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Jennifer Allison

Is Gilda Joyce’s character based on anyone you know (or even yourself)?

Jennifer Allison: There's definitely a lot of me in Gilda, but I think she's more the girl I would have been at age thirteen or fourteen if I hadn't cared so much what others thought of me. Gilda is a girl of action - sometimes even impulsive action; and I was far more cautious and shy at her age. Gilda wears whatever she wants based on her moods without too much concern about whether others approve or admire her for her taste. (I only developed that kind of individuality and self-confidence when I went away to college.) However, I was similar to Gilda when I was a teenager in a few key ways: 1) writing was a very important part of my life - a way I helped myself solve problems and reflect on things. I also used writing to motivate myself. (I didn't go so far as writing progress reports, but I was big on long lists of "New Year's resolutions.") 2) Like Gilda, I loved to be creative and imaginative - to imagine what it would be like to be someone else who had a more intriguing and glamorous life. 3) I was (and still am) intrigued with the unknown-things that are mysterious and can't be easily explained. 4) I have a sympathy for kids who have to "grow up" a little more quickly due to stresses in their home life - financial or otherwise. Gilda doesn't expect any adult to step in and fix things for her. On the other hand, she somehow maintains the spirit - the heart - of being a child... something we should all try to keep.


Did you ever want to be a psychic investigator and/or detective?

I've never wanted to be a psychic investigator, but I've done lots of research on psychic methods including learning to read tarot cards. I consider myself an open-minded skeptic: many hauntings and other events can be explained through rational means, but I've also had my share of coincidences that seem to point to some element of psychic perception. I’ve also heard ghost stories from friends that are so compelling, I have to believe them. I can’t explain the stories; I can only say that I believe this person experienced what he or she is telling me.


Of the Gilda Joyce books that you have written, which is your favorite?

As other writers have no doubt mentioned before, answering that question feels similar to being asked to pick a favorite among one's own children. In other words, picking the least favorite all depends who’s behaving badly that day (kidding). More seriously, each book is genuinely special to me for different reasons. Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator was the first book I published - the book that evokes memories of living in San Francisco and exploring the quirky neighborhoods. I loved getting to know Gilda's character for the first time. THE LADIES OF THE LAKE evokes memories of teaching in a Catholic girls' school - the urban legends that circulate among teenagers at a school, the hilariously quirky personalities of my students. THE GHOST SONATA makes recall the years when my husband and I lived in Oxford England: each scene set in the English countryside or in one of the college buildings was based on a real location that I knew very well. The mysterious well where Gilda and Wendy find an important clue to the haunting they're investigating was a quiet place where I often stopped on walks. It was on a visit to this very spot that the idea for THE GHOST SONATA came to me.


How did you get started as a writer?

I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English, after which I worked variously as a newsroom employee at the Ann Arbor News, a preschool teacher, a waitress, a piano player in a shopping mall, an advertising copywriter, and eventually, a series editor for an educational publisher based in Detroit. During the day, I interviewed and wrote about authors for reference books, but at night I began attending writing workshops and working on my own short stories, essays, and poetry. After numerous rejections, I published an essay in a satirical journal called The Baffler. That single publication helped give me the confidence to take what seemed a big risk – leaving my underpaid but stable editorial job in Detroit to attend graduate school in creative writing at American University in Washington, DC. At the time, all of my friends seemed to be getting married, establishing solid careers, and buying houses, so this move felt extremely frivolous. However, when I arrived at the MFA program in DC, I recognized a genuine and sustained happiness: I was absolutely thrilled to be focusing on my craft.

I wrote a novel for my MFA thesis – a novel that was never published. Disappointed by my failure to find a publisher, I decided to cheer myself up by getting married. (My husband loves that joke.) My husband and I both worked in England as healthcare newsletter journalists for a couple years and then moved to San Francisco to work within the soon-to-burst “dot com” bubble.

What advice would you give to aspiring young writers?

For young people in particular, my opinion is that you should have fun with writing and allow yourself to explore many different forms, genres, voices, and techniques. Of course, reading is essential; read as much as possible.

It's equally important, though, to pay attention to real-life experiences so you can develop a kind of "wisdom" about yourself, other people, and the world around you. It's good to pursue your interests in many areas that fascinate you, whether science, history, art, dance, sports, etc. Having outside experiences and areas of expertise - possibly even an outside career - can often serve a writer well.

Find some readers you trust to share your work with. If you're ready, try to find an audience. But don't worry too much about getting published when you're very young. Everyone wants to become famous, but there's also something very special about the years when you are an "unknown" writer - totally free to explore, learn, and have fun, and make mistakes in your writing. Also, just because you are not published does not mean you are not a true writer. You are a writer because writing matters very deeply to you - because it's a craft you are dedicated to learning.


How do you deal with writers' block?

1. Try to recognize that "writers' block" can sometimes be a symptom of fatigue - of the need to be more inspired in life. Try to seek out an experience - a book, a film, a museum, an old friend - something that brings joy and a sense of connection.
2. A good night's sleep is sometimes helpful. I notice that I write better in the morning than in the afternoon, for example. It's as if the residue of dreams brings more ideas - more creativity. (This depends on getting up before the kids are awake, though.)
3. Lower expectations and remind myself that all writing can be rewritten later. This is probably the most important antidote to writer's block - just keep writing and moving forward even if the writing doesn't feel particularly inspired.
4. Have a conversation with another writer or friend about the "sticking point" - someone who's a good listener and asks helpful questions. Sometimes talking is helpful when the act of writing feels difficult.


How did you get the idea for Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator?

I got the idea for the first novel in the Gilda Joyce series shortly after getting laid off from my Internet job; I wandered through neighborhoods, staring at the soaring towers of Victorian houses and wondering what kinds of eccentric people might live inside. It was an antique typewriter, though, that sparked the first idea for Gilda’s character—an expressive girl who hopes for some contact with a lost parent through an old typewriter.

Gilda appealed to me because she was undaunted by the sheer implausibility of her primary goal – to speak with the dead. I was beginning to feel that realizing my dream of publishing a novel was just as implausible, yet I couldn’t let it go. Luckily, I kept at it long enough to finish GILDA JOYCE and find my audience.


Can you tell me more about your research for Gilda Joyce and THE DEAD DROP?

Each book in the Gilda Joyce series is inspired by a real place that I know well—the suburbs of Detroit, the neighborhoods of San Francisco, the countryside surrounding Oxford, England – and – with THE DEAD DROP – the city of Washington, DC.

THE DEAD DROP was first inspired by a conversation with a friend who is the historian at the International Spy Museum in DC. His stories of working with former intelligence officers including a former KGB agent really sparked my imagination: I knew that the spy museum would be the perfect atmosphere for Gilda Joyce to expand her skills and test her knowledge of spying.

Like many Americans, I was also intrigued and concerned with the role of faulty or misused intelligence in the Iraq War, and I was drawn to the idea of a novel for kids that might increase young peoples’ awareness and interest in the genuine process of intelligence gathering. We’re all familiar with the glamorous world of invincible, almost superhuman spies, but in THE DEAD DROP Gilda learns that intelligence gathering can be influenced by human weakness and emotions as well as analysis and skills.

Because I wanted the museum exhibits, artifacts, and historical details in the book to be as authentic as possible, I spent a lot of time at the International Spy Museum, trailing kids who were learning the arts of disguise and surveillance at “Spy Camp” and talking to staff members about the details of their jobs – especially historian Thomas Boghart and Jackie Eyl, Manager of Youth Education. The research was great fun and genuinely fascinating, but I found myself in the challenging position of writing a fictional novel portraying a very real and highly specialized workplace. Would museum staff members object to the use of real museum artifacts including the “lipstick pistol” in a fictional story? Would they be okay with the idea of a haunted Spy Museum? I was used to feedback from editors, but the idea of ex-CIA officers poring over my manuscript made me a bit nervous.

Once the manuscript was finished, I was relieved when Spy Museum Executive Director and former CIA Intelligence Officer Peter Ernest responded enthusiastically to the story.


Will there be more books about Gilda?

Yes! The next (fifth) book in the Gilda Joyce series will be based in St. Augustine, Florida. I’ll keep you posted!

Have you ever solved a mystery?

Yes, in a manner of speaking. We're always solving mysteries - big and small in our lives. Most of the mysteries I investigate concern why the people I
know behave in certain ways. As a mom, I also have to solve myriad minor
mysteries. (Who ate that box of cookies? What is the real cause of this
child's hives? Why do boys prefer going to the bathroom outdoors?) Not quite as exciting as Gilda, I'll admit, but little mysteries nonetheless.

How long does it take you to write a book?

My first book took me a couple years to write. However, that included some time when I had put the manuscript in a sock drawer, thinking I wouldn’t continue working on it. Several months I rediscovered the manuscript, and realized I loved Gilda’s character. I rewrote the book and got it published shortly thereafter. Now it takes about a year for me to finish a novel – sometimes more, depending on how much revision is needed (and how needy my kids become around the time of my deadline).


When you were a kid did you want to be a writer?

Writing became a very meaningful and totally self-directed part of my life from about the age of ten. I didn’t really think of writing as a career option at that point, though. I always loved the idea of writing a book, but as a child, I assumed I would become something more traditional—maybe a doctor or a lawyer—something that required wearing a business suit or a white lab coat. I also was one of those people who couldn’t quite make up my mind about what I wanted to “be”; for example, I started college as a music major and switched to political science before settling on a major in English literature. I didn’t realize then that people often change their careers several times – that change doesn’t stop just because you grow up. As a writer, I can explore infinite topics and identities – part of what attracts me to the writing craft.


How do you get anything done with three young kids around?

Anybody who “gets things done” with several very young kids around either has help of some sort, or abnormally angelic, selfless kids. When I have help from family, friends, or a babysitter, I get things done. When I don’t, then I fall behind with just about everything because being a mom comes first, of necessity. When I look at the big picture, I realize how fleeting childhood is, and how much I wouldn’t want to miss a single chocolate-smeared, giggly moment of this time. Besides, as I sit here typing, I’m watching my three children work as a team to do the dishes and clean the bathroom while also cooking dinner for the family. (I’m kidding, in case you believed that last sentence.)

What’s the deal with including “serious” themes like depression or death in an otherwise funny book for kids?

These topics scare adults, so they don’t want to address them with kids. In fact, when topics are considered “unmentionable,” they can actually become scarier for kids. Because many kids and their parents do suffer from depression and grief, a book that handles these real human experiences in a positive way can be helpful to readers. It also provides a great opportunity for parents and kids to have a conversation.

Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator, for example, shows that it is possible to find resilience – to work through life’s most painful problems and come out on the other side feeling better. With Gilda, kids see that even the most difficult experience really isn’t the end of the world, even though it might feel as that way at the moment. Gilda is strong but she sometimes has to make a conscious effort to lift her own spirits – something we all need now and then.


Contact information:

Fans of GILDA JOYCE and schools who would like to arrange an author visit or creative writing workshop can contact Jennifer Allison at the following email address:


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