One True Thing

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Jenna Blum: Write what you know about, live what you write about

Chasing tornadoes, bipolar disorder, writer's block and more.

Jenna Blum researched her second novel, The Stormchasers, by chasing tornadoes for five years and it shows in the details of this tense, whirlwind of a read. She also does an excellent job of creating a touching portrait of a young woman's relationship with her bipolar brother, drawing on her own experiences. Here's more from Jenna:

Jennifer Haupt: How did you first get interested in chasing tornados?

Jenna Blum: I've been fascinated with severe weather since I was four, when I saw a tornado at night in my mom and grandmother's southeast Minnesota hometown while everyone else was asleep-an experience I encoded in The Stormchasers. For a little girl obsessed with The Wizard Of Oz, this tornadic encounter was terrifying but also terribly exciting, and I spent subsequent decades trying to see another tornado.

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When I lived in Minneapolis in my twenties and my mom lived there too, I used to take her "stormchasing"-by which I mean I'd see a pulsing blob of radar on The Weather Channel and make her drive us toward the storm. This resulted, predictably, in disasters like us crouching in an abandoned barn with a tornadic storm coming on and the animals running like heck in the other direction (geese run; I have seen this!). I never did see another tornado this way, though, and eventually I figured out it'd be safer, more efficient, and kinder to my mom if I went stormchasing with people who knew what they were doing. I found Tempest Tours online, the model for Whirlwind Tours in my novel, and have been chasing with them for the past five years. This year, I've graduated to hosting my own tours for Tempest! Come along! We see lots of tornadoes. Safely.

JH: How much research did you do to develop a realistic character with bipolar disorder? Do you have someone close to you with this condition?

JB: I have people in my family with bipolar disorder, and for years I've watched them struggle with the disorder's extreme moods and often devastating consequences. I've felt the way my heroine Karena does in The Stormchasers: totally helpless, sidelined while people you love more than anything suffer from what she calls "the gift nobody wants to get given." Frustrated because it's so difficult to find the right medicine to treat bipolar disorder, which is a grab bag of symptoms unique to the individual who has it.

It's also often hard for people who are bipolar to stay on their meds not just because of the side effects, which can be legion, but because they miss their manias! I've had the experience of being terrified to enter a room because I don't know whether my loved one will be the kind, generous, funny, super-intelligent, sweet soul who's not under the influence of a severe mood swing--or the terrifying hypo-manic presence Karena calls "the djinn, the Stranger."

My own therapist (it's great for a writer to have a therapist) says caretakers of bipolar love ones often describe the mood swings as watching a demonic possession. Bipolar is a problem without easy solution, if there is a "solution" at all. I spent many years reading everything I could find about the disorder, from Dr. Kay Jameson's excellent An Unquiet Mind about coping with her own bipolar disorder to the point at which she became a specialist in it, to the DSM-IV. And, like all subjects that trouble me but I can't find an answer for, I turned it into a novel.

JH: Do you have any siblings? If so, did you draw on your relationships with them to develop the relationship between Karena and Charles in The Stormchasers?

JB: I have a brother I love dearly, although we're not twins! I'm ten years older than he is, so I sometimes feel like his second mother. We do have some twin-like characteristics, though: we finish each other's sentences. We can look at each other and know what the other is thinking. We're both writers, and without consulting each other we've developed similar routines: writing longhand, using special pens, wearing specific writing shirts. I love the relationship I have with my brother, and because of our closeness it felt like a small step to research and write a twinship for Karena and Charles for The Stormchasers - which I did because people who have bipolar family members but aren't bipolar themselves often feel terrible guilt, and since twins Charles and Karena are the primary relationship in each other's lives, Karena's guilt is exponentially exacerbated.

JH: Your first novel, Those Who Save Us, was published in 2005 and is still showing up on bestseller lists around the world. What did you learn from your experience writing the first novel that was most helpful with writing the second novel?

JB: I am utterly humbled and amazed that readers made Those Who Save Us into a New York Times bestseller and are now keeping it lofted on the Dutch bestseller list! Not that I don't love the novel. I do, fiercely. It and The Stormchasers are my children. Still, this is the sort of success you usually only imagine for your children, and I'm grateful beyond words readers have made those dreams come true.

The success of Those Who Save Us had an interesting effect on the writing of The Stormchasers. I often compare the writing of the two novels to giving birth under very different circumstances. Those Who Save Us, a debut novel, was like giving birth in a shack in the woods with nobody knowing or caring, wondering if anybody would be there to help you with the baby when it came out. The Stormchasers, because the first novel has done so well, was sold before it was written, so I had a team of expert obstetricians constantly monitoring its progress, saying, "How's the baby doing today? Is it kicking? How're you feeling?"

Unaccustomed to writing fiction on a deadline-and discovering quickly that inspiration is no respecter of deadlines--I became paralyzed and succumbed to writer's block, which for me assumed the form of writing about the novel every day, replying to email, carousing on Facebook, then going shopping. Eventually my agent sent me to southeastern Minnesota, to the little rural town where my storm fascination began, and requested that I send her a chapter a day while living with my black Lab in a motel there. That's what I did, and I learned I could write a novel in 2.5 months. It was an extraordinary fever dream of a process.

JH: How do you balance the creative process of writing with the heavy duty promotion that you are still doing for your first novel and now your second novel too?

JB: My writing life is kind of like crop rotation: when I'm working on a book, I'm in the Writers' Protection Program, as when I was living at the motel in rural Minnesota and working on The Stormchasers. This means I wear the same yoga pants for three days in a row and emerge from my writing room only to get more coffee and walk my black Lab, Woodrow. My family and friends know I'm in lockdown and sometimes will literally leave food for me outside the door. I do this because I can't concentrate on the real world and the fictional world at the same time; it's like listening to two competing radio stations at once. I love doing it.

When I come out of the Writers' Protection Program, I equally love meeting readers! I speak at events, libraries and book clubs all over the country -- for Those Who Save Us, I visited over 800 book clubs in the Boston area alone. For The Stormchasers, I just finished a two-month driving tour that took me to MN, IA, KS, OK, TX, MS, AL, FL, GA, KY, OH, IL, IN, and back to Boston again. I keep my readers in the loop by posting my adventures, including photos, on Facebook and Twitter.

I've picked up a reputation as a promoter-last year I taught a seminar for Grub Street Writers in Boston called "How to Be A Self-Promotion Ho." No matter where I am, I spend three to four hours a day in correspondence with my readers-if they're kind enough to take time out of their busy lives to write to me about my books, I'll write right back to them! (I've done this sometimes when there's literally a tornado on the ground in front of my Jeep while I'm sitting in the shotgun seat with a laptop.) I'm looking forward to Skypeing with book clubs for The Stormchasers paperback edition. And to bridge the writing and promoting worlds, I write two blogs: one for Grub Street Daily called Writer On The Road (http://grubdaily.org/) and my personal blog, The Writer's Life, for my website: (http://www.jennablum.com/blog/). Please come ride along with me!

JH: I know you're involved with the Grub Street writing community. How important has that community been to your success as a writer?

JB: Grub Street Writers is the reason I've stayed in Boston. I started teaching for Grub back in 1997, when founder Eve Bridburg, a Boston University MA alumni as I am, kindly gave me my first job out of grad school. Then, Grub Street consisted of two classes: fiction and poetry. Now it offers over 300 classes and seminars ranging from Master Novel, which I teach, to Moms Who Write, travel narratives, screenwriting, Flash Fiction, Memoir-you name it, you want to learn it, Grub teaches it. We have coffee hours. We have parties. We put on an amazing writers' conference every year at the end of April-it's coming right up!-called The Muse & The Marketplace, offering writers the chance to meet their favorite authors on panels, take classes, have their manuscripts read by agents and editors.

My MA was invaluable in making me consider every writerly decision I make, from theme to word choice, but Grub is the only writing school I know that actively helps match-make its writers with publishing industry professionals, getting its writers published. Many of my novelists have books out: Randy Susan Meyer's incredibly successful debut The Murder's Daughters; Iris Gomez's Oprah-lauded first novel Try to Remember. I'm so proud of them I'd carry wallet photos of them if I could. Grub is an entirely non-competitive life-support system for writers. I've lived in a lot of cities and I've loved those cities, but none of them have Grub.

JH: Have you had to give anything up to become a successful novelist?

JB: That's a great question. I can tell you're writing for Psychology Today! Yes, I've given up a traditionally timed family life. I was married when I was in my early twenties, and my former husband, an absolutely lovely man, didn't get the writing thing. All I'd ever wanted to do in my life was write and publish books, and woe to anyone who stood in my way. My husband wanted to start a family early. The marriage didn't make it, an account I embedded in The Stormchasers when describing Karena's romantic past. I sometimes wish-well, I often wish!-I could live more than one life, because part of me would have loved to be a young mother, as my grandmother Luverne was in Minnesota. But I also feel immensely privileged to have been able to write, publish and promote my novels, all of which has been a dream come true, and knock wood, I still have time to start a family, too.

JH: What is the one true thing you learned about tornados that is also applicable to relationships?

JB: That as much as we know, and we know a lot, we'll never be able to predict everything. There's a mystery at the heart of the world.

Jenna Blum is the New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us, and The Stormchasers. Jenna attended Kenyon College and Boston University, where she taught creative and communications writing for five years, and currently runs master novel workshops for Grub Street Writers in Boston. When not on the road speaking about her novels, Jenna divides her time between Boston, where she teaches, and Minnesota, where she writes in the town where her mother and grandmother were born.

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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