Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Inkpot Interviews: Lisa Jahn-Clough

Another emerita this week! Lisa Jahn-Clough  was part of the MFAC faculty for many years. She now teaches full time at Rowan University in New Jersey. Lisa talked to the Inkpot about her newest YA, Nothing But Blue, which was published last May by Houghton Harcourt Mifflin. 

Please describe the book in under 50 words. (Feel free to use the publisher’s promo copy, but do attribute it.)

“A girl walks along a road, disoriented and confused, seeking a home she barely remembers. Calling herself Blue, she embarks on a harrowing journey, eating from dumpsters, dodging the law, and struggling to piece together who she is and where she came from. She encounters people who help and people who hurt, and befriends a protective, magical dog who watches over her, body and soul. The story unfolds in alternating narratives marked “Now” and “Before,” and as Blue makes her way back home, we discover the difficulty of her family relationships, the boy who used her and threw her away, and the tragic event that ripped her from her home.” – from Booklist
As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I began working on Blue after I left a full-time teaching job and moved to Savannah with my partner (I was still teaching at Hamline during this time), but had no other social life. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep publishing, but I wanted to keep writing, so I decided I could write whatever I wanted. I’d had this idea about a girl who loses everything, which was loosely based on a true story of an acquaintance of mine whose house had blown up in a gas explosion fifteen years prior. I was intrigued by the idea of living totally in the present and therefore of writing from the perspective of a character who had no sense of her past. I’ve also always been interested in off-the-grid lifestyles. I also wanted to incorporate the deep bond between human and dog. I bought a new notebook and went wandering around Savannah writing in cafes, pretending that I was the girl from my novel. I had wrote most of the first draft over six months, filling four notebooks, then typed and revised it into the computer for about another six months. By this time I got a full-time teaching gig in NJ. My partner and I moved again, and I spent the next year working closely with my editor.
As with all novels, many things change and evolved—names, places, incidents, etc…,but the premise throughout this book remained the same all the way through—a girl loses everything and has to embark on a journey by foot. Perhaps the biggest change was when I decided I wanted to add in ten “Before” scenes/chapters, all written in past tense and interspersed with the character’s present tense voice. Without these sections from Blue’s past, it would be hard for the reader to be able to compare Blue pre-accident to post-accident. The reader knows more than the protagonist, which is an effect I’ve always liked playing with. After the first solid draft I mostly had a lot of pacing issues and plot to structure. 
What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?
I had to research Acute Stress Disorder(ASD), long-distance walking, and trainhopping the most. The facts related to these things all affected Blue’s journey.
At first I thought Blue had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but after consulting with a psychiatrist, learned that Blue has all the symptoms of ASD instead—ASD occurs immediately after a specific trauma, causes short-term memory loss, confusion, possible hallucinations, paranoia, and lasts 2-5 weeks. Perfect.
Trainhopping was the most intriguing research for the book. I never went trainhopping, but I spoke with several who have, along with people who have lived in a community like Hobo Town. I was surprised to learn that trainhopping is still a common undertaking (and still very dangerous), people give themselves rail names, and Rail Bulls exist.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
My husband is also an author/illustrator. I often give him the beginnings drafts of my ideas and he always says kind things. Then, when I have enough pages I’ll show my editor. She is so kind—she reads anything I give her (which doesn’t mean she publishes it all!) When and if I develop a more solid draft version I’ll show it to one of two trusted friends who are not writers but are avid readers and wonderfully smart people. Then we’ll have a casual conversation about it which I find invaluable. But I find I do this less and less since I don’t want to burden them,  and my editor is pretty fantastic.

What books do you love to teach or recommend to students?
I recommend that students read any book that catches their eye for whatever reason, but to read it with a critical eye. Respect the author, but question his or her choices objectively.
More specifically, I almost always refer to Robert Cormier’s classic YA , The Chocolate War—it is so rich in language and provides for interesting, gritty discussion. For MG, Holes, by Louis Sachar is a perfect study of plot as well as a great all around read. Also The Giver, by Lois Lowry for language, pacing and tension.

What widely-loved or acclaimed book is one that didn’t work for you?
Not even sure where to begin with that one. If I read a widely-acclaimed book with a critical eye I am sure to be skeptical. On the other hand I give all writers the benefit of the doubt in their genuine sincerity, and just because it might not work for me really has no bearing on anything (except that I probably would not teach it).

During the January 2013 residency Emily Jenkins lectured on “How to Be Funny,” and one of her suggestions was to “use jolly words.” A good idea even if one isn’t trying to be funny. Do you have a favorite jolly word?
My jolly words tend to be on the melancholic side. "Lugubrious" remains my favorite. 

Click  to watch the Nothing But Blue trailer.


  1. Lisa, it's great to read more about your intriguing novel and your writing process. Your talk during the winter residency touched on some of these themes and was so powerful. It reminded me of how we miss you and what a terrific writing mentor you are. I remember when you read from this powerful novel during a summer residency about three years ago. So glad it is now out in the world. CRM

  2. Thanks, Claire. I really miss all of you. Hope to get back to Hamline in the very near future! xo