Jul/Aug 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Jennifer McMahon

Interview by Cicily Janus

Jennifer McMahon is as uncommon and cool as her writing. Her world at times has involved bunny suits, pizza delivery careers and living in the dark. But what she excels at is the uncommon mystery. Packed with punchy prose and an ensnaring plot that twists and twirls all the way to the end, Island of the Lost Girls is a fantastic read. Turns of phrase spiral out of control in the seemingly right direction. The reader, at first believes there's a way out of this masterfully plotted novel. Instead, Jennifer McMahon confines you among hidden trails in the forest and offers no hope of escape.

With each stop at the gas station, false directions are given towards home. The symbolic nature of Peter Pan, loves lost, and forests which slowly rot away from the truth lying beneath the floor all work to pull you into this sheer force of plot and character driven narrative. I recommend you dock your senses at the nearest island located between fantasy and reality before taking a hike on this tour de force of summer reading. But what makes Jennifer McMahon's astounding second novel stand out from the rest is her prose. Her writing offers a brilliant sense of satisfaction one can only accomplish after surviving an escalating, twisted ride into the darkness.

Both of her adult novels, Promise Not to Tell (April, 2007) and Island of the Lost Girls (April, 2008) are published through HarperCollins. Her YA novel, My Tiki Girl, was published by Dutton/Penguin in 2008. You can keep up with Jennifer through her Myspace page or with the HarperCollins Author Tracker located on her website.


CJ       Barre, Vermont, is known for their cemeteries. Have you ever gone out to do grave rubbings?

JM     I have done them, yes. Not lately. But we do have some amazing cemeteries here. One is quite close to my house and I take walks there. It's a great place to get names for characters... a first name here, a last name there.

CJ       Speaking of names... your daughter is named Zella. Where did you get that name?

JM       My partner, Drea, and I were drawn to old fashioned names, and looked at what was popular in the early 1900's (the Social Security Administration has a great website for this!) We came across the name Zella there. Then, a few days later, we were looking through a genealogy book of my grandmother's and discovered several Zella's on that side of the family. We loved the name and it seemed meant to be.

CJ     When you moved to the area you live in, you moved into a house with no running water. What was it like to write in a house like this?

JM     The cabin we lived in had no running water, electricity, or phone. There was an outhouse out back. We heated water on the woodstove for bathing and dishes, used candles and oil lamps. It was like camping full time. I would write in a notebook, and then take what I'd written to a local café, where I'd plug in my laptop to type everything in.

CJ     Your other past life as the Easter Bunny... in the book, the kidnapper was dressed in a bunny suit. Tell me about this. Was it scary or surreal to write the scenes in which your character kidnaps the girl while wearing the bunny costume?

JM     Being the Easter Bunny was a little bizarre—you're in this big, hot costume, not speaking, peeking out through mesh eyes while you hand balloons and candy out to kids. And the kids, for the most part, just love you. It could be anyone inside, but the kid's just see the Easter Bunny and get all excited. I think having been the person inside the suit helped me to write the scenes from the Rabbit's point of view, though the person in the suit in Island of the Lost Girls is a touch more dangerous than I am!

CJ       Prior to your writing career, as I mentioned in the lead in for the interview, you lead quite a dynamic life. Careers have included a pizza delivery gal, Easter Bunny and more. What was it like to deliver pizza and how long did you hold this position?

JM     I delivered pizza for one winter, between college and grad school That was long enough. The money was terrible, the pick up I was driving broke down at the time and I have a notoriously terrible sense of direction, so I was always getting lost.

CJ       Where did you study writing?

JM     I studied poetry at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont., and then for my MFA in poetry, I studied at Vermont College. When I first went to school, I showed up with notebooks of stuff, tons of writing. I didn't know what I was at the time, but someone took a look at it all and said, This is really good poetry. from that moment on I thought of myself as a poet.

CJ     When did you make the switch from poetry to fiction?

JM     When I was in the in the MFA program I felt as if my heart and soul belonged to poetry. But it wasn't until I wrote this one particular poem that was long that I started to think differently. It was a long prose piece and it turned into short story and I wasn't anywhere near done after 20 pages. I didn't know what I was doing. But after a little identity crisis I began to work on a novel. Writing is one of those things I get better at each day I sit down and work on it.

CJ     With whom have you studied writing?

JM     I studied poetry with Mark Cox and Mark Doty. Their work influenced me but I never studied fiction.

CJ     What was it like studying with them?

JM     Wonderful and inspirational. We had a lot of one on one, group studies, and a lot of individual attention. It was what I needed at the time.

CJ     Were you driven to the pen and paper? What was that driving force? Was it personal experiences?

JM     Writing is the one thing I do that makes me feel most like me. When I don't do it, I get cranky, flu symptoms, headachy, body aches and I start to go a little crazy. I have to have an outlet for this.

CJ     In Island of the Lost Girls, I love how you lead and lead and lead the reader down this never ending rabbit hole that leads consistently to the wrong direction.

There he was, Peter Pan, lighting down on the window, crawling through like a cat burglar, a thief of children, a fairy king.

It's at this point, I believed you as an author. I had faith you were clueing me into the solution to the maddening puzzle. But by the end, I was blissfully turning the pages, waiting for another literary slap in the face. Are these turns of phrase planned or when you finish a draft, just there, as a result of knowing your characters? Or is this purely accidental, allowing the characters to act out on their own?

JM     I'm sub-conscious at work. But this is accidental. I'm not nearly as clever as people think I am. I don't know where that came from.

CJ     What I enjoyed the most as a reader is the imagery. It's smart, real and engages all of the senses.

They flashed, sizzled, leaving their ashes scattered on the frosting. The whole cake tasted like discharged ammunition.

No, I was such a weird kid. And I had this god-awful retainer that made me sound like a drunk gopher.

But this isn't on just one or two pages. The whole book is full of images such as this. When going through draft after draft of a novel, do you incorporate these into your everyday writing or are these bits and pieces of brilliance that come out as you go through the editing process?

JM     Both, I think. I think a lot of it comes out in the first draft. But as I polish, I allow more in. When I work on the first draft, I write speedy. I'm usually short on plotting as this is not my strength. It's the imagery and language that come naturally to me. This, I think, is due to my years of studying poetry.

CJ     The vignettes throughout this book are full of cars disguised as submarines, the rabbit holes that surface through the forest and the imagery of the truth surfacing through the forest floor. Does this have any personal significance to you?

JM     No, I don't think so, when I write fiction, it's really just that. Well, except I did have a very imaginative childhood. We performed plays in the woods like the characters in this book. But I do know a lot of writers who write from their lives and one of the reasons I don't do this is because the poems I wrote were confessional and I found this to be exhausting. Fiction is made up. I can get lost in it and I can't do this if there is me in it. It's not nearly as fun.

CJ     This book is quite dark in places. I wanted to close my eyes through most of it just to make sure the killer wasn't lurking inside, especially towards the end. But the characters were so nice. Just like the rest of us. In a way all of your characters are like that. Yet they have this side to them I never want to know. Where do you get this from? Have you known someone like this?

JM     No, I haven't known anyone like this. They are all from my head, from thinking about people. My editor at one point wanted me to take one of the characters and make him into a complete monster, allowing everyone to hate him. But life isn't that black and white. It's too easy to see them as monsters. And real life is much more complicated. It's cool when ordinary people make bad mistakes and choices. And when they do this, I watch for what happens. This is ultimately at the heart of my work.

CJ     Where do you go for your ideas and inspiration?

JM     They honestly just come to me. Island of the Lost Girls started while I was visiting a gas station close to a state park. I was on my way home and I watched as this woman pumped her gas, then left this little girl in the backseat to go pay for the gas. And you must know, I'm a worst-case scenario kind of person. I'm standing there, pumping gas and visualizing this little girl getting stolen. And if that wasn't enough, I start thinking of it like, what if Santa Claus showed up and took her, a man in a big yellow hat, the Easter bunny, etc... And the idea was born. The idea I'm working on now came to me in a dream. A group of college kids who forms an art-lover's group/society. But not to put things together, instead, they take everything apart.

CJ     Was Peter Pan a main source of your imagery? Throughout your novel, you reference the forest, lost children, a stream of boys who are deceptive and not who they really are... children that even though they are grounded in their homes, all seem lost, even as adults. How big was this in your novel's creation?

JM     That was definitely part of it. I'm fascinated when the time is lost to us between imagination and adulthood. There's a lot of fantasy/imagination and role play throughout. And with the idea of no one being themselves... the nature of forgiveness... I usually have a big question in my head when I sit down to write a book. The one for this book was, are there unforgivable acts? I don't know. I re-read Peter Pan several times during the writing process for this book and I beg people to go re-read it for themselves.

CJ     Is there a passage of the book that is your favorite? One which gave you the most satisfaction to write?

JM     I really love the very beginning from Suzy's point of view where she's in the car. That came from when I was first writing. The Confederate sub, the Hunley had just been found and that was in the news all the time. And with my first draft of the book, I became a little obsessed with old submarines and was thinking of submarines, going down into the darkness and something being preserved down there. The team who found the Hunley, found bones, buttons, and these things which had been there forever. This was all for Clem, a character who was much bigger in the first draft than he was in the final.

CJ     Do you find it hard to throw away pieces of your "baby" when finalizing drafts in various stages of the writing process?

JM     Island of the Lost Girls was written before my first book, Promise Not to Tell. And it was really long and rambled into a million different directions. Almost like an epic. I shoved it into a drawer and finally got it out and dusted it off. I showed parts of it to my agent, he liked it.

But, in this process, I had to throw half of it away. And I did so kicking and screaming. I learned it's better this way. I ended up centering it on Rhonda, my MC but I still have great sorrow for losing so much of Clem's voice. But sometimes you have to throw away the parts you're attached to. Ultimately, I'm always happy with the way things turned out. It was a definite learning experience.

CJ     How many drafts do you usually go through in the process of finishing a novel?

JM     I allow myself to write crap. A bad first draft is okay. I don't get hung up on writing things perfectly and it's much easier for me to write forward and get out what's going to come out instead of looking back at what I've done before. I can always go back and fix it. But then again, I know writers who don't revise and labor over every word. You have to find what works for you.

CJ     What is the one piece of advice you could give aspiring writers today?

JM     It is all about perseverance. You just have to stick with it. Promise Not to Tell was the fourth book I had written. And only after many rejections and two agents did I get published. I had an agent and she tried to sell, and even loved the first book. But when I presented her with the fourth book, Promise Not to Tell, she didn't like it. I drank too much tequila, got upset and then moved on. But now I have the right agent for me. Just keep going and writing, every day.

CJ     Thank you, Jennifer, for doing this interview and giving us this insight into your writing life.


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