Skip to main content

Author Talk: September 2007

September 2007

In this interview conducted by Kristen Switzer --- a contributor to Children’s & Teen Librarian, an online newsletter produced by Ingram Library Services --- Jenny Downham recounts the roundabout road that led to the publication of her debut novel, BEFORE I DIE, and sheds light on the motivations behind the behavior of her complex protagonist, Tessa.

She also recalls a favorite memory from her childhood about her school library, shares some of her favorite writers and reveals what she'd like to accomplish on her own "Before I Die" list.

Question: BEFORE I DIE is your first novel, and it has been very well received. How long did you take to write the book, and what has the journey into YA fiction been like for you?

Jenny Downham: It took two and a half years from conception to completion. 

My journey into YA fiction began in the mid-90s when I was an actor working for Tellers Theatre --- a community theatre company based in London. We used improvisation techniques to take stories to young people who wouldn’t normally have access to them --- in prisons, hospitals, young offender’s units, youth clubs and housing estates. It was often terrifying. Yet every day was a grand adventure. I was making stories on my feet. 

I worked with them for seven years until I had my second son and it became too difficult --- two young children out on the road. I gave up acting and began to write. 

I used all my acting techniques to do it. I still do. I keep notebooks and journals and diaries for the characters, researching them as if I’m going to play them on stage --- what they like to eat, what their hopes and fears are. It might not all get in the book, but it helps me to know who they are. 

In 2003 I entered the London Writer’s Competition, just to see what would happen. I won first prize and began to take myself more seriously. I joined a writer’s group and this provided me with a place for on-going critical feedback and support.

By 2005 I’d finished my first novel and I sent it out to agents. I met lots of them. And publishers. But I began to realise that first books are often where writers learn their craft and that it would need some re-writing. Since I had begun BEFORE I DIE, I was reluctant to go back. Two more years passed. I wrote every day (almost) and by March 2007, BEFORE I DIE was finished. I had an agent by then --- Catherine Clarke. She showed it to a publisher, David Fickling. He liked it. He made a pre-emptive offer. Within less than 24 hours, the book had also sold to Holland, and in a further 10 languages within two weeks. 

Q: Tessa is much more than the leukemia in her body, but it is a --- if not the --- defining element of her life. How would you describe Tessa to readers?

JD: Tessa is sixteen and like many teenagers is desperate for her life to truly ‘begin’, to have autonomy, to escape the restrictions imposed by adults. Because her body is failing and she’s so closely observed, it’s more difficult for her to experiment with who she is and what she wants. So she makes a list and sets about trying to achieve the things on it with stroppy relish, deciding that normal rules don’t apply to her. She’s selfish and inconsiderate, angry and afraid, but also capable of profound love, empathy and self-awareness. Her illness forces her to value things in a different way, to seek out the things that truly matter.

Q: Everyone around Tessa focuses on her dying, while she just wants to live life with the short time she has left. We live in a culture where we tend to save the good sheets and only bring out the fine china on special occasions. Why do you think that’s the case? Why don’t we just live?

JD: Life becomes concentrated when it’s boundaried and death is the biggest boundary of all. When you can’t look into the future, then all you have is the present, and small ordinary things can become rich. I think most of us don’t live in the present because it’s extremely hard to do. We save up for the future, looking forward to tomorrow when things might be better or different somehow. Very young children can just ‘live’ because they have no concept of time. I believe adults get closest to it when present at some peak experience --- childbirth, a death, a time of intense love or loss, when nothing else matters. Or perhaps when we are stunned by the beauty of the natural world --- a kind of primeval sensibility that allows us to be truly ‘in the moment’. I think it’s rare though, and it slips away from us all the time.

Q: What are some of the items on your “Before I Die” list?

JD: My list is huge and kind of private! Two simple and easily achieved items would be --- the pet rabbit I promised my children but still haven’t got around to getting and the herb garden I never manage to begin. Two more complicated items would be --- travel without fear (I hate flying) and saying the important things to people who matter. Writing the book has changed my perspective though --- I’m far more impulsive than I used to be and I think that’s a good thing. 

Q: Can you tell us about the YA novels and authors that influenced you as a young reader? What titles in the genre have caught your attention recently?

JD: As a young reader I devoured poetry --- VERSES FOR LITTLE PEOPLE (Young World Productions), FAVORITE POEMS TO READ OUT LOUD (Spring Books, London), and various Zebra paperbacks of narrative poems and anthologies for young readers. Enid Blyton’s re-telling of Tales of Arabian Nights and Tales of Ancient Greece were really important to me, as were Andersen’s fairy tales. I loved Ann Holm’s I AM DAVID, and Robert C. O’Brien’s Z FOR ZACARIAH --- my first realisation that I could be utterly transported by words on a page. 

These YA writers are great --- Berlie Doherty (WHITE PEAK FARM, GRANNY WAS A BUFFER GIRL), Melvin Burgess (KITE, THE CRY OF THE WOLF, BLOODTIDE), David Almond (SKELLIG), Kevin Brooks (LUCAS, MARTYN PIG).

More recently I’ve enjoyed --- Neil Gaiman (CORALINE), Siobhan Dowd (A SWIFT PURE CRY), Jeanne Willis (NAKED WITHOUT A HAT), Markus Zusak (THE BOOK THIEF).

Q: What are you working on now?

JD: I’ve started my next book. I have a location and a voice and an event. It seems to be for young adults again, though I’m not quite sure what it’s about yet. I don’t know quite where it’ll take me. I don’t like knowing in advance. I never plan a structure. I like surprises. I’m quite disciplined and sit at my desk every day and just write. Most of it goes in the bin, but I find I return again and again to the things that preoccupy and eventually I begin to see what the book might be about. 

Q: Do you have a favorite library moment?

JD: My school library when I was twelve. My fantastic English teacher had spoken to the librarian and I was allowed to take out books that were clearly marked as being for older children. On my first visit, I chose Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and D. H. Lawrence’s THE RAINBOW. I was told by the librarian that I had ‘chosen well.' I felt special, understood somehow. I also felt the thrill of something vaguely illicit in my schoolbag as I made my way home that day.