A Child's Heart
Booktunes: As often with fiction the idea for Revolution started with just a tiny spark. What was it that lit this fire and urged you to write this novel?
Jennifer Donnely: The spark was a story I read in the New York Times about ten years ago – Geneticists’ Latest Probe: The Heart of the Dauphin. It showed a picture of a glass urn with a small human heart in it. The article said that the heart, which had been kept in the Basilica of St. Denis, in Paris, had just undergone DNA testing and had been found to be the heart of Louis-Charles, the lost king of France, the youngest son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The article explained that after the execution of the king, Louis Charles was taken from his mother – at the age of eight – to be re-educated in the ways of the revolution. The child was brutalized, and as threats to the revolution grew, he was locked away in solitary confinement. He was kept in terrible conditions, grew ill, lost his mind and eventually died – at the age of ten.
I was horrified and moved to tears by this. I wondered how the idealism of the Revolution, Liberty, Fraternity and Equality – the best, most noble human aspirations – devolved into such cruelty. I wondered what kind of world allowed it, and still allows it. And I wondered how are we supposed to live in such a world. I was very tortured by these questions and needed an answer, so I set about trying to get one the only way I know how – by writing a story.
BT: You are best known for your historic novels, and Revolution may be seen as such, as well. But unlike your previous work in Revolution you intertwine the 21st century with the 18th. In what respect was writing Revolution different compared to writing your previous work?
JD: Well...there was the modern component, as you mention, which necessitated my spending a great deal more time in the 21st century. Instead of doing my research in archives and libraries and museums for that part, I sat in cafes in Brooklyn Heights, observing the very wordly and privileged teenagers all around me. (There are two well-known and well-regarded private high schools in the Heights.) I also read contemporary magazines like the now-defunct Missbehave, watched MTV and VH1 obsessively, and read Pitchfork.
This book, because of the subject matter, and because of the two voices – Andi’s and Alex’s – was harder to write than my other books. This one took a huge bite out of me.
BT: Music is a powerful vehicle in Revolution. It is often the only thing keeping Andi from jumping off of the roof. Could you tell us about the importance of music in your life?
JD: I love music and it inspires me. It always has. But I think the point here is not me...it’s Andi and the fact that her music is the only thing that sustains her.
I wanted very much to make the point of the power of art to sustain. I love the idea of reaching back to our artistic ancestors for help and comfort and guidance. I’ve been sustained by the work of other writers my entire life. Andi is sustained by generations of musicians, stretching from Johnny Greenwood all the way back to Malherbeau (a fictional 18th-century French composer I conjured for this book). If there’s one thing I really want to get across to readers, especially teenage readers, is that this priceless legacy – be it music, or paintings, or books – exists. And it exists for you. If things are bad, take hold of it and let it carry you.
BT: Do you need music while writing?
JD: Sometimes. But at other times – especially when working out problems of plot and structure – it distracts me and I need total quiet.
BT: What is your favorite music/song?
JD: That’s an impossible question! There are so, so many. Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. On the Bus Mall by the Decemberists. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi by Radiohead. Aerial by Kate Bush.
BT: What were your reasons for introducing Amadé Malherbeau – subject of Andi’s thesis and contemporary of Alexandrine Paradis – rather than building the story around an actual composer?
JD: I don’t want to give anything away, but Malherbeau was somebody else before he was Malherbeau, so he needed to be a fictional character. Though I did read up on Sor, Carulli, Beethoven, and Mozart while creating him.
BT: Through Andi and her music teacher Nathan you offer readers of Revolution a journey through music. You show us how notes build on notes, how chords change, how they evolve and become an inspiration for later composers. Is there a Nathan in your life? Or, maybe, are you – in a way – Nathan?
JD: Nathan and I share many beliefs. One of them is that closure is a stupid word. Another is an artist needs to give absolutely everything she’s got to her art.
BT: There is a lot of music in Revolution and, like the two worlds of Andi and Alexandrine, it was often composed centuries apart. How did you choose the music? Did the Tristan chord guide you in any way?
JD: Andi chose the music. Since she is a guitarist, a great deal of it is guitar driven. The Tristan Chord is both a thread of musical DNA that she traces down from the fictitious Malherbeau to Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, and it’s also a lifeline in that it connects her to a huge, rich musical past from which she can learn and take inspiration.
BT: Obviously writing Revolution and making it so natural and convincing took a lot of research. How do you keep yourself from not drowning in facts while researching? Where do you draw the line in research, or when is enough enough?
JD: The initial research is a deluge, and that’s okay. I totally drown. Little by little, it becomes clear to me what I need – only the things that serve my story. I go back and do more work on those things, and let the rest fall away. I’ve left oceans of information on the Revolution out of this book, but it’s a novel, not a text book. Enough is never enough, though. If there were no such things as deadlines, I’d still be researching.
BT: Life is too short to stuff a mushroom... That is an intriguing statement. Could you shed some light on that? :)
JD: I was whining away on my website once about never having enough time, not being able to get everything done, yada yada, and a reader wrote in and told me that her mother once said Life is too short to stuff a mushroom. It was a revelation to me. Very liberating. For a long time I was under the spell of Martha Stewart and believed I should be able to cook and garden and sew and wallpaper – and somehow also have a family and write. Oh, and work out every day and fit into Size 2. No more. I’m done. I have two priorities now: my family and my writing. The rest of it can go to hell. And pretty much has.
interview by Mina Witteman / photo by Doug