Meet Jennifer Hubbard, novelist and playwright
By Katie Scarvey
Jennifer Hubbard took a leap of faith a few years ago when she quit her job teaching English to concentrate on writing full time — which was what she’d often imagined herself doing when she was a “bookish child” growing up in Salisbury.
She credits her “sweet, sweet husband,” Steve Cobb, for giving her the go-ahead.
“I’d taught for 17 years and was pretty tired of grading bad essays,” says Hubbard, who is in the process of moving from Asheville back to Charlotte with her husband.
That she made a good call is becoming increasingly evident.
This month, Hubbard not only has a play being performed by the St.Thomas Players, “Pinocchio’s Sister,” but she also has her first book coming out, a young adult novel published by Random House.
Hubbard’s pen name is “Jenny Hubbard,” chosen in order to distinguish her from another young adult novelist by the name of Jennifer Hubbard and — what are the odds? — another playwright named Jennifer Hubbard.
Although Hubbard may have grown weary of the bad essays, teaching at a private boarding school in Virginia, Woodberry Forest, helped inspire her to write “Paper Covers Rock,” which is set at a boarding school and has been compared to “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles.
“Paper Covers Rock”is getting great reviews, including starred reviews from “Publishers Weekly,” “School Library Journal” and “Hornbook.”
Oh, and there’s a blurb from some writer she met at a book signing, who called the novel one of the best young adult books he’s read in years. That writer’s name? Pat Conroy.
“Paper Covers Rock” is about the death of a 17-year-old student named Thomas. The story, Hubbard says, is born out of guilt.
“The narrator is tangentially involved in an accident that results in a death. The book is essentially his journal that tells the story of his coming to terms with it.”
Alex’s young English teacher begins to suspect there’s more to the story of the drowning than he’s letting on.
“While he tries to cover up the truth, she tries to draw it out of him,” Jennifer says, adding that the book deals with questions of honor, truth and loyalty.
If anybody has the background to write such a book, it’s Hubbard. She not only taught at Woodberry Forest, she was a dorm parent there, giving her a rare glimpse of boarding school life.
Hubbard notes that she was one of very few females teaching at the all boys’ school — making her a minority for the first time in her life at this “bastion of southern male conservatism.”
Although she was teaching at Woodberry from 1995-2005, Hubbard discovered that outdated views of women still existed, not just among the students but within the “old guard” faculty as well. That served, she says, to toughen her up.
Hubbard speaks of her former students with great affection. While teaching a poetry course, she was stunned, she says, by the poetry the boys were capable of.
“I hadn’t known that they had these observations that were so fresh and real and true,” she says. “You feel like you’re witness to some beautiful little piece of their soul, and it was so special to me, and I was so honored…”
Outside of the classroom, however, Hubbard sometimes felt she was in over her head. Boys would sometimes seek her out to confide in her, and so she became a sounding board for some of the “more fragile boys,” she says. Being put in that position prompted her to push for the school to hire a full-time counselor — although it never happened while she was there.
Hubbard speaks eloquently of the allure and mystery of the boarding school environment, how it’s a self-contained microcosm with its own government, its own code and even its own sense of humor. As she talks, it becomes clear why she was drawn to the environment as a setting for a novel that explores some deep questions.
If you’re wondering, Hubbard attended public schools in Salisbury — Knox Middle School and Salisbury High School.
She had mostly a Norman Rockwell childhood, she says. One of her earliest memories is of her mother taking her to the Rowan Public Library. She went for a visit recently and was surprised to find herself thumbing through the same books she’d checked out 35 years ago.
She ate up stories at the library, but family stories also had an effect on her as a writer, she says.
“My dad had 10 brothers and sisters, most of whom lived in Salisbury,” Hubbard says. On Sundays, she says, “we’d go visit my grandmother and sit around and listen to my aunts and uncles tell stories.”
She credits her interest in drama to her mother, Jayne, who would take her and her sisters, Sally and Leigh, to Piedmont Players productions.
“I thought the people in those plays were superstars,” she says. “I’d see them at the grocery store and my jaw would fall open.”
She began acting in those plays at 13 — her first role was “Brigitta” in “the Sound of Music,” in which Patsy Parnell played Maria. She’s continued to win roles, and local audiences will remember her brilliant turn as a bereaved mother in St. Thomas Players’ “Rabbit Hole” last year.
At Salisbury High School, she recalls having “the notoriously difficult” John Brown for Advanced Placement English. After finishing two years with him, she says she swore she’d never take another English class as long as she lived.
She ended up going to Meredith College and James Madison University, where she did, in fact, take some more English classes and continued acting.
She taught at Catawba College for a while, but it wasn’t until she began teaching at Woodberry Forest that she began to write plays — and that was out of necessity she says. Finding plays accessible to teenage boys — plays that they actually want to be in — is difficult, she says, so she wrote one herself and collaborated on another with several students.
She’s looking forward to seeing her play “Pinocchio’s Sister” take life on the stage. It’s being directed by her dear friend Claudia Galup, who has “championed this play from the get-go,” Hubbard says.
The idea for the play came from a story she’d heard from the Clyde formerly known as Clyde Overcash. She can’t remember all the details about the story, but one image stuck with her: a bunch of women sitting around a kitchen table smoking during a cancer benefit held in a historic Salisbury home.
That scene as she imagined it tickled her and became the seed for the play — although ironically, that scene ended up being cut.
“Pinocchio’s Sister” is about a 40-year-old single woman named Dodd. When she was 13, her younger brother, obsessed by the story of Pinocchio that Dodd used to read him, “accidentally” hanged himself acting out the story. (Hubbard notes that in the classic Italian version of the story, Pinocchio is hanged. “I don’t think that makes it into the Disney version,” Hubbard notes wryly.)
Since Dodd was responsible for her brother at the time of the accident, she has carried around a lot of guilt for many years.
When her best friend dies of cancer and leaves her son to Dodd to take care of, Dodd is forced to confront old demons and come to terms with her past.
Although the play might sound dark, Hubbard stresses that there’s humor in it, as well as a message of hope.
Hubbard has dedicated the play to the late Lou Murphy.
“Lou was a champion for anyone in the arts in Salisbury,” Hubbard says. “She was always telling us, ‘You can do it if you put your mind to it.’”
Hubbard has a two-book deal with Random House and is currently working on her second young adult novel, “Exit, Little Sister.” It’s told from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl whose brother attempted to commit a school shooting. Although he goes to school with a gun and threatens his ex-girlfriend, he ends up killing himself.
Hubbard is relieved to have the first draft written so she can move on to the part of the process she most enjoys: rewriting.
Hubbard says while she doesn’t consider herself a good writer, “I’m an excellent rewriter.”
She’s gotten into somewhat of a routine since writing is now her day job. “It used to be that the lure of dirty laundry or a dirty bathtub would draw me away, but now I’ve disciplined myself,” she says. “Writing is something I have to do, like exercise.”
Still, she finds time to serve as the writer-in-residence for Center for Faith & the Arts as well as volunteer as literacy tutor and audition for plays that strike her fancy.
She’s just been cast in the regional premiere of the Pulitzer-Prize winning play “August: Osage County” (by Tracy Letts), which will be produced in Charlotte by C.A.S.T. (Carolina Actors Studio Theatre). That will open Aug. 25.
She auditioned for that one because she liked the script. Being in plays helps her to become a better playwright, she says, because it allows her to study a script she likes “from the inside out.”
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“Pinocchio’s Sister,” a St. Thomas Players production sponsored by Elizabeth “Betsy” Rich and Martha West, will be performed June 15-18 and June 22-25 at 7:30 p.m.in the Florence Busby Corriher Theater at Catawba College.
Tickets are $10 (students $5 with ID) general seating. June 15 is half-price night at the door.
Hubbard is planning a “talk back” night on Wednesday, June 22, which will allow the audience to discuss the play with her.
Call Center for Faith & the Arts at 704-647-0999 for more information.
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Hubbard will be at the Literary Book Post 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 21, for a reception and book signing. “Paper Covers Rock” should be available around June 14, says Book Post owner Deal Safrit.