Author Interview: Jen Bryant

Jen Bryant has written several books for young readers, including Music for the End of Time (Eerdmans), Pieces of Georgia, and the acclaimed novel-in-verse The Trial (both Random House). Jen lives in Glenmore, Pennsylvania.

Books by Jen Bryant
More Author Interviews

What made you decide to become an author?
Jen Bryant: Well, I have always loved books . . . I've always been a big reader. But I never thought about writing any myself until after my daughter was born. I took a break from my teaching job then and began to visit my local library several days per week. I was most intrigued by the books for children and young adults, especially the biographies. The first books I wrote were biographies for young readers.
What's a typical workday like?
Jen Bryant: I wish I could say I have a ‘typical’ workday — I really don't. What I DO have, though, is a daily commitment to spend a certain number of hours writing. Ideally, I like to get my chores done after breakfast, then go over whatever I wrote the day before, then write through the late morning and into the early afternoon with a small break for lunch. Then I do some errands or go to the YMCA before returning to check my e-mails or correspond with editors and other writers. Sometimes I work a bit again after dinner, but I'm not a late-night writer.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
Jen Bryant: Most of them come from my reading. I have always enjoyed reading non-fiction as much as fiction, so books on science, art, history, and famous people are always on my nightstand. One of my favorite things is to discover a subject that's been written about for adults, but not for kids, and to see if I can make it interesting for younger ages. Both my historical novel The Trial (Knopf, 2004), which describes the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial from a girl's point of view, and my forthcoming picture book Music for the End of Time, about the French composer Olivier Messiaen's famous prison quartet, are good examples of this.
How much research do you do before you begin a book? Can you give any examples of unusual research for any of your books?
Jen Bryant: I really LOVE to research. Once I get fixed on an idea, it's like going on a big scavenger hunt for interesting facts, anecdotes, and details. I do quite a bit of research — even for a ‘short’ piece of writing — but I begin writing rough drafts while I'm still collecting information. It's difficult to say exactly how many weeks or months I spend researching because often I'm writing about a subject that I've been interested in for many years (the Lindbergh trial, WWII prison camps, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe and the poet Marianne Moore are all examples of this.) I read books, I watch videos and movies, I visit museums and special collections at libraries. I listen or watch and take lots and lots of notes! I don't like note cards much, but I usually buy a few big notebooks (with pockets) and lots and lots of manila folders.

One of my most memorable ‘research days’ was when I visited the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia to collect information for my forthcoming picture book Call Me Marianne [Eerdmans, Spring 2006]. The night before, I'd watched a 1960's interview with the poet Marianne Moore, which was filmed in her Brooklyn apartment. When I visited the Rosenbach, I discovered that the museum had purchased and re-constructed her apartment (complete with her many animal statues), so I was able to stand right in the middle of it! Several years ago, I also flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico to visit the Georgia O'Keeffe museum and to see some of her original paintings. I think that trip helped to me to understand why she loved the desert so very much.

Do you rewrite much?
Jen Bryant: Oh gosh, yes! My two novels went through forty drafts and my picture books — on average — go through twenty or so. I like to print out my drafts (I try to use recycled paper and to use it at least twice!) and to revise with a pencil or pen — not on the computer. Then I type my changes back into the PC and print it out for a fresh look. It takes more time, but I still like to feel the actual pages in my hand.
Do you have any advice for would-be authors and illustrators?
Jen Bryant: Practice, practice, practice! I've been writing for several hours a day for fifteen years, and I just feel like I'm getting the hang of it. I also think you have to be perfectly honest with yourself about why you want to write. Ask yourself: if my books got published, but I couldn't tell anyone that I was the author, would I still do it? The answer has to be YES! Good writers (and this goes for illustrators, too) are committed to their craft, committed to continually improving it. If you're more in love with the idea of recognition than you are with the beauty and power of language, then you should audition for a reality show and forget about writing (or illustrating).
What characteristics do writers need most?
Jen Bryant: In no particular order: patience, perseverance, a love of language, good observational skills, self-discipline.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
Jen Bryant: I've been told I have a good sense of humor. That aspect of my personality doesn't always come through in my books because I often write about somewhat serious subjects. But in real life, I like to laugh — perhaps that should be a goal for me in the next few years — to write a funny book!
Visit Jen's website to learn more about her and her books!