Author’s ‘dad with AIDS’ novel based on real life

Local Life May 23, 2013 2 Comments

Mt. Airyite Cordelia Jensen’s Young Adult novel “Skyscraping” tells the story of 17-year-old Lia, who learns that her father is gay and dying of AIDS. Cordelia’s own life story is similar. She is seen here during the Mt. Airy Kids’ Literary Festival last Sunday at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane. (Photo by Louise Wright)

by Louise E. Wright

“When I turned 17, dad took me on a walk,” Cordelia Jensen’s award-winning poem “Caught in Evolution” begins. “He was slow, five months from dying.”

The poem offers a taste — but only a taste — of Jensen’s Young Adult novel “Skyscraping.” Written in verse, “Skyscraping” tells the story of 17-year-old Lia who learns that her father is gay and dying of AIDS. Jensen avoids going into greater detail. Having yet to begin revising the novel, slated for publication by Philomel/Penguin in winter 2015, the Mt. Airy resident cautions, “It will change.”

Jensen based “Skyscraping” on her own experiences. She was in 9th grade when she discovered that her father, whom she describes as “bisexual,” had contracted the disease. “I had been hearing my dad on the phone with all these doctors,” she remembers, “so I asked my therapist. She said, ‘Don’t you know? He’s HIV-positive.’”

Unlike the father in “Skyscraping,” which takes place in just one year, Jensen’s dad was ill for several years. “It’s hard to live with that kind of sickness for so long,” she observes, referring not just to her father but also to her family. “I escaped through my friends” — all of whom knew about her situation — “and just doing the regular things teenagers do.”

Jensen chose to tell the story in verse because, she says, it “started out in poems; that’s how it was in memoir.” Ultimately she decided against memoir in favor of fiction. “I wanted to be able to make craft choices, change characters, tell a good story,” she explains. “There’s a lot that’s made up.”

Jensen describes writing the novel as “healing.” Working in fiction rather than memoir enabled her to explore — even to experience — alternative realities. She sums up the process with a question: “It didn’t happen this way, but what if it did?” As an example she relates that, while her dad’s sickness prevented him from attending her high school graduation, in “Skyscraping” Lia’s father, although ill, comes to hers.

The passage of time also provided Jensen with the distance needed to write the novel. “It was easier to tell the story when I knew what the world was about,” she explains. The title alludes to the novel’s Manhattan setting. “There are no stars in New York City,” Jensen points out, but the book contains a lot of “celestial imagery.” In addition, she believes the word “skyscraping” suggests “a little bit of violence, a hurt feeling.”

As a work of fiction, “Skyscraping” dates to January 2011, the start of Jensen’s second semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, from which she earned an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults. One of her teachers encouraged her (“Your poems are really strong”) and suggested the verse novel form.

Verse novels, Jensen notes, “are really popular with teens.” While some take the form of a continuous narrative, others, like “Skyscraping,” consist of a series of poems. Jensen considers the mixed genre — poetry in a form traditionally reserved for prose — appropriate to both her subject matter and her audience. Like many Young Adult novels, “Skyscraping” is a coming-of-age story, one in which, as Jensen points out, “Lia’s identity is shifting.” Additionally, the book’s intended readers are neither children nor adults; like the verse novel, they fall somewhere “in between.”

Because these novels tend to be short, Jensen had a complete manuscript when she finished her graduate work. On the strength of “Skyscraping,” Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc. agreed to represent her. The book sold in six months.

Jensen, 37, grew up in New York City. Interested in writing even “as a little girl,” she describes herself as “a dedicated diary writer for many years” and clearly recalls the date of her first entry: Nov. 7, 1987. She attended Kenyon College, where she majored in English with a concentration in creative writing, specifically poetry. Some of the verses in “Skyscraping” date back to this time.

After graduation, however, Jensen opted not to pursue writing as a career, deciding “to work with kids” instead. Having spent a semester abroad in Ghana, she realized, “I wanted to interact with the world more; I didn’t want to bury myself in books.” In addition, working at Longacre Leadership, a community-building summer camp in central Pennsylvania, convinced her, “I had a lot to give back to teens.” Jensen herself had attended the camp and describes her experiences as “grounding and helpful because of what was going on with my dad.”

In 2004, she earned an M.Ed. in counseling from Shippensburg University. She spent a year working for Harrisburg-based Adams-Hanover Counseling Services and continued on the staff at Longacre Leadership until 2008, when she moved to Philadelphia.

By then, Jensen was married and the mother of two-year-old twins, Lily and Tate. The difficulty of being a stay-at-home mom in rural Perry County contributed to the move. In addition, Jensen explains, “I wanted to raise my kids in a more diverse place, and I wanted to do something new.” Since Jensen’s husband hails from Baltimore, Philadelphia proved a logical choice, a mid-point between the two hometowns.

About this time, Jensen got back into writing. She took classes with Minter Krotzer at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore as well as one in writing for children at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree.

Recently, the author herself has turned to teaching. “I wanted to try working with kids again,” Jensen explains, so she founded Story Corners, a business which offers creative writing classes for children and teens. In addition, this summer Jensen will conduct a workshop at Musehouse entitled “Finishing Your Novel: Writing the Second Draft.”

In her LinkedIn profile, Jensen identifies herself not only as writer and teacher but also “bookseller.” Since February 2012, she has worked part-time at the Big Blue Marble. The title reflects her self-image as more than a sales associate or shop clerk. “It’s a harder job than people realize,” she points out. Among her responsibilities she includes “talking to people about books and finding the perfect book for that person.” Jensen also says she benefits from “seeing that side of publishing, what books come in, what gets published.” Along with Krotzer, she is writer-in-residence at the bookstore.

At least for the summer, Jensen will cut back on her bookselling duties in order to revise “Skyscraping,” a process that may well take up to a year.

You can find her at http://twitter.com/cordeliajensen. Those impatient for the novel can visit http://distraction99.com/2013/03/26/haunted-at-17-featured-story-1/

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  • Linda W

    I can’t wait to read this book. It sounds incredible!

  • Sandra Nickel

    SKYSCRAPING. A dad with aids. Celestial Imagery. Coming-of-Age. Healing. @cordeliajensen has such heart and talent.