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Jennifer Donnelly, novelist from Lewis County, hits big time with Disney series

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Jennifer Donnelly’s young-adult novels have taken readers to the Adirondacks of the early 20th century and through the mazelike catacombs beneath Paris.

Ms. Donnelly — whether explaining how to make switchel easier to drink in “A Northern Light” or relaying the horrors of the French Revolution in “Revolution” — has earned a reputation as a meticulous researcher who often travels to the environs she writes about.

That posed a significant challenge for her new project, “The Waterfire Saga,” an epic YA series that ventures into an undersea world of merpeople descended from the inhabitants of Atlantis, the mythical lost island that is considered the perfect civilization.

“It seems different and it is, but in so many ways it’s similar,” Ms. Donnelly said in a recent telephone interview.

The former Watertown Daily Times reporter — a former Lewis County resident who now lives in the Hudson Valley — added, “Even though these mermaids are exotic magical beings they are still recognizable to us because they are teenagers. They hope and dream and love, just as we do. They feel joy, sorrow and pain. They are struggling with identity — first love in one case — and with finding their own place in the world.”

“The Waterfire Saga,” a four-book series from Disney Publishing Worldwide, is the story of six mermaids who set out to save their world. The first book, “Deep Blue,” goes on sale May 6.

“I adore these characters. I adore writing about the ocean. And, as it turns out, I adore writing about fantasy,” said Ms. Donnelly, whose five previous novels have all been historical fiction.

“Deep Blue” opens with Serafina, a mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, awakening on the morning of her wedding from a strange dream that foretells the return of an ancient evil. Her dark premonitions are confirmed when an assassin’s arrow poisons her mother. Led by shadowy visions, Serafina searches for five other mermaids who are scattered across global waters. Together, the six form an unbreakable bond and uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world’s existence.

These mermaids aren’t the red-haired Ariel of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” of which Ms. Donnelly and her 10-year-old daughter are fans (her daughter dressed as Ariel for three consecutive Halloweens, Ms. Donnelly said).

“The Waterfire Saga” is very different in tone and age appeal. “It has a darkness and urgency to it,” she said.

Ms. Donnelly has completed the second book, “Rogue Wave,” which is to be released in January, and has started on book three, which comes out in fall 2015. The final book arrives in summer 2016.

“I pretty much know where I’m going as far as the plot goes. What I don’t know is what sort of twists and turns each character will take, because they develop minds of their own and wills of their own apart from you — and what other sorts of magical creatures and environments come into it,” Ms. Donnelly said. “That’s one of the joys of creating. These things come in as you go.”

DISNEY AND DONNELLY

Disney had been exploring the idea for several years of doing a multiplatform project based on the myths of mermaids.

“Editors, in-house artists and designers got together to figure out what we could do on this theme from a creative standpoint. The idea for the ‘Waterfire Saga’ blossomed from there,” said Suzanne Murphy, Disney Publishing vice-president and global books publisher.

The collaboration led to a “bible,” which presents a very elaborate and detailed history — it’s about 200 pages — for the world beneath the oceans, profiled main characters and included information about their cultures and lifestyles, the story arc and images of the merpeople.

“The Waterfire Saga” will be supported by a range of content and promotional partnerships. These include an original song, “Open Your Eyes,” video content in an enhanced e-book edition and a simultaneous audio book release read by Bea Miller, a finalist on TV reality competition “The X Factor.” Graphic novels and comics are planned, and an illustrated gift book is due for fall 2015.

The series also will be published in the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain, with additional foreign markets to be announced.

Ms. Donnelly also will embark on a national tour in the spring.

“The thing that really struck me and the reason I fell in love with the project was that their mermaids were drawn very much from sea creatures and sea life,” Ms. Donnelly said. “They were very organic-looking creatures, not the traditional mermaid that’s sitting on a rock wearing a clam-shell bikini top.”

The creatures, Ms. Donnelly said, took on the characteristics of ocean life. One had the spiky, flared fins of a lion fish. Another had the body of a manta ray mixed with human attributes.

“I thought this was so new and so fresh and so beautiful that I wanted to get involved with it,” Ms. Donnelly said.

Disney established that the merpeople had descended from the people of Atlantis after the island was destroyed. Ms. Donnelly was then able to create the backstory of their kingdom, adding history and mythology. She kept some characters and invented others.

“It is very much a fantasy in a magical universe, but it’s not as if everything goes,” she said. “I soon realized that though a fantasy world is very different from the real world, it’s still governed by rules and logic. It’s just up to the writer to figure out what they are and set them down.”

And that, she said, is where her researcher’s skill and historian’s eye helped her transition from writing historical novels to fantasy.

The author explored ocean environments and the sea — “no trips to Atlantis, but a lot of reading on what Atlantis might have been, where it might have been and if it existed,” she said.

“You envision your own world, and obviously the sea has to look like the sea. And it has to be an environment we all understand,” she said. “As readers we all bring a common perception to what an ocean is, and we have to play by those rules. But the rest of it, I could just run with it.”

Ms. Murphy said the creative team was led to Ms. Donnelly because of enthusiasm for her previous YA novels, “A Northern Light,” which won Britain’s Carnegie Medal in 2003 and a Printz Honor, and “Revolution,” which was selected as one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year in 2010 and won the Indies Choice Book Award in 2011, among other honors.

Ms. Murphy, like many of those developing the series, was a fan of Ms. Donnelly’s work. She reached out to the author through her agent, Steven Malk.

Ms. Donnelly’s historical novels, Ms. Murphy said, “are so rich in terms of place and history, and she really gets character on top of that. She was perfect for the project.”

The timing was serendipitous for Ms. Donnelly, who was looking for a new project but not finding ideas, “which is a very scary thing for a writer,” she said.

COMPELLED BY THE SEA

Ms. Donnelly was “casting around for inspiration” at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a retrospective of the work of late fashion designer Alexander McQueen was on view. She said she was “spellbound” by the exhibition, “Savage Beauty.”

“It was one of the most gorgeous, dark, moving art exhibitions I’d ever seen,” she said. “Every collection was presented in this sort of jewel box of a room. The architecture in the exhibit itself was amazing. There were soundtracks. So you might hear the sound of the wind whistling, or wolves crying or waves lapping.

“It was just very, very moving and very crowded, as you were in these kind of restricted spaces with hundreds of other New Yorkers,” Ms. Donnelly recalled. “You think New Yorkers are noisy and they’d be commenting and talking, but you could’ve heard a pin drop, they were so in awe.”

In the final gallery were clothes from two collections — “Plato’s Atlantis” and “Shipwreck” — featured among ocean sounds in a darkened room. Overhead, a giant video screen showed a model falling through water in one of McQueen’s gowns.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘Who is she supposed to be?’” Ms. Donnelly said. “I just had all this — as I do when a story starts — this emotion churning up inside me.”

On the train back home — “still in a total daze,” Ms. Donnelly said — she knew that she would write something about the sea.

“I didn’t know what I would write, who the characters were, anything like this. But I felt this compulsion to write about the sea and these creatures,” Ms. Donnelly said.

The answers arrived when Ms. Donnelly got home and her husband told her to call her agent. Mr. Malk, the agent, said Disney had a project involving the sea and mermaids and “They want you to do it.”

“It was unexpected and strange the way it came about,” Ms. Donnelly said, acknowledging the unusual nature of how she came to the project. Disney, she said, “approached me for what they thought I could bring to this story and very much encouraged me to make it my own.”

Soon after meeting with Disney, Ms. Donnelly received the “bible,” which gave her the backbone of the saga.

“From there I could put some more bones on it, more flesh,” she said, embellishing, inventing and building worlds as she devised the how and why of the main story. She created villains and their motivations, and had to “excavate the struggles and doubts that the heroines were hiding.”

Ms. Donnelly also needed to come up with the mythology, explaining how the merpeople — and their magic — came to be.

“Those tasks were all on me,” she said. “I feel a very strong sense of ownership.”

The process was aided by the ability to collaborate with Disney’s graphic artists. They helped Ms. Donnelly complete the look of characters and underwater realms.

“I was thrilled every time an art file popped up in my inbox, and the day I first saw the trailer for the series I nearly bounced out of the room,” Ms. Donnelly said. “To have visual and musical aspects like these enhancing something I’ve written is completely new for me and tremendously inspiring.”

Ms. Donnelly began working on the first book during the summer of 2011. For two years she couldn’t tell a soul, though an occasional Facebook post or note on her website would tease that she was working on something big and exciting — but never revealing even the smallest detail.

“It killed me to keep it secret, because I love the project and just wanted to crow about it,” Ms. Donnelly said. “And I had to keep quiet and be a good, quiet, diligent worker.”

In times of doubt, she looked to Mr. Malk.

“My poor agent. I’m always acknowledging my doubts to him. About everything. Every book I’ve ever written, every book I’m thinking of writing. It’s my nature, and the nature of creating, I think,” Ms. Donnelly said. “Writers are plagued by self-doubt. That blank page can be very intimidating.

“I went back and forth with my agent, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ And he said, ‘You can do this. You can do this.’ And it’s just been wonderful.”

About Jennifer Donnelly
A Westchester County native, Jennifer Donnelly moved with her parents, T. Matthew and Wilfriede A. Donnelly, and siblings to Port Leyden in southern Lewis County in the 1970s. Her mother still resides in Port Leyden.
The Donnelly family had roots in the region, with ancestors who helped build the Black River Canal and farmed the Tug Hill Plateau.
She attended Port Leyden Elementary School and South Lewis Central School in Turin. After a year of junior high, Ms. Donnelly and her family returned to Westchester County.
A graduate of the University of Rochester, Ms. Donnelly began her writing career in 1987 when she was hired as a reporter by the Watertown Daily Times, where she worked through 1988. She wrote under the byline Jennifer Bailey.
Ms. Donnelly made several appearances throughout the north country in 2006 to speak about “A Northern Light” as part of the North Country Reads community reading project.
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