NYT Best-selling Author Jenna Blum Breezes into Melrose
One of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers talks about her new book, "Stormchasers.'
"You write what you do because you love your characters and their stories."
So began Jenna Blum on Wednesday night at the Melrose Public Library, the second author to speak at this 2010-2011 season of the library's crowd-pleasing Author Series, organized and managed by librarian Diane Wall.
"And you usually do it in the desperate hope that someone will read it," Blum added.
No need for the Boston-based Blum to despair any longer. In February, Oprah Winfrey selected Blum as one of her "Top 30 Women Writers." Those Who Save Us, Blum's first book, landed on the New York Times best-seller list, was a Boston Globe's bestseller, the winner of the 2005 Ribalow Prize, and a Borders Book Club pick. Overnight, Blum went from unknown to well-known. Every writer's dream.
Yet chasing tornados—not fame—was Blum's goal in spending five years with Tempest Tours, a stormchase company, conducting whirlwind research for her second book, The Stormchasers. Fascinated with extreme weather since childhood, Blum told the crowd of about 60 that it stemmed from watching a tornado at age 4 during a stay at her grandmother's house in Minnesota. Blum watched from under her bed while everyone else slept. Fearful, yet fascinated, the storm seared a lasting impression upon her and subconsciously provided a centrifugal force for her second book.
The turbulent weather provides a most visual metaphor for her latest story, which centers around twins, a brother and sister, and the storminess of the boy's bipolar disorder. It's about the life-long repercussions for him and their twinship.
"Like storms, bipolar comes out of nowhere, devastates landscapes, then disappears suddenly. And you never know when they're coming back," Blum said. "Bipolar disorder is often the elephant in the room. I wanted to give a backdrop for people to talk about it."
To illustrate, Blum read a section of her book, a scene in which the brother brings his sister out to see a tornado. But there is none.
"The reason I read this scene," she explained, "is that, although stormchasing is at the center of the story, it's really about the brother and his disorder, and how its effects ripple out to his sister, everyone."
Blum has bipolar members in her family whom she made clear she loves very much.
Writing about the topic might be hard, but writing under deadline, after the unimagined success of the first book, proved harder.
"I'm one of those writers who did things backwards," Blum said. "I wrote the intellectual novel first, and the emotional, autobiographical novel second."
The fast-talking, humorous writer compared her writing process for her first book like "giving birth in a shack. No one knows. With the second one, you have a lot more people around, asking every day 'is it done yet?' 'do you need anything?' 'how's it going?'" A self-imposed pressure to write perfectly created a perfect storm of writer's block.
Blum amused the crowd with an imitation of her French agent demanding Blum write one chapter. To write anything. She did.
"Jenna, Jenna. Thees is good. Very, very,very good. Now. Write another and send to me tomorrow."
Blum escaped to a motel in Minnesota and wrote.
"I had to resist the effort to go back and revise. It was a physical effort to resist," she said. "Often, I woke up at 3 a.m. and revised. Then I woke up the next day and worked on the new chapter. I slept very little."
The result? The Stormchasers was written in two and one-half months.
"I'd never written on deadline before because, with fiction, the answers (about character, plot lines) don't always come to you," Blum said. "But it can be done. It was a good thing to get over perfectionism."
Blum attributes her success and jump to best-seller lists to book clubs. Before Those Who Save Us was discovered, she was visiting up to three book clubs a day. She'd listen to them talk about the story, about the characters, and answer questions. Blum's visited over 800 clubs in the Boston area alone.
"That's how word got out," she said. "My book was handed from club to club, mother to daughter, friend to friend, library to library."
Blum made clear she is a fan and a friend of libraries. She thanked everyone for coming, saying "I'm glad you're supporting your library."
"Friend us!" Diane Wall exclaimed to Blum and the audience. "We (MPL) are on Facebook now!" Blum and Wall promised to 'friend' each other to the crowd's amusement.
"In an age of e-books and the unknown world of publishing, it's extra important," Blum added, more seriously, "that libraries remain the nucleus of communities."
Resting on her laurels is not on Blum's horizon. On book tour across the country since May for The Stormchasers, she runs master novel workshops for Grub Street Writers in Boston. A former fiction editor AGNI literary magazine, Blum attended Kenyon College and Boston University, where she taught for five years.
And yes, in case you're wondering, a third book is brewing in her mind.