This week, we open with an interview with Cordelia Jensen, author of Skyscraping, a novel in verse (reviewed last week here).
1. The story of HIV-AIDS is an ongoing one. What can we gain by reading about an early 90s experience of AIDS? If I’m remembering my history correctly, this story is situated just after the epidemic ceased being seen as a “gay” epidemic but before its visible explosion on the African continent. Why do you think it’s important for us still to think about AIDS?
Jensen: Well I think it is important for people to know that AIDS isn’t “over” and that we still need energy and resources to put towards the disease. That being said, I didn’t write the book to put forth an agenda, I wrote it because it is the story of my heart, as they say. It is a story I’ve been trying to tell for twenty years and, mostly, I wanted to write something to honor my father. I wanted to tell the truth while showing I was proud of him and not ashamed. The part where Mira realizes she has been silent and it has hurt her is something I can relate to. It was a cathartic experience for me to write the book and I hope it is for readers too.
2. The topic of “open marriage” or “open relationships” is really different for a YA book. I have two questions for you related to that. The first is–what is it that your own personal experience in this regard taught you about love and commitment, fidelity, romance, the whole works of what we usually expect to go into a relationship? And second, what is it that you hope readers will take away from reading this novel when they think about what goes into making a relationship and a family?
Jensen: It was certainly an unusual way to grow up, though maybe it is more common these days. I think it taught me that maybe there isn’t just one single person “for you” and love comes in many forms and that there are so many different kinds of love. To be honest, I struggled a great deal with my own parents’ relationship when I was a kid/teen but as an adult I can see how that situation could be constructed without it being unhealthy for children. In SKYSCRAPING, as opposed to my own story, I tried to construct a more open point of view than I had as a teen myself. I hope readers who are less open might open their “blind spots” and I hope that those readers who are going through something similar (parental loss/betrayal/sickness/death/living in more unusual family structures) will feel a sense of validation and affirmation.
3. I know part of this is based on your personal experience. How in the world did you turn that into a novel? How did you gain enough distance from your own experience to fictionalize Mira’s story?
Jensen: It began as a memoir in verse that I started with Coe Booth (and really started on my own over many years, writing poems I titled “Family Poems”) I then fictionalized these to create a cohesive story arc with Mary Quattlebaum. SKYSCRAPING was my creative thesis at VCFA. My editor, Liza Kaplan, and I then changed it quite a bit. I revised the book eight times post-sale! At one point, I rewrote the whole book because I was way too attached to the real characters from my life. My editor suggested I change everyone’s names, which helped a lot. There are many components of the book that are fictionalized—such as the Celestial Treasures plotline, the Adam plotline—and many that are true—I was yearbook editor, I did take Astronomy. To go through all of the details of what is true or not is too long of a conversation but, essentially, it was really hard to do but the way it is now feels right. I think the book is a stronger, more accessible story not being a memoir. On top of that, personally, I was able to go back in time and create more healing in the story than what happened in real life. How awesome is that?
4. Is there anything else you want people to know about the book or the subject?
Jensen: I guess it is important to know that SKYSCRAPING is a verse novel and so the revision process was also extensive because of this. When you write a verse novel you revise for the story and lose the language, revise for language and lose the story. But of you spend enough time thinking through each word, image, subplot, character verse novels can create an intense emotional space for readers that is not quite like reading a poetry collection or a regular novel. It is possible to bring the best of poetry and the best of narrative together to create something like an immersive experience.