Sunday, April 06, 2008

One Writer's Process: Jo Knowles

Jo Knowles, the author of Lessons from a Dead Girl (Candlewick, 2007), grew up reading lots of books, but it wasn't until high school, when she came across Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, that she turned from a reader into a writer.

"There is something about the raw truth of that book," Knowles says, "that showed me how powerful words can be."

Knowles admits that she writes because she "enjoys making something out of nothing."

"I like to start a sentence at the top of the page and feel it turning into a story, into a living thing," Knowles says. "Once those characters are on the page, they're alive.... And even though the characters usually have something that's causing them pain, that's OK. Because whatever that pain is, most likely it's a pain I've experienced, too. And this is my way of exploring it and working it out."

Lessons from a Dead Girl, her first novel, has been described as a riveting and "haunting story of a girl's journey to understanding" (Booklist) and a "razor-sharp examination of friendship, abuse, and secrets" (Kirkus), and Knowles has received a good deal of well-deserved praise from reviewers for shedding "valuable light on the long-term emotional impact of child abuse and the roots of sexual abuse among peers." (School Library Journal)

Knowles lives in Vermont with her husband and son. She is currently working on her second novel, Jumping Off Swings, for Candlewick, and recently took a few minutes from her work-in-progress to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

* * * * *

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?

Knowles: I get my toes wet first by reading what I worked on the previous day. Then I jump right in! It’s hard to get started some days, especially when there are lots of distractions. I’m a freelance writer by day, so I snatch up bits of writing time whenever I can get them. If I have a particularly tough schedule and very limited writing time, I often think about what I’m going to write and sort of write it in my head before I even get started. That way when I do have a moment, I don’t waste any time having to “think.” I just write. January was a dry month for freelance work so I’ve been writing every day and it has been magical. Oh, to be a full-time fiction writer!

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Knowles: I have two writing partners, Debbi Michiko Florence and Cindy Faughnan.
Debbi works with me every day. We check in via g-mail, chat in the morning, and share our goals for the day. (We do this whether we are working on our fiction or on our other writing assignments.) Then we start working, checking in with one another at 15-minute intervals. I know that probably sounds disruptive to a lot of people, but it helps us stay focused and away (mostly) from other online distractions, which can be a huge time-suck. By answering the question “How’d you do?” every 15 minutes, I stay at my writing, even if it’s only to report that I revised one paragraph.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Knowles: Hmm, see #2 above? Honestly, I don't know what I would do without my writing partners. Cindy works as a teacher during the day, but Debbi and I always check in with her at night and help cheer her on. We have to show up for one another. It’s the only way I think I would finish anything. I know they need me and I need them, and there’s a wonderful balancing act we perform every day. One day I’m feeling stalled but Debbi is on a roll and her energy will be contagious. Then another day, I’ll be the one booking along and send Debbi and Cindy some cheers to keep going. Also, all three of us make a point to celebrate EVERY step, whether it’s finishing a chapter, publishing an article, winning a contest, getting a nice review or blog mention, or the big one, selling a book. It’s so easy to get discouraged in this business. Celebrating every achievement, no matter how “small,” helps us stay positive.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Knowles: Oh, I would have to say lack of confidence, most certainly. You know, the Internet makes it possible to see what EVERYONE has ever said publicly about your books. That can be wonderful, and it can also be incredibly painful. Reading one so-so response can really freeze me up. I start to doubt whether I really know what I’m doing. If I’m any good. If anyone really cares. It’s so hard. Angela Johnson once said to me that she doesn’t read any reviews, good or bad. When I asked her why, she said simply, “Because I might believe them.” And I think that’s simply brilliant. But I think it takes a strong person to have the willpower not to look! I hope to get there eventually.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Knowles: Always swim with a buddy! No one should try to do this alone, I’m a firm believer in that. Building a strong network of support, no matter at what stage of the business you’re in, is so important. But it’s a give and take. You have to be there for others as much as you expect them to be there for you.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Knowles: Oh, the freefall, I think. Letting yourself go off the high dive and then landing in that mysterious underwater world where you can swim and explore and imagine. It’s a whole other place under there where anything can happen. But you must remember to come up and take a breath.

For more information about Jo Knowles, visit her website:

Or you can catch daily updates about her life (or find a daily prompt to inspire you to write) at her blog:

And for more interviews with Jo, check out:


Barbara O'Connor said...

Another great interview, Bruce. I love Jo's work. I found LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL to be so powerful and brave. She was willing to just jump off that high dive into an emotional and painful territory. I was in awe!

I loved her comment about the down side of the internet - how it exposes us to every opinion out there. I struggle with that a lot. It's very damaging to one's confidence, which is a BIG snag in the creative process. I wish I had a good answer - but I don't - I just know where she's coming from in that regard.

Bruce said...

Thanks, Barbara.

I agree with you. Even constructive criticism offered to help an artist can sometimes backfire and lead to doubts and undermine one's confidence.

What's the antidote? I'm not sure, but I think Jo has hit on a solution of sorts... which is to create a support group to help her maintain her balance... and that nurtures her (as she nurtures her friends) so that she can see beyond the criticism and keep writing.

The buddy system, I suspect, doesn't only apply to swimming.

lkmadigan said...

Terrific interview!

I'm a big fan of Jo's.



Becky Levine said...


Wonderful Interview. I've read Jo's book and was just blown away.

Reviewer X said...

Great interview. Jo's book is on my TBR(read and reviewed) list.