We last spoke in October 2006 about the release of One Kingdom: Our Lives with Animals (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)(author site). Do you have any updates for us on the book?
One Kingdom’s an oddity in so many ways: it’s a book of nonfiction that dwells on myth, story, and superstition as much science; it waxes personal and philosophical; it asks more questions than it answers; it has black-and-white photographs in a Technicolor world.
The adult market would tag it “creative” nonfiction, but I don’t know that we really acknowledge that category in our market (feeling too keenly, perhaps, our responsibility to young readers…to presenting facts impartially?)
So I wasn’t sure how it would be received. The feedback’s been great, though, and it was selected as an ALA Best Book and for an ASPCA Henry Bergh Award. It’s been beyond gratifying to find that kind of support for my first nonfiction project, especially for a book as difficult to classify as this one. It gave me the courage to try again.
What have you been working on since then?
Funny you should ask. Another photo-illustrated nonfiction book–Encyclopedia of the End: Mysterious Death in Fact, Fancy, Folklore, and More–as well as a book of linked short stories (or a novel-in-stories) called The Ghosts of Kerfol, inspired by a short story by Edith Wharton. Both are YA and due out next fall. I have a picture book releasing this fall, Red Butterfly: How a Princess Smuggled the Secret of Silk Out of China (Candlewick, 2007)(excerpt/inside spread), which is gorgeously illustrated by Sophie Blackall.
Congratulations on the release of The Restless Dead (Candlewick, 2007)! Could you tell us about this new title?
It’s a companion book to an earlier anthology, Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales, and features stories about the undead… ghosts, vampires, and so on… by M.T. Anderson, Holly Black, Libba Bray, Herbie Brennan, Nancy Etchemendy, Annette Curtis Klause, Kelly Link, Marcus Sedgwick, and Chris Wooding.
As both a reader and an editor, I’m drawn to the place where popular/genre and literary intersect, and these writers, great stylists and masters of the weird, really delivered. For me, anthologies are an excuse to invite a bunch of writers I admire out to play. It’s like throwing a party, only you don’t have to clean your house first or empty ashtrays.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
These authors are all such pros; they made my job easy. I try to include a mix of established names and newer or lesser-known voices, male-female, North American/British/Australian, etc. These are publishing considerations you need to weigh, but there’s chemical equation or tally running through my head, both when I set out and as people begin to accept or decline the invitation to contribute. It’s all pretty intuitive, and there are always writers I wish I could have invited, or realize I should have invited, or would have invited IF…
Mostly I’m motivated by curiosity. What happens when you put Neil Gaiman and Joan Aiken together in the same book? How is this author going to interpret “undead” in relation to that one?
What challenges are inherent in putting together an anthology?
You set out with all these variables in mind, but in the end, the challenge and the fun come of not knowing where you’ll end up. You can try and predict the outcome, take an educated guess based on your knowledge of the various contributors’, their work to date, their interests. But in the end these are artists and storytellers, and they’re going to surprise you. I’ve been nothing but happily surprised, but that doesn’t mean you don’t suffer nerves along the way.
Some anthologists harvest from the canon, take what’s already out there and republish it in exciting new combinations. I see the appeal of that. But for me what makes these books worth doing is the same thing that makes them a little unnerving to do: when you solicit an original story, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. And you can’t predict the overall chemistry. Call me a thrill seeker, but I’ve also been fortunate.
How do you explain the wide appeal of Gothic fantasy/horror?
I know you’ve said that growing up is “intrinsically horrific,” and I think that’s true. Extremity’s the norm for many young adults. It’s an intense time. If you’re ever going to fathom blood lust, or feel like a ghost in your own skin, or harbor a monster in your thoughts, it’s circa age sixteen. And no matter how happy or well-balanced you are at home or at school, you’re forging an adult identity in a sometimes-fearful world.
At the very least you’re incurably busy and possibly bored with preparing for a grown-up life you can’t quite imagine yet, and this stuff is fun. It’s extreme. It grabs you by the collar. It makes your pulse race and pulls you off center in a way you can control…because you can close the book. You can right your world again. (A feat we can’t always manage in the workaday world.)
What can your readers look forward to next?
I head to Namibia at the end of the month [note: she’s currently there] to photograph animals for a collection of acrostic poetry about African wildlife. This is exciting for me on so many levels, not least because I get the chance to illustrate someone else’s work, layer onto another writer’s vision. It’s a bit like being an editor, I guess, which is my day job. These things are all related, and the more I experiment with different roles, the more I value the creative process, the collaborative process, from whatever angle.