

Joy: Can you tell us a little bit about the journey that led to Faithful debuting onto bookshelves a few weeks ago?

Janet: Sure! I worked on Faithful for about 3 years before my agent – Alyssa Eisner Henkin – read it in a critique at an SCBWI conference. She signed me 2 months later, and then worked on the manuscript with me for six months before she sent it out. My editor, Jen Bonnell at Penguin, expressed an interest it a few months later, and bought it in the spring of 2008. As you can tell from the number of years here – 2004 until publication in 2010 – that first novel can take a while from vision through revision to publication.

Joy: Why YA?

Janet: I write for the reader I was, and the reader I am. I loved to read as a teen. I devoured books. But I look for character, and story. I like books that “go” somewhere – and YA today has grown into a genre that is rich in story, even more so than when I was a kid. When I have a choice of reads, I pick up YA.

Joy: Peanut butter or chocolate? (I've started asking everyone that and I'm really enjoying the answers)

Janet: Do Reeses count? Seriously – I lived on them in high school. But if it was the desert island/going to the moon choice…chocolate. Really, really dark chocolate.

Joy: Advice for aspiring writers out there?

Janet: Writing the first draft – just get it down. Let it be ugly and squash your inner critic. Let her out of the box when you start to revise, but don’t let her get you down. There will be times when you hate writing, when you hate your writing. You must love what you write and the process itself so much that you can overcome the self-doubt. Writing is all about revision. I need to do multiple revisions, with a different strategy for each (take it apart, put it back together, plot scene by scene, try a different voice…you get the idea.) Read until your eyeballs burn. Read a lot; read widely. Learn how to write by studying other great writers whose work you admire.

Joy: Do you actually ride horses? If not, how did you get those details to feel so authentic?

Janet: I do actually ride, though not so much at the moment. We had a horse for a few years, and I loved riding. But I also have friends in horsey places and I asked – “Did I say that right? Is that the right term?” I try to fact-check everything. That way I can sleep better at night.

Joy: What's coming next for you? What can readers look forward to?

Janet: I’m working on a companion novel to Faithful. It takes place in San Francisco in 1906 – the time of the great earthquake. I can’t say too much about it, or I’ll spoil some of the mysteries in Faithful. But the title of book 2 is Forgiven, and it’s about a girl (not Maggie) who needs to learn to accept herself as she is and to forgive herself and others. And of course she must survive the earthquake, and fall in love, and solve a few mysteries.

And after that, I’m working on a project about angels and demons and a boy who must save humankind…

Thank you so much, Joy!


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