Author Interview: Dia Calhoun on Avielle of Rhia

Dia Calhoun is the winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. She is the author of five young adult fantasy novels, three of which are ALA Best Books for Young Adults. Her books are Avielle of Rhia (Marshall Cavendish, 2006), The Phoenix Dance (FSG, 2005), White Midnight (FSG, 2003), Aria of the Sea (FSG, reprint edition 2003), and Firegold (FSG, reprint edition 2003).

Dia is also one of the four readergirlz divas ( Readergirlz is featuring The Phoenix Dance in May for National Mental Health Month. When she isn’t writing, Dia sings Italian arias, fly-fishes, and canoes down the Pacific Northwest’s beautiful rivers. She lives with her husband and two frisky cats in Tacoma, Washington. Learn more at
Let’s focus on your latest release, Avielle of Rhia (Marshall Cavendish, 2006). Could you tell us a little about the story?

Avielle of Rhia is about fifteen-year-old Princess Avielle who is an outcast among her people because she looks like her Dredonian great-great grandmother Dolvoka, an evil woman with magical powers who cursed and killed all the birds in Rhia. Avielle fears that Dolvoka’s evil may rise in her. Avielle lives isolated in the High Hall, persecuted by her older brother, Crown Prince Edard.One night the Black Cloaks, an evil sect of wizard-priests from Dredonia, blow up the High Hall: only Avielle survives. She takes refuge with a kindly weaver named Gamalda who helps Avielle develop her magical gift for weaving. Avielle struggles with her grief, with her fear of being like Dolvoka, and with her fear of the Black Cloaks, all of which prevent her from coming forward as queen to lead her people.Hiding her identity, Avielle meets the common people, such as Master Steorra, the absent-minded astronomer, and Tinty, a girl whose magical power runs amok. Slowly love blossoms inside her, and this love brings her the power to face her fear of Dolvoka, defeat the Black Cloaks, come into her power as queen, and at last bring the birds home to Rhia.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

9/11 inspired me to write the book. I was profoundly shaken by 9/11, personally and artistically. Many people made eloquent speeches exhorting us all to be courageous. We were all told, as I have come to think of it now, “to go marching bravely on,” to go on with our lives to show the terrorists they hadn’t won.

However, as one speech followed another, I felt hollow. What, I thought, if you can’t go marching bravely on? What if you do feel despair? I felt awful having these feelings because they seemed so unpatriotic. Un-American. I was letting the terrorists win.

I kept waiting to hear some one talk about these feelings I was having. Oh, there were occasional news-reports by psychologists about people being depressed by the events of nine-eleven, but there were no great speeches, there was no hero for the frightened and the despairing. Who spoke for me?

Being a writer, I turned to my writing to make sense of what was happening to me. I wrote a truly terrible middle grade fantasy novel. It was nine-eleven, thinly veiled. I had to wait two years before the book would begin to transform into a real story, and oddly enough, the story that I really needed. Like me, Avielle wonders who speaks for her in her despair. Eventually she learns that it is she who must speak for her people, the despairing as well as the brave.

I wrote this book for three reasons. First, because I needed someone to speak for me, to speak for my experience of nine-eleven and terrorism. I had to create Avielle to do it. Second, because I wanted to speak for those like me, those who were too frightened to go marching bravely on. The third reason I wrote this book is that I want to be like Avielle.

By the end of the book, Avielle has acquired the Magnificent Heart. She has one shining magnificent moment when she does not wish for revenge upon the terrorists. Instead, she wishes them true strength. She wishes their hearts to be opened. That is her true heroic moment. I wish I could have a moment like that. I hope that when people read the book, they will have such a moment.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

As I mentioned, the first draft was far too close to the real events of 9/11. I had twin towers blown up. I had poison in the flour—the anthrax scare. I had people flying the flags of Rhia to show their support for their besieged kingdom. It just didn’t work!

Eventually the idea that Avielle should be a princess rather than a commoner came to me, as did the idea to make her loss immense. I really wanted to explore the psychological trauma of someone dealing with a major cataclysmic loss–so I had her whole family die when the Black Cloaks blow up the High Hall.

Then one day, out of the blue, the birds and Dolvoka flew into my mind and that element transformed the entire story. Margery Cuyler, my wonderful editor at Marshall Cavendish, asked inspired questions that spurred me to new insights. So I would say the book took nearly five years from the initial idea until publication.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I did more research for Avielle of Rhia than I had ever done for any of my previous novels–and had great fun doing it, I might add! I researched weaving, astronomy in the time of Galileo, candlemaking, stained glass window making, silversmithing, and letterpress printing.

Psychologically the book was difficult to write because I was continually immersed in my feelings over 9/11. Avielle’s journey is not easy, and the issues of prejudice and terrorism she deals with are quite serious ones for our times.

The themes of darkness and light reappear in all my novels. I think the reason for this is my struggle with bipolar illness, which is a constant swing between an excess of darkness and an excess of light–see my book The Phoenix Dance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005). I think my expressions of greatest darkness exist in Avielle of Rhia, but also my greatest image of light: Avielle at the end of the book with her radiant cloak woven of love and light and wings. That image still fills my mind. It fills me with hope.

How long have you been writing with an eye toward publication? Looking back, what were your greatest triumphs and challenges along the way?

I began writing seriously in about 1990. I got up an hour early every morning and squeezed in an hour of writing before going to work. It may not seem like much time, but an hour a day–more on weekends–adds up.

It took about five years for me to write my first fantasy novel, Firegold, (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux 2003) originally published by Winslow Press in 1999. It took me five years to find a publisher for it.

During that time I kept writing–I increased my hours to two a day–and wrote Aria of the Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003) and part of White Midnight (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003). My publisher subsequently took those books as well.

One great moment was that first letter of acceptance–how I celebrated! Another great moment was after Winslow Press went bankrupt and Farrar, Straus, & Giroux picked up my books.

I’ve been honored to work with my editor Wes Adams at FSG. Perhaps my greatest triumph was winning the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature for Aria of the Sea (Farrar Straus & Giroux 2003).

I find that my greatest challenge now is to write without worrying whether my books will continue to be successful. That kind of worry poisons the process.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love the “Ah-ha!” moments, the moment when ideas link, when images dawn, when a character suddenly acts on her own. Those moments send chills down my spine. They seem to be gifts from the blue, but they are really little rewards from my subconscious for working diligently.

Some books come more easily than others. My easiest book was White Midnight (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003). The rough draft poured out in two months! But I’d been thinking about that book for years before I sat down to write it.

I also love the process of polishing and revising, or crafting sentences until they sing. I read all my work aloud. I think if I hadn’t been a writer I would have been a singer–there is such music to language, such soul to voice.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

I loathe doing character charts, but I do them. Some of the best secondary characters I’ve ever created are in Avielle of Rhia (Marshall Cavendish, 2006). I used to ask boring questions like, does the character like lime-Jell-O or strawberry Jell-O better, and would get nowhere.
Now I ask questions such as, what is missing in the character? Or, what would she like to change about herself? I seem to get further with that kind of approach. But I still loathe doing character charts!

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

What I love about the publishing process is working with my editor. Here at last is someone who, if you’re fortunate, loves your book almost as much as you do, and will discuss it with you as endlessly and minutely as though you were two fourteen-year-old girls chatting about their friends on the phone. I love what another creative eye, gently nudging me forward, can do for the story.

What I dislike—truly, madly, deeply—is the marketing aspect of publishing. I would much rather stay home curled up with my laptop and my cats in bed writing another novel, than going to bookstores and trying to look literary and charismatic. It’s the Author-as-Used-Car-Salesman that I really abhor.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Beginning novelists in any genre should try to work on their novels a little bit every day. I firmly believe that this keeps the waters of creativity flowing. This practice builds a tsunami in the subconscious that will reward your persistence.

I firmly believe and testify to all who will listen that the subconscious will do most of your work for you if you feed it. So even on days when nothing happens, sit before the screen. Try out ideas. Discard them all, if you have to, but think, imagine, and dream even if your ideas seem stupid, random, farfetched, or trite. Then leave it all. Take a walk, garden, cook, enjoy a storm. Somewhere inside you the wave will be building, drop by drop, to rush onto the page.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I sing! I just can’t get away from the sound of the human voice. Italian arias are my favorite. I live in the Pacific Northwest so I also do a lot of hiking, canoeing, and fly-fishing in our beautiful mountains.

My husband’s family has a commercial apple and pear orchard in the Methow Valley in Eastern Washington, and I love to spend time there. The magic of the orchard inspired two of my books, Firegold (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) and White Midnight (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).

What can your fans look forward to next?

My next book is something of a departure for me. The Return of Light: A Christmas Tale (Marshall Cavendish, October 2007) is still a fantasy, but it is a short fable for all ages.

It is written from the point of view of Treewing, a young Christmas Tree who lives on a Christmas Tree farm on Faith Mountain. The magical Christmas Deer chooses him for a special destiny, and he is cut down and put on sale in an urban Christmas Tree lot. There he longs for a happy family to take him home.

This doesn’t happen, though, and to his despair, he’s left all alone on Christmas Eve. Then, with the help of a boy named Luke, a special baseball, and a group of homeless people, Treewing brings the Return of Light to those who need it most. Again in this book, I explore themes of light and dark. It does seem to be my topic!