The Horn Book » » Talks with Roger Publications about books for children and young adults Fri, 24 Jun 2016 20:51:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Joshua Khan Talks with Roger Tue, 14 Jun 2016 15:26:26 +0000 joshua khan twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

joshua khanWhen I emailed Joshua Khan to set up this interview, he wrote back that he had read the Frances Hardinge Talks with Roger and that he, too, had been a Dungeons & Dragons player, so I guess it now counts as a trend. The author of several previous novels under his real name Sarwat Chadda, with Shadow Magic, “Joshua Khan” introduces a fantasy world that, like many, is divided into the forces of light and dark, but here we are asked to take the perspective of the latter. While the land of Gehenna is hardly Mordor, and its ruler, Lily, is no Sauron, the shift in expectations will give fantasy readers something new to consider.

Roger Sutton: So tell me about you and D&D.

Joshua Khan: I’ve been playing it since I was about eleven or twelve. The typical geeky mates, all gathering together from two till seven every single Sunday, but then we fell out with the Dungeon Master. We needed a replacement, so I volunteered and started writing my own scenarios. Around 2004, a friend of my sister’s, who was working with Simon & Schuster, said, “Oh, you like writing? Did you ever think about writing a book?” And I thought, “No, I just write these Dungeons & Dragons scenarios and all of that.” And she said, “Just give it a go.” So I gave it a go, figured I’d give it a couple thousand words and see how I felt. I worked during that ten-to-midnight slot after my kids had gone to bed, so actually a super-peaceful time. This was before WiFi; it was all dial-up. And I really got into it. No matter how bad the day had been, it was just bliss. I was transferring all my Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing writing skills into actually crafting a novel.

RS: Had you been a fantasy reader before you played?

JK: Yeah. When I was in my early teens I absolutely loved Michael Moorcock and the big chunky ones like Lord of the Rings. And then a bit later on I got into the Dune series.

But to be honest, in the mid-2000s, I was mostly reading action-oriented historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell writes the Sharpe novels, set in the Napoleonic era; I read loads of those. That was good training for learning how to write action. You realize that the night before the battle is all anticipation. Prior to the battle, everyone’s thinking about how it will go. But the battle itself ends up being quite confusing.

RS: Everybody’s just running around.

JK: Yeah, it’s all sound and fury. There’s smoke everywhere, there’s cannons. You’re reading, thinking, “Well, none of this makes sense, frankly.” It’s all very exciting, but who knows what’s going on? The plot itself is in abeyance. It’s at the conclusion of the battle — they’ve won or they’ve lost — that the story picks up.

RS: I always skipped the battle scenes in Lord of the Rings.

JK: Do you skip the poetry?

RS: Oh, yes.

JK: I skip the poetry. In Lord of the Rings, the battle scenes sometimes happen off-page. The famous attack of the Ents on Isengard is reported afterward: “Oh, by the way, while you were doing this…” Same with the Battle of Five Armies. Bilbo gets knocked out. He only wakes up after it’s all over. Part of me suspects Tolkien just said, “Well, what’s he going to do? He’s only going to be fighting. I’ll just knock him out and fast forward to when he wakes up.”

RS: So much nerding out this early in the morning!

JK: Roger, I told you, half an hour to talk is not nearly enough.

khan_shadow magicRS: Most people come to writing through reading, obviously. One thing I always wonder about fantasy novelists is, when you’ve read in this rich tradition, probably since childhood, how do you as a writer both join that tradition and at the same time distinguish yourself?

JK: The role-playing stuff that I wrote was my version of fanfiction, before the internet. I can only speak personally, but most of my childhood reading and entertainment was Western-based fantasy and mythology. But then in my early twenties, there was a TV adaptation of the Indian Mahabharata. That kind of blew my mind. The Mahabharata was not readily available in the bookshops unless you went specifically hunting for it, so it wasn’t something you just accidentally came across. I come from a South Asian heritage, and at a certain point I had the realization that in all my Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games, I’d always played a white character. It’s all north European, knights and wizards and castles. So watching the Mahabharata was a real watershed moment because it got me consciously hunting out all of this other stuff. Also, I was brought up a Muslim. In historical fiction, we’re often cast as the bad guys, yeah? I remember watching the movie 300 thinking, “I’d much rather party with the Persians. They look like an insane fun time.” Part of me has always felt a little bit like, “I’m not sure I’m part of this gang, I think I’m part of the other gang.” I was watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and realizing, “Oh bloody hell, the Thuggee are really badass.”

RS: We were having a discussion on the Horn Book podcast a couple weeks ago about race and reviewing, which is a huge topic in the States.

JK: I know, I’ve been following We Need Diverse Books very closely.

RS: I was in the midst of reading Shadow Magic when we did the podcast. I was probably around page 75, and I thought, “I don’t know what color these people are. Did I just miss it?”

JK: K’leef is certainly Arabic, and dark-skinned at that. I always saw Thorn as Anglo-Saxon (the Robin Hood thing) and Lily’s your archetypal goth, dark-haired and pale-skinned. But she is also my version of Malala Yousafzai. Prior to writing the Shadow Magic books, I wrote Devil’s Kiss and the Ash Mistry books [as Sarwat Chadda], in which my heroines are very kickass sword-wielding types. Here I wanted to do a heroine who was more political. Looking at Malala and also looking at Elizabeth the First, thinking, “These are women who have incredible power and can shape the future. They don’t have to pick up a gun, they’ve never carried a sword, and it all boils down to education.” So Lily’s quest is to become a magician — in her world, power comes through magic. In our world, power comes through education. I thought this was a fascinating parallel. If I’d said, “I’m going to write a book about a Muslim girl who just wants to learn how to read and write,” it automatically gets cast as an issues book, something that I’m really wary of. I don’t want this to be “about the Muslim experience.” It’s about a human experience, yeah?

RS: If you had a white main character, people would think, oh, she could be any girl. But if you write a South Asian character or a Muslim character, it’s: “Isn’t this interesting about the South Asian or the Muslim people?”

JK: Exactly. That’s the great thing about fantasy, isn’t it? You can tell whatever story you want, but the agenda’s made a little bit more discreet. It’s a rip-roaring adventure about a girl who lives in this fantastic castle, but really it boils down to a girl wanting to have her own say in the world, and that’s through magic or through education. This is me putting on my poncy writer’s hat here: I can read The Iliad, I can read somebody’s thoughts from three thousand years ago, and there’s something intrinsically magical about that. Words do change the world. In Shadow Magic they do so quite literally.

RS: How do you see your book fitting into the fantasy tradition? What distinguishes Shadow Magic?

JK: It’s looking at the story from the view of the “bad guys.” That’s how I wanted to structure it, to capture my background. No authors can separate their upbringing, their influences, from what they write. In the last few years with Islamophobia, etc., the feeling that Muslim people are “the Other”… I thought Shadow Magic would be a nice way of writing about the Other from their day-to-day point of view. The Lumineans, the lords of light, I quite pointedly named after angels. All of Lily’s family — Lily’s father, Iblis, is Arabic for “the devil.” So that’s kind of on the nose, but I like it.

RS: Well, they’re not the Other anymore when the story is from their point of view, right?

JK: Exactly. That was the point. That’s why I wanted to write it that way. You’ve got all the paladins, all the knights in shining armor — they’re not the good guys in this story. The good guys are the people who’ve had their country invaded. They’re being told, “This is how your world is now going to go. You’re going to knock down these walls; you’re going to put in windows. We’re going to illuminate your world. We think it’s dark and ignorant.” Those are the sorts of things that have always been bubbling away. But by writing fantasy you can disguise the references better.

I want to show a powerful girl in another light. I’m a big fan of history. The Mughal Empire is dotted by these powerful females operating from the harem, and then you’ve got the Rani of Jhansi, the Indian heroine who was more the sort of warrior archetype. And Elizabeth the First. We’ve named an age after her. She never had to pick up a sword. She never had to wear armor. She was never even destined to be queen. It was her brother first, and then it was her sister, which was something that directly fed into how she’s not prepared for her role, because it was never meant to be hers. Girls in those days were still just seen as pawns in the marriage game. All she knows is she wants to do right by her people.

RS: When you say “girls in those days,” is your book set in the past?

JK: Yes and no. All good stories will have a modern relevance. If I talk about The Iliad, which is one of my favorite books of all time, that still has a modern relevance. Every time there’s some war being fought somewhere in the world, The Iliad comes up in my mind. There’s this whole thing between Achilles and Hector — who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy? My sympathy’s terribly toward Hector. Every time I read The Iliad I have the fantasy that this time I’m going to read the version where Hector wins.

RS: I noticed that sometimes the conversation in your book is very slangy in a modern way and other times it’s more formal.

JK: I was trying to easily distinguish between Lily and Thorn, so if you randomly opened up the book you could immediately identify the focus of that particular chapter. I didn’t indicate, “This is a Thorn chapter. This is a Lily chapter.” It should come out in the mode of speech. One thing my editor and I worked hard on, especially with regard to Thorn, is how slangy we could go — “ain’t,” “gonna,” abbreviations and things — without sounding too forced. The early drafts were much more slangy. It needed to be toned down. And Lily has grown up in a very formal, very ancient society, while Thorn’s history goes back only as far as his grandpa, but that’s as far back as he can possibly go because his society didn’t have written language. She can go back thousands of years. Part of her education, part of her passion, is her sense of belonging to the Shadow family, her pride in her heritage.

RS: And her zombies. Publishing legend Jean Feiwel said years ago, during the vampire craze, that zombies were going to be the next big thing. And I thought, “No, that’s not going to work. There’s nothing romantic about zombies.” But sure enough, zombies took over the world. Why do you think that is? What’s the appeal?

JK: Modern life has this constant drudgery coming at you, like those sales emails, and you just delete, delete, delete, delete. It never ends.

RS: Zombies are the spam of literature!

JK: Right. They’re easily spotted, and they’re relatively easily dealt with. It’s like, I don’t even remember buying that pair of boots from wherever, but somehow they’ve got my email address, and now every week they’re flogging me something. So that’s the zombie invasion of our lives. They’re the bots on Twitter. They’re mindless, but they’re there, and they’re constantly coming at you. This is something I continue to explore in Book Two.

RS: So there is a Book Two? I couldn’t tell.

JK: It’s set three months afterwards. The first chapter is Lily. She’s interviewing a peasant woman whose father has come back from the dead, and he wants his old room back. For Lily, all this undead stuff is day-to-day. She’s not scared about it.

RS: You know, it was nice that I couldn’t tell if there was a sequel coming, because it felt like at the end of this book we had an arc. We had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there was obviously the possibility of a sequel, but the story in and of itself was satisfying.

JK: That’s what’s so great about the series I tend to read. Each book is self-contained. I’ve gone through the Sharpe novels, and there are more than twenty of those, but you can read them in any order. I am guilty, in one of my earlier books, of ending on a cliffhanger. But you’re going to end up pissing off the readers. They’ve got a year to wait before anything gets resolved. I find it irritating as a reader, so I don’t put it in as a writer unless there’s a gigantic reason for it.

RS: Particularly with a new series, if you’re left on the edge of a cliff, and you still haven’t made up your mind how invested you are in the series, that’s not going to help.

JK: No, exactly. Shadow Magic is ultimately a murder mystery. Somebody’s killed Lily’s puppy, then the whole thing spirals out of control when you realize there’s much more than just the puppy involved. You know how in Agatha Christie where there’s the murder at the estate and all the characters are basically trapped there, and it’s down to our hero to solve the crime? That’s the thing I wanted to do, which is the opposite of most fantasies — this isn’t a quest. This isn’t about them traveling the far ends of the fantasy world and visiting the dwarves and visiting the elves and going to this and that kingdom. Basically it all takes place in one building, so it was a case of going away from fantasy conventions. This is something my agent said — we don’t want another bloody quest book. Also, when you think about the early Harry Potters, what is Hogwarts but the country estate that everyone is stuck in? You know that a crime has been committed, and one of the culprits is living there with you.

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Frances Hardinge Talks with Roger Tue, 12 Apr 2016 16:53:30 +0000 frances hardinge talks with roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

frances hardingeIn The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge eschews the full-blown fantasy of her previous books for something more ambivalent. Does the tree of the title indeed feed on lies, rewarding its caretaker with truth, or has the author instead written a (superbly atmospheric) Victorian detective story? Hardinge and I talked just after she won a very big prize for The Lie Tree, the Costa Book of the Year, an award that hadn’t gone to a book for children since The Amber Spyglass won in 2001. So we chatted about that, about writing fiction, and about Dungeons & Dragons. I believe she was telling the truth.

Roger Sutton: I heard you had a school visit today. How did that go?

Frances Hardinge: Pretty well, actually. Very lively class, in a good way.

RS: How old were they?

FH: They were about twelve. Year Seven, basically. I was talking about my books, and a little about the writing process. There was a reading and questions and answers, that sort of thing.

RS: Do you find that helpful, as a writer?

FH: To me or to them?

RS: You.

FH: Yes, I think I do, really. It’s nice to see reactions. It’s nice to meet readers. It’s lovely when I meet younger writers and see them as mini-me, younger versions of myself. Writing’s a very weird profession. You are basically operating in a void, so actually getting some sense of the readership, a little touch of reality — yes, I think that is useful.

RS: I honestly don’t understand how writers — people whose main job is writing — do that. I would get nothing done if I didn’t have to leave the house.

FH: There’s always a danger of that. There are some writers who seem to be phenomenally organized and write the same number of words at exactly the same hours every day. I aim for approximately nine-to-five, but I’m not one of these ferociously, robotically organized people. What helps me is writers’ groups, because they provide mini-deadlines, where I am repeatedly faced with the potential shame of not having written anything. My productivity peaks just before a writers’ group session.

RS: How much will you share with a writers’ group?

FH: In terms of the planning, I often don’t share that much unless I want to run a synopsis by people. Quite often I like to be able to play out the chapters one by one, and gauge the reactions at different points, for characters or for plot — what people are getting, what they think is going on at every stage. Particularly when you’re writing mysteries, a lot of writing is an exercise in manipulation.

hardinge_lie treeRS: One thing I really love about The Lie Tree is that in the opening chapters, I thought: I have absolutely no idea where this book is going. But the writing was confident enough that I felt like you were taking me in a direction; I just didn’t know what it was yet.

FH: Thank you very much.

RS: I would think: Oh, it’s this kind of book. No, it’s that kind of book. It’s this other kind of book. But I kept going.

FH: I try and do that, pull multiple tablecloths out from underneath the crockery if possible.

RS: Now, I haven’t read all of your books, but this seems like the least fantastical of your fantasy. Would I be correct in saying that?

FH: Yes, I think you’d be entirely correct. In fact, in this book the fantastical elements are probably at their most ambiguous. In a way it’s almost less important what the tree is than what people think it is and what they’re willing to do about it.

RS: And you even have one of your characters say something like, “Maybe there’s nothing magical about this tree. We just don’t understand yet.” I loved that.

FH: We are looking at scientific frames of mind about a thing. That’s one of the reasons it seemed quite important to keep the Lie Tree ambiguous.

RS: Yes, it could be either some scientific thing we don’t understand yet, or it could just be a tree upon which the characters are projecting their imaginations. I thought that was really cool.

FH: Thank you.

RS: When you are dealing with fantastical elements, how do you keep control of them? If you say, “I’m writing a fantasy,” then really you could have a magic wand pop in at any point and solve any particular plot problem, right? So how do you make your rules?

FH: One has to know what the metaphysical rules are when writing, so that one isn’t tempted to cheat. Aside from anything else, though, the readers have to have some idea what the rules are. They need to know what’s at stake, how it can be resolved, how it can’t be resolved, etc. Take M. R. James’s short story “Casting the Runes.” Basic setup: you have a vindictive magician who passed on a set of runes to an individual. That individual is now being stalked by a demon. You don’t need to know about the demon. You don’t need to know how the runes work. What you need to know are the rules. But once you have them set up, the reader would be justifiably annoyed if, for example, the demon turned out to be quite a nice chap and thought better of the whole thing.

RS: Did you ever play Dungeons & Dragons?

FH: Yup.

RS: I tried that once many, many years ago — and I was so annoyed because it seemed to me that with the Dungeon Master, there was a capriciousness at work. I thought, well, I can’t really plan here, because anything could happen, just because this person decides the elves are going to do something, and there goes my plan to get the gold. I found it very frustrating.

FH: It takes a games master with a good sense of story. I have to admit, I still role-play. Not just tabletop games, like Dungeons & Dragons. I also play in live-action games, which involve full costume, sometimes running around in woods, hitting each other with convincing weaponry. For a writer, there’s nothing like actually being part of a story with a lot of other people to break you of any habits of thinking of your main character as the only true acting agent, with everyone else existing as foils.

RS: Are you kidding? That’s how I regard life. You are all projections of me.

FH: In my case, what were you thinking?!

RS: Oh, just wanted to mix things up a little bit.

FH: I get asked if all my characters are reflections of me. It’s possible, because part of my personality is a homicidal beast.

RS: It’s one thing to talk about rules for fantasy, but what about historical fiction, which is where I would more firmly place The Lie Tree. How do you convey another era without getting anachronistic? How do you find the way to connect today’s young reader to that material?

FH: There were points where I had to compromise. For both The Lie Tree and Cuckoo Song, I had to compromise a little bit on dialogue. Cuckoo Song is set in the 1920s, and I was very excited about the idea of using 1920s slang. So I went and looked at 1920s slang and it’s all like “What rot” and “I should say so” and “You little beast” and things. It’s very difficult to sustain a mood of brooding horror if everybody’s talking like Bertie Wooster. I had to instead default to something different, and that is timeless language. Which of course isn’t exactly timeless, but it feels timeless. It’s language of a sort that doesn’t either alienate a modern reader or sound too jarringly of today. I ended up doing something similar for The Lie Tree. It is a bit Victorian — I’ve got some Victorian terms in there — but it’s less formal; the way of speaking is less careful than it would have been. Again, just so the language doesn’t seem completely alienating, so it doesn’t lose any of the emotional content. But research — research is fun. If nothing else, you come across all these wonderful, implausible things that you just couldn’t make up. I mean, there was no way postmortem photography wasn’t going into The Lie Tree.

RS: Let’s talk about your Costa book award. Congratulations.

FH: Thank you very much.

RS: First you won their award for best book for young people, and then you took the whole shebang, which is the first time a children’s author has done that since Philip Pullman.

FH: Yes. I’m still a little prone to giggling about this, I’m afraid. I really wasn’t expecting that. It was clearly a thing that was not going to happen.

RS: What do you think is the difference between a book for adults and a book for young people?

FH: Less than people think. As I’ve said before, I have a lot of respect for my younger readers, and I tend to assume that they can actually cope with quite a lot. So I don’t dumb-down much. I do address dark themes. I do address some serious things. I hope the books are still entertaining, but I am happy with them. These are written for twelve-year-old me. Twelve-year-old me was quite a strange little girl. But I think The Lie Tree is a book that older versions of me could have read as well. Some books that are written for children have that magical quality of being different books when you come back to them at different ages. So when you read books like The Midnight Folk — that’s a fairly different read when you’re young than when you come to it as an adult, and start to see different elements to it. Even Peter Pan‘s very different. You come back to it and find yourself having sympathy for Hook and Mrs. Darling.

RS: Right. I felt that way about The Catcher in the Rye, which I read as a twelve-year-old, maybe, and loved it, and I identified with Holden. When I read it later as an adult, I still loved the book, but I was completely removed from Holden. There was no sense of identification, and instead I thought, oh God, this poor kid.

FH: Yeah, I read it late. I read it as an adult. I could kind of feel how I would have reacted, but that’s not quite the same as actually encountering it when you’re younger. Though twelve-year-old me is still very much alive and kicking.

RS: What was the twelve-year-old you reading?

FH: Mostly what she could get her hands on, and she could get her hands on quite a lot, because my parents had a lot of books in the house, and they were basically fine with my scrambling around with what I liked. She read a fair bit of fantasy. She’d already read quite a lot of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. She read Leon Garfield, which was her introduction to — I’m going to stop talking in the third person now, this is weird — it was my introduction to historical fantasy. Gripping stuff, smugglers and that sort of thing. It didn’t pull many punches in terms of peril, grimness, death, and all the rest of it. Clearly I loved it.

And I was into murder mysteries. My gateway to mystery stories, detective stories, was Conan Doyle. I chomped my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories. My parents had this really tall bookshelf that was at the top of the stairs, on the landing. It had this huge ladder right up next to it, with a sheer drop down to the ground floor on one side. I remember being perched on the very top of this ladder reading “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” There was a dark frisson there of metaphysical danger, an enormous spectral hound.

RS: It’s funny, Conan Doyle is one of those writers that if one reads him at all, one tends to read him first as a young person. Does that make him a children’s writer? I don’t know.

FH: I think he’s, again, someone you come back to. That is a very good question. I think there always has to be some question as to what kind of writer the author thought he or she was. That still counts for something, doesn’t it? What the author thinks he or she is writing?

RS: We’ve been talking about it a lot here because of Harper Lee’s recent death. To Kill a Mockingbird was in no way conceived as a book for children, but that’s when everybody reads it. That’s what the destiny of that book seems to have been.

FH: Yes. I guess it wasn’t intended as that. I have rather adopted the Atticus Finch approach to younger people, which is basically if they ask you a question, answer it. Or if you feel you can’t answer it, show your cards and explain why you can’t answer. Don’t make any fuss about it. Just be as clear as you can, which I think is a pretty good policy.

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Deb Caletti Talks with Roger Wed, 23 Mar 2016 15:51:24 +0000 deb caletti twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

deb calettiIn Deb Caletti’s new YA novel Essential Maps for the Lost, Madison and Billy hardly meet cute: Mads is swimming in Seattle’s Lake Union when she bumps into the body of a woman who apparently had thrown herself from the bridge above. That woman is Billy’s mother, but Caletti intriguingly takes her time before allowing the two teens to find each other — and fall in love. (A love, by the way, in no small part fueled by Mads and Billy’s mutual book-of-life, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.)

Roger Sutton: As I started the story, getting to know Mads and Billy in their disparate chapters, of course I wondered: will they get together? When will they get together? What’s going to happen? How does a writer calibrate that kind of suspense — how long can you keep your characters apart before pissing off your readers?

Deb Caletti: I am terrible at craft questions, because I’m such an intuitive writer. I’m not an MFA-er or someone who’s studied. I’m a reader. Books taught me. So it’s more of an instinctual thing. Maybe I do piss readers off. I probably do, because I like the other stuff more than the plot stuff.

RS: So you wouldn’t consider yourself a plot-driven writer?

DC: Oh my gosh, no. Not at all.

RS: Well, the plot certainly sucked me right in!

DC: You think that? I feel good. I have to work at that part, because I love the stuff that’s in the mind and the heart, in the passenger seat of the car, that kind of thing. What’s in a person’s coat pockets. I work at controlling my own impulse to spend too much time on those details in order to keep the story tight.

RS: I can’t stand books where the characters just sit around and talk to each other. I argued with my husband after we saw Spotlight, which he thought was brilliant and I thought: this is just people talking to each other.

DC: That’s exactly what I said. It was the relaying of information through dialogue, which — no, I don’t do that.

RS: So how do you do that? How do you relay information in your stories?

DC: You get to know people over time. You dole out information through the things characters say, what people think of them, their funny habits — the same way we get to know people in real life. We hear things, we witness things.

RS: Going into this novel, what did you know you wanted to do, right when you started?

DC: I always start with a need. For me, writing is always very private. I’m in the writing-as-therapy camp. It’s something I want to think about for a year, to work out. This story came to me right around the time we had a suicide in our YA community. We were hearing a lot about people’s struggles with mental illness and depression and breakdowns. All of that is hugely important. We need to hear that and know that. But I was feeling an absence of hope. I was feeling that we needed to hear about the beauty in the struggle. I started there.

Then I wanted to explore something more personal about what it is to be a child — even an adult child — who carries responsibility for a childlike parent. Kids can really be up against it, having a mentally ill parent or being in a position where they need to be the one who holds things together. I wanted to explore that idea. And I knew I wanted to talk about book-love some more. I’ve done that in the past, in The Last Forever and in Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, with the librarian characters. I believe in books so much, they’re so important to me, that I wanted to revisit that book-love. I wasn’t quite done with talking about it.

RS: Do you have any book the way that Mads and Billy have Mixed-Up Files?

DC: I’m a reader. I have many of them. So many. How do we choose? But I have my own copy of Mixed-Up Files. It says “Debbie Caletti, 1971,” in my funny fat writing, all beat up. It opens to that map in the middle, because I loved that. I loved looking at that map and imagining myself somewhere else. Sometimes I needed to imagine myself somewhere else, like these characters do. I was that kid who hid in my room and hid in books to escape. I’m still that kid. I get all worked up about it, because it’s an amazing thing when you have a book like Mixed-Up Files to keep you going: Billy’s mother jumps off a bridge, and yet he cracks up when Claudia and Jamie are hiding in a bathroom stall. And Madison, with her troubled family, wants to sleep in the museum bed.

RS: I wanted to do that too, when I read that book.

DC: It’s why I wanted to go to the Met. When I went there for the first time, seeing that bed gave me goose bumps.

RS: I’m surprised we don’t see more kids reading in kids’ books. Because who’s reading kids’ books but kids, right? Kid-readers.

DC: Who else is going to understand book-love? How can I not write about book-love, when that’s me as a reader, and my readers are readers.

caletti_essential maps for the lostRS: Did you see that David Denby article in the New Yorker recently? It was another one of those complaints that teens don’t read the way they used to.

DC: That’s just so silly.

RS: But one thing that is different now — when I think back to YA in the ’70s and ’80s, the real audience for those books was junior-high kids, mainly girls. The characters tended to be a little bit older than those readers.

DC: Someone was always pregnant or shooting something up.

RS: Right. Very exciting. But now we have YA books about characters like Mads and Billy, who are out of high school. I guess this is a two-part question: who do you see as your reader, and what do you know demographically about your readers?

DC: Again, I’m the private writer, so I don’t like to think too much about that, or I worry it’s going to be my former in-laws or something. But who I know is my reader: my readers are all ages. Since my books can be a little bit slower, more character-driven, it’s often hardcore reader-girls. Usually they’re a bit older, teen- through college-age, but a lot of adult women as well, which is partly why I have also been writing adult novels recently. The crossover started to make a lot of sense.

RS: What’s the difference for you between writing a young adult novel and an adult novel? Particularly since, as you said, you’re not really thinking about audience as you write.

DC: There’s more room to roam. I can go a little bit slower. I hope that my books for younger readers are rich thematically as well, but in an adult book I can explore some ideas in more layers, take more time with them. Creatively, it’s a great thing for me. It’s like going to a foreign country. You come back with a wider worldview.

RS: I’m guessing that your audience, whether they’re teenagers or adults, would be going back and forth from one to the other anyway. That makes sense, right? We didn’t discriminate as young readers.

DC: No, we didn’t. Are you kidding? I read whatever I could get my hands on.

RS: My first job in libraries was in 1979. Judy Blume had just published Wifey. Do you remember that?

DC: Oh, yeah, of course.

RS: Which had that scene right on the first page, the motorcycle guy masturbating? Girls who had loved Are You There, God? etc., etc. were lining up for Wifey.

DC: You better believe it.

RS: It was Judy Blume.

DC: I know. Judy Blume, what would we do without her? One of the greatest experiences of my life was when Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was a National Book Award finalist, and that year she won the lifetime achievement award. It was so right. She had been there and there she was again, describing her own road to that place which was so up my own road.

RS: Why do you think we now have such a large number of adults reading books published, at least nominally, as young adult titles? In some estimates it’s mostly adults who are buying young adult books.

DC: What a really good question.

RS: So, give me a good answer.

DC: I think the quality of YA has changed so significantly. Like when I was a teen reading I Know What You Did Last Summer — the teens crossing the road in the headlights of the car. It looked a lot different than YA looks today, where anything goes. I read for the National Book Awards as a judge in 2013. What we have now is rich and varied and thematically interesting. It’s all the things we love in any great book. Maybe it’s that YA has come up to a point where readers are recognizing that there’s so much to appreciate. (Not all New Yorker writers, maybe, but a lot of other readers.) YA has met the reader, rather than the reader having met YA.

RS: Interesting. I think it’s also that adults have been through early intense love. We remain fascinated with it, even in our doddering old age. To go back and be able to experience those feelings again in a book like yours, which is intensely charged by the emotional landscapes it draws of the two protagonists. There is that focus on character and emotion, but at the same time, as I credited you with earlier, you do have a plot pulling these people through. They’re not just sitting around a dinner table talking.

DC: And the feelings and the struggles — people always ask, “How do you get in the mind of the teen reader?” I think all human beings have these common threads. We struggle with the same things. We desire love and attachment. We have to sort out how much we want to be attached and be independent, how we manage need and being needed and being hurt. These are things that begin when we’re — how old? Then in those teen years we start to really feel them.

RS: There’s a real consciousness of them once we become teenagers.

DC: Our eyes open.

RS: And I think to be able to go back to those moments, the first time you really fell in love with somebody —

DC: — and felt that vulnerable, really —

RS: It’s appealing.

DC: And it’s something we continue to feel, I think.

RS: Do you bridle at having your books called romance novels?

DC: I do. I’d like to say I don’t, but I do. It actually surprises me more than raises my hackles. To me they’re so much more. The romantic element is what the story sort of sits on, but all the stuff below the surface is really about family. It’s about the baggage we bring, both the good and the hard stuff in that baggage. It’s more about the other relationships. It’s about mothers and fathers and sisters and dogs, all of the pieces. It’s really more about — yes, love, in its widest usage.

RS: Right. Well, I think that what the relationship does in this book, between the boy and the girl, is to throw all those other relationships into relief. Once you open yourself up to another person the way that they do, you see things, you understand things, about all the other relationships that are already in your life.

DC: Exactly. Because that’s how it is in real life. That’s how it is in a teen’s life and in an adult’s life, when it comes to love. Suddenly all those other relationships, you feel their import too. You feel how one thing leans on the other.

RS: Why do you think this kind of story works for you? That this is where you found a home?

DC: I was in a difficult marriage, writing to sort of save myself, writing book after book after book. I wrote five novels. The fifth was The Queen of Everything, about a young woman whose father is involved in a crime of passion, and she’s kind of watching what’s going on. It was bought by Simon & Schuster, who I’m still with, and bought as a young adult book, which was a surprise to me. I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is going to get edited down to five pages.”

RS: It’s going to turn into Go Ask Alice!

DC: This was thirteen, fifteen years ago — it was right at what we were beginning to call the golden age of young adult literature. And it came out basically whole — really nothing was changed in that book. So there began this wonderful relationship. My second book was a National Book Award finalist, so I got really anchored into YA. But I love it. It’s challenging, because we can do so much now, because there is so much room to explore all of these relationships. I remember, when I was first starting, I kept hearing, “In YA they don’t really write about the parents,” and I thought, “I don’t even know how to write YA. I have no clue. I’m just writing what I want to write. Wow, I guess I must be doing it wrong.” Those relationships are as crucial as any boy-girl stuff in the books.

RS: Oh, yeah.

DC: So it’s been interesting, trying to ignore what’s going on and do my own thing.

RS: Well, I’m very glad you found the right place.

DC: I am too. It’s been fabulous. We all probably say this, but it means a lot to most YA writers to be in that place with that reader at that age. I think about Judy Blume standing there, giving that speech. Those books stay with you. They last. There’s some magic power there. You can remember those for years and years afterwards.

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Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee Talk with Roger Tue, 08 Mar 2016 17:43:27 +0000 appelt and mcghee twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt

Vermont College of Fine Arts colleagues Kathi Appelt (The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp) and Alison McGhee (Firefly Hollow) here join forces for a novel about two sisters finding both tragedy and solace in the wilderness surrounding their Vermont home. While Maybe a Fox is rich with themes each author has explored on her own, it is, as we discuss below, its own animal.

Roger Sutton: Zena Sutherland once told me that when she asked illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon who did what in their pictures, they looked at each other in confusion and said they really didn’t know. But can you tell me who did what with Maybe a Fox?

Alison McGhee: We transformed our process as we went along. It happened very naturally. We began by each taking a viewpoint. I was a fox and she was a human girl, and we traded chapters back and forth. When we had a giant, unwieldy, chaotic first draft, we revised it the same way, then again at least once or twice more that way.

RS: You mean you each revised your own section?

AM: Yes. And then as the process went along, we began working simultaneously in Google Docs. We gave each other permission to revise the entire thing separately, one after the other, and that was the way it ended up. I don’t know how you feel, Kathi, but I feel as though we wrote the book together and that the voice is neither mine nor Kathi’s. It has its own voice that’s truly a collaboration between the two of us.

Kathi Appelt: That’s the way I feel, too. Both of us realized that for the book to work, it had to be its own story. It couldn’t be two side-by-side stories, it had to be one. When we took turns with it, as if it were our own manuscript — that was when the story really began to breathe.

AM: The original voices were much more singular, much more the way you and I write separately. But when we began going through the whole thing separately and revising, we each rubbed away the hallmarks of our individual voices. Because we were free to do that, we both, at the same time, turned it into the voice that it has now, which is its own.

Alison McGhee

Alison McGhee

RS: It really is. It’s a consistent voice throughout, even though you’ve got three points of view.

KA: Yes, and that was the challenge. One of the most difficult things for each of us was to go at it with abandon and, like Alison said, to wear away those edges of our own distinct voices. Alison’s writing voice is so beautiful, and I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to chop off some of her descriptions. I know she probably felt that way going after my sections too. But it was what the story needed. When we first started writing, we enchanted each other. Those early chapters — I’d get something that Alison wrote and think, oh my gosh, it’s gorgeous. And then having to go in and edit Alison — it was like, well, who am I to edit Alison McGhee?

AM: I am remembering how I’d physically start squirming in my seat when I was chopping off what I thought of as Kathi Appeltisms. That cool Southern stuff she throws in, adorable phrasing for little animals and children. Our emails at that point were full of apologies.

KA: But the story wasn’t supposed to be, “Let’s see how lovely we can make this.”

AM: Right.

RS: What prompted the collaboration in the first place?

KA: Alison, do you want to tell this story?

AM: It was a long time ago — probably twelve years ago at this point. It was late one night in this freezing and nasty dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts where we were both new faculty members. I had lost my luggage — and I’m really tall and kind of like a pencil — and this woman at the end of the hall, who was very short with a beautiful smile and blond hair, offered to lend me a pair of pajamas and a blanket. I loved her instantly. The next day we met at breakfast in the cafeteria, which I always refer to as the trough. We got our trays and made a beeline for this little table that seated two, between two giant pillars at the back of the room, and there we sat. We sat there for every meal for years, even though we were strongly encouraged, as faculty members, to break up and go sit with students. We did not. We were sitting at the table, about a week into meeting each other, and Kathi said, “You know what? We should write a book together.” And I thought, “Cool,” but then really dropped the ball, until four, five years ago when we started writing this book.

KA: That’s the way I remember it too. That’s pretty accurate, although I’m not sure I’m the one who said we should write the book. It might have been Alison.

AM: No, it was you, Kathi. I totally remember you saying it.

appelt_maybe a foxRS: All right, ladies. But how does one start a novel together? You have to start someplace, right?

AM: For many years I have posted a poem of the week on my blog. One week — this must have been about five years ago — I posted this poem by Patricia Fargnoli, which became the epigraph of our book. It has a line about a fox who comes streaking down the hill, a flame against the snow. Kathi and I both loved that poem so much we thought, “We should write that book. And the only things we will say about it right now are that it’ll be about two sisters who are separated somehow, and it will have a fox in it.” Those were our ground rules. That’s how we began. Oh, and we also had a rule that we would each do something that we had never done before. I had never written in the voice of a supposed animal. Anybody who writes in the voice of an animal is actually writing in the voice of a person, but whatever. I’d never written in the voice of a fox, and Kathi had never written in first person before. So that’s how we started.

KA: And as it turned out, I changed the first person to the third person.

AM: Four revisions in or so, it was back to third person.

RS: The book starts in a fairly shocking way, to me. It’s really going back to the roots of children’s literature, where someone is told, “Don’t go in the woods, or something terrible will happen.” And then she goes in the woods and something terrible does happen. She dies. Did you pause about this? Was there discussion about how to handle it? Pretty tough.

AM: I don’t remember any discussion about it. It just happened.

KA: We didn’t discuss it. I think it was understood from the start that one of the sisters would die. I don’t think there was ever any hesitation.

AM: Both of us write about death a lot, incredible loss, so neither of us has that anti–Grimm Brothers mentality.

KA: Right. And part of what allows this story to contain that death is that we worked really hard to have the landscape itself be a kind of mystical part of the story. So that the sister does die in that place, but the place itself is somewhat enchanted. Maybe enchanted is not the right word, but it’s like a living force all by itself.

AM: It is a sacred place. There has been tremendous loss and tremendous redemption within that space already, for both humans and animals. So it’s natural, in a way.

RS: Do you all know the opera The Cunning Little Vixen? It’s by Janáček, from the 1920s. Sendak did a production of it in the early eighties with the New York City Opera. It’s about this fox who’s a girl, too. It’s really beautiful. I think you would like it.

AM: I’ll have to listen to it.

KA: Me too.

RS: One thing that is interesting about the death of the sister, Sylvie, early on is that we don’t really know her. Our sympathy right from the start is with Jules. We see Sylvie through Jules’s eyes. So it’s bearable to kind of do away with her. Do you know what I mean?

AM: Yes, that’s a good point. Because the story is about dealing with a loss that has already happened. Multiple losses, really: the mother, the sister, and the neighbor’s best friend. So I think that is helpful, especially for a younger audience.

RS: Do you think of it as a fantasy?

AM: I don’t.

KA: No.

RS: What would you call it?

AM: I’d say there are magical realistic qualities, but I would shy away from describing it as magical realism. It feels like realistic, mimetic fiction to me. Even though there’s a fox and otherworldly elements, it feels very grounded in the slate and mountains of Vermont.

KA: It’s wildly comforting to me to think that we reappear in each other’s lives in unexpected ways, that death isn’t necessarily the end of the picture. And that’s coming from a person who is not necessarily religious. But there’s something, I think, in the human psyche that wants to hold on to the belief that death is not the end. That really appealed to me about the story.

AM: I can say the same thing. I’m not religious either, except that you and I are both Unitarian Universalists.

KA: Roger, aren’t you also UU?

RS: I always say to people I’ll sing in the UU choir, but I’m still a Roman Catholic.

AM: When I do what I think of as my meditations, I line up in my mind the people I love who have passed on and I talk to them. I talk to my grandmother every day. I have no idea if there’s anything beyond this world.

RS: None of us knows, of course, what goes on in the heads of animals in nature, or what goes on after we die, but I’ve had moments in the woods where I’ve felt like it was talking to me or I was talking to it.

KA: I think all of us have had those moments when we sense a presence that is bigger than our physical surroundings. I do really believe that those wild places, the woods, the desert, wherever, they seem to provide a genesis for that kind of experience. It’s hard to be in a natural place and not be awestruck by it. It makes you feel like anything is possible, and why not?

AM: I grew up way out in the country, and walking for miles and miles, hiking up mountains or up canyons, it just brings that sense of openness into my heart. If you think of Buddhist monks, who believe that all beings are connected to one another like smoke, in and around us all the time, then it becomes more understandable that these things would happen, what happens to Jules and to the fox. It becomes a very comforting and peaceful sort of sensation.

RS: What would you say that writing this book together did for your own writing individually?

AM: As a writer, I know what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. There are ways to deal with what you’re not good at, and one way is to camouflage it with a whole lot of what you’re good at. Kathi excels at thinking through story. She will think through plot points in a way that my brain is just not wired to do. So that was a very interesting experience, working with someone who is really excellent at plot.

KA: Thank you. I appreciate that. Embedded in what Alison said is that I like to be in control of the story. I like knowing where it’s going and what’s supposed to happen at any given time. Working with Alison, I had to let go of some control. And as a result, we made some discoveries and took the story to places where, had it just been me, I doubt I would have gone. That was liberating. It’s like we have each other’s backs. I always felt like Alison gave me total permission to just jump off of the deep end. That was freeing. Often she had to say, “Okay, Kathi, come back! Come back, little Sheba!”

AM: You reminded me of something else I learned by working on this book with Kathi. I saw just how lonely our chosen work is. You’re sitting by yourself, dreaming things up, and writing them down. It is a very lonely way of life.

RS: I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t.

AM: I love it. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. It’s just that I didn’t realize the extent of how absolutely alone it is until I was working with Kathi, and it was just like she said. I could turn it over to her. I didn’t have to think for a few days. We were shouldering the burden together. It was wonderful. Such a relief. I was only fifty percent of the equation. Despite the fact that we both want to control the story or the voice or the language or whatever, I think we were very respectful of each other, and our friendship — it was already incredibly strong, but it’s only gotten stronger, having written this book. I feel really blessed about that.

KA: It could have gone wrong so easily. It could have become a disaster.

RS: Or you might have found yourselves being so nice to each other that the book would be horrible.

KA: We did go through that phase early on, where we were too respectful of each other’s writing. We didn’t want to step on it. We didn’t want to intrude. We had to work through that, until we got to the point where we were comfortable owning the entire story. Regardless of whether we added something or took something out or tweaked something that the other had written, it didn’t matter, because it was our story. It was one story.

More on Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee from The Horn Book

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Marieke Nijkamp Talks with Roger Tue, 22 Dec 2015 20:03:25 +0000 marieke nijkamp TWR

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

Marieke Nijkamp’s first novel, This Is Where It Ends, is unfortunately timely, telling, through multiple points of view, of a young shooter who holds an entire school hostage for one harrowing hour. Blood is spilled, secrets are revealed, truths are told. Marieke (pronounce it like the Jacques Brel song of the same name) spoke to me from her home in the Netherlands.

Roger Sutton: You are Dutch. How did it happen that this book is written in English and being published here?

Marieke Nijkamp: It actually came to pass quite by accident. I’d been writing in Dutch for quite a few years before I made the switch to English. A few non-Dutch-speaking friends of mine would have me translate things I was working on into English so they could get a sense of what I was doing every time I sat curled up in a corner somewhere with a notebook or my laptop. I’d been writing young adult stories without realizing it, because it wasn’t quite a market here, at that point, the way it was in the U.S. Mostly on account of traveling, I’d been used to speaking English, so using it as a way to tell my stories felt very natural. That was basically how that experiment started.

RS: Do you feel like a different person writing in English? Do you think you write different things?

MN: I actually do. I think it has to do with the way we use language in general. The rhythm of language, the melody, and also the cultural components really do influence the way we tell stories; the way I tell stories, certainly. I tried to translate an English story of mine into Dutch at one point, and halfway through the second sentence it changed into something completely different. That’s something to say about translating — it’s an art and craft that I do not possess.

RS: What was it like for you, then, coming from the outside, but writing in English, about what is a very American problem, at least these days?

MN: At first it felt incredibly intimidating, and I felt completely unequipped to talk about it. But I started working on the book because I was feeling just confused and baffled by how often these situations happen and how horrendous they are. I wanted to explore that and find a way to better understand. As a writer I do that by telling stories, and by trying to get as close to a situation as I can, even fictionally.

RS: Which part of the story occurred to you first?

MN: It started out as a conversation with a friend about gun safety and school violence. It left me with so many questions, and it began this story in the back of my mind, these characters who wanted me to tell their story. That’s something I hadn’t really quite experienced before. I’m usually the type of person who very carefully plots stories and knows exactly where to go from one moment to the next. But these characters occurred to me, and refused to let me finish another story I was working on, because I was so enthralled by what they had to say.

RS: I think it’s a very dangerous story, and I mean that in a good way. The storytelling is dangerous. And you let us know pretty early on in this book that it’s not going to be safe. That no one, essentially, in the book is safe from the shooter. We don’t know until the very end of the story who’s going to make it out alive.

MN: That was a very conscious choice for me, and also something that quite terrified me, writing it. I wanted to get as close as I could to the experience of being in that kind of situation, while still staying on the side of fiction, of course.

nijkamp_this is where it endsRS: One hopes.

MN: I feel like it’s important to have these types of discussions in fiction, too, even the ones that are dangerous in a sense. We only talk about tragedies after they occur. After something absolutely terrible happens we try to find ways to put it into words. We rarely ever talk about it beforehand. We rarely create safe spaces where we can discuss things that are so quintessential to teens’ lives these days. Books can play a very important role in that.

RS: Do you think a book like yours can help prevent these things from happening?

MN: You’re giving me the hard questions.

RS: I’m not asking you to say, yes, my book will save lives. But books in general. How do they help?

MN: Books in general, especially books that reference teens’ experiences and make them feel seen or heard, can create a sense that you’re not alone even when it may seem like it. In that regard, books play a very important role in many teens’ lives, in making them feel like they matter. Sometimes, especially for teens in difficult situations, it can seem like the entire world is against them. Just having that sense that there’s someone else out there who has gone through what you’ve gone through, or who can just empathize, is so incredibly important.

RS: How do you balance the need for telling a good story with getting your message across?

MN: The story always comes first. I don’t write with a certain kind of message that I have to tell. I certainly don’t want my books to be didactic, telling teens how to live their lives. But I do think it boils down to empathy. If you tell a good story it means getting close to teenagers’ lives, getting close to the things that motivate them, things that matter to them. If you do that, and if you approach that respectfully, you can get to a place where you have a common understanding of each other. That helps in getting the conversation going. Being a conversation-starter is one of the most important, or even just the best, things a book can do. There’s nothing like picking up a book and going over to someone else and talking about the things you experienced or the things you felt, and how that changes you, or how that makes you feel. That is more important than any message, in the end.

RS: It’s interesting. The last interview I did for this series was with British publisher David Fickling, and he said that when he reads a book he really loves, he doesn’t want to tell anybody anything about it. The only thing he wants to do is say, read this.

MN: That is so interesting. I tend to be that person who picks up a book and carries it under their arm and walks around pushing it into people’s faces.

RS: How did you decide to make the entire action of the book fall within a single hour? It’s pretty intense.

MN: To be honest, I asked myself that question many times while writing. I mostly wanted to convey that when a tragedy strikes, disaster strikes, it almost does feel like time slows down or stops entirely. Even a minute can feel like an hour or a day or longer. I wanted to use that as a way of exploring just how much has changed in such a short period of time. I gave myself those boundaries and stuck as close as possible to the situation itself, which obviously meant a little poetic license, because looking at average shootings, they don’t last for 54 minutes. So I did make some allowances there. But I hoped to get the point across that everything that you thought you knew, even five minutes ago, can change utterly and completely, and what does that do to you as a person?

RS: I think it’s a really effective literary device in this case too. When I started the book, I wasn’t really paying attention to the timestamps beginning each chapter. But as soon as I realized how minute-by-minute the story was, it pulled me in even further.

MN: That’s good to hear.

RS: You’re on the board of We Need Diverse Books here in the States.

MN: True.

RS: We Need Diverse Books is all about increasing representation in books and in publishing and among writers, etc. Do you feel like an outsider, coming to this American story?

MN: I don’t necessarily. I had been talking and writing about representation well before We Need Diverse Books happened. I grew up disabled, and there were many, many days and weeks and months I spent in hospitals, lying in bed, being able to do nothing but read books and watch television, and in my case that usually meant just reading books. With a very few exceptions — and those usually ended up being books like The Secret Garden, where even the disabled character is healed by the end, so it didn’t really feel like a book for me anyway — I just never saw myself inside the pages of a book. That’s something that caused me to start writing.

So that feeling, that necessity that stories should belong to all of us, motivated me from very early on. And it culminated in being a board member of We Need Diverse Books. I have to be conscious about the fact — and I do try to be — that I live in a different society, with different rules and different experiences of various kinds of marginalization. But that underlying need of readers to have both mirrors and windows is something I feel is universal, and is something I can speak to in that particular context.

RS: Sometimes I worry that our definition of what a mirror is has become too narrow. When I think of my own reading as a kid, I didn’t just need little nerdy gay white boys to read about, even though that’s what I was. I found my mirrors in lots of different kinds of characters. They could be animal characters, they could be female characters, they could be adults, they could be historical figures. Sometimes I feel like we’re getting too literal about what we mean by a mirror.

MN: I think we can find mirrors in many kinds of books. I don’t think that finding a mirror in a book or in a character that is supposedly unlike yourself means that everyone will always find themselves reflected in that way. Just looking at the books I read and my experience, there were certainly books that I identified with a lot, but there were also things I struggled with as a disabled kid that I would have loved to have seen in books and never saw. Just the ways life can differ if you have a disability.

Just having that sense of recognition would have been very important to me. I think that even when we do see ourselves in different kinds of stories, that doesn’t negate the fact that there are many other stories we rarely tell, if ever. There is a need for those as well. The fact that we seem to have a narrow definition of mirror at times doesn’t mean that those are the only stories we have to tell, but it means that those are the stories we aren’t telling enough, and maybe we should try to be more inclusive.

RS: I understand that. Let’s make sure that those mirrors are there.

MN: Yeah, absolutely.

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David Fickling Talks with Roger Mon, 14 Dec 2015 15:58:15 +0000 david fickling TWR

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

david ficklingDavid Fickling, editor, has been with us for quite some time, since 1978 when he began his career with Oxford University Press and subsequently the UK arms of Doubleday and Scholastic, bringing us, among others, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson. David Fickling Books, entity, opened in 2001 as an imprint of Random House. And this year, the imprint has joined forces with Scholastic once again. In a phone call whose logistics proved as complicated as publishing itself, David and I talked about wading through submissions, bringing books across the water, and the virtues of small-pond publishing. Enough with the aqueous metaphors!

Roger Sutton: Let’s discuss transatlantic publishing. Have I ever talked to you about the Jacqueline Wilson problem?

David Fickling: No, but do. Jackie just got the J. M. Barrie Award.

RS: I think she’s great, and I have always loved her books. It seems that there have been repeated efforts to make her happen in the U.S. in the same way that she happens quite well in the UK. Why isn’t it working?

DF: Do you know, or do you want me to try and answer that?

RS: I have a theory, but I want to know what yours is.

DF: Well, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s because of how the books are presented to the reader. Like you, I like her work very much. Her voice has a very warm tone that I think would appeal to American readers as much as British readers. But there are intervening steps between book and reader, and even if everyone goes in with great intention, that great intention can be a difficulty, in a sense. It means people can’t discover it for themselves. It’s oversold. So much of reading is discovering for yourself, forming your own opinion.

RS: Though there’s also something enjoyable about reading a bestseller because you want to be in on the buzz. What is everybody talking about with this Fifty Shades of Grey, or whatever the book might be? But I think you’re right — mostly readers want to feel like they were the first person to discover something.

DF: Yes. It’s almost like you’re talking directly with the author — how lovely that is. But then again, actually meeting an author you really adore can sometimes cause difficulty for young people.

RS: Oh, I don’t like it either.

DF: Yes, me neither.

RS: Authors can be so different from their books.

DF: It’s so disappointing, isn’t it? Publishers can be incredibly disappointing, too.

RS: I think of people who are so witty on the page, and not so in conversation. Or the opposite. They write these terribly serious books, but they’re a laugh-and-a-half when you talk to them.

DF: It’s curious. I’m sure there are good explanations for it. Sometimes if I read a really good book, I don’t want to tell anybody about it at all, even as a publisher. I want them to discover it. I just leave it lying around.

RS: Well, that can’t be good for business, David, can it?

DF: No! It’s terrible.

RS: I can’t speak to a British audience, but to an American audience, there’s a difference in the ways domestic fiction and fantasy fiction translate from one country to the other. I mean, Philip Pullman, another one of your authors, had no problem translating.

DF: No. When somebody says to me, “That’s very British,” I tend to take that to mean it’s not very good, and they’re just being nice to me. Only the things that really strike can move easily overseas. There may be something in Jackie’s work that doesn’t travel. What is that? Sometimes you don’t know what the little cultural misstep is. Or it might be so big that you can’t see it.

RS: Now that Scholastic has set you up in your own shop again, how much do you have to think beyond the UK market?

DF: We’re tiny, Roger. I describe us as the Magnificent Seven-and-a-Half. Actually there are a lot of part-timers, so we’re probably only the Magnificent Five-and-a-Half. But I am astonished how global we are. The difference is that the authors are inside with us, really. The situation is different in large publishing, where I think the authors are more like Hollywood stars in a studio system. That’s not a criticism of them. It’s just the way it is if you’re huge.

RS: I guess I don’t completely agree. If you’re huge, you do have those books that are filling the maw, but you can have the kinds of books that you’re describing, too.

DF: You can have both. Some of the most brilliant editors in the world are working at large companies. My view is, though, that the trend is towards a studio system, in which debuts aren’t understood in the same way, or books that don’t immediately strike or those that might not be considered commercial for some reason aren’t given enough time.

RS: I just read this morning that Kwame Alexander — who won the 2015 Newbery Medal — was just signed up for four more books with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. One is a prequel to the Newbery winner and three are a trilogy. So there’s an attempt to develop franchises around authors. How do you let them be free to do what they want to do?

DF: I don’t much like multi-book contracts. I’m not sure they work for either party, author or publisher, and definitely not for the reader! There is a problem of completion and thus quality. Give me a contract-by-contract, book-by-book dance card any time. Editors can go to the ball! Trust is a wonderful thing for the editing process.

RS: How do you stave off middle-age ennui? Asking for a friend.

DF: Got to get a dog.

RS: I’ll receive something for review and think, “I saw this book twenty-five years ago.” But that kid reader, the one for whom the book was published twenty-five years ago, has grown up. There’s a whole new audience now. How do you keep yourself alive to possibility?

DF: I think it’s through selfishness. I’m still responding as a reader. It’s impossible to publish something you’re not excited by, I think. Even though you’re tired and ancient, your bones ache, and nothing’s ever as good as it was — the reading mind is still weightless.

RS: At its best, yes.

DF: And you work with a team. I work with some really wonderful people. It’s not just me. But I love being around the making of these stories. You mentioned Philip Pullman — can you imagine what it’s like to receive his next book? What you were talking about earlier, being one of the first readers. There’s a little bit of me that feels, “I’ve read that, and I’m not going to let anybody else read it.”

RS: I wrote an editorial about reading The Amber Spyglass. I had an early copy of it, bound manuscript pages, and I was on the beach on Cape Cod reading it, and it was just a transcendent experience. I did think, “Most people in the world haven’t seen this book yet.” And that felt great.

DF: That’s exactly how I feel — I can’t quite believe my luck. Philip would describe himself as a storyteller first, I think. He’s probably the greatest writer of descriptive prose we’ve got. And often writers change and improve. We’ve published a retelling of Robin Hood called Shadow of the Wolf. There’s a passage in that book which is one of the most extraordinary passages I’ve ever read. I hope there’s something in all the books we publish that is extraordinary, that hasn’t been seen before. That happens almost on every page with Philip.

RS: What I’ve always liked about his books is that they do take me someplace else. But I don’t feel like I’m being pushed into it, the way I do with a lot of fantasy. It’s like authors think, if I pile on enough adjectives, the reader will be convinced of this magical world. But he never does that. There’s so much breathing room.

DF: I think he described his work as “stark reality.” It’s an invitation in its way. You have that sense of “Oh, yes, I’m in good hands, and I want to stay here. I want the book to last longer.”

RS: And that connects to what we were saying earlier, about feeling like you’re the only one reading a book. So many books I get into the office now are crawling with quotes from bloggers and booksellers and letters from the editor, pleading with me.

DF: I don’t even want to send the books out to get quotes. Blurbs shorten the world of the book if they give too much away.

RS: Right. People want to find their own way into a book.

DF: That’s exactly right. The worst thing in the world is a synopsis. A book should command your attention, shouldn’t it? And surprise you. I always think the greatest thing somebody can say about a book is, “I didn’t think I’d like it. I don’t like that sort of book normally.” Or, “I’ve never read that sort of book, but I was amazed by it.”

You inhabit the world of consciousness about the reception of books. I can ask you all the questions you asked me, really, because you see way more books than I do. I see a lot of non-books. I live in an unpublished land.

RS: We have some screening before it gets to us.

DF: Do you despair of the level of screening?

RS: Sure, sometimes. The tricky thing for me is when I read a book and I’m not liking it, but I’m not quite sure if it’s because there’s something wrong with the book, or if I’m just not the right reader for it. And like you, thank God, I’ve got eight other people here in the office, so I don’t have my own last word, as it were.

DF: What you’ve got is the same experience I have. The books that spend the most time in the office are not the easy rejections. They’re the ones that swim around, where there might be something there, or there might not be. You’re not quite sure whether you’re being overindulgent or not indulgent enough. We’re so limited. That’s why it’s nice being a small outfit that’s not trying to control everything. We can’t control everything. Talk about global: I’m not sure I even understood the large publishing companies I was a part of, let alone the global market. What we ought to do is try to bring our best to the table, and then hear what the readers think of it. We’re the first readers. That’s very exciting. When you know you’ve got a live one, everybody knows. Very quickly. It’s everybody’s. That’s an exciting moment as well, when you’re done and the book goes out with a lovely crowd around it, and you settle back to everyday — stuff coming in, stuff going out.

RS: That’s life.

DF: Yeah. It’s breathing, really.

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Kevin Henkes Talks with Roger Tue, 01 Dec 2015 15:21:00 +0000 kevin henkes twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

kevin henkesYou ask some very great writers and illustrators about how they do what they do, and it can seem as much a mystery to them as it is to you. But Kevin Henkes is one of the most astute and articulate observers of his own artistic choices I have ever met, and it was a pleasure to talk to him about the creation of his latest picture book, Waiting.

Roger Sutton: This is probably the fourth or fifth picture book I’ve seen this year about waiting, and I want to know: What’s in the water?

Kevin Henkes: I don’t know! But in my work life, waiting has been very big. My next book is called When Spring Comes, illustrated by my wife, Laura Dronzek. It was originally called Waiting for Spring, and the word wait is in it seven times, which is quite a lot for a picture book. Then after that I have a picture book coming out called Egg, and the word waiting is in that one seventeen times. Children spend a lot of their time waiting. They wait in line. They have to wait their turn. They wait for their birthdays, holidays, weekends, the end of the school day. They seem to be waiting quite a lot, so I thought it would be a good idea for a book.

RS: How do you handle waiting in your own life? Are you good at it?

KH: If I’m working on a book and it’s going well, that’s a real anchor in my life and it makes everything else okay, including waiting. And I do love the time between when I’ve finished a book and when that book comes out in print. I use that time to come up with an idea for the next book, so I don’t mind it being stretched out. I know some people ache to see their book after they’ve finished the art, but I enjoy that lovely stretch of waiting. It’s a year, usually.

RS: Your work is done. It’s out of your control at that point.

KH: And it hasn’t hit the world yet, so it can still be the lovely thing that I think it is.

RS: Waiting can be nice if it’s something nice that you’re waiting for, like your little guys in this book, the pig with the umbrella waiting for rain. She knows it’s going to rain eventually, and she likes rain. It’s always good to have something to look forward to.

KH: I was at a bookstore in Minnesota, and the bookseller who introduced me said to the group of children sitting on the floor, “This book is about waiting. Does anyone like waiting?” One lone hand went up, a little girl about six who said, “I love waiting.” I noticed her throughout my presentation, because she was very present. If I said something that was mildly funny, she laughed hysterically. She was there. Then I noticed her again near the end of the signing line.

RS: Waiting.

KH: Waiting. And then she got to the table. She put her arms on the table. She leaned in to me. She narrowed her eyes, and said, “Okay, I changed my mind. I do not like waiting.”

RS: How do you prevent a book that is about anticipation — and now of course I’ve got that damn ketchup ad in my head — do you remember that, with the Carly Simon song?

KH: Yes.

RS: When a book is about anticipation, and the setting is essentially a tableau that doesn’t change, how do you prevent it from being static? Did you have to think about how to keep it dynamic?

KH: No, I thought, how do I keep this clean and simple? It was a conscious choice to not show a child in the illustrations. I wanted to keep it simple in its design, universal in its scope. There are no references to a home other than the window. There’s no wallpaper, no floor, no carpet, no furniture. At one point I toyed with the idea of having either the tail of a dog or a cat, or a dog or a cat itself coming in and out, but a lot of the work was just scaling back. I pictured this as a book in which the reader and the listener would have a lot to talk about. Where do you think the elephant came from? Or who do you think put the gifts on the windowsill? Is someone moving the figurines?

RS: You know, I do have to ask about that elephant. Jumped or pushed?

KH: I think it was an accident with the child owner. I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and a person came up and asked, “So, did the elephant die? Isn’t that dark for a children’s book?” And I said, “Well, no. It’s a broken figurine.” Children are people, and people deal with all kinds of loss. Some children deal with huge losses. Even if they haven’t, they’ve dealt with a popped balloon or a dropped ice-cream cone. And I think that children are good at taking from a book what they need, or not taking what they don’t need. If you’re a child who has suffered a big loss, you might interpret that spread differently than a child who has not.

RS: Or if you’re a black-hearted Irishman like me, you think the owl pushed him off the ledge.

KH: Someone else asked, “On the page where the elephant arrives, why does the pig have a come-hither look?”

RS: Wait, I have to look.

KH: I said, “Really?” This person had a whole scenario.

henkes_waitingRS: It is amazing what you can do to express motive and emotion with the placement of those little dots for eyes.

KH: Yes. The book started because I began going to my local clay studio in 2006. I make little animal sculptures. I have many of them in my studio. One day I looked at the ones on the windowsill, and they really seemed like they were looking out the window, waiting. Originally I thought I would use my figurines and photograph them, but I decided that I’m much better at drawing and painting than I am at sculpting. And actual figurines would be fixed in a certain way, and I wanted to be able to at least change their eyes or the tilt of their heads.

RS: You do a really great job of having them retain their figurine nature, but giving them just enough movement to provide a story and emotions.

KH: That was tricky. I didn’t want them to be moving all over the place as if they were living, breathing beings, but I did want them to have enough life to make the story work. Some move more than others.

RS: When creating the groupings, was it in your mind that someone was moving them or that they were moving themselves?

KH: Oh, I always imagined a child who owned them and loved them playing with them. I guess there is always that question of what happens when you turn the light off.

RS: It’s kind of like that old science-fiction story, where people realize they’re just bugs and that someone’s controlling them from above.

KH: That whole idea plays into this story, I think. One could interpret this book many different ways.

RS: The toys are never described as waiting for their owner. It’s not a toy longing to be played with. They have each other.

KH: And it’s not a toy longing to become real.

RS: Right.

KH: Probably in the child owner’s eyes, they are real.

RS: I want to talk for a minute about my particular obsession with picture books, which is page turns. When you’re creating a book, when are you thinking about the page turns of the finished book?

KH: I always write the words first. I get them to the point where I think they’re perfect, and then I dummy, cut up the words and start playing around with them. That might be the point where I really see the physical page turns, but I’m already thinking about page turns when I write.

When I’m writing — and particularly when I was writing this book — I wanted there to be a real pattern to the words. In the beginning I’m playing with the pattern. “When the moon came up, / the owl was happy. / It happened a lot. / When the rain came down, / the pig was happy. / The umbrella kept her dry.” It sets up a series. After the characters are introduced, there’s the section where we’re getting more information about their lives. “Sometimes one or the other of them went away, / but he or she always came back. // Sometimes they slept. / But mostly they waited. / Sometimes gifts appeared.” So you have sometimes, sometimes, sometimes. And then to heighten that little series, once, and it’s big: “Once a visitor arrived…” When I wrote the line “They saw many wonderful, interesting things…” I remember thinking, oh, this is my chance to have a wordless section. Trying to decide how many wordless pages there would be and how the pages would play against one another—that was a long, hard process of decision-making.

RS: One thing I love about this book is that it keeps confounding us as to, well, what kind of book it is, exactly. Do you know what I mean?

KH: Oh, I do. Most of my books are about something small writ large: girl has purse, wants to show it to the world, and has to wait. The waiting again. When I decided that I wanted this book to be about waiting, I didn’t want it to just be about a child or a character waiting for something. I wanted it to be bigger than that. I was thinking about the changing of the seasons, the wonder of nature, sudden sadness and disappointment, those unexpected moments of joy or sadness that crop up while you are waiting for something. And I wanted it to be big enough to include birth and death.

RS: Ah, so the elephant does die.

KH: Well, of course that’s what I was thinking about. And with the matryoshka cat at the end, it’s birth.

RS: But it’s never a “you’re getting a baby sister” book either, though.

KH: No. Although — so far I’ve read it about twenty-five times across the country, from New York to California. With the elephant, there’s usually a collective “awww.” And with the cat, there’s usually an “aaahh.” But one little boy — he was about three — grabbed his head and said, “Oh, no. Not more babies!” I overheard someone saying he had newborn twin siblings at home. It was poignant and funny and I loved it. And again, it made me think everyone sees what they see. It might not be what I intended at all. But waiting for a baby is another big wait.

RS: This book swims against the tide of thinking we need a lot of action, that we need a child or at least personified animal characters. We need a big plot. I wouldn’t say yours is a particularly plotted book in the way we traditionally think of those.

KH: I would agree, but I would also say I think there is a lot going on.

RS: There’s a ton going on.

KH: For a young child, there’s a lot to talk about. I recently spent some time with my niece’s two-year-old daughter. I’m amazed at her ability to imagine and play with just about anything. And at her willingness to stay on one page of a book and really talk about it with an adult who’s asking questions. I think of this book as being pretty packed. I was a little surprised when I read a couple of reviews — which have been lovely — that said not much happens. I think a lot happens.

RS: But it’s not happening in a traditional plot trajectory.

KH: I’ll give you that.

RS: Do you think, as you’re creating a book for young children, about how it’s going to be read? Do you assume the kid is looking at it by him or herself? Do you assume an adult and a child together?

KH: I hope it works all ways. With this book I was thinking about an adult and a child, and thinking about an adult asking certain questions. But I think a child could do that on his or her own as well. I also wanted there to be a lot of space between the words, between the sentences, between the thoughts. I give space to the reader or listener to fill it in. I think that’s important. Even in books without pictures, I think we need a space between chapters. We need a space between paragraphs sometimes. It can be really powerful. What you leave out can be pretty dynamic.

RS: There’s so much mystery in this story. How did these particular figurines get there? Are they toys? Are they alive? What’s going on with them? Is there anybody else in the world besides them? I think you echo that mysteriousness by giving lots of room around each picture, around each sentence. Don’t you think that, visually, that encourages someone to wonder?

KH: I do. I used white space with this book in a way that I never have before. Both with the words — space between the words, the sentences — and the white space with the design of the book. And yet I wanted it to be very grounded. I wanted the illustrations to work together. I think of them as being echoes of each other. When I introduce each of the characters, there’s a double-page spread. “The owl with spots was waiting for the moon. / The pig with the umbrella was waiting for the rain.” And then: “The rabbit with stars / wasn’t waiting for anything in particular. / He just liked to look out the window and wait.” He’s in the lower right-hand corner of the right-hand page. When the cat comes, and the text goes through the whole series of questions — “Was she waiting for the moon? / No.” And then when I say, “She didn’t seem to be waiting / for anything in particular,” I’ve echoed the position of the rabbit. It creates a rhythm. There’s a reason to it. That part of bookmaking is what I love most. Thinking everything through and making it work together in a certain way.

RS: And then making all that work disappear.

KH: Yes. There’s that great M. B. Goffstein quote from her picture book An Artist: “You should work and work until it looks like you didn’t have to work at all.”

A spread that really pleased me when I came up with it was one of the wordless ones — the one where on the left-hand side of the page is the window with frost and on the right-hand side are the fireworks. I remember thinking the fernlike pattern of the frost was a great way to segue into the feathery nature of the fireworks. One is natural, and one is not. There’s a similarity, but there’s a tension. You could compare it; you could contrast it. You could talk about it; you don’t have to talk about it; you don’t even have to notice it, but I did, and that’s what matters. Those are the kinds of things that, when they happen, I think: I love my job.

More on Kevin Henkes from The Horn Book

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Jennifer Donnelly Talks with Roger Mon, 16 Nov 2015 22:20:38 +0000 jennifer donnelly twr

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

jennifer donnellyFans of Jennifer Donnelly’s first novel, A Northern Light, will enjoy her return to the Gilded Age in These Shallow Graves, a rich tale of murder and romance set in 1890 Manhattan. Plus: a fascinating presentation of early forensic medicine should draw in devotees of CSI and The Knick.

Roger Sutton: I saw on your website that you said the idea for These Shallow Graves started with an image in your head of a dead man with a tattooed face. How did that turn into this hundred-chapter triple-decker of a novel?

Jennifer Donnelly: There’s a bit of a backstory to it. I had written A Northern Light and Revolution, and both of those books had been inspired by ghosts. It’s hard dealing with ghosts, because they sit in a room with you, and they keep you company for years, and they give you their stories, but they really do take pieces of your heart in exchange for that. I was very, very weary of ghosts. So I was working on a lovely Disney series about mermaids [The Waterfire Saga], and I was having a wonderful time, and this dead man shows up in my head. I had this sinking feeling, like “Oh no, here we go again.” And then the other characters came. That’s how it happens — they sort of walk out from my imagination. His story was intertwined with theirs, but most of all with this young woman, Josephine Montfort. I had to get to know these two characters the best, but they’re very defiant and made me work hard to understand them, to coax the story out of them. It’s a difficult question, and a difficult answer, and I end up sounding like a fruitcake.

RS: I want to ask a slightly theological question. When you talk about ghosts, how literal are we being?

JD: Well, for me it’s not like a guy in a sheet howling in the corner of the room rattling chains, a green glow in a haunted house or anything like that. It is just a heaviness. It’s a feeling.

RS: So where do you think the ghost came from in this book?

JD: It was this man. He just took up residence in my head. I haven’t been able to dig deeper than that into my subconscious to figure out why. Maybe I was missing the past and history, the old streets that I like to walk down in London or Paris or New York — a kind of calling back to that.

RS: Now that it’s done, are you surprised by the direction and shape the novel took? When you originally saw this vision of the man with the tattooed face, is this the book you thought it would be?

JD: It is. I knew he didn’t get in that coffin of his own free will. There was a dark story behind him, how he died, why he was lying in his coffin, why he had the tattoos. I knew there was something sinister about it. I’m not surprised at all that it took the shape of a murder mystery. A guy in a coffin pops up in your head, it’s never going to be good.

RS: There are a lot of elements going on here. It is a murder mystery, and there’s also a whole CSI dimension.

JD: Right, with Oscar the forensic medical student. I’ve fallen in love with Oscar. Nothing can gross this guy out. He amazes me. I just adore him, and I want to find out how he progresses in life. Does he get together with the girl he likes so much? He has taken me on a journey into the history of forensics, and I’m finding out that I love it.

donnelly_these shallow gravesRS: I bet that research just begets more research.

JD: Yeah, and it’s so much fun. If there were no such thing as a deadline, I would still be researching. It’s so compelling. It feeds the story. What you uncover helps you enrich characters and think up new storylines. Story and research are very interconnected for me.

RS: Your book had me go read Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House. It’s fabulous.

JD: It’s amazing. And to think that she was brave enough to do that. She faked this whole breakdown, got herself committed, and wrote about it. She must have known to some degree what she was getting herself into, that it was going to be extremely challenging, dangerous. She actually changed policy, got money directed to the asylums, and changed the way people thought about these institutions and their patients. What a brave young woman.

RS: I think what amazed me most was her resolution that once she was in there she wasn’t going to do anything to act crazy. She was simply going to reiterate that she didn’t know who she was, but otherwise be completely rational, and that just made her seem crazier to them.

JD: You couldn’t talk your way out of it once you were inside. It’s terrifying to consider.

RS: I was really worried for your heroine, Jo. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but—

JD: Yeah. Near the end?

RS: Yes.

JD: If you were, I’ve done my job. I’m very happy about that.

RS: How do you make a Gilded Age heroine like Jo both true to her time but relatable enough to a contemporary young reader?

JD: I just let Jo speak. She is who she is. She is of her time, but she is a strong-spirited person. She’s questing and she’s restless. She’s extremely curious and intelligent. I think you let that character speak, but you also show the stumbles that somebody like that makes as she tries to express herself and grasp what she’s reaching for. She’s so torn, and with good reason. She comes from a background where there’s money, privilege, enough to eat, and there’s a lovely life waiting for her if she marries Bram.

RS: Right, Bram’s a good guy. It’s not like he’s the evil rich suitor contrasted against Jo’s other man, the upright young journalist Eddie.

JD: Yes, absolutely. He’s fantastic. I love Bram. There’s nothing horrible about him at all, so it’s a true, realistic, difficult choice for her.

RS: You’ve left a lot for us to wonder about, with her friend, Fay, who goes to Winnetka, and with Jo herself. What will happen to them next?

JD: It’s very open-ended.

RS: What’s your feeling about sequels?

JD: I would love to do one; we have to see if readers embrace the story. I want to know what happens with Jo. I can only imagine the sorts of challenges and sexism she would come up against as a young female reporter at that time. I’m curious to see what happens with her and Eddie. I want to find out what happens with Fay, and I really want to follow Oscar through the morgue and the streets of New York and see what kind of trouble he gets into.

RS: Oscar could have his own TV show. I think he should branch out.

JD: Absolutely. Why not?

RS: You’ve written a few historical novels for teenagers and a fantasy series for slightly younger kids as well as books for adults. Do these feel different to you as you write them?

JD: They share similarities. Writing any book is desperately hard for me, so that struggle is common to all the books. But besides that, I’m very aware of the openness of children, their vulnerability. For The Waterfire Saga — my mermaid books — I didn’t want much bad language or too many racy scenes, that sort of thing. The message had to be clear and the plot had to be strong and engaging, because kids of that age will get frustrated if you don’t get to the point. I feel like I can take a little more time and ramble around a bit more in my YA and adult books. But the commonality among all of them (other than being difficult to write) is that there’s a lot of emotion. And hopefully a compelling plot. Hopefully there’s something that will inspire the reader as he or she goes through the book as well.

RS: I was just thinking that if you did write a sequel to These Shallow Graves it could almost be published as an adult book. I wonder if that’s ever happened before.

JD: That’s a good question. I have no idea. Watching the characters get older…

RS: Right. Because this does seem to me to be a true crossover book. An adult would read this with no particular sense of “Oh, I’m reading a book for young people.”

JD: I don’t worry too much about those distinctions, because you can try to tell readers what to read and where to go in the bookstore, and they’re going to do what they want to do. Readers will not be pigeonholed.

RS: Something I think you’ve done well in These Shallow Graves is to create a world for a reader to go into and wander around. We go uptown. We go downtown. Your characters are inhabiting a real place.

JD: I tried to make the city not just a setting but a character in its own right, someplace palpable that the reader can really orient herself within.

RS: We’re having a mini-trend with this era, both in steampunk books and straightforward historical fiction. Often it’s London, but some are set in the United States. I wonder if part of the reason is the parallels to our world today. We’re in another Gilded Age, where some people are experiencing great wealth and luxury, and other people — most people — are not.

JD: What’s going on in the world right now, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots — it almost feels insurmountable. Looking at the strides women have made, though, we’ve come such a long way. Jo didn’t even have the vote. Working outside the home, for a woman of her class and station, was unthinkable. There is still wage disparity in the U.S. and so many issues, such as domestic violence, to be addressed. But then I think of places today where it’s so dangerous just for a girl to want to go to school. I think your point is incredibly apt.

RS: Do you find that your novel overlays itself in your imagination when you visit New York now?

JD: Totally. That always happens. I can see an old building or an old facade or an old railing, and standing across the street from it, I just squint my eyes, and suddenly it’s back a hundred years, and the person walking out of it is dressed like a Victorian. But certain types endure as well, and you see them today moving along the sidewalks. It’s ghosts all over again. And the fact that the city is trying to pave itself over as fast as it can, and build itself up, and yet it can never escape its past. I like this contrast. I like living in that space between them as a writer.

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Jodi Lynn Anderson Talks with Roger Tue, 13 Oct 2015 19:20:12 +0000 jodi lynn anderson TWR

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

jodi lynn andersonAmbitious but light-handed, My Diary from the Edge of the World is the story of twelve-year-old Gracie, whose family is being threatened by an ominous Cloud, sending them on a road trip to the edge of the world. Literally: while Gracie’s world is much like our own, it is also flat. My conversation with Jodi Lynn Anderson (author also of the May Bird trilogy and several books for young adults) turned decidedly cosmic as we explored the Big Questions her novel is unafraid to address.

Roger Sutton: When creating an alternate world, how do you know how much you can do? How much can you change from our world? How much do you leave the same?

Jodi Lynn Anderson: I guess it comes down to choosing the story you want to tell, choosing what you want to focus on. You could go down a wormhole of different aspects for the world, which, in My Diary from the Edge of the World, is basically our world but tweaked.

RS: Right.

JLA: With this book it became a question of how many things did I want to tweak. When did those little changes contribute to the book’s momentum and the character-building, and when did they take something away or slow things down?

RS: How much did you know about the world your characters were going to be in when you began?

JLA: Well, I’m a little bit obsessed with old nautical maps. A lot of times when I’m supposed to be working, I’m just Googling old maps, those ones that say “here be dragons,” with drawings of mermaids and giant squids and all of those things. The idea for this book started with me thinking: what if those creatures imagined by the people drawing those maps had turned out to actually be out there? What effect would that have had on the way the world took shape? How would it have changed history? The big thing for me was the Industrial Revolution, and how wild beasts could have interrupted things.

RS: I think you did it with aplomb, to say that this major event that created our modern world didn’t happen.

JLA: My idea was that the Industrial Revolution happened a little bit, but it got truncated, in some good ways and some bad ways. Everybody has some ambivalence about the Industrial Revolution, what benefits it brought and also what harm, so there’s a little bit of that in there.

RS: It must have been difficult to do it with such a light touch, unless you’re just one of those irrepressibly funny people — are you?

JLA: I’m pretty goofy. But Gracie is not really me. The first image I had of Gracie was this girl I knew at summer camp who would stand on a picnic table and have everybody throw Cheerios into her mouth. She was just this confident, attention-loving, irresistible person.

RS: Gracie’s big sister accuses her of being a psychopath when it comes to seeking attention!

JLA: Yes. And there are many positives and downsides to that, and I wanted those both to be present in Gracie’s personality.

anderson_my diary from the edge of the worldRS: I really identified with Gracie when she’s talking about writing in her diary and says, “I wonder that if you keep growing and changing like you’re supposed to, if you always end up embarrassed about how stupid you used to be.” I feel that all the freakin’ time.

JLA: Oh my god. That was definitely straight from my own personality, the best of myself.

RS: Did you write when you were a kid?

JLA: I did, but I was very, very private about everything. I was a quiet kid, and I was secretive about my writing, so I wrote a lot but rarely shared it with people. It just felt so personal and vulnerable. I shoved my notebooks under my bed. We moved from my childhood home when I was thirteen, and I buried my journals under a big boulder in the backyard. I went on to be an English major, and then I moved to New York and worked in publishing. That was where I was forced to share my work.

RS: What did you do in publishing?

JLA: I was an editorial assistant at HarperCollins to begin with, and then I worked at a book packaging company called 17th Street Productions [now Alloy Entertainment].

RS: Oh, they did those paperback series for teens.

JLA: They did, yeah. A lot of that job was sharing creative work and trying to develop ideas and do outlines. That was the first time I really had to expose my own work. It slowly built my confidence.

RS: What did you find that working on the other side of things in publishing did for your writing, or to it?

JLA: It taught me so much — especially about structuring stories — that I don’t know that I ever would have learned on my own. On the other side, when I left to write for myself it took me a while to embrace my own quirkiness and weirdness. To not always think, “Who’s going to read this?” but instead to trust that this is the story I need to write and that it’ll find its audience. That was a challenge, coming from a world where I always needed to think of the audience as one of the primary factors.

RS: I think most publishing is a negotiation between what the author wants to say and what the audience wants to read. Books fall at different spots on that continuum, but both things are always in play.

JLA: It’s true, and it’s almost like a conversation I’m having with someone else. Maybe it’s just that the longer anyone writes, the more they trust their own idiosyncrasies, and trust that somebody else will be able to connect with them. That’s been the hardest and most rewarding growth for me as a writer over the years.

RS: One thing that can drive me crazy as a reviewer — and we get a lot of books like this — is when the main character is really just meant to be a stand-in for the reader, so it’s kind of a generic kid’s voice. Whereas in your book, Gracie really is an individual. She’s a true character.

JLA: With Gracie, it was her personality from the start that drove so much of my outlining and structuring of the story. The story came more naturally that way. It was just a joy to sit down to write every day, because I felt like this character was in control, so there was always momentum.

RS: How much did you know about the ending of the story when you began? It’s a great ending. I don’t know how we can talk about it without giving it away, though.

JLA: The characters are searching for this world, and — actually, that’s one major thing I didn’t know. I didn’t know whether they were going to find it or not, or how I was going to resolve that. I knew from the beginning how the loose ends of the family story tied up.

RS: Did you know how the — let’s say vaguely — the business with the Cloud was going to work out?

JLA: I did. There was always this sense of finding acceptance. That is part of what Gracie’s journey is about, not prevailing over something inevitable, but instead finding a different way of looking at the inevitable, and finding a way to incorporate it into her life.

RS: And how about the — how do we distinguish the two endings here? When they get where they’re going, and they discover that they can’t do what they thought they were going to do.

JLA: Right.

RS: As I was reading the book, I thought this must be the first in a trilogy. Because I’m looking at what I’ve read, and I’m looking at how many pages I have left, and I’m thinking they’re not going to be able to do what they need to do here. Can we assume that this is the end of the story?

JLA: It is.

RS: Good for you, girl. I’m tired of these multi-volume things.

JLA: Yes. I’ve written a few books that had follow-ups, and also a trilogy. That’s not where my head is at right now, and I just felt complete about this story.

RS: There’s a scene at the end where Gracie’s family gets to look at, but not touch, what might have been different for them. That was really powerful. Do you think alternative worlds are out there?

JLA: I do. I get a lot of comfort from reading about those kinds of things, and I think it’s because it makes me feel as if time and reality have more meaning than what we can grasp. Especially with losing people. I find that idea extremely comforting.

RS: Did you have any thought about what actually happens to a person in the Cloud?

JLA: I think it’s transformation, and what lies at the other side of the transformation is not all that relevant. Up until that moment of transformation, the idea of what is actually happening in the Cloud is subjective. That’s why each person sees the Cloud differently, sees a different shape in the Cloud. But then once that threshold has been stepped over, that shape doesn’t really matter so much. It’s a change.

RS: I like to think that when it happens, we understand it at that moment, and recognize it.

JLA: I would like to hope that as well.

RS: How much of this book would you say is you exploring what you know, and how much is you finding out things that you want to know?

JLA: It’s always so much of both. When I was twelve, my family moved from an idyllic little town in the northeast U.S. to Hong Kong. It was just me and my parents, and we were thrown together a lot.

RS: And in such a different world.

JLA: Exactly. A lot of that experience went into this book. Those dynamics of being in close quarters with your family was something I knew very well and was trying to revisit. And then on the other hand I’m always reaching toward things that I don’t know. The longer I’m writing, the more certain I am that I’m leaving a lot of things unanswered. That’s the most truthful way for me to end things. The book ties up in a lot of ways, but at the same time Gracie’s left reaching toward all of her wants, and I think that’s the way life is.

RS: I think that kind of an ending allows the character to stay in the reader’s mind. You don’t want to feel like everything’s all wrapped up, because then you don’t have to think about them anymore.

JLA: That’s such a good point. I totally agree.

RS: It’s different from not tying up a plot thread, which is annoying — when you finish reading a book thinking, wait a minute, she made such a big deal out of X. What happened with that? But I think you really crossed your ts as far as the structure of your book is concerned. To leave the characters wondering, or even grieving, is not a bad thing.

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Jonathan Stroud Talks with Roger Wed, 30 Sep 2015 19:25:17 +0000 Jonathan Stroud Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

stroud_jonathan_300x439In The Hollow Boy, the third book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series, Lockwood, Lucy, and George are still attacking the Problem: their alternate-world London is being stalked by ghosts that only young people can see — and defeat. I talked with Jonathan about world-building, series-continuing, and negotiating the needs of fans.

Roger Sutton: I’m curious about — in particular with the Lockwood series, but thinking about Bartimaeus as well — two things. You want Question One first or Question Two first?

Jonathan Stroud: Well…we can make it Question Two, right?

RS: Okay, Question Two is: When you have a world, as you do in the Lockwood & Co. books, that is like ours if not quite ours, how do you decide what the rules of that universe are going to be? Or is that something you work out as you go?

JS: It’s an organic process. I kind of work from the middle outward, I suppose. Both in Bartimaeus and in Lockwood, that middle-beginning comes with the key characters. I’ll start with the idea of a djinni as narrator who’s being controlled by dodgy human magicians. The first scene I wrote is the djinni meeting this kid who’s his master. At that point I knew nothing more about the world, really. I gradually pieced it together around that initial sequence. With Lockwood, I began with a boy and a girl walking up to a door in modern London, and they had swords at their belts, and they were going to deal with a ghost. I had them talking to each other, sort of bantering, but I knew nothing about the logic of the world. Why were children doing that? I had no clue.

RS: So you hadn’t even thought of “the Problem” at that time?

JS: Exactly. I wrote maybe three pages of the first chapter, just these two kids talking. And then I put it down, and I had to pause some while I was sitting there scratching my neck and wondering what reason it would be that they’re there without any adults, and what happens when they go inside. It took quite a long time to actually get them in the door, because I had to set some ground rules straightaway. You don’t get those all in one go. But clearly whatever rules I invent for the first book in a series, I have to make sure they remain fast.

RS: Right, and I think you do a good job of parceling them out. It’s not like we have to digest all the rules at the beginning.

JS: I’ve read books, and I’m sure you have too, where you just get hit between the eyes at the beginning with huge amounts of exposition about how everything hangs together. It’s unnecessary. The real world doesn’t work that way. We’re still discovering subtleties about how the world operates. You’re constantly fleshing it out. There’s no reason why an invented world should be any different.

RS: Have you read Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice? It’s a collection of short stories set in these completely unexplained worlds. And she just-sort-of-maybe drops in a rule about how that world works, and maybe she doesn’t. It’s almost as if they’re tales of straightforward realism set in very odd places.

JS: And you buy it, don’t you? If it’s done well.

RS: It’s very disorienting at the same time.

JS: Yes. It’s a fine balance, isn’t it? In fantasy, there’s nothing worse than feeling that the ground is shifting beneath your feet, where the rules suddenly change halfway through. The author has to play fair. But you’re right, part of the fun is throwing in the odd little detail and letting the ripples of it stretch out in the reader’s mind, even if you don’t necessarily ever refer to it again. It’s there, part of the furniture.

RS: I would think, too — and here is Question One — that the use of magic has to be handled very carefully, so that it doesn’t become a substitute for plot development.

JS: With Bartimaeus, one of the things I discovered — it wasn’t intentional — was that as a djinni he had all of these protean abilities, magical powers, but when he came to Earth he was immediately constrained by the binding that the kid had put upon him. So the whole energy and the frisson of the books is that he can’t do what he wants to do, and it becomes a problem for him and an amusement for us. If it were easy for him, it would quickly become very tiresome for readers.

RS: That’s why Superman needed kryptonite.

JS: Yeah. It’s why I think a lot of these superhero movies and comics ultimately get a bit tiresome. (I’m saying that as a big fan.)

RS: Oh, you’re in trouble now.

JS: There has to be an element of danger. Things get rebooted so often, and the characters get in all sorts of peril, but ultimately they always seem to dust themselves off and hitch up their britches and walk away.

RS: How does a writer deal with that? I think about this when I watch cop shows on TV, even — that you want to have your characters in the greatest peril, and you want the viewer, or the reader, to feel the terror along with that person, but you know the hero has to survive for the next episode. There was that one show Spooks [MI-5 in the U.S.], though, do you remember it? On BBC?

JS: Yeah.

RS: Spooks knocked off main characters left and right. But you can’t really do that in a book for kids. Or in a book for anybody, really.

JS: No. In Bartimaeus I did do it, ultimately, and unexpectedly. I think there always has to be a sense that you could do it, that you are prepared to do it, and if you don’t, the character is lucky, and the reader feels that luck. That gives you the sense that the peril is genuine, and the relief is genuine too.

RS: I also think you can, as you have in the Lockwood series, leave your characters with genuine scars, both psychic and physical, from encounters that they have with (in this case) the Problem.

JS: That’s right. In the world in which you and I live, a fatal disaster is not so common — heaven knows that’s not always the case — but for us it is more about the psychic scars, the minor battering that you get as you go through life. So you do want your characters to have bruises from the things they experience. That makes them more lovable and identifiable, I think, from the point of view of the reader.

stroud_hollow boyRS: I’m trying to figure out a way to phrase this question without giving away the ending of your book, because we don’t want to do that — but something very dramatically changes in the last sentence of The Hollow Boy

JS: Yes, true.

RS: —and how do you pick up from that in starting the next volume?

JS: Usually with a series — it was the same with Bartimaeus — I will have a vague idea of where I’m going, but it’s only vague, and it can be altered at any given moment. Funny enough, as you rang, I was just working away on the structure of the next book. I’d actually done a very, very early version of that a year ago, when I was thinking about book three. I already had in my mind a possible way of continuing the story. And yet you have to be ready to throw that away if necessary. Now I’m trying to firm it up. Part of the beauty of it, part of the challenge of a writer, is to try to keep that balance: forward planning with improvisation. The two have to coexist. If you have everything mapped out from the beginning, it becomes arid. Similarly, if you fly by the seat of your pants entirely, it’s a bit high-risk. So I’m constantly trying to think ahead, but at the same time, not paint myself into a corner. I need there to be varied options. That links back to the question about what happens to the characters. With the Lockwood books, I genuinely don’t yet know what’s going to happen to my characters at the end. That means there is a potential threat hanging over them like an ominous cloud. I treat it with respect and my reader with respect, but I do keep it open as I go.

RS: What do you think adding a fourth ghostbuster in this volume does to the dynamic among the characters?

JS: I was quite pleased with it as a way of shaking up the existing dynamic. You have a nice triangular relationship between Lockwood, who’s the dashing central character in a way — he’s the titular character — but in another way, the central character is Lucy, the narrator. It’s her emotions we primarily follow. And George, who’s the third guy. [Ed. note: Poor George.] The three of them have a very nice, close, interconnected dynamic. And bringing in a fourth, and indeed female, character, Holly, really destabilizes things from Lucy’s point of view. That’s really been fun. It allowed me to focus more closely on Lucy’s emotional state, foreground it, and make her that much more affecting.

RS: At what point did you know there was going to be a series of books, not just one?

JS: Fairly early on, it had that potential. I remember with Bartimaeus, all those years ago, I wrote about fifty or sixty pages of the first book before I realized that there was too much going on for it to be one book. This time, because I’m a bit older and grayer and more grizzled, I sat there thinking about the problem of the Problem, what the Problem was, and what the book was going to try and do. I figured out almost straightaway my plan would be to have a series of very traditional ghost-hunting narratives, but then surround that with this wider issue of why the ghosts are coming back, and the social implications of it. That was quite interesting, embedding traditional ghost narratives in a wider social context. That is something I couldn’t do in one book. It was going to have to be a series.

RS: I thought it was pretty brilliant to make one of the rules the fact that only children could really deal with these ghosts.

JS: It was the first rule that I had to figure out. Why were these kids there? Where were the grownups? There had to be some pretty basic reason. It’s not just the old Scooby-Doo type thing where you’re a bunch of kids having an adventure. There are real ghosts. They’re really dangerous. And the adults can’t see them. That immediately has implications for how the society functions. The adults are vulnerable, but also still control things. They try and remain safe, but send kids into the houses to deal with the phantoms and potentially get killed. The adults stay at home at night, and the kids go out after dark. It’s fun to play with that.

RS: Will we see in the fourth volume — I don’t want to say a resolution to the Problem, but will we get a bigger picture of it?

JS: We will. As I’m speaking now, I’m thinking that I may do five books, and the fifth one will be the one that has the ultimate resolution. But, yes, having focused quite closely on the emotional dynamics of my heroes in book three, I think book four will open out again a little bit more and give a few tentative answers.

RS: Do you have any demands from fans as to how certain things happen or don’t happen?

JS: Well, yes, actually. There’s definitely a large number of people who are quite keen, particularly, on there being an emotional resolution to the Lockwood and Lucy relationship. That’s of interest to a fair number of readers.

RS: Are you seeing fanfiction about the two of them?

JS: I know it exists, but I don’t read it. When I do a naughty Google search, I’ll find all sorts of excerpts about Lockwood and Lucy. There’s a lot of fan art kicking around, and quite often that’s fairly…well, Lockwood and Lucy in loving clinches. So I’m under no illusions about what people would like. I guess to a certain extent one has to detach oneself a little bit from that and try and follow the way you want to go.

RS: And it is kind of a nice problem to have. It wouldn’t happen if people weren’t so wrapped up in the story.

JS: No, it’s the best. It suggests that your characters are living, breathing creations outside the little bits of paper in your messy old study. I remember, back with Bartimaeus, that somebody sent me a letter with an alternative ending to the series. There’s quite an apocalyptic finish to the third Bartimaeus book, and a girl wrote me a lovely alternative ending where everything was resolved in a much more upbeat way. It really moved me. It was wrong from an aesthetic point of view—I didn’t think that as a story ending it was correct. But from the point of view of wish-fulfillment and wanting the best for my characters, it actually made me feel very moved.

RS: In the Talks with Roger interview I did with Lisa Graff, we talked about J. K. Rowling’s periodic announcements about this or that character after the books have been published. You know, like when she told us that Dumbledore was gay. How much ownership do you feel over these characters?

JS: The only character of mine who could almost exist independently of me is Bartimaeus. A djinni that’s been around for thousands of years — it almost feels natural that I can assert him as being present in a couple of different epochs. People ask me if I’m going to write another Bartimaeus book, and I think yeah, sure, I could. He’s out there somewhere having adventures, and I no doubt could tap into it. He does have that sort of life for me. Beyond that, you give it your best shot in the book. You have a certain number of pages; you put down what you can, and then you leave it to other people to extend it. I think it would be wrong to keep adding footnotes and explanations to something that should be a finished text.

RS: That people can take and do with what they will.

JS: Fanfiction, which is great and lovely. That’s what we all do. Every time you read a book, you see things in your own unique way. The way you read Harry Potter will be subtly different from the way that I read it, and we’ll get different things from it. There’s no right and wrong answer, and if we want to go off and have fantasies about Dumbledore or anyone else, that’s certainly correct.

RS: What about George and Lockwood, nudge-nudge-wink-wink?

JS: Well, yes. Old George, you see, he’s a bit unnoticed. Lockwood’s sort of swishing around with his long coat, and Lucy’s looking after him with her big eyes, and old George is there on the sidelines. Absolutely. What’s his take on it? I think a lot of people would probably identify with George. I think, in a way, I identify with George.

RS: Me too.

JS: Most people probably have a little bit of a soft spot for him.

RS: All right, I’ve got tons of material here, Jonathan, and I can let you go.

JS: Okay, that sounds brilliant. I look forward to the headline on top saying “Stroud Denigrates Superheroes.” Oh, dear.

More on Jonathan Stroud from The Horn Book

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