A conversation with Lynne Jonell
How do you work? Talk about a normal day for you as a writer.
I sit down at my desk and pick up a pencil. I doodle. I write a sentence and erase it. I write another sentence and look at it with loathing. I suddenly realize it is a long time since I trimmed my toenails, and I go at once to find the nail clippers, because when there is a task to do it’s important not to put it off . . . this goes on, with variations, all day.
So when do you actually write?
I do my best work in the wee hours, but if I don’t put in the horrible unproductive daytime hours, I can’t seem to get going at night, either. When you get right down to it, it’s a miracle that I produce anything at all.
How long did it take you to write Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat?
It’s hard to say in terms of actual time spent writing, because I dipped in and out of it as I worked on other projects. But from first idea to final edits with the publisher was a span of eight years.
Why did you choose to write about rodents?
It might be because I personally am a little scared of them . . . they spread disease and they breed like they want to take over the world and they like to nibble and gnaw their way into people’s houses and maybe even someday one will gnaw its way into my bedroom and nibble on my toes while I am sleeping.
Anyway, maybe I write about them because if I can make them funny, then they’re not so scary.
The shrinking motif is present in your previous work as well as this book. Why?
I think it has to do with power. When you’re small, you don’t feel very powerful, and it’s not always easy to live in a world filled with big people. But also, when you’re small, you can get into odd little corners and tunnels and places that large people can’t -- and have interesting adventures, far away from the big people’s world. Maybe shrinking is my way of talking about how it feels to be a child.
Do other themes from your picture books show up in Emmy?
It’s true that certain themes keep rising to the surface in my stories. Shrinking. People or inanimate objects transforming into animals, and back again. The idea of being ordinary. And, of course, power and threat and the continuing presence of love, even when it is not readily apparent. All of these motifs are present in Emmy, along with a new one: the idea that a beautiful physical appearance can mask a truly horrible person underneath.
Where did you get the idea for Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat?
It’s a little weird. I dreamed of a piece of green paper. With a curved line.
Okay . . . and then what?
I woke up. And knowing from long experience that the most unlikely ideas are sometimes the ones I should drop everything to follow, I promptly went to the art store and got a piece of green paper. Then I went home and drew the curved line.
As soon as I drew the line, I realized it was the stem of a plant -- sort of an outdoor philodendron, about a foot and a half tall. So I drew that.
As soon as I drew the plant, I realized that there should be a little person walking under its leaves -- say, about four inches tall. I thought it was a girl. So I drew her, too.
As soon as did that, I realized the girl should be pulling something. So I added a red wagon.
And as soon as I drew the red wagon, I knew that what the wagon contained was a rat. A big gray rat with his arms outflung and his eyes rolling dramatically and his feet pointing skyward. And the minute I drew him, these lines came to me:
“I might die,” said the Rat, “and then they’ll be sorry.”
“They’re sorry now,” said Emmy.
“Not sorry enough,” said the Rat.
I thought that Emmy was probably removing the Rat from a soccer game where he had humiliated himself. But that’s all I knew.
What happened next?
I put the art in my portfolio and showed it around in New York. But then an editor wanted to see the story. When I told her that there was no story yet, she told me to write it -- and send it to her when I was done.
How did you develop a story from the art?
It was almost a process of discovering a story that already existed somewhere in my mind. I took the one scene I was pretty sure of, on the soccer field, and wrote towards that scene. I thought I was writing a picture book, as all my books had been previously. But I kept having to put in more and more that happened prior to the soccer game. New characters showed up: Emmy’s parents who were gone all the time, and her wretched nanny, Miss Barmy, and her new friend Joe, and the Rat Man, and the Endear Mouse . . . the soccer game didn’t happen until two thirds of the way through, and in the end, I had a book 120,000 words long. Then I had to cut it in half.
Was that hard to do?
Yes. But I kept thinking that I was cutting so much, there was probably another whole book in there somewhere . . . and that’s why I’m writing a sequel.
Lynne Jonell on Emmy and the Home for Troubled Girls
Was writing this sequel very different from writing the first book about Emmy?
Yes. The first Emmy was written in a meandering, follow-the-characters-wherever-they-lead sort of way. I had no strong sense of where the book was going, except that I was working toward an image I had in my mind of a particular scene. I chose that method because I needed to try something new.
See, I’d written middle-grade novels before, but none had been published. Editors would say, “great plot, clearly you can write, but the characters are a little thin.”
So when I came up with Emmy and the Rat—and I knew right away they were characters with depth, characters to follow—I decided to let them have their say, and not try to impose my own structure on the narrative. Unfortunately, this also meant that the story got bloated! I had to edit severely.
For Troubled Girls, I took the more traditional path of first generating ideas, then creating a storyline. The actual writing went far more quickly, and the end result needed only light editing.
How much of the storyline for this book did you have in your head while you were working on the first book?
The Troubled Girls showed up early in the first book, when Emmy sees through a shop window the lizard-skin shoes and wooden cane of her nanny, Miss Barmy. The cane was carved with miniature faces of girls; Miss Barmy said they were people she had “taken care of,” and that she was saving a blank patch for Emmy’s face one day. The adults who saw the cane said Emmy was lucky to have such a creative nanny, but Emmy herself found it intensely creepy. And, of course, I worded the passage so that the reader would feel the same way.
I cannot begin to tell you where that cane came from. But when I read the passage in a writer’s group, people were strongly intrigued by it. So I left it in, feeling that an image so powerful must have something behind it. And near the end of the first draft, I began to tell the story of those girls.
So the question—what on earth happened to the Troubled Girls?—was in my head early on. But since the first draft turned out way too long, whole interconnected storylines had to be cut, and this was one of them.
What were some of the other storylines that you cut?
Well, the Rat fell in love with a Bat. She was an Italian, opera-loving bat, intensely feminine yet knowing exactly how to manage Ratty—and he stood absolutely no chance, he fell head over heels. Some of Ratty’s funniest scenes were with Batti. It almost killed me to cut the sonnet that he wrote for her. I kept thinking she would show up in the second book, but she absolutely refused to fit in the story. Maybe someday!
Then as I generated ideas for Troubled Girls, even more storylines came up that I had to cut early on, involving cat wars, Ratty running for mayor, the question of where was Ratty’s mother now?, and so on. It’s the same problem every time—more ideas than I have space to explore!
How do you think Emmy’s character has changed throughout the two books?
In the first book, she’s ignored and dismissed in a multitude of ways; trying to figure out why and how is a mystery that compels her to take a lot of risks. She has to step out of her comfort zone and stop playing it safe in order to change her life.
In the second book, the focus is friendship and betrayal. She wants to acquire a multitude of friends to make up for her previous loneliness—but when there is conflict between her new human friends and a rodent friend, Emmy has a moment of cowardice that has major repercussions. The guilt consumes her as she gradually becomes aware of the extent of her betrayal, and so when she has an opportunity to redeem herself, she takes it, though the stakes are extremely high and the risk to herself is terrible.
I guess you could say that the big question of the first book is, “Am I going to stand up for myself?” And the question of the second book is, “Will I stand up for my friends?” The theme running through both is courage, but it is explored in different ways.
Are any of the characters in the books based on people you know?
Well, Emmy and the Rat are both like me. Half of me is the good girl, eager to please, get good grades, be nice to everyone. And the other half is like the Rat—the kind who slouches in the back row, snickers, and makes sarcastic comments. The Rat is also pretty full of himself... and a little thin-skinned, to boot. Put those two together and you have Lynne Jonell, sadly.
How has Ratty reacted to the success of the first book? Has fame gone to his head?
Yes, absolutely. He’s currently blogging with schoolchildren, leading the demand that I write a third book in which he is reunited with his mother. He’s not interested in doing any of the work, mind you—but he loves to critique. And he’s particularly incensed that I cut the storyline from Troubled Girls in which he joins a heavy-metal band, the Wretched Wrodents, as their lead singer. Snarler. Whatever.
Music plays an important part in both books about Emmy and Ratty. Do you have a special interest in music?
Yes. My mother is a musician, and taught me to play the piano—something she told me I would thank her for someday! (She was right.) I find the piano exceptionally useful during the writing process, and often find myself drawn to it when I’m working out problems in the manuscript.
I’m a singer, too. I remember winning a talent competition at age ten, and the incredible fun it was to march up to the microphone with every eye on me, and let loose with my voice. I put that experience into the Rat’s solos. The ego, the applause, the glory of being in the spotlight—yeah, that’s all Rat, that’s all me.