How did you first get into art, and what was the first medium you used?
My first “meeting” with an art was in a childhood when I drew and painted as every kid does. But I was lucky, and my parents entered me to the Art School for kids at the age of three, because they saw how much I loved to paint. First art materials which are used in an Art School are pencil, of course, watercolor, and gouache.
Since then, I have come a long way to the point I’m now in: I worked in all kinds of media: acrylic, oil, pastels; I worked with black and white traditional film photography, and I was a glass artist for many years, including fused glass, painted glass, and stained glass. Then, I went back to painting about four years ago and felt in love with watercolor.
You work primarily with watercolors. What drew you to this medium, or what about the way watercolors work appeals to you?
As many things in our live happens by accident, the same was about my start of working with watercolor. When my daughter was born, I’ve realized that I couldn’t continue working with glass as it was before, because a lot of dangerous glass parts are spread from studio out, and also because it takes a lot of time to prepare things, to get started, and the process itself. But it was clear for me that I wanted to create things and I couldn’t live without, so I found my old box with watercolor paints and started to sketch with it. Continue reading →
CM: How and when did you first get into embroidery? When did you start designing your own patterns?
KG: I’ve been embroidering since I was 6-7 years old. It started with cross stitching. My first teacher was a book; I don’t remember which book exactly. In my childhood there was no internet and it was impossible to find modern cross stitch patterns. They were all huge with a lot of different thread colors. That’s why I started to draw small and simple schemes for myself on checkered paper: christmas tree, flowers, houses, etc. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me then to share these patterns with someone.
CM: Do you view embroidery as art?
KG: Yes, I believe any rethinking of reality is an art.
CM: How do you think embroidery fits into the world of art?
KG: I think that the embroidery is quite functional. It’s not only something you can admire. Embroidery can express your position just as well as other forms of art. It can decorate the clothing. According to my observations, 2016 was the year of embroidery, at least on Instagram. So many incredible artists express their thoughts through embroidery.
CM: What draws you to focus on designing and embroidering cities?
KG: I live in a very beautiful city: Saint-Petersburg, Russia. Since childhood, I have been surrounded by stunning architecture. I also traveled a lot in Europe, when I went to give concerts with the chorus. Initially, I wanted to do cross stitch, but then I realized that for me it is important to be able to change the view of the picture while embroidering. Now I want to make city patterns for cross-stitchers too.
CM: What steps do you go through when designing a new pattern?
KG: At first, I chose the city (now my followers at @faimyxstitch are choosing). I’m starting to learn main attractions. If I’ve visited the city, it’s a little easier to understand if it looks like city I wanted to make or not. So, I collect photos of buildings, bridges, towers, churches from the city. Then I make different sketches and change details. Finally, I choose the version I like the most.
CM: How do you choose your color palette?
KG: That’s the hardest part. Color is almost the most important thing in embroidery! And I don’t use a lot of different colors in my embroideries so that patterns can be easy to make. I change colors a lot while embroidering. Sometimes, half the embroidery is done, but I don’t like the combination of colors and I rip up and start anew.
CM: Do you practice another form of art (like drawing) that has contributed to the development of your embroidery?
KG: Yes, I’m practicing drawing. And I’m sure that as in any form of art, you need to practice. Otherwise you won’t grow.
As a child, I was engaged in ballroom dancing, and then went to a music school. I still love to sing and sometimes write songs. Although it is not related to the embroidery, I think that these lessons have helped me to develop the creativity.
CM: What are the exciting and challenging aspects of designing a new pattern?
KG: I love to start a new embroidery pattern, until I have to choose the colors. Then I start to worry about whether it turns out well. At such moments, my husband supports me (and sometimes not, if it really is not very nice). And I really like to make the final touches when it is clear as the embroidery will look like.
CM: What is your favorite thing about embroidery?
KG: I like being able to improvise in embroidery. Even following the same pattern, each person will have their own unique embroidery. And that is great.
Kseniia Guseva is a 24 year old embroidery artist from Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She creates hand embroidery city patterns that are easy to make even if you are new to embroidery. You can find more of her work on Instagram and Etsy.
CM: When did you first develop an interest in writing?
DL: I’ve loved to read since I was a little girl; my love of reading led to an interest in writing. Thanks to my mother, I still have some of the “books” I wrote as a seven- and eight-year-old, with titles like Something Happens to Tuggy and The Captured Boys. (You can see the covers on my website here: http://debbielevybooks.com/about/.)
To me, switching from lawyering to writing doesn’t seem like such a giant leap. So many lawyers are word people, and although I know we like to make jokes about impenetrable legalese, excellence in lawyering often depends on excellence in writing. (Not always, I know. But often.) Anyway, there was no single moment when I decided to make the career change. I’d always been interested in writing. I left the practice of law to work as an editor at a newspaper chain that covered the legal profession. And then I left that to write books for young people.
CM: What made you decide to write books for children?
DL: Once I had kids of my own, I rediscovered books for kids. Once again, my love of reading these led to an interest in writing them. Favorites in our house were the Frog and Toad books (by Arnold Lobel) and the George and Martha books (by James Marshall). And, oh, all of Shel Silverstein’s poetry!
CM: What directed your interest to the history surrounding WWII?
DL: I think the combination of my mother being a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and my father being a bona fide war hero (he enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor, served on a destroyer-escort in the Mediterranean, and was awarded the Legion of Merit after his ship was torpedoed and he tirelessly tended to the wounds of his shipmates, saving the lives of many) made this interest inevitable.
CM: Your book The Year of Goodbyes is a true story based on your mother’s experience fleeing Germany in WWII. How did that personal connection make it easier and/or more difficult to write the story?
DL: The personal connection made it easier because it produced in me a certainty that I wanted—even needed—to tell this story in the way I told it. It also made it easier because I had my mother, living right here in Maryland near me, to interview endlessly, and I had her treasure trove of documentation and artifacts, and I had access to her friends (acknowledged in the book) who also survived and made it to this country.
The personal connection made it harder because—well, because it was personal. It was painful to unearth the memories—for my mother, certainly, who had lived them, but for me as well. But because of that certainty I felt about wanting/needing to tell the story, the pain was something we were both willing to go through.
When I talk with students in schools I visit, sometimes I bring up two seemingly contradictory lessons for writing, and also for life, that I’ve taken from working on The Year of Goodbyes.
First: Be Vulnerable. To do the research for a book like this, which involves investigating and revisiting the deaths of my own family members in the Holocaust, was hard. It opened up old, old wounds and memories for my mother. It meant months of sorrowful research for me. But we both opened ourselves up to the sorrow and the pain, and it made her an incredibly good source for this book, and it made my writing so much better than it was in all the other ways I had tried to write her story—because here I wasn’t telling the story from a distance. Making yourself vulnerable—by which I mean, able to be hurt and to be sad—makes you honest and real and that shows in your writing as much as in your relationships.
Second (and exactly the opposite of the first lesson): Be Invincible. Yeah, be vulnerable but also be invincible about the things you care about—unstoppable, unbeatable. After I’d written a draft of the book, I read an article in the online magazine, Gawker, which began like this: “Remember when you were in like sixth grade and your teacher asked you to read “Number the Stars” and you quietly thought to yourself . . . ‘jeez Louise, how many of these Holocaust books are there?” Well. A comment like that could stop a writer in her tracks. It’s like saying—you dummy, don’t you know the world already has as many books about the Holocaust era as it needs? But it didn’t stop me in my tracks. I was vulnerable in letting myself absorb the story, but invincible in believing that actually, the world *could* use my mother’s story. Maybe I was right and maybe I was wrong, but that is where a willingness to be vulnerable and a steeliness about being invincible led me on this project.
CM: Why did you decide to write The Year of Goodbyes in verse?
DL: I tried writing the book as a straightforward narrative. I really did. It didn’t work. The story seemed to have a will of its own, and practically insisted on channeling itself into the free (and blank) verse format. As you know, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes begins with one of the handwritten entries from the poesiealbum. Writing the narrative in free verse seemed to flow naturally from, and echo and honor, the poesiealbum entries. Also, one of the things I love about poetry is how much expression can be packed into an economical package. Each word matters so much. I wanted to write my mother’s story in that way—where each word mattered, the way each friend and relative mattered to her.
Another things about writing the book in free verse: Although people, including pre-teen people like mother at the time of the story, don’t walk around talking and thinking in poetry, I do think that free verse is good at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions. It’s urgent and attentive. It creates rhythms, and then changes the rhythms, like a heartbeat that quickens, and then calms, in the face of danger.
Finally, I’ll point out here that the story is told in the first person—the reader is in the head of my mother as narrator. My intention was to make the reader feel as close as possible to the tension, emotions, and events experienced by my mother as a pre-teen. I wanted the reader to experience this real-life person as someone with a young person’s voice. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable doing this if I had not worked in close collaboration with my mother. But I was lucky enough to have her.
I didn’t write The Year of Goodbyes the way I did for the sake of novelty. I just tried to find the most immediate and accurate way to depict my mother’s last year under the Nazi regime, which in turn, I hoped, would illuminate the shared experience of others who have been persecuted.
CM: Was it easier or more difficult to write the story in verse?
DL: Weirdly, wonderfully easier. I struggled for a long time to write something else. When I turned to verse, the story unfolded.
CM: What was your research process like?
DL :A good answer to this very important question would require another blog post entirely! I’ll just say that I am grateful for my legal training and career. When I was an associate at the D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale), I developed good research skills, really picky, skeptical research skills. Working as a lawyer instilled in me the notion to keep digging, to make sure I don’t draw conclusions before they’re warranted. You don’t have to be a lawyer or go to law school to develop these skills, of course! I’m just giving credit where credit is due.
CM: Is there any advice about writing you would like to pass on to aspiring writers?
DL: Read. Read a lot. Not so you can imitate the writing you like, but so you know what you like, and what you don’t.
CM: What would Jutta want people today to remember about about WWII?
DL: My mother died in 2013, but I know what she would say because she was asked this question many times when she spoke about her experience and when we did presentations about The Year of Goodbyes. She would want people to remember that an event like the Holocaust can happen again. She would want people to remember that demonizing others, scapegoating a minority, refusing to acknowledge the humanity of people who don’t look like you, speak like you, or worship like you—these are all ingredients for the rise of demagogues and their willing followers who would rather blame The Other for their problems, or their nation’s problems, than look for thoughtful and rational solutions.
Debbie Levy writes books—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—for people of all different ages, and especially for young people. Before starting her writing career, she was a newspaper editor with American Lawyer Media and Legal Times; before that, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale). She has a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and a law degree and master’s degree in world politics from the University of Michigan. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Rick Hoffman. Theyhave two grown sons. Besides writing, she loves to kayak, boat, and fish in the Chesapeake Bay region, swim, bowl duckpins, and tramp around the woods. And, of course, she loves to read.
Find more information about Debbie, The Year of Goodbyes, and her other books on her website.
CM: Tell us about your Siblings zine! What is a zine? Who are the artists?
Angela: Our zine is a collection of illustrations by different artists, all drawn around the theme of fictional siblings. The artists are a mixture of professionals and hobbyists, some of whom we’ve worked with before, and some who we’ve only gotten to know during this project.
Andy: A zine’s usually a small self publication of organized content, which can be almost anything from photography and literature to fanart.
What inspired the theme of your zine “Siblings”?
Angela: I don’t think sibling relationships are celebrated enough in fandom culture! A lot of fan attention is focused on romantic relationships, so I was really keen on celebrating something else that just as many people identified with.
Andy: What Angela said – as much as I adore shipping like the next person, it always made me sad to see non-romantic relationships glossed over. The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson & The Olympians, Harry Potter and the Avatar universe are prime examples – as I made my way through those fandoms, I noticed the huge focus towards shipping despite the sibling relationships being equally, if not more so, pivotal to the storyline. Whilst I’m not going to say one kind of relationship is more important than another, I just thought it’d be nice to bring the focus onto siblings for once.
Sibling relationships interest me a lot, too – they can encompass everything from jealousy, hatred, teamwork, rivalry, support and more! Whatever the nature of said relationship, there’s always a lot of history behind why it is the way it is (such as Thor/Loki and Zuko/Azula) and that’s something I enjoy exploring. A character’s backstory is important!
CM: Who are some of your favorite fictional siblings?
Angela: I adore the Weasleys! I always wanted to be a part of a large family like Ron’s, and the way they were written made me feel completely at home.
Andy: Holden and Phoebe Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I could write an entire essay on why I love their relationship so much, but I’ll spare you my rambling, haha. I also love the Black sisters from Harry Potter (I wish the series was about them, tbh) and, on a totally indulgent level, Hikaru and Kaoru Hitachiin from Ouran High School Host Club. They’re ridiculous, but you have to love them.
CM: Do you have a memory with your own siblings that inspired you during this process?
Andy: For sure! It’s partly the reason why I wanted to make this book in the first place. My relationship with my brother has changed in many ways over time, but fundamentally he’s still one of my best friends and I love him to bits. We have so many in-jokes and banter. I couldn’t name one particular memory, but it’s more all the key moments and habits we’ve had growing up – be they good or bad. Family holidays and countless car journeys together account for a lot! You don’t necessarily realize it growing up, but now that I’m a young adult, I’m so grateful for all the fun we had over the years.
CM: Do you have a particular piece that you’re really excited about sharing, by you or another artist?
Angela: I really love Kiernan’s piece with the Simpson siblings. It’s bright and vibrant and a perfect interpretation of the theme!
Andy: All of them! Every piece is my favourite for one reason or another, be it the artists’ ability to tell a narrative or simply something more technical like their use of lines and colour. If I had to pick a couple of faves, I’d definitely say the opening spread by Linus just because it’s so poppy and bright, and Cynthia’s for its sheer beauty and simplicity. The closing illustration of the Osomatsu brothers is adorable too – I love Monica’s style so much.
CM: What forms or types of art are different contributors using?
Angela: Most of the pieces are digitally drawn and painted, although some artists have chosen to use traditional media too.
Andy: They’re all illustrations, but depending on the artist’s strengths there are pieces that are more comic/narrative based, and others that are more graphic/design focused.
CM: When do pre-orders close? Will the zine be available after pre-orders?
A: We’re planning to close them after July, and then do all the shipping in August.
CM: What do you hope your audience takes away from this project about the importance of siblings and/or art?
Angela: Really, I just want the readers to have fun with the book! The zine is about celebration of siblings, and I hope that readers are possibly inspired to create more fan works about their own favourite fictional siblings.
Andy: I’d like people to come away from it appreciating siblings relationships a bit more, whether it’s their own or in fiction.
Angela Tong is a 2nd year animation student from London, UK, specialising in Visual Development. When she’s not drawing, she can be found working with horses or watching reruns of the Last Airbender.
Andy Lee is a 2nd year uni student who draws a lot when she should be studying. If she’s not doing either of those things, she’s probably binge watching animated TV shows and anime.
Check out the Siblings Tumblr to learn more about Andy, Angela, and the other artists behind this incredible project! You can preorder your own copy HERE.
CM: How did you balance writing your first novel with getting your PhD in law at Cambridge University?
JM: I wrote most of Feeling Sorry for Celia very late at night. I didn’t have a computer then, so I would walk to the university computer room in the moonlight. Sometimes there would be other students working or chatting in there so it was like writing in the company of strangers. And if I needed inspiration I could eavesdrop on their conversations. When my PhD was finished, I spent a week in a cottage in Cornwall and finished the book.
CM: Did studying law influence you as a writer?
JM: I like the multiple layers of story behind cases, and I found legislation weirdly inspirational. It always seemed like a treasure hunt to me. Precision of language is hugely important in law (e.g. you would never say in a legal document that something was ‘weirdly inspirational’ or ‘hugely important’), and I think law helped me to think in a clearer and more structured way, which was good for my chaotic mind.
CM: Where did you get the inspiration for Feeling Sorry for Celia?
JM: When I was in high school, a friend of mine switched to a different school and we decided to keep in contact by writing letters to each other. We kept writing all through university, and we used to share secrets in our letters, and try to make each other laugh. We became very close as a result. (My friend wanted to be an artist so her letters were better than mine: they included beautiful illustrations.) (She is now a successful artist who exhibits her work all over the world.) So I liked the idea of a book about a female friendship that builds through letter-writing.
CM: Do you have a favorite character in the series? Who was the easiest point of view to write? The most difficult?
JM: I think Lydia is my favourite character because I like her edginess and her intensity. Emily and Bindy are both close seconds though, and those two were definitely the most fun to write. They just walked onto the page and started talking. I didn’t have to do anything.
Even though she was my favourite character, Lydia was sometimes the most difficult to write because I knew what was going on in her head, but I also knew she would never let anybody hear that: she would hide behind her persona. So I had to keep reminding myself not to give away what she was thinking.
CM: What is something you want readers to take away from your Ashbury/Brookfield series?
JM: I like it when readers write to me to say they’ve been sending letters to their friends since reading the books. But I didn’t realize that would happen when I wrote them. I was most interested in the importance, and beauty, and complexities of friendship, especially friendship between girls.
CM: Were you surprised by the success of Feeling Sorry for Celia? Did that success add pressure while you wrote your next book?
JM: I was so amazed to be published at all that I thought it must be an elaborate hoax. Even when the book was in the shops, I thought someone was playing a giant trick on me. I was still in this strange daze while I wrote the next book (The Year of Secret Assignments, which is Finding Cassie Crazy in Australia and the UK). Also, I was still working as a lawyer at that time so writing the book seemed more like a game I was playing in my spare time.
CM: When you first sent Feeling Sorry for Celia to agents in London, how did you handle those rejections, and what advice do you have for writers experiencing rejection from agents and publishers?
JM: I cried every time I got a rejection letter. It was ridiculous. But healthy! And then I tore the letters into tiny shreds. My advice for writers experiencing rejection is to cry a bit, because crying is healthy, like I said. I don’t know if I advise you to tear the letters to shreds because you might want to keep them to post pictures of them online when you are a huge success? But tearing them was a great, symbolic gesture and helped me leave them behind and move on to trying again.
CM: Did your time in Cambridge influence A Corner of White?
JM: I wanted to set A Corner of White partly in the real world and partly in the Kingdom of Cello. For the three years that I lived there, Cambridge was a magical place to me: gardens, trees, history, ghosts, strange traditions, strawberries-and-champage-while-punting-down-the-river, owls in trees, deer in the garden, and so on. So it seemed like the obvious location for a crack through to an imaginary kingdom.
CM: Was it easy or difficult to switch from writing contemporary fiction to fantasy?
JM: At first it was difficult. I read a lot of fantasy, and tried a lot of different approaches before I found my voice. And that only happened when I realized that I wanted to write contemporary fiction as fantasy: I mean, I wanted the characters to be as real and emotionally complex as I had tried to make them in my other books.
CM: Why do you frame much of your writing through the exchange of letters?
JM: It’s a strange addiction of mine. I don’t mean to do it, but letters keep turning up in my books. I think they give me the immediacy of first-person narrative at the same time as the control of an omniscient narrator. And I love the combination of intimacy and unreliability, especially when there are multiple, intersecting, unreliable correspondents.
CM: Do you have a favorite (or least favorite) book cover?
JM: I’ve liked them all. I think the first one I really loved was the Australian edition of I have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes because they used an antique picture of a hot air balloon from a tiny book I had found in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge. I also loved the atmospheric magic of the US edition of The Spell Book of Listen Taylor. But my new favorite is definitely A Tangle of Gold. The designer, Elizabeth Parisi, has used a photograph taken by Matt Molloy, who has stacked together hundreds of shots of a sunset. The picture is beautiful and looks exactly the way I imagine the Farms in the Kingdom of Cello during a Colour storm.
CM: Do you have a person you usually share your work with first?
JM: My sister, Liane Moriarty. I’m also usually her first reader. Another author sister, Nicola Moriarty, is also one of my first readers.
CM: What (fiction) books have shaped you as a writer and what did they teach you?
JM: My favourite books as a child included The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, and all the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers. They probably shaped me into the kind of writer who is obsessed with magic at the edges of reality. As an adult, the books of John Marsden, Carol Shields and Elizabeth McCracken were all turning points for me as a writer. When I read John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside, I was astonished at his ability to get into the head of a teenage girl. Then it occurred to me that I was once a teenage girl myself. At that point I’d started writing Feeling Sorry for Celia four or five times, and it still wasn’t working. I realized I’d been observing my teenage characters from a distance. Now I tried putting myself inside the heads of all the characters, and at last it came to life for me. And I love the Carol Shields and Elizabeth McCracken books for their verve and vitality, and for immersing themselves, unapologetically, in the lives and minds of women.
CM: What’s your favorite fairy tale?
JM: I don’t know, fairytales always make me feel so uneasy. People breaking rules and then getting punished. I get distressed when people break the rules, and I don’t believe in punishments. It seemed ridiculous to me that anybody should be expected to guess the name Rumpelstiltskin, I was very upset by the idea of Rip Van Winkle and the Sleeping Beauty missing out on so much life, and the idea of someone climbing up Rapunzel’s ponytail made my head hurt. Also, I was never one of those girls who dreamed of weddings and handsome princes so the pay-off was never enough for me.
If I could just take out pieces of fairytales, I like the idea of that gingerbread house with all the candy on it very much. And I’m keen on elves doing the work for me while I sleep.
CM: What do you like about writing young adult fiction that is different than writing adult fiction?
JM: I like young adults. They seem more honest, passionate, hopeful and complex than adults.
CM: How do you think you’ve grown as a writer after writing nine books?
JM: I expect I overthink things now. I’m trying to get back to the pleasure of invention with my latest books.
CM: Some of your siblings are also authors. Do you ever trade manuscripts? Would you ever consider collaborating?
JM: Two of my sisters, Nicola and Liane Moriarty, are also authors. We are very close, we definitely trade ideas and manuscripts, and we talk a lot about collaborating. I’m sure we will do something one day. We can get competitive about using family anecdotes in our writing.
CM: Is it difficult to balance being a mother with being an author?
JM: I just asked my 9-year-old if he thinks it’s difficult for me to balance being a mother and an author, and he said an emphatic, ‘No’. He seemed to find the question astonishing.
Sometimes I’m nearly finished a book and all I want to do is write, and that seems to be exactly when my son gets a bad cold and has to stay home from school. But often when that happens I find myself coming up with better ideas for the resolution of the book, and I’m glad I spent the day hanging out with the boy rather than writing. It’s also a perfect job because I can take the time to be with the boy when he needs me. I’m glad I’m not a lawyer any more.
CM: Do you ever worry that your son won’t grow up to be a reader?
CM: That’s a funny question, and yes! I do worry about that! But only because reading gives me so much pleasure and escape and I wouldn’t want him to miss out on that. On the other hand, some people lead perfectly happy lives without being readers, so it won’t be the end of the world if he isn’t. (So far he does love reading and it’s a beautiful thing to me, to see him lying on the couch, turning pages. I also like it when he reads when we’re out in a cafe and other people say to me, ‘Oh, how wonderful to see a child reading!’ Then I feel like a proud mother.)
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
JM: Read in all sorts of different directions, from poetry to history to science to sci-fi. And try writing in all sorts of different directions too.
CM: What do you think new writers need to know about publishing?
JM: Maybe that publishers cannot guarantee a book’s success, no matter how much they believe in the book.
CM: Do you have any novels planned for after the Colours of Madeleine series?
JM: I am working on a book about a girl whose parents left her with an aunt when she was a baby, so they could go away and have adventures with pirates. Now they have sent her instructions requiring her to deliver treasure to her ten other aunts. I’m also working on a novel for adults about a woman who signs up for a self-help course that promises to teach her to fly. And a new Ashbury-Brookfield novel about Emily’s younger brother, William.
Jaclyn Moriarty is the award-winning author of The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, The Ghosts of Ashbury High, The Spell Book of Listen Taylor, and the Colors of Madeleine trilogy. She grew up in Sydney, Australia, studied law at Yale and Cambridge, and then turned to writing. Jaclyn now lives back in Sydney with her little boy, Charlie. She is very fond of chocolate, blueberries, and sleep.
CM: When did you first become interested in writing?
LJ: Well, it’s not like I ever had a plan. I’ve just always loved to write. I kept journals from the age of 12, and corresponded for years with a couple of overseas pen pals. Out of college, I worked in a movie theatre and a bookstore —I could see movies for free, and take books home to read, if I was careful not to damage them! After a few months, I answered an ad in the local alternative weekly newspaper for a part-time film critic, dashing off a one-page review of some film I’d just seen. And I got the job — evidently because I was the only applicant who actually sent in something written!
Years later, I still have that job (I’m the full-time critic, now). I also reviewed books for the San Francisco Chronice for several years, as one of their many freelance stringers. And working in journalism has taught me plenty about deadlines, word count, editing, and compromise — all useful stuff to know when you start writing books.
CM: Why did you decide to write a Peter Pan story for adults?
LJ: I think the lure of eternal childhood is something that only appeals to children. As you start to grow up, move away from the home environment, and get to know yourself better, as your horizons broaden, the thought of being stuck in childhood forever would be horrible. It would for me, anyway.
And then, a few years ago, in my day job as a film critic, I was writing a review of a live-action Peter Pan movie. Of the actor playing Captain Hook, I wrote that he really made us feel the tragedy of an adult trapped in a world run by children. Instantly, a voice popped into my head—Hook’s voice—looking around the Neverland and telling me exactly what he thought about this so-called paradise for children. I hit “save” on my review, opened another doc, and started writing down everything he said. That’s when I decided this was a Neverland story that needed to be told!
CM: What drew you to Hook’s story in particular?
LJ: I’ve always loved Captain Hook better than Peter Pan, as a character. For one thing. he’s a lot funnier, and has better lines! Peter always reminded me of all the bratty little boys I went to school with, so I never really fell under his spell, even when I was a child myself. And besides, I’ve always had a thing for pirates!
CM: What was your favorite Peter Pan scene to translate into your own book?
LJ: The scene where I actually show the moment when Pan cuts off Hook’s hand — and how, and why it happens — was very powerful for me to write. And I think it’s a pretty stirring moment in the book. Besides that, I really enjoyed inventing a complete society of merfolk in their underwater Mermaid Lagoon — which is a part of the Neverland that J. M. Barrie never shows us!
CM: Who’s your favorite character in Peter Pan?
LJ: James Hook, definitely! His voice, talking in my head, telling his side of the story, is what set me on course to write this book. And boy, did I love setting the record straight! As I went along, I also knew that I wanted to write a love story for James, and I had a fabulous time imagining who that lucky woman would be, and why. My heroine, Stella Parrish, has her own story to tell, as well, and I wanted her to be a real match for James, in wit, spirit, and courage.
Maybe it would have been fun to write more of the book from her viewpoint, but James’ voice was so strong in my head, I just had to let him take over. But their scenes together, as their relationship deepens, was the most fun part of the story to write.
CM: Was it difficult to write about a story that people are so familiar with?
LJ: Surprisingly, no, because my view of the characters is so different from what people think they know about them. And, of course, I’m not telling the same story that Barrie told. My story is about what happens long after Barrie’s ends, and so I felt at liberty to create entirely new groups of pirates and Lost Boys, and fairies and Indians. Only Pan and Hook, ageless and eternal, remain the same.
CM: What are you some of your favorite (non-Peter Pan) fairytales?
LJ: I’m a big fan of Beauty and the Beast, which is the subject of my next novel. It will be my sort of twisted — well, let’s say unorthodox — retelling of the classic tale! I also loved the Alice In Wonderland and Oz books when I was a child. (Do those count as fairy tales?)
CM: What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you? The most fun?
LJ: Plotting, is definitely the most difficult! I usually come up with a great idea, and then I flesh out the characters and setting, and write a few scenes of dialogue with the characters talking to each other. And everything is all great, and then I think, oh, wait: now they have to do something!
The most fun for me is writing dialogue, for sure!
CM: How much of your books do you outline or plan before writing?
LJ: I never used to outline at all, which is why it took me so long to write a book. Just flailing away, hoping a story comes together by magic is not a good game plan! But once you get a book published, I’ve discovered, and you have a working relationship with an editor, he or she might ask you for a fiction proposal. (That is: a lengthy synopsis of the plot as a means of getting an idea approved — as opposed to having to write the whole book first!)
This is common in non-fiction; you can sell an idea for a book based on a proposal and a couple of chapters. But fiction writers, particularly first-timers, are usually asked to submit the entire book. So, while writing an outline/proposal is new to me, it makes so much more sense to actually know where the story is going!
Of course, if you start with a proposal, or any kind of outline, it’s not set in stone. Everyone knows that things will change in the writing process — the story may shift direction; characters will occur to you that you haven’t even thought of yet; entire subplots may be added, or subtracted. But as a general blueprint for themes, characters, action, setting, and, oh, yes, plot, a proposal is invaluable. Keep it short, and stay focused — I recommend 10 pages, or less. Save the details for writing the book itself.
CM: What was your querying/publishing process like?
LJ: Chaotic! I had a New York agent for my first novel, The Witch From the Sea, and while her agency sold the German-language rights immediately, she was never able to sell it to a US or British publisher. The German-language editions were gorgeous — hardcover, and trade paperback — but nobody I knew could read them, including me. My agent and I amicably parted ways, and it was another four years before I sold the book myself to a small, indie publisher in the US, and got a copy I could actually read!
I rewrote my query for Alias Hook dozens of times, sent it to scores of agents, then reworked the manuscript with two or three interested agents, each of whom, ultimately, declined to represent me. It was very disheartening. But I’d heard of an indie publisher in England, Snowbooks, that did not require you to submit through an agent, and finally, I was so weary of the whole process, I just thought, why not? I didn’t hear anything back for a long time, and so I thought it was just like sending a query to an agent who doesn’t respond if she’s not interested. Seven months later, I got an email telling me Snowbooks was going to publish the book!
Snowbooks offered no advance, and the royalties were not huge. But they did produce a good-looking book. And there were other perks: the publisher at Snowbooks knew an editor at Thomas Dunne Books in the US, and sent him my Hook manuscript. We chatted on the phone for about 20 minutes, and then he made an offer to publish Alias Hook in the US. They came out with a beautiful hardcover edition in 2014, and a paperback in 2015.
In the meantime, my editor at TDB showed my manuscript to an agent he knew — the intrepid Irene Goodman! She must be the only agent in NYC I had never queried (I’d read somewhere that she wasn’t interested in fantasy, which is what I thought Alias Hook was.) But in the end, she queried me, calling me up on a Sunday and offering to represent me. She also fell in love with my Beast book, which had been on the back burner, and sold it to Candlewick, which will be publishing it in Spring, 2017.
So, the moral is: a) Get your book out there, by any means possible! You only need one person to fall in love with it. And b) Never, ever give up!
CM: Do you have a favorite Peter Pan movie/book adaptation (other than your own)?
LJ: Well, the 2003 movie, Peter Pan, is the one that inspired me to write Alias Hook. (Thank you, Jason Isaacs!)
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
LJ: Keep reading: get inspired by books you love, and learn from the ones that don’t work for you. Keep writing: it doesn’t have to be perfect; the act of writing begets better writing, if you just keep at it. And never give up!
Lisa Jensen is a film critic and newspaper columnist from Santa Cruz, California. Her reviews and articles have appeared in many publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, where she reviewed books for 13 years. Her adult fantasy novel, Alias Hook, was published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2014. Her YA fairy tale fantasy, Beast: A Love Story, will be published by Candlewick in 2017. Her swashbuckling historical novel, The Witch From The Sea, was published in 2001.
TK: I got started in art at a very young age. It was one of few things that I was really passionate about, and something I knew I wanted to pursue as a career for as long as I can remember. Whenever adults would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d always say “a children’s book illustrator!” or “an artist!”. As far as education goes, my experience is pretty limited! As a kid I took a few painting classes, and last year attended a couple online lectures, but I never did go to art college. I work best at my own pace, and felt like art college just wouldn’t work well for me.
CM: Did you work other jobs before freelancing? What are some of the benefits and challenges of freelancing?
TK: Freelancing and running my Etsy shop are my first and only jobs, actually! I’m only just starting out in my career, so that may change, but as of right now it’s the only thing I’ve ever known. It definitely comes with many benefits and challenges, yes – being able to work from home and in my own time is something I really enjoy, but it also means keeping myself in line and making sure I don’t procrastinate and miss deadlines, or overwork myself and stress out.
CM: How did you develop your personal style?
TK: It was a long, loooong, never-ending process, and still is! I tried so many different styles and techniques before I even knew what I wanted my work to look like and represent. Once I finally decided that, it became easier to make stylistic decisions and develop it into what I wanted. I feel like developing my style was like building Frakenstein’s monster, in a way – I’d watch animated movie or look at illustrations and pick out certain things I liked about the faces or proportions, and try to make it my own and incorporate it into my art.
CM: What are some of your favorite things to draw?
TK: I just really love everyday people, like maybe a lady walking her dog or someone caught in the rain. I find simple things like that really charming and enjoyable to draw. Some of my favorite projects I’ve worked on are probably fanart pieces, or any time I get to draw plants and trees!
CM: What materials/programs do you use most often?
TK: Definitely Photoshop and my Wacom tablet. I use them almost every day, and they’re often my favorite materials to work with.
CM: What artists have had an influence on your work?
TK: Far too many to recollect! I’m really inspired by Laika films (The Boxtrolls is a favorite of mine), Renaissance paintings, and illustrators like Mary Blair and Claire Keane.
CM: Many of your pieces feature characters or elements from books. Do you often find inspiration in mediums other than art, and do you have any favorites (books or movies) that have influenced or encouraged your art?
TK: Yes, absolutely! I’m often inspired by books and films, as well as music, nature, and just people in general. There’s something about watching/reading my favorite film or book that just fuels my creative fire! Familiar stories like Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland are my favorite.
CM: Do you ever experience art block? If so, how do you deal with it?
TK: I’m sure every artist does at some point, and I’m definitely no exception! Whether it lasts a day or a week, I find the best way to get over it is to just draw my way through it. I try to work on small, un-intimidating pieces like flowers or small portraits.
CM: What is a style/medium/new art challenge you would like to try in the future?
TK: Some day I’d love to work with gouache or watercolor! I don’t work in traditional media very much, so I’d really like to conquer my fear of the paintbrush in the future.
CM: What are some of the most important lessons about art you’ve learned through your own experiences?
TK: Artists are often faced with a lot of decision-making, so I learned a lot about being independent and making my own artistic choices. I would often catch myself thinking things like “I’ve never seen that done before, I can’t do that” or drawing something a certain way just because it’s how someone else did it. I learned how to draw that way I would, not the way someone else would.
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
TK: Start where you are, learn all you can, and be determined! If you’re just starting out, don’t stress about developing a style – start with learning the basics, with anatomy, form, and color. Challenge yourself and set artistic goal! Be persistent, and don’t get discouraged!
Taryn is an American artist currently living in Colorado and working as a freelance illustrator. Outside of art, her hobbies include reading, blogging, and obsessing over her fandoms.