How would you describe yourself as a young reader?
Lacking. Which is not to say that I didn’t read because I did,
voraciously. But I didn’t discover fantasy until I was an adult, and as a kid I would have loved it. If I found a book I loved, I read and re-read it until it became part of me.
Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? What helped you the most?
I started writing in 2000 when I had a new baby and was living in Germany where my husband had a postdoctoral appointment in physics.
During that time I was supposed to be working on my dissertation (I have a PhD in English), but it was not going well, and writing fiction was a way for me to procrastinate and feel productive at the same time. For a long time I wrote fantasy for adults—short stories and one unpublishable novel.
In late 2005, I started The Magic Thief, and something about writing for children was perfect for me; maybe I found my voice. In May 2006, I went to a novel critique workshop called Blue Heaven, held on an island in Ohio (yes!), and got the support and encouragement from writer colleagues that prompted me to get an agent.
The two key pieces of writing advice I got along the way were: 1) The Protagonist Must Protag; and 2) Never Surrender!
What is it about young people as fictional heroes and/or as an audience that especially appeals to you?
My kid readers are awesome because they are completely honest. It’s like there are no barriers, no “cool” factor, they just tell you how they feel. Meeting kid readers for the first time blew me away, made me realize—yes!—this is why I’m doing this writing gig.
I like writing kid protagonists because if a kid has agency in his or her own life, as many kid protags do, there’s dramatic tension inherent in that situation. The kid gets to act in the world, and not necessarily with a protector or parent or guardian to intercede for him or her. I love the possibilities that opens up.
The other thing is, a kid protagonist gets to act in the world without the same kinds of responsibilities that weigh on an adult protagonist; it’s liberating, I think.
Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?
It was pretty much a sprint, once I figured out that I should be writing for kids. I wrote Magic Thief in one mad rush during late 2005 early 2006, took it to that novel workshop I mentioned above, got an agent (via a referral), and after I’d finished cleaning the novel up a bit, she submitted it and sold it by the end of 2006. So, it was just over a year from the day I started the book to the day my agent sold it.
Then things got even sprint-ier! HarperCollins originally scheduled the book for publication in spring 2009, but after some exciting international rights interest, they bumped up publication to spring 2008. That put the book onto a “crash” publication schedule starting in June 2007. I did edits in two weeks (while I had Lyme disease…which I caught from a cursed tick on that Ohio island), and the book was rushed into production. Despite the rush, it turned out really well; Harper makes beautiful books!
Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, The Magic Thief (HarperCollins, June 2008)! Could you tell us a bit about it?
Sure! In Wellmet, a fantasy city similar to early-Victorian London, Conn, a scruffy kid with a dark past, picks the pocket of a cranky wizard, Nevery, and steals the wizard’s locus magicalicus, a stone used to focus and deploy magic. Conn becomes absolutely certain that he is meant to be Nevery’s apprentice—if only he can stay out of trouble long enough. He also discovers a plot to steal the city’s supply of magic. Conn and Nevery set off on an adventure involving danger, excitement, biscuits, the most amazing locus magicalicus in the world, Underlord minions, misery eels, pugilistic displays, truth-telling drugs, getting everything you ever wanted and losing it again, and crossing a (mostly) frozen river on a night of stars as bright as daggers.
The novel is the first book in a trilogy; Conn’s adventures continue in book two, The Magic Thief: Lost. In book three, The Magic Thief: Found, there are dragons.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
As I said, I’d been writing fantasy for adults. I had the first two lines of the book–“A thief is a lot like a wizard. I have quick hands, and I can make things disappear”—in a file on my hard-drive for over a year, but I didn’t have a character or story to put with them.
Then I was reading the Letters-to-the-Editor page of the December 2005 Cricket magazine, and a kid’s letter asked for more stories with wizards and magic, and for more two-part stories. Chapter one of The Magic Thief was the story I wrote in response to that letter (Cricket is still considering the story for publication!), but once I had that written I realized that Conn’s story was novel sized. And when I finished the novel, I realized it was trilogy sized…
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
The book was ridiculously fun to write. I had to cook bacon and biscuits for research, and visit my husband’s physics lab for inspiration—the Device in the book is based on his lab equipment. I did some research on early Industrial-Age London, because the city of Wellmet is (very) loosely based on that. I also started writing on a laptop for the first time while working on this book, and became a Mac person, and I’m sure that helped me write faster.
Do you outline first? Do you just begin writing and see where it goes? Or, put another way, are you a plotter or a plunger and why?
I’m totally a plunger, or an “organic writer,” as I call it. The story “grows” as I write it. I love writing as an act of discovery, writing into the void, trusting that I can come up with what comes next. The key for this succeeding, for me, is having a protagonist who protags, who motivates the plot through his actions.
I have a general idea of where the story needs to go, but for the specifics I just create a situation and then ask, “Okay, what would Conn do?” The kid knows how to get himself into trouble, which his writer appreciates.
What is it like being a debut novelist in 2008? What has surprised you the most?
Oh, the whole process has been an incredible learning experience. I am fascinated by how publishing works.
Fairly early on, my editor sent me a book called Dear Genius, the letters of venerable HarperCollins editor Ursula Nordstrom to her authors. From reading that book, I learned that publishing is a business, but it’s run by people who passionately love books, who can be, as Nordstrom describes, “shimmering with happiness” at discovering a new manuscript.
I love that our publishers are romantic about books. I’ve seen this attitude throughout the publishing process, when I’ve talked to booksellers and teachers and librarians and sales reps.
It’s a business, yes, but it runs on the joy of reading and the love of books. This really was a surprise to me.
If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?
Get involved in the children’s writing community earlier. I came to publishing from the adult fantasy/science fiction world. From the etiquette to the expectations to the sense of community—it’s all very different. I did get involved in the Class of 2K8, which has been nice.
Do you work within a community of writers (a critique or workshop group), with an editorial agent, or solo before submitting to a publisher? Why? What are the benefits to you?
I have four or five trusted first readers—these are all good friends from the adult sf/f world. We read and critique each others’ novels.
I also go to the Blue Heaven workshop every year for another round of helpful critique. Then my agent, who used to be an editor, kicks my novel’s butt (she once had me cut 40 pages from the first third of a book!). Then the book goes to my editor at HarperCollins, and by that point it doesn’t need a whole lot of work.
I just looked back at my query letter for book one, and when I submitted The Magic Thief to my agent, it was 88,000 words long. The final manuscript was around 55,000 words. I don’t remember cutting that much, but evidently I did… That’s where I benefit most from critique—readers telling me what to cut. Sometimes things are clearer, I’ve learned, if I explain them less.
What advice do you have for fantasy novelists?
Believe. In his Introduction to Shakespeare, poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge talked about “suspension of disbelief.” You’ve probably heard that term before, and it’s the idea that somebody watching a play or reading a book can “forget” their mundane situation long enough to sort-of pretend that the play or book is real.
But Tolkien said that fantasy writers don’t just create suspension of disbelief, they create something even more powerful and amazing; they create belief. I think a fantasy writer has to immerse herself in her world, to believe in it so completely that she can convey the reality of that imagined world to her reader. When a reader engages with a thoroughly “believed” world, she can transcend reality, and comes back to our world changed. I’m totally with Tolkien that fantasy novels can change the world.
As a reader, so far what is your favorite YA novel of 2008?
This is such a hard question! I’ve been reading tons of YA and MG this year, trying to educate myself about this genre that’s still fairly new to me. And there’s soooo much good stuff. Some recent books that I’ve really grooved on (and I’m getting to some of them late!) include Sherman Alexie‘s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Peter Cameron‘s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Catherine Gilbert Murdock‘s The Dairy Queen, A.M. Jenkins‘ Repossessed, and Pat Murphy‘s The Wild Girls. Oh, and Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak (I can’t wait to read Twisted; that’s up next). See, this isn’t answering your question; none of these books are from 2008, are they? Some books I can’t wait to get my paws on include Ingrid Law‘s Savvy, Marissa Doyle‘s Bewitching Season, and Kristin Cashore‘s Graceling.
What do you do when you’re not in the book world?
Well, I’m a mom to two kids, Maud (age 12) and Theo (age 8), and the partner of my husband, John. I play the piano and run and read LiveJournal and check email.
In the past, I taught for the University of Iowa Honors Program, but now I just work half time as their Scholarship Coordinator, helping very high-achieving students apply for the major awards like the Rhodes and Fulbright and Truman scholarships. My writing really is a full-time job, but I haven’t been able to give up the day job because I love working with students so much.
What can your fans look forward to next?
My fans! What a concept. I don’t think I have any yet…but up next is the second book of the Magic Thief trilogy, due out a year after the first book, and then the third book.
After that, I’d like to do some more Wellmet-world books, and I’ve got a couple of stand-alone novel ideas, and an idea for a whole new fantasy world. Any of these would be fun to write. Depends on the vagaries of publishing, I suppose…
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Just thanks to Cynthia for putting together these interview questions and thanks to you, reader, for taking the time to read my responses to them.