Unionville teacher pens novels of redemption and restoration
Author Jodi Clark Byrne is an English teacher at Unionville High School. Byrne's first novel, “Dead Land,” was released in 2013.
By Richard L. Gaw
When Jodi Clark Byrne was a junior at West Chester East High School in the early 1980s, she had a nightmare that never left her.
In the dream, she was on the school's stage with her friends, and everyone was about to receive an award, when a massive explosion shook the auditorium and sent everything and everyone in a thousand different directions. The dream was a reflection of what the actual world could very well become in an age of nuclear armament – a stark, post-apocalyptic landscape reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Thirty years later, Byrne's nightmare still lingers in the ferociousness of its meaning and its power. The teenager who imagined it, now an English teacher and the married mother of two sons, began to write it all down.
In December 2013, “Dead Land,” by J.E. Byrne (TakeTwo Publishing), was released and became the first in a trilogy of novels whose second installment, "Hollow Land," will be published this December. It picks up where "Dead Land" left off. The last novel, "Promise Land," is currently being written, and is scheduled for a December 2015 release.
The trilogy, based loosely on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, represents the different stages of humanity – its initial fall, its redemption and, ultimately, its restoration. It is the story of 18-year-old Sarah Cain, who witnesses an explosion at 3:10 in the morning while attending a high school party. Forced to live in a world where there is no sun, no moon or stars, Sarah and other survivors set off to the find The Mountain, a mystical place that offers hope and redemption.
"Sarah is a combination of many people," said Byrne, who teaches 11th and 12th grade English at Unionville High School. "A part of her reflects some of the challenges I had in my coming-of-age years. She's a collaboration of many people I've met. Her voice is definitely more mature. As the world changes, the depths of her thoughts really prevail and exceed some of those norms. I see that in teens. They have a depth of thought that is much more advanced than they reveal."
Understanding the entire context of Byrne's writing journey is best done by looking at it chronologically. As a child, she loved being alone in her private world of imagined characters and invented adventures, and when she got to high school, her English teacher encouraged her students to begin a journal. For Byrne, the book became a landing spot for her creativity. When she was a journalism student at Shippensburg University, her professor was so impressed with the quality and depth of her writing that he encouraged her to change her major to English.
She began her professional career as a corporate trainer, writing manuals and training programs for computer companies. After starting a family, she began teaching English at Unionville High School 11 years ago. As part of her course development, she read numerous young adult novels, soaking in their styles, their character development and their plots. Four years ago, she was hit with an epiphany: She would write a novel of her own. It would be based on the nightmare, and it would incorporate classical and biblical allusions.
Over the course of the next three years -- in between teaching, grading papers and seeing her two sons off to college -- Byrne tucked herself away in her home office and wrote the first three chapters of a book that would later become "Dead Land." While her oldest son was home from college on a holiday break, she gave him the manuscript to read.
"He told me that he wanted to read more," Byrne said. "That was all the encouragement I needed to finish the book."
As she wrote the story of Sarah Cain, Byrne began to see the trajectory of her own life intersect with that of her main character. Like Sarah, Byrne didn't belong to any one particular clique in high school, yet longed to do so. Like Sarah, she unexpectedly lost her father. Like Sarah, she grieved over her loss and yet still managed to appear strong.
After "Dead Land" was published, one of her students came up to Byrne and told her, "Boy, you really nailed that whole teenager thing, Mrs. Byrne."
Readers of "Dead Land" have weighed in. "'Dead Land' is a nail-biting page turner," one wrote. "What seems to start like a story about teenage woes, grows into a very compelling tale with sometimes very real, raw and shocking details," wrote another.
Writing the book, and subsequently the follow-up novels, has been made easier because of Byrne's experiences as a high school teacher.
"I really enjoy young adults," she said. "They're refreshing and interesting, and their vibe is dynamic and life-giving. The interaction I have with my students is amazing. The way they interpret literature is always new. They speak very candidly in class, so not only do I enjoy hearing their dialogue, but also being able to know the things they think about."
It is often said that a writer has his or her entire life to write a first novel, and a year to write a second. For Byrne, her first novel -- which she said was written for pure enjoyment -- has been replaced by the bigger stakes of writing and publishing the second and third installments of her trilogy. Byrne has an audience now, readers who await the next chapter of Sarah Cain's journey, and her joy of writing now shares time with the need to produce. She took advantage of the many snow days the high school had last winter to write. This past summer, she wrote as much as eight hours a day.
Although writing in the young adult genre has served Byrne well, she has begun to formulate the idea for the next phase of her writing life -- a novel that she believes has literally been waiting for her to write. Tentatively titled "West of India," the story is based on the life of her grandfather, who was born as one of four children to a family of means in Bombay, India. After his father was mortally wounded and died in a hospital in Canada, his mother left two of her sons in a Canadian orphanage -- one of whom was Byrne's grandfather -- and returned to India with her two oldest children.
"My grandfather went on to lead a full and complete life," Byrne said. "He was my hero, an incredible man of faith, strength and morals."
To contact Staff
Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jodi Clark Byrne will be signing copies of her novel “Dead Land” on Oct. 24, from 5 to 8 p.m., and Oct. 25, from 1 to 3 p.m., at The Market at Liberty Place in Kennett Square. On Dec. 5, from 5 to 8 p.m., she will be holding a release party for her novel “Hollow Land” at the Galer Estate Winery in Kennett Square.