Author Update: Gail Carson Levine

Gail Carson Levine on Gail Carson Levine: “I was born and grew up in New York City. I was a child in the 1950s, not very long after World War II. My neighborhood in northern Manhattan, Washington Heights, was a haven for refugees from Hitler, and German was spoken on the streets as often as English.

“The city was a wonderful place to be a kid. Every July 4th, my friends and I would walk to middle of the George Washington Bridge and watch the Macy’s fireworks over the Hudson River. On weekends we might walk a mile uptown to the Cloisters, a medieval museum. Other times we’d walk a mile south to two other museums. When I was eleven, I was allowed to travel on the subways on my own, and then New York City was my oyster! In the winter, friends and I would ice skate in Central Park. In the summer, we’d picnic and swim at the beach two hours away by subway–for thirty cents each way!

“For hobbies, I wrote stories and acted and painted, and I read everything I could get my hands on. My allowance usually went for library fines! I shared a room with my sister, and books were my haven. There’s still nothing as private as a book!

“In college I majored in Philosophy, which is not not not a good major for a future writer. My sentences on college papers stretched out for yards! After college I went to work for New York State government and stayed with that for twenty-seven years. Most of my jobs had to do with welfare. I loved the years I spent helping people find jobs.

“In 1987 I started writing for kids, but all my manuscripts, mostly picture books, were rejected. It took me nine years to get published, which sounds horrible. In fact, those years were some of my happiest. I was learning to write. I was meeting other writers. I was making friends. And then Ella Enchanted (HarperCollins, 1997) was accepted, and I was on my way.”

We last spoke in December 2000 shortly after the publication of The Wish (HarperCollins, 2000)(excerpt) and just before the release of Two Princesses of Bamarre (HarperCollins, 2001)(excerpt), and you were kind enough of to fill us in on those wonderful books. Before we focus on your latest release, perhaps you could update us on those titles that came between. Let’s start with your debut picture book, Betsy Who Cried Wolf, illustrated by Scott Nash (HarperCollins, 2002)! What first inspired you to tell this story?

Betsy Who Cried Wolf was one of those much-rejected manuscripts from the years before Ella Enchanted. I wrote it because I wasn’t happy with the fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. The Boy is too immature for the responsibility he’s given. He demonstrates that by crying wolf, twice. If the farmers who give him the job allow him to keep it, then they have to come whenever he cries for help. Instead, they abandon him, and I think they deserve to lose their sheep.

I may also have written the story because I couldn’t resist having a character feed shepherd’s pie to a wolf!

When I first wrote the story, Betsy’s baker mom comes to her rescue. My editor felt that Betsy should solve her problem herself. As I revised I had an epiphany, and now the story may really be about the domestication of the dog!

What do you think Scott Nash’s illustrations brought to the text?

The first and most important thing they accomplish is to make the wolf not scary. Scott’s Zimmo with his woolen muffler is too adorable to be terrifying.

When I first saw sketches, I wasn’t sure about putting the animals up on two legs, but now I love it. And I love the comic-book style, with the word balloons that gave me more opportunities to make jokes. The dialogue on the introductory end pages and the morals on the final end pages weren’t in the original manuscript. Scott gave me the chance to write those.

My favorite illustration is the one of Zimmo howling above Bray Valley. Scott makes Bray look a bit like Brewster where I live. I love the illustration so much that the original is now hanging at the top of our staircase at home.

As an acclaimed novelist, did you feel quickly comfortable with picture-book writing? Why or why not?

Thank you for the acclamation! Alas, I don’t get many picture book ideas. I have a couple bouncing around my brain right now, which I haven’t had time to work on, but I hope I will. My writing and my ideas tend to skew older. I could never write a board book or a very young picture book.

Last year, you published a book with Disney Press, Fairy Dust and the Quest for Egg, illustrated by David Christiana (Disney, 2005). How did this book evolve? Are you a long-time Peter Pan fan?

Peter Pan, the novel by James M. Barrie, might have been my favorite book when I was little and not so little. I read it over and over for years. I also adored the play. When I was six, my parents took me to see the Broadway production in which Mary Martin played Peter. It may have been the highpoint of my childhood. I was in love with Peter. I wanted to marry him. I wanted to fly and stay a child forever (while also wanting to grow up as fast as possible!). I thought Wendy was an idiot for returning home. I wanted to get into Never Land and change things around. With Fairy Dust I got my chance to get in, although I didn’t tamper with the outcome for Wendy.

You know, I’ve written lots of kinds of fairies. In Ella Enchanted, they look just like people, except they have tiny feet. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre they’re whorls of light. In The Princess Tales they’re seven feet tall. In Fairy Dust they’re five inches tall. I had to keep the scale in mind every minute. I kept a fairy-sized bottle of hair goop on my desk, and I compared everything with the bottle as I wrote!

Most fairy tales are about humans, often royalty. The fairy, who has limitless power, comes in to wave her wand and help the people. Fairy Dust is about the fairies, and so I had to restrict their magic. If they could just wave their wands to solve their problems, there would be no story. Never fairies don’t even have wands. They can fly and they glow and they have fairy dust. But they can be killed. Hawks kill them sometimes. Human disbelief can kill them. Never land itself can be threatened. In Fairy Dust the threat that sets the story in motion is a hurricane.

Your Newbery Honor novel Ella Enchanted (HarperCollins, 1997) was made into a film in 2004. Many authors dream of landing “a movie deal.” What was the experience like for you?

The terms of a “movie deal” are set up in the option contract at a point when the likelihood of a movie actually being made is remote. My option contract gave me “consulting rights,” which meant that the producers had to show me the scripts. I got to comment, and they could ignore whatever I said. When I saw the script I wasn’t happy about the addition of an evil uncle and a talking snake. Those comments were ignored. However, they did listen to some of my remarks about dialogue and the handling of Ella’s curse of obedience. So I didn’t feel entirely cut out of the process.

When the film went into production, Miramax flew my husband and me to Ireland so we could observe the first three days of shooting, which were fascinating. The parking lot was packed with cars. Dozens and dozens of people employed because I’d written a book! Some of them spent all three days waiting for the five minutes when they might be needed! For example, there was a mime who coached Anne Hathaway on how her body should respond to the curse. I thought that was a wonderful idea. Still, she was needed only intermittently.

Then, when the movie came out, Miramax toured me across the country and into Canada to promote it, which also promoted the book. The movie brought tons of readers to my book.

And I got to go to the premiere and walk on the red carpet. I appear in the extra stuff for the movie–but don’t blink or you’ll miss me!

I like the movie. Anne Hathaway is the perfect Ella. However, the movie and book are so different they need to be regarded as separate entities and each enjoyed on its own terms. I would be glad to see any of my books turned into movies. Are you reading this, producers of the world?

I’m especially thrilled to talk to you about your latest novel, Fairest (HarperCollins, 2006). I loved it, and I think it’s your best book yet! For those who’ve yet to read the story, could you tell us a bit about it?

I’m so very glad you loved it. Not many people have seen it yet, and yours is one of the first responses.

Fairest takes place in the world of Ella Enchanted, not in Kyrria where Ella lives, but in the neighboring kingdom of Ayortha. I’ve given Ella’s friend Areida an adopted older sister Aza, who’s the main character. Areida is a minor character. Lucinda, the nutty fairy in Ella, doesn’t appear directly, but her thoughtlessness underpins the story, which is, loosely, Snow White.

Aza is abandoned at the Featherbed Inn when she’s only a month old. The innkeeper and his wife keep her, although she’s an unappealing baby and grows into a homely child. However, she has a fabulous voice, and Ayortha is a kingdom of singers. What’s more she learns to throw her voice with a skill that far surpasses anything our real-life ventriloquists can do. This ability gets her involved with the queen and a scheme to deceive the entire court, including the witty and appealing Prince Ijori. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are beauty spells and potions and a dangerous magic mirror.

What drew you to this retelling?

There’s such jealousy and anger in the fairy tale, Snow White. It’s explosive! The queen’s feelings are unacceptable, and yet we all have them. We all experience jealousy and rage, and I don’t think there’s any such thing as mild fury or tepid jealousy. There’s power in these emotions and maybe even more power in the energy we use to bottle them up. I’ve thought about the fairy tale for years and was afraid to touch it, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. I even wrote an adult (unpublished) short-story version.

The Grimms’ grim ending didn’t bother me as a kid, but as a grown-up, I hate that the queen dances herself to death in those red-hot slippers. She’s killed for feelings everyone has. Of course she also attempted murder several times, but never mind, I don’t want her treated that harshly. So I’ve made some changes.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way? What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Fairest was the hardest book I’ve ever written, and it took about four years, with eight months off in the middle to write Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. I couldn’t find the right point of view (POV) to tell Fairest from. Snow White is comatose while major events take place, so I thought I couldn’t tell it in her voice. I started by telling it in the first person of a gnome. (Gnomes stand in for dwarves in my version.) I thought the gnome would love Aza with a doomed love. It would be all Cyrano de Bergerac-ish, the love story of the century. That didn’t work.

So I tried it from the POV of Prince Ijori, which didn’t work either. I turned to third-person omniscient, and that was a complete mess, much too complicated.

When I say I tried it one way and then another I don’t mean that I wrote eight pages, cleverly realized my mistake, and stopped. No. In each case it took me about 300 pages to realize I was going the wrong way. The tip off for me was boredom. I wrote slower and slower. This is usually how I know when my story is in trouble.

But I don’t give up, mostly because I can’t stand to have wasted years or months of writing. In this case, I finally figured out what’s going on during Aza’s coma, and I was able to tell the story in her voice.

Most of my book research involved looking at fashion-history books. Aza’s atrocious ensembles are descriptions of real outfits. I didn’t stick to any particular time period, just romped through the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century.

My non-book research was singing lessons with an opera star! I’ve never been able to carry a tune reliably, and I’ve always been embarrassed about it, so I approached this with a lot of apprehension, could barely sing above a whisper at my first lesson. But Janet Hopkins was the best and most encouraging teacher in the world. I learned that I’m not tone deaf. I have little talent, but I can match notes and can sing a song with the support of a piano and a sympathetic teacher. I also learned about breathing for singing and general singing stuff.

This novel resonated so much with me on the various ideas of beauty–inner, outer, and where they can lead us. Globally speaking, when you hear the word “fairest,” what does it mean to you?

As I’ve grown older I rarely like photos of myself any more. Brightly lit mirrors can make me unhappy. I’m aware of the stupidity of this, and I battle with it. As a teenager I wasn’t happy with the way I looked either. I was overweight, and my hair was too thin. I think I may have liked my looks for approximately two years of my life, not consecutively!

I usually write about the issues that trouble me. In Ella the issue was being too compliant. In Two Princesses it was being a worry wart. In The Wish it was wanting too much for people to like me. In Dave at Night (HarperCollins, 1999) it was losing my parents. In Fairest it’s beauty. I wish I could say I resolve the problems I raise. I don’t, but I grapple with them and make myself aware of what’s bubbling within.

Of course I’m not alone in my focus on appearance. Many people are beauty crazy. Looking good is everywhere. In preparing to write Fairest I read a memoir (for adults) called Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (Harper Perennial, 2003). The author had bone cancer in her jaw as a child, and much of her jaw had to be taken out. She had reconstructive surgery repeatedly, but the surgeries were never entirely successful, and she had to deal with looking deformed. The book is heartbreaking.

To me, “fairest” means prettiest, as in, “Who is fairest of them all?” “Fair” also means pale, and in fairy tales very white skin is often a sign of beauty. And I just noticed the “fair” in the word “fairy,” and one of the definitions for fairy in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a small graceful woman or child.”

When you decide to retell or reinvent a classic story, how do you go about it? What are the considerations, the questions you ask yourself? What are the challenges particular to this kind of writing?

I tell myself that the story can go where it needs to. It doesn’t have to stick with the traditional tale. The Two Princesses of Bamarre began as a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but I couldn’t figure that fairy tale out, and gradually the book found a different story. Still, I keep the original in mind.

My books are more plot-and-idea directed than character directed. I don’t follow a character and see where she’ll take me. Instead, I find characters who’ll go willingly in the direction of the story. For example, when I retold The Princess and the Pea as The Princess Test (HarperCollins, 1999) I was looking for someone who might have a shot at feeling a pea under a million mattresses. I came up with Lorelei, who isn’t a princess at all. She’s a blacksmith’s daughter, but she’s very sensitive, and she’s allergic to everything.

Each fairy tale is different and each calls forth a different approach. When I reread Snow White I was struck by the description of her: white as snow, red as blood, black as ebony. She’s supposed to be beautiful, but that didn’t sound beautiful to me. Then I started wondering, suppose she’s unattractive. What happens to the story then?

When I reread fairy tales I look for leaps of logic and gaps in the story. Using The Princess and the Pea as an example again, what kind of crazy idea is it to think that a true princess can feel a pea under mattresses. She’ll be a queen some day and have life-and-death power over her subjects–because of a pea?

In Sleeping Beauty, the prince falls in love with the princess when he knows only three things about her: she’s pretty, she’s a princess, and she doesn’t snore. In Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep (HarperCollins, 1999) I give the prince a real reason to kiss Sonora even though, after 100 years, she’s covered with spider webs!

How have you grown and changed as a writer since I last interviewed you in 2000?

That’s a hard one! Sometimes I think I haven’t grown at all! I get into stupid trouble with almost every book. But at least now I know to expect trouble and to have a little faith that I’ll work it out.

I’ve learned some of my faults. I overwrite. I make matters too complicated. I miss the most obvious things. But most of all I’ve learned that each book is different from the one before, and I have to find a new way to solve it. I expect it to be difficult. I expect to have to inch along sometimes.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

For beginning writers who are adults, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers (SCBWI), the friendliest, most helpful organization for when you’re getting started (and later on too!). Take classes. Join critique groups, if you like to share your work. Read about writing. Read the kinds of books you’re writing. Don’t send your work out until it’s as good as you can possibly make it, with the help of teachers and writing buddies. But then do send it out. And don’t give up!

For kids who are writing, make your characters suffer! If you’re getting bored with a story, make something terrible happen to your main character. And read my other book that’s coming out at the same time as Fairest. It’s called Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly (HarperCollins, 2006), and it’s for kids about writing. It’s full of exercises that will make you reach for your pen or your computer.

How about those building a body of work?

I write what I want to write. Most of my work is fantasy, but I have a picture book and a historical novel, and The Wish is a fantasy but in a contemporary setting. Now I’m coming out with a nonfiction book (Writing Magic).

The truth is, however, that thus far the fantasies have sold best, because they’re what I’m known for, so there may be a downside to switching genres. Your editor (or editors) and your agent, if you have one, would be great people to discuss your body of work with. Still, I think you should write what interests you. The body that results may be disjointed or double jointed. So what?

And how about fantasy writers in particular?

Don’t worry about going into old territory. Your dragon will be different from everyone else’s. You’re different from everyone else, so what you write will be too. Having said that, I would stay away from schools for magicians!

As a reader, what are your favorite recent titles for children and/or teens and why?

Alas, I don’t have much time for reading. I’m hopelessly behind on new books. But I do have one recommendation. I loved Eve Tal‘s Double Crossing (Cinco Puntos Press, 2005). I guess it sits on the cusp between middle grade and YA. It’s an immigrant story with folklore woven through the text, and each tale is perfectly apropos. The book is gripping, the time period (early 1900s) comes alive, and the characters are enormously sympathetic.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on a fantasy set in ancient times. I’ve been reading about Mesopotamia, but I’m not tying myself to historical accuracy, and the place names are invented. At this moment I’m on page forty-nine. I think it’s going to be at upper end of YA, a new age group for me. Of course everything could change. I never know what I’m doing until I’ve finished a first draft.

Oh! I almost forgot the sequel to Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. It’s called Never Land and the Quest for the Wand, and it will be out from Disney in the fall of ’07. There’s a lot of mermaid action, and bats figure prominently in the story. Did you know that bats are very polite and logical?

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

Walk Baxter, the Airedale. Play with Baxter. Spend time with my husband, David. See friends. Go to museums. Doodle. Work out. I lift weights. I’m very strong. I can bench press over fifty pounds, and I weigh only about ninety!

Cynsational Notes

Read an Interview with Gail Carson Levine from December 2000 and another interview with her from HarperCollins.