Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jennifer McMahon - Novelist & Author Of The Bestseller “Promise Not To Tell”

Welcome to “Up Close & Personal.” For every interview I will be introducing a literary personality discussing her views and insights, as well as upcoming literary events around the world.

Today’s interview is with Jennifer McMahon, author of Promise Not To Tell which is part mystery-thriller and part ghost story. “Jennifer grew up in her grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where she was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. She graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and she decided to take some time to think about whether she wanted to write poetry or fiction.”

EI: What were you like as a teenager? Please tell your readers more about Jennifer McMahon -- the woman behind the author?

JM: I was a bit of a rebel without a clue as a teenager. I dropped out of high school, drove a Camaro, chain-smoked and listened to a lot of Pink Floyd. Luckily, I'm less dramatic these days. I'm a mom. I drink a lot of coffee. I read a huge variety of fiction. I have a thing for horror movies. I worry about my leaking roof, where I'm going to send my daughter to preschool -- the usual.

EI: Many writers describe themselves as "character" or "plot" writers. Which are you? And what do you find to be the hardest part of writing?

JM: Character, definitely. Promise Not to Tell very much grew from the character of Del Griswold. Thinking about who she was, how she was treated, and what happened to her, led to the plot -- it felt quite organic. The hardest part of writing for me, is getting the "distance" from the writing necessary to edit ruthlessly.

EI: What is your response to the public perception that writers’ creative insight and energy is frequently the product of personal conflict?

JM:I can only speak for myself, but to some extent, I can see this. I've certainly had dark, troubled times in my life, and those were the times when I first started seriously pursuing poetry and writing, as a way to express that darkness, confusion, etc. However, it was only when I reached a stage in my life where most of my angst had been resolved that I was really able to focus on my fiction writing as a career.

EI: Do you express your inner self in your writing, or do the personas you create exist only in your imagination?

JM: It depends on the project. I think all writers use their own experiences, memories, and so on to get inside a character's skin. In the case of Promise, certainly the narrator, Kate, is very unlike myself. Even Del, who is my favorite character in the book, is not "me" by any stretch of the imagination. She's more like an idealized version of the picked-on kid -- and we've all been that picked-on kid -- who takes her victim and turns it on its head. In other work, the characters may share my superficial characteristics to a greater extent -- but I always feel they are basically inventions.

EI: Do you let anyone read your manuscript, before you send it to your editor or agent?

JM: My first, and most important reader, is my partner Drea. She provides some of that distance that I have such a hard time getting, and is a hell of an editor.

EI: Was there anyone who really influenced you to become a writer?

JM: The first person was my third grade teacher. I wrote my first short story in her class -- it was about a haunted meatball. She really encouraged me, told me that I had a talent, and I've carried that encouragement with me. The book that made me want to be a writer was To Kill a Mockingbird -- I was just stunned that a work of fiction could be so powerful.

I have to give a whole lot of credit to my partner, Drea, for encouraging me to give up my day job so I could write full time. She supported me financially, artistically and emotionally over the years it took for my writing career to take off. There were many times I wanted to give up, but she thankfully, she wouldn't let me.

EI: Let’s shift gears... tell us about your book ‘Promise Not To Tell’ how did you come up with the title and idea?

JM: Actually, when I was working on Promise, and throughout the submissions process, and initial editing, it had another title. Then it had another title. Then it became Promise Not to Tell. I honestly don't remember who originally came up with the current title. It's a line in the book, and I do like it because there are many promises broken and secrets revealed throughout the story.

The idea for the book that would become Promise Not to Tell started with a dead crow hanging in a farmer's field. I've worked on farms before and heard some old timers say that there is no more effective scarecrow then a dead friend or relation. A pretty morbid pest control practice, but there it is -- and it was an arresting image. I drove by the crow, day after day, while it quietly rotted. I had been thinking about writing a ghost story, something that would capture the creepiness of the woods where I was living, and that crow really stuck in my mind. When I sat down to write, I had an image of a girl stroking the crow's feathers -- I knew right away that she was my ghost.

EI: How much of ‘Kate Cypher & Del Griswold’ life is planned out in your head? How do you know where you will go next with any of your characters?

JM: Very little was planned. I just don't write that way, much as I would like to! Basically, I started with the idea of Del, the girl petting the dead crow, and I wondered how she became a ghost. She was murdered, of course. But who murdered her? Why? Who would tell her story? What if she had a friend, another outcast? And so on, answering the questions as they cropped up as best I could.

EI: What challenges or obstacle did you encounter while writing and creating your “Kate Cypher” How did you overcome these challenges?

JM: Kate is a skeptic, and I am a believer. Kate is a school nurse, very practical and logical -- maybe even cold. She's straight, she's divorced, she's several years older than I was when I wrote Promise. She's cut herself off from her family, while I'm very close to mine. So most of my challenges came from writing convincingly and sympathetically about someone so different from myself. I actually really enjoyed the challenge, to try and see the world through someone else's eyes.

EI: Let’s talk about your first soon-to-be-published YA novel “A Cure for Your LaSamba Blues” Can you give us a hint what it’s all about? And what inspired you to branch out? What about writing for teens appealed to you?

JM: LaSamba (which is gearing up for another title change, by the way) is the story of two 15-year-old girls who bond because their outsider status, and then to everyone's surprise, fall in love. When I first started work on it, I didn't think of it as a YA novel, just as a story that happened to be about teenage girls. After working on it with my agent, it became clear that it would find the greatest market as a YA book, so we tweaked it a bit, and sure enough it sold that way. Even though I came to it accidentally, I'm finding that I am really excited about writing for teens. LaSamba is a book that I truly wish had been available to me when I was in high school.

EI: As a bestselling author, do typical writer insecurities fade away, do you feel more pressure, or are you able to separate all that from your own creative process?

JM: Oh, I'm just as an insecure as ever! Maybe more so. I can't say that I feel any real, specific pressure. I'm just doing my work, the same as always. Hopefully, it will be good work.

EI: Thank you for contributing to my blog. It has been a pleasure for me to get to know you, and your work a little better. Would you like to end your interview with a writing tip or advice for young aspiring writers?

JM: Thank you so much for having me! It's been an honor.

The major advice I have for young aspiring writers is rather mundane: Keep at it. Read all you can and write every day. It's one of those things that you get better at all the time, and I really think that success in writing has so much to do with perseverance.

To learn more about Jennifer McMahon please visit her at:

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