Cordelia Jensen, VCFA 2012 grad and member of The Secret Gardners, stops by the Launchpad to talk about her new book, Skyscraping, released today by Philomel.
A heartrending, bold novel in verse about family, identity, and forgiveness.
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.
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
There was a fair amount of difficulty. But the two hardest parts were probably my editor requesting that I cut all the dialogue out of the book (keep in mind, this is a verse novel) and the second was cutting out a few characters I felt attached to. It was during that revision that I ended up rewriting the whole book with the other one sitting next to me. With much gratitude now to my editor Liza Kaplan, it actually strengthened the book A LOT. And the most important facets of the two of the characters I cut actually became absorbed into the main character’s personality. That was unexpected! I ended up putting back in some dialogue but very little compared to one of the drafts. Another hard part was in the final revision when I had to cut sixty pages from the first half of the book. Condensing poems together to give only the most pertinent information was REALLY hard for me but also somehow kind of fun and rewarding. I’ll tell you what wasn’t hard for me but that lots of other people struggle with? Copy edits! I thought they were sort of a blast. I think this is probably because I am one of those rare writers who is not a perfectionist and I liked the power of saying “stet” or “yeah, change it!” It was so easy compared to everything else!
What was the spark that ignited this book?
Well, the “content” spark began with my own life. In some ways, I had been writing this book since I was eighteen and my own father passed from AIDS in 1994. There are some images that literally come from some poems I wrote in college. The spark for how it became this particular book, in this particular genre, was absolutely from my time at VCFA with Coe Booth and then with Mary Quattlebaum. Coe inspired the book because she introduced me to the YA verse novel form and then told me to write one. And Mary also was instrumental in the book’s development because she encouraged me to take my memoir verse novel and fictionalize it. I then continued to work on the book with Julie, strengthening the poetry part of it. And then revised again a lot for the story with An Na. The book that sold to Philomel was my creative thesis from VCFA.
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
When Julie Larios told me a poem contains “music, image and idea.”
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?
Google is so incredibly helpful! Tom Hanks’s Oscar speech for winning the Best Actor award for the movie Philadelphia; movie release dates through 1993-94; the Phish playlist for the New Years Eve show on 12/31/93.
Who were your advisors at Vermont?
My advisors were Coe Booth, Mary Quattlebaum, Julia Larios and An Na.
How did attending VCFA affect your writing?
VCFA affected my writing life tremendously. I went to VCFA to try and figure out if I was a “real writer” or just a hobbyist. Which, really, is a ridiculous question because if you are actively writing and working on your writing, you are a writer. Anyway, I think I needed some external confirmation of that. But more than that, I think the discipline the rigorous workload demands really changed me. I now feel like I could sort of write anywhere at anytime after having that packet structure dictate my life for a few years. “Writing time” is not a precious thing to me—it is basically just anytime you can! It also taught me 1,000 million things about writing craft that are too long to list. But I use a lot of what I learned now as a teacher, so I am reminded all the time of the many lessons of those wise advisors. Also, I love the VCFA community—I’ve made a few real forever friends from going to school there and also just being a part of such a supportive, loving really, writing network is a huge asset as a writer.
Cordelia Jensen teaches afterschool creative writing classes for kids at Germantown Friends School and the Big Blue Marble Bookstore and a class called Writing for Children and Young Adults at Bryn Mawr College. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and 9 year-old children. www.cordeliajensen.com