Monday, October 4, 2010

Interview with Jennifer Donnelly

I had the privilege of reading Jennifer Donnelly's the Revolution. She also agreed to do an interview! So, without further ado...

BCM: What made you decide to use the French Revolution?

JD: An article I read in The New York Times.

Revolution actually got started ten years ago, although I didn’t know it then. I was reading the Times and saw a story titled “Geneticists’ Latest Probe: The Heart of the Dauphin”. It showed a picture. Of a glass urn with a small human heart in it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

The article said that the heart, which had been kept in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, had just undergone DNA testing and had been found to be the heart of Louis-Charles, a son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

I knew, as most people do, that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were guillotined during the Revolution. What I didn’t know before I read that article, though, was that after the king and queen were executed, their children – fourteen-year-old Marie-Therese and eight-year-old Louis Charles were kept in prison. Marie-Therese would survive her imprisonment and would be released in 1795, after Robespierre’s reign of terror had ended. Louis-Charles was not so fortunate.

As heir to the throne, he was seen as a threat to the revolution. It was rumored that powerful people, in France and outside of it, were plotting to free him and rule in his name. To prevent this, Robespierre and his crew essentially had the boy walled up alive. He was kept in a dark cold cell. Alone. Without enough food, without a fire. He became sick. And he went mad. And eventually he died. At the age of ten.

After Louis-Charles died, in prison, his body was autopsied, and while it was open, one of the officiating doctors, Phillipe-Jean Pelletan, stole the child’s heart. Before the revolution, when a king died, his heart was cut from his body, embalmed, and kept in an urn at St. Denis. During the revolution, this didn’t happen. When Louis XVI was executed, his body was simply thrown into a common pit. It’s thought that Dr. Pelletan stole the heart because he wanted to safeguard it until the revolution was over, then take it to St. Denis. Things didn’t quite work out the way he’d hoped, though. Due to theft, violence, and politics, it took nearly two hundred years for that heart to get to St. Denis. It was finally brought there in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1999 that DNA testing confirmed that it did indeed belong to Louis Charles.

The article really upset me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Couldn’t stop wondering how the idealism of the revolution had devolved into such cruelty. What kind of world is this that allows such things? I wondered. And how do we live in it?

These questions were haunting me and I had to find answers. So I set about trying to do that the only way I know how, by writing a story. I remembered that article from the Times. That tiny heart in the glass urn took on a new and symbolic meaning for me. What happened to Louis-Charles was unspeakable, and yet, I felt that if I could face it and grapple with it, I might find my answer.

BCM: Is there one character that you resemble?

JD: Not closely, no. But Nathan and I share quite a few opinions. We both believe that closure is a stupid word. And that an artist should give absolutely everything she has to her art.

BCM: Of the music mentioned, which is your favorite time period?

JD: For me, it’s more about individual pieces of music than one specific time period. There’s much I love – and hate – from all eras and schools. One of my favorites is Beethoven’s 5th – check out this video on youtube of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the first movement. There is no more rocking tune than this one. The music, and Dudamel’s passion for it, will really move you:

I also love the music of Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Kate Bush, Nada Surf, the Decemberists, Simon & Garfunkel....the list goes on and on.

BCM: Is writing fiction easier than historical fiction?

JC: It’s all hard!

BCM: What authors do you enjoy reading?

JD: Peter Carey, A.S. Byatt, Sam Lipsyte, Jeanette Winterson, Markus Zusak, James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, M.T. Anderson, and Meg name but a few!


  1. Thanks for the interview. I didn't know there was actually testing done on the heart. I just finished reading this book. Thanks!



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