Kate Milford Talks with Roger

Kate Milford 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.

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In Kate Milford's Ghosts of Greenglass House, Christmas comes again to Greenglass House, that mysterious, isolated…perfectly delightful inn filled with history and mystery. In this sequel to Greenglass House, old friends — and enemies — return; new ones, too, complicate the puzzle.

Roger Sutton: The first thing I thought when I started reading Ghosts of Greenglass House was, oh my God, I wasn't ever able to finish The Westing Game. How am I going to read this?

Kate Milford: I am honored that my book brought The Westing Game to your mind. I was obsessed with it as a kid, and I still reread it!

RS: I have tried and tried. With this kind of book — a puzzle book, let's call it — I feel so stupid.

KM: Is it that you don't like not knowing what's happening the whole way through?

RS: Yes, I feel unsettled. I think it's genre more than anything else. When there are so many balls in the air, I'm afraid I'm going to get hit by one of them. When I plunged into Ghosts of Greenglass House, which was my introduction to your world, I was, like, where am I? Who are these people?

KM: Some of that might be because it's a sequel. There are a lot of people.

RS: But I know so many readers for whom this kind of thing is pure pleasure.

KM: I hope there are a lot of them out there! I really like the twistings and turnings of books. As a kid, I destroyed a copy of The Westing Game from reading it every weekend when my parents would take us on drives. My sister and I would fight over who got to read it. It was that and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

RS: How much of the plot of your book did you know in advance?

KM: This book I did plot out in advance. Greenglass House I did not, and then I had to do a whole bunch of retrofitting once I finally figured out the squirrely way I wanted the story to go. But that's part of the fun of writing for me — throwing all the balls up in the air and seeing if I can put a good juggling pattern together as they come down, and then seeing how long I can maintain that, and then going back and trying that pattern again and seeing if I can make it more elegant. So I'm not surprised that it felt like there was a lot going on in the story. I keep waiting for my editor to say, "Too much, scale back," and she never does. She's always really encouraging, and helps me figure out how to make all those little things fit.

RS: The intricacy of the puzzle is what I'm guessing people really love here. But every time you introduce another turn of the screw, you're also making things more difficult for yourself, right? Because every detail has to play nice with all the details that have come before. Plus, you probably want to leave yourself some room for future installments.

KM: That's true. For the first seven years of my career I was operating under the assumption that the only person who was going to notice that stuff was me, because the only other people who were going to read these books were my editor and my mom and my husband. It has just now gotten to the point where people are beginning to notice details from Greenglass House coming up in my other books. I like to seed things so I'll have them to play with later. Sometimes it's little bits of character backstory, sometimes it's items in the house. Bluecrowne, which I originally self-published through Kickstarter and Clarion is reissuing, included lots of seeds for both Greenglass books, because it's the story of why that house was built and why the family never lived there.

RS: Did you come up with the world before you actually set a story there?

KM: I did. I haven't updated it in a long time, but I made a travel website for the city of Nagspeake [nagspeake.com]. It was around the time of The Boneshaker, my first book. I was not writing anything else at that moment, and I'm fairly unpleasant when that happens. But I'm obsessed with cities as characters, so my husband suggested, you know, you can build yourself a whole city and just have it for a sandbox. If you do it online you'll be able to play with short-form stuff and your photography. That's when I started putting the city together, just to amuse myself. Even then, I wasn't intending it to connect up with the world of The Boneshaker and its sequel, The Broken Lands. But then I wrote The Kairos Mechanism, and it was too much fun, so I started finding these connections that I could use, little breadcrumbs I'd left myself that I could carry over. Every book becomes part of the puzzle. It's funny — I've gotten emails from people who found that website and then were cranky about it, but I think it's fairly obvious if you read even a couple of articles that it's not me trying to convince you that it's a real place.

RS: Ha! Yes, it's very matter-of-fact.

KM: The cranky emails have come from adults who were taken in and were mad about it. In the same way, I never get complaints from kids about the complexity of the books, but I do hear from adults who don't like the complexity, or don't like the twists. They didn't see them coming, and therefore they feel like I cheated.

RS: Wait, they're saying you're supposed to be predictable?

KM: That, and also apparently I'm not supposed to create a convincing city. If it can be passed off as real, I have somehow cheated. One person actually copied an executive at Clarion, complaining about the how-dare-you aspect of having that website.

RS: I loved your inclusion of references to other places, both in Nagspeake and outside of it. It gave me the sense that the Greenglass House was in a very real place. It had context.

KM: That's good. I feel like that should be the goal whenever an author is creating a world. That's half the fun of it for me.

RS: What's the relationship of this world to ours?

KM: There's so much oddball stuff in our world. Oddball bits of history, science, philosophy. The ways places develop and people develop in relation to the places they're living. The oddities in our world that are true and have perfectly logical explanations, but that look like fantasy if you squint just right. Truth is as strange as fiction, obviously. The world of the books is, for me, what our world would be if all of those oddities were more available for us to see, or if we were more attuned to them. Some of the really strange things that look like fabulism or fantasy, the improbable things — it's as if there weren't a purely rational explanation and we could believe that magic existed, ordinary real-world magic.

RS: What we can see in the "real" world seems pretty limited.

KM: That's what makes my setting feel, to me, more like the real world than a purely alternate reality. I don't envision any portal in this place that dumps the characters into our world. These books are just playing with the real strangeness of the world we live in, dialing it up a bit, and giving it a little of the uncanny.

RS: You had me looking up derrotero because you had me so convinced it was an actual thing.

KM: Well, it was.

RS: Was it?

KM: Yeah, they were these sort of logbooks of the coastlines. In fact, if a ship was captured, the captain would put those over the edge, into the sea. Especially in the age of exploration, that information was really valuable.

RS: Yeah, but one that could shift with the coastline?

KM: Oh, no, that I made up.

RS: Do you think you'll keep going into this house? Are we coming back?

KM:There are three very near-adjacent things coming. There's the reissue of Bluecrowne, which is set in the house, but in 1810. There's The Raconteur's Commonplace Book, which Clarion is going to publish. As for the third — if I'm talking to someone who hasn't read Ghosts of Greenglass House, I tell them that a ghost is getting their own book, but you've read it, so you know what I'm talking about...

RS: We can't give that much away! With such a complicated world you've created, how do you keep yourself organized?

KM: I keep separate notebooks for each project that I think I might want to work on. Sometimes those require multiple notebooks and copies of ship diagrams and stuff like that. I buy or make a little fabric pouch the size of an iPad pouch, and I stick everything in there. And then I have to go back and fact-check myself a lot of times. For example, I've discovered that I have the numbering of the doors in the Greenglass House a bit off. You can't line up the north, south, east, and west rooms consistently on each floor based on how I described it in the first book, which I didn't realize until Ghosts. And probably my editor hasn't even discovered that.

RS: Your secret is out.

KM: Stuff like that, where I'm like, this isn't going to match, my editor will ask, honestly, will anyone but you know? No. Never. Is there any written documentation anywhere, including your weirdo website? Well, no. And then there's always that point where you're writing something and you start hating it, because you've been working on it for however long. I like to have something shiny to bring out and play with so I'm not going quietly out of my mind.

RS: I would guess that would help you think about your main project, too, right? You go off and do something else, and then it will occur to you what you need to do.

KM: Yes. Very true. And sometimes, too, if they happen to be things that are connected in some way, then making a decision in one project can sometimes force me to make a decision in another.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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