Love and Death, Who Wins? – Interview With Jennifer Donnelly

What defines us as human beings?

What is it that shapes our lives and our essence?  Jennifer Donnelly, the author of Lost In A Booktackles these questions in her new book centered in the Beauty and the Beast story.  Based on events that take place in Disney’s animated classic, Jennifer weaves her own original story throughout that narrative to create something meaningful and exciting.  Written for the YA (young adult) audience, any fan of the film will find it enjoyable and engaging.

  • Read our review of Jennifer’s wonderful new tale Lost In A Book

Jennifer is a New York Times bestselling author and award winner of both the Carnegie Medal and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature in addition to the Michael L. Printz Honor.  She is the author of the Waterfire Saga (also published by Disney Press) as well as many other books in the YA, children’s and adult categories.  Jennifer took precious time out of her day to answer a few questions for all of us Disney Nerds fans.

Author Jennifer Donnelly pens a creative new story in the midst of a tale as old as time

How did you come up with the framing device of using Love and Death as the engineers of the story?  And why Love instead of Life?

As I wrote Lost in a Book, I was thinking a lot about the central struggle in Beauty and the Beast, and it seems to me that the struggle is very much between love and death, not life and death. The enchantress warns Beast that he must learn to love another by the time the last petal falls – or he will remain a beast forever. She doesn’t threaten him with physical death, but with an even greater death, a death of the heart, of the soul – the loss of his humanity. What is it that makes us human? The ability to love unselfishly and unconditionally. Which is hard. That’s why, in my story, Agathe says, “Love is not for cowards.” I wanted to get that idea across clearly, so I came up with these two sisters, Love and Death, who are playing a high-stakes game, to show that this battle is as old as humanity itself.

The cover of Jennifer’s thrillling and intriguing book about Belle’s “lost” adventure

Was the trip to Nevermore always going to be the story or did you have other plot ideas in mind before deciding on this one?  If so could you share maybe one or two?

Yes, I knew from the beginning that my story would be built around Nevermore. Belle’s a total book nerd and so am I. We both get sucked into stories, so it was a given that Lost in a Book would center on an actual book. I love that Beast gave Belle his library. Best gift ever! And I loved imagining her joy at being set loose in that magnificent room, with thousands of incredible books at her fingertips.

I love how you write the relationship between Mrs. Potts and Chip!  Do you have a Mrs. Potts in your life that you drew upon?  In what way have your own experiences as a mother influenced your writing?

Thank you! When I read the script for the movie, I felt for all the servants who were facing the loss of their lives if the curse was not broken in time, but I especially felt for Mrs. Potts. She’s a good soul and a very loving mother. She’s trying to keep everyone’s spirits up, but inside, she’s living with the terrible knowledge that her young son’s life may end before it really even begins.

My mom is a total Mrs. Potts. She is an optimist, and a pragmatist, and I’ve inherited those qualities from her. I think when you become a mother, or father, your children kick out the walls of your heart and you’re never quite the same person again. Children grow you up. They deepen you. You feel the world’s injustices more keenly. The world’s darkness becomes more visible. But you feel a greater sense of hope, too. And as a writer, I want to convey that sense of hope to my young readers.  

The back cover of Lost In A Book

Shakespeare plays an important part in the tale you’ve crafted. What prompted you to choose the famous bard as an important element for the story?  How influential was Shakespeare to your own writing and what about his work speaks to you?

I followed Belle’s lead. She’s the one who determined that Shakespeare’s work would pop up in Lost in a Book. She loves his plays, and so do I. Shakespeare kind of saved me—the college kid me. I wanted to be an English major, but I was not loving my early courses. (I’m looking at you, Homer.) I was really down about it, wondering if I’d made the wrong decision, but I decided to hang in and try a Shakespeare course. The first day of class, we’re all sitting there, and in barrels the professor in a double-breasted suit and bowtie, all energy and ebullience, quoting Shakespeare in a Texas twang. The late Russ McDonald was brilliant and demanding, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. He made us bring our A game to every single class. Most of all, he had a passion for his topic and he sparked one in us. I was hooked from day one. I still hear his Texas voice when I write, telling me everything I’m doing wrong, and I still hear his booming laugh. He—and his good pal, Will—helped me become a writer.    

You’ve written the realm of death as being one of “rot, decay, and ruin” to quote Lucanos.  And then you wrote that we are all doomed to be there one day.  Yet you also seem to believe that love wins out.  How does love win if everyone ends up in Death’s realm? How does your view on love and death shape how you write?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses. Scott Joplin’s Bethena. Emily Dickinson’s Ample Make This Bed. Major Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife Sarah. To me, all of those things are examples of how love wins over death.

Hate to be the evil fairy at the party, but it doesn’t end well for any of us. We are all doomed. But acts of art, acts of sacrifice, acts of bravery, dedication and kindness – these things are all also acts of great love, and they endure long after we’re gone. They win. Love wins.

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