Interview with Jo Knowles, author of See You At Harry’s
Moms of passionate readers know that when teens read books that speak to the stories of their lives and the lives of their friends, their girls will very often find a treasure both beautiful and functional inside. A full breath. A good laugh. Some cleansing tears. The inspiration to try something new, to change, or stay the course.
My daughter and I have read all of Jo Knowles’ books together – Lessons From a Dead Girl, Jumping Off Swings, Pearl, and See You at Harry’s. We’ve toted her stories to the beach, to family reunions, and even to Jo’s home state of Vermont. Her books are full of treasures that you won’t want to hoard but to share! – Gigi
Jo, See You at Harry’s draws from your own experience of working in a family restaurant. The scenes depicting Harry’s are awesome! I waited tables in college and, while I never got busted making out in the walk-in, I definitely took advantage of the, uh, privacy offered therein to sneak in some smooching. Only once or twice though. And not with a bus boy. Did you ever make out in the walk-in like Fern’s sister Sarah did?
Alas, the most action I ever got in the walk-in was dropping a HUGE container of sliced onions I’d just spent an hour with, crying my eyes out. I was 18, working at a fancy restaurant in my hometown while I was home from college and had just been yelled at by the chef to hurry up. In my rush, I pushed open the heavy door and slipped and cut my knee open the minute I stepped inside. I was both embarrassed and terribly upset that all that hard work just went down the drain. Luckily, the door had closed behind me. So… in my bitterness, I scooped up the onions and put them back in the bin. I did pick out any that looked dirty, but I still feel a bit guilty over that to this day!
That’s the kind of detail in your book that I just adored because it’s soooo true! Hey, do you ever get the restaurant business out of your system?
Thanks Gigi! I don’t think you ever forget how much work it is. How grueling and often thankless. Even after my parents moved on to other things, I still worked in restaurants. Waitressing, bussing and doing food prep. I lived in a touristy town so most summer jobs involved working in the food industry in some way. Now that I finally don’t have to, I have great sympathy when I dine out. I always try to be extra nice to the staff and I’m a big tipper.
Your book really got me thinking about how every family has its own lexicon, built from years of living together. I thoroughly enjoyed the peculiarities of how Fern and her family talked with each other. You just did an amazing job, too, of showing how the family lexicon changed with the addition of Charlie. Did that just flow out of you organically or did you intentionally construct a special vocabulary for them?
I wasn’t truly aware of it as I was writing. The family came to me in such a powerful way. Even though they aren’t very much like my own family on the surface, the bonds are similar, and I think their banter is rather familiar. But in revision, of course you go back and make sure each voice is distinct, and that each person’s role in the family is clear, yet subtle enough not to be too obvious.
I’m excited to bring that lens to my work in progress. You know, step back and ask myself: what are the secret, special words that my main character and his family use? So thank you, Jo, for the inspiration! That leads me to ask what were the challenges of writing about this family’s life from the point of view of Fern?
Oh gosh. That’s so cool! Thanks Gigi. I grew up feeling like the invisible child. Not just at home, but at school, too. I didn’t necessarily think this was a bad thing, though. I was painfully shy, so I actually preferred not being noticed. But in high school, I slowly began to realize that the cost of invisibility is not having a voice, and I was slowly finding mine—along with the growing need to express it, in order to feel real. I think that’s where we find Fern, in many ways. She wants her family to know she has thoughts and ideas, too.
What also touched me in See You At Harry’s is Fern’s relationship with her brother, Holden, and with her best friend, Ran. I so admire the boy characters you write! What do you think about when drawing a boy character? What inspires you in that regard?
I modeled Holden a little after my brother. We had a very special relationship, though we were five years apart—maybe that’s why. In many ways, I sort of idealized our relationship in Fern and Holden, and then later had to go back and make it less perfect and their own. But sometimes when you’re beginning a story, you need a base to get started. As for Ran, I think he is the best friend I always longed for as a kid. Someone who really knew what mattered, and helped me see it, too.
What, in your opinion, makes Fern a strong girl?
Her conscience. Even though she can be timid and quiet, she isn’t afraid to stand up for others and be a good sister and friend.
What are you reading now? What are you writing now?
I have so many amazing books going right now. Dead End in Norvelt, which I am savoring. I think I’ve been reading this book for 2 months. The One and Only Ivan, which breaks my heart in all the right ways. Liar & Spy, which I realized I wanted to save for an all-in-one gulp reading binge, so I’m holding off until I have a chunk of time (next week!) to get through it in one sitting. One For the Murphys, which is so beautifully written. And in my “to start” pile: Bluefish, Vanished and Everybody Sees The Ants. I will not list all the new books I want to buy!
Complete this sentence: Strong girls…
Strong girls want to help make the world a better place for EVERYONE. J
Jo Knowles is the author of the young adult novels See You At Harry’s, Pearl, Jumping Off Swings, and Lessons from a Dead Girl. She has a master’s degree in children’s literature. Some of her awards include the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award; A New York Times Editor’s Pick, the PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award; YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, Quick Picks Top Ten, and Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults; International Reading Associations Young Adult Choices List; The Texas Tayshas List; and Bank Street College’s Best Books for Children (Outstanding Merit). Jo lives in Vermont with her husband and son.