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Interview: Jenna Blum "The Stormchasers"

May 26, 2010 Books, Fiction, Workshops, Writing 19 Comments


By Kathy Crowley

We at Beyond the Margins are delighted to have New York Times best selling author Jenna Blum here with us on the day of the release of her new novel, THE STORMCHASERS.

Her first novel was a critical and commercial success. The Boston Globe described THOSE WHO SAVE US as “both vast and intimate in its reach . . . Utterly believable . .. An absorbing tale of two women’s struggles with the burdens and responsibilities of remembrance.” Publisher’s Weekly calls THE STORMCHASERS a “vivid novel” that uses the danger and drama of Tornado Alley  “for an exploration of the bond between siblings… Blum renders the stormy backdrop as richly as she does her nuanced characters.”

For those of you who are, like me, couch stormchasers, check out all the amazing photos, videos and general information about tornadoes here, at Jenna’s site.

First congratulations on publication of THE STORMCHASERS and special thanks for the interview.

Thank you, and it’s my pleasure!

Can you summarize for us, in couple of lines, what you think STORMCHASERS is about?

THE STORMCHASERS is about a pair of boy-girl twins, Charles and Karena Hallingdahl; Charles has bipolar disorder and Karena doesn’t.  Charles is also a stormchaser—he’s obsessed with severe weather from infancy, and in his late teens develops the idea that because his moods rapid-cycle, like tornadic thunderstorms, he has a kinship with them.  He chases to prove his theory, and one day when Karena is with him and Charles is manic, something tragic and awful happens that tests their twin bond and changes their lives forever.  The novel follows what happens to Charles and Karena as they cope with their secret and with Charles’s disorder.  I hope readers take away from STORMCHASERS an enhanced understanding of stormchasing and why people participate in this magnificent activity!, but the novel is really about bipolar disorder, its consequences for the people who have it and the people who love them.

Okay, so most books require research but I think it is safe to say you have taken this to a new level.  Did you follow tornadoes before you thought about writing this book?  Can you tell us a bit about your experience with storm chasing and what you love about it?  Is this a lifelong addiction?

I’ve been fascinated with severe weather since I was a little girl, when at age four I saw a tornado at night in my grandmother’s southern Minnesota hometown—an experience I transposed into THE STORMCHASERS for Karena.  To me, a child so obsessed with The Wizard of Oz I was angry at my mom for years because she didn’t name me “Dorothy,” this was terribly exciting!  I spent the subsequent decades trying to see another tornado.  In my 20s, when I lived in Minneapolis, I chased as an amateur or “yahoo,” as chasers say, which meant I’d see a storm on the Weather Channel and drive toward it, often with my poor mom in tow.  The results were predictably disastrous, like we’d end up huddled in an abandoned barn with a severe storm coming and all the animals running like hell in the other direction.  Eventually it dawned on me it would be much safer, not to mention more effective, to chase with professionals.  So in 2006 I began tailing Tempest Tours, a stormchase tour company that’s the model for “Whirlwind Tours” in THE STORMCHASERS, as their media correspondent.  This experience, too, I gave to Karena in the novel.

Those Who Save Us, your first book, revolved around a torturous mother/daughter relationship, and how the mother’s horrific past in Nazi Germany poisoned every aspect of her life.   Your current book revolves around an intense and complicated sibling relationship and, of course, storm-chasing. Both books have a secret at the center. Can you tell us about the link(s) between these two very different novels?  Did TWSU lead you, in any way, to write STORMCHASERS?

Great question—people often ask me what the connection is between the two novels.  One of your BTMers, Leslie Greffenius, once provided me with a simple explanation:  “Tell them you’re segueing from storm troopers to stormchasers.”   So I do—thanks, Leslie!  Then I explain that THOSE WHO SAVE US and STORMCHASERS, despite being set in different eras, are really very similar thematically.  I like to explore what happens to characters who have to keep terrible secrets.  Who have survived trauma.  Whose lives have been devastated by huge forces beyond their control—whether Nazis or mental instability.  And how they rebuild themselves in the aftermath.  Both novels explore our moral responsibilities to people we love:  children, mothers, siblings.  And I hope both THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS provide readers with a good story, well told.

The central relationship in The Stormchasers is the one between Karena and Charles, who are twins.  Charles suffers from bipolar disease — what we used to call manic depression. This complicates their bond on many levels and leads them to the tragedy and secret at the heart of the plot.  You are not a twin.  Can you tell us, why twins?  Does this have special significance for you or for the plot?

Ah, my twins.   I love my twins.  The reason I made Charles and Karena twins is that people who are caretakers for bipolar relatives often suffer tremendous guilt that they don’t have the disorder themselves, that they somehow escaped what is, after all, an inherited condition.  And since there is no easy “answer” for people who have bipolar disorder—either take meds and suffer potentially debilitating side effects, including no longer feeling like yourself, or don’t and risk alienating others—the caretakers often suffer too from not knowing how to help.  In Karena’s case, her guilt and longing to help her brother are exponentialized, because Charles is her # 1 person, her Doppelganger, her other half.   Charles and Karena’s twinship is the primary relationship in each of their lives, and when it is threatened by his disorder and the tragedy at the center of the novel, it has a profound effect on both of them.

I know that you struggled at times with writer’s block.  Can you tell us a bit about that – how it felt and how you learned to deal with it?

It felt awful.  I hate writer’s block—an exquisite torture designed just for writers; wretched, excruciating guilt.  I had block partly because I rather stupidly gave up smoking between the first and second novels.  Not by choice; I loved smoking.  My experience was like William Styron’s description of quitting drinking in his memoir about depression, DARKNESS VISIBLE:  his body decided for him that he could no longer drink without being violently ill.  Because I was getting migraines from smoking, I quit, and because I had been smoking and writing for over 20 years, I quit writing.  For a time.  It was writing nonfiction—articles for the Boston Globe and Poets & Writers about stormchasing, columns for the Grub Street Free Press—that led me back to the desk.

Still, THE STORMCHASERS did not come easy, and this was also because the novel was sold while it was still in the architectural stages. For the first time in my life, I was writing fiction on a deadline, and after 30-odd years of not showing a piece to anyone until it was as right as I could get it—because otherwise it would be rejected!—I was now supposed to turn in rough-draft pages?  I couldn’t do it.  I’d get up, walk the dog, email, go on Facebook, write longhand about how I should be writing, get up and go shopping.  For a while I entertained fantasies of running away from home, so vivid that I actually packed my car.  Every afternoon I’d sit in it with the dog, eat several pounds of road snacks, then go back inside and take a nap.  Boom—another day wasted.  Finally one day when I had already blown two deadlines, my fierce, amazing, wonderful agent called and said, “I need a scene by the end of work today. It’s 4 o’clock.  Go.”  “Now?” I whined. “But it’s naptime.”  “GO,” she said.  So I did write her a scene, and then she instructed me to really run away from home, and because I always do what my agent tells me, I did.  I drove to rural Minnesota and lived in a motel for two months with my black Lab, Woodrow, and every single day—come rain, shine, tornadoes, whining, weak coffee, whatever—I sent my agent a scene until THE STORMCHASERS was done.

Did having your first book on the NYT’s bestseller list make it more or less difficult to write the second one?

Less difficult.  THOSE WHO SAVE US making the NYT bestseller list is a miracle I give thanks for on a daily basis, and it happened because I have such phenomenal readers.  Those same readers who passed the novel from mother to daughter, book club to book club, hand to hand, wrote to me every day to ask how THE STORMCHASERS was coming, when could they expect it, why wasn’t it done already?  Their encouragement, and that of my friend and family and writing community, helped keep me going—the warm knowledge I had people waiting for what I’d produce.  What an amazing concept.

The story of TWSU’s success is one that all writers love: you went to the readers – you did every book club, every speaking opportunity that came your way, essentially handselling the book.  Will your approach be the same this time?  Does the skyrocketing of social media change the equation?

I am definitely taking my act on the road for THE STORMCHASERS—first on a 15-city Tornado Alley Tour this summer, then zipping down the East Coast in the fall and ending up in Florida, where I have a lot of fantastic snowbird readers.   I’ll also be revisiting my book clubs.  I remember each and every one of them, and I’m scheduling visits now via my website.  I’ll go to local groups and events in person, because there’s nothing I like better than being face-to-face with readers.  But technology has advanced so much since THOSE WHO SAVE US came out that with ‘CHASERS I’ll be visiting far-flung book clubs by Skype instead of on my landline.  Scheduling online Sunday Brunches with readers who want to virtually stop in and chat about books (or food).  I’ll be streaming live from bookstores and events onto my website, www.jennablum.com, this summer—same thing for when I am stormchasing with Tempest in late June; that way readers can participate alongside me!  I’ve spent two years redesigning my website to include audio and video, so it’s more of a multi-dimensional experience—to me my website is a kind of toy, a Rubix Cube readers can play with.  And as you all know, I am a Facebook ho and just starting to tweet.  As we go ever deeper into this brave new virtual world, I think it behooves writers to figure out what aspect of it they really like, what’s fun and why, and USE IT.

As all of us here at BTM can wildly attest, you are one of the most generous writing mentors out there. How do you balance support for new writers with protectiveness of your own time?

Oh, goodness, I don’t know if I’m that generous, but thank you.  I just really, really find it imperative to support good writing.  I had the great gift of parents who encouraged me—they never once asked me when I was going to get a “real job”—and I think that helped contribute to the monumental ego necessary to survive decades of rejection, among other humiliations.  Let’s face it, writing can be a tough gig.  In my 20s I felt really lowly watching my friends get married, buy houses, have kids, buy second houses, buy wine refrigerators for their second houses—while I was still living in two rooms, wearing this long pilled black coat, playing with imaginary people.  Add the inevitable rejections and setbacks, the doubts that seep in when the writing isn’t going well, and you have to ask:  Why do we do this?  We do it because we love it, because we love writing, because we love our imaginary people.  When I meet other writers who have that same conviction, it’s my honor to support them, to help them get their books into the world.

That said, because I receive so many queries from writers hoping I’ll read their manuscripts, I now work only with people who I know personally, whose books I already know, and that means mostly writers affiliated with Grub Street.  It breaks my heart to have to impose a limit, but otherwise I would never sleep, and I sleep little enough as it is.

Will you do your next book about sky-diving? We would really like to see some shots of you parachuting out of a plane.

Okay, I’ll think about it…   Um, no.

A LITTLE more seriously — do you have another book in the works and, if so, could you tell us a bit about it?

I do have an idea for another book, but I probably won’t sit down to write it until my promotion for STORMCHASERS is over—about a year, year and a half.  For me, the writer’s life is like crop rotation:  there’s the dormant stage, in which I often feel guilty because I’m not writing; the fact-gathering and research stage (often these two overlap); the immersion stage, when I’m in lockdown and writing 24/7; then, finally, promotion.  Right now I’m in full-throttle promotion mode, and once I’ve done right by ‘CHASERS, I’ll settle back down to write the third book.  I’m afraid I can’t tell you about it in the meantime because that would dispel it.  At least, that’s now, while the book is in the ideation stage.  Once I start writing it, I will babble about it the way you do about a new lover—helplessly, incessantly, in fragments that don’t make sense to anyone else and are extremely annoying.  So please savor this period of silence while you can.

Thanks so much for interviewing with us, Lady of The Storm.  As I think you know, you are the heart, soul and inspiration behind BEYOND THE MARGINS. Kudos on your latest achievement.

Again, it is my great pleasure.  Happy writing to all!

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Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. E. B. Moore ebmoore5 says:

    So So Good

  2. Congratulations Jenna on your “opening day,” and good luck with Stormchasers and stormchasing!

  3. Great interview. I can’t wait to read Stormchasers!

  4. A wonderful wonderful interview with the very best of writers. Great job Jenna & Kathy! Happy Launch Day, Jenna!

  5. Necee Regis Necee says:

    Terrific interview. And thanks to Jenna for being the best best best ev-ah wicked awesome supporter of writers and their craft.

  6. Christiane Alsop Christiane Alsop says:

    Meine Geliebte, you are the best. I love you sooooooooooooo much and I will be forever grateful for all the things you did for me and my writing. Ever since waking up I am in a festive mood: it is Jenna’s launch day!!!
    Love that photo of you!!!
    A wonderful interview.

  7. Javed says:

    I am still holding out for that book on skydiving Jenna! Lovely interview Kathy, can’t wait to get my hands on the Stormchasers

  8. Stephanie Ebbert Stephanie says:

    Kathy, you have set a new standard for fabulous art!!!! This is a great interview. And The Stormchasers is an absolutely fantastic book. A rollicking ride!

  9. Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

    Thanks for a great interview with a classy writer on what is now officially Stormchaser’s Day!

  10. Kathy Crowley Kathy says:

    Thanks for all your comments. Loved reading STORMCHASERS and love Jenna’s responses, especially on writer’s block, which is something that we all struggle with at times. Stephanie, I cannot take any credit for the “art” — Chris is the master photoshopper.

  11. Becky Tuch Becky Tuch says:

    This is so great! I am bubbling over with love for our fearless leader, Jenna, and can’t wait to hear her read tonight at Coolidge Corner!

  12. Nichole Bernier Nichole Bernier says:

    Love this. The heart of the matter, highs and lows. A pleasure to read. So looking forward to JB2!

  13. Leslie Greffenius lesliegreffenius says:

    What a wonderful read this interview was! It so well captures the voice of the sparkling, wise, and scrupulously honest storyteller and mentor, Jenna Blum. You asked excellent questions, Kathy. I was particularly interested in the q&as about the topics Jenna has chosen for her two novels.

  14. Leslie Greffenius lesliegreffenius says:

    That image of Jenna – sitting in the car with Woodrow and snacks for the road – is likely to come to mind frequently for a long time to come.

  15. [...] alone, we’ve interviewed Tim O’Brien, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Emily St. John Mandel, and Jenna Blum—even God.  Now, in our continuing effort to push the envelope, think outside the box, and write [...]

  16. Jenna Blum says:

    Okay, this is clearly the most generous and wonderful interview ever (not to mention the best team of responders)…..and how did I not see the photo until now? Hm, how did BTM get their hands on what was previously an image from my very private personal stormchase-skydive archives? The person who leaked it had better email me an attachment of the image ASAP. Or else.

    ~ JB.

  17. [...] story than a proper novel, although that did not detract from her sparlking prose. I also started Jenna Blum’s Stormchasers, a perfect summer read in any kind of [...]

  18. [...] Interview met Jenna Blum (Engels) [...]

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Kathy Crowley

Kathy Crowley
Kathy Crowley’s short stories and essays have appeared in, among others, Ontario Review, Fish Stories, The Literary Review, New Millenium Writings, Pulse and Cognescenti. Her stories have been short-listed for Best American Short Stories, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and anthologized. In 2012 and 2006 she was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship. She recently finished her first novel. When she’s not busy preparing for her future literary fame and fortune, she provides care and feeding to her three children and works as a physician at Boston Medical Center. Kathy can be found on Twitter at @Kathy_Crowley. Read Full

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