Jenny Land was born in Vermont. After her education at Dartmouth College, the University of St. Andrews, and Oxford University, she returned to Vermont to teach English and creative writing at St. Johnsbury Academy, and to work on farms during the summer. She lives in Peacham, Vermont with her husband and twin daughters. Land has published poetry in the United Kingdom, but "The Spare Room" is her debut novel.
SIX MINUTES WITH JENNY LAND:
Author of The Spare Room, Jenny Land joins LitPick for Six Minutes with an Author! Jenny was born in Vermont, where she returned to teach English and creative writing at St. Johnsbury Academy after completing her education at Dartmouth College and the Universities of Oxford and St. Andrews.
How did you get started writing?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember— I can’t remember learning how to read or write. Both activities have helped me to define myself through both my childhood and adulthood. I grew up in Vermont, where my book is set, and I remember coming home from school and sitting in a notch in the white pine tree in front of our house, where I had a good view of anyone coming along the half-mile driveway. I liked to write poems and stories up there, and most of them were inspired by the natural scenes around me. Later, I would copy them as neatly as I could (I did and do have awful handwriting) into little handmade books. I still have the books. I think I wanted to create books because I cared so much about the books that I was reading. Books felt magical to me, and all the more so for being tangible objects. Just as I find books to be magical, I also find the process of writing to be mysterious and awesome. It feels like alchemy. I like to be surprised by what comes out on the other side.
Who influenced you?
From a very young age, I drew inspiration from my favorite authors. I read and reread books until I grew familiar with sentence patterns and word choices. I think that rereading books is incredibly important for writers, because when rereading you are not just flying through for the plot; you can slow down and absorb the style.
My family encouraged my writing a lot, particularly my grandfather, who read out loud classic poems to me and took to reading my own little poems out loud at the dinner table. I always enjoyed creative writing assignments in school, and as soon as I was able to take electives in creative writing, from eighth grade onwards, I signed up at any opportunity. My teachers encouraged me a great deal, and I think that I wouldn’t be writing now if they hadn’t given me that sense of confidence. That’s one of the main reasons that I am a writing teacher myself now, and why I have chosen to teach younger students instead of those at the university level. High-school students are excited to learn about the craft and ready to experiment.
I think that it is very important for young writers to have mentors, people to guide them along the way. I have friends who are writers that are older than I whom I greatly respect and look up to, and I definitely continue to seek out help with my own writing. There’s always room for improvement.
Do you have a favorite book/subject/character/setting?
Favorite? That’s a hard one. I have so many favorites that I could list a new one often, depending on what mood I was in. I am always drawn to books with very strong senses of place and very strong characters within those settings. My long-standing favorite novel is probably Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” because the wild moors feel like a character in themselves. I read a lot of older books, both fiction and poetry. I also read a lot of children’s literature. While I was growing up, some of my favorite books that I read over and over (as in the whole series of each author at least once a year) included those by Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery (the Emily books as well as the Anne books), Maud Hart Lovelace, and Sydney Taylor.
When I read those books, the childhoods of the characters became my childhood. I entered new worlds. I knew the neighbors and relatives of the protagonists as if they were my own. Even as I kid, I dreamed of trying to write my own book that would create a character and her world in a similar way.
In terms of contemporary authors, I have really enjoyed reading books by Jennifer Donnelly, Brian Selznick, Susan Cooper, and Markus Zusak. I’m drawn to historical fiction in particular, on almost any subject and set anywhere. I like fantasy, too. Because I have young children, I know I’ll be introduced to even more new books, and I can’t wait.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?
To be an author, you need to write. That sounds more than obvious, but it’s true. If you want to be an author, you need to make time in your life for writing. As a teacher and as a mother, I find it difficult to find time for writing. I don’t write every single day. But I designate times when I plan to write, and I try very hard to stick to it. If you don’t make the time, it usually doesn’t happen. If I waited to write till a time when I felt inspired, I don’t think I would end up writing very much.
One other piece of advice is to write down snatches of ideas in a notebook. A lot of the time, I will feel stuck for a story idea— but I will remember a plot that I jotted down years before, and I will go back and haul it out and turn it into something. I definitely can’t count on my brain to remember my ideas years later, and I also can’t count on myself to have an idea for writing every time I sit down. A notebook of ideas helps me a lot for creating both poems and stories.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I write in a lot of different places. Sometimes I need to be alone, and I work at my desk, especially in the wintertime. I often keep little objects on my desk to look at and ponder and play with while I’m writing. When I wrote The Spare Room, I had a special antique pen on my lapdesk that I had bought with babysitting money when I was fifteen. In a way, the novel became the story of the imagined original owner of that pen. When the weather is reasonable (and I can put up with a lot, if I’m wearing enough layers), I like to write outside. Sometimes I write better around other people, because my everyday thoughts are distracting me when I’m sitting alone in silence, so I’ll head to a café or even a friend’s living room. I often write very well in the company of my writing students at school, and I have had many ideas in that setting that I’ve polished into finished pieces. When I was writing The Spare Room, I was living and working on a farm in Vermont during the summers while on break from teaching. I actually wrote almost all of the first draft sitting in a little tiny graveyard that hasn’t been used for the last century, right near the farm. I guess it was a quiet place!
I am a very active person, and I absolutely can’t sit down for hours and stay productive. The key for me is making sure that the hours are consistent and that there’s not too much time that goes by between sittings. Another fiction writer once told me that it’s really crucial to end your writing at a very exciting point in the action, or even right in the middle of a scene, so that when you sit down again you can jump right back into it and you don’t spend too long trying to get things moving again. I’ve found that this strategy works really well for me.
What else would you like to tell us?
I think I’d just like to add a plug for revision. Many of the young writers that I teach are reluctant to change their work in any way once they have composed their first draft. I think that it’s really, really rare that a piece doesn’t need any revision, and in any case, eliminating revision takes half of the enjoyment out of writing. Once you’ve got the idea down, then you can start playing with it, tinkering and shaping and molding and enhancing. You see what you have and you make it better. I think it’s a lot of fun.
My own process for revision is more than a little bit old-fashioned, but it works well for me, both for fiction and for poetry. First, I compose everything by hand. I find that the act of moving the pen across the paper helps unleash my creativity. I also enjoy being able to scratch out words and then being able to look back immediately and see what changes I have made. I like scribbling ideas in the margins and corners. I know that you can approximate most of these actions by writing with Word or GoogleDocs, but for me, the tangible paper is very important. I also find that I am more open to making changes in my work while it’s still in my own handwriting. Once I see it in print, I tend to see it looking like more of a finished product than it really is. For my first revisions, I am usually scribbling changes into margins and on top of my first draft. But at some point, I start typing up the manuscript. I see a lot of problems that need to be fixed while going through this process, and I wonder if I would catch as many if I had typed the manuscript directly on to the computer. Finally, I accomplish the many drafts that follow by printing out a copy of the manuscript and writing all over it and adding additional scenes on the backs of the sheets of paper. I can easily see the original draft underneath, plus I’m back to a stage where I’m being creative with my pen again. Revision is a personal process, but I think it’s a necessary one, and for me, at least, it’s the most rewarding part of writing.
Thank you, Jenny, for spending six minutes with LitPick! Your perspective on revision will help many authors.