2015 Morris Award: An Interview with Finalist Jessie Ann Foley

Each year, YALSA’s Morris Award honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature. The award winner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Join us for a live webcast of the YMA Awards press conference or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter or Facebook to be among the first to know the 2015 winners. The official hashtag for the 2015 Youth Media Awards is  #ALAyma.

Jessie Ann Foley is a finalist for the 2015 Morris Award. Her book, The Carnival At Bray, is the story of Maggie. Her mother’s latest marriage takes moves her and her sister to Ireland. It is a beautiful story about love, music and struggling with the hard choices. 

What kind of research did you do on being a teen in Ireland?

As a high school teacher, my whole life feels like teen research! But the Ireland aspect was a bit trickier. The Carnival at Bray was originally a short story that I wrote after visiting a carnival fairground in County Wicklow in 2010. I’m Irish-American, but as Maggie learns in the first chapter, that identity can have very little to do with what it means to be actually Irish, and if I had known then that I was setting myself up for the task of expanding it into an entire novel set in Ireland, I might have made things easier for myself and kept Maggie in Chicago. But then, I guess she would never have met Eoin.

My husband, who is from County Kerry, was a huge help to me in writing the novel. I pestered him with constant, nitpicky questions relating to word choice, slang, and authentic details. And if there was a passage that contained lots of dialogue—Eoin’s long monologue about his mother comes to mind—my husband would read it aloud and help me figure out what needed tweaking. I was so nervous for him to read the first draft of the book, because I knew I was going to make ridiculous mistakes. But he was polite enough not to make fun of me.

How did music inspire Maggie’s story? Did you have a playlist you listened to while writing this book?

One of my favorite parts about writing is how the story can surprise you: you think it’s going to be about one thing, but then you start to discover it’s about something else. I didn’t know that my novel was going to be about music when I started writing it. But as Uncle Kevin developed into an important character, the musical angle grew with him. I had so much fun going back and listening to all my 90’s music–some of those albums I hadn’t listened to for years. I listened to a lot of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, the Lemonheads, Smashing Pumpkins, and of course, Nirvana. I listened many times to the live album of the Rome concert that is portrayed in the book. It all definitely brought me back–the music of your youth seems to have that power. I barely remember my first kiss. But I’ll never forget the first time I heard Pearl Jam.

Where were you when you first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” How did Kurt Cobain’s death impact you?

My sister played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for me when it first came out. I believe she had the cassette single (remember those?). I had never heard anything like it. It wasn’t “pretty” or “pleasing”–I remember feeling vaguely freaked out–but it pressed a button in me that I didn’t know music could press. As far as Cobain’s death, I was as sad as you can be over the death of someone you didn’t know personally. But I don’t think I was surprised.

 Did you have a concert experience like Maggie’s when she saw Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins? Who was the artist?

The first great concert experience I had was when I was fourteen and my sister and a couple of her friends took me to see Shane McGowan at the Metro, which is a legendary Chicago concert space. It was on a weeknight–I couldn’t believe my parents let me go–and I remember going to school the next day, hoping someone would ask me what I did the night before, so I could spill all the details about the show and maybe people would realize how cool I actually was. But nobody asked me, so my coolness continued to be a well-kept secret :) I think I still have the ticket stub.

What do you want young readers to take away from this passage, “But then, she thought, looking up at the tiled ceiling to stop herself from crying, wasn’t that what growing up meant? Wasn’t it just a succession of actions and incidents where you break your childhood promises to yourself and do the very things you always said you wouldn’t do? And how many more promises would she have to break before she came out on the other side?”

I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter, who is eight months old now, I asked my friend Claire, who was already a mom, “do you lose your sense of self when you have kids?” And she said, “I’m more myself now than I’ve ever been.” One thing I’ve realized, now that I’m a bit older, is that you go through these phases in your life where you find yourself doing things that you never thought you would do: right now it’s the getting married, eating bran flakes, going to bed on a Saturday night at 10:00 pm, having children phase–but instead of betraying your true self, they help you see your true self more and more clearly.

But sometimes, when we’re younger and still figuring out what the world expects of us, we make the mistake of doing things that we think we’re supposed to do in the name of growing up. Things like lying to your parents, doing drugs, or engaging in risky sexual behavior can be thought of as “rites of passages”, but they’re almost always just flat-out mistakes. Anything that makes you feel like you’re betraying yourself is not a sign of maturity but self-destruction. Unfortunately, for a lot of us, the only way to learn that is by making those hurtful choices.

Was there a real life inspiration Dan Sean?

Dan Sean is the only character in the book who is based off a real person (though I’ve fictionalized him, of course). The first time I met this remarkable man, who is a neighbor of my husband’s back in Ireland, I was amazed by him. He will be 103 in April and still lives on his own. He’s seen so much–he was born shortly before the Titanic sunk!

At the end of your book, the point of view changes from Maggie’s first person, to a third person during the scene in Dublin with Eoin. I thought it was a brilliant choice that made that scene all the more powerful. Why did you make this change? Did it take a while to figure out how to write that section?

Thank you! When I was writing the book, I saw most of the story through the lens of Maggie’s perspective, but when I was writing the scene outside the RDS, that changed. I started seeing the story as if from above, panning outward, very cinematically. I think I just trusted what I was seeing in my mind, and I’m so happy you thought it worked!

Who are the authors who influence you?

I’m one of those people whose favorite writer is the writer they’re reading right now: so in my case, right now that’s Phil Klay, Deborah Eisenberg, Lionel Shriver, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There are also writers I always come back to: Roald Dahl, Alice Munro, and Ernest Hemingway. I try to go back and forth between classics and contemporary–it’s the English teacher in me–and I’m soaking up a lot of YA right now, too. I’ve been reading the other Morris Award finalists and am amazed at the talent and variety I’m finding in that pool. It’s an exciting time to be a writer and a reader.

 What is your next project?

Right now, I’m almost finished with the first draft of a YA novel about an all-girls high school in Chicago that is in danger of closing down. I’m super excited to start digging into the rewrite. I’ve also got a short story collection, Neighborhood People, in the works. And I’ve got a million half-finished essays littering the desktop of my computer, which I swear I will come back to one day…

-Kris Hickey, currently reading The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills