Jennifer Donnelly is the author of THESE SHALLOW GRAVES and we spoke with her all about how she got inspired to write this epic book. She even dished some truly inspiring advice to us too!
MISS LITERATI: Where did the inspiration for These Shallow Graves come from?
JENNIFER DONNELLY: This story started with a dead guy.
A man with weird markings on his face showed up in my head. He had long dark hair and was wearing clothes from another time.
Who are you? I asked him. What do you want?
But he wouldn’t answer. He just lay in his coffin with his hands folded over his chest, decay beginning to creep. He wouldn’t leave, either. And since he wasn’t going to explain himself, I needed someone who would.
That’s when other people started showing up: a teenaged reporter named Eddie; a thief lord called the Tailor; Oscar, a coroner’s assistant. And a girl. Her name was Josephine Montfort.
Jo immediately intrigued me. I could tell she was wealthy and educated from the way she dressed and spoke. And yet something wasn’t quite right. I sensed that her porcelain coolness was only a veneer, and that underneath it, a fierce intelligence burned.
In her gray eyes, I glimpsed a restless longing.
As my characters do, Jo made me work to get to know her. As she labored to uncover the dead man’s story, I labored to uncover hers.
I learned that she’d been born into an old and distinguished New York family, and that she led a life of privilege. Jo was fortunate in many ways, but she didn’t have the one thing she wanted most: freedom.
So few young women of the 1890s did. Poor girls were expected to work, as early as possible. Wealthy ones were expected to marry, as well as possible. As I researched These Shallow Graves, I met many of these young women.
I met Edith Jones, brilliant and misunderstood, and watched her marry the wrong man and live the wrong life—until she found the right life, and became Edith Wharton.
I met eighteen-year-old Lizzie Schauer, who was arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to medical examinations to determine whether she was of good character—all for the “crime” of being an unaccompanied female walking alone in the city at night.
I met Consuelo Vanderbilt, a teenage heiress, forced to marry the Duke of Marlborough, a man she didn’t love, to satisfy her domineering mother’s social ambitions.
I met scores of teenage girls for whom education was only a dream—and the factory floor or scullery or sweatshop, a reality. Edith eventually broke free. Consuelo, too. I doubt poor Lizzie or the scullery girls ever did.
I so badly wanted Jo to. And thanks to the dead man, she finally did. He gave Jo her life, and by the end of the book, he gave me my peace. He stopped haunting me and went on his way. Jo’s on her way now, too. And I can’t wait to see where life takes her.
MISS LITERATI: What do you admire most about Jo? Is she based on you at all?
JENNIFER DONNELLY: I very much admire Jo’s bravery and her willingness to sacrifice personal gain for the truth. Like Jo, I worked as a reporter. It was my first writing job, and the newsroom was a scary and fantastic finishing school. I learned a lot there. The most important thing—one that still serves me well—is to never wait for the muse. Never. Sit down, start working, and eventually she’ll show up.
MISS LITERATI: Jo is a character who didn’t really have much say in her life in the beginning of the novel, but by the end of it, she is free to make her own decisions and chase after her dreams. Why do you think it’s important to have such headstrong heroines in YA novels?
JENNIFER DONNELLY: I think Jo did have a lot to say in the beginning of the novel, but she didn’t have the courage or boldness to say it. By the end of the story, the things that held her back are gone. She no longer puts her family’s or society’s expectations of what her life should be before her own.
It’s not a conscious decision for me to write a headstrong heroine. These characters come to me, and it’s my job to get to know them well enough to tell their stories. Jo was Jo from the very beginning. That said, I feel that her example is important to young readers because it reinforces the necessity to choose one’s own path in life, no matter how hard that may be. Jo would have lived a life of quiet desperation had she not pursued her father’s killer and simply married Bram. Her spirit would have faded away over time, and that’s a horrible thought. It’s tough to discover your own path and then follow it, but it’s tougher in the long run not to.
MISS LITERATI: You’ve written books that fall under the historical fiction genre, as well as fantasy with your Water Fire Saga series. How do you decide which type of story you’re going to tackle next? Is it ever difficult to balance your different interests when it comes to zeroing in on one specific book you’re working on?
JENNIFER DONNELLY: You’re giving me too much credit! I don’t plan or decide very much. The stories and characters are calling the shots, not me. I’ll see something, maybe in a paper or a magazine or on TV, or maybe in my head, and I have to follow where that image or idea leads. I have to.
There isn’t much balance in my life. I give all of myself to my work when I’m writing, and I’m usually writing more than one book at once. But that’s okay. I really love my job, and there’s nothing else apart from my family that interests me half as much. So I don’t mind being unbalanced in my passion for my work, but I do need to work on balancing my deadlines better. I’m always behind!
MISS LITERATI: Describe These Shallow Graves in only five words.
JENNIFER DONNELLY: Dark. Suspenseful. Mysterious. Swoony. Vivid. (How very horn-tooty of me. I hope it’s all these things!)
MISS LITERATI: What are some of your favorite YA books?
JENNIFER DONNELLY: Winger. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. The Scorpio Races. Eleanor & Park. Between Shades of Grey.
MISS LITERATI: What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
JENNIFER DONNELLY: It’s something I learned, rather than received: Never give up. It’s hard to make it as a writer, and lots of people are just ready and waiting to tell you that you never will. Don’t listen to them. Don’t give up. Don’t be the one to tell yourself no. No one can guarantee that you’ll ever get published, but one person can guarantee that you won’t. And that’s you. By quitting. So don’t.