Five Questions with Mary Jennifer Payne


Mary Jennifer Payne’s writing has been published in journals, anthologies, and magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the author of several YA graphic novels and the YA novel Since You’ve Been Gone. She teaches special education with the Toronto District School Board and lives in Toronto.

Join us as we celebrate her new work at Toronto Lit Up on December 14.

IFOA:  Finding Jade is part of the Daughters of Light fantasy series. What are some of the themes you want to explore in the trilogy?

Mary Jennifer: Some of the themes I wanted to explore in the Daughters of Light series are very much grounded in reality and in our contemporary world. Perhaps the most pressing theme concerns the ravaging of our planet and the impact of that on our daily lives and on global human rights. As the series continues, the theme of “othering”, and the corrupting nature or power become more dominant. There are many themes pertinent to teens in Finding Jade, some of these include: living with a single parent with chronic illness, bullying, and the trials and tribulations of young love. I also wanted to re-frame some of the traditional, gendered narratives about leadership and mainstream ideas about “superhero” protagonists as they are largely male-centric.

IFOA:  Finding Jade transports the reader to 2030. How have you imagined our future? Why?

Mary Jennifer: Initially, the series was set at a later date around 2050. However, it became apparent, as I went through the final revisions of Finding Jade, that climate change was rapidly intensifying, and that precipitated the need for the series to be set closer to our contemporary times. The Arab Spring uprisings were in their infancy when I began writing the series about five years ago, and, as such, the tragedy of the Syrian war and the subsequent refugee crisis were not even on the horizon. I based many of the climate change refugee issues and the description of our world in the year 2030 (which- spoiler alert– becomes more important in the series’ later books) on what was happening in Darfur, the rise of demagogue leaders, and the history of internment and/or genocide in places like Canada, Germany, Rwanda, etc. Jasmine lives in a world largely shaped by climate change. In many ways, it parallels are own: countries are closing their borders to refugees fleeing nations ravaged by drought and other environmental disasters, and much of the world is experiencing political, economic and social unrest due to this. Resources are scarce and energy is being conserved due to the warming climate- even in relatively resource-rich Toronto. I think, especially in light of the political and social transformations happening in the US this past year and the increasingly urgent scientific information emerging about the speed at which our global climate is changing, the world I imagined for 2030 appears to be less fictional than ever.

IFOA:  You have published graphic novels for young adults. Why did you use this medium to tell the story?

Mary Jennifer: I’ve published both graphic and traditional novels and novellas. The Daughters of Light series just seemed to fit the novel format, but it could definitely also translate into a graphic structure. Honestly, I’d love to see it on the big screen someday!

IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from for your work?

payne-mary-jenniferMary Jennifer: The inspiration for this series came from so many different things. Most of the time, the germ of a story comes from my students, and the Daughters of Light series is no different. However, for the trilogy, I also was inspired by a plethora of ideas: the growing threat of climate change and the dismissal of this by certain politicians and special interest groups; Santerian beliefs about twins; by Christian and Islamic texts about the end of time; the need for more female superheroes, especially diverse superheroes, and the way in which our world has historically treated refugees and the shameful practice of “othering”. As my partner can attest, my mind is rarely quiet, except maybe when I am by the ocean.

IFOA:  What are the things you consider when devising young characters?

Mary Jennifer: There’s not a lot I consciously think about when devising my young characters. They kind of just form themselves in my mind. I have the great privilege of spending most of my time with young people, and am always amazed by their intelligence, resilience and courage. The students I teach are often navigating a huge amount of intersectionality in their lives. They inspire and teach me so much, and I could never express my gratitude. I am aware, when writing, that I am a white woman who, though from working-class background, is now pretty firmly middle-class and, thus, I occupy a place of privilege that is not necessarily earned. I try to really reflect on this when developing characters. I’ve always felt that one of my favorite characters, Jermaine, from my first novel, Since You’ve Been Gone, has a further story to tell and that the narrative needs to be set during the London riots of 2011. However, I don’t feel that is my story to tell. Maybe in collaboration, and certainly not in the first-person voice I usually use with my writing. I’d love to tell his story in collaboration with someone like Malorie Blackman. She’s such a consummate YA author.




Five Questions with… Linda Holeman

Linda Holeman, author of The Devil on Her Tongue and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Linda on June 25, as well as a copy of The Devil on Her Tongue! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What was your research process for The Devil on Her Tongue?

Linda Holeman:  After spending time in Portugal and falling in love with the country’s history and culture, I came home and spent months immersed in Portuguese non-fiction and literature. I returned to Portugal when I was certain of the shape and setting I wanted for my novel.  Armed with camera and notebook, I explored Madeira’s capital of Funchal from the sea front to its hilltop quintas. I drove around the island, stopping in villages and walking the levadas; I went into churches and cemeteries, into wine lodges and into cafes and bars where I listened to the haunting melodies of fado. I stood on cliffs overlooking the tossing sea. I ferried to Porto Santo, and on that tiny island I understood the rhythm of an isolated life in the middle of the ocean. I walked the beach, smelling the air and water and studying the sky in sunlight and under the stars.  To write about a character in first person, I have to become that character in an alternate universe to my own life. Being in Diamantina’s world eventually brought her voice to me, clear and sure, and I knew her well enough to tell her story.

(c) Randall Freeman

(c) Randall Freeman

IFOA: Do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

Holeman: The protagonists in my historic novels lived in a time and environment which made it impossible for a woman to have anything close to gender equality. As a champion for women’s rights, I advocate and support the civil liberties and equality of women. And so as a writer, the challenge I face is to find a way to write about women who break away from traditional gender roles and are still believable to 21st century readers. Diamantina is faced with the knowledge that the only roles open to her are wife or nun, but she can be neither, due to the circumstances of her birth. And so I had to find a way for her to forge a life for herself, one in which she could make choices regarding sexuality, reproduction, and the workplace—all still current issues for many women world-wide.

IFOA: You have written several novels for young adult readers. Is your process the same when you write for this audience?

Holeman: Although my research processes are the same, the actual writing for adults and young adults requires a slightly different mindset for me. While young readers today are very sophisticated and savvy, and want to read about real issues, I’m still very aware of my use of graphic images and language. I temper my words so that the visuals they present won’t be overly explicit and/or disturbing in scenes of violence, sex, and so on.  The other difference is that I rein the novel in, reducing the number of characters and back stories and tightening the arc, resulting in a shorter word count. My YA novels have typically been half the length of my adult novels.

IFOA: Which author (living or dead) has made the greatest influence on you and your writing?

Holeman, Devil on Her TongueHoleman: There isn’t one writer. I have been and continue to be shaped as an author by my past and present reading, which is broad and has no set direction. As I’ve grown and evolved, so has my reading: a writer who influenced me when I was twenty wouldn’t necessarily do the same when I was forty. From the time I fell in love with reading, which was at six years old, I wrote my own stories in my head.  When I began my journey in becoming an author, I pulled out all I had absorbed about rhythm and flow of both plot and dialogue, about characters and why I felt about them as I did and what kinds of scenes resonated with me – and why. Basically I’m saying that I take my cues from a lifetime of reading great authors.

IFOA: Your biography on  your website mentions that you talk with your partner about story and character “…in some way everyday.” How do these discussions influence your writing?

Holeman: My partner Martin studied film and screen writing and works in that arena. He can dissect a film in much the same way that I like to pull apart and study a novel I’ve read.  I have no formal education in creative writing: I learned to write by reading and the act of writing itself, and have always written by instinct. Martin is on the opposite end of the spectrum, with a deep and solid educational background in writing. Our different approaches – his more formal and mine more reflexive – create intense and sometimes heated debates on the ebb and flow of a good story, including character development and arc. We spend a lot of time discussing a movie we’ve watched together, or a novel we’ve both read or my own work-in-progress.  These discussions are motivating and helpful in having me look at my work from a different angle.  And they’ve also made me come to the realization that I tend to think of life as a story. That would account for why I often try to shut out all other sounds and hear classical music in my head as background : everything appears more interesting, bearable – and elegant!

Linda Holeman is the author of several internationally bestselling historical novels as well as eight other works of fiction and short fiction. Linda presents The Devil on her Tongue, a spell-binding story of loss, romance and betrayal set in 18th-century Portugal. She presents alongside Emma Healey and Tom Rachman on June 25th.