The Horn Book » » Talks with Roger Publications about books for children and young adults Fri, 23 Sep 2016 17:46:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Monika Schröder Talks with Roger Tue, 13 Sep 2016 21:18:32 +0000 monika-schroder-twr

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monika-schroderWren is new to the town of Pyramid, Michigan, practically catapulted there from Georgia after her father is killed in a plane crash and her mother tries to outrun her grief and anger by furiously driving north. But in Pyramid, Wren finds a friend, and a Cause, and wants to stay. Can she convince her mother that this could be their new home?

Roger Sutton: Be Light like a Bird made me want to go to Michigan, to the Upper Peninsula, where I’ve never been. Did you know the setting before the story or did you know the story before the setting?

MS: I knew the setting before the story. I usually seem to start with setting. It just happens that way, even in my historical fiction or my book about India (Saraswati’s Way). This one was also born by spending time in that setting because we have a cabin in Michigan. It started as a school story, but when I saw the actual landfill and I heard that people had tried to fight it, this idea came to me about how a girl could be involved in the fight.

RS: You knew the setting, but does the setting drive the story? How much of a part does that play for you?

MS: It does play a big part. Wren made a connection with the place when she got there. She found the pond, a spot where she could find a little peace, and had that connection to bird-watching and her dad. And then the connection with the school project — I thought that was a good plot structure, to make one lead to the other.

RS: Right, and it does bring her together with Theo.

MS: And then they start to do something together about saving the land, so then that friendship grew. But it all began with the setting. I always hear that other writers start with a character, and I should probably try that.

RS: When I first met you, you were living in India. Do you move around a lot?

MS: We used to. My husband and I lived for sixteen years overseas. He’s from Michigan, I’m from Germany. We worked in connection with American schools overseas. We stayed three years in Oman and three years in Chile, one year in Egypt, and then eight years in India. But my husband is older than I am and he was ready to retire. Now we don’t move anymore.

RS: But it sounds like you’ve experienced something of what Wren does, going from place to place.

MS: Yes, though maybe it was easier for me. I always thought if you live this overseas life, your marriage has to be really solid. There’s so much movement and so much stress, and that puts a lot of pressure on two people. It worked really well for us, but for kids — I was an elementary school teacher before I became a librarian. A lot of these kids would only stay somewhere for two years, sometimes only a year. I think that was very hard, making friends and then losing them again. Some of them even gave up like Wren did when she knew a place was just going to be temporary. It’s hard on kids to be itinerant like that.

RS: I don’t know how they do it. I had the experience of staying in the same town and the same school system for all twelve years. I don’t know what it would be like to hop from place to place. It seems absolutely terrifying, even now as an adult.

MS: For some kids it’s even the language. They may not be native English speakers. They come in and all of a sudden function in another code. Wren and I have that in common, a little bit.

RS: What is it like for you being raised in Germany and now writing primarily for and about American children? You and I are old people now, and life for young people is different. But how does your own childhood affect the way you write for children today? For children of a different culture.

schroder_be-light-like-a-birdMS: As a writer you dip into your childhood in different ways for different books. There’s always a little bit of who you are in the story — sometimes more than just a little bit. I used to say, when kids asked me, that my first book (The Dog in the Wood) was about fear. Saraswati’s Way was about impatience. In a way, Be Light like a Bird is about forgiveness, among other things, but I think it has a lot to do with that. The way we grow up may be different, the food we eat or the playground we play in, but wanting to belong somewhere, having conflicts with parents, the fear that others may be mean, that you don’t belong to a group — those are certainly things I experienced that I know will still be a part of life for children now. Writing for the first time a contemporary book set in the United States, I did avoid the texting and iPhones and all that. The characters were still going to the good old library and looking at the internet there. They were still actually using books, even. Which is probably really old-fashioned. Now if you want to find out what the recycle rate is in another country, you just look it up on your smartphone. So maybe I cheated a little bit, but the fact is in some places — among them, the island where our cabin is — you don’t have regular cell reception, so that may be my excuse. The technology makes it harder to write contemporary-set stories and eventually might push me into historical fiction.

RS: I’ve had this conversation a couple of times now with your fellow writers. Contemporary technology does provide an unwelcome shortcut for many problems that the traditional novel would use to set up conflict — you can’t find something, you don’t know something. Now we have the answer in our pocket. Plus, kids today know much more about the technology they use than we will ever know.

MS: Now that I think of it, that scene in which Carrie and Victoria are actually looking at a magazine — I don’t even know if paper magazines are still around. [Ed. Note: a-HEM] They may still be around, but people probably also have them on their devices. I have seen a few books in which people use texting. It’s possible. I have to admit — I’ve only owned my smartphone for a year.

RS: Do you text?

MS: My friends tease me about it. I still use a computer for texting. I can’t really do it on the phone. At least I’ve embraced the idea of messaging.

RS: And how is your reception down there in the Blue Ridge Mountains?

MS: It’s good. This is civilization, Roger. You should come and look.

RS: Oh, it’s beautiful down there. I’ve been.

MS: It is, yeah.

RS: Do you watch birds?

MS: I’ve learned more about birds now that I have a big garden. I see lots of them through the window. We have no cats, so I think that keeps more birds around. My father and grandmother were birdwatchers. When I was a kid, my grandmother would always imitate bird sounds. There was a time I was convinced she could actually really talk with them. She would whistle, they would whistle back, and then she would tell me what they had talked about, so I thought, “Oh, she can speak bird language.” But I’m not that kind of person who goes out bird-watching like Wren does, like she did with her dad.

RS: It would be neat to have the concentration for that. I don’t know if I do.

MS: That was one of the fundamental things about Wren’s character, because it does take that concentration. I don’t know how many kids really do this on their own — she had to be led into it by her father. My dad was an avid environmentalist. When I was Wren’s age, for example, he would teach me all the names of weeds. I know them in German, so that doesn’t help me now. But I think it helps if you have an adult who shows you how to pay attention, and that’s what birding does.

RS: I want to know, because I neither bird-watch nor garden, what kind of attention gardening affords a person.

MS: I think gardening is the perfect hobby for a writer, because it requires patience. You put in bulbs in October, and you have to wait until March, April, until something comes up, if you’re lucky. I was never a gardener when I was overseas because we lived in big cities and apartments, and now we have this acre of land. I never even thought that this would be something I’d be interested in, but now I’m really in love with it. In that sense it’s also like writing because it requires some idea of a design. You have to think about what it’s going to be like when you’re done, and you have to anticipate future developments just like you do when you’re working on a book. And then also exactly like writing, your plan might not turn out the way it originally looked. That happens to me. This is my third year of gardening. It was a tough summer, dry, so a lot of plants showed me that they need more care than I could give. Or design decisions didn’t work. And I think also about the physicality of gardening — it requires that you go out and weed. That’s a lot of physical work that makes you move. I like that, too, because you don’t sit on your butt the whole time. When the garden starts to blossom in the spring, it gives me immense pleasure to walk around and look at it. It’s crazy, but I really enjoy it.

schroder-gardenRS: Do you think about your writing while you garden?

MS: I try not to. I think about the analytical part of writing too much, about structure. I have this editor on my back all the time. I don’t easily tap into what I’ve heard Donna Jo Napoli call “the white heat.” Sometimes I get so caught up in thinking about it that it’s good to tell myself to go out and weed now — weeding, cutting, putting mulch on. It frees my brain from obsessing over what should happen in my plot, who’s this side character that I don’t know yet.

RS: I’ll tell myself sometimes when I go out for a run, if I’m working on something, I’ll think about it. But nine times out of ten I end up not thinking about it, but still have the answer at the other end. It feels like magic.

MS: I guess that’s how the subconscious works. That happens to me too. Again, because I don’t have other gainful employment now, no children — I have a husband, a dog, and a garden — I also go for walks.

RS: We have the same life.

MS: You also live with an older man.

RS: Yes, an older man, we have a dog, and we have a garden. I have nothing to do with it, but we have a garden. We go for walks.

MS: There you go. And then when you sit around, you put words on paper. Or you also read a lot, I guess, just like I do.

RS: Perfect, isn’t it?

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Jewell Parker Rhodes Talks with Roger Mon, 22 Aug 2016 16:40:59 +0000 jewell parker rhodes TWR

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jewell parker rhodesWhile most adults (for now) count September 11th, 2001, as memory, for today’s fifth graders it is history, if known at all. Dèja, whose family has moved from living in a car to staying in a homeless shelter, hasn’t heard of it, although the attack has had a tremendous impact on her life, something she will come to understand as she begins the year in a Brooklyn school with a heartbreaking, inspiring curriculum.

RS: What do you remember about September 11th?

JPR: I was in bed in Arizona. I was not in New York City. I think if I had been in the city, I might not have been able to write this book. My husband called me downstairs to watch the coverage on television. The two of us were absolutely grief stricken. It seriously affected my mental health. I went into a depression — I just felt shaken to the core. I think the only thing that got me through was the idea that, given all the people who died or were wounded or lost their loved ones, I should take care to live my life to the fullest, and part of that is being a writer. In that sense, I’m connected to the event by my desire to do something to honor the 9/11 survivors and those who didn’t survive. Something that moves our society forward, something that engages children in what it means to be a citizen and encourages them to love and be inclusive. Because if we don’t live our lives well — if I don’t live my life well — it’s an affront to all the people who were involved in the tragedy of 9/11.

RS: What experience have you had sharing 9/11 with young people? Was there any child in your own life you needed to tell about it?

JPR: No, and in fact the idea for writing this book wasn’t mine at all. It came from Liza Baker, my editor at Little, Brown, at the time. She had seen on 60 Minutes that children were growing up not knowing about 9/11, and she said, “Would you like to try writing this book?” I immediately said, “Nope, I’m not going to do it.” The more I thought about it, though, over several months, it burrowed deep inside my soul. My background is in teaching, and I love the idea of teachers teaching my books. That helped me frame the novel in a fifth-grade classroom, which gave me distance from the event itself. It also gave me room to imagine how an elementary school curriculum would teach it, as well as how the children themselves would perceive what happened, particularly if they find out that 9/11 has affected them quite personally. I think that’s the key to this book. When I actually went and visited schools, I learned they were not teaching 9/11, that the teachers felt the trauma was too immediate. Yet the world has changed so much because of terrorism, so much since 9/11. It seemed wrong to me that children did not have a sense of it, a place to talk about it, to understand how the world they’re growing up in is unlike any other world we’ve ever had before. It should be discussed. It shouldn’t be off-limits.

RS: I was thinking about how when I was a little kid in the early sixties we would play war, like World War II. And it seemed completely separate from our own lives, even though our fathers had fought in that war.

JPR: That’s very interesting. Maybe it has to do with distance, the fact that World War II happened very much abroad.

RS: That’s true.

JPR: In American history, there are only six times that we’ve had actual attacks on our soil. It becomes visceral in a new kind of way. One of the things I was made aware of is that kids today understand their dad or mom is off at war. Iraq and Afghanistan have been such long wars and so many people have been involved in them, that children are aware of things like post-traumatic stress syndrome and redeployment. And if you also look at the phenomenon on YouTube of all the videos of soldiers coming home and surprising their children—

RS: And their dogs.

JPR: And their dogs, yes. Children’s lives are more touched by 9/11 and service people going to war than we think.

RS: I agree.

JPR: That’s what I try to confront in the book. Dèja doesn’t know that her dad’s anxiety and stress come from being a 9/11 survivor.

rhodes_towers fallingRS: How do you write a book about 9/11 without people saying, “Oh, it’s an issue book”?

JPR: I never thought of it as an issue book. I believe in character-driven fiction, and I can’t write a book until I hear a character’s voice. Dèja’s voice came so clearly to me. All of the children’s did. I saw the story as a mystery for her, discovering how this thing that happened fifteen years ago impacted her family’s life to the point where her family is now homeless.

It’s also a story of how adults, when teaching and sharing traumatic events, sometimes tread very, very carefully because they think children aren’t ready. And how kids are often much more ready than we give them credit for. Teachers, of course, are doing a terrific job, but I think kids are far more hungry, far more knowing. It’s about their own individual rites of passage. So I don’t see it as an issue book at all. I see it as kids uncovering mysteries. If readers aren’t caught up in the story, caught up in the journey of these characters, then it would be a failed book. My job is to make kids feel immersed in a world, make them hear the voices and go on these journeys of discovery. That’s true whether I’m writing about Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, or the Twin Towers falling. First and foremost it’s a story that’s centered on children.

RS: That’s why these events stay with us, because of the effect they had on people.

JPR: Exactly. That’s what makes it critical. What happened to the individual, the friend, the community, the society. That’s what I’m writing about.

RS: Throughout your book, you’ve got these Venn diagram maps that the kids make of themselves and their families, friends, community, etc. Don’t you think time works that way too? We build those circles over the length of our lives. What happened to Dèja’s father was years before she was born, but nevertheless, that reverberates with her today. She doesn’t know why for most of the book, but it does.

JPR: Exactly. It underscores the idea that history is always relevant. It’s always personal, because it involves human beings. The way to confront or triumph over adversity, over tragic historical events, is that social network of family, friends, community, nation. The Venn diagrams are also connected to me. I went to visit P.S. 146, where they had a wall of windows and actually saw the towers being hit and then falling. I asked if they teach about 9/11, and the answer was no; the trauma was too real, too recent. But they were teaching a unit on the Holocaust, and one thing that was really critical was starting with the concrete: If you had to leave your home and you could only take one suitcase, what would you bring? And then, of course, as the tragedy marches along, more and more things are given up. That was also an entryway into Towers Falling. Of all the things that are so concrete and so important in this world, we come up with the notion of home as the most important thing. What is home? In the novel, home is not a building. Home is a social network. Home is that community. And from there we build our American home.

RS: I love the way you had the kids acting on their own. As you said, the teacher is very careful about parceling out the information about 9/11, but the kids can just get on a computer and find out anything they want.

JPR: Can you imagine that? Nobody did that for the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812. Children today have access in the blink of an eye. They can see these things happening. For me, watching footage of the towers burning and the towers falling, all I feel is the horribleness of that day. The real truth is that in terms of our country’s response, the bravery, the courage, the sense of patriotism, the unity — our response was beautiful. That beautiful response is based in our founding principles, what has kept us together as a nation over all the different problems we’ve had to deal with. I wanted kids to have context for seeing that horrible footage. I wanted them to feel the patriotism that united us, the sense of inclusivity, of not discriminating against religions. I want that feeling back, and I want to remind kids — and all of us — that we have a tremendous power when we remember our history and our founding principles.

RS: So, how are you feeling about that now, in this election season?

JPR: When I was watching the conventions, I felt that my students in Towers Falling could teach the politicians a thing or two. I really did. Children know you ought to be fair. Especially fifth graders. I love fifth graders. They know that bullying is wrong. They know that you should praise one another, and that differences make a strong community. So sometimes I feel as though I can’t wait for the fifth graders to grow up and rule the world. I think my book is a really good reminder that divisiveness will never work in America. Or if it does work, then we’ll no longer be the country that we think we are.

RS: What do you think, for you, is so special about fifth grade?

JPR: I have to be honest and say it’s the hugs. They’re just at the moment between being a child and growing into that man or woman they’re going to be. It’s a critical, focused time, and yet they’re not shy about sharing affection. They’re not shy about telling the truth. They’re optimistic.

I’ve been waiting a long time to be a children’s book author. I’ve spent decades getting good enough to write for children. When a kid likes my book, or just likes that I’m visiting and talking to him or her, and I get a hug, I feel reborn. That hug that says you made a connection — there’s nothing better in the whole wide world.

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Kelly Barnhill Talks with Roger Fri, 05 Aug 2016 15:56:16 +0000 kelly barnhill twr

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kelly barnhill

Photo: Bruce Silcox

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is Kelly Barnhill’s fourth fantasy novel, none of them a sequel, God bless her. The girl of the title is Luna, found — and enmagicked — as a baby by Xan, a wise woman centuries older than she looks. Reading the book in preparation for this interview I was struck by just how many balls it keeps in the air (see below) and I had to laugh as Kelly and I started talking, because she is exactly the same way.

Roger Sutton: Where did this story start?

Kelly Barnhill: With all of my books, I think about them for a long time before I begin writing. For this particular book, I knew a lot of stuff before I even put down a word. I spent time trying to inhabit the characters’ bodies in my imagination. I had a good sense of the texture of the language, how it would feel in the mouth to read it out loud, how it would feel in the ear to listen to it. I often will compose fiction while I go running. I’ll find a sentence that pleases me, and then I’ll move it around in my head until it feels right, and then start to add sentence after sentence, fitting them together.

RS: I also get ideas while I’m running. Sometimes, though, an idea seems really brilliant, but once you’re not running it doesn’t have quite the same pizzazz it had while endorphins were racing through your body. Do you find that?

KB: I used to write down all of what I’d thought of while I was running, because I can usually carry two to three pages of text in my head.

RS: Two pages in your head? That’s a lot of words.

KB: It keeps me from thinking my knee hurts or I’m hot and sweaty and when am I going to be done or why did I go on this longer route? But now what I do when I’m in the thinking process of my books is make a box. I’ll write the title or names of the characters as I think of them on the box and start putting things into it.

RS: This is an actual box, right?

KB: An actual box, yeah. Not like a metaphorical think-outside-of-the box. Well, maybe, but it starts with an actual box. I’m a very concrete person. If there’s one sentence that’s particularly memorable to me, or just feels good to say, I’ll write that down on a little scrap of paper and stick it in the box.

RS: I have to give you the award for the grisliest sentence of the year.

KB: Oh, which one?

RS: “That baby isn’t going to sacrifice itself, after all.”

KB: And that’s not even the grisliest thing I’ve ever written. My adult stories are much darker.

RS: Where did that sentence come from? Did it grow out of something else? Tell me.

KB: That one came later. The power structure of the town was one of my first entry points into the story. How power structures persist and maintain themselves, especially those that are unjust — these things are interesting to me. How we tell stories and who is telling the stories and how things are framed, what’s included and what’s left out. I think that idea was one of the first things I put in the box, actually. And the structure of magic in this world, that bit about gathering starlight in the fingertips.

RS: But this is before you have an actual plot?

KB: There’s no open document, no notebook, nothing. I do a lot of just thinking.

RS: I would imagine you have to have a good amount of faith in some of the things that occur to you. Like, will this mean something or not?

KB: For sure. And there are all kinds of things that don’t end up in the book at all.

barnhill_girl who drank the moonRS: Where did you get the landscape for the world? Geographically, where does that come from?

KB: I will tell you this. I wasn’t going to write the book when I did. I was going to let it sit for another year. I had a different manuscript that was much more realistic, but I’d mentioned this one to my editor, Elise Howard, and she was like, “Write that now. I think we should follow The Witch’s Boy with another fantasy.” But I didn’t have the landscape in my head yet. Usually I do. I’m a nature-y girl, so there usually is a lot of the physicality of the landscape in my books. Then my husband and I — we had been married for fifteen years at that point, and we decided to finally go on our honeymoon. We got cheap tickets down to Costa Rica. We speak Spanish, so we could just take buses on our own and find cool oddball places to stay. And that’s when I started writing The Girl Who Drank the Moon. We had gone to Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, which is not the most visited national park. It’s up in the northwest. It’s beautiful and unlike a lot of the national parks there that are very structured, very tame.

RS: Now you’re singing my song.

KB: Right. That’s what a lot of people like. But Ted and I were both park rangers. We worked at Olympic National Park where the ranger station was thirty miles in, from any direction. We’re hikers. But we couldn’t go up to the top of the cone in Rincón because the volcano was active, and it was producing all this poisonous gas. The landscape was so dynamic. We saw this place where a river just erupted out of the side of a mountain. I’d never seen anything like that, so it went into the book. The experience of being someplace where the earth is unstable under your feet — that’s where it began. A year later, when I was finishing the manuscript, we went backpacking in Glacier National Park, and then we drove down to Yellowstone — again, this incredible volcanic landscape. All of those experiences fed into the book’s landscape.

RS: Given my druthers, in my own recreational reading life, I don’t read fantasy. I read it as a kid, and I do read it for work, but it’s not my thing. And as I’m reading your book, I’m thinking, Oh my God, this is so complicated. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Is fantasy more complicated than it used to be, or am I just getting old?

KB: I think fantasy is as complicated as it’s ever been, but not everybody has read the right stuff. We’re living in a great age for fantasy, and I do think that fantasy as a genre is coming into its own. I’m reading V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic right now, and it’s remarkable. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor is wonderful. There are some really beautiful, complicated, and nuanced fantasies for both children and adults being written right now. I don’t think it means that those types of books didn’t exist before, but I do think they existed for smaller audiences. There were always interesting, complicated, weird fantasies being written. Diana Wynne Jones…

RS: She’s complicated.

KB: Yeah, she’s really complicated. You see a different thing every time you read her books. I love that they are all being reprinted, finding new audiences. The Lives of Christopher Chant — I re-read that book all the time, and I always see something new.

RS: You talked a bit about the political dimension in this book, the way that the town is controlled and structured. If I think about Megan Whalen Turner’s books, The Thief, etc., those have that too. And that’s something I don’t remember from reading fantasy as a teenager forty-something years ago. I suppose you could argue there’s a huge political dimension to Tolkien, but the way the story works, it’s good and evil. We’re not so worried about evil governments; we’re worried about evil people.

KB: That’s true. And the same thing with C. S. Lewis, whom I read tons of as a kid. I mean, I love C. S. Lewis. I do. I think, like a lot of fantasy writers, I have conflicted feelings about C. S. Lewis. There isn’t a ton of nuance in his books. There’s good and evil, the end. I think that was how he saw the world, and I think that was also how Tolkien saw the world, quite frankly. Perhaps as a result of World War I and World War II — perhaps the world is just more complicated right now than it used to be.

RS: There is a lot going on in your book. I think of the young girl, Luna, as the main character, but would you disagree with that?

KB: That’s an interesting question, because that was the basis of a lot of conversations between my editor and me. She was probably so sick of me — all these crises of confidence I had along the way. When you have a story with a bunch of different threads, you can see all the threads separately before you begin, and you can untangle them and make them all fall into place afterwards in the editing process. That’s why editing and revision are magic. But when you’re in the middle of it, it can get overwhelming. And at one point I started to question if I was writing a children’s book at all. Often, particularly when I’m writing short stories, I have no idea if I’m writing for children or adults, if this is going to turn into a poem, or whatever. The process is very dynamic. I like things that are dynamic and have a lot of moving parts. In the end, I do think this is Luna’s story. But because her story is—

RS: Braided into these other stories that started taking place centuries before.

KB: That’s the thing. Each of us is our own story, but none of us is only our own story. The arc of my own personal story is inexplicably and intrinsically linked to the story of my parents and the story of my neighbor and the story of the kid that I met one time. All of us are linked in ways that we don’t always see.

We are never simply ourselves. That’s true of Luna, too. I do see this book as Luna’s story, but you can’t know Luna without Xan. And you can’t know Xan without Glerk. And you can’t know Glerk without Fyrian…It was hard keeping all of these different threads straight, because each character changes the gravity of the story. Each footstep is felt by everybody else, even if they don’t know it.

RS: Even with Sister Ignatia — we get a revelation at the end. It doesn’t change how we feel about her. She’s evil. She’s scary. But we understand her in a profound way, once we find out why she is the way she is.

KB: Yeah, totally. Sister Ignatia is so far away from her own story. As is Xan, actually. As are a lot of people.

RS: What do you mean by “far away from her own story”? That’s interesting.

KB: Xan keeps telling herself that sorrow is dangerous and memory is dangerous too, so there’s only right now, there’s only what’s in front of me. I think a lot of people live that way, and they do so at their peril. Sister Ignatia walled off her sorrow. And yet there it is, still impacting her life, even if she’s not thinking about it.

RS: Right, and Xan is saying, “I’m just not going to pay attention to that scary town over there.”

KB: Exactly. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I’m just going to allow my own story to get lost in this fog. She’s making this fog out of fear of sorrow and just focusing on right now, but then, as a result, she doesn’t have the perspective that she needs.

RS: I had to laugh, in the showdown scene between Ignatia and Xan, where Ignatia makes a crack about Xan’s hair. Dynasty! It’s like Linda Evans and Joan Collins. Fur is going to fly.

KB: Oh my gosh, I haven’t thought about that show in years. That was like my entire teenagerhood, babysitting late at night, watching reruns. Who knows, that may be my Melania Trump moment — I accidentally stole that line from Dynasty.

RS: This book certainly has an ending.

KB: Yeah.

RS: I know that shouldn’t be surprising, but so many fantasy books don’t have endings.

KB: Mine typically don’t. I like writing standalone fantasies, but all of my books so far except for this one have had kind of an open-ended ending. I do that on purpose. I expect a lot from my readers. I want them to do much of the work, because I believe that the story is built by the reader, not by the writer. I like having an open ending to a standalone fantasy, because it allows a continuing story to be written in the hearts of the readers.

RS: It keeps the reader invested in the story even after the story is over.

KB: Exactly. What happens next is the reader’s responsibility, and I like that. This book’s ending is much more definitive. You don’t totally know what Luna’s life is like once she’s older, but you have a sense of it. I get the question a lot, are you going to write a sequel? The answer’s always no.

RS: Good for you.

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Richard Peck Talks with Roger (Video Edition) Wed, 20 Jul 2016 18:55:13 +0000 Richard Peck talks with Roger -- video edition

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

Photo: Sonya Sones

Photo: Sonya Sones

The Best Man, Richard Peck’s newest novel, will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in September. It was wonderful to have the chance to catch up with Richard — we are good friends who met in 1984 at an ALA reception introducing his Remembering the Good Times, an exemplar of what a YA problem novel could be in the right hands. Whether you know Richard Peck from his YA realism or his historical (and Newbery-winning) comedies for young readers, The Best Man will take you somewhere new,  even while there is in it a summing-up of the author’s persistent themes and styles developed over a career that has spanned forty-five years and thirty-nine novels.

This is The Horn Book’s inaugural video edition of Talks with Roger, and we couldn’t have asked for a better subject. We’ve included some text and video excerpts from our morning together at Peck’s Upper East Side apartment; the entire conversation can be found by clicking below.


Richard talks with Roger about fathers

RS: Tell me about your dad.

RP: My dad? He was home every night. And unlike the other dads, as a little kid I could go to work with him on the back of his Harley-Davidson.

RS: There’s a picture.

RP: No helmets, of course. I held onto his belt. And I knew not to let go.

RS: What was his job?

RP: He ran a Phillips 66 Gas & Oil — what we called then filling station; the phrase no longer exists — a service station, in the time when you washed the windshields and checked the air. And he ran it like a club, where old, old men hung out, old men who had nowhere else to go. I sat among them, and they told me stories. They told me what it was like to ride the great wheel at the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago. And it just burned into my heart. I thought, Nothing that interesting will ever happen to me. And nothing did. So later, when I was old, I wrote Fair Weather, about a farm family that gets to go to that fair and ride the Ferris wheel, see their first light bulb. But then all stories are about opening the door to the wider world.


Richard talks with Roger about technology

BestManRS: You and I had dinner with Rebecca Stead last year or the year before, while you were working on this. The two of you were talking about how to write about the contemporary life of young people with their immersion in social media and devices, when you and she both grew up—

RP: Without.

RS: —without any of that. How do you insert yourself in that generational thing?

RP: And [my characters] were in grade school, so we’re not talking about teen Twitter, we’re talking about kids going from first to sixth grade. It gave me six hard months of my life, because I let it become a problem. I would say to parents, “When does your kid have a phone for school?” “Oh, about fifth grade.” And I’d say to teachers, “When do they have phones?” “Oh, they all got ’em in third.” I wasn’t getting much help. And one day I was saved. I realized I could play it for laughs. So I created a teacher. It’s the most autobiographical character in this book. She’s the homeroom teacher, and she’s allergic to the computer. Every time she goes past it and the printer, it prints out hall passes for everybody.

RS: There’s a funny joke early on, when Archer, who’s the hero, meets this girl at a wedding — the book opens with a wedding and closes with a wedding. She saves him from something, and he says to her, “Don’t save me again. And later, when we’re allowed to have phones, don’t text me.”

RP: And she says, “Deal.” The thought of being saved by a girl is even worse than having to be a ring bearer in a wedding, for a six-year-old. But then the techno problems came along very soon thereafter. We have to deal with this. We have to make sure that technology and instant communication do not destroy the necessary tension of a novel. If everybody knows everything, it’s not a novel. It’s Twitter.

RS: I know. I’ll even be watching TV, a show like 24 or something, some spy show. And you realize that if these people were actually using their cell phones, the story would be over in a minute.

RP: Yes. And then there is the annoyance. I was traveling in Iceland this winter, of all places, with people, younger, and I would get a text in the morning when I was in bed. They’d say, “We’re in the dining room. Are you coming down soon?” And I thought, You’ll see me when you see me.


Richard talks to readers about bullying


Richard talks with Roger about marriage


Richard talks with Roger about indomitable old ladies
RS: We’ve got to have a trademark Richard Peck indomitable old lady, right?

RP: Of course. A tough old lady.

RS: Very.

RP: Yes. And this one is President for Life of the League of Women Voters, so yeah.

RS: Don’t mess with her, boys.

RP: And she is a woman who loses the love of her life in this book. And she remembers being young — she’s younger than I am. She remembers being young in the seventies and being married in a field of daisies, barefoot. So she, too, carries out the motif of marriage and the wedding scene, because she remembers when she was young in the seventies, and it’s sustaining her now that she’s lost her partner.

RS: And we see then, with that, marriage is something for everybody.

RP: Yes.

RS: It brings together two people, but it also brings together a family. And it can bring together a community at the same time.

RP: Yes, it can. Can make a community. And be an occasion for joy, not a car crash. [Watch the complete interview here.]


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Richard Peck Talks with Roger | additional videos Tue, 19 Jul 2016 16:37:51 +0000 Richard Peck talks with Roger -- video edition

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

BestManThis is The Horn Book’s inaugural video edition of Talks with Roger, and we couldn’t have asked for a better subject than Richard Peck. We’ve included some text and video excerpts from Roger and Richard’s morning together at Peck’s Upper East Side apartment; the entire conversation can be found by clicking below.

Richard Peck Talks with Roger (full video)


Richard talks to readers about bullying


Richard talks with Roger about marriage

More on Richard Peck from The Horn Book


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Firoozeh Dumas Talks with Roger Mon, 18 Jul 2016 18:56:15 +0000 firoozeh dumas talks with roger

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

firoozeh dumasAuthor of the bestselling adult memoir Funny in Farsi and its companion Laughing Without an Accent, Firoozeh Dumas debuts in books for young people with It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, a novel based on the author’s childhood experience as an Iranian immigrant in 1970s Southern California. The Captain & Tennille were all over the radio, Bonne Belle was on every girl’s lips, and a revolution was taking place thousands of miles away that would create a diplomatic crisis between our heroine’s homeland and her adopted country.

Roger Sutton: You know, I was in college in LA during the summer of “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and I thought you really captured the moment.

Firoozeh Dumas: Thank you. That means a lot to me. It’s funny, because most of the early reviewers are adults, and the ones who are between the ages of 40 and 55 are commenting that, for them, it was like a trip back in time.

RS: And thank you — I guess — for making me remember Tab, that nasty stuff. You’re right, it tastes like tin.

FD: I also put this in my first book, Funny in Farsi. I used to work in a theater. This was when Tab was very popular, and our Tab machine was always broken. People would come in and they would order a jumbo-size popcorn. They’d say, “I want butter on the bottom, in the middle, on the top,” and then they’d say, “I want a large Tab.” And I’d say, “Sorry, the Tab machine is broken.” People would be like, “What?!” And I’d think to myself, “You’re about to consume 2800 calories of butter. Go ahead and splurge on a Coke.”

RS: The events of the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis are memories for us but history for kids.

FD: Yes, my book is historical fiction for middle grade, where there’s definitely a huge gap in covering that era.

dumas_it ain't so awful falafelRS: How much of Zomorod’s story is your story?

FD: What she went through, the emotions, that was one hundred percent my story. Most of the facts are true. My father lost his job just as I said in the book. And my father is exactly the person that he is in the book. My mom was isolated and had a very difficult time. My friends in the book are my real friends — in fact, if you go to my website, you can see recent pictures of us along with our yearbook photos and other artifacts from the era.

RS: You’re still friends?

FD: Oh, yeah. We already have plans to get together when I go to Southern California this summer. I met them both in sixth grade at Lincoln Junior High. I met Carolyn in the way that is written in the book. Howie I met in a different way, and the story I tell in the book was actually about meeting somebody else. This is the glory of fiction. You can create composite characters.

RS: Your other two books are nonfiction — memoirs for adult readers.

FD: Yes, they’re for adults. Although my first book, Funny in Farsi, is on the California recommended reading list for middle school. It’s used in junior highs and high schools all across the U.S. I wrote that book for adults, and twelve-year-olds love it. So this book, Falafel, I wrote for middle grade, and adults are telling me, “Hey, this is great for adults.” They’re sort of chastising me for calling it middle grade.

I personally hate categorizing a book for an age group. I struggled. It took me a long time to figure out what it means to write a book for middle grade, and honestly, the only two things in this book I specifically geared toward a younger audience were the title and the amount of history that I put in. Otherwise, I have the same voice in all my writing.

RS: How did those events affect you at the time? Terrible things were going on in your country, and yet you were thousands of miles away.

FD: It was really bizarre, because we never thought that our country would have a revolution. We absolutely never saw this coming.

RS: It came very quickly.

FD: People don’t realize — and I say this in the book — that when Iranians marched against the shah, their goal was not to have a religious government take over. Everybody marched against the shah. There were communists and feminists and student groups. It’s very much like what’s going on in the U.S. now, with people following Trump. It’s not that they want Trump. They want a radical change, is really what people are saying. With the shah, people were just so sick of the corruption they said just get rid of him.

RS: Not knowing what would happen after.

FD: Yes, not knowing. Many Iranians now are saying the shah wasn’t that bad, comparatively. Even if you just look at it from a human rights point of view, the current government is so much worse.

RS: What was it like for you, watching it from afar?

FD: In real life I was about thirteen when all that was happening, so I was a little older than the character in the book. I was mainly watching my father’s reaction. He was really scared. He was shocked. I was very much attuned to my parents as a kid. I felt responsible for them. I spoke English, and I’ve always been parental toward them. I could tell how scared my father was, and how worried he was.

RS: The father in the book is at least able to express himself, whereas the mother is a really tragic figure, hiding from everything, not being able to communicate with people.

FD: Right. When people go to a new country, whether as refugees or immigrants, kids usually assimilate easily, but it’s much harder for the grownups. Especially, oftentimes, for the mothers, because they are usually confined to the house. They’re not going to school, and they’re not necessarily holding down a job. It’s tough. It’s not easy to assimilate to a new culture when you’re an adult.

RS: And that’s tough on the kid, who becomes the go-between.

FD: Absolutely.

RS: Did you find yourself being resentful of your mother?

FD: Yes. Because I thought that she wasn’t trying. As a kid, that really bothered me. I wanted her to try.

RS: I think when you’re a kid you can’t see that trying can mean something different to an adult than it does to you.

FD: Exactly. My definition of trying was something else.

RS: Well, she was very lucky to have you. Were you as outgoing as a child as you appear to be now?

FD: I had to be. It was necessary. The thing is, once you practice being outgoing, it becomes easy. My father is very shy. He has a hard time socially. In the book, when the father knows he’s going to meet new people and practices what he’s going to say in advance — that was taken from reality. My dad would practice, practice, practice, and of course he’d open his mouth and he would completely blow it.

RS: Do you ever mix up what happened in your book and what happened in your life?

FD: No.

RS: Good. I think it would be hard to write a story based on one’s own childhood. Because you work so intensely on a book, and then you wonder: Wait, did this happen, or was it just in my book?

FD: Don’t forget, I’ve already written two memoirs. So I’ve already written the facts. And I’ve written tons of articles, the New York Times, National Public Radio. All that work is nonfiction.

RS: Does writing tend to fix things in your memory, or does it change them?

FD: For me, it clarifies things. It gives meaning, and it makes me see the connections.

RS: I find I think about something differently once I write it down.

FD: Writing is such a powerful tool. I believe everyone should be writing.

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Richard Peck Talks with Roger teaser Mon, 18 Jul 2016 16:33:12 +0000

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Joshua Khan Talks with Roger Tue, 14 Jun 2016 15:26:26 +0000 joshua khan twr

Sponsored byDisney-Hyperion

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

Sponsored byAmulet Books, an imprint of Abrahms

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.

Sponsored byAmulet Books, an imprint of Abrahms

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

Sponsored bySimon & Schuster

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.

Sponsored bySimon & Schuster

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