Interview: Children’s Author Franny Billingsley

Franny Billingsley is the author of WELL WISHED (Atheneum, 1997), which was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels of the Year, and THE FOLK KEEPER (Atheneum, 1999), which was named a Notable Book in Children’s Literature and winner of the Boston Globe-Hornbook Award. This interview was conducted via email in June 2000.

What were you like as a child?

Photo by Miranda Pettengill

I was rather shy and solitary. I was a huge reader, and often read to the exclusion of doing anything else—my homework, for instance! I used to look forward to bedtime, because then, as l lay there waiting for sleep, I would think up the next installment in the story I was working out in my head.

What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl? What books are your favorites today?

I pretty much enjoy the same books—that’s because I never grew up! I loved, and still do, sort of adventurous and/or brooding romances, such as JANE EYRE, REBECCA, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (although that hasn’t held up to re-reading as much), MARA, DAUGHTER OF THE NILE. I’ve added more recent books to my list, such as THE PERILOUS GARD and BEAUTY.

I love wonderful first-person voice, such as Cassandra’s voice in I CAPTURE THE CASTLE and Scout’s voice in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. As a slightly younger kid, I adored BLACK AND BLUE MAGIC (Zilpha Keatly Snyder), HARRIET THE SPY, A WRINKLE IN TIME, THE MIXED-UP FILES, and the “SHOES” books. They have all wonderfully withstood the test of time.

As an adult, I discovered Diana Wynne Jones, whom I adore, especially FIRE AND HEMLOCK and HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE.

I also love funny books. As a kid, I must have read THE PUSHCART WAR a dozen times. Also a very funny book by A.A. Milne called ONCE ON A TIME (now OP, I think).

I’ve had a good time re-discovering now-OP books with my daughter, who has very much the same tastes, such as the CARBONEL series, by Barbara Sleigh, which a friend found for me (used) in London. She and I both loved them.

You have a lovely singing voice. How was music part of your life as a girl? Today?

My father sang me two songs every night—often long, melancholy Scottish ballads!—and I have him to thank for giving me such a rich reservoir of vocabulary, a peek at wonderful narrative structures (often these are songs that tell stories), and my love of somewhat haunting, melanchoy literature and music. Today I sing to my own kids, and play piano duets with my 10-year-old daughter.

Do you feel music moving your language while you write? How?

I guess I’d say more than music, I feel rhythm moving my language. I always write—unconsciously, really—with rhythm in mind. And I always read my novels aloud to hear how they sound, and if anything clunks on my ear, I change it.

In what ways are your early influences reflected in WELL WISHED and THE FOLK KEEPER?

The FolkkeeperI think it is no accident that Nuria’s grandfather in WELL WISHED sings her songs every night; I think it is no accident in THE FOLK KEEPER that Corinna’s deep identity-shaping discovery is that she is a poet.

What inspired you to begin writing for children?

I had been a lawyer for five years, which I hated, and when I quit, I went to live in Barcelona, hoping to find some serenity, leisure, and tapas. I took with me all my favorite children’s books, thinking that they would act as a sort of antidote to all those horrible corporate documents I’d been reading for the past five years, but once I began to read them again, I realized that this is where I truly belong, in the world of children’s books. I’d come round full circle, so to speak, to what I’d always loved and somehow had allowed myself to get away from. And once re-discovered, my passion for children’s books, it was just a short step to deciding to try to create them myself.

Could you tell us about your own path to publication?

I began writing in 1983 and was first published in 1997, so it was a long road. A long apprenticeship, I should say, for the first novels I wrote were very bad and didn’t deserve to be published. Deep down inside, I think I must have known that, for I didn’t submit them very often—perhaps just to a half-dozen contacts over as many years.

But it was when I began to write WELL WISHED, the novel that turned out to be my first published book, that I really found my authorial voice, and when I finished that in January,1993, I began to send it out. I got a lot of rejections, but was pretty lucky, really. I received a letter from the person who turned out to be my editor in December ’94, saying she’d love to see a revision. So I submitted for almost two years, revised it for her for another 15 months: it was finished in the spring of ’96 and published in the spring of ’97.

How does your experience as a children’s bookseller affect your writing?

I think the biggest thing was hearing kids talk about books and realizing how important books about friendships were to them. This was when I was struggling with Nuria’s story in WELL WISHED, trying to figure out how I was going to get my heroine into trouble. And then I realized: I’ll make Nuria want desperately to have a friend, and when she does find a friend, that friend wants her to do something dangerous, something she feels she must do into order to sustain the friendship.

Do you have an interest in writing children’s books that are not fantasies?

I’m not sure. The idea I have for my fourth book (I’m now working on my third) is not necessarily a fantasy—but I could make it into one. I’ll have to see when I get there. It may be that I need the liberation that writing a fantasy gives you: fantasy lets you deal with issues concretely, working as you are in a world where problems take on a literal reality. So a teenage protagonist in a fantasy can work through identity issues by discovering that she’s only half human, and then having to decide where and how she’s going to spend her life . . . I love that about fantasy.

How about stories for young adults or for pre-middle grade readers?

I do think THE FOLK KEEPER is a YA, although of a “young” and rather unconventional sort. I’ll probably write more of the same, but I’m pretty sure I won’t write traditional contemporary YA’s (dare I say “bleak” YA’s . . .?) I don’t think I’ll ever write for younger than a middle-grader reader.

What, if any, short-term impact do you anticipate from the Harry Potter phenomenon?

This is not something I am good at addressing. I never see trends or anything; I seem just to see what’s there. I guess my basic answer is that it has elevated children’s books in the public’s eye: they are something that adults can be interested in and enjoy as well as kids; they are something that’s okay to buy in hardcover. They have been, I think, the poor step-sister for a long time, and it’s sort of legitimized them.

What particular challenges does an author face when framing a fantasy?

I think you have to create a world that’s so rich and complete, where every cog in the emotional and geographical landscape turns another cog (that is, everything is interconnected, as it tends to be in “real life”) that the reader suspends his or her disbelief. It’s easy to believe in the present-day world—we just do believe in it. But you have to work to get your reader to believe in a world with magical Wishing Wells, or dangerous Folk . . .

Can you tell us a bit about the story behind the story of WELL WISHED?

Well Wished by Franny BillingsleyI got the idea in the summer of 1985 when I went to a blood bank to give plasma for a friend of ours who was very sick. Next to me was a young women receiving plasma, or some other blood product, because she had a terrible auto-immune disease that made her very weak. She was so weak, for example, that she couldn’t even unscrew the lid of a jar of peanut butter.

And as we were talking, I got to thinking, what would it be like to be the kind of person I am, active and energetic, and be stuck in a body like that? And so the idea for my story came to me. I would have a character (Nuria) who’s active and outdoor-loving and heedless and another character (Catty) who can’t even walk—who’s in a wheelchair—and have them switch bodies.

How did WELL WISHED change throughout the drafts?

It took me a long time to come up with the device of the Wishing Well. I wrote the novel for years, but I couldn’t figure out just how Nuria would get stuck in Catty’s body. It was as I got to thinking about kids and friendships (which I mention above), and also how interesting it is when a character gets herself into trouble (as is the case in many books and traditional tales—Little Red Riding Hood straying from the path, etc.), that I came up with the idea of a Wishing Well that would make wishes go wrong, and although Nuria is forbidden to make a wish at the Well, she will do so anyway because she is so desperate to keep her friend…

How was writing your second novel different than writing your first?

It didn’t take me as long! In many ways it was the same kind of process—kind of flinging myself around in the cauldron of words, wondering how to get Corinna in and out of trouble. Just as the idea of the Wishing Well didn’t come to me for a long time, so the idea of the Folk didn’t come to me for three years of writing. But once I discovered the Folk, the story started to gell, in just the way the Wishing Well made WELL WISHED come together. The Folk are something dangerous, something that keeps Corinna occupied, something that keeps us turning the pages to see if she’ll be all right…

How did you become interested in selkie folklore? What about it intrigues you?

I think it’s the tension between the wild side in all of us (selkie side) and the domestic (human) side. How do we reconcile those—do we reconcile those?

Both Nuria and Corinna have dramatic hair. Why is this so? It seems like more than a coincidence.

It is more than coincidence—and I have dramatic hair, too—but I don’t know the answer to the “why” of it. Maybe several decades of analysis will help…

Have you ever imagined Nuria and Corinna together? What would they do? How would they get along?

I can’t see them at all together. In some ways they are too similar—too strong-willed, too interested in getting their own way.

In what ways do you see yourself in them?

That’s the way I want to be, but seldom am… Well, seriously, I have a deeply determined side (which is what lets me write novels), and although I express myself differently than they do, the three of us (me, Nuria, and Corinna) have a deep streak of stubbornness and determination.

Can you share some of the responses from children to your fiction? Adults?

The responses across the board have been great. The kids like the dangerous, unpredictible elements in my stories (the Wishing Well, the Folk); the older/more sophisticated readers also like the characters—or else are better able to express that that’s one element they like. And sometimes they comment on the language. The adults often like the language and the characters, I think. My books are not for unsophisticated readers; some kids are confused, because I let out my information slowly, and part of that information is an understanding of the kind of world my characters are inhabiting.

For you, what is the hardest part of being an author?

Putting one word after another when I have no idea what’s happening, or what the landscape looks like, or even what the character’s names are . . .

What do you love about it?

When things start to come together. A well-constructed book is like a web, with the elements supporting and weaving into each other. Once I start to understand how those elements are related, that is thrilling (and then I take out the other elements that don’t really work in concert with the whole symphony of the story).

Where do you work now? How is the space conducive to triggering your imagination?

Actually, I work in the basement, as far from my kids’ voices as I can get, and—in warm weather—in a little play house at the end of the back yard. I don’t need a space that triggers my imagination; in fact that might get in the way. Give me grime, give me damp, give me cold and I’m happy. (And give me coffee.)

Do you have any future children’s books in the works? Can you tell us anything about them?

I’m working on another fantasy now, but it’s too new and fragile to say anything about it just now.

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?

I’d say: read as much as you can. I have a theory that anyone can write a good book—or that anyone can teach himself/herself to write a good book, unless you haven’t been filled up with wonderful words as a kid. You can’t produce fabulous words unless you’ve taken in fabulous words. It’s like learning a foreign language. If you first start to study French in your ’20’s, you may speak all right (unless you’re exceptionally talented), but you’ll probably never quite master it. So, as a kid, read as widely and of the best books possible. That’s the biggest favor you can do yourself.

How about for grown-ups seeking to break into publishing?

After you know that you’ve matured as an author and your work is ready to send out, I’d say the essential ingredient is sheer persistence. Never give up. Some people break in in two months, some in twenty years, but if you are conscientiously working on your craft and submitting to the right publishing houses, you will eventually connect with the editor who is right for you.