Echoes of love and grief across time
Jennifer Donnelly’s 2003 young adult novel, A Northern Light, told the true story of Grace Brown’s 1906 murder from the point of view of fictional Mattie Gokey. By intertwining the two young women’s stories, Donnelly created a complex and emotionally resonant tale that won critical accolades, several awards (including a Michael L. Printz Honor and the UK’s Carnegie Medal) and, most importantly, the adoration of legions of readers. Now she returns with Revolution, a story that again explores the connection between two young women—this time across the span of hundreds of years. Using the French Revolution as a historical backdrop, Donnelly brings together Andi, a 21st-century teenager grieving the death of her brother, and Alexandrine, who was a companion to the last dauphin of France.
In an interview with BookPage, Donnelly gives us some insight into her characters, the artists that inspire her and the tragic true story at the heart of Revolution.
It’s been seven years since the publication of your first young adult novel, A Northern Light. In the meantime, you’ve published two adult novels. Why return to YA now?
Ha! You flatter me extremely by assuming any professional decision I’ve ever made has been thought out. I’m driven very much by ideas that grab hold of me and won’t let go, and characters who take up residence in my head and won’t leave until I’ve gotten their stories down. The problem is, those characters don’t always willingly relinquish their stories. It takes a great deal of time to understand people like Andi and Alex, the main characters in Revolution, and to do them justice.
Andi is a complicated and, at times, not particularly likable heroine. Was she a challenging character to write?
She was challenging to write. Not because she’s not likable—I happen to like her very much—but because she is in such great pain and I very much felt her pain. She’s also a thousand times cooler than I am, and probably wouldn’t hang out with me if I hadn’t created her, so I kind of had to rise to that.
Both Andi and Alexandrine have vivid, lively voices. How did you go about creating distinctive, believable voices for these two girls living hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart?
Thank you. That’s a huge compliment. They just came, these girls. I realize that’s kind of a lame answer, but I don’t know how to explain it any better. Andi and I sat in the same room together for years and got to know each other quite well. Alex was walking down a cobbled Paris street and turned and beckoned to me, and I followed.
What drew you to writing about the French Revolution?
A story I read in the New York Times about 10 years ago: “Geneticists’ Latest Probe: The Heart of the Dauphin.” It showed a picture of a glass urn with a small human heart in it. The article said that the heart, which had been kept in the Basilica of St. Denis, in Paris, had just undergone DNA testing and had been found to be the heart of Louis-Charles, the lost king of France, the youngest son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The article explained that after the execution of the king, Louis Charles was taken from his mother—at the age of eight—to be re-educated in the ways of the revolution. The child was brutalized, and as threats to the revolution grew, he was locked away in solitary confinement. He was kept in terrible conditions, grew ill, lost his mind and eventually died—at the age of 10.
I was horrified and moved to tears by this. I wondered how the idealism of the revolution—Liberty, Fraternity and Equality; the best, most noble human aspirations—devolved into such cruelty. I wondered what kind of world allowed it, and still allows it. And I wondered how are we supposed to live in such a world. I was very tortured by these questions and needed an answer, so I set about trying to get one the only way I know how—by writing a story.
Is it difficult, when writing a historical novel, to balance truth and fiction?
It’s not so difficult to balance the two. As Robespierre said, history is fiction. Ask three people for an account of an event, and you’ll get three different accounts. What Andi, and the reader, gets is Alex’s account. She exists within a factual historical timeline, of course, and must conform to it, but her thoughts and opinions on what is happening during that timeline are entirely her own. She, like her uncle, is not so thrilled by the Revolution. She’s not inspired. She’s pissed off. The revolution is going to make her free, yes . . . but free to do what? Free to go back to Paris and starve after she’s been living well at Versailles?
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I did a great deal of academic research—reading Schama and Carlyle and many other historians of the Revolution, for example. Looking up old maps in Paris archives to reconstruct the streets my characters walked down. Reading texts of letters from prisoners condemned to the guillotine. Viewing as much art and as many artifacts from the period as I could.
I also did a lot of non-academic research. I visited Paris and sat in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal at night, hoping for a glimpse of Orleans’ ghost. I tooled around in the catacombs. Went to Versailles. Spent time in grocery stores and market stalls. I sat by the Seine and in cafes and parks and at the Louvre, and watched Parisians for hours, studying their faces and gestures, observing the way they eat and talk, absorbing the attitude.
Did any of your own ideas about the Revolution change after researching it?
I would say that many of my political ideas hardened. The violence and bloodshed of the Revolution is staggering to me, and after studying the rise and fall of the various revolutionary factions, particularly Robespierre and the Jacobins, I believe more strongly than ever that power corrupts and that often those who most want power are the ones who should least have it.
I also grew to have sympathy for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. They were foolish and callous rulers. They made dreadful mistakes and refused to learn from them—and ultimately paid very dearly for them. The price wasn’t loss of power and wealth, or even their lives. The price was going to the guillotine knowing that their defenseless children were in the hands of brutal, ruthless people, and that they could do nothing to protect them.
For readers who are inspired to learn more about the French Revolution, where would you recommend they go next?
I would start out with Simon Schama’s most excellent Citizens and Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History. If you’ve got some time on your hands, that is. Mark Steel’s Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution, is a quicker read, and a whole lot funnier.
Music plays a huge role in the novel. Do you listen to music for inspiration or while you write?
Music inspires me greatly. I listen for inspiration, and comfort, and to be astonished and delighted. While I was working on Revolution, I listened to Segovia, Radiohead, Beethoven, the Beatles, Nada Surf, Pink Floyd, the Decemberists, Mozart, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bach, Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed and many more.
Andi’s new Parisian friend is clearly named after Dante’s guide to the underworld, the poet Virgil, and parts of the novel are named after sections of The Divine Comedy. Did that poem inform the book in other ways?
The Divine Comedy is one of my favorite poems. Dante is depressed, and on the verge of ending it all, and then along comes Virgil, the writer he most admires, and says, “Come on, Dante, man up. We’re going on a road trip. We’re going to get you out of this.” I mean, imagine it . . . you’re at your lowest point and the artist you most admire takes you by the hand and leads you through Hell, and when you come out, you can “rebehold the stars.” Amazing. I wanted Andi—led into the underworld by her own Virgil—to travel on much the same journey. For better or worse, I went along with them; getting this book written was at times an emotionally crushing experience. But like Andi and Dante before her, when it was over, I could finally once again see the stars.
I love the idea of reaching back to our artistic ancestors, like Dante and Virgil, for help and comfort and guidance. I’ve been sustained by the work of other writers my entire life. Andi is sustained by generations of musicians, stretching from Johnny Greenwood all the way back to Malherbeau. If there’s one thing I really want to get across to readers, especially teenage readers, it’s that this priceless legacy—be it music, or paintings, or books—exists. And it exists for you. If things are bad, reach for it, hold on to it, and let it carry you.