Jen Bryant About Jen ;
Jen Bryant
(photo: Elizabeth Fontecchio, @elizabethfontecchiodesignllc)
An Interview with Jen Bryant

What made you want to become a writer?

I didn’t think about becoming a writer until I was almost thirty years old! I had just had a baby, and wanted to try some kind of work that made me more available for my family (I was teaching high school at the time.) Writing non-fiction—which was how I started—seemed a logical choice because I loved to do research and I didn’t mind working by myself.

But I have always loved to read and to play with words. My grandparents did crossword puzzles when I was growing up, and I learned to do them, too. My parents listened to opera recordings, so I always had French, German, and Italian words floating through my house (I would repeat entire songs in another language without, of course, knowing what they meant.) Several times a week, I walked to the local library, where I liked to read books on wild animals—I was fascinated by bears, penguins, and lions—and also the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley.

Have you done other jobs? What were they?

Yes! I’ve worked as a French and German teacher, running coach, bank teller, waitress, retail clothing clerk, picture framer, and an assistant on a road crew.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I love to visit bookstores, art galleries, and museums. I listen to music— all kinds, really—but especially classical music. I go to the local YMCA to swim or do aerobics (in fact, almost all of my book ideas begin while I’m cycling or swimming). I also love to dig and weed in my garden and to feed the birds in my yard.

Where is your favorite place to write?

In my car. An old habit, I guess … when my daughter was a baby she wouldn’t nap in her crib. I used to drive around until she fell asleep, then I’d pull over and write for a few hours. Now she’s a teenager, but I find I still do my best work in the car—I’m not tempted to walk away and do something else, and no one interrupts me!

Do you have any pets?

We have a Springer Spaniel named Sam. I think he is a writer, too: he’s happiest when he’s working (Springers are trained to hunt birds, but Sam just chases them a lot), he trusts his instincts, and he observes everything very carefully. But mostly, he’s our family clown; when I become too serious, he reminds me to play . . .

Who are your favorite writers?

That’s the hardest question to answer—I have so many! The poets Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, and the essayist Annie Dillard, were the first to inspire me. Among those who write for adults, I also love the work of William Stafford, Billy Collins, Ruth Stone, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Eamon Grennan. For young adults and children, my favorites include Eileen Spinelli, Jerry Spinelli, Donna Jo Napoli, Gary Soto, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Cynthia Rylant.

What books are you reading now?

I’m a very eclectic reader! Every week, I read TIME magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, and a few articles from The Smithsonian magazine (usually about history, geography or archeology). I’m also reading Galileo’s Daughter, an historical novel, Gary Soto’s New and Collected Poems, and Roxana Robinson’s biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life.

Are you working on a book right now?

Yes. I’m working on a book-length collection of poetry for adults, several picture books for young readers, and a middle-grade novel.

Have you ever written a funny book? Do you enjoy comedy?

No, I’ve never written a funny book. But I try to incorporate humor into my more serious stories. In my historical novel The Trial, for example, Katie Leigh makes humorous comments about herself, her mother, and the people involved in the trial. The story itself, however, is quite serious: a man is accused of murdering a baby, and the country is suffering the worst economic depression in its history.

I think it’s probably very difficult to be funny—to write humorous books or to perform a comedy routine. But I love read and to listen to funny people because I think they possess many of the same skills that poets do. Both rely heavily on word play, rhythm, and sensory images to make us see ordinary things in a new or unusual way. My favorite humorists include David Barry and Rick Reilly. My favorite comedians are Lewis Black and Robin Williams.

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