Jennifer Bort Yacovissi grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, just a bit farther up the hill from Washington, D.C. Her debut novel,
Up the Hill to Home, is a fictionalized account of her mother's family in Washington from the Civil War to the Great Depression. In addition to writing and reading historical and contemporary literary fiction, Jenny is a reviewer for
Washington Independent Review of Books and the Historical Novel Society. She owns a small project management and engineering consulting firm, and enjoys gardening and being on the water. Jenny lives with her husband Jim in Crownsville, Maryland.
1. How did you get the idea to write Up the Hill to Home?
I first read my grandmother Lillieís diary when I was about 12 or 13 years old, and was smitten with its lovely, natural story arc. It took me more than 30 years to get serious about writing the whole story, at which point I found that I had far more source material than I ever imagined.
How did you do the research to get the historical details accurate?
Iím lucky to live just outside of Washington, D.C., where the story takes place, and have easy access to amazing resources like the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Public Libraryís Washingtoniana Division at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. Of course, the letters and diaries my family had were invaluable, and I now own stacks of books about D.C. during the time period in which the book is set.
Did you do all your research ahead of time?
At first I thought I should, to make sure I was getting details right, but quickly realized that I needed the story to direct the path of my research, not the other way around. I knew the setting and the time periods I was working with, and that was enough to get me started.
is a novel, but itís based on your motherís family. How much of the book is true?
Iíve joked with my mother that I need to write a ďFact or Fiction?Ē primer for the family to clarify whatís true, whatís essentially true, and whatís complete fabrication. Itís probably easier to highlight the complete fabrication, which Iíd say is about 20% of the book. Much of the rest of the book is based on a kernel of truth, or at least of family legend.
What was the biggest surprise that you uncovered about your family as you did the research?
I found a treasure trove of information in a very thick file in the National Archives that held all the records of my great-great-grandmother Mary Millerís application for a pension. One of many surprises it held was that my great-grandmother Emma held a patent for a small roller press that she invented because of her job at the General Post Office. The other was the answer to an enduring mystery: In a few of my great-great-grandfather Christianís war-time letters, one or two sentences had been carefully cut out, and we always wondered why that was. I found those excised sentences pasted into Maryís pension application, because she had to prove that Christian had died from a disease or chronic condition he had picked up during his military service, and she used his own words to make her case.
What is your writing process like? Do you outline heavily, write in order, or take a more free-form approach?
If I were writing a story that I was less familiar with, I think I would want to lay it out more in advance. In the case of Up the Hill to Home, I had a very good idea of the story I wanted to tell, though not necessarily the order in which I might tell it. I knew the beginning and the end, and I knew that I wanted to use one week in time as the framing device for the story. The book itself is episodic, which allowed me to write individual sections in no particular order. If I was stuck on one section, I could always move to another. In many cases, I felt as though the story revealed itself to me and I just put it on paper. It wasnít until I had the full story written down that I decided out how to organize and present it. I finally read it from beginning to end at almost the same time my beta readers did.
What about editing? Do you edit as you go, leave that until the end, or a mixture? How do you approach editing your own work?
When Iím writing, Iím trying to capture exactly the right word, and sometimes Iíll work on a sentence until I finally hear what that word is. Most often, though, my philosophy is, ďLet the ideas percolate, let the writing marinate.Ē I usually let the ideas about a chapter or scene bounce around in the back of my head for a whileódays, maybe weeksóbefore writing them down for the first time. Thatís most often when I feel that the story is writing itself. But then I try to leave the writing alone for at least a few days, and preferably quite a bit longer before going back to read it again. I almost need to forget what Iíve written in order to hear what it actually sounds like when I go back to it. Iím a good editor of my own writing, but I absolutely needed my editor and beta readers to give me unapologetic feedback on what didnít work. Finally, reading aloud is not only the best way to find bad writing, itís also a great way to find mistakes.
What is your writing space like?
In warm weather, I love to take my laptop outside and sit on a bench or at the picnic table to write, because sitting inside on a nice day makes me stir-crazy. But my primary writing space is a table between my living room and dining room, which, along with the kitchen, is one large open space. I keep my reference books there, and it gives me enough space to spread out without taking over the dining room table. My husband and I have a relatively small house, and he likes to have the TV set on, so when Iím writing at my desk, I tend to wear earplugs so that I can concentrate. So heís taken to drawing little sketches of me, stick figures that are always wearing earplugs!
Which authors do you hope to be compared to?
Stylistically, Iíd love to be compared to E. Annie Proulx or Ann Patchett. Their facility with language is practically magical. For this particular story, Iíd love for it to remind readers of Alice McDermottís novels, with their deceptively simple plots and quiet stories that convey beauty and heartbreak in the simplest things.
What books do you remember most vividly from your middle school years?
My favorite book for many years was The Once and Future King by T. H. White. Others were How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and the ultimate ďevergreenĒ novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
What books have you read recently that have made a big impression on you?
Perhaps the closest thing to a perfect novel Iíve ever read is A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, especially for the fact that it is his debut novel. His mastery of both prose and plotting is a revelation, and each character, no matter how minor, seems like a fully realized human being.
Whatís the next project that youíre undertaking?
Iím beginning to research the 1867 Sully/Parker expedition to negotiate treaties with various Native American tribes, which is mentioned briefly in 4. Up the Hill to Home to see where that might lead me. It will be challenging because itís not a story I know yet, but Iím looking forward to discovering it.