“Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?”
Neil Gaiman

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Jennifer Longo writes about ballet, the Ice, and figuring out how to live when your dreams don't pan out...



Despite my love of YA fiction, it is rare that I come across a book that is truly surprises me. I initially picked up an ARC of Jennifer Longo’s upcoming release Up to this Pointe with my own little teen dancer in mind expecting a light romantic read that might capture the interest of a dance-obsessed young girl. What I discovered is a more complex and layered novel that far exceeds a simple dance infused romance. Up to this Pointe is ultimately a coming of age story in which a teen confronts an uncertain future of derailed dreams.  Performing arts collide with science, history, and adrenalin pumping adventure through a fast-paced and well-staged cast of characters. And although it most certainly will appeal to the multitude of young dancers I know, it has elements that will appeal to a much wider and more diverse group of readers as well. As part of a blog tour leading up to the release of the novel, I was able to ask Jennifer a few interview questions.

Suburban Barnyard:

I read that you did an MFA in theater and wrote a play for your thesis. What led you away from playwriting and into writing YA novels?

Jennifer Longo:

I still write plays, I love the difference in the skill sets – the writer Philip Hensher said it so well, “A playwrites’s tools are more refined; a novelist’s toolbox is bigger.” Playwrites must create a world, a life, using only dialogue and physical movements. That’s it. We aren’t afforded the luxury of inner monologues and pages of back story – and while a novelist can allude to characters’ inner thoughts, she must not only include dialogue, but create time passage, and give descriptions of location, the world, and what everyone and everything looks like; plays present all that, live, no writing required. Or wanted! Yes, plays have soliloquies, but I think most exposition is rough on stage. Check out Eugene O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT; straight-up fact it is one of the greatest modern plays ever written, but the Mother character has this monologue that goes on for pages and is full of stuff about dead babies and past insults and whatnot, and I’ve never seen an actor  - no matter how skilled - make it work. Woof. And O’Neill is a genius! Anyway, that difference in how the world is created seemed really difficult and new and I wanted to try it. I was right – it isn’t easy. At all. Neither is, but I love both forms of storytelling so much.


Suburban Barnyard: 

Your background in dance is so clearly evident in the character development of Harper and yet I didn't feel like you were banging me over the head the entire time with the theme of dance. How did you make decisions about what details from the world of dance to include that would create that sense of how much Harper’s identity was intertwined in that world?

Jennifer Longo: 

Oh thank you so much, I’m glad it felt right! I have to give a ton of credit to my editor and my editorial agent, who both help me pull back when my informative/descriptive tendencies over-bloom. Again, it’s the playwrite in me, not used to writing so much exposition, over compensating. They give me very patient notes like, “Maybe we don’t need the entire history of the origins of pointe shoes…In the middle of a first date?” I hope I included the really visceral parts that are most interesting to people new to dance, and to seasoned dancers as well – the sacrifices, the nuts and bolts of the physical aspects and how auditions and rehearsals and dance careers work. In the end, I think we kept the details that the three of us personally found fascinating and maybe lesser-known.

Suburban Barnyard: 

Most of us, at some point in our lives, have to learn to deal with plans and dreams not working out quite the way we thought they would. I’ve encountered so many high-achieving hard-working teens who have these mapped out plans for their lives. Hitting the bumps of real life is particularly difficult for these teens. How did you keep that inner struggle for Harper central as you wove in the vastly different worlds and various supporting character roles?

Jennifer Longo: 

What a great question! I think as I mapped the story out, it was easiest to keep that struggle active in Harper by having her run away, supposedly to get some peace and a break from seemingly impossible challenges  - only to be met with new impossibilities, and new people who need help from her. It’s Ye Olde We cannot control chaos, we can only decide how we react. I think Antarctica itself is a beautiful, living personification of this notion: It’s how a person accommodates The Ice that lets them survive, because The Ice isn’t going to accommodate for anyone. Also, it’s always illustrative of that idea to have a person mourning a loss to then be with other people experiencing their own losses to keep things in perspective – not negating one’s sadness or fear, but more remembering that we’re all in this struggle together. It can be hard, as young people experiencing loss and obstacles in the face of preparation for the first time, to know how to go on. Resilience. It’s the best tool we’ve got.

Suburban Barnyard: 

Yes it is! Grit, as my mother used to say.

I loved the historical detail you included about Antarctic exploration as well as the current depiction of scientists working in the research station. This is not the first time you’ve written about Antarctica -- that play from your graduate thesis was about Antarctica's Age of Exploration. What initially sparked your obsession with the frigid isolation of Antarctica?

Jennifer Longo: 

You know what, it was an accident! I was originally writing a play about photography, and in my research on the history of the Kodak Company I came upon the Frank Hurley photographs from Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1916 Endurance expedition. In a single afternoon I became obsessed with the Age of Exploration, with Antarctica, with Shackleton and Scott and Amundsen. The play became one about Antarctica’s singular unique beauty and ecosystem, it’s barometric measure of how humans must continually adapt to life on earth even as they influence it, but most of all (and forgive my getting esoteric and woo-woo here) as a dynamic, living metaphor for human existence in the universe. Seriously. That sounds ridiculous, but the entire concept of these guys, the explorers seeking to ‘conquer’ a continent? (Which really was them ‘conquering’ an idea, conquering Man’s own frailty, yadda yadda) And attempting to do this by outsmarting ice? Fascinating.


Suburban Barnyard: 

I totally agree! Fascinating! 

So reality vs. fiction… You created a very believable sounding story of life in the research station. How did you do your research and what sorts of details are based upon real experiences of people working in an Antarctic research station?

Jennifer Longo: 

We listed the main sources of my research at the back of UP TO THIS POINTE because it’s all so amazing, I wanted to share what I consider the best of what’s out there. Because there is a ton. For years I’ve been reading any book I can find about the Age Of Exploration, and lately, for the real-time science station details, I love following blogs written by current residents. Also there are amazing Twitter feeds, and memoirs about people’s time at The Pole and at McMurdo Station. There are some really incredible documentaries I watch over and over. The best though, was having a friend who got Antarctica-obsessed around the same time I did, and he worked at McMurdo for two summers and Wintered Over once – he’s responsible for many of the details about the abundance of birth control and the zombie-like state the cold can put a person in. We wrote and spoke often when he was there, and I took copious notes.

Suburban Barnyard: 

That is cool! Finally, any words of advice for budding YA authors?

Jennifer Longo: 

Ernest Shackleton’s family motto says it best: “By Endurance we conquer”. The world needs your stories. Please, please write if you love it – write for yourself, write to work out frustrations and fears and worry and to celebrate and document joy and kindness and funny things that happen. You may not think what you have to say is interesting or new or needed but I’m telling you, something in there is. We all think our lives and stories are so typical and usual but that’s because we’re used to it – the minute you start talking about some random thing that happened to you one time when you were ten years old, like at a party or something, I guarantee at least one person will be all, “What? You did what? That happened?” It may seem mundane to you, but the rest of us want it. In this way you’ll find your voice, and then go learn mad technical writing skills, learn all the rules so you can break them, and give us your stories. Please.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about all the things I love so much, I’m thrilled you enjoyed UP TO THIS POINTE and I hope it finds other hearts to rest in as well. Have a wonderful rest of Winter!

Up to this Pointe publishes on January 19, 2016 from Random House. Her first book, Six Feet Over It, was published in 2014 and received rave reviews. Jennifer Longo lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter and writes about writing at jenlongo.com.


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