Jenny Downham Biography
First time author Jenny Downham has caused quite a stir with Before I
Die, a novel targeted at teens with crossover appeal for adults in general.
Publisher David Fickling (part of Random House), who also publish The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, are so enthusiastic about the book
that it has been rushed to press in a fraction of the time normally taken, and
foreign rights have been sold in at least 11 languages .
According to a June 2007 article in the London Times, written a month before
Before I Die published in the UK, nobody is more surprised by the buzz
surrounding the book than Downham herself, a single mother living on benefits in
a down-at-heel part of Hackney, east London. The Times describes her
as "a small, slim 43-year-old, dressed
inconspicuously in jeans and a blue anorak, she would attract few second glances
when walking her sons, aged 12 and 7, to school. Her brown hair pulled back in a
scruffy, utilitarian bunch, a lick of mascara her only visible make-up, she does
not play the literary star."
As a reader, Downham enjoys the works of Raymond Carver, reads a lot of poetry
and loves reading plays. Described as "eloquent and engaging", she left a touring
improvised-theatre company in 1999 when her eldest son was four, six weeks
before her second son was born, deciding that traveling the country in the back of a transit van to put on plays in youth
clubs, prisons and mental hospitals didnt fit with motherhood. She
credits her ability to create characters and tell stories to having to improvise
plays for reluctant audiences. When the company would turn up at a youth
club, they would ask the audience what they wanted to see a show about, and the
response inevitably included sex and drugs, so they would improvise from there.
She started writing to use up some of the "playful energy" she'd been used to
expending as an actor. She says, "I didnt think I was starting a novel. I
just knew that it was helping me." She didn't set out to write a book
about a teenager dying of cancer. In a short interview with Entertainment
Weekly she says, "I started with the voice. I didn't know Tessa was dying, she
just seemed to be very sad and angry, and I wasn't sure why. After six months it
became apparent. Also, when the London bombings happened [in July 2005], it
struck me that so many people I knew were affected. Life becomes very
concentrated and it really impacted the writing. I realized that when you put
the clock ticking, in many ways you highlight the narrative drive."
She read memoirs written by adults with cancer such as Susan Sontag's Illness
As Metaphor and Anatole Broyard's Intoxicated by My Illness, she did
lots of research into cancer and shared her manuscript with nurses at Great
Ormond Street Hospital in London (which specializes in treating cancers in young
children), but she decided not to interview any dying children feeling that if
she did so she'd be compelled to write their story exactly as it was for them -
instead she wanted to write a story about mortality and about growing up.
Although it would seem that she is to be saved from poverty by her literary
efforts, Downham is reluctant to be labeled as the next J.K. Rowling. She
is concerned that her audience do not see her success as the "instant, Big Brother, get-rich-quick variety"
- because it wasn't quick and took considerable self-sacrifice. Having
said that, she also points out that being poor was to an extent a choice saying,
"I could have got a
nine-to-five job, but I thought I was a better parent doing something I love.
Feeding the boys rice or jacket potatoes every day for tea really isnt so
terrible. But the lack of money became more of an issue when my older son
started secondary school. At that age, you start to notice if you dont have the
things that other people have."
She's currently at work on a new book which she says has "a voice, a location,
and seems to be for young adults, but I don't really know what it's about."
Copyright BookBrowse.com 2009.
This biography was last updated on 05/18/2009.
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