Happy Halloween, folks! Instead of a trick, I’ve got a treat for you. . . . No, not this.
In the house with me today is the one and only Susan Fletcher, one of the faculty members of VCFA.
Susan in Venice!
Susan is represented by Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown, and has several novels in her arsenal, including Alphabet of Dreams, Shadow Spinner, the Dragon Chronicles (series), and others. She’s here to talk about her latest middle grade fantasy, Falcon in the Glass, published by Margaret K. McElderry Books. Here’s the synopsis:
A boy risks his life to save some very special children in this fantasy adventure, set amidst the rich backdrop of Renaissance Venice.
In Venice in 1487, the secrets of glassblowing are guarded jealously. Renzo, a twelve-year-old laborer in a glassworks, has just a few months to prepare for a test of his abilities, and no one to teach him. If he passes, he will qualify as a skilled glassblower. If he fails, he will be expelled from the glassworks. Becoming a glassblower is his murdered father’s dying wish for him, and the means of supporting his mother and sister. But Renzo desperately needs another pair of hands to help him turn the glass as he practices at night.
One night he is disturbed by a bird—a small falcon—that seems to belong to a girl hiding in the glassworks. Soon Renzo learns about her and others like her—the bird people, who can communicate with birds and are condemned as witches. He tries to get her to help him and discovers that she comes with baggage: ten hungry bird-kenning children who desperately need his aid. Caught between devotion to his family and his art and protecting a group of outcast children, Renzo struggles for a solution that will keep everyone safe in this atmospheric adventure.
One of you will win a print copy of the book. So, let’s get this party started!
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Susan: 1. I make a mean vegetarian chili (with 2 secret ingredients).
2. I have read Beowulf in the original Old English.
3. I can do the hula hoop.
4. To research Alphabet of Dreams, I followed the Silk Road through the Zagros Mountains in Iran.
El Space: You are awesome! Falcon in the Glass was a joy to read. What inspired you to write it?
Susan: I fell in love with Venice maybe twenty years ago. One day when I had a bad cold, I wrapped myself up in a blanket, settled myself on the couch, and turned on the TV. The first thing that came on was a video documentary of Venice. After that, I was hooked.
What is it about Venice? I mean, aside from the fact that it’s flat-out gorgeous. I think part of what gets me is the water everywhere, and the reflections on stone that give the whole city a sort of rippling evanescence. And it’s partly the history of Venice, with its intrigues and over-the-top opulence. To me, St. Mark’s Cathedral looks like something out of a fantasy novel. And it’s partly that when you wander through those old streets and canals, you can almost imagine that the 21st century has dropped away and you’re living hundreds of years ago.
So I started reading about Venice, and eventually I stumbled upon the fact that if Venetian glassblowers took their professional secrets abroad, the authorities would send assassins to do them in. Wow. Talk about your industrial espionage. And what a great seed for a story!
El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of writing it?
Susan: Seems like every novel I’ve written has been full of, er, challenges—a polite way to put it—of one kind or another. Falcon in the Glass was no exception. The challenges were legion, but here’s one example: When I went to Venice in 2008, I toured the dungeons, which were built in the 16th century. The book was in a very early, formative stage at the time, but I had a vague idea that one of the characters might be put in prison. This turned out to be the case. But when I pinned down the dates of my story, I found that the dungeons I toured were built after the story takes place. Ack! I would have loved to have returned to Venice, but couldn’t swing it. So I had to dig out the information from secondary sources.
What were the prisons like before the 16th century? With the help of an historian—Patricia Fortini Brown of Princeton—and a librarian—Jim Nolte of Vermont College—I found pictures and descriptions of the earlier prisons, which were housed in the Doge’s Palace. One of the best sources was the notorious womanizer Casanova, who escaped from that same prison and described it in detail in his memoir, The Story of My Life.
El Space: I need to read that! How did you come up with Renzo? Letta and the other green-eyed children?
Susan: My first thought was to have a girl glassblower. But historically, though some girls painted glass, it would have been almost unheard of to have a girl working side by side with men in a Murano glass factory during the Renaissance. So I took a deep breath and decided to inhabit a boy, for once. I was also interested in writing about atonement, for reasons I don’t completely understand. I wanted to explore what happens when you do something that harms someone, and then you try to make amends. So I just . . . asked myself questions. Whom did the main character hurt? And why? And what does he do to try to make amends? And why is that difficult for him? You know, like that. And eventually, through my questions and through the actual writing, Renzo emerged.
A long time ago, when I was writing Dragon’s Milk, I came up with the idea of bird kenners, people who could communicate telepathically with dragons and who understood the language of birds. I think I got the idea from the old legend of Sigurd, who slew a dragon and, roasting its heart on a spit, tasted some juice from the dragon heart. And after that, he could understand the language of birds. In my dragon books, bird kenners all have green eyes. I chose green because it’s rarer than blue or brown, but not really weird, like yellow. I figured, kids might imagine that bird kenners might exist in the world today. In one of my favorite fan letters, a boy wrote me, “Ever since reading your book I have been looking for a green-eyed girl. Some have come close, but not close enough.”
El Space: Which authors inspire you?
Susan: I could give you a super-long list, but I’ll whittle it down. I got excited about the possibility of writing children’s books when my daughter was young, and a children’s librarian introduced me to some of her favorite children’s books, books by Katherine Paterson, Virginia Hamilton, Susan Cooper, Robin McKinley, and Ursula Le Guin. I was knocked out by what I found in the children’s department, and knew that this was what I wanted to do.
Later, I had the good fortune to be in a critique group with Eloise McGraw. In addition to being a consummate writer, she became a wise and beloved mentor and friend. I still aspire to write as well as she does, but I don’t think I’m ever going to make it.
Another stroke of luck: Ellen Howard and Margaret Bechard were also in that group, and both have also become dear friends. Ellen’s beautiful language and uncompromising emotional honesty continue to inspire me by setting the bar well beyond my grasp. Margaret’s spare, sharp prose and humor do the same.
Many other novelists for young readers continue to inspire me, but I’m going to list the authors of a few novels for adults that have mesmerized and inspired me: Khaled Hosseini. Charles Dickens. Mary Doria Russell. Kazuo Ishiguro. Louis De Bernieres. Liam Callanan. Jane Austen. Harper Lee. Barbara Kingsolver. David Guterson. Leo Tolstoy. And I think I’ll just stop there.
El Space: What tip would you offer to a writer who might be stuck in a writing rut?
Susan: When I’m in a rut, my natural tendency is to just keep beating my head against the same old wall. Bad idea! Over time I have learned to step away from the wall. Get out and take a walk. Go for a drive. Listen to some music I love. Go to a museum. Read a really good book in a completely different genre from the one I’m working on. Meet with some friends over coffee. Persistence is necessary for writers—especially for novelists—but ruts happen, and sometimes it’s best to open up new possibilities rather than try to just bull your way through.
El Space: What are you working on now?
Susan: I’d really like to do a sequel to Falcon in the Glass someday, but right now I’m working on another historical novel, one that takes place a couple of centuries before Falcon. It’s based on a little tidbit of historical fact, and I’m having lots of fun imagining the parts that are lost to history but which might have happened.
Thanks for being my guest, Susan!
Looking for more of Susan? Check out her website. Falcon in the Glass is available here:
Comment below to be entered in the drawing to win a copy of Falcon in the Glass. Winner to be announced on Saturday.
Book covers from Susan’s website and Goodreads. The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark and Doge’s Palace photos from Wikipedia.