Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Q&A with Jan Von Schleh

Jan Von Schleh is the author of the new young adult novel But Not Forever. She works for the U.S. Department of State. She's currently posted to Embassy Manama, Bahrain, and will be moving to Seoul this summer. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for But Not Forever and your characters Sonnet and Emma?
A: I might have to blame it on the weather! My husband and I had recently moved to the Kingdom of Bahrain and I was experiencing, what had to be, the hottest, most humid weather on the planet. No country, and we had also lived in other extremely hot and humid places, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nicaragua, could compare. 

It was August and I was stretched out on the couch in a direct line to the air conditioning and thinking of home . . . the coolness of summer hikes in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest . . . the shade of evergreens, wet, green ferns, mossy logs, and icy rivers.

I was literally transporting myself to another place and another time and was with my brothers again in a real ghost town called Monte Cristo, an abandoned gold mining town in the North Cascades where my family used to go on day hikes when I was a kid. The dark, creepiness of the place, the wreck of ancient buildings, had stayed with me, a long-forgotten memory.

And just like that, with my head in the middle of a forest, the story came tumbling out. An old Victorian mansion, first of all. And then the 15-year-olds, Sonnet and Emma and the time-travel switch. I guess the story was meant to be.   

Q: Why did you write Sonnet’s chapters in first person and Emma’s in third?

Quite simply, it was a strategy to keep Sonnet and Emma straight as I was writing. I was also experimenting with both first and third person and thought I would decide what worked best for the story and go back later and change one so that their points-of-view matched.

In the end, I liked keeping Emma’s voice in third, mostly because she was a bit more of an enigma. Being a teen from 1895, she was naturally less worldly compared to Sonnet. Her mother had dominated her, keeping her a virtual prisoner on the manor grounds unless chaperoned.

Sonnet, however, was a pretty straightforward modern girl, who had lived around the world as the daughter of a diplomat and international traveler. It made sense to keep her voice in first person. If it was easier for me to keep the girls straight by using two points-of-view, I decided it would be easier for the reader, too.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, especially the chapters that take place in 1895?

A: Fortunately, the setting didn’t need much research as I was familiar with the places in the book. The time-travel part was completely made up, except for a few technical type words I got from talking to a friend about the concept of time-travel.

As far as Victorian America, I have always been a voracious reader and I went back and reread many of my old classics from that general time frame to study the vernacular, the clothing, the homes and furnishings. 

The hardest part was attempting to have the characters speak in the language of the rigid class structure from that time. I re-watched some of the earlier years of Downton Abbey to catch some of the uppity-ness of the wealthy and the servitude of the working class.

In 1895 Monte Cristo, the story sweeps up characters of both high born stature and immigrants; miners, maids, a cook, a nanny. There is also a local Native American carriage driver and an African American fortune teller from Louisiana . . . how would I research their spoken language?

I didn’t want trying to be perfect to stop my writing so I tried hard not to stress out too much and did my best.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way.

A: I knew how the book would end as far as what happens, ultimately, with the girls. I had that figured out as soon as I started getting my story down on the “day of the scorching heat.”

But there are twists at the end and those took me awhile to come up with. As soon as I thought of them, I went back and made changes. This sometimes created the need to not only change one girl’s chapters, but both, because their stories ran along parallel tracks.    

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m half-finished with a follow-on novel. This next one takes up the story a year after the first one ends, although But Not Forever doesn’t end on a cliffhanger so you can read it and never read the new one.

It has a handful of characters from But Not Forever and some new ones. I had let a few people read the But Not Forever manuscript and they really loved Maxwell, the Native American carriage driver, and wished he had gotten the girl.

I decided I had to take this 16-year-old and write a second book about him. The novels are both stand-alone, but readers that love But Not Forever will really enjoy this new one, too. It will be published in summer 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have lived all over the world for going on 20 years and the most puzzling thing for people who know me is why I didn’t come up with a story from my travels. I probably will someday when I’m finally back in Seattle. When I’ve put some distance between me and my wandering.

For now, though, dredging up memories of home and creating fiction from them seems to be where I’m at. Maybe I’m just homesick for those cedar trees and ferns and mossy logs. Whatever it is . . . the magic seems to be working. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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