November 28, 2008

Building Trust, Building Family: Shifty by Lynn Hazen

This book is a 2008 Cybils Nominee for Young Adult Fiction.

Soli has been in trouble a few more times than the average fifteen-year-old boy, but this time, he's really making an effort to stay on the straight and narrow. His new foster mother, Martha, is a little flighty but really does care, and his younger foster sister, Sissy, truly needs him, as she overcomes past traumas and tries to learn to be a regular girl.

The problem is, no matter how hard Soli tries, trouble seems to find him. And for a foster kid, trouble reflects poorly on the foster parent. Soli really doesn't want Martha to get in trouble, but when infant Chance comes into their lives, all of them come under much closer scrutiny by Social Services. Even though Chance is there on a temporary placement, he brings their little family together in ways they'd never imagined.

Unfortunately, Soli hasn't had the supportive upbringing or the life experience to make all the right decisions--at least not yet. He tries hard to do right, but every little mistake, every accident and not-so-wise decision, snowballs for Soli into a WEB OF LIES (sorry--that turn of phrase just seems to demand all-caps) that threatens the stability of his new family. He's used to relying on himself when everyone else thinks he's shifty, but learning to trust--and be trusted--is a critical life lesson he'll have to figure out.

Soli is an engaging and sympathetic narrator. Author Lynn Hazen quickly and deftly gets the reader on his side and cheering for him--and his well-meaning, loving family--all the way through. Written in a simple, clear style, the narrative voice in Shifty rings true and keeps the story moving at a fast pace.

Buy this book from an independent bookstore near you!

Poetry Friday: The Music of Gratitude

In our family, we never wanted anything to end, so we made a... "rule." It was your birthday until the cake was all gone. It was summer until you couldn't wear your flip flops (sometimes summer lasted until November). It was Sunday until 1 a.m. Monday morning. It's Thanksgiving until all the leftovers are finished.

So. Happy Thanksgiving, Part II, to many of you.

Today's poster is a post-Thanksgiving PSA, brought to you by the WPA, whose artists were making sure the nation had nice bright teeth without cranberry skins in between them. SO. After you make that nice turkey omelette this morning, do brush. Thank you.

It's still Thanksgiving weekend, time to give thanks for silliness. Entertain yourself by making a snowflake and enjoy today's Poetry Friday selection.

Poem: "In memory of George Lewis, Great Jazzman" by Lou Lipsitz from Seeking the Hook: New & Selected Poems. Copyright © 1997 Signal Books.

In memory of George Lewis, Great Jazzman

1

Man is the animal that knows

the clarinet

     makes his living
on the docks, a stevedore,
110 lbs., carrying what loads
he can

the Depression comes along,
his teeth rot, no money, and
he has to accept silence


2

Thirteen years
later
     they put the instrument
back together
     with rubber bands
bought him

new teeth
     and then he began
...

Read the whole of this joyful celebration of music and life here. The final stanza is one I have read over and over again:

4

Alright. There is a frailness
in all our music.
Sometimes we're broken
and it's lost.
Sometimes we forget
for years it's even in us, heads
filled with burdens and smoke.
And sometimes we've held
to it and it's there,

waiting to break out
walking back from the end.
...
Poetry Friday dances on at Under the Covers.

November 26, 2008

Post #1000: Happy Thanksgiving!

I've been watching the little blogger counter for the past couple of weeks and am amused to see it roll over to this -- our one thousandth post! Yes, those are balloons flying past your head and confetti raining down. There are more things to celebrate: Mr. Aquafortis just got his sabbatical plans approved, to which we exclaim, "A whole year off?!" It will be a working year, but how very lovely! More confetti and more balloons, and copious sips of tea! (Yes, tea. Or, eggnog, if you prefer.)

And now back to business.

Did you know that the NY Times is serializing a new Gene Yang graphic in The Funny Pages? Check it out, it's in .pdf form so you can save it to your desktop and read it when you have time. He's already posted Chapter 2 of Prime Baby.

Mindy @ Propernoun has a really cool contribution to MotherReader's original Book&Gift pairing (21 Ways to Give a Book) idea -- a really cute picture book for the wee ones, and a felt sandwich. And cheese. No, really. It makes more sense at her site.

At The Reading Zone, this brave teacher uses Twilight and Midnight Sun as contrasting examples of point of view in writing. Brave teacher! Beguiled students! People learning! This is undeniably A Good Thing, and you all know how much I HEART Twilight. (Not.) Lesson plan included.

Whatever Blog reveals the ideas behind the book called Where Am I Wearing, by Kelsey Timmerman. Imagine this fascinating book paired with a compass -- or one of those really neat etymologist's atlases that make the whole world seem like Middle Earth.

Liz has a stupendous idea for gifts to shop for after this weekend -- non-new books. (Of course, this leaves my book out, but it's still a great idea.)
"Give something not published in 2008.

Give something that you loved, loved, loved, yet, somehow, was overlooked; something that did not get on any of the awards lists, but, in your humble opinion, should have been on those lists."


I really like that idea. One tiny drawback of only reading a few of the same kidlit blogs is that I see the same books reviewed and loved and gushed about repeatedly. I tend to review more books that I get from the library than new ones, and I hope to continue that trend and encourage people to beef up the backlist and get the word out about books that are super special. Add to the suggestions for more non-2008 books.

Mitali is giving away books -- to those whose Thankfuls can be traced to specific person or events in the past. Where would your family tree have stopped if not for... ? Check it out.

In the mood to choke with horrified and disbelieving laughter and be grateful that YA doesn't need to include too many sex scenes? the Bad Sex Awards are up. Be afraid.

The Baltimore Sun newspaper carried a piece by a woman whose Thanksgiving traditions never included sweet potato or pumpkin, but carrot soufflé. Today's pre-Thanksgiving task is to figure out how to modify it in pie form, since it's about three degrees in my house and it's warmer with the oven on.

And then I will get back to procrastinating on this WIP.

I so enjoyed reading the Thankfuls at the 7-Imps; it was like a middle-of-the-week kicks break. I have to agree, I'm grateful for the tight embrace of the YA/kidslit blogosphere, which gives me somewhere to go and someone to talk to when writing novels alone is too lonely (and baffling) -- and generally something to laugh at. Happy Thousandth Post to us, and Happy Thanksgiving to you.

November 24, 2008

Why Write YA? And Other Stuff.

Lately I've been thinking a bit about the answer I usually give when people ask me why I'm interested in writing for a young adult audience. Until recently, I've had a pat, prepared answer because I haven't really been able to entirely articulate why I'm so into YA. Of course it isn't the only thing I write, but it's one of my major areas of interest.

Usually I tell people a variation on the following, which, while admittedly rather stiff and dull and goody-two-shoes, is no less true: I like writing for a young adult audience because it's a critical age--it's the age at which I remember doing the most reading, but it's also a time when you can really lose readers forever. If a writer can keep kids reading through the distractions of junior high and high school, with truly good-quality, enjoyable literature, then it's truly a worthwhile endeavor.

This is true. I believe it wholeheartedly. But it's only one reason why I write YA. Just this past week, while working on my very first novel-length project that isn't strictly YA, I realized what my current piece still has in common with a lot of teen books--and that this is what really draws me to writing for young adults: I love stories about self-discovery and/or coming-of-age. And books with teen protagonists lend themselves to that theme. These are of course not the only coming-of-age novels out there, and I do love any good book in which the protagonist comes to learn or discover something new about themselves.

I suppose I'm also a sucker for the idea that my writing could really make a difference to somebody looking for just the right story--someone struggling with ideas of ethnicity or feeling different, with the weight of the past or the bonds of family, and figuring out who they are in the midst of all of that, independent of all of that.


A link and a thank-you to conclude with: We were featured in Jon Bard's Best Kidlit Blog Posts of the Day last Wednesday for our interview with D.M. Cornish. Thanks, Jon, for the great plug!

I promise to be back soon with another Toon Thursday--I skipped last week in order to give the WBBT its due, and I'll be swamped with Thanksgiving stuff this week, but I'm already pondering ideas for next week and the start of December! Pinky swear.

Writing the Story, Stirring the Pot

A lot of people in the industry are scared right now--things look bleak. If you're pushing through NaNoWriMo or that draft on deadline or beginning a new project, you may be at that part of the process where you're feeling exhausted--or scared to begin. Writer fatigue and fear are hard to combat in the face of a lot of bad news, and especially hard to slug it out when it looks like the possibility of selling is dwindling to nothing.

And this, ironically, is when we need story the most.


You must now GO and read this entire piece, and be comforted and cheered and energized. Go, now. We'll wait. (Grateful hat tip to Buzz, Balls & Hype.)

Helen Hemphill is at the Tollbooth talking about gender and voice. This is a tricky, tricky one for many writers -- we have discussion on a.) whether or not men and women really sound alike, b.) what does it mean to "sound male," (and is it like "sounding black?") c.) how do we construct a character who is satisfyingly and authentically male, if we are females. Most of the audience at any given YA/ children's lit writing conference is female, so... it's a good question, isn't it? Stay tuned with Helen throughout this week.

Amy June Bates quite possibly illustrates some of the best reasons to read children's books -- her work sort of whispers "classic" and boy don't her pictures make the words look good? She's having breakfast at the 7-Imps.

All of these things will cheer you up and engage your mind. Go, read.


I'm having Thanksgiving homesickness like whoa and wow, because for our family THIS is the holiday, not Christmas, not New Year's. We loves us some Thanksgiving! Every year at this time I take the Chronicle and cut out all the great recipes from the food section, and figure out which ones I'm going to try. My eldest sister and I reenact The Other Great War (aka the yearly Monopoly beatdown) and basically we all hang around with my parents and get on each other's nerves for hours on end, which is really rare for us.

A lot of that has changed since my other sister got married and I... kind of left the country. The usual untraditional tradition of making the younger sibs run around to the neighbors with plates of cookies or whatever we're baking would make the neighbors here... look at me very oddly indeed. I haven't made a turkey-out-of-a-traced-hand to put on my front door so as not to worry them ("What's that then, pet? A wee birdie?")(And seriously: the postman calls me "pet," and "lamb." I... don't know if I'm complimented. A woolly animal or one you put on a leash??), but to assuage my homesickness, I have investigated what would be on the table at Plimoth Rock this week, and in my free time, I'm going to make it.

Today's dish is -- Corn pudding!

This is definitely an East Coast thing I've only ever heard of from friends -- no one I knew had it growing up, and my poor Southern parents would be sort of traumatized by cooking grits with sugar (!), but this is the recipe:

Indian Corn Pudding, Modern Version
6 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups coarse grits
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar (or more to taste)
Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in the salt and the coarse grits, stirring until the contents of the pot return to a boil. Turn the heat to low, and cook very gently for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Be sure to stir across the bottom of the pot to keep the grits from sticking. Remove from the heat and allow to stand about 30 minutes or until the grits are tender. Stir in the milk and sugar. Variation – To make a more deluxe version you can use cream in place of milk, add sweet spices to taste (cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves or ginger) and 1/2 cup of currants or raisins.

It apparently would have reminded the Pilgrims of frumenty which is sort of a thick wheat porridge made with spices and sugar and almond milk, and served with venison and mutton. I'm going to have to substitute, I think.

Corn pudding wasn't dessert, incidentally, as the Pilgrims at sweet and savory dishes at the same time. This to me indicates that I can eat this first, and be Thankful that sweet potatoes, pumpkins and SUGAR were eventually discovered in the New World. THAT's what I'm thankful for today. Dessert first.

November 23, 2008

Lazy Sunday?

I wish I could show you the stack of paper I've been wrestling with for the past nine and a half hours. I never realized how much a book over three hundred pages (356, really) could weigh -- how the drifts of white pages could get out of order so easily, how the wicked edges could either rip or give me paper cuts -- but I can't whine anymore, it's done, done, done. Final proofreading of the loose pages of my manuscript is FINISHED.

I now need cake and a massage, not necessarily in that order.
Sadly, I would have to make the cake first. Sigh.

Hope someone is having a lazy Sunday for me!

November 21, 2008

Poetry Friday: Not Simply Silliness

Edward Lear was just a little bit insane, as many painter-poets seem to be (Lewis Carroll, anyone? Dr. Seuss?). Lit theorists point out that he was an "absurdist" partially in self-defense; his father was sent to debtor's prison when he was only thirteen, and he was forced after that to get a job to support himself. His paintings begin to sell well by the time he was fifteen, and he was saved financially, but at the price of drastically altering his life.

Maybe it was because Victorian society was so rigid that Lear continued in his quest for silliness, maybe because his first book was published for the grandchildren of his patron, or perhaps it was because he was making up for having to grow up against his will... no one can say. Still, despite the fact that many of Lear's poems are judged to be for children, and The Owl and the Pussycat is smilingly referred to as "light verse," there always seems to be a couplet or two that makes sense. A little. You just have to squint and tilt your head sideways...

Cold Are the Crabs That Crawl On Yonder Hills

Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hills
Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath,
And colder still the brazen chops that wreathe
The tedious gloom of philosophic pills!
For when the tardy gloom of nectar fills
The ample bowls of demons and of men,
There lurks the feeble mouse, the homely hen,
And there the porcupine with all her quills.
Yet much remains -- to weave a solemn strain
That lingering sadly -- slowly dies away,
Daily departing with departing day.
A pea green gamut on a distant plain
Where wily walrusses in congress meet--
Such such is life--

- Edward Lear, from Teapots and Quails,
Davidson and Hofer © 1953, p. 63.

This poem was published posthumously, so we can only assume that brazen has, in this context, its original meaning, that of "made of brass," and that chops are jaws. That still doesn't make much sense of the poem; my only amusement is in agreeing that a.) crabs and cucumbers are cold, and b.) "such such is life." It's a little anti-climactic -- and fatalistic, but true.

This one amused me, since it seems to be about politics:

When "Grand Old Men" Persist in Folly

When "Grand old men" persist in folly
In slaughtering men and chopping trees,
What art can soothe the melancholy
Of those whom futile "statesmen" teaze?

The only way their wrath to cover
To let mankind know who's to blame-o--
Is first to rush by train to Dover
And then straight onward to Sanremo.

-- from The Complete Nonsense Book,
edited by Lady Strachey © 1912, p. 428.

Politics bites; go on vacation. I can get behind that.

I wonder how many ministers found this one un amusing:

It Is A Virtue In Ingenuous Youth

It is a virtue in ingenuous youth,
To leave off lying and return to truth,
For well it's known that all religious morals
Are caused by Bass's Ale and South Atlantic Corals.

-- from The Complete Nonsense Book,
edited by Lady Strachey, © 1912, p. 428.

So... exactly what is the "truth," here?


Poetry Friday today is hosted over at Holly's Brimstone Soup. Those of you who are poetically inclined are also invited to check out the Winter Blog Blast Tour and peruse author interviews with the funny and talented Nebula-finalist Elizabeth Wein Gatland, the affable author-illustrator D.M. Cornish, the inestimable Tobin Anderson, aka M.T., and YA newcomer and awesome stay-at-home Dad, Dave Anderson. There are tons more interviews with brilliant, funny, self-deprecating on tap for today. Consider:

An intense interview with Mayra Lazara Dole @ Chasing Ray
The file of things other people think Francis O'Roark Dowell should write @ Fuse Number 8 @ SLJ,
The Lear-esque poet, J. Patrick Lewis @ Writing and Ruminating
Your spinach laden teeth, with Wendy Mass @ Hip Writer Mama
A travel imagination with Lisa Ann Sandell @ Bildungsroman
Shopping, fear, breast-feeding, anxiety, & phone sex-- or not -- with Caroline Hickey/Sara Lewis Holmes @ Mother Reader
Chat with dog-loving, non-pirate A.S. King @ Bookshelves of Doom, and
visit the superbly gifted Emily Wing Smith at Interactive Reader

And don't be afraid that if you don't read these interviews this minute, they'll vanish. Chasing Ray is keeping all the links right here.

November 20, 2008

The WBBT, Day Four: John David Anderson

Something we tend not to think about is the idea that heroes, for all their great deeds, are also regular folks a large percentage of the time. That goes for writers, too--we're often regular people who just happen to achieve something that not everyone else does: we create worlds simply from words on a page.

Take our WBBT guest for today, John David Anderson (who actually goes by Dave). Dave Anderson was just a regular guy who taught English for seven years at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, but stepping out of the role of your average college professor, Dave became a stay-at-home dad to his adorable twins, now age three, and while juggling dad duties, he used his word-spinning magic to create a world both fantastical and funny, about heroes who aren't exactly intimidating muscle-bound swashbucklers, but just...regular guys.

No Patronus charms. No wizarding skills. Just, regular guys lugging around an adventure guide which clearly states on the cover that it's "for the Unadventurous," but these regular guys still manage to do some amazing things.

Standard Hero Behavior is a middle grade novel which is enjoyable to boys and girls. It was a nominee for last year's Cybils in the Fantasy and Sci-Fi category, and filled with bad barding, crazy names, inept witches and cranky orcs, it captured our imaginations as a great first novel and--hopefully--a harbinger of more fun and funny fantasy from Mr. Anderson.

Finding Wonderland: Standard Hero Behavior is an amusing and satisfyingly un-heroic novel. Do you remember the first words you wrote for the story? Did they stay the same, or change? What did you think of the cover the first time you saw it? Did it depict your imaginary images of Cowel and Mason?

John David Anderson: The first sentence I wrote was "Mason was a bard for would-be heroes from a town that had nothing left to sing about." That was the dilemma I decided to work from. The same thought probably appears at least two dozen times in some fashion or another, though I don't think that exact sentence shows up. The closest you get is "Mason was a bard for heroes without victories, old men looking for immortality, young ones looking for self-esteem, wives hoping to get their husbands something different for the holidays."

The cover is wonderful—I think it captures the insecurity of two characters suddenly thrust into a world that they had heard about a million times but never experienced before. What's funny is that my editor wrote me soon after the cover art came in. Turns out the artist, Peter de Seve, gave Cowel a cap with a plume in it (a logical artistic addition). But there was no mention of Cowel wearing a cap anywhere in the novel.

Thus I was asked to add a few sentences. Art imitating art.

Okay, how cool is that???

FW: We notice that Standard Hero Behavior includes a lot of character types familiar to fans of fantasy and role-playing games: bards, evil orcs, heroes in search of fame and gold. Are you a gaming aficionado yourself? Was there specific inspiration behind the two main characters of Cowel and Masion?



JDA: Between movies, novels, and video games, I have spent a fair number of hours slaying orcs, dragons, aliens, and other beasties in other people's worlds, and I readily admit that much of the novel has its trappings in those worlds. What I enjoy is taking the familiar and twisting it slightly, to see how the characters react. As for our two protagonists specifically, Mason can thank just about every pig-slopping, almost-orphan, coming-of-age fantasy hero from Lloyd Alexander on up. Cowel, on the other hand, is me. The smart-aleck who manages to get it right once in a blue moon, but always takes a shot at it regardless.

FW: We absolutely LOVE that the Duke had signs indicating the threat level of monster invasion in Darlington. What do you want your readers to take away from your book about fear and feeling threatened?



JDA: Obviously much of Dirk Darlinger’s story comes out of my own post-9-11 sense that we are most afraid of fear, to borrow Roosevelt's line. The majority of the people in the novel place their trust in Darlinger because they simply don't know any better. They find comfort in his "Mission Accomplished" bravado. Of course, when confronted with real danger, as it turns out, most of the characters in the novel—the otherwise normal characters—still find the courage to confront it—as I think we all do.

True. And this is conveyed in a funny subtle way that middle grade readers will definitely get.

FW: Of all of the over the top and ridiculous characters in this comedic novel, my all-time favorite moment has to be the first time Cowel and Mason met the ‘somnamtillist.’ What was the inspiration behind your creation of a sleepwalking swordfighter?



JDA: I was tired, probably. Ha!

Of course everyone has flaws. They keep us balanced and provide room for growth. I imagined many of the "heroes" of the novel as larger than life, with skills and deeds worthy of a Saturday morning cartoon. The greater their ability, the more outlandish their flaw had to be to keep them balanced. The somnamtillist is truly a man to be feared—ten or twelve hours out of the day.

That said, I still think Corner the sleeping swordfighter would make a cool action figure...

Like one of those little toys where you push the button, and all of the limbs go slack, and it falls down…? Okay, that could work...

FW: Standard Hero Behavior is not only a fantasy adventure, it's also hilariously full of in-jokes for fellow fantasy fans. Did you set out to write a humorous book? How do you think young adult readers respond to a funny fantasy as compared to adult readers?




JDA: I set out, more than anything, to give readers a good time, and humor was the primary vehicle for that. This isn't to say that there isn't anything meaty in the book. In fact, in many ways, Mason and Cowel's sense of humor is their primary defense—maybe not from ogres and such—but from their realization of how absurd the world can be sometimes, and how difficult it can be to grow up in. I think today's young adults especially have highly developed senses of humor, with a keener appreciation of irony, satire, and sarcasm than previous generations. Besides, it never hurts to take a moment to step back and look at just how serious some fantasy fiction can be—and maybe chuckle at it a bit.

FW: Writing humor can be tricky – but Mason and Cowel come across as effortlessly amusing, with their earnest attempts and gigantic failures. What do you see as the role of humor in your writing? Do you have previous experience at humor writing? What are your favorite comedic books or films?

JDA: Actually, humor is my defense mechanism as well. Most peoples' lives are fraught with responsibility, stress, and mendacity. There are moments of great joy and moments of tragedy worthy of tears, but most of what happens in a day can either be laughed at or cursed at. I prefer to laugh at it.

As for comedic inspiration—when I was in high school I would read "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" every six months or so. I date my appreciation of English literature to Jonathan Swift and my favorite American authors are Twain and Vonnegut. Dave Barry, M.T. Anderson, Terry Pratchett, Bill Bryson—many of the authors I love have taught me that there is nothing that can't be laughed at with the right perspective.

Yay! Another Pratchett fan!!


FW: Mason and Cowel are sort of anti-heroes, regular guys who do what they have to do to save their town. At the same time, they take their own heroes' journey and come of age over the course of the book. On the surface, this book is about that quest, yet another strongly delivered message is about fathers and sons, and the fact that a person’s future does not have to be dictated by their father’s past. What specifically do you hope to convey to young people about the idea of “standard” heroism?


JDA: I think sometimes our definitions of heroism are limited. To me, those individuals society trumpets as heroes are almost super-heroic: fire fighters, police officers, nurses, those who serve our country in the armed forces. What they do is extraordinary. But there is also a kind of everyday heroism that exists in the rest of us. A sense of honor and duty and responsibility. Someone battling a drug addiction or facing bullying at school, a single mother of three working two jobs. My wife is an elementary school teacher, and she has a chance to be an everyday hero just about every day.

Mason and Cowel aren't “standard” heroes. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they don't stand up for themselves or what they believe in. Sometimes I think that just managing to make it to adulthood is a heroic act. Of course, sometimes I think that getting my three-year-old son to eat anything besides Pop-Tarts should earn me a medal.

We do hope you realize that Pop-Tarts are a food group???

FW: What are you working on now? Do you plan to return to the world of humorous fantasy or the town of Darlington?


JDA: I really felt a sense of closure at the end of this novel, though I'm sure other readers will feel differently. That doesn't mean I'm done with fantasy by any stretch, and I'm certainly not done with humor. The other projects I have in the works still rely on that formula—to take some of the conventions of speculative fiction and shake them up a bit and see what comes out. Of course, if somebody wants to make a movie out of SHB, I'd be happy to write six sequels.

FW: What would you like your readers to know about you or your novel or your WIP's that interviewers have never asked?

JDA: Pretzel rods, Atomic Fireballs, and Diet Coke. Personal brain fuel. But every writer has to have at least one vice...


FW: One vice? Can you eat just ONE Atomic Fireball?? Ooh, and pretzel rods... *sigh.* You don't even want to go into our lengthy list of required writing bribes... er, treats, but it's definitely reassuring to know we all have our vices!

Mr. Anderson, thanks so much for taking time out from writing like a madman plus parenting busy three-year-old twins to answer our questions so thoroughly! As just-starting-out writers, we know how hard it is to balance life v. the writing life, and we really appreciate your time. Thanks also go to Mr. Anderson's publicist, Jenny Groves, for her kind assistance.

(Does anyone else want Atomic Fireballs and pretzels now? Is it only us?)


Psst! Don't miss our review of Standard Hero Behavior at Readers' Rants.



Regrettably, that's it from us!

It's hard to believe that this week is almost finished, and the weeks of working to chase down interviews and the excitement of talking to authors we really love and respect is... over for now. We're already wondering who we should get for next time, when we have the Summer Blog Blast Tour!

Though this ends our part of the tour, please keep reading and poking around the web to catch up on the other great interviews and discussions going on in the YA and children's blogosphere! Don't forget to visit the other stops on today's Winter Blog Blast Tour:

Martin Millar, Led Zepplin, and werewolves @ Chasing Ray!
John Green, & the I-drove-two-hours-for-this @ Writing and Ruminating
Brilliant Beth Kephart and her cute kid @ Hip Writer Mama
Newcomer Emily Ecton at Bildungsroman
Brandon Mull at The YA YA YAs
Lisa Papademetriou at ">Mother Reader

November 19, 2008

Winter Blog Blast Tour, Day Three: M.T. Anderson

The author M.T. Anderson has long been one of our favorites here in the Wonderland treehouse -- perhaps best known for the iconic 2002 YA novel, Feed, or for his hilarious middle-grade book Whales on Stilts! More recently, we've been wowed by The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volumes 1 and 2. Mr. Anderson is an amazingly accomplished writer; his YA work is stunningly intellectual, amazingly versatile, and--perhaps most important--just plain absorbing to read. We are in awe, and we're so not worthy--which is why we're so proud to present this incredible in-depth interview with Mr. Anderson as part of the 2008 Winter Blog Blast Tour.

Finding Wonderland: You've blown us away with the scope of your writing – vampire YA novels, picture books, MG thrillers, biographies, for middle grade readers and young adults. Would you consider OCTAVIAN NOTHING and its sequel to be your "adult" types of books? Is there any kind of writing that you haven't attempted that you want to try?

M.T. Anderson: I do believe the two OCTAVIAN books could have been published for adults--but I really did feel firmly committed to selling them as teen books. That's the audience I was most excited about reaching.

As for other genres...I've published short stories for adults, and I'll probably go back to that form at some point. I would like to do some adult nonfiction work as well. Perhaps something about the international garment trade, which has always struck me as a system to which we don't pay enough attention.


I'm not really sure I'm cut out to be an investigative reporter, however. Can you be a polite, neurotically amiable investigative reporter? "I'm reeeeeeally sorry for bothering you, and I hope you don't think I'm a big jerk, but, um, aren't those toddlers sewing your gussets?"

...eh, okay, so the investigative thing probably won't work out. But we'd read it if you wrote it!

FW: Your use of narrative language in the Octavian Nothing books is accurately reminiscent of the 19th [18th, I hope!] century style, mind-blowingly accurate, actually, for a modern novel. What type of research did you do in order to create a voice for Octavian—and for the other characters--that was authentic to the time period? Were there any particular difficulties about voice that came up during the writing of these books?


MTA: Well, first I should say that it was incredibly important to me that the voices feel accurate, because I truly believe that not only are we defined by our language--our world is defined by it, too. To fully commit to the strangeness of another time, another place, you need to commit to the quiddities of its language.

So for the Octavian books, I immersed myself in 18th C poetry and prose. While I was writing this story, I didn't read anything except books written in the 18th C, books written about the 18th C, and older books they would have read in the 18th C (translations of Greek and Roman classics, etc.). I really wanted to ensure that I was infused with that antique prose so that naturally, as I wrote, I'd use 18th C grammatical constructions. I also created a huge file in which I noted differences between 18th C language and modern English.

I don't think I need to say that, though this ensured that I was immersed in the period, and though I got to read some amazing books this way--things I never would have found otherwise--I also kind of ran out of top-drawer stuff to read after several years, and ended up slumming through some pretty awful dreck. Lots of pallid heroines and wicked seducers.

So I was incredibly relieved when the stint ended and I suddenly could go through a period of linguistic decompression (so I wouldn't get the bends)...Reading 19th C books...and then, before I knew it, crime fiction from the 30s and 40s...My god, they were wearing actual pants! It was bliss!

FW: (Hah. Could see how the flashes of pale ankles and the lack of pants would get old after awhile.) Your 2002 dystopian novel, Feed, also had a very distinct voice and use of language (which you describe at the 7-Imps as a "linguistically impoverished, dumb-ass style" which made us almost spew coffee). What made you choose a first-person narrator in that instance, and why did you decide to write in a perhaps risky form of imagined future slang?

MTA: As I said above, I believe that the language we use not only defines us, but in some way delimits and infuses what we see in the world around us. In the case of Feed, I wanted the reader to feel claustrophobic--like there's stuff s/he wants to find out about the future and how it works and how people are feeling, but the reader can't, because everything's channeled through this well-meaning doofus.

Our ability to recognize subtleties of thought and emotion are tied to the words we know and can use. Characters who only register a paltry set of emotional indicators (sad, happy) are going to be less likely to recognize the full complexity of what they're feeling when, say, some girl they're going out with is mentally and physically deteriorating. So it was very important to me that the language not just tell the story, but also hinder the story from being told.

FW: We really like your idea on language limiting/delimiting... speaking of limitations, all of your novels have been from the point of view of …basically white males, and even in one case, an undead white male.

MTA: Ha! LOL.

FW: ...Octavian is a serious departure. Have you gotten any flack for writing in the "exotic" voice of an African American male? Would you care to comment on writers stepping outside of their gender, class and ethnic boundaries to voice characters?


MTA: I haven't gotten any flack about writing across race, but it was conceptually something I was extremely wary about. I stalled in the planning stage of the book for some months and seriously tried to reroute the plot so it wasn't about Octavian...but to me, he was the story. He was the voice. Even when I knew nothing else, I knew him. It was his tale I wanted to tell. So I went ahead with it, despite all the pitfalls I may have stumbled into. The readers will have to decide whether I did his story justice, whether he is credible as a character.

FW: So, where did the character of Octavian Gitney come from? What was the inspiration behind the disturbing but interesting Novanglian College of Lucidity — is it based on Ben Franklin's American Philosophical Society, or is it completely fabricated?

MTA: The voice of Octavian Gitney sprang fully-formed into my head. He seemed very present right from the beginning of the project, despite, as I've said above, the fact that I tried to shift the story to be about someone else. The idea for Octavian's initial predicament came from a half-remembered story about how a similar experiment was undertaken at Cambridge University in the 18th C, under the auspices of the Duke of Montagu. The anecdote captured my imagination--the whole idea of these Enlightenment scholars in that dank, murky university in the midst of the dismal fens working away by candle-glow, believing that they were illuminating the subject of darkness and light while in fact being blind to their own weird biases and ceremonial culture...It fascinated me, and I felt immediately as if I knew the boy who'd result from those experiments. (Though Octavian didn't in the end really resemble Francis Williams, the actual subject of Montagu's putative experiment, beyond a shared knowledge of Greek and Latin...)

After some consideration, I decided to set the story in America, rather than in England. The College of Lucidity is indeed based to some extent on the American Philosophical Society, but I drew on experiments conducted throughout the Americas and Europe at the time. All of the bizarre scientific research I mention is based on real investigations from the period. I culled things from histories of similar institutions, from the 1771 Encyclopedia Britannica, and from delightfully weird 18th C scientific papers archived at the Boston Athenaeum.


Science is so vibrant, so strange in the period. They have not yet learned to separate disciplines and to expunge human concerns, emotional concerns, and even theological enthusiasm from their experimental discussions. That's what makes their science writing such a refreshing delight to read. For example, John Winthrop, a Harvard professor, wrote a pamphlet on the Transit of Venus as he observed it in Newfoundland. He doesn't just record data about the movement of the spheres, however: He also complains about the mosquitoes and fly-season. He ruminates on how God is illuminated by this study of the heavens. He comments on the sublimity of these Transits happening with such irregularity: "...When this [one] is past, the present race of mortals may take their leave of these Transits; for there is not the least probability, that any one who sees this, will ever see another."

He mentions that one of the next times anyone will be able to observe what he saw, it will be the unimaginable year 2004...and suddenly, there is an eerie connection between this very particular day in 1761, a Harvard man sitting on a hill, bitten by "infinite swarms of insects," peering through ground lenses...and our own time, our own thirst for knowledge as yet still unfolding.

FW: That is just immeasurably cool! We can see now how the whole thing caught at your imagination. You have often said in other interviews that you struggle with plot, and that the editor's revision suggestions in your first novel, THIRSTY, were mainly that you "add a plot." How do you confine yourself to plot as a character-driven writer? What are the first things you do to help put together a coherent storyline? (Other than the broccoli. We've heard about that, with more than a little disgust.)

MTA: As the years have gone on, I've become more comfortable with the idea of plot, especially because a lot of my writing (even the Octavian books) feeds off genre writing of some kind.


I've arrived at my stories from several different directions. In some cases, I let little fragments of things I hear about or read about coalesce, and suddenly, there's some kind of scenario suggested...The Octavian plot above being one of those examples. I stuck that set of details together with a description of historical "pox parties" (inoculation and quarantine parties held for the smallpox in the 18th C) and suddenly, I had the primary scenes of something...and then all I had to do was connect the dots.

In other cases, I've tried to come up with the entire plot ahead of time. In graduate school, for example, I knew vaguely that I wanted to write about my time working at McDonald's. But I didn't have a plot. I was reading a lot of Jacobean Revenge Tragedy for school at the time, and I figured, Hey! All those doublet-and-hose bastards are always stealing plots from ancient sources. I'll just steal a plot from them. So for an evening, I paced around in circles (see above), trying to conform The Revenger's Tragedy to a burger restaurant.

Nothing doing. There was too much murder, incest, and destruction. It was just grotesque. I wanted to do something lighter. So I decided to take the primary elements of a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy--a main character, wronged, cuckolded, named Anthony--a kind of a burger court--the feints at friendship, etc.--and I just forced myself to come up with a set of events where A led to B led to C. I wrote out an outline, scene by scene, detailing the precise function of each and every interaction. Then all I had to do each day was the fun stuff--the dialogue, the weird asides, the descriptions of my beloved suburb, etc. (Though I didn't, incidentally, stick with the outline all the time. Occasionally I changed things along the way.) It was some of the most fun I've ever had writing a book. Many of the minor characters, incidentally, are named after the writers of Jacobean tragedy as an homage to the plays that inspired me.

FW: What initially attracted you to the time period of the American Revolution, a series of events that seem so simple and righteous and straightforward and even inevitable in our history books, but in fact were ambiguous and contradictory?

MTA: Mainly growing up outside of Boston during the Bicentennial. All that history was right at my fingertips. I felt like it was important to investigate what it felt like to fight in that war before the myths were made, before the end was known. The true measure of the heroism demonstrated is not the legendary verities we associate with the Founding Fathers--but rather the intensity of their doubt. They didn't know how it was going to turn out, and yet they fought on. So to my mind, looking at this moment of doubt and unclarity is a way of restoring heroism to decisions that were not easy and were, in some cases, fatal.

FW: Pseudosciences like craniology and phrenology in the 18th and 19th century were once used as a basis for scientific racism that dealt with the inability of certain races to have intellect – thus the bizarre depiction of "happy darkies" that the Gone With the Wind group loved so well. With as much 18th century reading and research as you did, was it difficult to find reliable information about slaves and former slaves during this period? What were some of the pleasant surprises that you found in your research, or were there any?

MTA: It took a very long time to gather information on slave life in the period--especially because the structure of slavery varied so much from place to place and decade to decade. (For example, the Antebellum plantation of myth that appears in Gone With the Wind is a model based on 19th C cotton production...whereas, in the 1770s, cotton wasn't yet an important crop. There were other staple crops with their own associated social and administrative structures.) Furthermore, the question of how historians reconstruct slave life is extremely complex, given the unreliability of written sources and the obscurity of the archeological record.

There weren't, of course, many pleasant surprises in this research. Most of what I found was soul-destroying. But I did discover that each system, each region had its pros and cons. For example, in the Deep South and in some parts of the English-speaking Caribbean, slaves may have been given somewhat more autonomy when it came to domestic arrangements and food production than they were granted in the Tidewater region...The system in Virginia and Maryland was more paternalistic, which meant that your owner theoretically provided for you, but you were watched more carefully....On the other hand, the reason that slaves in the Deep South had a little more autonomy was that their masters didn't want to be anywhere near rice and indigo plantations that bred disease and smelled like hell. ...And of course, wherever you were, violence was always an ever-present threat.

Um, sorry. That was still kind of a downer, wasn't it? (Um, a lot, yes...)


I guess one cool thing was to read about the survival and transformation of African practices on American soil--the use of circular house-forms on some plantations in the Deep South, for example, or Asante charms found in slave quarters in Boston. Less of that survives than one might like--but still, it's a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

I suppose the most fun I had with this research was reading translations of African material to get a feel for some of these cultures before the diaspora. Here, for example, is one of my favorite Yoruban poems. It's about a chicken:

One who sees corn and is glad.
Happily eating the worm,
unaware of her fate...
The foolish chicken has many relatives:
oil is her uncle on the mother's side
pepper and onion are her aunts on the father's side
pounded yam is her in-law.
If she does not see her friend salt for a day
she does not sleep peacefully.


Not only humor but a kind of recipe! That's disarmingly hopeful.

FW: Many of your books are about the negative things that happen as a result of groupthink. Octavian is definitely no longer one of the group – highly educated and nurtured in the bosom of frock-coated and genteel society, he now stands out as he makes his way through the world outside of the College, not able to feel entirely at home with either the Revolutionary soldiers or the former slaves in Lord Dunmore's Royal Ethiopian Regiment. Did you have a particular reason for creating a character who was clearly an outsider in nearly every milieu? Did that make Octavian a more effective observer, more of a philosopher?


MTA: Yes, that independent viewpoint was important. But equally important (if kind of vague!) is that I simply imagined him that way. That’s who he seemed to be.


FW: It's always fun to talk to someone whose use of language makes you think while he talks, think while you listen, and possibly use a dictionary just to check a few things when he's done. Mr. Anderson, thank you sincerely for your thoughtful, thorough answers to questions you've probably gotten again and again. We very much appreciate you stopping by. Also, thanks to Cynthia Leitich Smith for helping us get in touch with him, and Tracy Miracle and Nicole Deming at Candlewick Press for their continued cheerful assistance.

To read more about M.T. Anderson, check out the following links:

NPR interview, Nov. 2006
Q&A with Publishers Weekly
Cynsations interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith
Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #13




Hey, readers - thanks so much for coming by and commenting and reading, and picking up these authors' books and loving them as much as we do! We do these Blog Blast Tours because books are full of awesome, and they are an inexpensive luxury item that makes a great gift!

It doesn't seem possible, but the book talking tours are still going strong! Check out more amusing, intellectual, quirky authors and their books at:

Ellen Klages at Fuse Number 8 @ SLJ
Emily Jenkins at Writing and Ruminating
Ally Carter at Miss Erin
Mark Peter Hughes at Hip Writer Mama
Sarah Darer Littman at Bildungsroman
and our own Mitali Perkins at Mother Reader.

**BONUS author interview at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy.

November 18, 2008

And just to sneak this in...

Y'know, Blog Blast Tours rock! It is so much fun to have an excuse to peruse blogs and read author interviews first thing every day for as long as we like!

We're all busy celebrating books this week, but I don't want this celebration to sneak past: Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris IS OUT. Not one, but two starred reviews, and the School Library Journal invoked the sacred name of Indiana Jones! Whoo!

Congratulations, Robin LaFevers, whose fabulous presence graced us during the Summer Blog Blast Tour this past May.

Of The Serpents of Chaos we said, "It's a novel with mystery, magic, adventure, sinister villains, cool Egyptian artifacts, a moody Victorian London setting, cool cover art and—perhaps most important—an inquisitive and indomitable heroine."

We can't wait to talk about Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris. Tibi Gratulamur! Cheers!

Winter Blog Blast Tour, Day Two: D.M. Cornish

Gosh, we are two lucky ladies here at FW. Seriously. Yesterday the WBBT kicked off for us with an interview from truly imaginative and talented Elizabeth Wein, and today, we continue our spree with none other than the author of the unique and epic Monster Blood Tattoo series, D.M. Cornish. We're really, really, really, really excited about having him here today -- so forgive us the occasional fangirl twitter, okay?

Mr. Cornish's work first attracted us--well, Aquafortis in particular--because of the fact that he's an author-illustrator--and a most talented one to boot. In the first two books of Monster Blood Tattoo (which we've reviewed here and here), he has created a complex, unusual magical world in which monsters roam and monster-hunters are both revered and feared. And lucky us--we get to grill Mr. Cornish about his themes, his influences, and about getting good ideas while taking a shower (glad I'm not the only one...). We even get a special sneak-preview illustration from Book 3 (see below)!

So, without further introduction, let's get into it!

Finding Wonderland: Hi Mr. Cornish, thanks for coming by!

You've said elsewhere that it took you ten years to develop the world setting for the Monster Blood Tattoo series. What were some of your primary sources of inspiration for things like the level of technology, place names (I mean, seriously, from where does one get names like Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Boys and Girls?!) and social structure?


D.M. Cornish: Quite simply the level of technology/ social structure/vibe has its first origin in the film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis and co. Before then the setting was more "steampunk" – trench coats, factories, Model-T like cars, odd fairy-world creatures at the bottom of gardens and in public creeks (all of which may very well be the future for the Half-Continent as folks currently know it). But the very first action scene in the film, where the three hunters save the girls and the British officer from ambush, was thrilling and mind-shifting.

Since then my deep interest in Nelson and his navy and the world and history surrounding this have deeply compounded the first musket and tricorn fascination. The Half-Continent is not some direct graft of 18th Century Europe, but it is certainly heavily sourced from it--what it is certainly not (if I may take this opportunity) is, as some folks have written, medieval OR Victorian. As for place names, well, this is hard to place; it has a lot to do with taste, I suppose, and also with a dissatisfaction with how ordinary real place names can be, no poetry or lyric in them, no sense of the place they are naming. I think the Half-Continent is my desire to live in a world with a little more lyric in it, where even the most hardened soul still speaks and lives with a lilt of poetry and song in them.

FW: The mythology of Rossamünd's world is intricately developed, particularly with respect to monsters and those who deal with them on a daily basis. Was this your starting point for the story—the idea of a world filled with monsters and monster-fighters? Or did it start with a character, like Rossamünd?

DMC: It began specifically with a city, actually, Brandenbrass, a more early 20th Century setting than the Half-Continent is currently; and with this a character called Icarus who (unsurprisingly) wore wings on his back and walked about this city of Brandenbrass in a state of poverty and perpetual confusion. Indeed, notebook 1 begins with a story some sour octogenarian is telling to the rather clueless Icarus, if I may indulge myself...

"There was this boy, you see," and he leant forward, "and he was stuck on an island with 'is dad. Couldn't get off – no boats and high walls all around, too tall to climb with spikes on top. But you see, he was sick of having nothing to do and only his old man there so he saw the birds--flying, that is--and said, 'I'll fly out too!' So he got some feathers and wax and made his own wings, and 'cause his dad bugged him so, a pair for him as well. And he flew out of there with his dad, but it doesn't end here. All was well, but this boy got proud and soon soared higher and higher still 'til he was right near the sun; too near! 'Cause the sun--the nasty evil sun--melted the wax out of spite and jealousy and the boy's wings broke and the boy fell into the sea and 'cause his idle olds hadn't taught him to swim he drowned dead."


So, in a way, it began with a soliloquy, though I had written role-playing rules (yes, I was into role-playing, I am that kind of nerdy) much of which now features--heavily modified--in the Half-Continent, and a few H.P. Lovecraft-ian bits of what these days would be called "fan fic." Deeper still, it all began with Star Wars at age 5, with The Lord of the Rings at age 12, Narnia, H.P. Lovecraft, Fighting Fantasy books, the illustrations of Ian Miller and Angus McBride and Rodney Matthews, the Iliad, Frankenstein, Dune, Steinbeck, building with Lego[TM] and inventing worlds and stories to go with the models, the dinosaur and ghost books I read as a child, that really really cool Galactic Aliens book in my primary school's library (looking out for it still)...and all those things that boiled and bubbled until Mervyn Peake's Titus Alone finally burst the lid.


FW: It seems an interesting choice to have a very gender-segregated society yet also a society in which at least some of the women are perhaps even more powerful than the men—namely, the calendars and the female lahzars. Can you comment on the role of women in the world of Monster Blood Tattoo?

DMC: The patriarchy of the Half-Continent (well, the Haacobin Empire at least) is largely a product of sourcing real history for social plausibilities and inspiration; certainly it is not a pointed inclusion. Women have defined roles, men have defined roles and the rich lord it over all others. Lahzars and calendars are very much working against such norms, and teratology (monster-hunting) is probably one of the few areas where a woman can achieve as much notoriety as a man (if she was not born with status already). Teratology and all that is associated with it is a method of living contrary to social expectation whilst still being (grudgingly) accepted.

Feminism has been an overt force in 20th-century Western society and it has been very natural for it to manifest in the Half-Continent--though I must clarify that I am not really trying to make "comment" on anything. All the elements that seem pertinent or applicable in the story are more about my reaction and response to the world as it is about me, the environment in all its breadth I grew up in, rather than pointed statements couched behind a narrative. First and foremost, I just want to write really good, solid and believably other-worldly adventure stories, yet it is inevitable that when you put humans in strange and alien situations their humanity in all its contradictions is amplified.

One role women certainly do NOT have in Half-Continent stories is that of flesh-exposing objects of pubescent fantasy; I really enjoy clothing them sensibly and beautifully, especially the more "fighterly" types; it is like some kind of relief to dress women in properly protective, practical, functional and aesthetic clobber.

FW: These books explore the role of outsiders in whatever society--both the role of those who keep the world safe, who are revered and feared, and those on whom society turns. Rossamünd is an outsider within, with his girl's name and odd...sensitivity. His paradoxical place allows him to redefine himself and resist the oppressive norms that characterize the behavior of his fellows. He sneaks around and visits Numps, saves a bit of the bloom baths, and acts, and by acting, alters who has the right to action. Do you see a parallel between the idea of monsters and the idea of outsiders in general? What informed your creation of the monster vs. hunter dynamic?

DMC: We could probably get very Freudian at this point...at first thought I cannot really recall there being a pointed reason for the monster v. hunter thing. Probably has its deepest roots in my own social struggles and loneliness and enduring bullying at school. I think it might be in some part my reaction to the mindless cruelty and unthinking malice that happens for real all too much. Everymen are thoughtlessness and convention, monsters are the alternative (and, by force of nature, unpopular) position, the teratologists (monster-hunters), the attempt to be rid of the uncomfortable and different. Of course we could get all very dark and deep and "into" things, but in the end they are also just monsters and monster-hunters, which are very cool in themselves and make for great action scenes and oh-so-fun illustrations.


FW: Your artwork was your first foray into the world of YA and children's publishing, and you've often said that you felt like a fraud as a writer--so, we'll talk about illustration. What is your favorite medium? Do you ever foresee selling prints of your characters? How did you get your first entrance into illustrating, and do you have any suggestions for other would-be illustrators who love both your story and your cover illustration?

DMC: I am going to be painful and say I do not have a "favourite" medium as such; they are all good in their way for whatever I need them for. Pencil is nice and precise, paint satisfying to move around the canvas, collage releasing and freeing, oils a sheer and rare delight...the one medium I am yet to try properly is water-colours, and I truly need to climb that "mountain" soon.

One of the things I really enjoy about both writing and more so illustrating a character from the Half-Continent is making someone who does not actually exist at all come to life. The characters of MBT exist in my head and soul like the memory of dear friends I no longer see but remember clearly and fondly, and to bring them out so that others might have a similar response is a genuine privilege. Scholastic here in Australia did a limited series of b&w postcards of the characters from Foundling, and there is a limited-print poster of the Branden Rose in all her full-colour glory that I give out as gifts--beyond that it would be great to get character prints out--even if the demand was not there, just to do so for the few who want them would still be great--it is about love not money, right?

I first got into illustrating by studying/training to be an illustrator at the University of South Australia, then jetting off to Sydney-town for several years walking the boards and getting work, especially with magazines and newspapers. By the grace of God it all grew from there. As for advice, hmm...don’t rely entirely on computers, draw draw draw--especially people, and with a real pencil on real paper, be prepared to suffer a bit and do unpleasant part-time jobs just to make ends meet while you promote yourself, be patient, pray (my answer to everything) if you are so inclined, and take the road less travelled even if folks about you do not quite get it.

FW: The original and awesome MONSTER BLOOD TATTOO title changed a bit. Who came up with the original title, and what was behind the change? Was it a happy change, or did you worry that it would confuse your readers?

DMC: The title Monster-Blood Tattoo comes from a casual bit of brain-storming with my friend Will, who said something along the lines of "the lamplighters could mark themselves with monster-blood tattoos!" Sometime later, whilst in the shower (too much information?)(Hee!) and contemplating the at-the-time-as-yet-unsolved problem of the title, "monster-blood tattoo" pops into thought and it spreads from there. The change of the title occurred because of some negative feedback that had MBT's publishers desirous for an alternative handle. I submitted to the change, though I personally believe that, as Mark Twain said, "a person with a new idea is a crank until that idea succeeds" and that we should have stuck to it. Fortunately the Australian hardback editions keep the "Monster-Blood Tattoo" title--so I am content.

As to causing confusion, well yes, it appears to have done; some folks (in the US anyway) do not seem to have the notion of the series title being Monster-Blood Tattoo. Rather the general understanding (evident by comments on the net and in reviews at least) is that the first book is Monster-Blood Tattoo and the second Lamplighter...it is done now, so what to do? If you look closely on the US edition of the second book you will find a meek little "monster-blood tattoo" above the much larger "Lamplighter," so it is not entirely absent.



FW: The Explicarium is--massive and detailed, probably much like your mythical notebooks. Are you still jotting ideas in notebooks, like Notebook 23, from which you started Monster Blood Tattoo? What number are you up to now? Will we perhaps ever see any stories from the previous twenty-two notebooks?

DMC: Ahh, well there are actually not many stories as such in the notebooks (to answer the last bit first), just lots of details and figurings of how the Half-Continent (and beyond) in all its layers and facets works, which I then source as I evolve the story. So MBT is actually made from all the notebooks--I just happened to be currently up to NB23 when I began to write it...if I do conjure more stories in the Half-Continent (and I surely want to) then I expect that there will be a good amount of overlap as I continue to build on world notions already established in the MBT series (such as lahzars, calendars, monsters, rams, the Haacobin Empire, black habilists &c).

I am currently in the midst of NB32; the invention of the Half-Continent (and beyond) continues concurrently and often independently of the novel--indeed, writing MBT solidifies many ideas I have had for the longest time which in turn gives me more ideas to fill more notebooks. Before MBT, my notebooks were (and continue to be) largely "narrativeless" (not a real word), a collection of "factoids" building the setting--this is my basic writing instinct and it has been going on for 15 years now, lots and lots of ideas jotted in those vaunted notebooks--so many I forget them and have to remind myself. The writing of actual narratives (stories with proper beginnings, middles and ends) is an advent of the providential intervention of a publisher (Dyan Blacklock, Omnibus Books here in Australia)... Does any of that make sense? (Actually, yes!)

FW: Your mind seems to just teem with imaginative peril (Gudgeons! Grinnlings! Rever men!) and multiple worlds. How do you feed that kind of mind? What do you like to read? To listen to? What gets you going when you get stuck?



DMC: The "Making of..." DVDs for the Lord of the Rings films and Star Wars are powerfully inspiring; Patrick O'Brian (whom I only began to read after a reviewer in the Washington Post mistakenly cited him as one of my influences), whose world building within the narrative is just awe-inspiring; real animals; odd moments; scenes glimpsed from a moving car; some odd bit of fact on the TV; any well-made movie (especially Stranger Than Fiction, Master & Commander, Anne of Green Gables, Pride & Prejudice BBC Version); history books; esoteric fact books; my favourite authors; music that sounds much like that of the Half-Continent; I am also rediscovering poetry at the moment through my friend and poet Aidan Coleman...

May I be frank, sometimes when I am really down I read the best reviews (I know I should not read reviews at all. but when someone really gets what I am trying to do it can be very affirming), or more so, "fan mail"--letters from kindred souls who have read the MBTs and are into the same stuff. Vivid dreams and a spot of prayer never go astray either.

FW: With your affection for drawing, have you much interest in graphic novels? Can you imagine doing one yourself? What is one project you'd really like to attempt in writing or illustrating? (Says Tadamack: Could you maybe go into fashion design? Because I *really* want one of those gorgeous paramilitary bell-sleeved, waist cinched coats that Europe wears, if you do go into fashion design. Just getting my request in.)

DMC: (Mmm, I would love to see Europe's many coats made real and have most certainly entertained the idea of being a fashion designer, especially operatic costume--I certainly own enough fashion and costume books!)

As for a graphic novel, the idea has occurred to me several times (at one time I put forward a submission to be the illustrator for a proposed graphic novel version of C.S.Lewis' Screwtape Letters, but alas, no dice...) Indeed, among my favourite books of all time are several graphic novels (Electra Assassin, Arkham Asylum, The Dark Knight Returns, Killing Joke, Akira, Nausicaä &c &c… so I most definitely want to join this fine tradition. The problem is time... and a viable story--waiting for that flash of inspiration, that "Ah, yes! Of course!" moment. It would take a WHOLE LOT LONGER to produce a single graphic novel tale of the Half-Continent than to write a more regular text. Even as I am writing this, however, I am thinking of ways I might start small: a short comic strip of some sort and perhaps expand from there.

FW: Were you encouraged in your love of art and imagination as a young adult? How has your family responded to your success? What would you say to a child of yours who wanted to do what you've done?

DMC: I most certainly was encouraged, though I was perhaps a little more dreamy and talkative than generally makes for a totally smooth childhood--especially at school. My father is an art teacher (amongst other subjects), my mother a primary school teacher (retired), so there was both a general atmosphere of encouragement and much specific endorsement. My immediate and wider family are very happy with how things are turning out; I think we are all a tad baffled, very pleased but also surprised--none more than me.


If a "child of mine" came up to me and said "Dad, I want to make up a pretend world" (not that it works like that, of course, generally more of an accidental, osmotic kind of thing) but for the point, if they did I would say "Get lost, you're stealing my thunder!"... well, no, I would be happy, grateful, astounded (that I even have a child!) and would probably need to watch myself that I did not become TOO involved, rather encourage sagely and let them grow into themselves as they were made to be.

FW: Bonus question: A vibrant, intelligent community of readers is the best any writer could hope for, and man, do you have that in spades. How much have you gained from the online blogging community at http://monsterbloodtattoo.blogspot.com/?

DMC: Most of all I have gained encouragement directly from readers (and dare I admit, an ego boost--though I've got to watch such a creature, always liable to turn about and gobble me whole), and gained insight and support from fellow writers. It is a meeting place of like minds, and knowing that other souls out there think along similar lines is firstly a relief, and secondly very motivating. I am truly grateful for them.

Sometimes I feel I let them down some by posting too irregularly, but I blame it on Book 3 Monster-Blood Tattoo: Factotum--I just hope folks will hang in there with me over the next 18 months it will take to get it on the shelves.


This has been seriously cool. Thank you so much for stopping by the Winter Blog Blast Tour. We are enormously grateful for your time, and we appreciate your thoughtful answers to our nosy questions!


For more information on D.M. Cornish, please visit:

D.M. Cornish's personal website
Monster Blood Tattoo blog
Official Monster Blood Tattoo site
An interview with Miss Erin
Monster Blood Tattoo fan forum




We absolutely love the imagination of D.M. Cornish! His books are simply lush with description and rich with detail, and they're books you can read again and again -- and find something new each time. If you're not a fan of fantasy or are afraid to venture into something so thick -- don't be. If you loved Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda, and enjoy strange machines and potions, dive in and savor the experience! You'll be really glad you did!

More booklove can be found at:
Ellen Dalow at Chasing Ray
Tony DiTerlizzi at Miss Erin
Melissa Walker at Hip Writer Mama
Luisa Plaja at Bildungsroman
L.J. Smith at The YA YA YAs
Kathleen Duey at Bookshelves of Doom

November 17, 2008

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Elizabeth E. Wein

She's a woman of many enthusiasms. Change Ringing. Planes. Folklore. Traveling. Punting. Time machines.

Okay, I made up that last one, but her books so far all take place in the long-ago and far away, and the detail with which she writes them convinces me there's something fishy about the reason she now lives in Scotland; I'm pretty sure she's found a time machine. A brilliant student of folklore and myth, archeology and history, Dr. Elizabeth Gatland neé Wein -- which is actually her real, non-writing name -- lives what appears to be a pretty blissful live in the gorgeous city of Perth here in Scotland with her husband, two cute kids, and random wild things.

Wonderland is really really privileged to take a moment of her copious free time (apparently she works less than a sleeping hamster, according to her daughter's nightmares) and invite her to share a bit about her life and her work and her awesome books.


Finding Wonderland: Hi, Elizabeth! First of all, your website says you were “born in New York City and grew up in England, Jamaica, and Pennsylvania.” You’ve also lived in both England and Scotland -- how have the places you’ve traveled and in which you’ve lived informed your writing, or have they? How are you liking Scotland? Will you, as people always ask Tadamack, ever write a “Scotland novel?”

Elizabeth E. Wein:Wow, that's at least three questions in one!
The places that I've traveled always inform my writing. The Winter Prince, my first novel, is set in the place I used to live in England (Artos's estate at Camlan is superimposed on our house in Mottram St. Andrew in Cheshire, and I am fully willing to believe that there is an undiscovered Roman villa buried beneath the cabbages in what was our back garden). The exotic setting of the subsequent books has given me more of a chance to draw on my Jamaican childhood.

I kind of ran wild in Jamaica. We ate everything and anything that grew—the countless trees in our untended garden produced at least 12 different kinds of tropical fruit, and I thought nothing of climbing on a neighbors' roof to get at the varieties we didn't have. The neighborhood kids all had routes to each other's gardens through the fences and down the gullies (the ubiquitous Jamaican riverine storm drains). Some pretty desperate and hungry homeless people used the gullies to hang out in, too, and chopped fruit out of our gardens with machetes, and once there was a knife fight which ended with the arrival of the police, and at times rival kids would hurl rocks at each other—I was one of the few white kids around but rather blissfully unaware of this difference, since the more obvious difference was whether or not you had a garden in the first place. All of which is to say that my child hero Telemakos's clandestine, scrappy, but privileged early life is in large part based on my own.

I had only been living in Scotland for a year when I wrote The Sunbird, the first book in which Telemakos plays a starring role, and in writing it I used a lot of my recent tourist experience climbing around in castles. As I mention in the note on the back page of the Firebird paperback edition of Sunbird, Britain was under a pretty serious quarantine while I was writing the book. So political and cultural reality were being very much reflected in my fiction.

Another way my life in Scotland turns up in my fiction is in Telemakos's closeness to animals. I see a lot more wildlife here than I ever have before—not just garden birds and squirrels, but seals and dolphins, osprey and heron, roe deer and red deer and foxes and leaping salmon. The seals swim right into the middle of the city of Perth, following the salmon. A buzzard—not an American vulture, but the European hawk buteo buteo, which looks like a small golden eagle—killed and devoured a pigeon in our front garden this morning. Also, having little kids around has driven me to the local petting zoos and safari parks. When we play a "Safari Trivia" game that my son got for his eighth birthday, I'm the one who says, "Go on. Ask me a hard question about lions. Go on, ASK me something about lions I don't know."

I adored Scotland when I first moved here, but lately I am finding it Just Too Cold. I am constantly cold. It is kind of grinding me down. Apparently the lions at the local safari park grow long winter coats and enjoy frolicking in the snow. But unfortunately the park is closed in winter so I haven't been able to witness this.

A Scottish novel… I kind of feel like Jane Yolen keeps getting there first! Telling an original Mary Queen of Scots story is as difficult as telling an original Arthurian story. The honest answer is I don't know. Telemakos's father, Medraut, who is also the narrator and anti-hero of The Winter Prince, is supposed to have been born and raised in Orkney. I suppose I could go back and tell the story of his childhood at some point.


I know there are a few readers out there who wouldn't mind another story about Medraut. (We know WE certainly wouldn't!)

FW: What were the first words that you wrote of Telemakos’ story? Did they change, or stay the same?


E. Wein: A.) 19 July, 1999: "When I was twelve, our kingdom had been sealed off from the rest of the world in a self-imposed quarantine for the past five years."

The first person narrative did not work for Telemakos. I have tried it again since, and it just isn't right for him. He is not self-conscious enough to pull it off (some would say Goewin isn't, either). He is not boastful, he's not self-deprecating, and he doesn't have any guilty history he wants to get off his chest; you have to have some combination of those, I think, to want to talk about yourself.

So, two days later, I made another attempt:

B) 21 July, 1999: "Telemakos could not remember a time when his aunt had not lived in his grandfather's household."

After a few pages of this effort is the note: "Jeepers, how am I going to make this interesting?"

C) 1 September, 1999: "Telemakos lay among the aloes at the edge of the fountain in the Golden Court. The marble lip of the fountain's rim just cleared the top of his head, and the imported soil beneath his chest was warm and moist. He was comfortable. He could move about easily behind the plants, for the sound of the fountains hid any noise he might make, and the black and white colobus monkeys that were chained there helped to disguise his movements. Telemakos was watching his aunt."

For the sake of comparison, here is the actual first paragraph of The Sunbird, published in 2004:

"Telemakos was hiding in the New Palace. He lay among the palms at the edge of the big fountain in the Golden Court. The marble lip of the fountain’s rim just cleared the top of his head, and the imported soil beneath his chest was warm and moist. He was comfortable. He could move about easily behind the plants, for the sound of the fountains hid any noise he might make. Telemakos was watching his aunt."


I wrote the whole of the first chapter of The Sunbird in September 1999, and then I literally began to feel sick whenever I thought about what was going to happen to Telemakos at the salt mines… and I had to stop. I did not start work on the second chapter till 6 March 2001 (I have a good excuse: in early 2000 we moved to Scotland and I had a baby). But once I got going again I used the first chapter almost entirely as I originally wrote it.

That's actually pretty awesome -- in a thoroughly unawesome way -- to be so convinced about what's going on with your own character that it literally makes you ill. It WAS a horrible, rough scene, too. {And if you haven't picked up this book yet, we're certainly not going to TELL you what happened. Read. The. Book. Go on, now.}


FW: Many of our readers and fellow bloggers and writers love to know about a writer’s process—and we’d love to hear about yours. How do you start your writing day? What feeds your creative process, and what do you do when you get stuck? What part do creative things like flying and change ringing play in your writing process?


E. Wein: I would say that the most vital nutrient to my creative process is coffee. It has become something of an inside joke with myself, and you can spot it in my books. I tend to use it to symbolize both sovereignty and sex (!!!). Medraut, Artos's (Arthur's) son, symbolically sells his kingdom for a cup of coffee. In the story I'm writing now, "drinking coffee with Gwalchmei" has become a sort of euphemism for sex. Telemakos is a coffee lover but is rarely allowed it; in The Empty Kingdom, the morning after his guardian tells him "You are no longer a child," the queen of Himyar leaves coffee out for his breakfast (AND it is hinted that she fancies him, too!). I am making myself laugh as I write this and think about it (a cup of coffee is standing protectively guarded between my wrists as I type)—coffee is what you sip from the Holy Grail.

But what does that have to do with my writing process?

I feel like such a charlatan these days. Over the past few years I haven't had a process; I do laundry and fool around on the Internet and drink coffee and do the garden and then maybe about eleven o'clock in the morning I panic and move to a different room and write a page and then make a sandwich. I run up to the kids' school three times a day because my eleven-year-old daughter never remembers to take her glasses or her lunchbox. This morning I sat watching the Raptor Show in the front garden for two solid hours. (I took a lot of pictures, too, but they are on the film camera and might take a while to print.)

This year we have installed a so-called "summerhouse" in the garden. It is a glorified shed, but it is a MAGIC SUMMERHOUSE. It transports you to Walden Pond and it MAKES YOU WRITE. So lately, whenever I want to work, I take a cup of coffee out to the summerhouse and sit there and I get tons of work done (I am sitting there now). I write longhand in spiral bound notebooks and transfer this, chapter by chapter, to the computer. I still have a sense that paper is more permanent than electronic print, and I like to see my first drafts written down.

This is only true for fiction. I blog away at the keyboard like anyone else.

I try to carry a notebook with me wherever I go. I have conversations in my head between characters and if I don't write them down right away I tend to forget them. I ran a writing workshop last weekend and one of the people who came said that she keeps bathtub crayons in her shower so that she can make notes while she's showering—what a great strategy, as the shower is where I get some of my best ideas! Note to self: Must buy bathtub crayons.

Obviously flying and change ringing don't have much to do with ancient Ethiopia, but I have written four (I think) short stories about flying. The most recent will be included in Sharyn November's Firebirds Soaring (Firebird Books, Spring 2009). It's about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother and flies fighter planes in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Of all the short stories I have ever written, it is my absolute favorite.

I've got a short story about change ringing in The Horns of Elfland, edited by Ellen Kushner, Donald G. Keller, and Delia Sherman (Roc/Penguin, 1997). And there is an unpublished novel, the old "manuscript under the bed," which has change ringing as a theme. But the problem with writing about change ringing is that it's so complex and arcane that you have to spend pages and pages explaining what's going on, or else leave the reader in limbo not understanding that end of things (as Dorothy Sayers does in The Nine Tailors), and that doesn't really work in a children's book. The symbolism of bells are wonderful, though—they ward off thunder and the devil, they warn of fire and flood and invasion. They're always female (a bell is a "she," not an "it") and they all have individual names. Some of them are also very old. I used to thrill to ring a certain bell in Magdalen College, Oxford, because it predated Columbus's discovery of America. Most musical instruments that old are in museums, not in public use.

I have all kinds of tricks for getting around writer's block: drawing pictures of my characters, acting out a scene with myself, writing out the problem in a kind of conversation with myself. Taking the project to a café or a beach or a public library and working on it without the usual distractions sometimes helps. Every writer should have a summerhouse.

(Definitely!!!)

FW: Aksum is a compelling and dramatic setting for the story of Medraut, Goewin, and Telemakos. How much of the setting and society is based on verifiable history, and how much was imagined? What attracted you to that setting?


E. Wein: Goewin's story, A Coalition of Lions, is as much a story of Aksum as of Goewin. The society Goewin describes more accurately resembles medieval Ethiopian society than that of ancient Ethiopia, which we don't know a lot about, but the history is certainly verifiable. Where I have to make things up is in the social mores rather than in the furnishings or the food.

The setting was originally suggested to me by an uncle, Roger Whitaker, who had been in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in the late 1960s. But what really attracted me to it—indeed, what drove me to ask Rog to suggest a North African or Middle Eastern setting in the first place—was the desire to introduce some diversity to the books.
A lot of my characters are based on real people. Imagine my surprise to discover this afternoon that Abreha, the enigmatic king of Himyar who gives Telemakos such a hard time in The Mark of Solomon, has got his own Wikipedia entry. Most of the historic data matches up. But who knew he had a wife named Raihäna? And it says he abducted her, too, which I suppose should not come as a surprise somehow. The source for this information was published in 2007, the same year as The Lion Hunter, in which my version of Abreha is married to a woman, invented by me, named Muna (who happens to be Telemakos’s second cousin). When I discovered Raihäna, do you think my first thought was, “Oh, I got the name wrong?” (Sabaean girls’ names being hard to come by, most of the female characters in The Mark of Solomon have modern Arabic names). No—it was more along the lines of, Oh, so Muna dies and Abreha gets married for a third time, the slimedog.

Hah! I can totally see that one, too. Eew.

FW: What made you decide to tell the story of "post-Arthurian" events from the viewpoint of Medraut, Arthur's illegitimate son who is often portrayed as untrustworthy if not downright evil?


E. Wein: It started with Hamlet, really. Medraut is really an extension of Hamlet. The king's nephew and ALSO his son, get it? With a bit of a taboo crush on his mother? Eh, I was deeply in love with Hamlet. What can I say. I was 15, and within a year my mother had been killed in a car accident, my adored younger brother was in a coma and permanently paralyzed, I had just discovered that my father was gay. All of that together took some dealing with at fifteen. I thought I was the reincarnation of Hamlet.

I had just got over The Lord of the Rings and I was also obsessed with King Arthur—a natural progression, perhaps, from The Lord of the Rings, which had been my obsession at fourteen—the difference being that now I wasn’t stuck reading the same novels over and over, because there was so much written about King Arthur (my English teacher recommended both Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural). And it kept coming—when I was fifteen, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, and Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy were all half-finished. John Steinbeck’s Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was released that year. The Mists of Avalon hadn’t been written yet. I had a theme.

Mordred was the most Hamlet-like of Arthur's family, I suppose. I hated him quite vehemently at first, and, like Guinevere, was eventually seduced. My Medraut would point out that he, too, is considered untrustworthy by many people.

FW: Which traditional mythological cycles--besides the Arthurian legends that most readers know about—were a source of inspiration for your series? What literary and historical sources were most useful or compelling to you in writing these books?

E. Wein: If anyone asks me where I get my ideas, I just answer Star Wars. (HAH!) Actually, I had mapped Lleu and Goewin to Luke and Leia well before anyone knew that the latter two were supposed to be twins as well. And then there's the matter of Luke's hand getting chopped off (as a teenager, I was disgusted that he immediately got a new one. Where's the melodrama in that?). And isn't Ras Meder obviously Darth Vader? (HAH! Seriously, I just had NOT put the two together... but, now...whoa.)

To be fair, part of the reason I loved "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" as a kid was because they both so obviously drew on the same archetypes, themes, and cycles that I loved. Lleu the Bright One, the narrator Medraut’s young foil in The Winter Prince, is named after Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the hapless sungod figure of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion (which is the 13th century Welsh legend that Alan Garner used as his basis for The Owl Service, another of my favorite books). It was inevitable, perhaps, that I should try to blend the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes with Arthurian legend. The Mabinogion, which means simply “Collection of Tales,” is divided into two parts. The first four stories, or “branches,” are referred to as the “native” tales—they’re straight-up thirteenth century Welsh. The rest of the stories are Arthurian. They bear some strange resemblances to the French Romances—the Welsh “Peredur” and Chretien de Troyes’s “Perceval” have many similar elements, but some scholars believe (and it seems to me) that both are based on an independent tale rather than either one being influenced by the other.

So I made up children for Arthur and Guinevere, who were canonically childless. (In my very earliest version of the story, Merlin magically engineers this.) In my own authorial role as Merlin (or God), I gave Arthur and Guinevere legitimate children, twins, Goewin and Lleu, named after characters in the fourth of the Mabinogion’s “native” tales—tales which, it seemed to my naïve fifteen-year-old self, a historic Arthur and his wife would surely have known well. I love the name Lleu—a word so ancient it is basically untranslatable, but which most likely means light—the Bright One.

Tolkien is there in the background, too; when I reread The Lord of the Rings a couple years back (when the films came out), and I got to the scene where they're fleeing the mines of Moria, I was amazed at how much it reminded me of the scene in The Winter Prince where the copper mines at Elder Field collapse. Not in terms of plot so much as in the way the rhythm of the scene plays out. Here's the Tolkien:

"With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard's knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered, and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. "Fly, you fools!" he cried, and was gone."


Compare Medraut's words (my words):
"For answer—it was an answer—came a low rumble and clatter from deep in the tunnel, and the lower shaft collapsed. It sealed itself from the roots outward, as though some starved inner core hungered to consume the entire hillside. I have killed another friend, I thought, buried alive six men; and so imagined the abyss closing around me, and plunged into the devouring darkness."


I certainly didn't intend any similarity, but I think the general tone is very evocative of Moria to anyone familiar with the scene. (Seriously. Wow.)

I won't go into the profound influence T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" has had, and continues to have, on my writing. But it's there, very deeply, in all the books.

FW: Surprisingly, you visited Ethiopia after writing your first two books. What was the most memorable part of those travels? What of your visit will you incorporate into later books, if anything?

E. Wein:The whole thing was eye-opening and unforgettable, but certainly the most exciting part for me was being in the city of Aksum and visiting Debra Damo, the clifftop monastery that features in A Coalition of Lions. Mind you, I did not get to go inside, because like Goewin, I am a woman… Unlike Goewin, I am not princess of Britain and friends with the Aksumite emperor. I had been taking notes like crazy all through our two-week trip, and during our tour of the ancient necropolis in Aksum (which also features in Coalition), my uncle Rog said, "Why aren't you taking notes?" My aunt Susan answered for me: "She already knows all this."

Rog called it "retro-research," a term I like. I did not feel that I'd got anything drastically wrong, but I did feel like I'd left things out. Little details, like the green leaves strewn about the floor during the coffee ceremony, or the way all the kids walk hand in hand, or the sticks that the shepherd boys carry across their shoulders. The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom have more of these minute details included.

I really felt that there is a great effort and excitement alive in Ethiopia—that its people are absolutely determined to better themselves. You don't get this feeling when you watch the shows the media gives us here in the west, you just feel that they're all starving or ill or at war. The feeling that I got was that they are all working, inexhaustibly and in spite of the worst odds and conditions possible, to build a country they can be proud of.

I would love to take my children there.

A more detailed description of my trip is up on my web site. If anyone would like to comment on it, the same story (but without pictures) is up on my blog.

FW: THE MARK OF SOLOMON is part political thriller, part family story, and thoroughly engrossing. Do you think you might ever revisit this world and tell a story from a female point of view? What do you think eventually happens to Athena?

E. Wein: I have, in fact, recently started writing a thing from Athena's point of view. (Oh, yaaaay!) She's about twelve in this venture; it takes place back in Aksum. I told myself that the book I'm working on now (NOT this one) "ties everything up," so technically Athena's story isn't dependent on what goes before. And the characters we've come to know and love are just so grown up by the time Athena is twelve, you know?

I have always imagined her as becoming a Vet. (Partly because it's what my daughter wanted to be for a long time, and partly because it makes sense.) She keeps homing pigeons.

It is fun making up babies for everybody so she can have a crowd of cousins!

FW: When THE EMPTY KINGDOM released this year, you introduced many of your American readers to an organization called Ethiopia Reads. Please tell us a little about how you discovered that organization, and what prompted you to get involved?

E. Wein:I'm only tangentially involved with Ethiopia Reads, in that I promote it whenever I get a chance—and of course make donations, both in books and in US dollars, when I can. Ethiopia Reads, formerly known as the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF), was celebrating the First Annual Children's Book Week in Ethiopia when I was there. (Here's a the full history of the organization.) I got a very brief look at the organization in action On Site—although the actual library was closed and they were in a marquee in a public square to generate some publicity at the time.

I found out about Ethiopia Reads through Jane Kurtz (www.janekurtz.com), the author of over 25 books for children and educators, many of them set in Ethiopia. She grew up there (her parents were missionaries) and she was one of the "first readers" for several of my books, a great help to me in spotting cultural or geographical bloopers.

Here's the history of the project. Jane became involved when Yohannes Gebregeorgis, a native of Ethiopia, enlisted her help. He'd been taught in high school by Peace Corps volunteers—exactly what my uncle and aunt, Roger and Susan Whitaker, had done in Ethiopia—and came to the United States as a political refugee, took a master’s degree in library science and became a children’s librarian. The dearth of books available in any Ethiopian language in his own San Francisco library, despite a large population of Ethiopians there, spurred him to organize the non-profit Ethiopia Reads in 1998. Jane and Yohannes set about publishing a picture book for Ethiopian children in 2002. It's called Silly Mammo and it is the first ever bilingual book in both English and Amharic, as well as being one of the few books at all published in any Ethiopian language. The book was used as a fundraiser, and after six years and some huge amount of further fundraising effort, 15,000 books were shipped to Ethiopia and in 2003 became the basis for the Ethiopian Children’s Book Center, the first free library for children in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, a city of more than three million people.

In their own words, "The main purpose of Ethiopia Reads is to improve literacy and create a culture of reading in Ethiopia, in order to bring hope, vision and educational skills to this generation of Ethiopian children."

In the last month Yohannes Gebregeorgis has been named a "Top 10 Hero of the Year" by CNN, out of more than 3,000 individuals nominated by viewers throughout the year. The full story is here, and you can vote for Yohannes to be named THE Hero of the Year over here.

This is pretty time sensitive, as the The Top 10 Heroes will be recognized in CNN's "All-Star Tribute" to air on Thanksgiving Day, so vote now!

FW: Now that THE MARK OF SOLOMON duo is completed, we know you’re not just coasting on your wings. Can you give us a sneak peek at what you’re working on now? Will you include change ringing or flying in what you publish next?

E. Wein: The big project at the moment is The Sword Dance, which is supposed to wrap up the Arthurian/Aksumite cycle that I tend to call The Lion Hunters—the cycle that began with The Winter Prince and which includes The Mark of Solomon. My facetious working title for The Sword Dance is "Telemakos in Love."

The facetious working title for the Athena book is "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (moving on from Star Wars)—because, well, it is. In addition to "Telemakos in Love" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" I'm ALSO in the process of revamping the Novel Under the Bed, the one about change ringing. That's called The Oysterman's Opera—it's a huge departure from my usual setting, as it takes place in New Jersey in 1936. Harry Alden, the pilot character from "Chasing the Wind" (in Sharyn November's Firebirds, 2003), is the 14-year-old viewpoint character of Oysterman.

All my characters are distantly related somehow. The heroine of "Something Worth Doing," the flying story that will be in Firebirds Soaring next spring, is a contemporary of Harry Alden. Somewhere in the distant future I'd like to expand on that story, too.

It is a curious fact that whenever I invent a pilot, he or she is also a bell ringer.
It's hard to come up with a REAL sneak peek that isn't full of spoilers, but try this (there is technically a spoiler in here, but it's kind of an obvious one):
***

Telemakos's small sister was not allowed to eat with the adults when there were guests. You could no longer call her a baby, but unlike Telemakos, no one had ever put much effort into teaching her courtly restraint. You could count on Athena to point out a visitor's every smallest imperfection, and to try to plait his hair for him while he ate, and to turn out her apron pocket to show off a collection of owl pellets and bits of discarded snakeskin. She had once made a nest for a family of mice in the bread basket. When there were guests, Athena was required to eat in the cooking hut.

Telemakos joined her there, while the guests were appropriately welcomed into Grandfather's household with hot baths and clean clothes belonging to Grandfather himself. They were presently to be served a small feast of a dozen different kinds of wat, including a stew of Telemakos's gazelle; Telemakos's mother and his aunt were going to wait attendance at the meal. Telemakos ate his own supper in the kitchen with his sister.

"You always bring dead things home," Athena said mournfully to Telemakos, folding her bits of meat into her injera bread with such minute delicacy that you scarcely noticed her fingers moving. Her own manners were exquisite, for all her inattention to other people's tastes. "You bring big dead animals to the house and everyone is happy. I bring little ones in alive and everybody shouts at me."

Telemakos laughed. "I take mine to the butchery to be cut up in tiny pieces. You drop yours on the table where they run about."

"Who are those white men you came in with today?" Athena asked.

"They are our kinsmen. They are all princes, in our father's homeland."

"The red one kissed Goewin. It was very improper."

"He meant it as a formal greeting. They do things differently in Britain. He is her cousin, and her servant," Telemakos repeated. "He has been ambassador in Himyar, and liege man to Constantine, Britain's high king…"

He could not eat. He had not expected this summons to come quite so soon.

"You need a bath," Athena said, leaping from topic to topic as usual. "You should go wash up or they won't let you sit with the guests tonight."

"What a good idea, little Athena."

"Mother and Goewin will give them coffee in the little court after they eat," Athena said. "The red man has brought something for you. Goewin says I can open it."

"I say so too."

Telemakos washed at the water butt in the walled kitchen garden. He ran inside and changed into clean clothes, then made his way through the cool stone hallways of the house to the private inner courtyard where the family sat on summer evenings. The weather was fine, and the woven grass awnings were drawn back. There was a dark blue square of night overhead. Moths fluttered about the hanging lanterns; stars littered the sky.

"Are you getting ready to serve coffee or start a war?" Telemakos inquired.

Gwalchmei's sword was drawn and lay bare across his knees; the orange flames of Turunesh's coffee burner flickered gold in the shining blade. On the floor by Medraut's side lay a dozen short spears, and an assortment of spearheads, Telemakos's entire arsenal; and Ras Priamos, the emperor's cousin and translator and Aksum's former ambassador to Britain, was brandishing a very antique Roman short sword in earnest demonstration before Gweir and Owain. Similar weapons from at least three different kingdoms lay bare-bladed on the flagstones, among the pepper leaves and white rose petals that his mother always spread about the floor when she made coffee in Adwa in the summer.

"What are you doing with my spears?"

Everyone looked up at Telemakos as he spoke. His mother stopped pouring cold water into the spout of the coffee pot to keep it from boiling; she sat poised over the burner, her dark eyes shining. Goewin had Athena on her lap. They were making a wreath with the pepper twigs. Athena gathered up the twigs and passed them to her aunt, and Goewin bound them into a garland. She was weaving among them a narrow saffron-colored ribbon that she had pulled from her own black hair, shimmering now like a fall of silk down her back as she bent over Athena's shoulder to tie the leaves together.

Athena snatched the green-gold garland from Goewin's hands and waved it at Telemakos.

"Look," she cried. "We've made you a crown."

"Telemakos Morningstar," Goewin said quietly, patting the old stone floor at her side beneath its carpet of spice leaves and flower petals. "Come sit here, my king."

Copyright ©2008, Elizabeth E. Wein, all rights reserved.

***

FW: And just that fast, the magical spell is woven again. Oh, we SO WANT TO READ THIS BOOK!!

E. Wein: While I've got your attention (if indeed I've still got anyone's attention at this point!), can I finish by pointing out a crazy project that my kids and I are working on—acting out the entire story of The Winter Prince (my first novel) in Playmobil? It's playing now (continuously) here. I have a web site but the real action goes on at my blog. Please drop by—it's very informal!

Thank you so much for the fun opportunity to blow my own horn here. These are great questions, and I hope I haven't made anyone's eyes go crossed with my long-winded answers. I hope I see some of the readers here on my various blogs!

FW: It's been fun to sort of visit the very brilliant and busy inside of your brain, Elizabeth! Thank you for all the amazing book recommendations, and thank you so much for coming by!



Have just been as enormously entertained and educated as I've been? I think before the next Telemakos book comes out, I'll enjoy rereading all the other ones over again, and then tracking down the various short stories so I'll be ready for the Novel Under The Bed. Also, I *really* have to encourage you to visit the Playmobil theater. It's very amusing -- and shows a deep dedication to posing plastic toys in a literary fashion that amuses me deeply.

Sigh. Can I just admit it? I need a magic summerhouse.

There's more bookish and author-esque goodness today on this, the first day of the Winter Blog Blast Tour! Don't miss:

Lewis Buzbee at Chasing Ray
Louis Sachar at Fuse Number 8, School Library Journal
Laurel Snyder at Miss Erin
Courtney Summers at Bildungsroman
Susan Kuklin at The YA YA YAs