Tuesday, March 20, 2018

NYC History, Poetry and Photography, and Families in YA: A Conversation with Cordelia Jensen | The Way the Light Bends Blog Tour

Good morning, lovely readers! I'm thrilled to be participating today in the blog tour for Cordelia Jensen's The Way the Light Bends (which I reviewed back in January). I had the privilege of speaking with her about her upcoming novel, and I hope our conversation gets you excited to pick up the book (because, trust me, you want to). But before we get started, here's a bit more about the book!

the book

The Way the Light Bends by Cordelia Jensen | Goodreads

Publisher: Philomel Books
Release: March 27, 2018
Source: Author
ISBN: 9780399547447
Virtual twins Linc and Holly were once extremely close. But while artistic, creative Linc is her parents' daughter biologically, it's smart, popular Holly, adopted from Ghana as a baby, who exemplifies the family's high-achieving model of academic success.

Linc is desperate to pursue photography, to find a place of belonging, and for her family to accept her for who she is, despite her surgeon mother's constant disapproval and her growing distance from Holly. So when she comes up with a plan to use her photography interests and skills to do better in school--via a project based on Seneca Village, a long-gone village in the space that now holds Central Park, where all inhabitants, regardless of race, lived together harmoniously--Linc is excited and determined to prove that her differences are assets, that she has what it takes to make her mother proud. But when a long-buried family secret comes to light, Linc must decide whether her mother's love is worth obtaining.

the interview

Forever Literary: Hi, Cordelia! Thanks so much for stopping by to talk about your fabulous book, The Way the Light Bends. I want to start out by talking about the setting, since that's such a strong element of your writing. Both of your novels are set in New York City, and both have such a strong sense of place. What is it that draws you to NYC as a setting?

Cordelia Jensen: I grew up in New York City but left at 18 and never went back to live there as an adult. So, the city itself still holds a lot of the emotional intensity I felt as a teenager. I always felt over-stimulated and never really at home in NYC—a bit too sensitive for the place itself—so I think I still write about it to work through some of those feelings. It was really fun to write so much about Central Park for The Way the Light Bends as I spent so much time there growing up. It was fascinating to learn so much more about the history of the place.

Speaking of Central Park, I loved that The Way the Light Bends spotlights a lesser-known piece of the city’s history—the story of Seneca Village in present-day Central Park. What drew you to this village and made you want to incorporate it into your second novel?

I actually had never heard of Seneca Village before I listened to a story about it on NPR. As I listened, I immediately had this vision of two disconnected sisters who used to be close. I then spent a lot of time researching this time period, including going on a Seneca Village tour led by the Central Park Conservatory. And, even more significantly, interviewing Dr. Diana Wall who was one of the professors who led the archaeological dig to find artifacts from Seneca Village. You can read more about her amazing work here. Dr. Wall also read The Way the Light Bends to make sure I had my facts straight!

That's all so fascinating. Do you have any other fun facts/little-known stories/cool Wikipedia pages about NYC you can share with us? (I’m such a fan of offbeat history facts.)

I have three that could be settings for a horror/ghost story:
1. Hog Island used to exist south of Rockaway Beach but was completely swallowed by the Hurricane of 1893. It was the only island ever to be totally eaten by a hurricane.
2. Since 1869, NYC has buried its unclaimed bodies on Hart Island. It is not open to the public, and houses millions of bodies.
3. There used to be an 18th Street stop on the 4/5/6 subway line. The stop is no longer used but you can still see it from 6 local train.

I definitely just spent a solid 20 minutes falling down the Google rabbit hole (and I linked the Wikipedia pages so others can do the same.) But back to The Way the Light Bends! Both of your books are also in verse—was this a conscious choice, or did you always know your stories wanted to be told in verse? And how does your decision to write in this style impact your storytelling and editing process?

Skyscraping was always in verse because it began with poems I had written about my father circa 1994-98 when I was at Kenyon College studying creative writing, specifically poetry. When I went back to school many years later to earn my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, my teacher Coe Booth read five of these poems and suggested I try a novel in verse. At first, it was a straight memoir, but then as I went on I decided to fictionalize it. I had never seen the current form of verse novels popular in YA, and it really felt like a perfect match for my writing style. I love the mood of poetry, but I really love character development and story too. I felt so lucky to find a form that felt so naturally suited to me and to Mira, who was undergoing such an emotional time.

The Way the Light Bends took many forms. The very first time I tried to write it (before my editor even saw it) I tried it in prose, but I couldn't quite capture the loneliness I wanted Linc to feel in that form. My agent (the supportive and whip smart) Sara Crowe agreed it should be in verse. After Liza acquired the book, I tried to write Holly’s voice and go between form poetry for her and free verse for Linc and this didn’t quite work either. In the end, Liza and I agreed that free verse was the best choice for Linc’s wild imagination and that the story was more Linc’s than Holly’s. I loved pushing the form to reflect her rich inner world.

In April, I have a debut Middle Grade release I co-authored with my friend Laurie Morrison. This is called Every Shiny Thing (Amulet/Abrams) and my character’s voice is also in verse whereas her character is written in prose. This helped delineate the voices but the verse again matched this character’s painful emotional journey.

I do think verse is a great choice for any character who feels trapped in a liminal space, as the verse novel is also an in-between art form—not all poetry, not all story. It’s a hybrid.

While reading, I was fascinated by the way the verse storytelling style intersects with Linc’s love of photography. For example, I loved that in novels in verse, words can be arranged in a way that almost creates a picture, adding additional meaning almost in the way a photograph might. Is it just me, or did you also enjoy working with the intersections between verse and photography? If so, in what ways did you notice your storytelling style and your protagonist’s passion playing off each other? 

I am so glad you brought this up! I absolutely tried to do this. Verse novels have also always felt like snapshots to me, so it was easy to think of a character who is a photographer seeing her own life in poems… that are also pictures. Like in Skyscraping with astronomy, I studied all the photography terms and then tried to weave them into poetry and see if I could create a poem that was about terms like aperture or dynamic tension. Furthermore, I thought about almost every word to see if I could make the space around it or its placement emphasize the visual nature of that word or expand the meaning of the word. I think Linc’s character and passion actually changed my writing as I wrote the story because I began to think of white space not just in terms of poetry but in terms of photography. The whole idea that Linc comes up with for her photography project grew organically from what I was trying to do with the book itself—stitching the past into the present.

I'm so glad it's not just me who appreciated the interactions between poetry and photography! (This is really such a clever intersection.) On another note,The Way the Light Bends features such a strong storyline about an intense, somewhat-fractured family. Do you think more novels for teens should feature storylines regarding family? And what would you like to see more of in terms of representation of families in YA? 

As a teen reader, I definitely loved to read about intense family situations, probably because I was living through my own. Because adolescence is a time where you are supposed to be defining yourself, which often becomes defining yourself in contrast to your family, this basic human conflict is rich for storytelling. I also love to think about how this conflict gets played out in a peer group.  I had so many deep and intense friendships and relationships in adolescence as well, and I think a lot about the intensity of those feelings as I write.

So much of the teen story is a family story. It seems like diverse, non-traditional families are being seen more and more, so this is only a good thing. I think a teen being able to see a reflection of her kind of family in a book is a really helpful, rewarding thing. Even a healing thing.

Speaking of family, I know your previous book, Skyscraping, drew from your own experiences and family. Did you have a similar personal connection to the characters/storyline of The Way the Light Bends? If so, how did that impact your writing process? If not, how did the process of writing a slightly less-personal story differ from the process of writing your more-personal debut novel? 

The exact family setup is not something I experienced firsthand. However, I do know what it is like to have a critical parent who negatively impacts your feelings of self-worth.  I do know what it is like to have a sister, and how close you can be at some points and distant at others. I certainly did (and still do) struggle with low self-esteem, and I was raised in a high-achieving environment that didn’t always feel like a great match for my level of sensitivity. But, a lot of the story is from my imagination and from the initial inspiration of Seneca Village.

This story was easier to write in some ways and harder in others. There is a freedom in telling a story that comes completely from your imagination but then, at times, it is overwhelming to think of how many ways to go with the story. Sadly, there was never a different ending for Skyscraping, if that makes any sense, so I always knew emotionally how the characters would end up. In The Way the Light Bends, I knew Linc would go from feeling isolated to feeling some sense of hope and belonging, but there were so many paths I could take to get there. In the end, I let her passion do the leading.

A beautiful comparison of two beautiful, bittersweet books. ♥️ Thanks again for stopping by, and before you go, let's do a quick lighting round:

Describe The Way the Light Bends in five words:
Artistic Linc pictures new life.

What’s the last YA book you read and really loved?
Well, it actually just won the Printz! Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay.

Tell us a fun fact about The Way the Light Bends:
When I first had the idea, it was a ghost story. (Maybe that is why I was thinking of all those haunting NYC facts?) Also, Silas was originally named Cam but it was too close to camera!

How do you go about picking your characters’ names? 
I love, love, love choosing names! It might be one of my favorite parts of writing. In Skyscraping, originally the character’s names were much closer to my family’s names. So, the main character was Lia (I am Cordelia) and the sister was Jewel (my sister is Julia). But Liza Kaplan (my brilliant editor) suggested I change the names so I could allow the characters more freedom to be who they needed to be for that story (since it was no longer a memoir). As soon as I switched Lia to Miranda/Mira I suddenly could find her anger as it felt like a tougher name! And then the “Winter” section of Skyscraping was born anew.

The names Linc and Holly came to me very quickly, I liked the sound together. I named them after the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. Sometimes I just put in names I really like, like Ellery, Chloe, Silas.
Mostly, names come quickly to me. But if I am stuck on a name, especially for a secondary character, I usually Google the top 100 names of the year the character was born. And then I go from there.

Name some authors who inspire you/your work:
I love Celeste Ng. Jandy Nelson, e.e. cummings, Sharon Olds, William Faulkner, Pat Conroy, Karen Foxlee. I am a big fan of word play and lyricism and of the family saga.

If you had a pseudonym, what would it be? 
Theodora Buxley

get the book

Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound | Powell's | Target

check out the other stops

3/19 – Arctic Books – Author Guest Post
3/20 – Forever Literary – Interview
3/21 – Hello Jenny reviews – Interview
3/22 – AEB Book Reviews – Review
3/23 – Book reporter – Review

3/26 – Stacked – Author Guest Post
3/27 – Blossoms & Bullets – Interview
3/28 – Booknerd Chelcie – Review
3/29 – Smada’s Book Smack – Playlist

Have you read Cordelia Jensen's work? Are you as big a fan as I am? Let me know in the comments. 

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