Author Interview: Janet Lee Carey on Dragon’s Keep

Janet Lee Carey spent far too much time in school staring out the window dreaming of imaginary worlds. Her teachers worried she’d never be able to get a “real job.” Fortunately her “real job” requires a lot of staring out the window dreaming of imaginary worlds, and sometimes her imaginary worlds become books that earn starred reviews! She’s published five books including Wenny Has Wings (Atheneum, 2002), winner of the 2005 Mark Twain Award, The Beast of Noor (Atheneum, 2006), a NY Library Best Books for the Teenage 2007, and fall Book Sense pick, and Dragon’s Keep (Harcourt, 2007)(excerpt) which earned a School Library Journal starred review and a Booklist starred review. Janet also teaches novel writing, speaks in the U.S. and abroad, and yes, she even cooks and cleans and takes out the trash now and again because writers don’t life in ivory towers. Her website is See also a Cynsations interview of the Readergirlz divas.

What about the writing life first called to you?

Creating stories is deeply satisfying. I love every part of the process. Every book provides new challenges and gives me a new mystery to solve.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

A lot of adults have pretty solid opinions about themselves and the world. I find children and teens interesting because they’re still growing and open to new ideas.

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Oh, it’s been more like long distance running than sprints, but yes to the stumbles part. Like most writers, I faced many years of rejection before I sold my first novel. It’s one reason why I keep the book Rotten Rejections edited by Andre Bernard (Pushcart Press, 1990) within easy reach.

Congratulations on Dragon’s Keep (Harcourt, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for this book?

I thought I’d write a fairytale that turned the “perfect princess” model on its head by mixing the princess and dragon together. The short fairytale fattened up to fifty pages, then to one hundred, and so on until I had to face the fact that I was writing a novel.

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

Dragon’s Keep went through a lot of permeations. My first draft was about five hundred pages (a length that makes any editor shudder). I couldn’t sell the early draft, so I revised it over and over again for, cough, nine years! I had to cut hundreds of pages and find the perfect opening before it finally sold. I was thrilled when Kathy Dawson, bought it for Harcourt! Dragon’s Keep was the first fantasy Kathy ever acquired. It also found a home with Julia Wells at Faber and Faber in the U.K. and will come out there this summer under the title Talon.

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

I faced a number of challenges with Dragon’s Keep because I wanted the fantasy to be set during the time of England’s civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. The story takes place on Wilde Island, a fictitious English prison colony, but the historical events occurring in England are significant because the central character’s mother is convinced Princess Rosalind will wed Empress Matilda’s son. The conflict of England’s civil war mirrors the mother/daughter conflict on Wilde Island and the dragon’s interference heats things up all the more.

I also found writing Dragon’s Keep in first person somewhat challenging, but it couldn’t have been written any other way. I’d like to give a hat’s off here to Karen Cushman for her delicious first person novel Catherine Called Birdy (Clarion Books, 1994).

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Apprentice yourself to the story. Believe in the idea and the characters. Write it from the inside out–from the core of the character’s desire. Don’t think about marketing your work–just work. Write, revise then seek a good critique group for feedback. When you’ve revised the manuscript again it’s time to start marketing your work.

How about those with a strong interest in writing fantasy?

The same answer as above. It’s all about finding the unique stories you want and need to tell. Of course the other part of the apprenticeship is to read well-written books within and beyond your chosen genre. Writers need to study other word craftsmen. They need to see how they handle descriptive prose, transitions, action scenes, characterization, dialogue, and how they weave all these threads into a single seamless story.

How do you balance your role as a writer (research, writing, revision) and as an author (marketing, contracts, promotion)?

I try to begin the day with meditation, good, strong tea, journaling and writing. Ray Bradbury’s advice in Zen in the Art of Writing (Joshua Odell Editions, 1990) is to go directly from your bed to your writing desk in order to keep your “morning mind,” the part of you that dreams, and capture that on paper.

I agree, though I admit I nearly always do a quick e-mail check. First because my editors are in N.Y. and the U.K. and their time zones are ahead of mine. And second because I like to see what’s happening with readergirlz. The trick is not to get sucked into the afternoon work (marketing, contracts, speaking engagements, promotion) before I get my morning writing done. Am I perfect at all this? Far from it. Sometimes I work on everything but the novel. It’s rather nasty to leave a character dangling from a dragon’s claw for five or six days while I work on other aspects of the business, but ah, well.

What do you love about your writing life?

I love losing myself inside the story I’m writing. When it’s going well, I’m in a timeless state.

What is its greatest challenge?

Meeting deadlines. (Did I mention juggling balls?)

What are some of your favorite recent reads by other authors and why?

I love fantasy, historical fiction and realistic fiction.

For fantasy I have to mention the one I recently finished. It’s the fifth book in the Earthsea series, The Other Wind by Ursula K. LeGuin (Harcourt, 2001). I think LeGuin’s writing is rich and deep and thrilling.

The best historical fiction book I recently read was The Splendor of Silence by Indu Sundaresan (Atria Books, 2006). It’s a powerful story of forbidden love that takes place in WWII India.

Finally I’ve had the privilege to read the advanced reader copy of Justina Chen Headley‘s upcoming book, Girl Overboard (Little Brown, 2008). I loved her fresh characterization and inspiring wordplay. Note: Writers read for story, but we also read for the splendor of well-crafted prose, so we’re sometimes hard to please.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m kind of a homebody so I like hanging out with friends and family. I also enjoy long walks, reading and yoga. We have a beautiful garden. If I were a good girl I’d be out there pulling weeds right now, but I’d much rather be answering these interview questions. Thus, the weeds are winning the garden war. Ray Bradbury could easily make Dandelion Wine from the hearty weeds in my yard.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I just finished revising The Ancients. I actually sent it off yesterday which is why I’m finally getting back to this review today (did I mention juggling?). The Ancients is the sequel to The Beast of Noor. It’s due out in summer 2008. In this tale, someone or something is poisoning the ancient Waytrees that hold the worlds of Noor and Oth together. Miles and Hanna sail east to Jarrosh and join the dragons in their fight to keep the worlds from splitting apart. I loved writing The Ancients and can’t wait for it to hit the shelves!