Hey there! Just a quick heads up - In compliance with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Endorsement Guidelines, I want to let you know that some of these links are affiliate links. I do earn a small commission. This does NOT increase the cost to you. If you would like to suppot me in this way, thank you! If not, that's fine as well!
Here are some fast facts on her:
- Jenna Blum is the New York Times and # 1 international bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us (Harcourt, 2004) and The Stormchasers (Dutton, 2010) and novella “The Lucky One” in the postwar anthology Grand Central (Penguin, 2014).
- She is one of Oprah’s Top Thirty Women Writers.
- Jenna’s debut novel Those Who Save Us is a New York Times and international bestseller; in 2011 it was the # 1 best-selling novel in Holland. Those Who Save Us is also a Boston Globe bestseller and the 2005 winner of the Ribalow Prize, adjudged by Elie Wiesel.
- Those Who Save Us is a perennial book club favorite
- Jenna’s critcally acclaimed and reader-beloved 2nd novel, The Stormchasers, which Jenna researched by chasing tornadoes for six years with stormchase company Tempest Tours, is also a Dutch bestseller, a Boston Globe bestseller, a Target Emerging Author Pick, a BORDERS bestseller, and has been featured in French Elle.
- Jenna attended Kenyon College and Boston University, where she earned an M.A. in Creative Writing.
- She taught Creative and Communication Writing for 5 years and was the editor of AGNI Literary Magazine.
- Jenna has taught master novel workshops for Boston’s Grub Street Writers for over 15 years and contributed writer’s advice columns monthly to Grub Daily.
AMIE FLANAGAN: What inspired you to write Those Who Save Us?
Jenna Blum: I was inspired to write Those Who Save Us after a trip I took to Germany with my mom in 1993, because she wanted to see where one set of her grandparents had emigrated from. During the course of this trip, we visited concentration camp Buchenwald, and I was struck by the fact that from the foothills of the Ettersberg mountains in which Buchenwald was built, you could see the sophisticated city of Weimar—so, I figured, from Weimar, you could also see the camp. What did the Germans who lived there think about the camp on the hill? What did they tell their children when crematorium ash drifted from the sky? What did they tell themselves? That’s when Those Who Save Us was born—the character of Anna especially, a woman caught in a crucible of circumstance and forced to make what Holocaust scholars call “the choiceless choice.”
AF: Your descriptions of the characters in Those Who Save Us are quite profound. My favorite is when Trudy scrubs the sink in scalding hot water. How did you decide which details to write about? Or did your characters reveal these specific details?
Jenna Blum: Thank you. No, I am a total control freak, and I determine the details that reveal the building blocks and flourishes of my characters’ psyches. For instance, one of the first things I knew about Ana—although this detail never made it into the novel because there wasn’t an organic place to plug it into the story—is that she hated the 4th of July in her adopted America because the fireworks reminded her of artillery during the war. This kind of detail about her psyche isn’t by accident; it reveals PTSD, for which Anna is a poster child of sorts. All my characters’ details are similarly chosen.
AF: You chose to tell the story in present tense. This is an interesting artistic choice given that this story was based upon World War II. Why did you chose to tell the story like this?
Jenna Blum: The present tense is what I heard one novelist once call “the tense tense.” The reader is strapped into the story moment by moment with the character, not knowing what’s going to happen next; it’s an emotional roller coaster effect. The reader can’t take comfort in the fact that the story is being told in retrospect, as she can with past-tense novels. For this novel, I think it also works because the present tense ironically also has a sort of dreamlike feel—in the case of the Those Who Save Us characters, a sort of lingering and pervasive nightmare much of the time.
AF: The structure of Those Who Save Us goes back and forth in time between the past and the more recent past. What made you chose to tell this story in this manner verses a chronological manner?
Jenna Blum: I felt strongly that Anna’s story, set during the war, was more compelling because it was set during a war. Life and death matters always pump up the emotional volume of a story—compared to, for instance, a contemporary story of a woman living alone trying to cope with a distant mother and her own PTSD. The latter is a valuable story that in many ways informs ad necessitates the telling of the earlier one. But if I’d told Anna’s story first and Trudy’s second, the book would have nosedived into anticlimax fairly quickly.
AF: You write quite vividly in both Those Who Save Us and Stormchasers. It makes the reader feel like they are with the characters. How do you, as a writer, determine how to convey the details so specifically without going into purple prose? How did you chose the language to create that punch in the imagery?
Jenna Blum: Thank you again. The trick to creating a three-dimensional world for your readers through language—a place to real that when they open the book they walk into it and when they’re done they leave it with real memories—is to use the five senses. I always emphasize this in writing classes and seminars. Most writers are visual creatures but sometimes neglect sound, taste, touch, smell. The olfactory is the most overlooked sense in fiction, which is a mistake because it is so psychologically evocative.
AF: What inspired you to write Stormchasers?
Jenna Blum: I have bipolar disorder in my family and it strikes me, having watched loved ones struggle with extreme mood swings and medications for decades, as the problem without a solution. At least, without any easy solution. As with anything that really disturbs me, in order to put my arms around it, I write about it.
AF: In Stormchasers, you have this story that deals with bipolar disorder, and it seems to mirror with the weather. The juxtaposition is quite beautiful. The weather also mirrors the strained relationship between Karena and Charles. Was this an intentional theme or detail or did this just happen to evolve?
Jenna Blum: I’m so glad you liked the metaphor. You probably know enough by now to know that nothing just evolved in my writing; as Inspector Cluseau from the Pink Panther movies once said, “Everything I do is carefully plannéd.” Bipolar disorder is much like severe weather: if you’re an expert in either field and very observant, you might be able to predict when something dangerous is about to happen. But in both cases, a mood swing, like a tornado, often seems to strike out of nowhere, devastate the landscape, and disappear again—leaving no clue as to when it will come back, only the knowledge that it will. Using severe weather as a metaphor for Charles’s bipolar disorder seemed a natural fit.
AF: In Stormchasers, there’s this beautiful moment where Charles cuts himself. It’s an emotionally intense type of storytelling. What did you do as a writer to make this so powerfully emotional?
Jenna Blum: I was probably crying when I wrote the scene. Unlike Those Who Save Us, which I wrote in a glacial Ice Queen kind of emotional state, I cried a lot while I was writing The Stormchasers. It’s an emotionally labile book.
AF: As a writer are driven to write a story that’s plot driven or character driven?
Jenna Blum: Character, always character. But plot is an utter, utter necessity unless you want a story that goes nowhere. Without both character and plot, you have no story, whereas character + plot = story. When I start out to write anything, the equation assumes the form of wondering, as in, “What would happen if X person did Y thing, or Y thing happened to X person?” So it’s character AND plot.
AF: What is your writing process? (How do you get ideas, how do you formulate the story etc).
Jenna Blum: My stories always come from some emotional situation that’s important to me paired with a context that’s always fascinated me. For instance, Those Who Save Us was born from “How can people be so brutal to each other?” paired with the context of the Holocaust. The Stormchasers was born from, “How far do you go to protect somebody you love if that person is a danger to you?” paired with the world of severe weather. It’s why when people say to me, “I have a great book idea for you to write!”, it’s always a well-intentioned but, to me, particularly useless gesture.
AF: You’ve taught writing workshops, you’ve helped many writers in creative writing. What are some of the most important things a young writer must do to strengthen their craft?
Jenna Blum: Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. Write, write, write, write. LEARN PROPER GRAMMAR. I mean it. Nobody wants to read your effort at “creative” spelling, punctuation and grammar unless you are Faulkner, and even Faulkner had to learn the rules to determinedly break them. So learn them. And as Winston Churchill said, “Never give in, never give in, never give in.”