The History of Jane Doe, Michael Belanger’s debut YA novel comes out this June, and we sat down for a Q&A with him about the book! The History of Jane Doe is a poignant, deeply funny coming-of-age story about first love, first loss, and the power of history to give life meaning. Kirkus called it an “impressive debut,” and said “John Green fans will gobble this one up.”
What was your inspiration for The History of Jane Doe?
The History of Jane Doe began with Ray’s sarcastic voice and a funny story about a town changing its name from Burgerville to Williamsburg. The story that follows, however, is inspired by my students and the countless battles I’ve seen them fight over the years. Even though teenagers are facing grown-up challenges, they often don’t have the tools or life experience to confront their issues directly. Still, they have this hope that they’ll be able to right all the wrongs of the world: love will conquer hate, meaning will triumph over chaos, and heroes will always prevail against villains.
I remember feeling that way when I was in high school, and to this day, when I see students bravely persevering no matter the circumstances, I’m reminded of just how powerful an antidote hope can be. That’s partly where Ray’s search for answers comes from. If historians can order the chaos of the past, maybe we can use history to tie up the loose ends of our lives too.
Jane’s story comes from a different set of experiences. Depression is hard to describe because it’s a feeling that’s often illogical—it twists your thoughts and emotions into something that reinforces a sad and gloomy view of the world. A mental health professional once described it to me as looking out the window and always seeing rain no matter the weather. But what happens when it really is raining outside? I’ve had students whose experiences seem to provide evidence of a cruel universe. Sadly, many of them blame themselves for misfortunes far beyond their control.
Thinking back to my own challenges in high school, I set out to explore some of these big questions in the strange and whimsical world of Burgerville.
Your main character Raymond Green is a history buff. Did you draw from you own experience as a high school history teacher?
Definitely. Teaching history forces you to see the world through a historian’s lens. There’s a certain sense of power that comes with understanding the past. The historian traces patterns, looks for causes and effects, and carefully chooses sources to tell one particular version of events. Ray applies this same approach to Jane.
When I teach American history, I present historians like Howard Zinn and Eric Foner who challenge traditional interpretations of how America came to be the country it is. In many ways, our personal pasts are up for debate as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to someone dealing with depression, they often have an extremely skewed perception of themselves. They see cause and effect patterns that don’t really exist. They only choose sources that reinforce their view of the world. I liked the idea of applying a historian’s approach to a person. In that sense, the book is really based on a question: If you change the stories you tell yourself—the history—can you change how you feel?
What would you do if you came face to face with a carnivorous green cow?
After googling what to do when a cow attacks, and finding a whole internet subculture of people who’ve been victimized by cows, I’ll try not to make light of it. But assuming the same rules apply to green cows, I’d moo very loudly, gently tap the cow on the nose, and then speak calmly but forcefully about my two years as a vegetarian during college.
What do you hope readers will take away from The History of Jane Doe?
I want readers to think about how they tell their story. What sources do they choose to focus on? Too often, we only see the negative; if we change the lens—or in Rich’s terminology, use a flashlight instead of a black light—the world starts to look a lot brighter.
I want readers to understand that the past doesn’t define them. There’s always the chance for a fresh start and that doesn’t mean you have to forget the past or ignore the past, just that you have to remember the present.
I want readers to understand the value of therapy and talking about their problems. Throughout the novel, Rich helps Ray work through his anger, grief, and confusion. Their conversations and exercises help Ray come to a new understanding about himself and the world.
I want readers to see themselves in the characters and story. The moment you first meet someone special. Having a best friend who you can always count on. Those nights you never wanted to end because of how much fun you were having. Life can be sad and tragic, but it’s also beautiful, funny, and miraculous at the same time.
Read more about and get your copy of The History of Jane Doe here!