Into the Fray: Hearing VOICES with David Elliott
Updated: Mar 20, 2019
David Elliott's newest book for young adults is Joan of Arc as you've never seen her before. Just in time for Women's History Month, Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc is a novel in verse intent on representing Joan as she was: not the saint, but the driven and divinely inspired human being.
I was lucky enough to work with David during my time at Lesley, where he's a faculty mentor in the Writing For Young People creative writing program. His ability to write across genre and for readers of all ages is well-known by anyone who's picked up one of his picture books (On The Wing, Baabwaa and Wooliam, The Two Tims, just to name a few), early chapter books (The Cool Crazy Crickets Club), middle grade novels (Jeremy Cabbage) or his other young adult novel in verse, Bull (not to mention its many starred reviews).
Grace and I couldn't wait to get our hands on Voices, which goes on sale next week (March 26th). We chatted with David over the phone about the complexities of working with historical facts and figures, writing a novel in verse for the teen crowd, and his time spent getting to know the real Jeanne D'Arc.
Gaby Brabazon: Thanks for your time tonight, David! First of all: What made you want to write for teens about Joan of Arc?
David Elliott: After the success of Bull, I decided to do another novel in verse. I planned to do a retelling of my favorite fairytale. I was maybe 25 pages in when I woke up one night and — I’m not sure how to explain it, but I saw Joan of Arc’s name, right in front of me.
GB: A vision.
DE: Kind of! I try to pay attention to what the unconscious is telling me, so I began to read about Joan of Arc. Immediately I saw the timelessness of her story, but also the timeliness of her story. I called my agent and said I wanted to put aside the fairytale and instead would write a novel in verse about Joan of Arc.
GB: What made you decide to write this book for young adults? Is there something you wanted to say to teen readers, specifically, about Joan?
DE: I never know that kind of thing when I start out. I was just trying to write the book. Once I understood that one of the primary reasons she was executed was because she wore men’s clothes, I understood the resonance that would have in 2019. As I began to read more about her — she said she saw saints when she was thirteen, she heard voices throughout her life — I thought about how those claims would be heard today. It’s likely we would diagnose her, medicate her, hospitalize her. But it’s not as if she thought she was the messiah; it was so consistent, and in every other part of her life she was completely lucid and intelligent, thoughtful. It made me wonder, who was she? That became my guiding principle while writing. I was trying to find out for myself who she was; not the saint, but the girl. After finishing the book, I still have the same questions about her.
GB: What are those questions?
DE: I wonder: Are there other Joans out there, sitting in a hospital, because of our inability to see a larger world? Of course, there are many horrible mental illnesses and I’m very sympathetic to those who have been touched by that kind of hardship, but I still wonder if some of those are misdiagnoses. What are we missing by instantly labeling people? I still don’t know the answer to that question.
For the past six hundred years, every generation has projected something onto that young woman. She’s a hero, she’s a saint…During WWII, the Nazis used Joan [as a symbol of anti-British propaganda]. The Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States used her, too; it wasn’t a good suffrage parade unless Joan was there leading it. She’s even made an appearance in the #MeToo movement.
It made me feel lonely, a deep sadness. No person can live up under the weight of so much projection. It made me want to think about the human being. Not the saint, not the hero, not the feminist, not any of that, just the 17-year-old girl and what she might have been thinking and feeling. I wanted to project as little of our cultural baggage onto her as possible, and that’s when I realized I needed to let her speak for herself. I felt honor-bound to let her speak for herself as much as I could in the book.
GB: I thought the selections taken directly from the trial transcripts were so powerful, and the tie to reality really balanced the verse. You utilized so many different forms, depending on the character speaking. How did you draft those, particularly the concrete poetry?
DE: I love my editor so much. She gets me, she gives me freedom. We drove the designer crazy with the concrete poems. It wasn’t easy what I was asking, and it wasn’t easy what she accomplished.
As for drafting, I don’t have the technology. I fiddled with the line breaks afterwards with the designer.
Grace McKinney: In the choice with the different poetic forms, are there any you ended up falling in love with? Struggling with? How did you end your relationship with these poetic forms?
DE: I would not consider myself a poet. The poets I know have dedicated their lives to that art. I have a good ear for the way language should sound, but I’d never written in any of those forms before. There were some I’d never even heard of.
The saints in particular presented a challenge. I don’t know what Joan saw, and I don’t know what she heard. The human imagination is so small, we can only imagine what we already know. We can be creative in combining known elements, but we can’t exactly create something whole-cloth. In Joan’s time, the voices she heard could have only been saints because that’s what she knew. Today we might hear those same voices differently. It didn’t feel right for me to say definitively one way or another, but she believed she heard saints.
In the book, each saint speaks in a form called a balláde, which has a repeating line. The repeated line showed their point of view: For Saint Michael that repeated line is, “What does it matter?” For Saint Catherine, “Saints are only human.” For Saint Margaret, “Put your faith in fire.”
I liked writing those poems. I had a different ending for the book initially, where Joan is speaking as a saint using that form as well. Her repeated line was, “I do not burn; I freeze.” It might have been too abstract. It wasn’t the right ending, but I’m going to try and read it at every reading I have because I still love it.
GB: On this side of the process, with the book due to come out this month and with reviews already trickling in, what do you anticipate teens will take away from this story?
I’ve read a couple positive reviews written by teens already. I know the book isn’t for everybody, and I think that’s fine. We can’t control what goes in and how it’s then interpreted. Whatever we may think of Joan, she stayed true to who she was. I hope whoever reads the book will think about their own lives.
And I hope boys read the book! They need to hear that when a girl comes into their lives, especially a girl who may be more capable than they are, or stronger, the "manly" thing to do is get out of the way.
GB: When you were coming up with the main arc of the story, was it a conscious decision to leave Catholic touchstones out? I know that was a large part of a young woman in France at the time but also, of course, for Joan in particular.
DE: There are so many stories about her. People say she raised a child from the dead long enough for that child to be baptized. They say when she died, a dove flew out of the flame. There are so many stories all throughout the mythology around this figure, but I deliberately left them out. I was only interested in Joan, the person, and I didn’t want to muddy the water.
GM: I find Joan a compelling figure because all her stories are so radical. She said, “This is what God is asking me to do.” Since that didn’t seem to be what your Joan is saying, I was looking for her motivation. I revisited the Saint Michael poem a few times. “What does it matter?” What does it matter?
DE: To me what he’s saying is, “You say I’m a saint, but are there such things?” As if he’s hinting that, “Your imagination is so small you can only imagine me in this way, but maybe I’m something else.”
But specifically, in Joan’s case: “She did what she came to do, so does it matter what I am?”
GB: I’m interested to hear from young readers who take the time to consider what would drive them to sacrifice so much for a cause.
DE: According to Katherine Harrison, one of Joan’s biographers, women in the Middle Ages could be a wife and mother, a nun, or a prostitute. Joan is reckoning with this when she says, “They would rather I had been a prostitute” than what I really am.
GB: And yet it seems like everything is seducing her: from the very beginning of the book, the fire is literally calling to her. There’s such a tension between the emphasis on her virginity and the seduction of her fate, which I felt really did establish the struggle of being a woman at that time: really, none of these options are good.
DE: Exactly. Her virginity was incredibly important to her. She slept in armor to protect herself. The first thing Saint Michael says to her is “be good.” She vowed to remain a virgin. So what would be her undoing? I knew I wanted the fire in there from the beginning. It all seemed so fated, in a way.
GB: How did your experience writing Voices compare to writing Bull? The tones are so different.
DE: It really was so different. It was very challenging. All my life people have told me I was funny. I read somewhere that in order to be funny you have to have been sufficiently humiliated: No problem. (Thanks, Dad). It isn’t that Bull was easy, but that kind of humor is my go-to place. There’s no depth that I would not stoop to, anything for a laugh. I think it’s one of the things people like about that book. It’s shocking what Poseidon will say! But there’s nothing funny about Joan of Arc. For that reason, it was much more uncomfortable to write and very difficult. When I wanted to avoid something or protect myself through humor, I wasn’t able to do it. Whether the book is successful or not, it put me in a new place as a writer. Which is a good thing.
I also found I was hesitant to take on her voice. It was uncomfortable to me, for the reasons I mentioned. I felt like I wanted to protect her, or honor her. Sort of duty-bound to tell her story truly.
GM: Did you ever want to say, “Forget it, I’m just doing prose!”?
DE: I’m not a student of history, I’m not so interested in facts and dates. I think if I were, I would have written the book in prose. I wasn’t very interested in the expository material — and it’s a hundred years war, so there’s a lot of it. I decided to keep with her life and leave dates behind.
GB: What are you working on next?
DE: I have another novel in verse I’ve just started.
GB: Can you share anything about it, or is it under wraps?
DE: I’m going back to that fairytale I mentioned. I love my editor because she lets me do insane things… so, I’ll just say, it’s not normal. In the meantime, I have another picture book coming out [in the Candlewick poetry series, which includes Cosmic favorite On the Wing]. The next one is In the Woods.
PreorderVoices now, or pick it up from your favorite bookseller after it hits the shelves on March 26th. You can keep up with Elliott's books via his website.