Jennifer Lee Carrell is the internationally bestselling author of two Shakespeare thrillers, Interred With Their Bones and Haunt Me Still, as well as a work of history, The Speckled Monster. Born in Washington, DC, she grew up in Tucson, Arizona. After earning degrees in literature from Stanford, Oxford and Harvard Universities, she taught literature and writing at Harvard. Later, she became the classical music, opera, and dance critic for the Arizona Daily Star. She’s also written a number of pieces for the Smithsonian Magazine, as well as a few screenplays. She lives in Tucson with her husband, daughter, two dogs and three cats. She is currently at work on a historical novel about the painter Jan Van Eyck.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I penned my first story at the age of seven. At the time, my fallback career choices were ballerina and astronaut. Later, I thought I’d become a Shakespeare professor. Through some strange twists and turns, I circled back to writing.
Here are the details:
I earned a Ph.D. in English from Harvard, along with undergraduate degrees from Oxford and Stanford. In addition to Shakespeare, I studied the Arthurian legend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Norse sagas; my father jokes that I majored in fairy tales. Before I began to write books full time, I taught literature and writing at Harvard.
I began my writing career by free-lancing for the Smithsonian Magazine: a shift that led me to rappel off a six-story tower in an improvised harness, track mountain lions through the wilds of southeastern Arizona, sit beneath a sapling of Newton’s apple tree, hoping some fruit would fall (it didn’t), and pose on the set of a David Hockney documentary, bundled into a Renaissance gown originally made for Star Trek, while sporting a turban made of men’s red velvet breeches wrapped artfully around my head. Later, I was the classical music, opera and dance critic for the Arizona Daily Star.
The Newton article morphed into a possible book on alchemy, which morphed into my first actual book, on smallpox: The Speckled Monster. As a career trajectory, that doesn’t make much sense, but it was a lot of fun. I then turned to thrillers about Shakespeare. Just as Interred With Their Bones was released and I was diving into Haunt Me Still, writing about dark magic and murder, I added “Mom” to my list of titles and responsibilities. Currently, I’m writing historical fiction about the artist Jan Van Eyck.
I live in Tucson, Arizona, with my husband, daughter, two dogs, and a literary set of cats called Emma, Eudora, and Flannery. My favorite word is ‘serendipity.’
Awards and Recognition
The Speckled Monster was chosen by Barnes & Noble as a Discover Great New Writers book, summer, 2003.
Nominated for the International Thriller Writers Best First Novel in 2008, Interred With Their Bones has been translated into more than 25 languages. In London, it reached #6 on the Sunday Times’ bestseller list, and in Poland, it reached #1.
Haunt Me Still was an Indie Notable book, May 2010. It, too, has been translated into various languages and was a big hit in Poland.
Three awards for distinction in undergraduate teaching at Harvard.
What I Like to Read
I like big stories about people who turn out to be exceptional when tested by the extraordinary. It’s why I like epics, and it’s why I like Shakespeare. It’s also why I have little patience with small, gray stories about people with small, gray souls. They’re – well – small and gray.
All Time Favorites:
Lord of the Rings; Lonesome Dove; Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series; The Shadow of the Wind; Possession; Laxdaela saga; Le Morte D’Arthur; Middlemarch; anything by Isak Dinesen; anything by Jane Austen; Great Expectations; To Kill a Mockingbird; the entire Outlander series.
Favorite Historical Fiction:
Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles; Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series; A.S. Byatt’s historical novels; anything by Lisa See, Sarah Dunant, and Geraldine Brooks.
Favorite Thrillers & Mysteries:
Phil Rickman and Arturo Pérez-Reverte… they both rock! Jacqueline Winspear, Rebecca Cantrell, Charles Todd, Louis Bayard, and Diana Gabaldon are fabulous historical mystery writers. My favorite classic detective fiction writer is Dorothy Sayers; I still have a crush on Lord Peter. Mysteries that are usually classed as “Literature”: Bleak House, The Moonstone, Hamlet
The Oz series; the Narnia series; A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels; The Borrowers, ditto; Gone Away Lake; My Side of the Mountain; From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; Harriet the Spy; the Secret Garden; Half Magic and its sequels; anything by E. Nesbit or Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Advice to Writers
I’m often asked for advice on how to become a writer. The answer is to write. No matter what corner of the writing world you think of as home, try your hand at every genre you can think of: fiction, poetry, history, plays and screenplays, songs, ad-copy, jokes, book blurbs, film trailers, nursery rhymes, news journalism, criticism, op-eds, essays, video games, websites, and technical or ‘how-to’ writing. There is something to be learned from all of them.
As for classes: I took one fiction-writing class, in college, and hated it. I was told to write what I knew. At 18, I knew precisely two truths: 1) I didn’t know anything, and 2) if Tolkien, Shakespeare, and my favorite writers of the Arthurian legend – Malory, Tennyson, T.H. White, and Mary Stewart – had only written “what they knew,” the world would be an immeasurably poorer place.
The best writing teachers are your favorite authors. Read, and hard as it may be, not for pleasure alone. Read your favorite books, and try to figure out what makes them work. How do their authors construct their plots? Their chapters? Their paragraphs? Their sentences? How do they use words and silences to create mood, convey emotion, transmit information?
Finally, learn the tools of your trade:
- Devour words and make them your own. Learn their shades of meaning as well as their history. Learn the music of language: the rhythms of prose and poetry.
- Learn the ins and outs of Word or Final Cut, or whatever the standard program may be in your chosen genre. Learn how to type quickly and cleanly. One of the most useful courses I have ever taken remains the typing class I took in high school.
- Learn the world of story. Even if you want to write history, learn the world’s major mythologies and fairy tales. Keep abreast of pop culture and urban legend.
- Likewise, even if you want to write the wildest science fiction or fantasy, learn history: what real people have done, and why. Go deep into whatever pleases you, but go broad, too. Know something about our world and the people in it, past and present. Be aware of current events in your town, region, country, planet: the lived stories unfolding around you.
- Notice the world around you: the buildings, landscapes, plants and animals, the quality of light, the rhythms of time. Practice translating all the senses into words: not just sight, but sound, scent, touch, and taste, too.
- Finally, people-watching is your business. Listen to the people around you: absorb their intonations, accents, vocabulary, their patterns of thought and rhythms of feeling. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, clothes, movement, all kinds of quirks and habits.
- You are a carpenter, and all these things are your hammer, your nails, and your lumber.
As for what to do with all this: give yourself space to daydream. Squash the inner critic, turn the outside world to mute, and let your mind have free-play over an idea or an intriguing set of observations. It may look like you’re not doing anything, but those hours can be some of the most productive in a writer’s career.
But don’t wait till you’ve done all this to begin, or you never will. Like I said at the beginning, if you want to write, get on with it: pick up a pen or fire up the computer. Write.