SCBWI Bologna 2008 Author Interview: Kathleen Duey

Kathleen Duey is the author of more than 70 children’s and young adult books, including historical fiction, nonfiction, picture books, and dark fantasy. She was one of the 2007 finalists for the National Book Award for Literature for Young People for her novel Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic. Kathleen writes for adults with a partner; they have a finished novel with an agent and a second work being optioned by HBO. She lives in San Diego County, California. Kathleen was interviewed by Anjali Amit and Anita Loughrey in November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy). Note: see also a September 2007 interview with Kathleen from Cynsations.

Did you always want to be a writer?

KD: Yes. My fourth grade teacher encouraged me and got me started writing stories. Then an English teacher in high school made me promise I would keep writing and give it a serious try–which I finally did in my late thirties. Mrs. Fredericksen and Mr. Doohan. Bless ’em both.

What other jobs have you had (that led to being a writer)?

KD: All the work I have done–and all the play–inform my writing. Living off-grid for a long time shaped me, too. I missed a couple of decades of TV–probably a good thing.

What are you working on at the moment?

KD: Sacred Scars, the second in the Resurrection of Magic trilogy, is on the front burner. Two books for adults (written with a partner) are finished and agent shopping. A book/film project is expanding, a middle grade fantasy with uncommon elements is taking shape, and a few sparks that are just jumble files at this point seem to be growing.

If you could be a character from one of your books, who would it be and why this particular character?

KD: I identify very closely with all my characters, so in a way I have been all of them. I could live where Heart Avamir lives (The Unicorn’s Secret). I did, in a weird way, but that’s a whole story in itself.

How has your childhood influenced what you write?

KD: In every way. I grew up in rural places, was raised by rural parents. I tend to write historical fiction and fantasy…both usually low tech, in cultures where people are close to the soil.

What was your favorite book as a child or adolescent?

KD: As a child, my parents bought me non-fiction, almost exclusively. The first novel I loved was Molly Make Believe–an old book I found in my great aunt’s apartment. Then came Black Beauty and then all the Farley books.

In middle school, I discovered fantasy and SF and was astounded at the created worlds, the possibilities of speculation, the massive intellects of the writers. I still am.

Is there a book already published that you wish you had written? Why?

KD: No. I love many books. I do not covet them.

How long does it take you to write a book?

KD: Shortest: nine days. Longest: 15 years.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

KD: Sitting still, indoors–I hate it.

Do you work with the television, radio, or stereo on? In cafés, nursing a half-cup of lukewarm tea, or in isolation?

KD: I work alone, almost always, in my office at home. I often play music, quietly. Sometimes I prefer silence. If it is chilly, Rooibos tea is wonderful.

How much do you think a writer needs to market his/herself/the work? What do you suggest?

KD: I don’t want a day job, so I market as much as I possibly can. People just need to figure out what is comfortable, what works for them.

I like travel, I love schools, speaking has become fun. I began as a nervous, two-puke speaker. I have improved vastly and now enjoy it.

Do you have a blog, and if so, how often do you blog? Do you get lots of feedback from readers?

KD: I get more email and letters and guest-book entries than I can keep up with. I try. I blog, but not as often as I should, even though I enjoy it. There is a blog on my website, too.

I have a MySpace page with, like seven or eight friends. Please, anyone, befriend me. There is lots of room at my lunch table.

I do try to be Web-present. It is hard to keep up with it and travel and write.

Can you share your favorite fan mail, if you have one?

KD: I love them all, I get five-to-10 a day, counting guest book, paper and, mostly email. I love knowing that kids like my books.

I get a dozen or so every year that say something like, “I don’t like reading all that much, and I had never finished a book before yours…” and that thrills me.

A Resurrection of Magic has overtones of Faust. Do you feel that today’s world has lost its magic and wonder, hence the need to have it resurrected?

I think people are in trouble, yes. I worry for my country, for the world. We do need wonder. But we desperately need common sense and a generational world view.

All the best books are autobiographical to some degree. Your life has been extraordinary–you dropped out of the mainstream and lived off the land for many years. That gave you a rich vein of knowledge to mine. What advice would you have for the nine-to-fivers for changing the dross of their life to gold?

KD: There is no dross. Not when it comes to writing. It is all grist. One of the best passages read at the National Book Awards readings was an incredibly funny and sharp 9-to-5 office cubicle story. It was very clear the author had spent years in that world.

You have written for all age groups from children to adults. What writing do you enjoy the most? Why write for children?

KD: I like writing for all age groups. I seem to thrive on variety. Writing for kids is an obvious choice for me. I like kids. And I am head over heels in love with the possibility of touching a child’s (or a teen’s) life the way mine was touched by books.

You write in a lot of different genres, such as historical, science fiction and fantasy, picture books, and non-fiction. Which genre do you prefer and why? Which was the most difficult?

KD: Every book presents different obstacles, various areas of clear sailing. I like every genre I have written in and intend to try more.

It’s just the way my brain works; it’s not a conscious business choice or a deliberate artistic decision. It is about the individual project for me, not the genre.

Whatever takes my breath away–that’s what I want to write.

Courage features as a theme in many of your books. Is there a reason for this?

KD: Someone else pointed that out to me a few years ago. I can see a few really obvious connections in my life; there have been a number of emotional swamps I had to wade through–or drown.

But I think courage is a theme in nearly every book. Protagonists are by nature active, they are people who do, who try, who keep trying when hope has left the building. Courage is fascinating. I think it is the purest kind of faith.

Did the recent wildfires affect you?

KD: Here in southern California, while the rest of the country is having Fall, we have Fire Season instead. Like Tornado Season or Hurricane Season, it is always a time to be a little careful and to watch the sky.

This year the Santa Ana winds were extra dry (a lip-cracking 5% humidity in my town for several days), extra fierce (70 mph gusts) and in a few cases, arson and insane carelessness seems to have been involved.

The Rice Canyon fire came within about a half mile to the south east of my house, then, a few days later, came within about that same range from the northeast. The moon was orange for a week, and the smoke drifted, causing false dusks that lightened when the wind shifted, then returned when it changed direction again.

When the fires were headed our way, we were evacuated for four days and came home to soot and ash on everything. We were very grateful and very, very lucky. Over 200 homes in my town were burned to the ground.

I wrote about it at

At an SCBWI event, you described the research you undertook for your historical fiction. In one case, your expert did not have the information, but his grandmother was alive and could give the answers. Such accuracy certainly makes for a richer reading experience. Do you think it hampered your fiction writing in any way?

KD: Research never hampers my historical fiction. I use a lot of primary sources, and they always enrich, guide, inform. I have never once felt constrained by facts.

At the same conference, your advice to aspiring writers was “butt-in-chair.” “Take the belt from your dressing gown and tie yourself to the chair. Do not get up till the writing is done.” That is wicked discipline. Can you describe your writing schedule?

KD: What I said was that a terrycloth bathrobe tie–tied loosely across my thighs –reminded me to sit back down when I tried to stand up.

I have chronic ants-in-pants syndrome. I have a hard time sitting still and can find myself outside when I just meant to go get tea, then saw that the begonias out the front window were dry, and from there realized that the cycads needed water, which led me to check the avocados, turn the compost, play with the dogs, prune a tree….and suddenly, it’s noon.

My schedule is simple: Full time–I just write full time.

Cynsational Notes

Anjali Amit is a children’s book author whose first book was published when she was in college. Upon graduation she “sold her soul to Mammon”–went to work for a bank. She writes fiction, non-fiction and edits technical documents. Her articles have appeared in various magazines. Her second book, Bedtime Stories From Around the World was published a few years ago.

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries?

See also a Cynsations interview with Kathleen.