September 25, 2017

Starring Sara Lewis Holmes

It's Day One of The Wolf Hour blog tour!

Welcome, my little lambs, to the Puszcza. It's an ancient forest, a keeper of the deepest magic, where even the darkest fairy tales are real. Here, a Girl is not supposed to be a woodcutter, or be brave enough to walk alone. Here, a Wolf is not supposed to love to read, or be curious enough to meet a human. And here, a Story is nothing like the ones you read in books, for the Witch can make the most startling tales come alive. All she needs is ...
      A Girl from the village,
            A Wolf from the forest,
               & A Woodcutter with a nice, sharp axe.

So take care, little lambs, if you step into these woods. For in the Puszcza, it is always as dark as the hour between night and dawn -- the time old folk call the Wolf Hour. If you lose your way here, you will be lost forever, your Story no longer your own. You can bet your bones.

And with a bit of a shiver, come in! We bid you Welcome!

Sara Lewis Holmes has been a very dear friend since 2007, when Tanita joined she and five other women in a year-long poetry challenge which culminated in a National Poetry Month Crown of Sonnets way back in 2008. This poetry effort then turned from a trial experiment for one poem into a yearly, year-long delight of poetry and wordplay. We expected good things when we reviewed Sara's second book, and when Sara joined our writing group, we were pleased to indulge ourselves in talking craft and sharing stories. Today, we celebrate the release day of Sara's fourth book, and we're excited to tell you all about it! Well... all about it within reason, anyway. We're focusing on writing details, and the craft of fiction today, and working hard to present NO SPOILERS here, so you may find this interview vague on points of plot. -- No worries, though! You'll have all the plot you'd like when you pick up your own copy. So, without further introduction, we're thrilled to welcome author and poet Sara to the Wonderland Treehouse!

Finding Wonderland: Hi Sara! Let's get right into it - THE WOLF HOUR is a "Once upon a time" type of tale, but stories don't always actually start that way for writers. What was the starting point of this story for you? What initially inspired you to write this book, and which character(s) sprang to mind first?

Sara Lewis Holmes: I’m more like a magpie than a spider when it comes to story. I don’t spin a carefully symmetric web of plot and character out of my guts, as much as I would love to say I do. Rather, I collect shiny baubles over the years, hoarding and obsessing over them until I figure out how to make a story out of all the strange beauty.

For THE WOLF HOUR, those glittering pieces included: a conversation with a stranger about why some stringed instruments howl when played, the image of a child clinging to a tree rather than be forced to lessons, a rotund china pig given to me by my mother-in-law, and a former piano teacher whose entire house bloomed with pink.

Those elements were in my magpie’s nest of a journal but it took an encounter with a wolf to set them free. Not a real wolf, although I’d seen one, in a carefully fenced wolf park, and listened to one howl in a chilling YouTube video, and read about many in both fairy tale and fact—-but one whose voice stole into the forest of words crowding my head, and told me that if I wanted to write about wolves, he would be my guide. His name was Martin, and he had been raised by books, and knew everything about everything—-except the human heart. I could not help but love him, and be terrified for his future, too.

Finding Wonderland: Okay, we LOVE that you based this story on actual items that you were GIVEN! Story magpies! How cool a concept! So, let's talk readers --

Despite their often bleak or violent content, fairytales are traditionally seen as stories intended for children. What's the optimum age of your target reader for THE WOLF HOUR? Who is this book for? Who, if anyone, is it not for?

Sara Lewis Holmes: Age and readership questions are hard. Do you like to shiver and chew your lip ragged as you read? Do you like a story that twists and turns and doesn’t go where you expect it to? Do you enjoy a story that KNOWS it’s a story, and might even challenge you to think about your own Story and whether you like your place in it? If you do, even if you aren’t in the 8-12 age range for this book…read on!

Finding Wonderland: Ah. So, what books are for you? What are a few of your favorite fairytales, and why do you love them?

SLH: East of the Sun and West of the Moon has to be the most lovely title ever for a fairy tale. And in it, the girl rescues her prince, instead of the other way round. Also, there’s a princess with a nose that is “three ells” long! I’m also fond of works that focus on the told nature of stories, such as William J. Brooke’s three part TELLER OF TALES book series, as well as the 2000 American/British TV miniseries, ARABIAN NIGHTS, adapted by Peter Barnes. Like a hall of mirrors, these “stories within stories” crack open my view of the world. Finally, I’d add that all fairy tales are, to a fault, weirdly defiant of the world’s conventions. They are like poetry in that way, and I love their wildness.

Wonderland: I'm going to have to look up what how long an 'ell' is!

Often, setting is itself a character in a novel, acting as an active metaphor. Would you say that you consciously, or unconsciously used THE WOLF HOUR'S setting to speak to the reader? Do you consider this novel a "fairytale mashup”?

SLH: The Wolf Hour, in legend, is the hour between darkness and dawn; it’s the hour more people are said to be born into this world and more people leave it than any other —-and, if you are like me, you are often awake then, wondering if you will ever get your Story right. So I would say that part of the “setting” of my novel deals with such fairy tale time—-how twisty it is, and how “once upon a time” can stretch to many, many days and nights, and how being in charge of your own time means being in charge of your own story. Easy to say, difficult beyond measure to do.

The other part of the setting is the deep, dark forest. In Polish, the word for such a place is “Puszcza,” and yes, I absolutely wanted the reader to feel that such a place was both desirable and dangerous. I wanted the reader to feel its call, as Magia does, and to discover the Stories that dwell there. I think it’s those various Stories that make me say THE WOLF HOUR is not a re-telling but “a fairy tale mashup.” It’s a story about the power of stories, and how everyone tries to cast you in the story that is easiest for them to hear—-but not necessarily the one you want to live in. How do you fight that?

Wonderland: How one combats someone trying to recast their Story is something few tales look at quite so directly, so this is very interesting.

Those of us who know you through your work know that you delight in Shakespearean stories, and acting as a tool for self-understanding. How did your appreciation for the Bard and your interest and skill in theater help to shape this novel?

SLH: Reading Shakespeare taught me that disguise is uncommonly common, death is a persistent beast, and love is found in unexpected places. His plays are filled with a more than a touch of unbelievable—-a trait I admire in novels such as COSMIC by Frank Cottrell Boyce, THE WHITE DARKNESS by Geraldine McCaughrean, and NATION by Terry Pratchett—-not to mention most fairy tales. The Bard was also a master of the “story within a story” trope, which I find irresistible, as I mentioned earlier, and he absolutely inspired me to make up words as needed, and to not be afraid to pair utter despair with low comedy. (I think of the pigs in THE WOLF HOUR as a villainous take on his “rude mechanicals.”)

Finally, I am ever grateful to the brilliant artists at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA, who hold a Shakespeare camp for adults every summer and stage the most compelling theater I know. Their work informs mine in ways I cannot explain, but I do know that they remind me that Magic Happens. Every Day.

Wonderland: All hail the magic, indeed. We never quite know how it works... but sometimes, it's enough that it does.

So, softball question: If you could write yourself into a fairytale, which one would it be? Would you prefer a role which gave you Power or Guile?

SLH: Puss in Boots is a master class in Guile, or How to Make Something from Nothing. As a writer, I identify. However, if I had to pick some boots to fill, I prefer seven-league boots. The power to travel great distances without burning carbon fuel would be both practical and fun.

Wonderland: Ooh, good answer. Definitely, we writers must use all we've all got to get ourselves as far along as we can!

So, while you studied the Bard, my studies were in 19th c. British and American lit... and the 19th century canon uses a lot of intrusive narrator/direct address authorial comment to help readers gain a deeper understanding of the characters, but authorial insertion is largely absent from modern novels. What prompted you to use that 'Dear reader' sort of narrative technique in THE WOLF HOUR? Do you think more novels would benefit from that sort of "breaking the fourth wall" technique, in order to allow readers to come closer to the action?

SLH: My editor, Cheryl Klein, and I talked at length about the challenge of signaling to a reader HOW to read this story. I needed to convey that all was not going to proceed as normal, and that the path ahead would be scary and often double-back on itself before coming to a conclusion. After all, the novel is ABOUT how to find and live in your own story…and how unbelievably hard that can be. So we decided that a direct reader address would set the right tone for the three-stranded tale that would follow, and that the voice would re-occur at the beginning of each section, to both invite the reader forward, and to chillingly warn them of the darkness ahead. This is a choice, obviously, that most novels don’t need, so I wouldn’t recommend it often. (I found it enormously fun to write, however.)

Wonderland: Many American kids have never heard of Scottish author Andrew Lang's 12-volume "Coloured" Fairy Books. Which one is your favorite? Do you own them all? How were you introduced to them?

SLH: The only one I own is The Green Fairy Book, and it sits on my desk along with my other favorite fairy/fantasy books. I was introduced to the Lang Fairy Books by finding them mysteriously lined up in the non-fiction section of the children’s room of Lawson McGee Library in Knoxville, TN. I mostly went to the non-fiction section to hunt down books on magic tricks and codes and secret languages, so it was a surprise to find stories here, too. Especially stories that couldn’t be true: tales of iron shoes that tortured their owners; of Winds who offered you soaring rides along with their down-to-earth advice; and of children who were loved less than coin shine and left to die. Casual cruelty and stunning beauty lived side by side. Animals and people fought and slept and morphed from one form to the other. Nothing made sense, and everything did. And most of all, these tales seemed to offer a glimpse into the dangers of “adult” life. I was utterly fascinated.

Wonderland: I can see why! So, from language hints, we can tell The Wolf Hour takes place in a specific geographical setting, in a fairytale Poland. First, what prompted your fairytale Eastern European setting, especially now? Additionally, how did you select the stories that you used, and what prompted you to choose them?

SLH: Originally, the humans in the novel were a default English family, but I questioned if that was laziness on my part. Stories are everywhere, and even though most of our American fairy tales come to us filtered through Western European tellings, stories such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs are told the world over. So why not draw on my Polish heritage and research and feature a fairy-tale Polish family encountering these tales instead—-although perhaps in a form they hadn’t seen before? (Miss Grand, however, DOES retain her English name, which might tell the reader a thing or two about the specific tellings of the Stories she controls.)

Additionally, when I chose the Stories to “mashup,” I was looking for those tales which featured a Wolf. (To my surprise, there were not as many as you would think.) And then I let those stories “live” in the forest—-in the Polish Puszcza—-where they could cause trouble for Magia and the townfolk of Tysiak—-at least until they could confront those tales, and face up to their own hunger in creating them. Hunger, by the way, is a big theme in the book—-hunger for what you can’t have, hunger for the truth, hunger for safety, and hunger for home. (You see now why I needed stories in which a Wolf swallows people and Pigs employ a giant cooking pot?)

Wonderland: Ah! What a fun way to explore your own heritage and metaphor at the same time. SO, to wrap up our time with a cheater question - and I'm kind of cheating, because AF and I are in your writing group... but, every writer comes to the end of the first (few hundred) drafts with bits of the story that end up on the cutting room floor. What were the bits of THE WOLF HOUR which you needed to cut that you wish you could have kept?

SLH:In an early draft, I had one more fairy tale that was active in the Puszcza—-that of the Little Lambs whose Mother tells them to keep the door locked while she is away. Then the Wolf comes to their cottage, and to fool the wooly wee ones into letting him in, he dips his paws in white flour and pretends to be her. Holy Horrors, that fairy tale scared me when I was a kid! I still remember the picture of the rangy wolf with his snowy paws on the door’s transom to this day. But…the novel didn’t need another cast of characters, so those Lambs only make a teeny-tiny appearance now---for when the Story voice addresses the readers, this is its endearment for them: my Little Lambs. I hope we will all be frightened (and saved) together.

"Fairy tales are precarious places for girls and wolves. In a brash, dazzling break with tradition, Sara Lewis Holmes arms a woodcutter's daughter and a sensitive wolf pup with a means of defense against the old familiar roles that threaten to swallow them whole. The story of how they come together to rewrite fate is bewitchingly delicious; you'll gobble it up." -- Christine Heppermann, author of Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

Thank you, Sara, for your quirky, funny, thoughtful comments, and thank you, Readers, for joining us on the first stop of The Wolf Hour tour!

Friends, you do not want to miss this dreamy, scary, funny, unusual retelling of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, all tied up in a very Sara sort of collision. Readers who enjoyed last year's THE GIRL THAT DRANK THE MOON may find this is right up their alley. Stay tuned for more chat with Sara Lewis Holmes through October at Charlotte's Library, with Maureen at By Singing Light, with Laura at Writing the World for Kids, with Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect & Liz Scanlon's blog.

Images used in this interview courtesy of the author. You can find THE WOLF HOUR by Sara Lewis Holmes at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!


Linda Mitchell said...

OK, I"m a fan and a middle school librarian .... so I cannot wait to get my hands on this book. Here are my questions.
1. I live in VA and am familiar with Staunton. Are there any bits specific to VA I can expect to find in Wolf Hour? I would be so delighted!
2. I'm a fan of your verse....I hope you have a verse novel in the works? Please say yes.
3. I write on the side....if you ever give a workshop, I want in!
Best of luck to you, Sara. I'm so happy to see this spine-tingler coming out into our world at Halloween time.

Sara said...

Hi, Linda, thanks for asking, and for being a fan. (I'm a fan of your work with middle school kids, too.)

1) I'm thinking hard, but I'm not sure VA specifically appears in the novel since it's set in an alternate fairy tale Poland. :) However, as I mentioned, I do think some of the antics of the pigs were inspired by Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals" which I have seen brought to life many times on Staunton's Blackfriars' stage. (They host amazing teachers workshops there all year and a full week of camp for adults---you should go!)

2) I'm trying. I really, really want to marry my love of writing poetry with my love of writing novels, but it's harder than it appears. I can get several poems out, and then they refuse to behave in a narrative manner---i.e. provide me with a plot. I'll keep at it.

3) Yes! I'd love to see you at a workshop. I'm doing a mini one at William and Mary along with Cece Bell and Kathy Erskine but I think it's sold out. I confess that I'm shy about my ability to directly teach people anything practical about writing. Creating a novel still seems like a mystery to my own self in so many ways. I do love talking about writing in a small group (like my online critique group) and brainstorming solutions. Maybe that counts?