Author Interview: Tessa Gratton

I feel like I’ve been waiting for Tessa Gratton’s latest book, The Lost Sun, for my entire life. The Lost Sun combines everything I’ve always loved in a book with things I didn’t even know I wanted in a story. A modern day world with Norse gods? A reluctant berserker? A seethkona on a quest? A missing god? Sign me up! Happily, The Lost Sun delivered everything I was hoping for and more. Even more exciting, Tessa was gracious enough to take time out of her own release week (The Lost Sun came out on the 25th so you can go out and buy it or request it from your library right now!) to take part in an 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?

Tessa Gratton (TG): I’ve been writing since I was in 5th grade, and even when I wanted to DO other things for a career, reading and writing was always in the background, a thing I just always did for fun. I chose to leave grad school and focus on being an author for a living, and in 5 years wrote and rewrote 4 novels before finding my agent and first publishing contract with Blood Magic. It was the 7th novel I’d written since high school, and has a companion novel, The Blood Keeper. The Lost Sun is the first of a NEW series! I’ve also published about 70 short stories online with my critique partners Maggie Stiefvater and Brenna Yovanoff, as well as a fun anthology, The Curiosities.
 
MP: What was the inspiration for The Lost Sun?
TG: I wanted to write about faith and religion in America, and started with the question, “What do you believe in when the gods are real?”
MP: How did you approach writing a story about such distinct world? Did your vision for the United States of Asgard start with a specific place or aspect?
TG: The “vision” started with a single image: Baldur the Beautiful being sacrificed on live television. I did my best to marry modern American society and Nordic mythology/Viking Age culture, which was easier than I expected because we share a lot of the same values as the Vikings.
A lot of Norse gods make appearances in The Lost Sun. Was any god a particular favorite to write? Is there any character you’re especially excited for readers to meet?
TG: I loved writing Baldur, especially because he wasn’t very godlike. He’s so human – as Soren, the narrator, points out, Baldur is the most human of all the Norse gods because he dies. He’s also a symbol of light, and as a dying god it puts him in the same category as Christ. That was intriguing, challenging and surprisingly fun.
I have to admit, right now as I finish working on the second book in the series, I’m very excited to introduce readers to the new narrator, (and Soren through her eyes), but in The Lost Sun I think I’m most excited for people to read about Soren and Baldur’s relationship. And OK, Glory. She is a delight to write about.
MP: In The Lost Sun people dedicate themselves to specific gods. Astrid has been dedicated to Freya since she was eight. Soren, on the other hand, refuses to dedicate himself to Odin despite Odin being the god of berserkers. If you were in the United States of Asgard, which god would you dedicate yourself to?
TG: Odin, haha. He’s the god of war and madness and POETRY. To me, Odin represents the violence of creation, so I disagree with Soren a bit about Odin being entirely untrustworthy. He’d dangerous and challenging, but I think artists should be both of those things.
MP: There are a few twists and turns in this story as Soren and Astrid’s fates knot together. How did you go about pacing the story? How did you decide what to reveal to readers when?
TG: I reveal everything I can to readers as early as possible. Never hold back! If Soren knew it, I wanted the reader to know it too. And honestly, because this book is a road trip novel, it was the EASIEST of all my books to plot and pace. You can’t get too complicated and messy when the characters are literally driving from one place to another. I tried to put in a natural rhythm of ups and downs and surprises and twists, just like when you’re on a road trip and you take detours or hit unexpected traffic or roadside attractions!
MP: Obviously a lot of research went into this book. Were any resources especially helpful to you while writing The Lost Sun? Can you offer any recommendations for readers who want to learn more about Norse mythology after finishing this book?
TG: I tell you what: I like Wikipedia for a starting point. It’s not at all inaccurate re: Norse mythology, and can give a good overview so you know what you’re interested in and then you can look at the books that delve in deeper to those subjects.
The BEST way to understand the mythology, though, is to read some of the sagas. I recommend the Saga of the Volsungs esp, for magic, dragons, shape-shifting, sex, and a lot of burning things down and interfering gods.
For straight-up academic research, I recommend GODS AND MYTHS OF NORTHERN EUROPE by H R Ellis Davidson.
MP: The Lost Sun is the first book in a series.  Do you have a set arc for this story or know how many books will be in the series? Will we be seeing more of Soren and Astrid?
I’m hoping there will be 4 books total, and for sure there will be three. Every book has a different narrator and a self-contained plot, but they’re all connected by, well, the strands of Fate and a certain goddess who likes to manipulate said strands of fate. I have a general idea of the over-arching series plot, and I know quite a lot about the rest of the books. I can tell you Soren is one of the main characters in all 4, though not ever the narrator again. Some of the future narrators you meet in The Lost Sun, but not all of them!
MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
TG: My next project, and my projects for the foreseeable future, are all USAsgard related! I’ve been working on Book 2 for almost 2 solid years. It’s kicking my butt! But should be worth it!
Maggie and Brenna and I are working on a follow-up to our short story anthology, but there aren’t a lot of details available for that yet!
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
TG: Have adventures! Meeting new people and visiting new places will teach you about humanity, and that’s always what we’re writing about, isn’t it? Discovering your own stories will lead you to being able to invent amazing new ones!

Thanks again to Tessa Gratton for a great interview. You can also read my review of The Lost Sun here on the blog and visit Tessa Gratton’s website for more info about her and her books. (Be sure to stop by the badass United States of Asgard section while you’re there. It’s awesome!)

Author Interview: Dianne K. Salerni

Dianne Salerni at the real caged grave of Sarah Ann Boone. Photo credit: Robert Salerni

Dianne Salerni at the real caged grave of Sarah Ann Boone.
Photo credit: Robert Salerni

Last month I read and reviewed The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni. It was definitely a favorite book this year and a very fine work of historical fiction (and mystery to boot!). Because of the magic of Twitter, I also started “talking” to Dianne after the review posted and was lucky enough to set up this interview. Needless to say I’m delighted to have her answering questions about The Caged Graves on the blog today!

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

Dianne Salerni (DS): I’ve been writing all my life, but I was too timid to seek publication. My husband is the one who started submitting my work to agents and editors. He had no success with anything I wrote in the early years of our marriage, and rightly so, because those works were NOT ready! But when I finished a historical novel in 2006 (my first attempt at that genre and my best book to-date), he suggested self-publishing it without even trying the traditional route. That book, High Spirits, was later picked up by Sourcebooks and re-published with the title We Hear the Dead. It also attracted the attention of an independent Hollywood producer. A movie option resulted in the production of a 10 minute short film, The Spirit Game, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Shortly after We Hear the Dead was published, I began looking for representation and after an 8 month search received an offer from Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc. The Caged Graves is the first book Sara sold for me.

MP: What was the inspiration for The Caged Graves? (Trick question! We know the story started with the two real caged graves as explained on your website. But how did you decide what direction to use for your own story?)

DS: I briefly considered writing a novel about the two young women and how they ended up in the graves, but I wanted the graves to be the central mystery in the story – not how the story ends. So, I decided to focus on a daughter of one of the women. If the daughter had been sent away to be raised by relatives after her mother died – a common thing in the 1800s – it was plausible that she might not know the story behind her mother’s death and the graves.

Having decided that much, I started researching the history of the area. When I read about the Wyoming Massacre in the Revolutionary War and the Shades of Death swamp, I wanted to weave that history into the story. A plotline began to develop that tied together a legend of lost treasure, a deadly swamp, and a young woman’s search for answers about her mother’s death.

MP: The Caged Graves is about quite a few things including Verity’s reconnecting with her birthplace and her family. It’s also a bit of a mystery and a story of suspense. As a writer, how did you go about bringing these elements together in one story? Did you always know Verity’s familial relationships would play such a large part in the story?

DS: I am a hopeless pantster. So, no, I did not know her relationship with her father and other relatives would play such a big role. I had the solution to the mystery in mind when I started the book, but getting the clues presented in the right order and at the right time took multiple drafts and claimed most of my attention. Verity’s relationship with her family and her adjustment to living in the mountain town developed along the way. I credit my editor, Dinah Stevenson, for encouraging me to give more “screentime” to that part of the story. Sometimes, in an effort to get the word count down, I have a tendency to cut things that should not be cut. Dinah’s editorial comments encouraged me to make the family elements a priority in the story.

MP: Both The Caged Graves and your earlier novel We Hear the Dead are historical novels. What are some of the challenges or unique experiences of writing historical fiction?

DS: Getting the historical details right is always a challenge. One small thing that drove me nuts was figuring out where Verity would acquire ornamental plants to adorn her mother’s gravesite. Florists and nurseries would not have existed at that time and in this place. Ultimately, common sense prevailed, and I had her get cuttings from someone who already had the plants. (How that person got the plants was not my problem!)

Another issue is language – especially weeding out vocabulary, idioms, and turns of phrase that would not have been used in 1867.  I spent a lot of time on Dictionary.com and other sites, tracking down the origin date for various phrases. If I could not prove the phrase dated to that time, I changed it.

MP: In some sense, this book starts with a choice as Verity has to decide between staying with relatives in Worcester or returning to the much smaller and less urbane town of Catawissa. If you were in Verity’s position, what choice do you think you would have made?

DS: Verity moves back to Catawissa to marry a young man she knows only through letters. This is not so different from meeting somebody online, having a virtual romance, and then meeting him in person. While I can imagine doing that part – I’m not so certain I would have the guts to move across the country and settle in a new place. I have lived in the same county of Pennsylvania all my life, surrounded by family. Of course, Verity was returning to family when she moved to Catawissa, but they were nearly strangers – even her father. Verity is a lot more bold and outgoing than I am. I think I would have been too timid and shy to do what she did.

MP: While a big part of the story is, of course, the caged graves I have to say what really stood out to me were the wonderful characters. Are any characters particularly close to your heart? (I was about to name my own favorites when I realized it would be all of them!) Was one character more fun to write than others? Was any character harder?

DS: I love all the minor characters as much as the major ones. I was particularly fond of Verity’s father, Ransloe, who had trouble re-connecting with a 17 year-old daughter he barely knew. I had a lot of fun with her fiancé’s sisters and Verity’s young, rambunctious cousins. Hadley Jones, the doctor’s assistant, turned out completely different than I’d planned him to be – a lot more playful and irreverent, with a rather unconventional doctoring style.

I’d have to say the character I worked on the most was Verity herself. I wanted her to learn something about herself during this book, which means that she starts out with some faults – she looks down on the country townspeople at times, she makes assumptions about everyone she meets, and she is sometimes tactless. But she’s also compassionate and kind at heart. I wanted her to realize her mistakes, while still holding true to her personality. And I wanted her to be likable, in spite of her faults.

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MP:

MP: One of the interesting things about The Caged Graves is how the secret of the graves comes together and the book’s surprise ending. There are a lot of twists and turns in this story. How did you go about setting up the pace of the story? How did you decide what details to reveal when?

DS: It took several drafts for me to get the clues presented in the right order and at the right time. My beta readers helped me out with that. A couple of them pointed out I was holding secrets back too long. One person in particular mentioned that, in a mystery, the reader wants to feel as if s/he is making progress at figuring things out all along the book; otherwise it’s too frustrating.

I knew the story behind Verity’s mother’s death and the caged graves before I even started writing the first draft. However, I did not have a resolution planned out for the legendary treasure when I began writing. I was about two-thirds into the first draft when the idea for my climactic scenes came to me, and I changed what I had originally planned to happen. (This also required me to go back and snip out plot threads I had planted earlier for an ending that was no longer going to happen.)

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

DS: My next project is something completely different – a middle grade fantasy in a contemporary setting. The Eighth Day is about a boy who discovers an extra 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday and a mysterious girl hiding in the house next door who exists only on that secret day. HarperCollins bought the story in a 3 book deal, with the first book expected to release in Summer 2014.

I am currently completing editorial revisions for Book 1 before it enters the copy-editing stage. A draft for Book 2 will have to be revised to match the changes I made in Book 1, and I am still planning Book 3. So, I am really looking for the school year to end so I can devote more time to those projects!

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

DS: Keep writing! When you complete a project and begin querying, start a new project – (not a sequel). Things don’t always happen in the order you expect. The Caged Graves is the first book my agent sold for me, but it’s the second book I sent her. The Eighth Day is the second book she sold, but it was the fourth one I gave her. That doesn’t mean the other manuscripts won’t eventually have their day, too, but it does mean that the more you have to offer, the more likely you are to get picked up by an agent, and ultimately, an editor.

Thanks again to Dianne Salerni for a great interview. You can also read my review of The Caged Graves here on the blog and visit Dianne Salerni’s website for more info about her and her books.

Author Interview: Lois Metzger

Lois Metzger is here today to talk about her latest novel A Trick of the Light. It’s an interesting book with a lot going on including a few surprises. The book’s official publication is today and I’m very excited to have Lois here to talk about this book.

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

Lois Metzger (LM): I knew from the age of 14 that I wanted to be a writer.  I loved J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories; I always hoped to write that tenth story.  I started out by inventing characters’ diaries, which turned out to be good training—it let me understand them from the inside.  Then, when I wrote a story about those characters, I’d learned enough about them to know what they would say, how they would react in any situation.

I had some short stories published in my twenties, and my first novel (Barry’s Sister) in my thirties; I wrote the sequel to that book (Ellen’s Case) a few years later, and a more autobiographical novel (Missing Girls) a few years after that.  A Trick of the Light took me almost ten years, from original idea to published book.

MP: What was the inspiration for A Trick of the Light?

LM: In 2004 I came across an article in the New York Daily News.  It was about a boy, Justin, who developed an eating disorder and almost died, and ended up in a hospital.  This came as a shock because I really didn’t know that boys could get eating disorders; I thought it was something that only happened to girls when they dieted too much.

I emailed the reporter of the article, who put me in touch with the family; I interviewed the boy’s doctor, who gave me the names of patients and families in New York so I could meet them.  Recently I took another look at that article, and saw how much of Justin’s story stayed with me and is still part of the final version of the book, even after substantial changes.

MP: This book is interesting because there is a very distinct narrator and main character.  What was it like writing Mike’s story from this remove?

LM: Having this narrator wasn’t my first idea.  Originally I had Mike tell his own story, but that became awkward because so many strange things were happening to him, and he was denying a lot of it, aware of some things, unaware of others.  How can a character say, “I didn’t know it, but…”?  Similar problems arose when I tried telling it from his friend Amber’s point of view; she got to know Mike pretty well, but she didn’t know his past.  Also she has her own agenda.  Mike’s friend Tamio knew Mike’s past, but Mike pushes Tamio away so quickly that Tamio couldn’t narrate the story, either.  I also tried having Mike’s mom be the narrator, but she really didn’t know what was going on inside Mike’s head.  Only one narrator knew that.

MP: In addition to a very separate narrator, this novel doesn’t have a very likeable narrator.  What was it like writing a story with a narrator that is so negative (and dangerous even)?

LM: There were moments I definitely found creepy as I was writing them.  Mike’s mom finds Mike lying on the floor, and she freaks out.  The narrator thinks it’s no big deal, that Mike was “tired” and “took a nap.”  It sounds so innocent and harmless.  Later, Mike’s mom has to tell Mike, “You blacked out.”  Another moment I found sad was when the narrator tells Mike to ignore his mom when she’s crying.  I just felt bad for her.

Still—and I hope this doesn’t sound like a contradiction—I really enjoyed writing the narrator’s thoughts and opinions.  Many actors and actresses say they love to play villains.  I can see why.

MP: One of the fun things about Mike is his interest in stop-motion animation.  Is that an interest you share?  Did you always know this interest would be a part of Mike’s character?

LM: Yes, I’m a Ray Harryhausen fan, the stop-motion animation genius who learned his craft from Willis O’Brien, the man who created King Kong.  I’m so sad to say that Mr. Harryhausen died only very recently, on May 7, at the age of 92.  He knew about A Trick of the Light and I’m sorry he didn’t get a chance to see it; I’m sending a copy to his widow, Diana Harryhausen, and to Tony Dalton, the co-writer of his books on stop-motion animation.

My favorite Ray Harryhausen movie is “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”  The monsters he invented—or creatures, as he liked to call them—are wonderful and, as Ray Harryhausen used to say, you feel sorry when they die because they have “a mind and a soul.”

From the first draft, Mike had an interest in stop-motion animation, but it was only in relatively recent rewrites that Mike and his friend started making their own movie.  The significance of the movie and the character they invent for it actually got much more fleshed out only after the book was accepted; now I see it as one of the most meaningful parts of the novel.

MP: A Trick of the Light is a pretty intense story.  Was there any part that was harder to dive into as a writer?  Is there any scene you’re particularly excited for readers to get to?

LM: The hospital scenes were hard, because Mike is sad a lot of the time, and I didn’t want to keep coming back to that.  So the narrator convinces Mike “You are not really here.  This is not your real life.”  While he’s in the hospital, Mike listens/doesn’t listen to his therapist; he makes friends with a girl he can’t stand at first.  A lot happens in a short time, and I wanted it all to be consistent and believable.

If I had to pick something I find exciting for readers, I’d have to say—the last chapter.  Sneaky answer, right?  You have to read the whole book to get there!  But, for me, the ending really brings the thing full circle.  You know where Mike has been, and you get a strong sense of where he’s going.

MP: I don’t want to reveal too much, but this book does involve eating disorders.  How much research was involved in the writing process?

LM: I wanted everything to be realistic.  A professional who specializes in eating disorders read the book before publication, and assured me that it’s accurate.  I read fiction and nonfiction books on eating disorders, and interviewed the people I met after first contacting Justin’s family.  It was fascinating research, though sometimes very painful.

MP: Building off the last question, are there any resources you’d suggest for readers who recognize the warning signs from A Trick of the Light and think they might know someone at risk or suffering from an eating disorder?

LM: Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any psychological illness, between five and 20 percent, so if you suspect a friend or family member has an eating disorder, follow up immediately.  Please get in touch with:

The National Eating Disorders Association

http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

For the helpline, call:  1-800-931-2237

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

LM: I’m in the middle of writing/rewriting a book called Change Places With Me.  It’s slightly science-fiction-ish, and it has to do with memory.  The main character is a girl who had trauma in early childhood and she tries to come to terms with it head-on at age 15.  It’s a little sad but funny, too—at least that’s the intention!

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

LM: Read and write.  I always liked reading Salinger because of his ear for dialogue.  A writer may appeal to you because of how he or she describes things.  For me, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has the perfect plot.  Ebeneezer Scrooge, one of the best characters the world has known, has a complete change of personality in only one night, and it’s just beautifully done.  Henry James does amazing things developing characters in Washington Square, especially the unlikeable ones.

Also, the more you write, the better your writing gets.  And have I mentioned how much rewriting is involved?  Humorist Peter De Vries said, “I love being a writer.  What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”  Try to enjoy the paperwork!

Thanks again to Lois Metzger for a great interview. You can also read my review of A Trick of the Light here on the blog and visit Lois Metzger’s website for more info about her and her books.

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 author photoSarah 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.