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“Every publisher in New York slammed the door in our faces. It was devastating,” says Donnelly. Six months later, St. Martin’s editor Sally Kim bought it. The advance was very small, but “I didn’t care. I was so thrilled to be published, I was literally dancing on my dining room table.”
Her first young adult novel, the award-winning A Northern Light (Harcourt, 2003), takes place in the Adirondacks in 1906, revisiting the same drowning murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy through the eyes of a local farm girl who’s found work at the Glenmore Hotel—and to whom the doomed Grace entrusted a packet of letters, with urgent instructions to burn them. As with Revolution’s Andi, the written words of the dead girl reawakens the living one. What better metaphor could there be for literature?
Donnelly was raised in the Adirondacks, where her paternal relatives settled when they left Ireland, and Westchester County. Her father was a state trooper, frequently reassigned, so she spent her childhood shuttling between the poorest county in the state and the richest. This may account for the vivid awareness of class differences in her fiction. “It was great practice for being a writer,” she attests.
So were family reunions. “Stories were like breathing or food—it was something you had to have,” says Donnelly. “My Irish relatives would get together and tell stories.” Her German-born mother was also “a fantastic storyteller. She would tell me bedtime stories—not fairy tales, but stories from her life during World War II in a heavily bombed port town, stories of survival, of explosions and narrow escapes. I suppose I should have been terrified, but I wasn’t. I was galvanized. I guess that’s where the history piece comes in.”
The “history piece” got shaken when Donnelly read a New York Times article entitled “Geneticists’ Latest Probe: Heart of the Dauphin.” A tiny dried heart, clearly that of a child, was left inside a glass urn in the Basilica St. Denis. An international team of scientists proved that the legend tagging it as the heart of royal heir Louis-Charles was correct.
“I was blown away,” recalls Donnelly. Though she knew that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were guillotined, she wasn’t aware that their children survived them, or that eight-year-old Louis-Charles was walled up in such wretched circumstances that he went mad and died of neglect at 10. She couldn’t reconcile “how the idealism of the French Revolution could devolve into such cruelty.”
Donnelly couldn’t start right away—she had Winter Rose deadlines and an infant daughter—but the story would not let her go. “As a new mother, I felt like a person who had no more shell. I would come apart any time I read news reports of a child abused by political circumstance or domestic abuse. The Joel Steinberg / Hedda Nussbaum case took my legs out from under me. I would just sit down and weep.” The image of a child’s heart in a glass jar haunted her. “You know how it is when a story is working on you—you go to bed with it, wake up with it, and you’re churning?”
Asked how Andi and Alex evolved, Donnelly shakes her head with wonder. “These girls kind of walk out of the mists of your imagination.” She was living in Brooklyn when she started working on Revolution and often worked in cafes, among denizens of two pressure-cooker prep schools. “They were very sophisticated, with their own way of talking and being—so chic, but they were still children underneath, struggling very hard with huge expectations.”
Her two narrators’ voices are distinctive and strong. (Andi: “I don’t like hope very much. In fact, I hate it. It’s the crystal meth of emotions. It hooks you fast and kills you hard.” Alex: “I am 17 years of age. I will not last much longer.”) Sometimes they seemed to fight for control of the book. “There were so many drafts. Maybe a hundred. I reworked chunks endlessly. It was relentless.” Donnelly reports bursting into tears, stamping around in her office, talking out loud. “I’m always intense about books, but this was the queen of crazy-making.” She laughs. “I don’t know how writers’ families put up with us.”