Being a teenager can be awkward. Throw death, well-hidden secrets and falling for your best friend into the mix, and it’s disastrous—or incredible. It all happens to Pearl’s titular character nicknamed Bean in one stiflingly hot summer. Here, Jo Knowles discusses dealing with stress, the beauty of butter and priceless publicity photos.
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Food therapy plays a big part in guiding your characters through stresses and secrets. What’s your comfort food?
It’s true, there’s a LOT of comfort food in Pearl. Most of which I find comfort in myself. But my all-time favorite is mashed potatoes with a butter pond. When I was little, whenever my mom made us mashed potatoes, she’d create a little pond of melted butter in the middle. It always made the rest of dinner more bearable. Butter pretty much makes everything a little more bearable, don’t you think? Mostly I think my comfort food developed from memories of safety and togetherness, and that’s why the comfort food in Pearl has those same connections.
In writing Pearl, were you more geared toward creating a story about familial loss or exploring how a teen might deal with massive skeletons in the closet?
I think a little of both. As the book evolved, I experienced an unexpected family loss of my own, and I think that influenced how the emotional arc of the book took shape. When someone you love dies unexpectedly, there are naturally many regrets and questions.
I think there’s a natural progression of uncovering things you didn’t know about the person as you strive to make sense of his or her life. And maybe even a desire for some big secret that will explain the person’s death. I’m sure my own feelings of helplessness and grief informed Bean’s feelings about [her grandfather].
Bean’s friend Henry calms himself with a Frank Lloyd Wright book in times of stress. Bean likes making herself invisible. What's more important: to have a catalyst for calm or a secluded place?
I think some people need a catalyst, and some people just naturally know when they need to go off to be alone for a bit to think. We each have our own coping methods when dealing with heartbreak and hurt—or just plain old confusion.
When I was young, my brother taught me how to climb up on the roof of the treehouse my parents made for us. It was quite tall and a terrifying climb. But once on top, you were completely hidden by branches and leaves.
I remember lying on my back with my brother next to me, feeling as though in that place, we could talk about anything. He told me it was a good place to come and think. I don’t know if he realized what a big gift he was giving me, but that day, he taught me the healing power of stepping out of sight for a while, and he gave me the perfect place to do it.
When I needed to give Bean a place to do the same, a roof seemed a natural choice. And I felt it would be more meaningful if, as my brother had done for me, Bean’s mom gave it to her.
Bean says she likes when dreams you’ve had all your life come out all mixed up. What is your favorite mixed-up dream?
I think the most mixed-up dream for me has been motherhood. All my life I had this idea of what it would be like to have lots of kids and live in an old farmhouse like the one I grew up in and...well, it was all very much like Tasha Tudor’s A Time to Keep in my head. But I ended up with an only child in a modern home with two indoor cats. Not exactly the farm life I dreamed of. And yet, under all of those Tasha Tudor fantasies, at the core was a loving family, and that’s what I have.
When I sold my first book, I was scheduled to do a book event, and the coordinator asked me to send her an author photo. I always imagined how cool it would be to have a professional photographer make me look glamorous, but there was never enough time—or money, for that matter. In a panic, I thrust my camera in my son’s hands and said, “I have a job for you.” He was 8 at the time and didn’t take the job very seriously. But we laughed ourselves through it, and I found something I could give them.
Recently, my publisher asked for a photo for the jacket of Pearl. I still hadn’t bothered to have a professional photo taken, so I sent them the one my son took. When my editor told me they needed a photo credit, I had to confess that it was my son. My editor said she could tell I was looking at someone I love in that photo, which makes me very happy. I’ll take love over glamour any time.
Soap operas appear prominently in the book. Are you team Erica Kane, Vicky Buchanan or Hope Williams Brady?
For the hair alone, I have to be Team Hope all the way!