Interview with Author Debbie Levy

YOGcover-largeCM: 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:

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.

dl_about_1Debbie 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.


Adeline and Elise By Laurel Burlew


Far away, tucked behind the mountains of Ramun and bordering the Zendain forest, there sat a kingdom named Aldea. It flourished under the rule of the wise King Florian and his kindhearted wife, Queen Jada. They were beloved by all, and the people of the kingdom greatly despaired when the King and Queen were taken from them in sickness. Left behind to rule was their only son, Henry. Though only twenty years of age when he ascended to the throne, King Henry dedicated his life to serving his kingdom and sought to find a bride who could rule alongside him.

He searched far and near, and met every eligible princess from the east to the west. Yet the King found no one suitable as a bride. Giving up his quest, Henry returned to his kingdom and decided he would rule it on his own.

Now, there lived in the kingdom two sisters who were very poor. The eldest, eighteen-year-old Adeline, had taken care of her sixteen-year-old sister Elise since their parents had died when they were young. The two sisters worked for a seamstress, and though they had little in the way of money, they had each other. During work hours, Adeline and Elise would sing to pass the time. They had lovely voices, though the seamstress often praised Elise above her sister.

When they went home each night to their small cottage, which was shared with other families on either side and above them, the sisters would play on an old pianoforte that had been given to the family long ago. The neighbors often stopped to listen.

On the days when they did not work, Adeline and Elise walked to the library and brought home books of all sorts. Though they did not know the foreign languages of kingdoms nearby as many accomplished women did, they did know how to converse with the traders who came through the kingdom. And although they did not know how to dance fashionably in proper assemblies and balls, their father had taught them at a young age to waltz beautifully.

When it reached Adeline’s ears that the King was in want of a wife, an idea sparked in her mind. The law of their kingdom stated that if the King could not find a wife among the noble women, he could choose a woman from among those in his kingdom. Knowing this from the many books she read over the years, Adeline devised a plan.

Early one morning, she arose and went out before the sun had risen. She walked quickly and made it to the palace gates a little after the golden sun had risen over the peaks of the Ramun mountains.

“I wish to see the King,” She told the guards who stood watch.

“No peasants see the King unless summoned!” They replied.

Adeline was not in a mind to let anyone dissuade her. She left, but she came back the next morning at the same time.

Again, she said, “I wish to see the King.” And again the guards sent her away.

She came back a third time and asked to see the King. But once again, she was sent away. Adeline went to the palace gates every morning for two weeks. The guards became perplexed and asked why she wanted to see the King; she only replied that it was urgent business. On the fourteenth day, the guards were so curious that they decided to let her enter the gates.

“Surely,” one said to the other as she approached the palace in the early morning light, “she is not dangerous at all. Indeed, I feel as if I know her now. She wishes to see the King—why not let her in and see what happens.”

Adeline walked into the grand palace, welcomed by a double door entrance. She came into the magnificent foyer and was stopped by another guard. “Why are you here?” he asked, his large frame filling her view.

“I am here to see the King.” Adeline replied. She was sent away by the guard, and as she left through the gates she waved goodbye to the two guards who let her in.

“That’s it,” they said to themselves, “she will not come back now.”

She did, however, return the next day, asking to see the King. The guards at the gate let her in once more, but she was turned away by others. Day after day, she returned when the golden sun shone brightly on the palace. The guards at the gate admired her persistence and began to advocate for her, hoping she would be allowed to see the King. Servants of the palace took notice of her and hoped that she could, one day, see the King.

Many attendants and maids wondered why she wanted to see the king. Adeline became a great mystery and source of curiosity among the palace staff, and nearly everyone knew who she was. A month after she began setting foot in the palace, the King heard of her. One bright morning, he requested that she be brought before him when she came to the palace. The guards of the gate, who had become friends to her, met her with smiles on their faces.

“The King has requested to see you this morning, Adeline,” one of them said, the other grinning from ear to ear.

Adeline’s smile spread from the center of her heart outward, and when she smiled it was so radiant that one of the guards felt as if she were the sun. As the young woman passed through the gates, he hoped with all his heart that she would find what she was looking for.

She was led through the grand palace and brought into the throne room, where the King received guests. Adeline’s heart sped, but she maintained her composure. She smoothed out the fabric of her skirts and straightened her auburn bun atop her head, taking in a deep breath before the doors swung open.

All was silent as she walked through the hall of the throne room, up to the seat of the King. Adeline curtseyed to the ground, bowing her head and spreading her skirts out.

“Please, stand,” the king said after a moment’s silence. She lifted her head and stood up.

Adeline looked into the eyes of the ruler, which were as golden as the morning sun she had come to know so well. “Your majesty,” she said, nodding her head once more.

“I have heard much of you, and I am curious about you. Tell me your name.”

“My name is Adeline, your majesty,” she replied.

“Why is it, Adeline, that you have come to see me? I hear from my advisor that you have come every morning for the past six weeks. You have your chance now—please, speak.”

Adeline took in a deep breath. The King tilted his head, waiting. “Your majesty, I join with all of the kingdom in mourning over the loss of the late King and Queen, your parents, over a year ago. They were the kindest and wisest of rulers, truly loved by every subject. You stepped into this role at a young age, but have demonstrated a knowledge and discernment that surpasses your years. I have heard of your quest to find a suitable bride, searching near and far—but to no avail. I have come to suggest to you a very suitable bride, one who is loving and kind and accomplished.”

The King raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Ah, I see. And tell me, Adeline, who is this woman you suggest I marry? You?” he asked, tugging at his short, dark beard.

She smiled, shaking her head. “No, your majesty. The woman I am speaking of is my younger sister.”

“I see,” he nodded. “And why is it that your sister is not here, Adeline? Why could she not come herself?”

“Because she is only sixteen, your majesty. She is not yet old enough to be presented in court, and because of this she cannot come before you now. But she will be seventeen in a year, and I would like to present her to you then. If, of course, you have not found a bride by then.”

The King sat back, seemingly intrigued. Adeline continued.

“I do not think your majesty would care to simply meet her a year from now—that would not do. I propose that I come to you every day for the next year, and each day I will tell you about her. You may decide every day if I should return or not. If you decide that you do not like what you hear, or if you meet another woman who is better suited to you, I will be dismissed and will never return. If, however, you would like to know more, I shall come back the next morning and tell you about her,” she paused before adding, “What do you say to this, your majesty?”

Tension filled the room from the golden laced ceiling, down the pillars, to the polished marble floor upon which Adeline stood. The King tapped his fingers on the arm of his throne. There was no harm, he thought, in hearing about this young woman in his kingdom. If he met a woman who was well suited for him, he would not need to hear of her again—and if, for some reason, she peaked his interest, it would do no harm to learn more about her. It may even be quite interesting. Adeline intrigued him, and he decided he would allow her to return the next day.

Upon hearing the good news, Adeline’s smile spread through all around her, and the King found it to be quite infectious when he realized he, too, was smiling. Adeline curtseyed once more, and began to make her way out of the large hall.

“Wait!” the King called, standing up and advancing a few steps. “Are you not going to tell me anything about her today?”

Adeline turned. “Her name is Elise.” With that, she left.

Adeline returned to the town and went immediately to work. She met Elise there, who noticed that Adeline was up to something. The elder sister was decidedly quiet, however, and would not say a word about where she had been. Early the next morning, she woke up and headed again to the palace. The guards let her in, and she was greeted with fondness. She entered the throne room, where the King was waiting.

“Your majesty,” she began, “what would you like to know about my sister today?”

He thought for a moment. “Tell me what she looks like.”

Adeline nodded. “My sister Elise has beautiful eyes—green, like the color of grass that shines beneath the morning dew. Her hair is long, and in the sunlight it looks like honey. When not braided, it flows down to her waist in soft curls. And she has the fairest of skin, as many often tell her.”

The King seemed satisfied with what he had been told, but there Adeline stopped.

“Well, go on,” he urged. “What else?”

“I am afraid that is all I can tell you today,” she replied.

He sat back in his throne, sighing. “As you wish. Come back tomorrow.” Adeline nodded, curtseying before exiting the room.

The next morning, the King was once again in his throne room, eagerly awaiting her entrance. Adeline moved to curtsey, but he waved a hand, stating that a gesture so formal would not be needed every day. They were, after all, to see each other every day. He did not want to waste time on formalities when they could be speaking. Adeline laughed, noting how eager the king had become, but acquiesced.

Adeline told the king of her sister’s many accomplishments—in singing, drawing, dancing, reading, sewing, playing the pianoforte. During the following weeks, Adeline’s conversations with the king grew longer and longer. He became increasingly interested in the lives of the two sisters who lived in his kingdom.

One day, Adeline was taken down an unfamiliar corridor, to the other side of the palace. She was escorted through a large carved door, behind which lay a garden more beautiful than anything she had ever seen. She was not sure she could call it a garden—the word was too plain, too simple. Trees of every kind laced the edges of the oasis, and flowers carpeted the ground. Golden-laced cobblestones peeked through the emerald grasses, glimmering in the sunlight. Butterflies and hummingbirds fluttered through the air, and a stream flowed through, the sound of the trickling water echoing like a beautiful melody.
She stepped through the garden, enchanted with everything she saw, and came up to the king. “Your majesty,” she said as the king turned to her.

His golden eyes sparkled. “This place is my sanctuary,” he said, “I come here when I cannot think…or when I think too much. Or, when my advisors are getting on my nerves.” He chuckled. “Come to think of it, I come here often. It is so—”

“Peaceful,” she finished, looking up at the willow tree next to them.

The king nodded. “Precisely.”

“Your majesty, what would—”

“I grow tired of hearing people call me that,” he said, holding a hand up. “It seems that no one can address me in any other way nowadays.”

“That is perhaps because you are the king.”

“Yes, quite so.” He nodded to himself, looking around the garden. “But I cannot stand being only called ‘your majesty’ and ‘sire,’ because I feel as if one day I will forget what my own name is. Please, from now on, address me as Henry. That is my name, and I would like for a friend to call me that.”

“Do you consider me to be your friend?” Adeline asked, tilting her head. Her hair, which had been pulled back into a ponytail, fell across her shoulders.

He smiled, with one half of his mouth curving up more than the other. “Yes, I would like to say we are friends. I will be seeing you for many more weeks, and it would feel odd if you only ever addressed me as ‘your majesty.’ Please, address me as you would a friend.”

She nodded. “As you wish, y-…Henry.”

The king broke out into a grin that outshone the entire landscape. He was so full of joy that Adeline did her best to soak up the moment. They remained silent for a few seconds, then Adeline remembered something.

“What would you like to know about Elise today, Henry?”

His expression changed. “Ah, yes. I was out here watching the sunrise this morning, looking over all the flowers.” He walked through the garden, Adeline joining him. “I wondered which her favorite is.”

Adeline thought of all the days she and her sister ventured out to the fields surrounding the city. They walked among the hills and picked flowers to make crowns and wreaths. There was one Elise always reached for.

“Her favorite is the sky flower,” she said, pointing to a delicate blue one a few steps away. The small flower had perfectly sculpted petals that mirrored the color of the sky above.

Henry nodded. “My mother always loved that flower.”

“Perhaps that is a sign,” Adeline suggested. They chuckled.

“What about you, Adeline? What is your favorite flower?”

She described a fiery orange and red flower that was hard to find; the dragon wildflower, which always stood out to her amongst the green grass. It was then that Adeline saw the sun and realized how long she had been there.

“I must go!” She gasped, heading toward the palace door.

“Why, what is the matter?”

“I am late for work!”

“Work?” Henry asked, caught quite off guard. “You work?”

She stopped, spinning to look up at him. “Of course; my sister and I work for a seamstress. And I am afraid I have been late for the past week. I cannot be late again—I must leave right away!” With that, she left.

“Adeline, what is going on with you?” Elise asked one evening, as they walked home from work. “I wish you would tell me.”

“All in due time.” Adeline replied, looking to the vast summer skies. She could already feel the air changing, bringing in a new season.

The summer warmth faded and the world spun, bringing a crisp chill into the air. Adeline answered questions about Elise’s favorite books and music choices, childhood memories, and thoughts on the world. She was a good storyteller, Henry noted one day, as she perfectly described the day Elise scraped a knee jumping from one side of a stream to another and fell into the water.

The weather turned colder and snow blanketed the earth. Adeline found it difficult to make it to the palace on some mornings, yet she never missed a day. During the cold months, her conversations with Henry became longer and she found herself feeling quite at home speaking with him every day about life. All of those who worked in the palace had become like good friends to her, and she cherished the conversations she had not only with the king, but also with the others.

Seemingly as quickly as it had come, winter retreated into a corner and spring began to shine through, bringing warmth back into the land and making the long walk wet from rain instead of icy from snow. On the first day of spring, Henry asked if Adeline would play the pianoforte and sing one of the songs she told him Elise knew well, and though quite nervous—for, she had only ever played for her sister—she agreed. She chose a valley song that she and her sister both learned as children. Her hands felt shaky and her fingers slipped on the ivory keys a few times, yet the king told her she played—and sang—beautifully. Adeline assured him how much better it would have been if Elise had performed.

On her way to the palace one morning not too long after, Adeline slipped on the road and scraped her knee badly on a rock hidden beneath the mud. When she arrived at the palace, the staff was shocked to see her leg bloodied and took her immediately to be bandaged. The king insisted that she borrow a carriage for the ride home that day.

Adeline assured him she was quite alright, and after a short conversation about Elise, she left with a limp. From a window in the palace, the king watched as his friend traversed down the muddy path. He stopped himself three times from rushing out to help her, for she had a stubborn disposition and refused any assistance. Adeline fully recovered from her injury a short time later, though Henry insisted she would have healed quicker if she had not made the walk each day and let him instead make a carriage available for her.

Shortly thereafter, Adeline realized that nine months had passed since their first meeting, and she was disheartened when she thought about their time as friends coming to a close. Yet, she reminded herself that it was all in the interest of her sister.

“Do you think I will like her, Adeline?” Henry asked one fine morning, only a week before the year was up. They sat under a large willow tree and listened to the stream that ran in front of them.

Adeline turned to look at the man beside her, and realized her heart was torn in two. “Yes, I think you will like her very much,” she decided to say. How could anyone not love Elise dearly? She was most accomplished at many things, and had a heart of gold. Which, Adeline told herself, would do well in such a palace.

“I hope we will remain friends through the years, no matter how things turn out,” he said absentmindedly. Adeline left the palace that day without saying much more.

The last week passed, and Adeline suddenly found herself waking up on the morning of her sister’s seventeenth birthday. The sky outside was grey and dismal, the way her heart had become. The last of the evening stars was still shining, though not as brightly as Adeline had remembered it being in the past year.

She went to her sister and gently woke her up. “Put on your best dress, and let me do your hair.” Elise, rubbing her eyes sleepily, did as instructed. Adeline braided her sister’s hair and pinned it back, framing the young face nicely.

The two set out, one silently following the other. The sound of shoes clicking on the cobblestone streets was all that protruded the silence. Elise struggled to keep up with her sister as they passed the city and began up the long path.

“Where are we going?” Elise asked, breathless. Her sister would not reply, but kept her eyes forward. Adeline slowed down to a gentle walk, and the incline was not so bad at the time so Elise felt like she could talk.

“I do not know the reasons why you determine yourself to make this awful walk all alone. I don’t know where you go, or why. You have been absent from work many mornings, and have left me alone much of the time. You haven’t noticed the changes in me in this past year, so I will have to tell you what you have missed in my life.”

“Oh, sister,” Adeline said rather gingerly, “I wish you would be quiet. We are almost there. Please, be patient.”

That was when Elise looked up and realized they were in front of the palace gates. Two ominous guards peered down at the women, and Elise thought of retreating behind her sister. But after a moment’s silence, one of them broke into a grin.

“Adeline! You don’t look so well this morning. Probably cause of this weather, y’know? Today hasn’t been the best day for spring, what a shame. Who’s this you’ve got with ya? This is a shock, a real shock! Ain’t it, Teddy?”

Teddy, the other guard, replied, “Aye, it is indeed! She looks an awful lot like Adeline, don’t she? Adeline, is this your sister? She must be! Look at them—the very same face structure! Course, this one’s a little shorter and plumper, and she’s got different eyes.”

“Her hair isn’t as dark as Adeline’s, either, I reckon.”

The two men continued to talk, and Adeline passed through the gates after saying ‘good morning,’ greeting them like friends. Elise hesitated, looking up at the towering palace and realizing she was not prepared for whatever lay within.

“You know those men?” she asked, catching up with her sister.

“They are my friends,” Adeline replied.

The doors were opened for Adeline before she reached them, and Elise’s mouth hung open. Surely her sister could not have taken on a job at the palace—could she? Everyone they came across seemed to know her so well.

“Carslile,” she called to a man who was carrying a tray—before she said anything else, the man told her she would find “him” in the old library. She nodded and walked up the grand staircase without any hesitation.

“I must tell you, dear sister, our lives may very well change this day. I have been coming here, to the palace, every day for the past year.”

“I…gather that much,” Elise replied, trying to keep up.

Adeline nodded, looking at her sister. “I have been meeting with the King.”

“The King? But…That’s impossible!”

“It is quite true. I have come here each day to tell him about a woman he may marry.”

“Oh?” Elise asked, “You know a noblewoman?”

“It is no noblewoman,” Adeline said, “It is you.”

“Me?!” Elise stammered, nearly tripping. “I—I don’t understand!”

The sisters came to the top of the staircase, where Adeline took Elise’s hands in her own. “I realized some time ago that you have grown into a very accomplished young woman. I know of no eligible bachelors in our society of friends, and though I may never marry, I should like to see you happy and well taken care of.

“Last year I came to the palace, requesting to see the king. When allowed an audience with him, and I told him of your many talents, your kindness, your joy, and of the very nature of who you are. He has been getting to know you through me for the past year, waiting until you may be presented publicly. Now that time has come, and I am to officially introduce you. The King is the kindest of souls I have ever met and the best of men—a person could not be made better, even if the Creator tried for a thousand years.

“I do not know what will happen today, but the King may very well fall in love with you at first glance. I do not expect you to do the same, only consider what your future could be, if he offers. If not, no harm will come because your heart has not been entwined to his.”

The sisters reached the door to the library and Adeline sighed. She took one more look at her sister, then boldly walked into the presence of the King.

“Your majesty,” she addressed him, which caught Henry off guard, “may I present my sister—Elise.”

Elise, still quite shocked, stumbled, but recovered and curtseyed. Henry crossed the room and bowed. The three spent nearly an hour in the library, Adeline only moderately listening to the conversation between the King and her sister.

She finally realized someone was speaking to her, and turned to see a delicately smiling Elise. “Are you ready? We must go to work.”

Adeline nodded, rising from the couch. “Yes, of course.” She looked at Henry, holding back tears that so desperately wanted to escape, and curtseyed. “Thank you for seeing us, sire.”

Henry nodded in return. He looked at the sisters, then addressed Elise. “Would you be so kind as to return tomorrow morning, Elise? I have something I would like to speak to you about privately.” He glanced at Adeline, adding, “If your sister does not mind.”

“Not at all,” Adeline replied. Elise accepted the invitation, and the sisters departed.

Adeline realized as the sisters walked home that her heart had indeed been torn into two. Yet, she determined, she would be happy for her sister, as she had always planned. Adeline heard nothing her sister said the entire day, but devoted herself to work instead. The sisters went to sleep without much conversation between them, and in the morning Elise arose early and left Adeline alone in the house.

She came back after some time, smiling as if the sun had shone for the first time in her entire life. Needing to be on her own, Adeline walked among the hills behind the city that afternoon, letting the gentle breeze catch her up and take her where it desired. When she returned home, the sun had just dipped behind the mountains and a blue hue was blanketed over the earth. Elise was at the old pianoforte, playing gleefully. Adeline was not feeling up to joining her in a duet, even after Elise implored, and went straight to bed instead.

When morning came, the sisters readied themselves for work as usual. But before they had even had their breakfast, a knock came on the door. Adeline answered the door, with Elise only just behind her.

“You have been summoned to the palace.” Raymond, one of the King’s servants, announced. Adeline noticed a grand carriage waiting behind him.

She turned to her sister, saying, “Get your coat on, and don’t keep the man waiting.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, Adeline,” Raymond returned, a smile widening across his face, “but your sister isn’t the one who’s been summoned. You have.”

Adeline looked at him, then back at her sister, and back at Raymond. A confused look wrinkled her forehead. “I do not understand. Elise is not summoned?”

Raymond shook his head. “No, you have been summoned. Best not to keep the King waiting, eh?” he said, gesturing for her to get into the carriage.

Adeline felt her sister hug her and usher her into the carriage, and before she had time to think she was at the palace, being escorted into the grand castle. She was instructed to follow one of the servants, who took her down corridors and hallways she knew all too well. The great wooden door was opened for her and she looked out at the garden, which was brimming with life and color. She stepped out into the green meadow, being told he was in his usual spot. The door closed behind her and the only sounds that invaded Adeline’s thoughts were those of the wind rustling through the trees, birds harmonizing among the branches, and the stream laughing as the water swirled and ran downhill.

The King was standing under the golden sun, his back toward Adeline. She walked through the garden, each step heavier than the last. She did not know why he had called her there, other than to thank her for introducing him to his sister. Perhaps, because she was the only living relative, he would ask her approval of the match, as was tradition in all marriages in Aldea.

When she neared him, he turned to face her. Adeline’s heart nearly stopped beating, for she saw on the King’s face a look that she hadn’t recognized before. It was one of kindness, and softness, but also something else she could not quite place.

“Hello,” he smiled, closing the gap between them.

“Hello, Your Majesty,” Adeline curtseyed, feeling quite awkward and out of place in addressing him as such.

Henry must have felt the same, for he was taken aback and furrowed his brow.

“Why such formality, Adeline? I thought we were friends.”

“We are, sire,” she replied, “That is, I would always enjoy your friendship. But with your upcoming announcement of an engagement—”

“Ah, yes.” He smiled to himself, as if lost in a thought. “Adeline, I would very much like it if you would call me Henry, always.”

She nodded her head. “Of course. As you wish.”

He smiled, but his brows turned up as if he were trying to communicate something she could not understand. “Did your sister tell you of our conversation yesterday?”

She shook her head in response. “I do not believe so, your m—Henry.”

“Well, then I shall have to relay it to you.” He took in a breath, looking up at the blue skies that loomed overhead. Clasping his hands behind his back, he looked down at the grass upon which he stood. “I will not be marrying your sister Elise.”

Adeline was shocked, taken aback for a moment. “Oh.” She managed to say after a few moments of silence.

“She is all of what you told me before—she is charming, kind, intelligent, and a well-rounded young woman. But I am afraid neither she nor I felt any sort of connection, and I found after the two of you left my palace the other day that I already had made a decision to marry another, in my heart.”

Adeline felt the blood leave her face, and her heart sank to the pit of her stomach. “I see. I am very happy for you.” The words came out, though she could not make herself feel any joy in them.

“You are?” he asked, turning to her. “You do not even know who it is I have decided to marry. What if I have chosen a conniving, evil woman who wants me for my money and power?”

Adeline smiled a little, shaking her head. “You are a wise man. You would not marry a woman like that.”

“What if I decided to marry a girl with no brains, who couldn’t tell her fork from her spoon and could not rule alongside me?”

Again, Adeline shook her head. “You would not marry a woman like that, either.”

Henry looked at her, his golden eyes alive with more sunlight in them than the sun itself. “You are quite right. I do not desire to marry a woman like that at all. I have thought long and hard about it, because I wanted to ensure the best decision for my kingdom as well as for myself. And what I found is that the woman I love—the woman I hope would do me the honor of being my wife and the queen to this kingdom—is nothing at all like the woman I was expecting.”

Adeline remained silent, unsure of his meaning.

“She is more selfless than any other being I have known. Though she can be quite stubborn at times, it is always for the right cause. She knows and loves those around her equally, and makes no distinction between the classes. All of my staff loves her dearly, as does her family. In short, she is the most beautiful and accomplished woman I have met, and I know that none other would be capable of being queen as she.”

Adeline nodded her head, holding back tears. “I look forward to your endless happiness, and I would very much like to meet your queen one day.”

Henry smiled. “Adeline,” he said. “It should be no mystery to you—you are the one of whom I speak. The woman I wish to have as my wife and partner, the queen of Aldea. That is, if you will have me.”

Adeline opened her mouth to speak, but no words came forth. Henry found himself down amongst the grass, on one knee, offering to her a ring that shone brighter than any other that Adeline had ever seen. Her heart all at once was completely mended, and more than that, it was overfilled with joy. She accepted without hesitation, and was immediately embraced by the man she loved so well.

Henry wished to summon Elise to the palace at once, that she might join in celebrating the engagement of her sister. He had spoken with her the day before about it, and Elise encouraged him to waste no time in speaking to Adeline, for she was truly happy for them.

When the King announced his engagement to the kingdom, his subjects were delighted. The palace was full of joy and merriment, and all of Adeline’s friends could not have been happier for her. Arrangements were made for the wedding and in only a few weeks they were King and Queen. The kingdom rejoiced, for the King had found a queen who was lovelier and more gracious than any the kingdom had ever known, and the two ruled as one. The Queen was loved by all, especially her sister, who happily married two years later.

King Henry and Queen Adeline ruled for many years; under them, the kingdom prospered as it had never before. And truly, they lived happily for the rest of their days.


IMG_4907Laurel Burlew has been a writer for the majority of her lifetime. Though her focus is in speculative fiction, she has written in a variety of genres and constantly strives to push herself outside her comfort zone, including writing this fairy tale. When not writing, Laurel can usually be found with a book in her hands or at a piano. She is currently studying English Literature at her local university. You can follow her on Instagram @laurelanne.b and find more of her writing on her blog at

Interview with Author Jaclyn Moriarty

feelingsorryceliaCM: 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.

cornerwhite.jpgCM: 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.

tanglegoldCM: 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.

bedpancakesCM: 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.

a-jaclynmoriarty.jpgJaclyn 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.

Interview with Author Lisa Jensen

aliashookCM: 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!

LJ By ST 2014
Photo by Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel

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.

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Interview with Artist and Illustrator Adam S. Doyle

CM: What is your background/education in art?

AD: I went to art school. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid to late 90s, then went out in the world and worked in L.A. for a while. Eventually I felt like I was getting distant from illustration, which is what I went to school for and what I love doing the most. So I went to grad school and went to New York and the School of Visual of Arts and got my master’s there. At both schools I had a really good time and learned a lot. So that was my formal education.

When I was a teenager I did some summer art classes at the local school, the Art Institute of Boston. My high school had a solid art program, which was Brooklyn High School. But even as a little kid it was always something that I did and was encouraged to do. I had a lot of support from my folks and friends, and it was the way I related to the world and learned about myself and my own thoughts and connected with people early on.

Lupus Liberalitas by Adam S. Doyle

CM: How did you get into illustration?

AD: There’s a couple ways of answering that, the technical side and the interest side. I’d begin by just saying that illustration was the thing I identified with, loving books, book covers, picture books, and reading. I read a lot, so that’s how illustration became the art that was a means to directly connect to people. But also it felt relevant because it addresses specific ideas. As wonderful and open ended as art can be, culturally speaking and emotionally and personal and all of that, illustration, for me, has a quality I identify with specific to fulfilling objectives—communicating a specific idea. In the case of books it’s communicating the essence of a story in one dimension. I like that. There’s a very tight framework, and within that there’s plenty of room to explore.

But on a technical side, it’s a long, slow process. When I got out of school I was sending out postcards to publishers and researching, going to libraries and bookstores and looking at magazines and books and who published that, and that looks cool, that looks like maybe they’ll like my stuff, and tracking down art directors. It takes a long time, and that slowly evolved with email. For me, that was the late nineties and early 2000s, and it became prevalent to have websites up and direct people towards that. Now everyone does that, and it’s a lot easier to shoot an image over to art directors and hope they’ll check it out. And that’s basically the common thing I had to do, annually, bi-annually sending out email cards and inviting people to check out my work.

These past couple of years I’ve sort of stopped reaching out because I was getting overwhelmed with work. That ebbs and flows, and it when gets quieter and I’ll poke back up. Because that’s the thing specifically about illustration as a career: there’s no security. You never know. You can get it into your head that this is it, I’ve really made it, and you’ll find out the next year that it’s not quite as busy. All that very familiar, at least for me, feeling of ‘will I be able to pull this off for another year?’

But you just stick with it if it’s your thing. That concern of making a living is significant, but it’s one of those things you have to decide and then go with. The time I made that decision ultimately was going from high school to college. This is something I really enjoy, it’s really important to me, but does it make sense to do this as a career? It seems like years and years of jobs—temping and art department work in the film industry, and all different kinds of jobs in the time you’re on your own and having to make ends meet. At some point I was able to stop doing that and focus on making images and paintings for illustration and galleries.

raven king
The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater, cover art by Adam S. Doyle

CM: When you’re illustrating for books and designing book covers, how much do you know about the story before you try to make these images that are going to represent the story?

AD: There are a couple of answers to that, too. The short answer is yes, that’s definitely what I prefer. Every time I get offered a job to do a book, one of the first questions I ask is can I read it. Sometimes that’s super easy, which is the best, when the art director says yes, I’ll send it to you. I read the whole thing and take notes and that’s when I am in the most grounded place.

Because here’s what happens sometimes as well: either it’s a brand new book or it’s still being written, so you can’t read it. Things come up where you can’t always read it and that makes things a little shakier. The art director will sometimes say this is what the story is about, or get you some kind of summary, which is okay. If that’s what you have to work with, you work with what you’ve got.

I’ve had the whole spectrum of experiences, where I’ve been able to read it and be grounded in knowing it. I’ve had times where the art director hasn’t read it, for one reason or another. Either they’re lazy—I’m not going to say that’s the case, maybe they can’t because they have too many projects—but then it’s a somewhat tricky situation. When you’re in different places where the author clearly knows what they’ve done, the illustrator has read the book so they know what’s going on, and the art director has a pretty good idea but just not too specific. So the best situation is when everyone is on the same page. The art director has read the book, the illustrator has read the book, everyone has read the book so they’re working from the same place. But it’ll happen when there’s a mix there, where not everyone is as informed as would be ideal, but often times there are good reasons where it’s a business and people are busy. That’s the long answer.

It’s really important if people are interested in doing books and book covers, you have to love books. You can’t just be a person who likes making pictures. The story is so important, so being familiar and understanding what the characters are about and the language is important. It’s not just knowing what it’s about, but it’s important to know how it’s written and the tone and the subtext and that stuff that’s in the words themselves. It’s all important. If you’re getting it right you’re being true to the characters and the story.

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The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, cover art by Adam S. Doyle

CM: Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve illustrated?

AD: I’ve had so many that have been great. The Raven Boys series I’ve been involved on, that’s been pretty terrific. [Maggie Stiefvater] is a really great writer, and it’s fun to be involved with something that’s so popular. And the characters are really solid, so I’ve enjoyed that a lot.

The Netrunner cards that I’ve been working on for a number of years now, that’s also been fun. It’s been a really interesting mix. That’s one of the things that’s fun about being an artist/illustrator is having access to so many different worlds. While The Raven Boys takes place in more or less the real world, though there’s a kind of magical quality to it, The Netrunner world is in cyber space. So that’s always fun to go from one world to another, to go into this dark, cyber digital battlefield. I like that place too.

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The Guns of Ivrea by Clifford Beal, cover art by Adam S. Doyle

There’s a cover I’m working on now that has been really challenging. It’s a sequel to a cover of a book, which I think is coming out next month. It’s called The Guns of Ivrea, which is a really fun, hard fantasy novel. It has magic and some old-timey monsters in it. The first cover I did I’m happy with, another great project where I was given full access to the story right as it came off the writer’s computer. And now I’m working on the sequel to it, and it’s totally my idea. It’s really tough, there’s a big battle scene in it, and I’ve been going through the text to find really specific details about armor and weapons and the emblems of the different armies—all the stuff I want to make sure I get right. Because while you can tweak stuff up later on, I want to get it as accurate as I can. I don’t really do a lot of big, complicated ensemble group images, so I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but trying to take it one step at a time. There are so many facets to this, and right now I’m focusing on trying to orchestrate a big battle. It’s great. I always like a challenge and not always doing the same thing, so any chance I get to do something a little different I definitely enjoy learning new things and trying to solve a new problem. But it’s also tough.

One other project is the branding of Mexi Kai. I moved out to New Zealand back in 2011 and was invited to create the imagery for a Pacific/Mexican food trucks company. I had a really short period of time to conceive of and craft the look of the company and template the art for the truck as it was being built. It was all new and challenging in scope, timeframe, and the stakes were high, but a rewarding experience.

Illustrating Fat & Bones and Other Stories was another enriching yearlong venture. I was hired to draw about 10 or so images and ended up doing many dozens. The art director gave me free reign with the artwork and once I figured out how to capture the creepy, gritty look and feel of the story, there were so many characters and moments I wanted to depict. It was fun to just run with it.

CM: What do you think is the hardest thing about illustrating a story? 

AD: I think it depends on the story. There isn’t one answer to that question. I think my experience has been that the hardest thing is being true to that particular story that you’re working on. There’s always balance between doing your own work that feels personal and distinctive, what’s generally referred to as style, but that’s a word I don’t really like using it at all. But doing what is really your own, and then fulfilling the needs of the story—that particular story and the voice of that author and that world. And finding the place where those two meet. If you can do both at the same time, then that’s the successful piece.

But we’re speaking entirely about the story and the illustration, and not at this moment the business stuff, because there’s all kinds of challenges that can come with that, with all these other people involved—marketing departments and all the money, deadlines, all that stuff. So we’ll put all that other stuff aside and talk about the story and addressing the story and making a compelling and very true image for it.

One of the things I notice that I do, if I can, is put everything on the cover if I can distill it down to an image that really captures it all. Then maybe touching on secondary themes on the back of the cover. With everything going more and more digital you see this a bit less, but when you hold the book in your hand you can see the back. We’re seeing less and less of that, but regardless, if I can, I cram in a second note on the back to give a fuller presentation.

So there’s distilling it all down to one image on the cover and then saying there’s another aspect or quality or detail and letting the back being the place where you continue that a bit more. I find that rewarding, if only for myself, even if it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t get seen much.

Solace Meadow by Adam S. Doyle

CM: Are there any books that are special to you or that you would love the chance to illustrate?

AD: Oh, totally. A book that has been something I’ve wanted to do, and I know where it belongs—it’s a Penguin book so I couldn’t just do my own version—is The NeverEnding Story. It would be really fun to do. I read it years ago, but I reread it recently and realized that it’s a book which is mostly known because of the movie, which was terrific—fun and visually imaginative—but that doesn’t really do anything for the book. And for a person who is a real devotee of literature, I would love to visualize that book because there are so many differences that really deserve to be realized from the text and not as comparisons to the movie, which is at this point thirty years old. I’ve done some sketches to kind of fantasize a little bit about it, so maybe sometime I’ll get a call to work on that, that’d be terrific.

One thing that’s been happening that I’ve noticed more is all these public domain books that have been published and are classics and have been out for a while. There’s places like Creative Action Network that do covers for these books, which is totally cool and legal, so I’ve been doing a little of that. This is just covers, not interiors, because there’s a bunch I would love to do interiors for as well, but it’s been nice to revisit some of my favorites and play around with what the covers would look like.

I just finished reading and doing a cover for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. With stuff like that, it feels kind of like a piggy back to make an image for something that’s already so substantial, but it feels good. I enjoy it.

There’s a lot more I’m not thinking of, like A Wrinkle in Time, Narnia. Narnia would be amazing. These are the kinds of books that really got me into reading and are so close to my heart, like the literary equivalent of Star Wars. They defined my childhood. Stuff like that would be really terrific to spend the time on.

There’s always the balance between doing projects for work because you need the money and it’s your career, and then there’s the stuff you want to do for yourself in terms of exploring as an artist and doodling to see what it might look like. There’s always a balance there. I have a handful of pet projects that probably won’t go anywhere and are things I’ll just put time into when I’m a little less busy, and then I’m busy I push them aside.

There’s a lot of stories out there that would be great to dedicate time to and realize in my own world.

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Pharus Spectrum

CM: A lot of your fine art features animals, and many feature certain animals predominantly than others—like foxes, wolves, ravens. Are there reasons why animals, or those animals, feature so strongly? 

AD: One of the reasons I really connect to illustration is because there’s a framework to respond to, and I like that. I’m not spinning in my own juices or my own tiny world. It forces me to adapt and address ideas outside of my own head. So when it comes to my fine art world, in a way this becomes a lot less explainable because so much of it is coming from a more emotional and comfortable place.

In terms of the animals, I really don’t know the answer besides that I’m a big animal lover and have always been more comfortable painting a fox than a person. It’s as simple as that.

Extrapolating from that, there’s the initial connection of us and animals as living beings. I really, as a human being, connect easily with them, both as pets and going out and traveling and seeing animals in the country or watching nature programs. Those are some of my favorite things.

So it’s a simple human connection, but if we want to get a little more exploratory about it, I could say that the draw is a way to explore what I think are meaningful symbols and symbolism. There’s a whole language that we as humans ascribe to forms, where animals anthropomorphize and take on so much rich meaning for us. That’s something that I really identify with as well. Birds are a big part of that. Lately it’s been foxes and wolves. I go through cycles. I don’t think I’ve had a year where I do one animal and move on and never do that animal again.

So there are animals as animals and animals as symbols. I really enjoy how a depiction of a bird flying can denote so much—specific and open ended—quality, like freedom and aspiration. In the U.S. bald eagles are the symbol of freedom. In other cultures, birds are prominent as symbols of messengers, emblems of a greater aspiration, like Icarus flying towards the sun.

So that’s the kind of language I really gravitate towards and find meaning in. I’m motivated to use this language as meaningful symbols because I find it’s richer and deeper than if I were doing imagery that had very specific iconography. I have done it, but I don’t connect with it so much because I feel very aware of time and permanence and how in a couple of years the cell phone we use now will look outdated. I don’t like getting hung up on specifics that will date anything or be a means to separate a person from the imagery, so I tend to gravitate towards things that by and large have a timeless quality.

So that if you have a piece on your wall that had some meaning for you, that in five, ten, fifteen years, that painting would still serve you in some way. I’d like to think that if you’re in a great mood there’s something there, and if you’re depressed that this piece on your wall can be there for you and be supportive through those up and downs that come with life.

Jacket art for Miriam Black novels by Chuck Wendig, by Adam S. Doyle.

The other thing I find is that animals, animal forms, are much more varied than human beings. There’s so much variety, everything from claws and horns to wings and scales to fur. There’s so much variety and opportunity for dynamic forms and shapes and textures. I really enjoy all of that and getting lost in it. And even at times pushing even further into fantastical and monstrous, that’s always fun to push beyond and not feel beholden to what exists as we know it. Obviously you can tell that within the subject of the form, there’s a whole other space, and that’s this abstract world. The animal form is in many ways allows me a recognizable window, a relatable form, so that once I have that there’s a chance for me ostensibly to take your hand and go into a whole other open ended place that’s not defined, but seems to be a realm of emotion and meaning and exploration and the unknown.

So that’s a thing to identify with. Oh, that’s a bird, and you can freely float into it and through it and whatever you can find in that space is there for you. I don’t do much in the way of total abstraction, which is totally legitimate, but I find personally I like to trend between both worlds—between the real world and the totally open world of abstraction. That’s the space I like to be in, a little bit of that trickster, messenger, architect is the one I really identify with.

CM: What artists have influenced you or that you have enjoyed and learned from?

AD: There are so many. I used to do this thing where I would write the name of the artist, a painter or a writer or a director or a musician, and put them on my wall, and the wall would be covered with this post card of names because I always felt this need to not have these names deep in the recesses of my brain but to be out and visible, something of an acknowlegment. So there are a lot.

A lot of them, I’d say the really formative ones when I growing up, were illustrators, which should not be a surprise. That’s where I found myself. A lot of painters and a handful of contemporary artists, but I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older I’ve been seeking out less the work of others and trying to hone my own. So most of the names are a bit older, at least for me. They were more significant when I was younger.

M.C. Escher, even though he’s pop-y and a college poster kind of guy. That thing where I was talking about going between worlds, I think he was on a whole other level of being able to do that, to create imagery that is occupying multiple worlds at the same time and was really brain-opening work. Escher was a big one.

Klimt as well, another popular college poster, but just so gorgeous and visual. And the way that he introduced abstract shapes in what became his very own language. He was very terrific too.

When I was a little kid what blew my little brains was my introduction to the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. That’s not one artist, but probably half a dozen or so illustrators doing that, but these really wonderful black and white, somewhat graphic—in terms of black and white, not violence—of all these images of griffins and creatures. That’s something I’d love to do one day. That’s always been a pet project, to do my own monster manual.

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Epistle Pass by Adam S. Doyle

I have to mention Joseph Campbell. I feel like his name has come up recently because Star Wars is out again. His work, which I was introduced to as a little kid through Star Wars but then got to understand how significant his work was, the sort of stories that are universal. That was always so significant when I was younger and has always stuck with me ever since.

Another guy who I keep going back to do is Andrew Wyeth. It’s so interesting how narrative his work is without there being much of an explicit story—so small and delicate and of one small area. There’s layers and layers, and for me a sense of story there. There’s such incredible skill in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s too caught up in itself. His work feels really raw.

Winsor McCay was a big one, who did Little Nemo, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, which I grew up with too. I’d say Calvin is living in me, like he’s living in a lot of us—a spastic little kid with this tiger. I always loved the quality, the juxtaposition of simple, playful, genuinely cartoony imagery with content that was surprisingly thoughtful.

So those are some that have stuck with me. For reference and for those who’d like to learn more, I keep an ever growing list of artwork by fantastic artists here –

CM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists and illustrators?

AD: First and foremost, and stuff like this is what everyone hears and goes without saying, but at the same time when you’re asked this questions you have to say it, which is you really have to love it because it doesn’t pay well and it’s regularly terrifying whether or not you’ll be able to make enough money to support yourself. It requires love, and that means the dedication of time. It can be challenging to not go out and do stuff with your friends and not get caught up in distractions, and we all know there’s plenty of those today.

It takes going through the arduous process of learning all the fundamentals, technically, which means stuff like still lifes and figure drawing, learning light and shadows and from there developing an understanding for capturing narrative and story, and all that preliminary stuff to get to the place where you can let go of it. There’s not a way of skipping around it, and one of the great things about going through art school is they put you through that gauntlet.

Netrunner by Adam S. Doyle

As for making it as an illustrator, sometimes I don’t even know what it takes because it sort of feels like it’s a different time now then when I started. When I was younger, it was getting work in the hands of art directors, but I was coming up at the tail end of the time when illustrators would sit down in meetings and talk about portfolios and meet art directors. I did that, but it wasn’t like my teachers would say that was all they did. These days that’s very rare. There’s, in a way, no need. Everything you need is online with your own site, with your own work, and that’s what art directors will respond to.

So it’s a mix of things, which means it used to be a challenge to get stuff seen and be met with, and now the challenge is getting people to really pay attention to work because there’s so much. Now a new illustrator and me and someone who is way more successful than me are all in competition with each other and with the rest of the world. There are no borders. That’s both fundamentally wonderful because it means the bar is higher and higher because any art director can work with anyone they want from around the world, but it can also be overwhelmingly challenging because how can you possibly compete when there’s so much phenomenal work out there?

All you can really do is focus on what is meaningful to you and put the time in to understanding the fundamentals of crafting a compelling picture, and familiarizing yourself with the companies—publishers, games, books, cards, whatever it might be—with those that you respond to because there’s a much greater chance that they’ll respond to your work and reach out.

So much of the work that I have had over years has been something that crossed my path, and I thought that looks really cool, like the Netrunner project I’ve been working on. I’ve been working with them for a number of years. I just saw it and I thought it looked really neat, I wonder if they’re hiring. I emailed the art director and she got right back to me and we’ve been working together ever since.

Just be prepared for a challenge. It’s very hard to get work. On top of that it’s very hard to make a good image. There are multiple layers of challenge, but it’s rewarding when you get these little successes along the way because you’re fulfilling the need of a career and a fulfillment of your creativity.

The Swallow of Paracelsus

There’s nothing better than working on a project in front of me at my desk and then going to doing something else and still working on it in my head. I enjoy how it can be both an external, physical craft that I’m doing with my hands and my eyes, and that also occupies my inner world, solving problems and composition and figures at the same time. If that’s the kind of thing that the person reading this gets excited about, then this is definitely a great field to be in.

Just know that you’re going to get an enormous amount of input that says you shouldn’t be doing this. That is to say, people in your life might say to be more realistic, or when you are presenting your stuff you’ll get an enormous amount of that. And I get that all the time too. Everyone who’s in a creative world where you’re trying to put yourself out there, gatekeepers will say it’s not working. You have to deal with that all the time and build up a thick skin, and at the same time have a super thin skin because the work requires that degree of investment and sensitivity. You really can’t be a totally detached, unemotional artist. It just doesn’t work. You have to be able to handle both of those things, both of those areas of experience—the harshness of it, and the open, loving, sensitive side of it.

If you’re aspiring to be an illustrator, I believe strongly in knowing the source material. I mentioned already that I always read, whenever possible, the books I’m illustrating. If you’re depicting Frankenstein’s monster, for example, there is so much imagery already out there. Ignore all of it. Reading the original text, not just a summary either, brings an intimacy unlike anything else. That is essential for the work we do. Be true to the story. Be true to the characters.

Additionally, I highly recommend traveling or better yet living abroad. One of the perks of being an illustrator is that as long as you have access to the Internet you can email files from anywhere. Experiencing other cultures, cities, and landscapes first hand will live with you and inspire you for the rest of your life. If you can manage it, buy a plane ticket and go.

adamsdoyleAdam S. Doyle’s paintings exhibit in New York City, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and in Europe. A lifelong reader, Adam loves illustrating books and book covers. Additionally, he enjoys crafting images for card games, greeting cards, album covers, theater and concert posters, package design, and dreamscapes.


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