If you took a dash of fairytale characters, a pinch of mystery, a dollop of murder, a splash of humor, a hint of what-if, a sprinkling of what-the-hell and a large helping of tea and chocolate, know what you’d get? Jennifer Donnelly, our August Teafluencer.
Jennifer is an award-winning best-selling author whose books span an intriguing variety of topics. From her start with a picture book to books that have been purchased for on-screen production to a book named one of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time, Jennifer is a versatile, imaginative and straight-up awesome writer. The fact that tea is one of her muses cannot be a coincidence to her success, right?
Grab your favorite cup of tea and sit down for this read with Jennifer Donnelly.
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational background, family, etc.
Jennifer: I’m a New York State girl, born and bred. I grew up in Rye, NY and Port Leyden, NY, graduated from Rye High School and attended the University of Rochester where I double-majored in English Literature and European History (a good training ground for future writers, as this combo has you grinding out papers nonstop!) I live in Dutchess County now, one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I adore it. Especially now, at harvest season, when I can’t stop eating local-grown tomatoes, peaches and blueberries!
Harney: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Jennifer: I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I first understood that words strung together a certain way make stories. My mom told me wonderful bedtime stories. Librarians and teachers read me incredible books. I was so captivated by what I heard, that I wanted to do this amazing thing—tell stories—too.
I was always writing—really bad poems and stories in grade school, more bad poems for my high school literary magazine, and then articles for my college newspaper. (Mostly food reviews. Hungry college students love to eat.)
My first real writing job was as a general assignment reporter for The Watertown Daily Times, an upstate New York newspaper. I had no formal training. I didn’t study journalism in college. I just somehow talked the Times into hiring me, then jumped in with both feet. It’s how I live my life, charging ahead, usually with more enthusiasm than common sense, but so far it has worked out for me.
Harney: The first book you wrote that was published, Humble Pie, was a children’s picture book. That same year, 2002, the first of your Tea Rose trilogy books, The Tea Rose, was also published. You actually wrote The Tea Rose first, correct? Tell us about that story’s inspiration and long journey.
Jennifer: When I was in college, I spent my junior year studying in London. I had a wonderfully eccentric landlord who drove me (very early one morning in his Model A Ford) to the Brick Lane market in London’s East End. Merchants sold everything there—fruit, laundry soap, antiques, old jewelry, secondhand clothing. When we got out of the car, in the dark, around five in the morning, in a rough part of town, I heard singing. It was costermongers, boasting of their wares, telling their customers that their apples or oranges were so much better than the other guy’s. The market was set amongst narrow lanes and tumbledown sheds, and I felt like I had stumbled back in time to the London of Dickens and Hogarth. I fell madly in love with the place and its people, so much so that I wanted to write about them. That was the day The Tea Rose was born.
Once again, I jumped in with both feet with absolutely no idea how deep the pool was. I knew nothing about writing a novel. I didn’t have the money for grad school or the time for writers’ groups, so I taught myself by trial and error. I worked on The Tea Rose for over ten years, getting up at 4:00 a.m. to write before I went to work. After I found my agent, the wonderful Simon Lipskar at Writers House, we worked together for another two years to shorten and revise the manuscript. Then we sent it out to pretty much every publishing house in NYC. And…it was rejected by pretty much every publishing house in NYC. That was devastating. Simon talked me down off the ledge, and he sent it out again about six months later, and that time we got an offer. It was for a very modest amount of money, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that my book was finally going to be published. That night, I got up on my dining room table, with a bottle of champagne, and danced.
Harney: The Tea Rose trilogy was recently optioned for development as a mini-series, something your fans will be excited to hear! How do you feel about having your work translated onto the screen?
Jennifer: I am absolutely thrilled! I love these characters so much, and I’m so excited for viewers to meet them and to fall in love with them, too. I’ve been missing Downton Abbey ever since it went off the air, and I know a zillion other people are missing it, too. I’m hoping that The Tea Rose trilogy will give them new characters to root for, and another beguiling and bygone world to lose themselves in.
Harney: The Tea Rose isn’t the only book you’ve published that is getting film attention. Your most recent novel, the NYT bestseller Stepsister, will become a motion picture produced by one of the producers of the recent award-winning “A Star Is Born” film as well as an Emmy-award winning producer of HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” How exciting is that? Tell us about Stepsister and your unique twist on the Cinderella tale.
Jennifer: I’m incredibly excited to have such an amazing team of producers behind the Stepsister film. Lynette Taylor Howell of 51 Entertainment and Bruna Papandrea of Made Up Stories are inspiring, super-talented forces of nature who have such dedication to telling stories by women, and about women, and I cannot wait for them to bring this story to the big screen.
Stepsister follows the story of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters and looks at what happened to them after Cinderella rode off with the prince. Which is something I’ve always wanted to know, because, frankly, when I was a little kid, I saw myself in those two more than I ever did in the pretty, perfect Cinderella. I loved Cinderella, and I felt sorry for her, but I didn’t identify with her.
Stepsister tells a story, but it also asks a lot of questions, like: What do we cut away from ourselves in order to fit in? And: Who gets to decide who’s pretty and who’s ugly, and why do we let them decide that in the first place?
Too often, we let others’ words define us and direct us. It’s almost as if they’re handing us a poisoned apple, and we take it from them and bite right in. I wrote Stepsister to give readers a way to push against that, a way to hand that apple back.
Harney: You’ve also had a great relationship with Disney, first writing the four-book Waterfire Saga series that Disney published, then a new “Beauty and the Beast” tale. You’ve said, “When Wikipedia adds an entry for ‘nerdy fiminist bookworm’ that it will have two names: Jennifer Donnelly and Belle.” We can see where you got your inspiration for Beauty & The Beast: Lost in a Book, but wasn’t it somewhat intimidating to create a new story for such a beloved character with a story known around the world? (No pressure!)
Jennifer: Hmm. Maybe I should’ve been intimidated, but I was having too much fun! Disney gave me access to the film’s script several months before the movie premiered, and the directive to write an original tale that stepped out of the timeline, and then back in, without altering that timeline. As I was thinking about my story, I realized that the central struggle in the fairy tale isn’t really about life vs. death, but about love vs. death, and that’s how my two characters—Love and her sister, Death—were born. They make a wager on whether or not Belle will be able to teach Beast to love before the last petal on his enchanted rose falls. We all know the outcome of that wager, but we don’t know is the lengths to which these two highly competitive sisters will go to win that bet.
Harney: Your first novel for young adult readers, A Northern Light, has received a great deal of critical acclaim. TIME named it one of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time. It’s a historic novel about a murder. Why that topic?
Jennifer: I grew up near the setting of A Northern Light—Big Moose Lake, in the Adirondacks—hearing stories about Grace Brown, the real-life murder victim in my novel. Grace was a pregnant, unmarried, 19-year-old girl who was killed by the father of her child. She was a farm girl who went to Cortland to work in a factory where she met the owner’s nephew, Chester Gillette, and began a relationship with him. One of the many things that makes Grace’s story so wrenching and tragic is that when she discovered she was pregnant, she returned to her family’s farm and she wrote letters to Chester, trying to get him to marry her, or at least take her somewhere to have the baby. Those letters still exist, and in them you can really hear Grace’s voice—her growing worry that her pregnancy will be found out, her humor, her love for her family and home. Reading them is like sitting in a room with Grace’s ghost. The letters were found in Gillette’s room after Grace’s death and were used against him in his trial. They are moving and heartbreaking, and they’re the inspiration behind A Northern Light.
Harney: Do you have a favorite character that you’ve created? Which character do you most identify with personally?
Jennifer: That’s like asking someone if they have a favorite child! I love all my characters in different ways. Though I will say that Isabelle from Stepsister is really staying with me. Ever since I was small, I wanted to know what happened to the stepsisters, so I finally sat down and started writing about them. Isabelle is this wounded, angry girl, who has had so many pieces of herself cut away in order to meet society’s expectations of what a girl should be. The story begins just after she tried, and failed, to fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper and follows her as she tries to recover those lost pieces. I won’t tell you whether she succeeds or not, but I will say that I fell in love with her, and that she taught me a great deal.
Harney: We’ve seen you sitting, standing and lying on your dining room table plotting out your next novel (with tea and chocolate, of course!). What’s your writing process like? Do you write every day? Where do you find inspiration?
Jennifer: I always write with tea and chocolate at hand. They are office supplies for me.
For the past eight years or so, I’ve published a book a year, so I do write pretty much every day. I try to get started as early as possible and go for as long as possible. Of course, not all of that time is spent typing away. A good deal is spent staring out the window or scribbling notes to myself, trying to solve problems of plot and pacing.
My first writing job, reporting for The Watertown Daily Times, was very demanding with a lot of pressure to be first with a story, and fast, and accurate, and I will always be grateful for that experience because it taught me a hugely important lesson about inspiration: Never, ever wait for the muse. Sit down, start working, and she’ll show up. Being creative isn’t about being zapped on the head by a lightning bolt thrown by the gods, it’s about being willing to do a lot of grindingly hard work. And to fail, often and spectacularly. And then to try again. And again. And again.
Harney: Every successful writer gets asked this question, so we know you have an answer: what advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Jennifer: Never, ever, ever give up. Making it in the arts is hard. You need an iron will and a thick skin, and you need to believe in yourself. It was a very long road to publication for me. Those hard years taught me a very important lesson: that no one could ever guarantee that I would be published, but one person could guarantee that I wouldn’t—me. If I gave up.
One of the most popular posts on my blog is about this. It’s called “Just Keep Writing,” and it’s available here: https://www.jenniferdonnelly.com/2011/11/19/how-i-got-my-first-sale/
Harney: The Tea Rose features a heroine who works in the tea trade. We’re pretty sure you’re a tea lover! How does tea influence your work? What do you love most about tea?
Jennifer: I doubt there’s a bigger tea lover on the entire planet. Tea is a huge influence on my writing—both as an inspiration to my work, and as an actual means of getting that work done.
Fiona Finnegan, the heroine of The Tea Rose, is a young, working-class woman in 19th century London who starts out as a tea packer and ultimately becomes the head of her own tea empire. I researched the tea trade extensively to write the book and loved every minute of it. I’d still be climbing around inside Thameside tea warehouses and touring tea factories if I could.
And tea still influences my work. It’s no exaggeration to say that I can’t write without it. Although I’ve written a few novels now, the blank page is still daunting to me. A teapot on my desk is such good company, and that first hot cup of the morning really bolsters my resolve.
What do I love most about tea? Absolutely everything. I love the sight of all the elegant black and gold Harney tins stacked up in my kitchen cabinet. I love the smell that wafts up when I open my one-pound bag of Organic Darjeeling. (I wish someone would make a black tea perfume.) And I love the taste, whether it’s a delicate Darjeeling, or a brisk, bricky Assam. Tea is somehow invigorating and soothing at the same time, which makes it the perfect tonic for an angsty writer.
I also love Harney & Sons’ tasting room and tea shop in Millerton, NY. It’s a treat for the senses—a beautiful, serene space with knowledgeable staff and so many excellent varieties of tea to choose from. I usually stock up on my favorites, buy several boxes of Island Bakery cookies (they’re imported from the Isle of Mull in Scotland and are so good! Especially the chocolate-dipped ginger!), and then I have a pot of tea—perfectly prepared—and a plate of scones in the adjoining café. Total heaven.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea (or anything you’ve been wanting to try)?
Jennifer: Where do I begin?! My favorite teas come from India, and my daily go-to is Harney & Sons’ Organic Darjeeling. I don’t kid around; I buy it by the one-pound bag. It’s essential to a successful workday. I also love Temi Sikkim and Namring Darjeelings. For Assams, it’s the CTC. I also love the Kenilworth Ceylon. Stanley’s Blend and Harsha are two of my favorite blends, and the beguiling Paris (which combines black and oolong teas), is my favorite flavored tea. I love to sip Mint Verbena (mint leaves plus lemon verbena) after dinner.
I am very, very stubborn in my devotion to India tea, but am increasingly tempted to venture into the world of Oolongs. Harney’s Huang Guan Yin, with its notes of figs and sugar, is intriguing. As is Ti Quan Yin Spring Floral, with flavors of honey, butter and almonds. And for evening, Thai Rooibos, with lovely things in it like ginger, coconut, lemongrass and vanilla, sounds very appealing.
Wow, are you as impressed as we are? We’re thinking of offering Jennifer a job as a tea aficionado here at Harney, except we imagine she’s rather busy writing her next best seller. Thank you, Jennifer, for taking the time to share your life with us. If you’d like to learn even more, visit Jennifer’s website. All photography has been provided by Jennifer.