A Conversation with Mary E. Pearson about The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write such a gripping and emotionally-charged story?
The first seeds of the story were planted in January of 2000 when my teenage daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Of course, on first hearing the “C” word I was terrified, but very soon I realized how lucky we were that her cancer had a good cure rate. Just fifty years earlier she would have died of this disease and now, thanks to good doctors and good treatments she would survive. It made me wonder just how far medicine would advance in another fifty years. And then as she went through treatment and I saw small babies at the hospital who were being treated for much worse cancers and had much longer treatments, I wondered again, how far would a parent go to save their child? How much would they be willing to put them through? As a parent, how far would I go? Of course, these were only “wonderings” of mine at the time during all the long hours and months waiting in hospital rooms while my own child went through treatment. I didn’t know these would be questions that would one day be the impetus for a story. Six years later when I was about three quarters done with this book, another seed was planted. My second daughter was diagnosed with the same cancer. This second diagnosis was almost my undoing, but I believe that it deepened the story, my understanding of the characters, and also deepened my resolve that you never know what you might do in an impossible situation.
As a parent, do you identify more with Jenna’s mother, Claire, or Jenna herself?
It’s funny, but you’d think after everything I’d been through I would firmly identify with Claire, but I identified with all three women: Claire, because I am a mother who has faced losing a child; Lily, because I am a woman of faith; and Jenna, because I am a woman who profoundly believes in choice and each person’s right to choose her own destiny. Also, like Jenna, I have searched for identity throughout all the changing roles I have faced in a lifetime: child, daughter, wife, mother, teacher, author. Jenna’s search for identity and her place in the world takes on heightened proportions becausen of her unusual circumstances, but the essence of her search is the same as all of ours. Do I have a right to be here? Am I enough? Do I belong? How do I fit in? Who am I? These are timeless questions.
What do you see as the biggest difference between this book and your most recent, A Room on Lorelei Street?
That’s a tough one. They’re different in so many ways—viewpoint, setting, style, plot, and more. Perhaps the biggest difference is tone and structure. This newest one has a definite element of suspense and danger. I also think that in The Adoration of Jenna Fox, the questions that readers are left to ponder are larger and more global too—perhaps the controversial hot buttons of the next generations.
The ending of this book is rather bold (in keeping with the rest of the story); did you ever think it would end differently while you were writing, or was the current ending what you had intended all along?
Yes! The ending was unexpected. I was nearly done with the story and I was thinking it would end one chapter earlier. But then one day while I was walking on my treadmill with the music turned up, suddenly the whole last chapter came to me, like a gift, nearly word for word in one big swoop. I was stunned because that never happens to me, and I was thinking, where did that come from? But I raced upstairs to my office to write it down. I was sure it was right, and I was very excited. It was like the story told me how it really needed to end. It felt complete. Maybe it had all been working itself out in my subconscious all along and it just took a little exercise and some Phil Collins music to make it surface. I don’t know. That mysterious part of writing that I don’t understand is what keeps bringing me back for more.
How did you do research for this story?
There was an incredible amount of research involved with this book—from transgendered animals, to antibiotic resistant bacteria, to seed preservation, to sociopathic profiles. And more. I found it all fascinating. Since this was a near future book, the bulk of my research was on medicine and technology and where it might be in several years. The amazing thing is that discoveries and innovations are impossible to keep up with. For instance, one of the characters in the story has prosthetic legs and arms and so I had to imagine what advances might be possible with prosthetics in fifty or so years. And even as I imagined a futuristic advance, it seemed that there would be a news item about it being a reality or close to one, like being able to “think” in order move an artificial arm or leg, or being able to feel sensations like hot or cold. The majority of my research was on the brain. I’ve heard it referred to as the last frontier—we know quite precisely how other body parts and organs work—but the brain is still a mystery in many ways. So much is still not understood about our consciousness and the mind. That mystery was the part I explored. But of course, first I needed to know the basics of structure and function like how neurons communicate, and then a lot of details about brain damage and the brain’s ability to rewire itself. It is a wondrous little piece of acreage.
What are you reading right now?
Right now I am reading Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf by Sonya Hartnett. I am a big fan of hers but this one somehow slipped past me.
What was your favorite book as a teen?
I loved poetry—Dickinson, Frost, Cummings, Yeats—anything I could get my hands on. A few books that I loved and reread many times were The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. As a younger teen I remember loving anything written by Ruth M. Arthur. A while back I managed to get my hands on an old copy of A Requiem for a Princess which has long been out of print. I reread it and was happy to see that I was impressed with her writing now as I was then.