Sweet Sixteener Laura Shovan recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Cordelia Jensen about her debut YA novel-in-verse, SKYSCRAPING (June 2, 2015 from Philomel/Penguin Random House).
About the Author:
Cordelia Jensen is the debut YA author of the verse novel Skyscraping (Philomel/Penguin Random House.) She was Poet Laureate of Perry County, PA in 2006 and 2007. Cordelia holds a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing in Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband and children. She is represented by Sara Crowe.
Mira is just beginning her senior year of high school when she discovers her father with his male lover. Her world–and everything she thought she knew about her family–is shattered instantly. Unable to comprehend the lies, betrayal, and secrets that–unbeknownst to Mira–have come to define and keep intact her family’s existence, Mira distances herself from her sister and closest friends as a means of coping. But her father’s sexual orientation isn’t all he’s kept hidden. A shocking health scare brings to light his battle with HIV. As Mira struggles to make sense of the many fractures in her family’s fabric and redefine her wavering sense of self, she must find a way to reconnect with her dad–while there is still time.
Told in raw, exposed free verse, Skyscraping reminds us that there is no one way to be a family.
Laura: New York City is embedded in Mira’s personality. I loved that about your book, because I went to college in New York right around the time SKYSCRAPING is set. What do you think people mean when they say that a book’s setting is like a character unto itself? How is that true for your novel?
Cordelia: I think when people say the setting is a character they mean a setting can act as an antagonist—making things worse for their characters (ex. in a book that centers around a natural disaster). Or it can act as a secondary character—an ally, for example (maybe a character seeks emotional refuge in a particular house or landscape). In Skyscraping, I think the setting (not just NYC but the sky above) acts as both of these sort of characters at times but really mostly as a peek into the heart of the main character herself.
In Mira’s case, her relationship to NYC directly reflects her relationship with her dad. She starts out as loving NYC as much as her dad and as soon as she feels betrayed by him she begins to notice the downsides of the city. I think NYC at that time was also a more unsettling place to be and you sort of never knew what would be around any corner. I often felt unsafe growing up in NYC and yet also somehow protective of it, which is a lot like Mira’s changing relationship with her father. I wanted to show that push and pull through the landscape itself. I think Mira’s longing to see the stars and how she can’t do this in NYC reflects the betrayal she feels by her parents, but it also gives her the drive to strike out her own. To see a bigger world. To search for meaning. I hope that Mira’s relationship to the setting in this story really mirrors her own emotional arc. That certainly was my intention.
Laura: Your book is a blend of personal experience and fiction. Mira’s story mirrors an important event in your own life. How is Mira like you as a teenager and in what ways is she her own person?
Cordelia: Mira and I are similar in that we are both “over-thinkers” and sensitive people, always searching for truth in the subtext of things. We are different in a few important ways. First of all, when my own father was sick, I took aside all my close friends and told them almost immediately what was going on. I relied on my friends heavily during that time in my life. For support but, even more so, for escape. Mira is also more of an overachiever at the beginning of the book than I was. I always did okay at school—better at things I loved like English and Art but Mira really is a straight A sort of student. I did have a big social circle in high school and had a hard time giving Mira only two real friends. My social life was more important to me growing up than my grades and I think for Mira it was the opposite (well until things sort of change for her.) My thinking was more rigid in high school than now and in that way was more like Mira then than I am now—I had a more black and white way of seeing the world, as she does initially. A lot of the emotional process she goes through with her parents and in her relationships is similar to my own, though hers is simpler in a way . . . to make for a more cohesive story. Each relationship in the story also has similarities and differences to the real ones but that would take forever to explain. Mira also prioritizes family at times, and especially her relationship with April, which I wish I had done more at the time with my own sister. I did way more running away than she does. The person who is the most absolutely changed is the character of Adam,but to explain how is to give away some spoilers…
Laura: The process of revising and editing (not to mention designing!) a novel-in-verse has some major differences from traditional fiction. Can you tell us what the process of working with your editor was like?
Cordelia: I think the hardest part of this hybrid form is that you revise for language and then lose the story and then revise for story and lose the language! It really is a constant dance. I think you have to end up looking at the narrative as a whole in the end and think things like: as compelling as this image might be to me does it serve the narrative as a whole? As compelling as this subplot might be does it weigh down the flow of the verse? What about all the characters…are they all necessary? One of the hardest revisions I did was when my editor had me take out all the dialogue in the story. This was so hard to do that I ended up rewriting the entire book with the old book sitting next to me. This was also the best move I made in revision. I am positive that the book is so much stronger for the rewrite and having let go of much of the dialogue that was weighing down the poems themselves.
I love having an editor…I can get overly attached to characters, images, scenes, sentences and it is so helpful for me to have someone demand I look at all of it and make sure it all belongs, matters. Verse novels if done well can create so much accessible emotion for the reader and, yeah, it is also so hard to do well. I do think creating an image system can be really helpful. I wrote a blog piece about this here.
Laura: How did you know that poetry was the right form for Mira’s story? Were there any early drafts written in prose?
Cordelia: There were never any drafts in prose. That is because Skyscraping was originally a memoir-in-verse. [Those were] poems I had written about my family over a period of fifteen years or so. When I showed five of these poems to my VCFA advisor, Coe Booth, she suggested I put them in a narrative arc. This was so appealing to me, as I had always loved to write poetry but really loved to read and fall inside story. At the suggestion of another VCFA advisor, I then fictionalized this material.
Laura: The theme of masks and costumes adds a dimension to Mira’s parents and their marriage. It also speaks to Mira questioning friendships and figuring out who she wants to be when she leaves high school. How did you develop this layer of the story?
Cordelia: I am glad this theme stood out to you. It was something my editor and I discussed a bit. It came because this part of the story is true: my father did design these huge Aztec God costumes for the Halloween parade every year. It was an amazing part of who he was. So it came organically from my own life. I also LOVE the psychological process of identity formation, which makes the mask these important. I have a counseling degree and worked with teens for years before being a creative writing teacher and I really don’t find anything as fascinating as the time in our life when we are deciding who we are. And then changing our minds! And then changing again! I love the idea of a human as a dynamic being and we can be many different things at once. And that is, really, okay.
Lightning Round Questions
City or suburbs?
Can I say country or the beach instead? Or just a small town?
NYC food you miss most?
I guess it would be H&H bagels, though that doesn’t exist anymore.
Favorite piece of clothing when you were in high school?
I had some overalls I really loved.
Superhero verse novelists?
Martine Leavitt, Skila Brown, Melanie Crowder, Katherine Appelgate, Thanhaa Lai, Kirsten Smith.
About the Interviewer
Laura Shovan’s middle grade novel-in-verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, debuts April, 2016 from Wendy Lamb Books. After graduating from NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program, she taught high school, covered education and the arts as a freelance journalist, and now works with teens with learning differences. Laura is editor of two poetry anthologies and author of the Harriss Poetry Prize-winning chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone. She and her family live in Maryland, where Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council. Check out her arts education blog or find Laura on Twitter.