Jen Bryant has written many books for young readers, including the Caldecott Honor winners The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (both illustrated by Melissa Sweet, published by Eerdmans), as well as the acclaimed novels-in-verse The Trial, Pieces of Georgia, and Ringside 1925. Jen lives with her family in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania.
What made you decide to become an author?
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?
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 emails 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?
Many come from my reading and also from my daily life experiences and travel. 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. My historical novel The Trial (Knopf, 2004) — which describes the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial from a girl’s point of view — and my picture book biographies on playwright August Wilson (Abrams, 2019), poet William Carlos Williams, and linguist Peter Mark Roget (Eerdmans, 2008 & 2014) 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?
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. 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!
One of my most memorable ‘research days’ was when I visited the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia to collect information for my picture book Call Me Marianne (Eerdmans, 2006). The night before, I’d watched a 1960s 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 reconstructed her apartment (complete with her many animal statues), so I was able to stand right in the middle of it! While writing Georgia’s Bones, I travelled 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 me to understand why she loved the desert so much.
Do you rewrite much?
Oh gosh, yes! My first 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 my laptop 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?
Practice, practice, practice! I’ve been writing for several hours a day for three decades 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?
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?
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!
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