Author ends local visit with talk in Perry; draws record crowds

By Ben Beagle
Daily News Lifestyles Editor
March 27, 2006

PERRY , The historian in Jennifer Donnelly wants to get the tiniest detail right.
The author in Jennifer Donnelly wants readers to make an emotional connection with the characters and stories she creates.
“Otherwise, I’ve failed,” said Donnelly, whose young adult novel A Northern Light was the choice of this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project.
Donnelly wrapped up her visit to the area Saturday afternoon at Perry Elementary/Middle School, where about 110 people came to hear her talk about her inspirations and process of writing.
“I thought she was wonderful. I liked how she puts the words together, and how she described how she got her ideas,” said Diane Santora of Warsaw, who recently learned that a member of her husband’s family played a role in the real-life discovery of Grace Brown’s murdered body. The John Denio in the novel, which blends Mattie’s fictional tale with a famous murder, was the same man who took his buckboard wagon to the area where the victim’s body was found.
Everywhere Donnelly went during the visits, which began last Thursday, readers connected with the story of Mattie Gokey, a teen-ager facing difficult decisions about her future at the turn of the last century.
“I really liked the historical component,” said Linda Morris of Wyoming, a history teacher. “And I liked the message of perseverance and following your own dreams.”
Michelle Dourie of Warsaw also liked the strong message to young women.
“It spoke to me very much,” said Dourie, who went to an all-women college as Mattie hopes to in pursuing her dream of becoming a writer.
In Perry, Donnelly heard many stories from readers. A couple related how they saw Mattie’s choice of going to college or staying home reflected in their own lives. A woman recalled the pleasure she found in picking fiddleheads, young coiled leaves of the ostrich fern that are often boiled or steamed.
And another woman shared an emotional story about her brother who left home much like Mattie’s older brother, Lawton.
Donnelly, in an interview following the program, said she was surprised by the passion readers brought to her work.
“Today was really moving,” she said, as she packed up her bags after signing dozens of books. “People wanted to share the emotions that the book brought up in them. That is a huge confirmation to me that the book did what it should.”
Donnelly drew record crowds at each visit, with nearly 450 people attending the talks. Friday’s visit to Lee-Whedon Memorial Library in Medina saw about 85 people, while Thursday evening’s program at Richmond Memorial Library in Batavia attracted 150 , and required a closed circuit video feed to be used in the library’s Gallery Room. More than 100 attended Thursday afternoon’s program at Genesee Community College.
“We saw a number of people who had never come to an author visit before,” Mary Zangerle, director of Lee-Whedon, said Saturday. “There were a number of students. And several people came from Niagara County.”
Joshua Hunt, an aspiring young writer from Warsaw, attended the Perry program on the recommendation of his grandfather, who attended one of the Batavia sessions.
“He said she spoke very intelligently and suggested I go hear her. And he’s not one to offer a lot of praise,” said Hunt, who asked Donnelly a couple of questions about her writing technique.
“I feel better about my own writing,” he said. “I took away that I need to write a really long time, and that’s sort of what I wanted to hear. I feel comfortable with what I’m doing.”
“A Tale for Three Counties” has people in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties reading the same book, discussing it and then hearing the author speak about the work. The program is in its fourth year.
Local folk musician Sue Hengelsberg helped set the mood in Perry, opening the program playing guitar and singing “The Ballad of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette,” which recounts the tale of the tragic lovers whose real-life story provides an ominous undercurrent to the fictional story of Mattie Gokey.
Donnelly, as she did at the previous presentations, spent about an hour taking the audience through a slide show presentation that reveals the people, places and other materials that helped her develop A Northern Light.
“This is the stuff that really allowed me to reach back and clasp hands with the past,” she said.
Donnelly focused on four areas, inspiration, imagination, research and emotion, that goes into writing a novel.
While history provided Donnelly with Grace Brown, it was the author’s imagination that brought Mattie , and a glass of cool lemonade , to Grace’s side on the porch of the Glenmore hotel.
“It was only one scene, but as soon as I saw it I knew I had a story,” Donnelly said. “It was only a beginning, but it was a solid beginning and I knew I could carry it through.”
The author then briefly led the audience through an exercise of imagination. She showed pictures of several famous people: actor James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Albert Einstein, Madonna, and Martin Luther King Jr. She explained that their contributions to the world , whether entertaining stories or hit songs, dazzling scientific theories, and stirring speeches , all began in their minds.
“You have something they have and couldn’t get rid of at all if you tried. That’s imagination,” she said, as the next slide , “cheeseburger” , popped on screen and she offered suggestions about what the audience might envision when they see the word.
“Imagination is power and what power you have to conjure sights and sounds in an instant,” she said. “The world doesn’t belong to Paramount, or iPod, or the Gap. It belongs to you and the limitless power of your imagination.”
Donnelly said imagination was the most important component in making a book.

Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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