New Voice: Ellen Jensen Abbott on Watersmeet

Ellen Jensen Abbott is the first-time author of Watersmeet (Marshall Cavendish, April 1, 2009). From the promotional copy:

From her birth, Abisina has been an outcast–for the color of her eyes and skin, and for her lack of a father. Only her mother’s status as the village healer has kept her safe.

But when a mythic leader arrives, Abisina’s life is ripped apart. She escapes alone to try to find the father and the home she has never known.

In a world of extremes, from the deepest prejudice to the greatest bonds of duty and loyalty, Abisina must find her own way and decide where her true hope lies.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

Like most writers, I was a voracious reader. I swallowed books whole, investing totally in the worlds of each novel.

I remember coming into the kitchen as a teenager after reading a book called May I Cross Your Golden River? by Barbara Corcoran and Paige Dixon (out of print). I was sobbing, but my mom knew me well enough to not bother asking, “Are you hurt?” Instead she said, “Are you reading another good book?”

My style of reading was highly entertaining to some of my high school friends. If the narrator said, “She smiled angelically,” so did I. If it said, “She grunted and grimaced,” so did I. I would get pulled out of my book by my friends, giggling at the faces I was making. It got embarrassing!

So when the main character of Watersmeet came to me and insisted I tell her story, she was, of course, the heroine of a young adult novel. And since I was devoted to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia—I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) thirteen times!—she had to be in a fantasy.

I’m sure this is why I’m a YA author now. I think tweens and teens are much better at reading with their hearts, before they learn how to find the metaphor and interpret symbols and consider if a text is modern or post-modern. I found that kind of reading stimulating in college, but I missed the joy.

As a fantasy writer, how did you go about building your world?

I find world building a wild mix of almost philosophical considerations and minute detail.

Watersmeet is a prequel to the first book I wrote and is set in the same land, Seldara. As I began to build the world of Seldara, I wondered about its origins, history, religion, myths, and heroes. That’s the philosophical element.

When I sent that manuscript around, Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish liked it but said it read like a sequel. So, I went back and started writing the heroic stories that I had invented as background. That book became Watersmeet—and Margery bought it!

Although it seemed like I had written hundreds of “wasted” pages, it made the world much more three-dimensional. I know how the past and the future will affect each other in Seldara, where the societies I created are headed and how deep the conflicts among them go.

On a more practical level, the world of Seldara is based on the woodsy part of New Hampshire where I grew up. But it’s the White Mountains writ large—as I saw them as a kid.

And here’s where the nitty-gritty comes in: creating a map so the sun always sets in the west, following a calendar so spring doesn’t last for six months, researching tree types so there are no desert plants in an deciduous forest, reading up on archery so that a character who is described as a great archer doesn’t miss a target a beginner would hit.

In world building, you have to follow your decisions to their natural conclusions. If one of my dwarves lives primarily underground, how can she farm? If centaurs can speak with hoofed animals (as my centaurs can), would they eat them? How much faster would a faun move across given terrain than a human?

There are lots of details to keep straight, but that’s the fun of it! And the detail can be a relief from questions of what kinds of gods do these folk worship.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.