Jenny Hubbard: An Interview & the Inspiration for Paper Covers Rock
Bobbie: It’s hard to introduce a book like Paper Covers Rock or a writer like Jenny Hubbard. Especially when she’s done a stunning job of introducing this book to the world herself (please see such letter written by Miss Hubbard at the end of the post). It’d be unfair; however, to not honor such a special book with an opener; a formal wave to a sea of potential readers, for this book is, in many ways, an introduction. As someone who works with a lot of books, and reads many books, and talks about many books, my heart leaps when I’m presented with a title that really takes me back and reminds me of how I fell in love with books in the first place, with writing, with words, with stories. And Paper Covers Rock, though Jenny describes it as one “written for the ages” reminds me of novels like A Separate Peace and maybe even Catcher in the Rye, which, as I sat in my high school English class opened me up to a life in literature. And I know this title will do the same for young adults out there. It’s a beautiful book, an important book (one with 4 starred reviews!) and one for just about everybody.
And so, I introduce to you Jenny Hubbard…
Q. What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?
The Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls and live by the banks of Plum Creek. I read those books eight times through—as soon as I’d finish, I’d start over again. The illustrations by Garth Williams remain as vivid to me today as any memory from my childhood does.
Q. What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?
I don’t care for some of the young-adult fiction being published today. Some of it “dummies down” to the teenaged reader, and some of it seems unrealistic. I enjoy the journey I take with the characters I meet on the page only if the writer makes me care about them and believe in them as human beings. This is probably why, as a child, I disliked watching cartoons.
Q. As an author, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing life?
I don’t even know how to text. My friends make fun of my cell phone, which has a screen the size of a postage stamp. I’m afraid I’m woefully inadequate when it comes to proficiency with modern technology—but I’m learning. Speaking of postage stamps, I’d rather communicate with my readers the old-fashioned way: through real letters that arrive in envelopes.
Q. Are you working on a second book?
Yes. It’s told from the point of view of three teenage girls who are witness to a high-school shooting. It’s a novel about aftermath—survival of the aftermath—rather than the sensationalism of the event itself.
Q. What has your favorite event experience been so far?
The book-signing in my hometown. As I looked out over the audience gathered the Literary Bookpost in Salisbury, North Carolina, I saw faces that spanned my lifetime. It was unbelievably overwhelming and incredibly humbling. Hillary Clinton nailed it: it does indeed take a village.
Q. What was your favorite genre to read as a teenager?
Real-life fiction, a la Judy Blume. For me and many of my friends, Judy Blume was a lifesaver.
Q. What inspired you to write prep school as a setting?
I taught for ten years at an all-boys’ boarding school, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for a hatbox full of hundreds. As I used to tell my students there, we each have a story to tell about this place. Boarding schools are their own microcosms, with their own codes and rules and inside jokes and senses of humor. Fascinating. Endlessly fascinating, at least to me.
Q. What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?
Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite, and then tell the story all over again from a different point of view. The early drafts of Paper Covers Rock would be unrecognizable to anyone who has read the published version. In fact, when I started this book, I envisioned it as a novel for adults. The first narrator was Miss Dovecott, not Alex—which was a completely different story, of course.
Q. Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Yes, but I’m lucky because I write in two genres (fiction and playwriting), so when I get stuck on one, I switch to the other. Playwriting is a new genre for me, though I have always loved theatre and have performed in community productions ever since I played Brigitta von Trapp at age 13. In fact, I am currently in Charlotte, North Carolina, appearing as Ivy Weston in the regional premiere of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning August: Osage County, a masterpiece of a script. I am in awe of Tracy Letts and his mesmerizing plot (my biggest weakness), rich humor, realistic dialogue, and complex female characters: four aspects that I try to achieve in my own plays. I’m a long way from Broadway, though, a very long way (both as an actress and as a playwright!).
Q. What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
I loved writing Alex’s poems. When I taught at the boys’ school, I had my students compose a poem each week. The discoveries they made in the process, the heartfelt and authentic truths they were able to articulate on the page knocked the breath out of me. Alex’s poems were a way for me to honor the commitment to honest language that these boys chose to make.
Q. Which character speaks the loudest, to you? Do any of them clamor to be heard over the others?
I think Miss Dovecott is the character who should be heard, but, unfortunately for Alex, he chooses to listen to Glenn instead. Some readers have criticized the novel for being set in 1982, but, for me at least, the undercurrent of male chauvinism and white-man privilege wouldn’t have buzzed nearly as loudly through the pages of that same story set today. In the early 80s, some elite colleges and universities had barely gone co-ed, and so for an intelligent young woman like Miss Dovecott to find herself suddenly adrift on a sea of prejudice and tradition—well, she is going to have to shout to be heard, isn’t she? And she isn’t a shouter. So the one voice that speaks the truth gets drowned.
We loved the letter Jenny wrote to readers explaining why she wrote Paper Covers Rock so much, we wanted to share it here with all of you. Please read on for the letter, as well as a chance to win a signed copy of the book!
Even though Paper Covers Rock is technically a young-adult novel, let’s call it (as it has been called) “one for the ages.” What does it mean to be loyal and true, both to others and to the self? This is only one of life’s essential questions that Paper Covers Rock addresses via a stunt gone wrong at a boys’ boarding school.
Boarding schools are microcosms, so it is no wonder that writers before me have chosen them as settings. Before I went to teach at one, I knew “boarding school” only from books and movies that tended to romanticize and glorify the place, though Paper Covers Rock does not. For ten years I served as shepherd to a strict and long-standing code of honor that I too tried to live by. It wasn’t easy—not for me, not for the boys—and I got to wondering how the code served as a both reassuring roadmap and an inadequate adjudicator for the gray areas of morality. My students questioned it often, aloud: “Why should I have to hold myself to such standards? Isn’t the ‘real world’ so corrupt as to render any sort of honor code obsolete?”
As an English teacher, I was always on the hunt for literature that was accessible to young readers yet also rich enough, deep enough, to mine for gold nuggets. I looked for books that would teach my students how to read. I knew they could discuss a story or a poem ad nauseum, but did they really know how to read one? My ability to guide them depended on a text that had taken great care with its diction and structure, its characterization and setting. Monkeys, by Susan Minot, and The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, were godsends. And nothing teaches reading better than a well-measured poem, a practice that Ms. Dovecott, the teacher in this book, illustrates.
If I wrote Paper Covers Rock for anyone, I wrote it for high-school English teachers and their students. My students disliked being “dummied down to,” so I kept this in mind while attempting to practice what I preached in the classroom about good writing. The novel has thus far been compared with A Separate Peace, as Alex’s story is, like Gene’s, born of guilt. It has also been compared with Catcher in the Rye, perhaps because Alex, like Holden, must not only come to terms with his loss of innocence but also carve out a safe place in a cold and hypocritical world. I hope you find in Alex an “everyteen” quality. I hope you will respect his intelligence and shake your head at his stupidity. I hope you will want to side with him and throw the book at him, literally and figuratively.
And, of course, I hope that you, a reader and my reader, will examine the arrangements of words on these 181 pages and find them worthy of your investment. As you are well aware—as any educator can attest—I learned more from my students in my seventeen years in the classroom than they ever learned from me. Please know that I never set out to write a “deep novel,” but I did set out to write an authentic one. May you find Paper Covers Rock to be exactly that.
If you’d like to win a signed copy of Paper Covers Rock, please leave a comment below. We’ll draw a name later this week. US residents only, please!