Jill Santopolo is the author of the nationally and internationally bestselling novel The Light We Lost, which has been translated into more than 35 languages and has hit both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Jill Santopolo holds a BA in English Literature from Columbia University, an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a certificate in Intellectual Property Law from NYU. Jill Santopolo is the Editorial Director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, where she edits many critically-acclaimed, award-winning, and best-selling books. When she’s not writing or editing, Jill Santopolo is a thesis advisor at The New School in their MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and has been on the faculty of the Columbia Publishing Course. She was formerly an adjunct professor at McDaniel College, where she helped develop the curriculum for their certificate program in Writing for Children. Jill Santopolo has travelled all over the U.S.—and to Canada and Europe—to speak about writing and storytelling. Please enjoy my interview with Jill Santopolo.
How do you describe your occupation?
I often tell people I spend time creating imaginary people and making them do things in an imagined world. Which is to say, I write fiction—sometimes for an adult audience and sometimes for children.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
No day is exactly typical, but my favorite kind of day is one where I wake up, eat breakfast, write for three or four hours, go for a run, eat lunch, shower and get dressed in real clothes, write for a couple more hours, answer emails and do some book promotional work—essays and interviews and the like, and then go out to meet people for dinner.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’m reading the Lonely Planet Guide to Scotland because I’m planning a trip there—I’d been researching online, but my boyfriend bought the Lonely Planet guide, and I’m really enjoying having pages I can mark up with notes and stars and questions. After I finish that, I’m planning to read Tin Man by Sarah Winman, which multiple friends have recommended (and warned me that I might cry).
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
I think it was probably Big Dog, Little Dog by P.D. Eastman. I loved the dogs, Ted and Fred, and cracked up when the big dog drove in the little car and the little dog drove in the big car.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
When I read hardcovers, I use the flap of the dust jacket to mark my page. In paperbacks, I fold (though I’m embarrassed about it).
When did you fall in love with reading?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading—or being read to. When I was two, my parents knew I needed glasses, because I kept holding books very close to my face. And when my father came home from work each night, he read to me, until I was old enough to read to him. And then later we would both read our own books as we sat together silently in the same room.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Yes! I still have it. It was called Stacey the Cat and was about a fat cat who sat on a mat. I think it was Dr. Seuss-inspired. According to my mother’s note on the bottom of the construction-paper cover, I was three when I wrote it.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
At age 16 I would give myself The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, to show myself how women’s dreams and roles in life both have and haven’t changed over the years. And at 25, even though it wasn’t written yet, I would give myself Lean In by Sheryl Sandburg. In addition to writing, I also am an associate publisher for an imprint of the Penguin Young Readers group, and I think my 25-year-old self would have benefitted from thinking about the ideas that Sheryl Sandburg covers in that book.
Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?
I usually start with a character and a situation. Then, in broad strokes, I figure out the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Then I try to write through the whole story, coming up with the connecting bits to make it all fit together. And then I go over and over and over the story, fleshing out the plot and the characters, going deeper, pushing further, and stretching it all into the right shape. And then I get feedback from friends and family and my agent and revise again before I send it to my editor. What she sees as the first draft is usually at least draft three or four as far as I’m concerned.
For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?
I would tell someone who wants to be a writer to read Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare because I think those stories and plays are all wonderful examples of plot and character. And then for the third book, I’d tell them to read On Writing by Stephen King. When I taught a writing class a while back, that was one of the texts I used because I thought the craft information was really useful.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
I think I would have to go with five authors whose books I adored when I was in high school and younger, since their stories helped shape me as the writer I became. So that would be: Katherine Paterson, Ann M. Martin, Betty Smith, Erich Segal, and John Irving.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
The last book I bought was Acts of Faith by Erich Segal, which was a gift for my editor. I’d been telling her about how much I loved that book when I was in high school, and she hadn’t read it, so I sent her a copy.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
My favorite thing about reading is the different lives and different points of view I get to experience each time I read a new story.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I think I’ll have to go with Ghosted by Rosie Walsh. (In the UK, I think it’s called The Man Who Didn’t Call.) It’s exquisitely crafted and the story takes turns that somehow feel surprising and inevitable all at once.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
I think I would have to insert myself into my favorite picture book from when I was a child—Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn. The children of the town run away to a meadow and each gets to live in a unique house built just for them based on their likes and dislikes. I always wondered what kind of house I’d get, and if I inserted myself into that book, I’d be able to find out.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
Put your heart on the page, and try not to lose faith in yourself if things don’t come easily right away.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson was the first book that made me feel like characters in a book were real. It made me understand the power of story and the way readers connect to it. When I’m writing now, I strive to capture the kind of emotion that she did in that book.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
So many! But right now I’ll stick with Queen of the Summer Stars by Persia Woolley, which is the story of King Arthur from Guinevere’s perspective and is a book I read over and over as a teenager. I also was profoundly affected by Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Mila 18 and Exodus by Leon Uris, The Sisters Rosensweig and The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein, and, more recently, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
After Tin Man by Sarah Winman, I’m excited to read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, which I’ve heard wonderful things about and which I want to read before it becomes a movie!