Monday, April 2, 2012

Author Interview: Jenny Hubbard of PAPER COVERS ROCK

(Updated with new pics at the bottom!)

Jenny Hubbard



We loved meeting Jenny Hubbard when she visited the Main library—almost as we enjoyed Paper Covers Rock, her beautiful debut novel that has won numberous national awards and an endorsement from mega-author Pat Conroy. Luckily, she answer a few questions for those who didn't get to meet her:

Paper Covers Rock is your first novel. How did you come up with the idea for it?

If you want to get technical about it, it’s my third novel. The first two are in a drawer in a folder marked, “Burn in the event of my death.” But, yes, it is my first published novel. The germ of Paper Covers Rock began with a terrible true story I heard while I was teaching at a boys’ boarding school, one that had nothing to do with boys or schools. That terrible true story is no longer a part of the novel. Funny how that happens. I taught at the boys’ school for 10 years, and when I started there, I was the only single female teacher. I taught poetry, and I read the sometimes great and terrifying work of my students day in and day out. Although my story is not at all Miss Dovecott’s, I can relate to and empathize with her plight.

Did you intend for it to reflect the classic A Separate Peace?

It was unintentional, but at some point, I realized it was going to be compared to the John Knowles novel (if I was lucky—and I was). My narrator Alex and Knowles’s narrator, Gene, are both guilt-stricken, which drives them and enables them to tell the stories that they tell. I used to teach A Separate Peace and absolutely loved it—a flawless novel with layers to be explored and surprised by.

How do you create and flesh out your characters?

This is the fun part—the characters. I wrote many pages in their voices that never made it into the final draft. In fact, I wrote the novel several times over in different points of view: in Miss Dovecott’s, in Alex’s at the age of 27, in a third-person omniscient narrator. No doubt this helped in the eventual fleshing out, as I grew to know them all intimately, having spent six years off and on with them.

                                                                  Paper Covers Rock
Alex Stromm is a deep and artistic, yet conflicted young man. Is he based on a former student/students of yours? Is he anything like you as a teen?

Alex is the teen I wished I were: deep, thoughtful, talented, smart. He is based on no one student of mine but an amalgam of students I’ve taught over my 17 years in the classroom.

You were an English teacher. Do you resemble Miss Dovecott in any way?

Only in that we teach the same way: Her lesson on Emily Dickinson was my lesson on Emily Dickinson. She’s much cooler, much smarter, than I am.

Alex writes poetry to release his feelings about his friend's death and to communicate with Miss Dovecott. What made you decide to include poetry in this novel?

I know of no better form for navigating complicated feelings than poetry. When I write a poem, I learn something I didn’t know before. That’s what I wanted for Alex, who is wiser by the end of the novel thanks to his burgeoning awareness of the power—and subtlety—of language.

Have you always been a poet?

Ever since I could hold a pencil.

What was it like to write from a 16-year-old boy's perspective, such as when Alex is distracted by his crush on Miss Dovecott?

I was a “dorm parent” at the boarding school where I taught. For five years, I could hear conversations through my apartment door, even though it was shut tight. This was in the days before cell phones, and the hall phone was five feet from my front door. It wasn’t strange to me at all to write from a 16-year-old boy’s perspective because I had heard 16-year-old boys talk to their girlfriends, their parents, their grandparents. They had a different way of speaking to each particular audience, which was fascinating to me.

The ending doesn't tie up everything into a happy-ever-after knot. Why not?

Alex is still a work in progress. There has been progress, to be sure, but while the ending is subtly hopeful, the reader isn’t sure where/how Alex is going to end up because HE isn’t sure. And he’s the narrator, so the reader gets only his perspective. That’s why the conversation with Mr. Parkes is there, near the end of the book—to give the reader a little bit more perspective on Alex’s situation, which is still too close for him to do a whole lot of happy-ever-after reflecting.

This is a thoughtful, literary book. Is that why it appeals both to teens and adults?

I think that’s part of it. I also think that it’s one that isn’t driven by its plot. It’s driven by its characters. The characters who are teens are real, that is to say, flawed, and so that’s appealing to teens under pressure to be good, better, best. They are witness to a boy, Alex, making a devastating mistake and coming to terms with it. I hope it’s a bit of an education for teens, or at least a cautionary tale. For adults, the writing seems to be the drawing card. They appreciate the craft of it, the structural design, the attention to diction, and the resonance of the imagery. The male adults who read the book fall a little in love with Miss Dovecott. “I wish I’d had an English teacher like that,” they say.

Pat Conroy endorsed Paper Covers Rock. What was it like to read his comments?

Funny and surreal. I used to teach his work in class. Pat is a generous, very funny man, and he said some other things about the book that didn’t make it onto the cover. When I met him in a bookstore in Asheville—it was a fluke of timing, how he happened to come upon my novel to begin with—he told me he wanted to do me the favor of blurbing my book because no one did him that favor when he was starting out.

What was it like to be named a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award?

To be honest, I didn’t know that award existed until I was named a finalist. But now that I know what it is, and for whom it is named, I’m humbled. I imagine book awards are much like acting awards—there are plenty of books that are equally or more deserving but that, for one reason or another, don’t get the attention. So much of it feels like luck to me. I’ve been lucky.

Besides writing novels, you work in theater. Tell us about that:

Well, I’ve acted in community theatre ever since I was 13. My first role was Brigitta von Trapp in The Sound of Music. And my “coaching duty” at the boarding school was directing a play once a year. Now I manage a theatre in my hometown of Salisbury, N.C., and my favorite part of the job is reading scripts and imagining actors I know playing particular roles. In other words, I most enjoy the process of envisioning the possibilities. It’s the same, too, when I’ve been cast in a role: the sea of choices laid out before me by the playwright. Then the director will do some navigating, and then the set designer. Six weeks later, there’s a world that’s been created from words on a page.

See you soon!

Jenny Hubbard (center) poses with a few fans after her discussion at the Main library.

The YA staff loved meeting Jenny Hubbard, who braved the rain and showed off her yellow rain boots!

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