Twilight Times Special Feature
Interview with Jennifer Dunne
Jennifer: "Oh, yes. :-) My house is decorated with hand-stenciled borders and hand-stenciled cabinets. One mirror is covered in a silk flower arrangement to match the sofa/loveseat pattern. Various art work hangs on the walls -- a grave rubbing, embroidery, a painting, posters that I've matted and framed, shadow boxes filled with vacation souveniers.
I make my own cards for my family, writing the verses and drawing the pictures. Whenever I return to my parents' home for holidays, I'm immediately placed in charge of floral arrangements, decorations, calligraphy for place cards or invitations, etc.
Some of the other creative outlets I've had in the past have included quilting (one year everyone got quillows for Christmas), sewing (I made many of my own clothes, including the gown I wore to my first RWA RITA/Golden Heart banquet, and the Regency riding habit I wore to the last two Regency balls), and stained glasswork. I could probably think of more if I tried. :-)
Lida: "Do you feel you were creative, even as a child?"
Jennifer: "Yes. Do you want examples? :-) One of the things I recall is that I had a forty-five minute bus ride to nursery school and kindergarden. I would frequently bring a book to read on the ride (yes, that habit started VERY early), but when I didn't have a book, I'd stare out the window and create my own stories in my head. I wrote plays and musicals for the local kids to perform. And I tried my hand at just about every craft imaginable: those woven-loop potholders, a weaving loom, intricately patterned beadwork, leatherwork, woodburning, whittling, knitting, crochet and embroidery. I also loved to build things out of Lego or an Erector set that was my dad's when he was a kid (the smell of dusty metal brings back so many happy memories).
Lida: "Could you share with us the story behind the story? In other words, how did your writing life lead up to Raven's Heart?"
Jennifer: "The story behind the story? Well, in college, my boyfriend got me hooked on the X-Men (TM) series of comics. In particular, I was intrigued by the interplay between Magneto and Professor Xavier. (For those unfamiliar with the series, it takes place on an alternate Earth where genetic mutations have given rise to strange powers. Magneto is the leader of a group of mutants who believe that humans and mutants can never live in peace while humans are in control, while Professor Xavier is the leader of the group of mutants who believe the only hope for peace is for mutants and humans to find a way to coexist.) At one point in the series, Magneto goes from being the arch-enemy of Xavier's followers to being their leader in Xavier's absence. It works, because what He and Xavier want is the same thing: for mutants to be able to live in peace. They just disagree on how to accomplish that.
I took that idea, and started playing around with how I could illustrate the same conflict in my story. How could I demonstrate someone who believed the ends justified the means, in conflict with someone who believed the means produced the ends? Better yet, how could the actions of one lead to the impossibility of the other one's dream?
Because these polar viewpoints had to remain constant for the story to work, I set them up as secondary characters. (I won't say which ones, in case you haven't read the book yet.)
But that left me without a story for my main characters. In fact, it left me without main characters!
Enter another pop culture inspiration: a TV show called Due South. One of the characters is a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And his faith in the goodness of humanity and the service of the police is unshakable. I'd found my hero. But it wasn't enough to have a good man serving a good cause. So I stretched the boundaries by creating a new world order where the police are highly oppressive. Now my hero was a good man serving a cause that he would be forced to question.
Of course, if the hero is a cop, the heroine has to be a criminal. So I made the heroine part of an outlawed group fighting for the rights of these people with special powers. And in an echo of the hero's problems, I tweaked the organization she served until she would also be forced to question its motives.
And, simply because that's not enough to make the characters suffer as much as I wanted them to, they each had major issues of self-worth to deal with. (Again, I won't get into the details because that might spoil it for someone who hasn't read it yet.)"
Lida: "How did you prepare for the creation of Raven's Heart? How much research was necessary?"
Jennifer: "The first act of preparation was to write two other manuscripts. :-) That got my craft up to the point where I was capable of handling the issues I wanted to deal with, as well as showing me that my strength lies in lush details and vivid action sequences. So I knew I wanted lots of sensory details about this world, and that lots of action-adventure type things would take place.
First, I had to decide how the world was going to get changed into this alternate world I envisioned. I found a wonderful book called Earth Shock! which basically details all of the possible end-of-the-world scenarios. I wanted an asteroid to cause global warming and flood the world, but I discovered that an asteroid impact would actually cause another ice age. It was while I was trying to figure out a way around that (tiny alien crystals in the asteroid remain suspended in the atmosphere, acting as lenses to focus the sun's rays onto the Earth, but the debris from the asteroid blankets the atmosphere, preventing the heat from escaping) that I discovered what my characters' strange powers would be. These crystals would also distort energy fields, converting them into visible light. Energy fields... like the aura of energy that surrounds every living creature. And if my characters could see these crystals, they could manipulate them -- and thus the underlying energy field. The Aurics were born.
I had to do a lot of research into what proper police procedures were, so that I could tweak them (for example, the version of a suspect's "Miranda Rights" that the hero reads states that suspects have a right to clergy, and if they do not have clergy, a non-denominational member of the clergy will be appointed for them). Everything gave me ideas -- from the layout of the station (why is the Captain's office walled in glass?) to procedure (what if you did allow the snitch to set up the time and place of the meeting?) to the list of possible jobs (does someone in the evidence room dream of being allowed to investigate on the streets?).
I did more research on location at the Land pavilion in EPCOT. They have a fascinating behind-the-scenes walking tour where they show you all the aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquacels that they use to grow food. I took two rolls of film and made copious notes, from the order that plants grew in, to the behavioral oddities of different breeds of fish. I didn't know what would end up being important.
I ended up having my climactic battle sequence in a "food processing plant" that used most of my research notes. Right down to the alligator. :-) The other hands-on research I did was in the city of Albany itself. I drove around to figure out where they'd be likely to build a new wall to keep back the Hudson, and what part of the city they'd sacrifice to the water. I checked the location of the park I wanted, and what buildings surrounded it.
I changed the trees, though, and then had to come up with a good reason for that. Did you know that Maple trees are the fastest growing "hard" wood? Then whenever I wanted to show someone's economic class, I'd have things made out of maple, the "common" wood, or made from one of the rarer, slower-growing woods. (I suspect most readers never picked that up -- but I needed to know it.)
Then there was the fortuitous research. I discovered, upon reading my interogation scene to my critique group, that one of the members had been interrogated by the KGB. She was able to tell me not only what they did, but how she felt about it.
While I was researching explosives, I found a footnote that said to be careful that thermite is placed on a completely dry surface, because the smallest drop of water would instantly vaporize, causing the thermite to spatter, melting it's way (it burns at around 800 degrees) through everything it touches. But since I wanted wholesale destruction of computer data, what better way than by punching it full of random holes? So I had my character set the thermite in pools of water.
Of course, since part of my story was about the manipulation of auras, I had to see what were the current beliefs about auras and their manipulation. I wanted the powers my characters had to be within the bounds of reason (assuming all of the other conditions about alien crystals, etc.)."
Lida: "What kind of reactions do people have to your writing?"
Jennifer: "Well, let's see. My mom keeps demanding to know when I'll write a "real" book -- about real people doing things that are actually possible. Although, she also takes every opportunity to reference, "My daughter, the author," and collects copies of my reviews and newspaper articles about me. Once my dad was assured that I understood what the business of writing entailed, that I was serious about it, and that I had a multi-year career plan, he supported me enthusiastically.
I've actually been rather surprised by the depth of emotion the story has stirred in the people who've read it. I've already gotten fan mail pleading for more stories set in that world."
Lida: "Do you find anything difficult in the writing process, and if so, what?"
Jennifer: "It's tough to finally say, "Enough is enough" and stop researching and prewriting, and actually sit down to write. Even while I'm writing, I keep thinking up all these wonderful side-issues and questions that need to be researched. Or, I'll do all the writing-related work (newsletters, RWA chapter officership, promo work, etc.) instead of writing. If it weren't for deadlines, I'd fritter away all my writing time without actually accomplishing any writing. Which is weird, because I really love writing. The feeling when the words are flowing out onto the page is like nothing else (except possibly theatre magic, when you are totally subsumed into your stage persona and you become your character). However, I'm answering these questions instead of writing my latest story, so it's obviously something I need to keep working on. :-)"
Lida: "Do you currently have any writing projects?"
Jennifer: "Yes. It's the third book in a fantasy series. My agent is currently shopping the first two books around. I've only just started it, but it's called The Birth of Magic, and it's about how magic is released into the world when a volcano explodes."
Lida: "Is there anything else you'd like to add?"
Jennifer: "I think I've run on more than long enough. It's interesting, isn't it, that I spent far more time talking about my book and my writing than anything about me? I'm sure that has some deep psychological ramification. Or, it could just mean I'm a writer, and I enjoy sharing my creations. :-)"
Jennifer Dunne is the president of the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal chapter of RWA. Her first book, Raven's Heart, was a November 1998 release from New Concepts Publishing, and won second place in the prestigious Sapphire Award for the year's best science fiction romances. It also placed sixteenth in the Preditors and Editors readers poll for best electronic novel of 1998, received 4 1/2 stars from Affaire de Coeur, a Very Highly Recommended and a nomination for year's best SF from Under the Covers Book Reviews, and a gold star recommendation from Romance Communications. Jennifer is currently at work on the third book in a fantasy series being shopped around by her agent.