Author Interview: Jeff Hirsch

Jeff Hirsch is one of my favorite authors to see at author events and signings. He’s personable, funny and always great to hear. He’s also one of my favorite authors for writing great stand alone books–something I always desperately want in a world filled with multi-book stories. Jeff Hirsch is here today to talk about his latest novel Magisterium a really fun blend of fantasy and sci-fi adventure.

Miss Print (MP): What was the inspiration for Magisterium?

Jeff Hirsch (JF): I was coming home from work one day, listening to a podcast on politics. The speaker was talking about how the political divisions in our country had gotten so extreme that it’s as if both sides had walled themselves off in their own realities. The idea for Magisterium came when I simply  took that metaphor and made it literal. Two realities existing side by side on the same planet.

MP: Magisterium is your second book. Like The Eleventh Plague it has a lot of action and excitement. This time around, though, you have more fantasy elements as well as a narration in the third person. Did this change in point of view impact your writing process?

JF: Not much actually. The fact that it was fantasy certainly didn’t. In both books my primary concern was focusing on the main character’s internal journey. The world that journey happens in is important of course but not as important as portraying that journey accurately. The POV shift was maybe a little trickier. It felt like the right choice for this, but 3rd person naturally puts a bit of a barrier between the main character and the reader. Sometimes it was a challenge to make sure the reader felt as close to Glenn as I wanted them too.

MP: This book features two very different worlds: the technologically advanced Colloquium and—on the other side of the Rift—the Magisterium, a world of affinities and magic. Given the choice, which world would you want to call home?

JF: My heart says the Magisterium but my head tells me I wouldn’t last a day in it.

MP: How did you approach writing a story about such distinct future? Did your vision for Glenn’s world start with a specific place or aspect?

JF: The most important place, and the location all my thinking started at, was Glenn and her father’s home. It’s kind of on the edge of this super high tech world, and while there’s technology there it’s all a little shabby, a little run down. I wanted to start there to ground the reader in a place that felt somewhat familiar instead of jumping right into sci-fi land or fantasy land.

MP: Speaking of Glenn’s world, as the story progresses the Magisterium itself starts to feel like a character. Was the Magisterium inspired by any real locations? How did you go about creating this magical world?

JF: It’s not based on any particular locations. Like the world in The Eleventh Plague this one started out fairly generic in the first draft, kind of a sketch. The details came by thinking about the premise the world was built on and brainstorming what sorts of things one might see there or hear there or feel there. I would come up with long lists of characters and locations and visual or aural bits and pieces and then add them in over the course of many drafts.

MP: Readers will learn why Glenn decides early on to name her pet cat Gerard Manley Hopkins. As a writer how did you decide on that name?

JF: Oddly enough it’s not that I’m that big a fan of the guy’s poetry, I’ve just always loved the sound of the name. It’s solid and has a nice rhythmic feel to it. I also liked Hopkins as a kind of nickname since it felt respectable and a little old world, but warm.

MP: Throughout Magisterium Glenn uncovers a few bombshells about the truth of her own past and the Magisterium itself. How did you go about structuring Glenn’s story? How did you decide when to share different details and when Glenn would make sense of those details?

JF: Trial and error really. I wish I could say there was a grand plan but that’s not quite how I work. I basically start with an idea of the major bits of info that will be revealed and a general idea of when that will happen and then tinker until it starts to feel right. Same thing with a characters reaction to things. You start with an idea of how you think a character will react and then experiment a little until you find what works best.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

JF: Yes! The Darkest Path is coming out October 1st. It’s set about six years into the second American Civil War. It follows a young man named Cal and his brother James who were  kidnapped in the early days of the war by the Army of The Glorious Path and forced to serve the revolution. Once Cal discovers more about the life The Path has planned for them he decides it’s time to escape and they begin the trek from an army base in Arizona back home to upstate New York.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

JF: Always remember the words of screenwriting legend, William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.” He was taking about the film business but it applies to any art form. I think what he meant by it was no one ever knows what the public is going to want, what’s going to be successful. The only response to that truth is to be yourself. Read what you want to read. Write what you want to write. Please yourself. What you create may or may not be commercially successful but at least you were true to yourself along the way and that’s pretty good too. At least you didn’t succeed or fail while trying to be somebody else.

Thanks again to Jeff Hirsch for a great interview! You can also read my review of Magisterium here on the blog and visit Jeff Hirsch’s website for more info about him and his books.

Author Interview: Hilary Weisman Graham

Today I have a really special author interview. As some of you know, I worked briefly as a bookseller at a children’s bookstore. Last year, shortly after Book Expo America, the store was having a signing with a lot of great authors. (One even had the same color nail polish as me.) One author attending the signing was celebrating her book’s recent release and we started talking. That author was Hilary Graham and the book was Reunited. We talked about the release and my book blog and I ran out and bought a copy of Reunited the very next day. Fast forward to March when I attended another signing–one where Hilary Graham was signing. I was really happy to meet her again and completely flattered that she remembered our earlier encounter. We started setting up details then and now I’m happy to share our interview here on the blog.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Hilary Weisman Graham (HG): I started off my career as a filmmaker and TV producer, but writing was always a big part of my job. Even in my free time, I’d find myself participating in poetry slams or composing humorous essays to share with my friends.  But for many years, I considered myself a “filmmaker who writes” as opposed to a writer.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I was selected to be a contestant on the Mark Burnett/Steven Spielberg-produced reality show On the Lot, which, if you never saw it, was like American Idol for filmmakers, and aired on Fox for only one season.  The goal of the show was to find “America’s next great director,” and I was handpicked out of a pool of 12,000 applicants.

It was during that summer in Los Angeles, in the midst of an intense filmmaking competition, that it suddenly became very clear to me that it was the writing part of filmmaking that I’d always most enjoyed (and was best at) only I’d never realized it before. Needless to say, it was a huge epiphany for me.  After that, I made it my goal to become a working screenwriter and novelist—and I’m happy to report that with the help of my amazing manager and agent, that dream has now come true!

MP: What was the inspiration for Reunited?

HG: The idea for REUNITED actually came from my editor at Simon & Schuster who came up with a two-sentence concept about ex-best friends getting together to see a band they once loved. Since I’d experienced a friendship break-up of my own freshman year of high school, I really connected with those feelings, even though my story is very different than Alice, Summer, and Tiernan’s. For most 14-year-old girls, their best friends are the most meaningful relationship they’ve had at that point in their lives, apart from their family, so I thought the idea of ex-best friends reuniting at the end of high school, when they’re older and wiser, would make for an interesting story.

MP: Alice, Summer and Tiernan all have a chance to tell their part of the story as you shift the perspective (in third person) to voice each girl’s motivations for going on the road trip. As a reader I loved getting to see the story from all sides, but how was it as a writer? Going in did you know the story would shift perspective (or have a plan who would “tell” which parts)?

HG: My agent warned me that I was making my job a lot harder by writing my first novel in three alternating perspectives and he was definitely right! But I think my background as a screenwriter made it a bit easier for me. Plus, it helped that I’d made a detailed outline, including a breakdown for which chapters would be in which character’s perspective. But I the decision to write REUNITED in the three characters’ alternating perspectives was essential to the telling of this particular story.

MP: Was one character more fun to write than the others? Was anyone harder to write?

HG: Alice, Summer, & Tiernan were all fun to write, but if I had to choose, I’d say my favorite character to write was probably Tiernan because she’s so snarky.

MP: Reunited is as much about the three ex-best friends as it is about, Level3, the band they’re traveling to see. In fact, it’s almost impossible to talk about this book without mentioning Level3 thanks to the book’s awesome launch and Level3’s web presence. Can you tell us how you went about making Level3 a reality?

HG: The funny part about Level3 was that each time I found myself writing the lyrics to one of their songs—an event that happened frequently, since lyrical excerpts open each chapter—I became aware of the fact that I was also composing the melodies to these songs in my head.

So even though I don’t have a musical bone in my body, I thought it would be fun to bring my fictional band to life. Luckily, I have some very talented musician friends who helped me do this.  And winning the 2011 SCBWI Book Launch Award didn’t hurt, since the cash prize enabled me to get a bit creative with REUNITED’s marketing.

While Level3’s songs were being recorded, I got to work creating a robust online presence for the band.  Today, www.level3theband.com is a place where fans can read blog posts by the band members, download two free Level3 songs, peruse photos, watch a Level3 music video and a behind-the-scenes “pop-up” documentary, and follow Level3 on Facebook and Twitter. Whew. And Level3 even went on tour last summer at libraries from Boston to Austin! http://hilarywgraham.wordpress.com/reunited-the-book/press-kit-for-reunited-level3-tour/

[MP: You can also read about Reunited's clever launch promotion with Level 3 in the Publisher's Weekly article: "Fictional Band Rocks Promotion for 'Reunited'"]

MP: Working off the last question: I loved the inclusion of Level3 song lyrics throughout the novel. Which came first—the lyrics or the story? How did you decide which songs to quote? How did you decide which songs to actually record for fans/readers?

HG: I came up with the idea of Level3 right away, but I wrote their lyrics as I wrote the chapters. When it came to recording their songs, I picked the two songs that played the biggest role in the book.

MP: There are a lot of twists and turns as Alice, Summer and Tiernan make their way to Texas. Things go wrong. Things go right. Mayhem ensues. Were any parts harder to write than others? Are there any parts that were extra fun to write?

HG: I can’t think of any scenes that were harder to write than others, but my favorite scene to write was the kissing scene!  But I don’t want to include any spoilers here, so I won’t tell you which one of the girls gets kissed.

MP: Before writing Reunited you had a (very impressive) background as a filmmaker. Did your experience making films influence how you approached writing this story?

HG: I think my background as a filmmaker helps me to create scenes that are inherently visual and easy for the reader to “see” in their mind’s eye. As a write, I think I’m really lucky to be able to go back and forth between fiction and screenplays because I’m constantly discovering ways each medium informs the other.

MP: Speaking of past experience, did your own travels influence the route and final destination of the road trip?

HG: Yes! I’ve had to good fortune of having been on many road trips in my life—backpacking through Portugal and Spain with my sister and a friend during college, wandering around the Irish countryside with four of my best girlfriends in a very small rental car, and driving from Boston to Juarez, Mexico (on a route similar to REUNITED) with a group of friends while shooting a documentary. Though thankfully, I’ve never been stuck in a van with any of my ex-best friends. ;)

MP: There was a lot to love to Reunited but is there anything you particularly hope readers will take away from the book? Is there any scene you were especially excited for readers to see for the first time?

HG: Hopefully, readers will connect with the characters on an emotional level, which, I guess, is what reading’s pretty much all about.  But also, I think the concept of ex-best friends getting back together could be a useful jumping off point for girls and women to look at their past and present friendships, and to reflect on what it takes to be a good friend and keep a friendship strong.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

HG: I’m working on a few different things right now in books and TV, so I’m not sure which one will end up being next—either a very heavy TV drama, a contemporary YA novel currently titled GIRLS LIKE ME, or a brand new comedic middle grade book. How’s that for a diverse slate of projects?

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

HG: Probably the best piece of writing advice I’ve gotten came from Robert McKee, the author of “Story,” a popular (almost cultish) book on screenwriting.  And I have the audiobook, so it feels like McKee’s talking directly to me (which, if you’ve ever heard McKee speak, comes off more like a reprimand, but that’s part of his charm).  Anyway, Robert McKee insists that you not write dialogue or scenes prior to having worked out the structure of your story first, because if you do, you’re in danger of falling in love with your own words and keeping a wonderful bit of dialogue that ultimately, doesn’t belong in your story.  I think I fell victim to this a lot when I was first starting out as a writer.  But sadly, we all must learn to kill our darlings.  There’s really no other way.

Thanks again to Hilary Graham for a great interview! You can also read my review of Reunited here on the blog and visit Hilary Graham’s website for more info about her and her books.

Also don’t forget to enter my giveaway for the Reunited Road Trip mix CD!

Author Interview: Brent Hartinger

brenthartingerbeachIn 2003 Brent Hartinger wrote a book called Geography Club about a kid named Russel Middlebrook who lives in a small town where he is sure there are no other gay teens like him. Turns out Russel had it wrong and that’s the start of a story that been a YA sensation for ten years and is soon going to be a movie. With the movie in production and his fourth Russel Middlebrook book, The Elephant of Surprise, out this year, Brent Hartinger is here at the blog today to answer some of my questions.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Brent Hartinger (BH): I was a dorky kid, always working on some creative project with my friends — making movies, putting on a haunted house. I loved it — I hated school, but I loved those projects. So when I graduated from college, I thought, “I want to do something that makes me feel like I felt when I was a kid!”

Easier said than done, right? It took me fifteen years before I made any money from my fiction. Then again, it took me (at least!) fifteen years to learn how to write well too.

MP: What was the inspiration for Geography Club?

BH: It’s very loosely based on my own experiences as a gay teenager, and also my experience founding one of the United States’ first LGBT teen support groups (in 1990). I was really young, but it was my job to sort of “interview” the attendees before the first meeting, and they were all so incredibly diverse: a prom queen, a pick-up driving hick, a drag queen.

Before the first meeting, I remember thinking, “This is crazy! None of these kids have anything in common! And I have to lead them in a support group?!”

But of course once we were all together and they started talking, I didn’t have to say a word. The superficial differences immediately fell away. They all knew exactly what it felt like to be outsiders, to feel like frauds, to know what it felt like to hide the truth about themselves. It was magic.

That first meeting stuck with me for a long time – so much that it sort of became the centerpiece of Geography Club, when the kids all get together for the first time and realize that even though they seem different, they’re really all alike.

Brent Hartinger with Cameron Deane Stewart (Russel in the movie)

Brent Hartinger with Cameron Deane Stewart (Russel in the movie). Thanks to Brent for the photo!

MP: When it was first published Geography Club was a complete surprise jumping to a third printing by the end of its second week of publication. Now, ten years later, Geography Club is being made into a movie. Did you think your book would have this kind of staying power? What was it like when you first heard about the movie?

BH: The thing is, most of us only hear about books that are smash hits. We don’t hear about the flops. How would we? So, naturally, before you’re published, you assume your book will be a big hit too. But that’s not the way it works: the vast majority of books sell just okay, or are outright flops.

Even so, the success of Geography Club has pretty much exceeded my wildest imagination at the time. Who can explain it? I only wish all my books sold that well!

As for the movie, the rights were first optioned just months after it was published in 2003, and it went through lots of different producers – it almost got made a few times, but it always seemed to fall through. So when I learned in 2011 that it was finally really going to happen, I was, like, “Uh huh. Sure.” In fact, even on the plane down to Los Angeles to the set, I was thinking, “I bet this still isn’t going to happen.” And when I got home, after the wrap party and everything, I remember thinking, “Boy, I really hope they back up their files!”

At that point, I’d been around the block a few times. But it did happen, and I’m overjoyed.

Brent Hartinger with Nikki Blonsky (Terese in the movie). Thanks to Brent for the photo!

Brent Hartinger with Nikki Blonsky (Terese in the movie). Thanks to Brent for the photo!

MP: Were you involved in the movie adaptation? Have you gotten to see any of the film? Is there any scene you’re especially excited to see on the big screen?

BH: I wasn’t involved much, although they did ask my opinion from time-to-time. In a way, that’s okay with me. They’re much, much less pressure: I get credit if the movie’s well-received, but I don’t get blamed if it’s not.

It helps that I have another movie that I wrote that will hopefully film this spring. Being involved with two movies in the span of a year has been wonderful. I feel like I’ve made so many new friends.

As for Geography Club, I finally saw it two weeks ago (and as I said, I was also on the set for a while). I’m pretty confident it’ll be well-received, because it’s very good. A little different from the book, but good.

An interesting thing about the individual scenes. I was watching them film one scene that was right out of the book and that also basically happened to me as a teenager. And as I was watching, I sort of had this weird, out-of-body experience where reality all ran together, and I couldn’t quite remember which part happened to me, which I made up, and which I was seeing in front of my eyes.

Surreal!

Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQb2-a685sw

MP: One of my favorite things about Geography Club is that even when things get heavy, Russel maintains a sense of humor. Was it hard to balance a “funny” book with “serious” topics?

BH: Thank you. It was hard at first, but everything’s hard at first, when you’re trying to figure out a certain “tone” for your book and the “voice” on your character. But I knew from the very, very beginning that I wanted to write a gay teen book that wasn’t doom-and-gloom, where the main character was basically an optimistic guy.

This was partly because all the other gay stories at the time (in the 1990s), especially the teen ones, were all so angst-y and serious. But it also speaks to my general sensibility and my memories of my teen years. For a lot of people — for me anyway — the teen years were a time of extremes: high highs and low lows. Weirdly, I think a lot of adults remember the depression and angst, but they forget the fun. I’ve tried hard to include both in the whole series.

But like I said, ultimately Russel’s an optimist at heart. Basically, I am too.

MP: You’ve followed Russel and his friends over the course of three books with The Elephant of Surprise coming out this year. While the books are set in a relatively short span, the actual writing has spanned several years. What is it like to keep returning to these characters?

BH: Oh, I love these character, especially the central trio of Russel, Min, and Gunnar. I never get bored with them! I could write about them forever.

But there was one part that was difficult. As you say, the books are set over the course of a year, but the writing took place over thirteen years. And in those thirteen years, things have changed a lot.

For example, when I wrote Geography Club in 2000, it was unusual for a school to have a gay-straight alliance, especially outside of the big cities. That’s a lot less true today. Technology has changed a lot too: teenagers didn’t all have cell-phones back then.

In the end, I decided for myself that the books take place around 2007-2008. But that’s just a technical issue for me, the writer. If I did my job right, the reader won’t even notice.

MP: Speaking of characters, a lot of the peripheral characters in this series are entertaining, unique individuals. Did you have any character in Geography Club (or any of the other books) that was more fun to write than others? Was any character harder to write?

BH: The central trio, Russel, Min, and Gunnar are always pure joy. They’re all so different. I also love writing about their friendship — how they affect each other, how they joke around.

Difficult characters? It’s always hard to write a romantic love object: it’s soooo easy to spill over into stereotype or cliche. But of course, you do that and the character becomes boring, and you lose what makes a romance interesting.

Kevin, the major love interest, appears in the first, third, and fourth books in the series. I’m not sure I had a handle on him in Geography Club. But in Double Feature (book #3), I think I really got his essence — especially if you read both halves of that book (we see the same period of time from two different perspectives, and suffice to say: perspective is EVERYTHING when it comes to Kevin).

Wade, the romantic interest in this latest book, The Elephant of Surprise, was also difficult because he has a very big secret. When you have a character with a secret, it’s hard because you want to give clues so the twist at the end makes sense, but at the same time, you don’t want to give it away.

MP: The Elephant of Surprise, the fourth book in the Russel Middlebrook series comes out on March 30 (the ten year anniversary of Geography Club’s publication!). Can you tell readers what to expect from book four? Will we be seeing more of Russel in the future?

BH: Well, my theory on sequels is that people THINK they want to know what happens “next” in a story — they think they want a continuation of the last book. But that’s not really what they want, because if a story is told well, it’s resolved. It’s over.

No, what readers want is a sequel that makes them FEEL the way that first book made them feel. To do that, you need to give your characters a whole new story: new challenges, new themes, new secondary characters, new twists, new resolutions.

In The Order of the Poison Oak (the second book in the series), the three main characters go to work at a summer camp for burn survivors — and Russel learns about sex and betrayal. In Double Feature, they get jobs as zombie extras working on a horror film — and Russel has to deal with his parents, and also a long-distance relationship.

And in The Elephant of Surprise, this latest book, Russel gets involved with a mysterious (and handsome) guy who’s a member of a group called “freegans.”

Freegans are actually a real-life group of environmentalists who give up all their possessions and live on the streets, foraging for food and other necessities. I remember reading about them years ago. And the more I researched them for this book, the more interesting they became. It’s a totally different kind of life – and as Russel learns in the book, it’s a pretty fascinating one, and in some ways, even a very romantic one.

And dramatically speaking, there’s nothing like a character who makes your main character question everything about his life. That’s the function Wade (the freegan) has with Russel in The Elephant of Surprise.

And, of course, it’s worth mentioning that I finally wrap up the Russel/Kevin storyline once and for all!

As for another book, it’s very, very possible. It depends on how well this one sells. But if I do it, I’ll jump five years into the future, with Russel in college.

And if Geography Club, the movie, is a hit, there’s already talk of doing the next book as a movie too.

MP: What’s one thing you hope readers will take away from reading Geography Club or the rest of the series?

BH: This sounds hokey, but it’s not really about a message or a point. I just want them to enjoy themselves, to be entertained. I’m a storyteller, after all. So I want them to have gotten lost in the story, to have been unable to put the book down.

But in a “macro” sense, I’m never sad when people gain a new perspective on teenagers, or gay folks, or burn survivors, or freegans, or human beings!

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

BH: Well, all the usual advice applies: read everything; learn the craft (and the business!) of writing; network like hell; don’t read reviews and certainly don’t respond to bad ones; never be a jerk or a diva; get an agent to make sure you’re not being screwed, and never sign the first contract; be open to criticism even as you hold fast to your vision.

But there’s one piece of advice that I don’t read that often.

When I was younger, I was under the impression that most everyone shared my taste in books. I’d read some critical darling or a bestseller, and I’d hate it, see all these flaws, and I’d think, “Well, if people like this book, they’re going to love mine!”

Now that I’ve been published, I understand that’s not how it works: everyone sees every book differently – REALLY differently. Those books that I hate – that seem so obviously flawed to me? Other people really do love them! It’s not just that they haven’t read the right books: they’d probably read the books I love and hate them just as much as I hate the books they love.

I won’t say that awards and reviews sometimes seem completely random to me – I still believe that cream usually rises to the top (not necessarily with every good book, but definitely with every good writer). And that the audience is usually right (although some successes still do completely baffle me).

But the point is, you just can’t control how people respond to your book. I mean, I always knew it was out of the writer’s control, but it’s REALLY out of your control.

But in a way, once you really internalize that, it’s kind of liberating. Because then you can stop worrying about how others will react to your book and just write the damn book you’d love to read.

Thanks again to Brent Hartinger for a great interview! You can also read my review of Geography Club here on the blog and visit Brent Hartinger‘s website for more info about him and his books.

Don’t forget to enter my giveaway for an ARC of the latest Russel Middlebrook book The Elephant of Surprise!

Author Interview: Rachel Hartman

Rachel Hartman author photoRachel Hartman is the author Seraphina, a clever and original story about dragons, mystery, music and a ton of other things besides. Seraphina has also gotten a fair bit of critical acclaim including being selected as the winner of the 2013 Morris Award and the 2012 Cybils. Rachel Hartman is on the blog today to answer some questions about her wonderful debut novel.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Rachel Harman (RH): You might say I took the scenic route. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but it took me until about age thirty to decide that writing should be my career. Then it was another ten years before the book was published. I know that sounds appallingly slow, but I have no regrets. I’m a deliberator and a contemplator; I absorb and synthesize things as I go. The time is never wasted.

MP: What was the inspiration for Seraphina?

RH: The book had many inspirations. The very first idea I had for it, however, came to me when my parents got divorced. I was an adult, with a life and spouse of my own, and yet I found myself shocked and hurt and grieving, no less than if I were a kid. I had a lot of processing to do, and in the course of all that a question kept coming to me: what if you married someone with a terrible secret, and you didn’t learn what it was until your spouse was dead? That’s Claude Dombegh’s dilemma in a nutshell when Seraphina’s mother dies in childbirth; he’s got all these questions that can never be answered. Early drafts focused more intently on Seraphina’s relationship with her father; that’s still in the book, but is much more in the background now.

MP: Seraphina is rich with details of the history of Goredd and its relation with the neighboring dragons including complex political matters and a whole draconian language (not to mention unique dragon sensibilities). With so many details to explain and expand Seraphina’s world, where did you start? What was it like creating all of the corresponding languages and histories for the backdrop of this story?

RH: Goredd has been with me since the seventh grade, in fact. My English teacher asked us to write a narrative poem, and I – always the overachiever on creative writing assignments – came up with this long, silly poem called “The First Adventure of Sir Amy.” Sir Amy was a little girl knight who saved the king from an evil witch. Her country was called Goredd because that rhymed with Fred, the name of her horse. There was also a dragon who played cello (which rhymed with jello), which was the origin of dragons in Goredd.

All through high school, I set various stories in Goredd. When I was in my twenties I wrote and illustrated a minicomic called “Amy Unbounded” about Amy from the poem, now only a knight in her imagination. That solidified the world for me, and is a wonderful visual reference to have.

Making up histories is fun and easy; they’re just stories, after all (I almost majored in history in college, until I realized I was really only interested in it as narrative). I cheat egregiously at languages, though. I’m not Tolkien; I’m not writing up whole lexicons. I just want languages to evoke a particular flavour. If they’re doing that, I’m satisfied.

MP: The dragons in Seraphina are quite unique with their ability to take on human form. What inspired your interpretation of dragons in this story? Do you have a favorite detail about your dragons?

RH: This dates back to my comic book days. I had always intended there to be dragons in Goredd; they were there in the poem, so it was a given for me. However, when it came time to draw dragons in the comic, I discovered that dragons are difficult to draw. I could have practiced and gotten better,  of course, but I just wasn’t that interested. Instead, I hit upon a brilliant idea: what if dragons could take human form? Then I could draw humans! So what began as laziness (if I’m being honest) turned out to be an enormous wellspring of ideas. Because if dragons could take human form, the implications of that were rather staggering. Anyone could be a dragon. How were the Goreddis (and the dragons) going to cope? They would surely need some rules.

Readers often marvel at how alien my dragons are, but I don’t quite agree with that. They’re very familiar to me, even if they’re looking at the world from an unaccustomed angle. I love how they let me ask obvious but not-quite-answerable questions. For example: what are emotions for? That’s not a question most people usually bother asking; feeling comes as naturally as breathing and that’s just how it is. I know from raising a child, however, that emotions are not something we’re born knowing what to do with. We have to be taught not to hit when we’re angry, socialized into appropriate behaviours. What if you were only just experiencing emotions for the first time as an adult? My emotions sometimes bowl me over, and I have forty years of practice dealing with them. How are dragons going to respond, process, interpret their inner lives? How do they stay true to themselves under such unaccustomed pressures? What does that tell us more emotional types about the nature of our own emotions? What part of me is dragon, when I look underneath the emotional detritus? I could ask questions all day; I love this stuff.

MP: Seraphina’s musical talents and her love of music are continuing threads throughout the story. Did you always know music would be such a big part of Seraphina’s character? Is her love of music inspired by your own experiences?

RH: I played cello from fourth grade through college. I found performing, especially with a good orchestra, to be one of the most transcendent experiences of my early life. It’s something I’ve always wanted to convey in writing, what it’s like to be in music in exactly that way. Where does it begin and where does it end? My mind to your ears. No other art is as visceral and immediate, and it’s such a challenge to write about! But then, I really like a challenge.

MP: One of my favorite things about Seraphina is the strong ensemble cast with so many well-developed and entertaining characters. Did you have any character that was a favorite to write about? Was any character harder to write?

RH: It’s hard to say if any were difficult. Over nine years, I rewrote the entire book three times with an entirely new plot. The characters were the same people, but run through different mazes. The result is that I got to know them all very, very well. I don’t really remember if I struggled with any of them; by the last go-round, I felt like a director who’s been privileged to work with the same actors for many years. I knew everybody’s capabilities.

I don’t like to pick favourites, but Orma is a constant delight to write. He comes to me very naturally; we’re a lot alike, as counterintuitive as that may sound.

[MP: Orma is a constant delight to read as well!]

MP: Much of this novel focuses on solving a murder and unraveling a conspiracy at court as Seraphina investigates. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?

RH: I confess that plot is probably the part of writing that comes least naturally to me. I’m so wrapped up in setting, characters, and what-if questions that I just don’t have a lot of room left in my tiny brain. Here’s where a good editor is invaluable. For this final iteration of the book, I started out by sending my editor plot outlines. He sent them back with every plot hole and logic fail pointed out in excrutiating detail. I answered his questions and fixed things until he found the outline sufficiently airtight. Then I wrote the book and there were still holes and infodumps and red herrings that were way too red. We tossed the book back and forth many times, smoothing all that stuff out. I am so, so grateful for his eagle eye.

With the sequel, he approved my plot outline right away, so I believe I may have learned something from all that earlier process. The old dog has room for a few new tricks after all.

MP: Seraphina is the first book in a series. Do you have a set arc for Seraphina’s story or know how many books will be in the series?

RH: The second book will wrap up Seraphina’s story, I believe. After that I hope to write more books set in the same world, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

RH: I am just awful about spoilers. I say things that I think aren’t spoilers, but then my husband informs me they are. Of course, he’s got deductive skills like Sherlock Holmes, so maybe I needn’t worry too much in general. I think it’s safe to say there will be more Abdo, and that we’ll be meeting a lot of new characters. That’s been fun, and challenging. I was used to having the same cast over and over, so it has taken some time and effort to get to know everyone. I think it’s been worth it, though.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

RH: Love writing, because sometimes the work will have to be its own reward. Also, don’t panic if it takes a long time. The world likes to tell us we’re washed-up if we’re not brilliant before we’re thirty. That’s nonsense. There’s lots of time.

Thanks again to Rachel Hartman for a great interview! You can also read my review of Seraphina here on the blog and visit Rachel Hartman’s website for more info about her and her books.

Author Interview: Melissa C. Walker

Melissa C. Walker’s Unbreak My Heart is a fizzy, dock-side delight filled with summer optimism and a lot of very fine thoughts about friendship. I also love, love, love her blog because she features “cover stories” with different authors discussion their book covers (seriously, it’s cool). Melissa took some time today to answer a few of my questions.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Melissa C. Walker (MCW): I worked on my high school yearbook and my college newspaper–I always wanted to be a journalist. After school, I worked in magazines for years and got to peek behind the scenes of the fashion world. That gave me inspiration for my first novel, VIOLET ON THE RUNWAY, and I started writing it after work and on weekends. Once I wrote it, I knew YA was my first love.

MP: I really loved all of the difference facets of Unbreak My Heart (friendships, crushes, sailing—especially the friendship emphasis). What was the inspiration for this story? Did you always plan to include the friendship angle and Clementine’s letters to Amanda?

MCW: Honestly, this story was inspired in part by a friendship breakup I experienced. Romantic breakups are always in the spotlight–and they’re horribly painful. But friendship breakups are too, and they’re more sidelined in popular culture, so I wanted that experience to be a focus in this book.

MP: Unbreak My Heart includes a lot of picturesque sailing moments. What’s your background with sailing? Were any moments inspired directly by your own experiences?

MCW: My parents always owned a small sailboat and I have lots of hours logged on board as a kid and a teenager. I used my dad’s captain’s log from a sailing trip to map Clem’s family’s route, in fact! One scene in particular that was very true to life was when Clem and her dad look up at the stars and talk. My dad and I did that regularly, once upon a time.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

MCW: This year, both Small Town Sinners and Unbreak My Heart come out in paperback! Next winter, I’ll have a new book out, and it’s a real departure for me. The title is still slightly TBD so I can’t say much, but I will open up as soon as I can!

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

MCW: Read as much as you can, and finish your stories. I think one of the hardest things about a book is getting through and finishing the full arc of the story (the beginning is always exciting). So push through, get a whole draft done and don’t worry if it’s messy! Just write.

Thanks again to Ms. Walker for taking the time to answer my questions (especially with a deadline in her near future!). Remember if you want to know more about Unbreak My Heart you can check out my review.

Author Interview: Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers’ first YA historical fantasy Grave Mercy came out earlier in 2012. I was already a fan of Robin’s middle grade series featuring Nathaniel Fludd. This start to a series about assassin nuns in 1485 Brittany is another winner. Robin is here today to answer some questions about Grave Mercy.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Robin LaFevers (RL): I began writing when I was staying at home with my two small sons, looking for something for just ‘me’ and a way to maintain my sanity. I decided I would return to writing, something I’d loved as a teen but put aside for the real world. It took about ten years of practicing, attending classes and workshops, and writing some pretty awful stuff, but then my first book was accepted for publication, which was just as magical a moment as one thinks it will be.

MP: What was the inspiration for Grave Mercy?

RL: I knew I wanted to write the story of a girl who was utterly powerless and put her through all the trials and ordeals that would shape her into an instrument of power—not just physical power, but also the power to stand firmly in her own self and make her own choices and decisions.

For that kind of story, I needed a big, sweeping canvas with high stakes and lives and kingdoms at risk, and a time when teens were in a position shape the world around them. That search brought me to the middle ages and a world full of sacred relics, patron saints, and lots of social turbulence.

Then I stumbled across another fascinating research tidbit and learned that many women in the Middle Ages preferred joining a convent to marriage because convent life gave them more independence and autonomy than they could ever have as married women! That kind of lit my imagination on fire and began to play with what sort of convent would be the best avenue for my heroine’s journey, and I decided on a convent that would give her power over life and death.

MP: Although it is a fantasy, Grave Mercy is grounded in its historical setting of 1485 Brittany. What kind of research did it take to write about this time period? (Note to readers: If you want to know more about the history behind the story Robin posted an author’s note on her website here: http://www.robinlafevers.com/history/)

RL: One of the (many!) things I love about research is that not only I learn amazing details of how people lived and thought centuries ago, but there is such great story material as well. I’m not sure I could have dreamed up a twelve year old inheriting a kingdom, but once I stumbled across it in my research, I knew that was the perfect backdrop for the book.

Then I researched the time period, the politics, the geography, what everyday life was like back then, and the folklore and spiritual beliefs. I acquired all sorts of wonderful research books. (In fact, my husband insists I only write so I have an excuse to buy research books!) Luckily, I write in the age of Google, so I had access to a wealth of information, oftentimes I was able to look up ancient Breton lineages on obscure genealogy sites, or I would find that the walled medieval city where Anne lived still existed and I could see it online. I would spend hours studying the geography of Brittany, which lords owned which parts of the country and who was aligned with whom. Thank goodness for university websites and devoted history buffs, that’s all I can say!

MP: One of the best things about Grave Mercy is how seamlessly it blends history and fantasy. How did you approach writing about characters in this distinct time period? How did you go about capturing the right “voice” for your characters?

RL: One of the things I find most fascinating about writing historical fantasy is really trying to understand the worldview of people living in earlier times. What was life like without technology, where there was little understanding of science or the laws of physics and so much of life felt random and out of one’s control? Since Ismae belonged to a convent that served Death, what would her faith look like? How would her devotion be tested? What sorts of rituals would her life entail? Those questions were in the forefront of my mind whenever I sat down to write and helped me get into the head of a 15th century girl—what metaphors and similes would she use? What points of reference would she have? So that was probably the key to having her feel medieval on the page.

I also tried to (mostly!) use words that were only in use prior to the 16th century or phrases that felt reminiscent of that era. I definitely fudged sometimes; when the choice came down to readability I went for that over historical accuracy every time, because my overriding goal was that the story and the voice of Ismae be accessible to today’s teen reader.

MP: When you are not writing about teen nun assassins as Robin LaFevers you write books for younger readers as R. L. LaFevers including the Theodosia books and the much loved (by me) Nathaniel Fludd Beastologist series. What is it like writing for these different audiences? Does your writing process change?

RL: I wouldn’t so much say that my process changes, but that my sensibility changes. I am very aware of my younger audience when writing for them and feel very protective of their sensibilities–wanting to go dark enough to be spooky, but not so dark as to radically upset their worldview or perceptions of the world as essentially a safe place.

With Grave Mercy, I pretty much had to UNlearn all of those habits and give myself permission to cut loose. It was particularly difficult because I had Sister Lorna, my teacher in Catholic school when I was in 2nd grade, lurking on my shoulder quite a lot and muttering about irreverence and inappropriateness. It took a while to dislodge her, but I eventually did. :-)

MP: Although all of your books have very different characters and plots, all of your titles (so far) are set in the past—albeit pasts with a bit more fantasy than ours. What draws you to the historical genre as a writer? What draws you to fantasy?

RL: I think one of the things that fascinates me is that history feels like the place where magic and reality meet–so it feels like rich and fertile ground. So many of the things we think of as fantastical actually have their roots in history, whether old religions, folklore, ancient cultural practices, or mystery schools, so I like drawing from those sources because it grounds stories in the realities of the past and makes them feel more real. Also?I think it’s just hard-wired into me, a desire to see the small magics and mysteries that make life more interesting.

Also, one of the themes I’m drawn to is the issue of personal power and taking kids from feeling powerless to a place where they begin to feel as if they have some power over their lives. Fantastical power is a lovely, subtext-laden vehicle for personal power.

MP: When she arrives at the convent of St. Mortmain, Ismae discovers an affinity for poisons. Other daughters of Mortmain have other gifts to use in completing their god’s work. If you were to be a daughter of Mortmain what gifts would you have hoped to receive from Mortmain?

RL: I’ve always been drawn to the idea that death can be merciful or a gentle release, so I would definitely want gentle gifts of some sort, those that would allow me to ease people into death. A benevolent poison perhaps, or the misericorde.

MP: Set during a turbulent time in Brittany’s history, Grave Mercy is filled with political machinations and intrigue. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?

RL: Gah! I nearly broke my poor brain trying to manage all that. I used colored index cards, complex timelines, plot diagrams, character grids broken down by act, colored pens. Pretty much any tool I could think of that would allow me to break down the elements into manageable pieces so I could then use the left side of my brain to reconstruct them in the best way possible. It also took about seventeen drafts over five years, which should give you an idea of how much I wrestled with it.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

RL: My next project is Dark Triumph, the second book in the assassin nun series. Sybella is such a different character than Ismae! For one, she is noble born, not the daughter of a turnip farmer. But she has had a much darker and more traumatic past. And she is far angrier and more unstable than Ismae ever was, and has far more dark impulses of her own that she struggles to control. For all the bad things that had happened to her, Ismae was fairly innocent. Sybella however, has made some bad choices that have truly haunted her.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

RL: 1. Write because you love it.
2. Give yourself the luxury of a long apprenticeship–allow yourself to really learn the craft and experiment with different styles and forms.
3. When you have learned the basics of the craft, then sit down and write that book. You know, the one you’re terrified to write. The one that is too hard, too scary, too weird, or too damn intimidating. Yeah, that one. That’s the one I can’t wait to read!

Thanks again to Robin LaFevers for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find more information about her books on her website.

If you want to read more about Gravey Mercy check out my review!

Author Interview (#3): Sarah Beth Durst

Sarah Beth Durst is back today to talk about her latest novel Vessel and answer some questions about it. Set in another world with gods, magic, and stories, I can tell you all that this book is an ideal Emma book. With Durst’s lyrical writing and surprising twists, it’s also one of my favorites from 2012 so I hope you all get a chance to check it out soon.

Miss Print (MP): What was the inspiration for Vessel?

 Sarah Beth Durst (SBD): Usually, I have ordinary dreams: late for a train, chased by giant spiders, drinking tea with dragons…  But this one night, I had a dream about a girl dancing on the desert sand.  She was barefoot, and the moon shone overhead, and she was dancing wildly and joyfully… and she knew that when the dance ended, she’d die.  I woke up thinking about that girl, wondering who she was, why she was dancing, and why she was going to die.

MP: Vessel is set in a beautiful but often unforgiving desert landscape. What kind of research went into evoking that landscape in your own story?

SBD: I love research, and I love lacing my fantasy stories with real details.  I think that the more alive the reality in a story it, the more alive the fantasy can be.  For VESSEL, I researched the Gobi, the Sahara, and several deserts in the Southwest US.  One of my favorite research books was WALKING THE GOBI by Helen Thayer, a nonfiction book about a determined woman who is unfazed by danger.

MP: Liyana lives in a world rich with magic and stories (and, of course, gods like Bayla and Korbyn—the trickster). I was particularly struck by the sky serpents. What detail of Liyana’s world was your favorite to write? Which was the most difficult?

SBD: So happy you liked my sky serpents!  I loved writing them, as well as my wolves made of sand.  I loved creating Liyana’s world, especially inventing its mythology.  It was a really immersive writing experience.  Sitting down at the keyboard often felt like walking through a portal–often the most difficult part was walking out again!

MP: Family and clan identity are both hugely important to the story and Liyana in particular. As a reader, I was really happy to see Liyana’s awesome family in the story. Did you always know Liyana’s relatives would be key to the story?

SBD: Yes, I think I knew her little brother’s voice before I even knew Korbyn’s.  Liyana intends to sacrifice herself so that her goddess can inhabit her body and save her clan.  Liyana doesn’t want to die, but she loves her family so much that she’s willing to do it.  So I knew from the beginning that I had to love her family too.

MP: I love reading different myths and creation stories. Happily, Liyana and Korbyn love telling stories throughout Vessel. How did you know which stories Liyana and Korbyn (and later other characters) had to tell during the course of Vessel?

SBD: Over the years, I’ve read tons of mythology.  I tried to draw on the ambiance, the archetypes, and themes of world myths in order to create tales that would feel ancient and universal.  But when it came to actually crafting the tales… I pretty much trusted my instinct and let the stories flow as naturally as possible.

MP: Working off the last question, do you have any favorite myths? Did you discover any new ones while working on Vessel?

SBD: I love the Cupid and Psyche myth (which is the ancestor for the tale behind my polar bear novel, ICE).  And I love trickster tales of all kinds — the trickster was the one archetype I deliberately used in VESSEL.  He’s a figure that appears in lots of cultures, and he’s often a catalyst for change.

MP: There is a lot to love about Vessel including the diversity of the world you created and the complex storytelling. There are a lot of secrets and twists during the course of this book. How did you go about pacing the story and deciding what to reveal when?

SBD: I do a LOT of revisions when I write, and I always dedicate one draft to combing through to make sure that all the key information is dropped early and then reinforced.  I love stories with twists that are surprises when you read them but feel inevitable when you reread them.

MP: What can you tell us about your next project?

SBD: I am currently working on two new projects:

SWEET NOTHINGS (coming fall 2013 from Bloomsbury/Walker) is about a girl in the paranormal witness protection program, who, haunted by dreams of carnival tents and tarot cards, must remember her past and why she has strange abilities before a magic-wielding serial killer hunts her down.

THE LOST (coming fall 2013 from Harlequin/Luna) is the first in a trilogy about a woman running from her bleak life who finds herself trapped in a small town where all things lost — luggage, keys, people — are mysteriously deposited.

Thanks so much for interviewing me!

Thanks to Sarah for taking the time to answer some of my questions!

For more information about Sarah and her books you can also visit her website.

You can also check out our previous interviews discussing Sarah’s other novels Enchanted Ivy and Drink, Slay, Love.

If you want to know more about Vessel be sure to check out my  review.

Author Interview: Vincent X. Kirsch

A couple of months ago something cool happened at the bookstore where I work. The store has a shelf set up where staff can put their favorite titles. After reading (and loving) Forsythia & Me by Vincent X. Kirsch, I knew it had to be my next pick. I set the book up and didn’t think much more about it.

Imagine my surprise when that simple choice led to meeting the author in person. Here’s what happened: While Forsythia & Me was my staff pick, Vincent X. Kirsch actually came into the bookstore and saw the display. He then found me in the store (I’m so glad I was working that day!) to say hello and thank me. After I got over being a bit awestruck, I remembered to ask Mr. Kirsch if he would have time to answer some questions here on the blog. Happily, he did and I have those answers to share today!

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Vincent X. Kirsch (VXK): I started creating picture books when I was a little boy. Even though, I was a very precocious little artist, I loved stories and complicated plots. I would write them down. I would think of my characters and their adventures while walking to school, shoveling the driveway, doing math homework or mowing the lawn. Stories were as important to me as pictures. Often my school reports were highly illustrated, which did not thrill the nuns at Sacred Heart School very much.

My older sister was a very good reader, writer and English student. She told me over and over that she was “the writer in the family” and I could be “the artist”. So I had to keep my book projects and dreams to myself.

One summer, I took a picture book class with Uri Shulevitz while still in high school. That short course introduced me to the amount of work that goes into creating stories and picture books that are worth reading.

I did not forget my passion for picture books when I got to college but I was inclined to study something more practical like advertising and editorial design. I spent most of my early career in New York City doing things like Broadway and other theatrical posters, Cable Network TV graphics, book jacket covers, editorial illustrations for newspapers and magazines. But I always managed to daydream books. I never forgot my characters.

I became a very good reader in my twenties [from having to read novel manuscripts to create cover designs] so I dove into all of those books that I had ignored as a child. Dickens held a particular fascination.

Then in the early 1990s the characters began arriving in my notebooks. Often I would doodle a whimsical character, then a name would get attached to the likeness, then not long after a narrative waltzed on the scene.

I had notebooks dedicated to their stories and complicated adventures. I applied the skills that I had learned years ago to writing a book with introduction, action, denoument and resolution. I created lovely little book dummies.

Some characters had very complicated adventures. These were put in a separate notebook for the day when someone would trust me to write a longer book format.

Then I started a very long period of “drop-offs” where I would leave my portfolio with editors and art directors at major publishing houses. This was a very long, bewildering and frustrating time. When I went to pick the books up, I was always greeted by the art director or editor, who wanted to meet me and tell me how much they loved my work and wanted me to drop off again and again. Over and over. Editor after editor. Year after year. Literary agent after literary agent.

I never gave up. I continued to gather characters, stories and create book dummies.

Then suddenly my luck changed when I was considering giving up the idea of ever getting to do a book. My final color illustration in The New York Times Book Review for a book about two Italian brothers had just appeared in print. Weeks later, the phone did not ring but an email appeared from Jill Davis at BloomsburyUSA Children’s Books asking if I was interested in doing picture books.

When I arrived for a meeting for a few weeks later, I came armed with characters, plot outlines, dummy books and a sketchbook. Jill was overwhelmed. She carefully reviewed the work. Dazzled, she did not know where to begin.

While leafing through one of my sketchbooks she happened on a very teeny tiny doodle of a neat little French girl and a zany variation of her nearby. Under the sketches, were scribbled the names “Natalie” and “Naughtily”.

Jill asked if they had a story. I told a little fib and said that they did. Jill loved the two girls and I was to go home, type up their story and bring it in the next week.

That is what I did and weeks later I had a contract [paying next to nothing] to create my first book.

MP: You have written picture books about some dynamic sibling duos (Natalie and Naughtily in a book by the same name and Rudy and Ridley in Two Little Boys From Toolittle Toys). How did you come up with the idea for Forsythia & Me—a picture book about an equally dynamic pair of friends? Who came first: Forsythia or Chester?

VXK: Well, my beloved editor (and muse) Jill Davis, moved from BloomsburyUSA to Farrar Straus Giroux. I was on holiday at Cape Cod when she wrote to tell me the good news. Since our first collaboration was so much fun, she wanted me to work on something with her at her new publisher. That morning, I had jotted down in my notebook: “Forsythia/amazing little girl who loves to garden”. So I replied to Jill that we ought to get to work on my book idea called “Forsythia & Me/about an amazing little girl who loves to garden”. Jill answered right away: “Oh yes!”

Later that week I sent a sketch of Forsythia [in a straw sun bonnet with sunflower, yellow hair, large gardening gloves and a perfectly immaculate dress] which sealed the deal. A contract followed and the work on the book began at once.

Chester was originally her little brother who did little more that gush and worship his big sister. But with a few twists of the story, he became both narrator and amazing himself.

MP: What was your favorite part of Forsythia & Me to illustrate or write? Which part was the hardest?

VXK: Favorite part of the project: Making the endless lists of all of the things that Forsythia could do. It was such fun.

Favorite to illustrate: The pages that she amazed Chester. It was fun to work in a very gray palate with dashes of color. There are some many details, patterns and pastiches.

Hardest to illustrate: Pages of yellow with dashes of blue.

MP: Natalie and Naughtily and Two Little Boys From Toolittle Toys both have some hidden things to find on each page (including a list of Natalie’s favorite things and toys from the Toolittle catalog). Is there anything similar in Forsythia & Me?

VXK:

  1. The little blue bird of happiness, that appears on almost every spread.
  2. The titles on the trophies were fun to create!
  3. Notice that the zoo animals at Forsythia’s tea party all appear as stuffed animals on her bed.
  4. See if you can find Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins in the drawings? I was reading The Lord Of The Rings at the time I was working on the book.
  5. I choreographed a pirate dance.
  6. Forsythia was based upon my childhood BFF named Lisa Bell. Can you find her name?

MP: You write and illustrate all of your books. Can you tell us about what your creative process for a picture book looks like? Do you start with the text or the artwork?

VXK: My procedure has been pretty consistent:

  1. I start with a character and character sketches.
  2. I give the character a name.
  3. I begin to daydream and doodle the character in various activities or situations.
  4. I jot the character in to my notebooks.
  5. An editor sees the sketch, falls in love with it and wants to create a book.
  6. I get a contract [thanks to my agent Edward Necarsulmer’s efforts].
  7. I sign the contract and celebrate for a week or so!
  8. The work begins. On my laptop computer, I write a story that will fit onto forty pages.
  9. I draw a tiny storyboard to show how the book will fit to reassure everyone that I know what I am doing.
  10. The editor and I tweak and twist the story that I came up with. I do not recognize it any longer. It is actually fun, like a roller coaster ride without knowing how you will get off but at some point the ride must end.
  11. Changes and more changes. I create actual size dummy books. Over and over since I need to see an actual book if I have to create an actual book. For each title, the process has been a pure delight!
  12. Finally we arrive at the final text. I tweak a bit more.
  13. Next, we arrive at the final dummy book. There are more celebrations. I love to review the metamorphosis of the story by seeing where it started and where it ended up, what remained and what favorite bits got tossed.
  14. I refine the drawings with my handy-dandy light box and various reference materials until I am ready to go to final art.
  15. At this moment let me pause to create a visual image that I assume is daunting for every illustrator: A pile of forty blank white pages, crop marks drawn, pages numbered, piled up very neatly… waiting to be illustrated! In a matter of weeks, these pages will be covered with forty illustrations. It is an incredible feat of wizardry!
  16. I take a very deep breath. I start with the easiest page and draw the image.
  17. Then the other pages, one at a time. Drawings first, then the waves of colors, then the fine tuning, then the double checking for continuity.
  18. When the art is done. I neatly cover each illustration with tracing paper and make notes to the designer.
  19. Then, the next nerve-wracking event of bringing the art to the publisher. Will they love it? Will they hate it? Will they be pleased? Will they be disappointed?
  20. They love it! I fly out of the offices in a dazed state of shock, feet not touching the ground. Then wander around in blur for a few days or if I am lucky: a vacation by the sea to stare at waves for a week or so!

MP: You pack a lot into your illustrations with colorful characters as well as intricately detailed backgrounds for them to inhabit on each page. How do you decide where to start with each illustration? What medium do you prefer to work with?

VXK: Details. Yes. I love details. I love to add little things to keep the process of final art from becoming overwhelming. For example, on a book I just finished title FREDDIE & GINGERSNAP about a little dragon and a little dinosaur. Well, I started to doodle little insect-like dinosaurs and dragons in the scenery. They sort of took over. Wherever I looked I saw an odd creature. They became more ornate and started observing the main characters.

Or in THE CHANDELIERS, I added a little mouse character to watch the show from every angle, backstage and front. That mouse is a stand in for the reader as he sees just what the reader does.

Where I start with each illustration: I start with the main characters, of course, but at all times think about how the characters express an emotion through action or expression. I fill the page and know to leave space for the text.

Favorite Medium: My latest and favorite technique is harkening back to the original style of my original 3D characters: It is a very bold black outline that is filled in with loose vivid color layers. Darker and richer to the point of resembling stained glass with it’s bold lines and saturated colors.

MP: On your site you mention that you worked at Bergdorf Goodman for a time designing their windows (which are, by the way, ones I look forward to seeing every holiday season), and later their interiors. How did your work there inform your work as an illustrator and author?

VXK: My work at Bergdorf Goodman truly transformed me in almost every way:

  • I changed from thinking two-dimensionally to thinking in three-dimensions.
  • I learned to build a team and work with others to create exciting results.
  • I fell in love with scenic design again [which was one of my minors in college].
  • I discovered toy theaters as an art form.
  • I immersed myself in the art world, visiting galleries, hiring artists and discovering techniques.
  • I learned where to find practically everything in New York City and where to pay the least for it.
  • I learned to work quickly and finish what I started.
  • I filled my office with hundred, perhaps thousands, of tiny 3D characters that I created from doodles, thus starting the torrent of characters to come.
  • The job was like something out of a Hollywood film: grandiose, exciting and a great deal of long hours and hard work.

MP: Do you have any favorite children’s books/picture books that inspired you to become a children’s author?

VXK: My most vivid memory was of seeing a book called LITTLE TOOT about a tug boat in the harbor of New York. I grew up in a very little town in upstate New York. I had no idea that there was such a place. The buildings in the background looked like an enchanted castle.

I was completely smitten with Disney films. I was obsessed [and still am] with PINOCCHIO and PETER PAN.

I am delighted by books about worlds that I could fall into like WINNIE-THE-POOH, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE MOOMINBOOKS, THE SECRET GARDEN, and on and on. So much so, that my greatest professional dream is to create a book that will do that for readers to come. This is where, I never bothered to believe my older sister that she was the only writer in the family. I cannot with so many stories inside of me!

MP: You have several forthcoming titles. Can you tell us anything about your next project?

VXK:

  • My tribute to show business was just released in August. It is called THE CHANDELIERS from Farrar Straus Giroux. It shows a theatrical performance by a very talented family of giraffes, complete with Playbill notes and a stage door exit.
  • I just handed in final art for FREDDIE & GINGERSNAP with Disney Hyperion. That book was inspired by the dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I conceived of the book as a dance routine that ranges from awkward first steps to fearsome falls to taking flight. At this time, I am working on the second book in that series.
  • I illustrated the book NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS written by the ingeniously inventive Jeri Chase Ferris published by Houghton Mifflin. It is due in bookstores this October.
  • My first chapter book series is under negotiation at this very moment. All that I can say is that revolves around something that every child in the world loves and cannot get enough of!
  • I have just launched a new multi-media studio called WIND-UP TOP HAT STUDIOS that will create toy theaters, television programs, motion pictures, toys, ibooks and apps.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

VXK: Creating books is a tremendous amount of work. Everything takes so much time. But, if you truly want to create books than there is no greater art form.

I think the moment when I got my first actual copy of NATALIE & NAUGHTILY was perhaps one of the most magical moments in my life.

A manila envelope arrived in the mail, one day when I least expected it! Inside was my sample copy. I took it out of the envelope. I had to sit down. I was trembling. I think I stopped breathing. My heart was racing so. I turned the pages. I read the text. I could not believe my eyes. It was the first time that I had actually seen it as a book after the long process of writing and illustrating and waiting.

There it was, a book: a dream come true. Well worth the wait. Well worth the work! I could not wait to start another. It is addictive.

I wish everyone who dreams of creating a book, gets to pull one out of a manila envelope some happy day, take a seat and tremble!

For more information about Vincent and his books you can also visit his website. (Be sure to check out the individual book pages for fun details on the process behind each book as well as some hidden details to look for in each title.)

If you want to know more about Forsythia & Me be sure to check out my  review.

Author Interview (#2): Gabrielle Zevin

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of Gabrielle Zevin’s Birthright series. All These Things I’ve Done was one of my favorite books from 2011 and the second book in the series, Because It Is My Blood, was one of my most anticipated books for 2012 (and key to one of my favorite BEA 2012 moments).

I was lucky enough to interview Gabrielle Zevin about All These Things I’ve Done last year. After finishing Because It Is My Blood I saw there was still a lot to talk about where Anya and her story were concerned. Happily, Gabrielle is here to answer some of my questions about her latest novel Because It Is My Blood.

If you want more preliminary information about Gabrielle and the start of her Birthright series, you can also check out our earlier interview.

***Because this interview focuses on the second book in a series, it may have some minor spoilers for All These Things I’ve Done.***

Miss Print (MP): Because It Is My Blood is the second book in your Birthright series following All These Things I’ve Done. The last time we talked about All These Things I’ve Done this book’s working title was All The Kingdoms In The World. Can you tell us anything about why the title changed?

Gabrielle Zevin (GZ): While I liked ALL THE KINGDOMS OF THE WORLD as a working title and on an intellectual level, I had always worried that it wasn’t expressive enough of Anya’s dilemma in the novel — that is to say, the extent to which she can’t escape her birthright no matter how far she tries to run from it.  But the main reason it changed is because I had a better concept for titling the whole series! I was talking to my editor about the title and I said to her, “Wouldn’t it be cool if all the titles of the series together formed a crazy run-on sentence synopsis of the book?” So you have half the sentence now: All these things I’ve done/because it is my blood… It’s spine poetry basically.

MP: Because It Is My Blood picks up soon after All These Things I’ve Done and continues some of the same plot threads as Anya continues to struggle with the disparity between who she is and who she would like to be. How did you keep this story unique while bringing up recurring themes from the first book in your Birthright series?

GZ: I had two major goals going into the second book. The first was that I wanted Anya to travel far from home. I wanted her to see a place other than America. I wanted her to get a sense of the life beyond New York City. I think it’s hard to find yourself when you are surrounded by the same people you’ve known your entire life. So, in a sense, everything — her hair, her boyfriend, her identity, and literally the clothes off her back – are stripped from her. The second was that I wanted Anya to have a Big Idea. This might seem like a small thing but I so often see female main characters in YA who never come up with anything. The girls are chosen; the girls have special skills (magic, beauty); the girls have friends that have big ideas. I wanted Anya to have an idea that came from her own unique set of experiences. I wanted Anya to use her brain creatively to try to improve her situation.

Another thing I think that makes the story feel different than the last one is that I wanted to write a protagonist who truly got older. Anya is seventeen in the second book. She quotes her father less. She is more questioning of her faith. By the third book, she is a full-fledged grown woman and her voice reflects that.

MP: Once again Anya makes her way through a New York City that is hauntingly familiar but also very different from the one we know today. Of the locations we’ve seen thus far in All These Things I’ve Done and this book, have you had a favorite to feature?

GZ: The Rose Reading Room at the NYPL’s main branch, of course! But it’s probably too much of a spoiler to say what happens to it. (I’m sure you can imagine how important this location is to book three.)

MP: Working off the last question, which location has been your favorite to reinvent in Anya’s New York?

GZ: Other than the NYPL and the Metropolitan Museum, I loved writing Liberty Children’s Reformatory, the former home of the Statue of Liberty. I had a lot of fun writing Anya’s… Um, let’s just say departure from Liberty.

MP: One of the interesting things about this series is the narrative structure. Although Anya narrates her own story, she does so at a remove with the benefit of hindsight and often retrospection in the form of parenthetical asides and comments directed to the reader. As a writer, how did you go about structuring Anya’s story? How did you decide when to share different details both of the story as it happened and as Anya reflects on her own story?

GZ: Anya Balanchine is not a reader and she does not come from a society that cares about reading. I had a sense that the only books she read were the ones her nana  or Imogen read, or the ones she had to read for school. Her idea of storytelling is a bit old-fashioned. In the third book, readers will find out where Anya is telling the story from and why she is telling it at all. As she gains in confidence as a writer however, Anya resorts to less formal trickery. By the third book, her writing will become more modern and more fluid. My idea had always been that the prose would mature with her.

In terms of structure? In a certain way, all narrators, not just Anya, tell their stories postmortem to the events of the story. In Birthright, the challenge has been to write a narrator who knows everything (who is definitely retrospective) but still has a voice that reflects her various ages throughout the story. This dilemma, along with the narrative asides and chapter titles, requires me to know everything about the story in advance. There is very little I’m discovering as I write in this story.

MP: While Anya does visit new places and meet new people in Because It Is My Blood, many familiar faces from book one also feature. With these returning characters we see many dramatic changes in circumstance and, in some cases, attitude and behavior. Can we expect as many surprises and upsets from the latter half of the series?

GZ: Yes. I think actually readers will be shocked about the story. A frustrating thing about writing a series is that people sometimes assume you are telling one type of story when you are really telling a different type of story. Book three will take us to even more foreign countries. (Japan and more!)  And we will see Anya in ways we have never seen her before. The only thing I would say is that this is ANYA’S STORY, not ANYA AND WIN’S STORY.

MP: Many of the characters in this series, including Anya herself, operate in grey areas with what Charles Delacroix calls a “flexible attitude toward the law.” As such it isn’t always easy to identify the heroes and villains of the story although it does make for some exciting characters. Which characters were the most fun to write this time around? Were any harder to write as Anya’s opinion of them changed?

GZ: Yes, you’re right to identify this. Anya is not an unreliable narrator, but she tells things and sees things from her point of view as we all do. I love writing villains because I don’t think of them as villains. No one ever thinks that they are truly a villain. Everyone has their reasons. I love writing Charles Delacroix. I love him more than his son. I love him because he is a good man who wants to do good things but he is operating in a system that is corrupt, which forces him to be corrupt. Anya will learn to appreciate his motivations even more as the series continues.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project? What’s in store for Anya in book three?

GZ: Book three Anya is a grown up as I mentioned before. Hers is not a love story or at least not the love story that people probably think it is. Starting on page one, important people will die and the body count only grows from there.

Thanks again to Gabrielle for taking the time to answer all of my questions so eloquently here.

For more information about Gabrielle and her writing you can also visit her website.

If you want to know more about Because It Is My Blood be sure to check out my review.

Thanks to Esther Bochner at Macmillan Audio I also have a clip to share from the audiobook of Because It Is My Blood: You can listen to the clip on my website.

Author Interview: Lynn Weingarten

Lynn Weingarten’s clever fantasy The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers came out in 2011. This sly modern fantasy introduces readers to a very unique group of girls who use magic (and sometimes common sense) to break boy’s hearts. Today, Lynn is here to answer some questions about her book.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Lynn Weingarten (LW): I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. There was a writing program at my elementary school, which I was a part of, where kids wrote stories and submitted them to magazines. I ended up getting one published in a kids writing and art magazine called Stone Soup and I remember being SO EXCITED at the time. I got a free year’s subscription as payment, which was awesome.

I wrote a lot during high school and was part of the school’s literary magazine.  In college, I majored in English and did a concentration in creative writing. Shortly after I graduated, I got a job as an editorial assistant at Alloy Entertainment, which was an amazing job. I worked for and with fantastically smart and creative people from whom I learned a ton.

After about five years there, I left to write full-time.  Right after I left I sent an email to everyone I knew in publishing just letting everyone know what I was doing. Scholastic got in touch and said they were looking to do a book which would come with a little bag of clues, and so I came up with a plot to fit about a girl following clues to try and find her missing sister, and that ended up being Wherever Nina Lies (although by the time the book came out the bag of clues had been replaced with drawings). I signed with my first agent when it was time to negotiate a deal with Scholastic. I knew her because she’d represented a few of the authors I’d edited.

MP: What was the inspiration for The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers?

LW:A friend of mine was reading a non-fiction book targeted at men who wanted to become “pick-up artists”. I read the book too, just because I was curious. And then started thinking about how it would be fun if there were a group of girls who did a similar thing. The SSH grew out of that.

MP: Your debut novel, Wherever Nina Lies, was a mystery with quite a few surprising twists. The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers is a fantasy (which still has a few twists to keep readers on their toes). Did moving to a different genre change your writing process or how you approached the story?

LW:I started writing both books with a definite beginning and ending in mind, and knowing a few big plot beats that I wanted to put in the middle of each. With Wherever Nina Lies, I actually stopped writing about a third of the way through, and wrote out a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of it (since the twisty turny nature of the thing gave me a lot more to keep track of!). With Secret Sisterhood the process was a little bit looser because there weren’t as many loose ends to tie up (both because it’s not a mystery and because I knew there’d be a second book).

MP: One of my favorite things about this book is the opening. (“In the beginning, there was Lucy Wrenn, standing all alone out in front of her school on the first day of sophomore year, with a seductive little message written on her stomach in Sharpie marker.”) It really sets the tone for the story with the plot to come and also the fairytale quality of your narrative. Did you always know that this would be the opening sentence of the book?

LW:Thank you very much, I’m very glad you like it! I actually didn’t remember, so I poked around in my old emails, and this is what I found. When I first sent the chapters to my then agent, it opened a bit differently (I was planning to write the book in first person at the time):

“In the beginning, there was me.

Or, well, if we’re going to get TECHNICAL about it, before me there were a few thousand years

of other people and before that very hairy cave people who looked sort of like monkeys and before that

very hairy monkeys that looked sort of like people and before that a bunch off other stuff like other

types of monkeys and dinosaurs and whatever.”

And by the time it was on submission, the first sentence was very similar to what ended up in the book, but not identical (the main character was named Rachey, for one thing!).

“In the beginning, there she was, sweet little Rachey Wrenn, standing all alone out in front of her school on the first day of Sophomore year, with a seductive little message written on her stomach in Sharpie marker.”

MP: This story starts when Lucy’s heart is broken and, in trying to win back her ex-boyfriend, she is given the chance to become a Heartbreaker. If you had the chance to become a Heartbreaker in high school would you have taken it? What about now?

LW: Haha, no definitely not. The girls were fun to write about and, hopefully, fun to read about, but in real life, they’d be a terrible group to be a part of.

MP: Olivia, Liza and Gil are the beautiful, mysterious Heartbreakers who approach Lucy to join their sisterhood. Of the three, did you identify more with one Heartbreaker? Was one more fun to write than the others?

LW: I don’t think I identified with one more than the others, and while I enjoyed writing all of them, Liza’s sassiness made her extra fun.

MP: Olivia, Liza and Gil all help Lucy prepare to break her first heart. Part of their training involves magic. But a lot of their advice, such as wearing interesting accessories or never seeming too eager, is more prosaic and generally sound. How did you choose what tips and tricks the Heartbreakers would impart to Lucy throughout the story?

 LW: Some of the tips are just things I’ve noticed myself over the years and I also read a few books.

MP: When you started writing The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers did you know it would be the first in a series? Do you have a set arc in mind for Lucy’s story?

LW:I always knew there were going to be two books and I knew from the start how I wanted book two to end. While I knew the general shape of Lucy’s arc, I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to get there.

On a related note: From looking at some reviews online, I’ve realized a lot of readers don’t know that there is (and always was) meant to be a sequel. It makes sense of course, since there’s no explicit indication of that in the book (and certainly a certain kind of conclusion is reached at the end of book 1). But in retrospect I wish I’d put TO BE CONTINUED!!! Or something at the end. I think it becomes somewhat of a different book if you think that’s the entire story.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project? (Or just if we’ll be seeing more of Colin in the sequel!)

LW:There’s a bit more Colin and a lot more Tristan in book two. It’s called The Book of Love and will be out in Fall 2013. I’m currently working on a proposal for something new, but it’s too early to say anything because who knows what will happen with it!

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

LW: I know everyone has heard this a million times already, but write a lot and read a lot is pretty much the best writing advice I’ve ever heard. I’d suggest reading a lot in all genres, not just one in which you hope to write. If you’re only reading one genre, say YA books, it’s easy to get stuck writing in a “generic YA voice” or trying to imitate your favorite author without meaning to. And ultimately, writing in your own voice is how you’re going to do your best work. Also, as often as possible, remind yourself that this is fun, even if it doesn’t always feel like that every second. And oh, read Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, because it is amazing.

Thanks again to Lynn Weingarten for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find more information about her books on her website.

If you want to read more about The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers check out my review!

Lynn has also been kind enough to send me some temporary tattoos to give away in tandem with this interview. If you’d like to be entered to win leave a comment below by SEPTEMBER 17, 2012.