Check This Out: Mythos

With me on the blog today is the awesome Andy Murray. If you’re a follower of his blog, City Jackdaw, you know that he’s a poet who released a collection of poems called Heading North, published by Nordland in December 2015. We talked about that here on the blog. Now, Andy is here to talk about the short stories he contributed to Mythos, the second volume in the Northlore series, published by Nordland in December 2016. (By the way, Andy contributed a short story and a poem to Folklore, the first volume of the series.) Stick around after the interview to learn how you can get your hands on Mythos.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Andy: 1. I’m at least six-generation Mancunian. 2. I knew my wife for twenty-six years before we got together. I play the long game. 3. I’m vegetarian. 4. Despite my name, I don’t like tennis!

El Space: What interested you about writing stories for this second volume? When I read the premise, I couldn’t help thinking of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’m also reminded of Juliet Marillier’s Bridei Chronicles, in which the author mentions the Picts’ desire to hang on to their religion as Christianity moves forward in the land.
Andy: Well, I knew that the Northlore series was a planned trilogy of books, and being a part of volume one was such a positive experience I wanted to be a part of the succeeding book. Folklore was a great collection of prose and poetry, with something for everyone, and Mythos feels like a step up. They complement each other perfectly.
I’m not familiar with Bridei Chronicles, but I know what you mean about American Gods. The stories in Mythos are arranged in chronological order, in many different locations, and some of them are indeed set in modern America. The premise of the collection is that with the advent of Christianity the old gods knew that their time had come and they withdrew, but they didn’t cease to be. These are their continuing stories.

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El Space: What was the inspiration behind your stories, “Into the Storm” and “Saga”?
Andy: My wife and I used to be foster carers. A private tutor used to visit the house to give extra tuition to a teenage girl who was living with us. Through no fault of her own she had missed out on a lot of schooling and was behind many of the students in her class. In a bid to encourage her English, the tutor decided to set a writing competition for the whole family. My wife was mortified. She stipulated that our stories could be about anything, but had to bear the title ‘Holes’. I came up with a story set in the Somme of the First World War, you know: foxholes, shell holes, etc. But also a depiction of how some people seemed not to be made in the same way as others, as though there were pieces missing from their character and they were riddled with holes. I can’t recall how exactly I put it now, but it was along those lines. Anyway, I had that story lying around, and when I saw the call for submissions for Mythos, I took it and adapted it in a way that fit Nordland’s criteria. ‘Holes became ‘Into The Storm‘.

‘Saga‘ was born on a half hour bus journey from Manchester to my hometown. I was sat on the upstairs deck, daydreaming. This is how I sometimes get lines for my poetry. In my reverie, these spontaneous lines crossed my mind:

She asked me to write a four word love story:
she came home early.
She asked me to write a four word horror story:
she came home early.

I don’t know where this came from. Do we ever, really? But I began to think about it. How ‘she came home early’ could fit both love and horror stories, and what they implied. But, more importantly, I began to wonder about who ‘she’ was who was doing the asking. By the time I reached my destination I had the story finished in my head, but not trusting my memory I jotted down the outline on the Notes part of my mobile phone.

El Space: In a 1957 interview with Truman Capote [photo below] in The Paris Review, Capote said, “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant.” How would you respond to this?
Andy: Well, I love Capote, and I know that he was a very disciplined and methodical writer. I’m also reminded of Dylan Thomas referring to ‘my craft or sullen art’. In contrast with these two huge figures, though it may sound simplistic all I can say is that I write the type of fiction and poetry that I would like to read, and endeavour to make them the best that I can.

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El Space: When it comes to short story writing, which comes first for you: a character; a situation/plot; or an image? Any of the above? None of the above? I mentioned image, because C.S. Lewis once explained that the image of a faun with an umbrella came to his mind way before he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Andy: A faun with an umbrella—that’s pretty cool! I wonder if he was on a bus? 🙂 I think for me the gist of the story comes first. I have in mind the kind of thing that I want to say, and in pondering on how to realise this everything else is born.

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El Space: What was your introduction to writing?
Andy: As a child I loved books, and loved writing too. My primary school teacher expressed concern to my mother one parent’s evening about the type of books that I read—James Herbert, Stephen King. But I later learnt that that same teacher used to pass my stories around the staff room for the other teachers to read. On my last day, before leaving for high school, she wrote in my autograph book ‘I hope you manage to get a book published one day‘. I tried to track her down recently to present her with a copy of Heading North, but was unable to find her. I’ve not given up, though.

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El Space: What will you work on next?
Andy: I’m actually on the second draft of a novel at the moment, provisionally called ‘Seasons On The Hill‘. It is about life on a northern housing estate, as seen through the eyes of different, interacting characters. The estate in question is actually a fictionalised version of where I live. Although none of the characters are based on real people, many of the situations involved really happened. Maybe with a little embellishment. Part humour; part tragedy. The stuff of life, yes?

El Space: Yes! Thanks, Andy, for being my guest!
Andy: Thank you Linda for this opportunity. As I saw someone comment recently upon one of your posts: you’re such an enabler!

El Space: Aw. I’m just glad people want to stop by here. 🙂

If you’re looking for Andy, head to Facebook and his blog.

You can find Mythos at Amazon. But one of you will find it in your mailbox or on your tablet. How? Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner TBA on February 4.

Mythos cover from the Northland website. Other book covers from Goodreads. Truman Capote photo from biography.com.

Check These Out: Books for a Thrilling Christmas

Greetings! With me on the blog today are two authors already known to many of you: the fabulous Andra Watkins and the equally fabulous John Howell.

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They’re here to talk about the latest books in their series. Click here and here for series information.

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Hard to Die was published by Word Hermit Press. Our Justice was published by Keewaydin Lane Books. Stick around later for the giveaway info.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Andra: 1. I’m afraid to answer FaceTime, because my parents like to call when they’re either naked or scantily clad.
2. Once I break the seal, I eat SweeTARTS until my mouth turns raw. I cannot stop.
3. My favorite movie of all time is The Princess Bride. My husband thinks that’s inconceivable!

Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik in The Princess Bride

Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik in The Princess Bride

4. I love to meet my readers. The furthest I’ve traveled to meet a reader is Australia. She was delightful. But all my readers are.

John: 1. I have written a thousand words a day for seven days a week since 2012.
2. I began writing after turning seventy, five years ago.
3. I love to write poetry but won’t show it to anyone.
4 I live with my wife and three rescue pets on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.

John lives somewhere on this map. Perhaps you see him waving.

John lives somewhere on this map. Perhaps you see him waving.

El Space: What was the inspiration behind your series?
Andra: What if you disappeared? Or no one knew exactly how you died? And because nobody knew what happened, you couldn’t fully die?

I’ve always been fascinated with unresolved deaths. Somebody, somewhere, knew what happened, at least for a little while. Both Hard to Die and To Live Forever give real people with unresolved deaths new adventures. It’s speculative fiction at its ‘what if’-iest. If you’re skeptical about giving me a try, here’s what real readers say about this series:

“One of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read.” Jen Mann, NYT best selling author of People I Want to Punch in the Throat
“I LOVED this book!” Nicole Knepper, author of Moms Who Drink and Swear: True Tales of Loving My Kids While Losing My Mind
“Absolutely thrilling read!”
“My new favorite.”
Hard to Die is hard to put down.”
“Riveting.”
“One of the best reads I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
“A magical tale.”

John: My sister and I were touring the Aircraft Carrier Lexington moored in Corpus Christi. [Photo below.] Our father was a naval aviator during World War II and served on the Lexington. We wanted to walk the halls and in some way get a sense of his experience. While standing on the flight deck, it occurred to me that this symbol of American military strength was unarmed and vulnerable to anyone who would want to destroy this treasure. Although my series is not about the Lexington, it did set the stage for the subsequent terrorist quest to embarrass America.

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El Space: Which authors inspire you?
Andra: Several books informed my Nowhere Series. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind was a white-knuckled tour through Barcelona. I loved the fantasy, the inventive ties to forgotten books, and the homage to the landscape. I hope Zafón taught me how to keep a reader turning pages.

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Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, is a slim gem of speculative fiction. His short afterlife tales are so tight and inventive. He first made me think about what an alternative afterlife could be.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski is a grounded fantasy tale I wish I’d written. Gosh, the writing is gorgeous. I love how she chose to deal with loss, death, and the afterlife, all through the eyes of a mute little boy. I’d read this book over All the Light We Cannot See.

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John: I am inspired by Nevil Shute and his book On the Beach. I was impressed in the manner that he could make up a fictional situation and characters and craft the position so that it seemed real and did not have a happy ending. Kurt Vonnegut inspired me in several books by how he could use actual situations as backdrops to a fictional story. John Irving gave me the courage to write about whimsy, and did it with a boldness that allowed the reader to believe the appropriateness of a sometimes outrageous situation to the storyline. Finally, Andra Watkins continues to inspire me through her determination to bring her stories to life in spite of all challenges to her personally.

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El Space: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Andra: Keep writing. 2016 has been tough for many people. It’s been especially hard on me. I launched a book a week before the election while I was afflicted with a significant illness. I don’t think I need to tell anyone how that launch turned out. I’ve cried and raged and questioned myself ten thousand times, but in the end, writers must write, even when writing makes no sense. Especially when writing makes no sense.

John: A talented writer, Craig Boyack, wrote a post on how to add suspense to a story. Although sometimes we don’t think of adding suspense in certain situations Craig pointed out a way to add a small portion even though it has no meaningful outcome to the story. The reason I thought this was great advice is we often think of suspense elements as some core plot elements and not a way to raise the enjoyment level of a story. I think his opinion changed that concept for me.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Andra: I Am Number 13 is the third book in the Nowhere Series. It will be available in Spring 2017. I have at least three more characters lined up for future installments, though I no longer say how many books that will be. These characters become their own very insistent people. Hard to Die wasn’t supposed to be part of my Nowhere Series. That’s how insistent Theodosia Burr Alston is. And the male narrator, Richard Cox, wasn’t in the first three drafts. I look at Hard to Die now and can’t imagine it without him.

John: I am currently wrapping up the editing on a book titled “Circumstances of Childhood.” It is a story about a guy who is very successful until he runs amuck with a Security Exchange Commission audit. He needs to rely on a childhood pal for help but the question remains can the friend help him. The book goes to beta readers in January.

I have also started a thriller about a couple who find a cell phone on the beach. The phone contains some valuable information encoded into the contact list. The guy who lost the phone has been punished and now the boss wants his phone back. The chief of police is right in the crosshairs since he turned the phone over to Homeland Security since he thought some of the photos looked suspicious. The first draft should be finished by May.

Thank you, Andra and John, for being my guests!

Looking for Andra? You can find her here and here.
Looking for John? You can find him here and here.

Looking for Hard to Die and book one in the series? Check Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Looking for Our Justice and other books in the trilogy? Check Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Another place you can look is your front doorstep, because I’m giving away a copy of Hard to Die and Our Justice to a commenter. The winner will be announced on December 15.

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What is Kitty up to? No good, I suspect. Stay tuned. . . .

Author photos courtesy of the authors. Book covers from their websites and Goodreads. Still image from The Princess Bride from moviereviewland.blogspot. Gulf of Mexico map from worldatlas.com. USS Lexington at Corpus Christi photo from tourism-review.com.

Check These Out: Picture Books by Eric Pinder

Greetings from the frozen north! (Yes, we had a snow visitation recently.)

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’Tis the season to be jolly as the well-known Christmas carol goes. And I can guarantee some jolliness when you check out the following picture books by the erudite and extraordinary Eric Pinder.

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Both books were illustrated by Stephanie Graegin and published by Farrar, Straus Giroux. Eric is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette. Stick around till the end of the interview to learn about the giveaway. Ho-ho-ho!

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Kitty dressed as Santa? Perhaps she has something to do with this giveaway?

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Eric: (1) Once upon a time, I worked at an observatory on top of a mountain and commuted home—well, partway home—by sled. As job perks go, it’s hard to beat an eight-mile sled ride.
(2) The last time I bought a new vehicle, it was a unicycle.
(3) My summer job in high school was working on a dairy farm. But the cows there couldn’t type.
(4) I still want to be an astronaut when I grow up.

The author reading one of his picture books to a library lion

The author reading one of his picture books to a library lion

El Space: You’ve written two books in the sharing with a bear series. They are utterly delightful! What inspired this series?
Eric: Thank you! Building blanket forts and blanket caves with nephews inspired the setting of the first book. Usually character or plot comes to me first, but this time the first thing the Muses gave me was a clear image of the setting for the opening scene. I could picture the room, and the cave, and someone reading inside it by flashlight.

For a long time, the working title of what became How to Share with a Bear was just “Cave.” I didn’t have any idea yet how the story would end or even who all the characters were. But I knew right away it would start with a blanket cave. And what lives in caves? A bear!

After reading How to Share with a Bear, students at Polaris Charter School made blanket caves.—Polaris Charter School, Manchester, NH

After reading How to Share with a Bear, students at Polaris Charter School made blanket caves.—Polaris Charter School, Manchester, NH

The themes about sharing and siblings developed from there.

El Space: Picture books have had a resurgence in publishing lately. Why do you suppose that is the case?
Eric: Picture books are such amazing works of art that adults often appreciate them too. At craft fairs and book signings, sometimes adults will wistfully browse the picture books and confide, sounding almost embarrassed, “I wish I had grandkids, because I still love picture books.”

Of course, the elaborate pictures and design also make them expensive to print, which probably makes publishers and readers alike choosier when budgets are tight. I don’t know, but I’d guess the resurgence is a combination of the economy improving and the Millennial generation starting to have children and looking for good books.

White Birch Books made bear-shaped cookies for a recent How to Build a Snow Bear book signing. The kids approved.

White Birch Books made bear-shaped cookies for a recent How to Build a Snow Bear book signing. The kids approved.

El Space: What drew you to picture books?
Eric: Until almost age 30, I had no inkling that I’d someday write books for children. In high school, I wanted to write science fiction like Ray Bradbury. In college, a class about nature writing introduced me to writers like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, and since I’d always liked the outdoors, that became my focus. Then a funny thing happened: everyone in my circle of friends started having kids. Suddenly, their houses were full of books by Seuss and Boynton.

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There’s a poetry to picture books—a kind of music. While hiking with two friends and their six-month-old on the Imp Trail in the White Mountains one day, I heard them recite from memory the entire text of a Dr. Seuss book. The humor and the rhythm of the words, and the obvious delight of the audience—their toddler—gave me a real appreciation for the work and lyricism that go into picture books.

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I just wish I had the talent to illustrate them, too. I admire and envy those who do. At the end of one book signing, when things were slow, I was absentmindedly doodling on a scrap paper. A customer across the room noticed the book cover on display, and her eyes lit up. “Ooh!” she said excitedly. “Are you the illustrator?” Then, walking closer, she noticed my drawing, frowned, and said, “Oh. No, you’re not.

El Space: Oh my goodness! I guess she didn’t realize how rude that sounded. . . . In an interview awhile back with CNN, famed picture book author Mo Willems was asked how to create a timeless tale. Is that something you think about when you write a picture book? Why or why not?
Eric: I like that quote by Mo Willems, “Always think of your audience, but never think for your audience.” I think there are certain universal emotions or experiences, like sharing or anxiety or trying new things, that can help keep a story timeless even if it’s presented in a topical way. A century or two from now, I’m sure, there will be kids who want to drive the family spaceship instead of the bus. But I’d bet Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus would still resonate with them, because it’s not so much the topical vehicle that matters—it’s the underlying idea of imagining a pigeon or a child driving something big and bulky and thus capable of fun mayhem, which usually only the adults get to drive, that’s amusing and timeless.

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El Space: What advice do you have for budding picture book authors?
Eric: Because picture books are real aloud, performed in a sense by the parent or teacher or babysitter, the cadence of every sentence and the sound of every syllable is important. I recommend reading poetry, as well as picture books, to get a feel for the sounds of words and the moods and nuances they can convey. I like to think of poetry as “using the language as a musical instrument, to convey emotion or meaning.” Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled is a funny, informative book about poetic meter. It’s helped me a lot with writing picture books. But the biggest help was taking the picture book semester at VCFA.

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El Space: What will you work on next?
Eric: New ideas for picture books spring up all the time. Sometimes just witnessing a silly pet pratfall, or hearing a heartwarming anecdote, or noticing a strange word combination or phrase on a billboard can start the wheels in motion on a new story. Recently I’ve been revising a picture book about a little girl on Mars. I’m also finishing up a narrative nonfiction book about the joys and challenges of teaching in the era of standardized tests and student loans. When I teach nature writing at our college, we go on a lot of class field trips in the woods, so there’s a bear in that book, too.

My next picture book, The Perfect Pillow, is forthcoming in 2018. Surprisingly, that one does not include a bear, but there’s still a lot of sharing. And a dragon.

Thank you, Eric, for being my guest!

Looking for Eric? You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and his website.

You can find How to Share with a Bear, How to Build a Snow Bear, and other picture books by Eric Pinder at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart, Powells, and possibly on your own front doorstep. One of you will win How to Share with a Bear and How to Build a Snow Bear. Simply comment below, giving the title of a favorite picture book you had as a child (or now), to be entered into the drawing. The winner will be announced on December 15. Stayed tuned for more book giveaways and information on Kitty Santa!

Author photo by Jenn Pinder. Cookie photo by Eric Pinder. Book covers from Goodreads. Dr. Seuss image from cliparts.co. Snow and Kitty photos by L. Marie.

It’s the Journey

The creative efforts of others often inspire me. Besides books, one of the creative outlets I turn to for inspiration is My Froggy Stuff, a crafting channel on YouTube. Even if I don’t make the projects featured in the videos, I’m still energized by the act of creating something with my hands. How about you?

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(Commercial break: Yes, I’ll get to the winner of Charlotte Cuts It Out by K. A. Barson—another inspiring creative effort—in a moment. [Click here for that interview.] And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.)

Case in point, I made the doll sofa in the photo below out of felt and cardboard (with yarn trim) after watching a video on My Froggy Stuff. It’s about three-and-one-half inches wide—perfect for a Lalaloopsy mini doll.

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In this photo, you can see all of my hand-stitching mistakes. 🙂 But that’s the beauty of crafting. You don’t have to be perfect. (Yeah, I’ll keep telling myself that.)

Anyway, in the comment section of one of Froggy’s videos, in which she explained how she made doll furniture, one of the commenters asked her why she made anything. The commenter then went on to suggest that Froggy buy everything, rather than make it. Perhaps the commenter really thought she was being helpful. Another commenter, however, promptly suggested that the first commenter shut up. (The joys of the internet.)

Yet the first commenter caused me to think about why I prefer to make things if I can, rather than buy them, even if I have to spend hours and hours doing it and make tons of mistakes in the process. Wanna know what I discovered? Come closer, and I’ll whisper it.

Because it’s fun. And relaxing. But you already knew that, right, as well as this old saying:

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Some journeys are life-shaping—we experience growth in the process. I burned myself several times wielding that hot glue gun as I glued felt to cardboard. I also pricked my finger with the needle while sewing. Okay, maybe both of those don’t sound like much fun. But they’re part of the process—hazards of the job. They also taught me to slow down and focus—also important whenever I’m writing or editing anything.

The joy of working with their hands is why gardeners take to the soil, and put up with pests like weeds, aphids, and other inconveniences. Like deer and rabbits. Last summer, rabbits and deer applauded my brother’s gardening efforts by eating just about everything he planted. Did that sour him on gardening? Nope. The joy in the accomplishment was greater than the annoyance of unwanted garden guests.

The creative journey is empowering! This is why many people spend months or years restoring vintage cars.

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And, as you know, when you continue to make things by hand, you get better at it. The first sofa I made took days to complete. The second (the one above), took maybe two hours. (Well, it was smaller, so that helped.)

Now, as promised, on to the creative efforts of Kelly Barson.

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The winner of Charlotte Cuts It Out, thanks to the Random Number Generator, is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Nancy Hatch of Spirit Lights The Way!

Congratulations, Nancy! Please comment below to confirm.

What was the last thing you made by hand? Why did you make it? How did you feel after you did?

My Froggy Stuff logo from YouTube. Journey sign from Pinterest. Franklin D. Roosevelt quote from BrainyQuote.

Check This Out: Charlotte Cuts It Out

Yes, today is the day that I reveal the winners of The Lost Celt. (Click here, if you’re totally confused by that sentence.) But first, please help me greet the still fabulous Kelly Barson, who is back on the blog to talk about her latest contemporary young adult novel, Charlotte Cuts It Out. This book was published by Viking this past April. If you are a regular follower of this blog, you might remember Kelly from this interview a few years ago when her first novel debuted.

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Kelly is represented by Sara Crowe. Click here to read a synopsis of Charlotte Cuts It Out. We’ll wait till you return. You’re back? Just in time to hear some good news. One of you will win a copy of this book. Now, let’s talk to Kelly.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Kelly: 1. I’m a grandmother.
2. I—well, my family really—collect antique steam tractors.
3. I’m left-handed and can write in mirror image, like Leonardo Da Vinci.

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4. I’m an INFJ who married an ESTP six months and one day after our first date.

El Space: I don’t think I’ve seen a book recently where a teen pursues a vocation. Very refreshing! So, what inspired you to write Charlotte Cuts It Out? I couldn’t help thinking of someone I know who participated in the cosmetology program of her high school. She’s out of high school now and working at a salon in my area.
Kelly: My daughter was a high school cos student. She’s now working as a stylist. Out of my four kids, only one went to college. The other three work in the trades, and each of them got their training while still in high school. Trades are viable career options, and they’re often misrepresented, if presented at all.

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El Space: What were the challenges and joys of creating a character like Charlotte, who really seems to know her own mind?
Kelly: Charlotte was both fun and challenging to write. Her sass was fun to write, but the annoying parts of her often mirror my own nature, so that was weird/interesting. The hard part was allowing her to be herself while still trying to present her as somewhat likeable, so readers care. Was I successful? That depends on the reader, I guess. My critical thesis at VCFA was on unlikeable protagonists, but that didn’t make writing one any easier.

El Space: If Charlotte had to create a style palate for Michelle Obama, what would she do first and why?
Kelly: This is hard because Michelle Obama doesn’t really need style help. She is already fierce and awesome. Charlotte (and I) would love to see her hair in its natural curl. She typically has it straightened with a flat iron, and it always looks fabulous, but she could mix it up a bit by going natural now and then. As for colors, she looks amazing in bright jewel tones. She and Barack are a stunning couple who can light up a room. No need to hide that. Her makeup is usually understated and accentuates her beautiful features, which is perfect for her. Oh, man, I’m going to miss her in the White House!

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El Space: If you had a chance to name a nail polish color, what name would you choose?
Kelly: This is easy. I did this in Charlotte: Iridescent Iris!

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El Space: What’s the best writing tip you’ve heard recently?
Kelly: This tip is from the prolific Cori McCarthy (AKA Cori McAwesome): Plot, but then don’t be beholden to it. Cori plots out her books, but isn’t afraid to let the story evolve how it needs to and change the outline as needed. She is fearless.

El Space: What are you working on next?
Kelly: I have several works-in-progress. One is another YA project about a girl and her sister who live with their hoarding grandmother. Another is a dual-POV story that takes place in 1976 and explores affirmative action. I worked on this at VCFA with Rita [Williams-Garcia]. I’m also working on a MG Christmas story. Then there are the stories that are still marinating in my brain space.

Good to have you as my guest, Kelly!

You can find Kelly at her website, Twitter, and Facebook. Charlotte Cuts It Out can be found here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound

Do you know someone who pursued a trade, rather than attending a liberal arts college? Comment below to be entered in a drawing to win a copy of Charlotte Cuts It Out. (Please comment, even if you don’t know someone.)

Now let’s get to the winners of The Lost Celt by A. E. Conran.

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Those winners are

Andy of City Jackdaw

and . . .

and . . .

and . . .

Penny of Life on the Cutoff!

Congrats to the winners. Please comment below to confirm. The winner of Charlotte Cuts It Out will be announced on June 13.

Author photo by Hal Folk. Book covers from Goodreads. Michelle Obama photo from africancelebs.com. Iris image from clisawrite.files.wordpress.com. Nail polish photo from Pinterest. Da Vinci mirror writing image from imgarcade.com. Cosmetology student photo from sites.google.com.

Check This Out: The Lost Celt

Happy Memorial Day! I’m back on the blog finally! And I’m not alone—I’m with the awesome A. E. (Amanda) Conran, author of the middle grade novel, The Lost Celt, which was published by Gosling Press/Goosebottom Books this past March. This book is very appropriate for a holiday like this. I’ll tell you about the giveaway for it at the end of the interview.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Amanda: I’m originally from Leicestershire, England. It’s a county suddenly in the news, as you’ll know if you’re a historian or a soccer fan. (Richard III and Leicester City!)

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I moved to the Bay Area when my first child was six-weeks old. My husband had been offered a job at Industrial Light and Magic working on the new Star Wars films. It was his childhood ambition to work for Lucas. We only came for two years, but that’s what everyone says when they move here.

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I have a scar on my nose from being hit by a field hockey ball. I needed 12 stitches.

I’ve done a catch on the flying trapeze.

El Space: Wow! How did you come to write a middle grade novel about two boys—Mikey and Kyler—who think they have found a Celtic warrior in the twenty-first century?
Amanda: The Lost Celt is about how people return from war, how their return affects their families, and how we deal with this in society as a whole. It was inspired by a conversation with two emergency room doctors at a local VA Medical Center. They told me there were always more admissions in the ER on “certain nights,” when war stories or natural disasters were in the news. One friend remembered a man with red hair and beard, acting very much as I describe my Celt. My friend, who was truly worried for his patient, could not help but think he was witnessing a warrior, a Viking, in the ER. That idea, of the continuity of the potential effects of war through history, stayed with me.

There are many other factors at play in the inspiration for this story. I was fascinated by ancient history as a child. I painted tiny Roman and Celtic soldiers and visited historic sites across the UK, including walking Hadrian’s Wall. I read a lot of historical fiction, especially the works of Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece, as well as Greek classics like Homer. Most of these were stories about living through, and returning from, war.

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Add to this the fact that I grew up in a small English village where there were still veterans of the First World War and the Second World War. We even had a German ex-POW still living in our village working on the farms just as he’d done when he was a prisoner. Their stories surrounded us. One great uncle survived the trenches in the First World War only to die as he returned home. He was so eager to see his family that he jumped out of the train before it stopped at the station. He was trapped between the train and the platform and died two weeks later of his injuries. My Grandma’s favorite uncle joined up for the First World War at age sixteen. He was recommended for a medal for commandeering a tank, but refused to accept it. He said he acted only out of anger, not bravery, because his friends had been killed around him.

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It’s strange, but the fact that my generation was brought up by people intimate with the effects of war did not fully strike me, however, until I came to live in America. One particular incident really hit home. My mum was visiting and we went for a meal with a group of friends my age. When we left the restaurant, my mother burst into tears. “They ordered so much food,” she said, “and they didn’t even eat it. There was more food on that table than we had for our entire family for a week during the war . . . and they didn’t even eat it.”

There was definitely a disconnect between my mother’s experience, my own upbringing, and that of my friends. I think it was this that led me to make one of my main characters a veteran of a recent war. I hadn’t planned to, but as I listened to the news, I became aware how deeply the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were affecting a relatively small portion of our society. Unlike the experience of previous world wars in Europe, it struck me how large a gap there was between those who were serving and their families and those of us who were not. That did not feel right. I wanted to write a book that addressed that gap a little. Stories were not being shared, as the stories of earlier wars were shared when I was a child, or even the stories that the ancients told. I sometimes wonder whether the ancients were more willing to tell it, and accept it, how it is. Their understanding of a hero was more complex and maybe more helpful than ours today. As Grandpa says, they were all closer to war than we are.

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El Space: Mikey and Kyler play the type of videogame that a lot of my friends love to play—military strategy. Are you and/or your kids gamers? Did you have the game in mind when you first developed the book? Why or why not?
Amanda: Yes, my son really enjoys playing military strategy games, particularly Rome Total War. It was a subject of some debate/ambivalence in our household, which I reflected in Mikey’s mom’s attitudes in The Lost Celt.

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In earlier drafts Mikey played with toy soldiers. The video game only came into the story when my editor asked me to make Mikey absolutely sure he was seeing a real live Celt from the word go. Immersing Mikey in a video game world that pitched Romans against Celts was the obvious choice. I could move his focus directly from the screen to the world in front of him in the VA and make the connection very easily.

El Space: You deal with a subject I haven’t seen much in middle grade books—PTSD. Without giving spoilers, why is that important to you and/or for young readers to learn about?
Amanda: I was brought up by children of war whose parents experienced and fought in both the Second and First World Wars. I think we are only just acknowledging their experiences, how they dealt with them and how some trauma/issues may have been passed on. At the time, everyone was in the same boat and they just got on with it.

According to the VA, 7–8% of the general population will experience PTSD at some point in their life. Depending on the conflict, 11–30% of service members will experience PTSD at some point. It’s really important to recognize that most service members don’t return from war with PTSD, but it’s also important to recognize that your mental health is important and there’s nothing wrong with seeking help. I don’t want to think of children or adults dealing with the after effects of trauma on their own. I think that is the key: being in a community, not alone.

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El Space: If you could go back in time to witness any event in history, which would you choose?
Amanda: I’d like to see my village before and after the Roman invasion. There’s a Roman villa on the hill above my village and, although it’s hidden underground, artifacts come up to the surface after every ploughing. I’d love to know who lived there.

El Space: What kinds of stories delight you?
Amanda: The Owl Service by Alan Garner, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, or The Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo epitomize the sort of story I adore: books that resonate with a sense of place and the strength of our connection with the past, both real and mythical/magical. All the books I read as a child were like that: When Marnie was There by Joan G. Robinson, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner and the historical fiction of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Henry Treece, and Roger Lancelyn Green.

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El Space: What are you working on next?
Amanda: I’m working on two projects. The first is a middle grade based in France in World War One. The second is a historical middle grade based in a town much like San Rafael in the 1870s.

Thanks, Amanda, for being my guest!

You can find Amanda at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

The Lost Celt is available at these fine establishments:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Goosebottom Books
Indiebound

But two of you will get a copy of your very own. Just comment below to be entered in the drawing! Winners to be announced on June 6.

Book covers from Goodreads. Star Wars logo from hr.wikipedia.org. Rome Total War image from gamehackstudios.com. PTSD image from talesfromthelou.wordpress.com. Iraq/Afghanistan Memorial from old.mcallen.net. First World War Memorial from oxfordhistory.org.uk. Hadrian’s wall from medievalhistories.com. Leicester City Football Club logo from ebay.co.uk. Richard III from abc.net.au.

Getting Back to Your Roots

IMG_3329¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo! Or at least it is on the day I’m writing this post. So, I hope by the time you read this, that you had a good one.

If you follow this blog, you know I don’t usually post more than once a week, except on special occasions. So the fact that you’re here means you want to know who won the time travel series by Zetta Elliott. (Go here, if you’re wondering what I’m talking about. Though I mentioned other giveaways at the end of the interview, due to unforeseen circumstances, those will take place at another time. But I didn’t want to delay this giveaway until then.)

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Before I get to the giveaway, I want to talk about something I’ve been thinking about lately: roots. Though I chose the photo at the beginning of this post, it is not a hint that I plan to dye my hair, though I consider doing so from time to time. And getting back to your roots is not an allusion to the Elder Scrolls videogame series or to this:

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I’m actually talking about artistic, spiritual, or cultural roots—whatever it is that takes you back what’s important, especially if it reminds you of who you are or what you love.

I mentioned in a previous blog that writing had become frustrating. It involved lots of spinning wheels and long sessions of staring at the computer screen, followed by a sigh and a retreat to YouTube to watch a video (or seven). So I decided to return to my roots by reading the book that inspired me when I was eight years old. Here it is.

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I’ve mentioned this book a number of times on this blog. Rereading this book reminds me of the kind of story I loved as a kid and still gravitate toward. But if I were to parse this further, I would add that I love the hero’s journey model, which Joseph Campbell discussed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I’ve noticed that some writers (some, not all) nowadays have steered away from that model, deeming it old-fashioned in an age where antiheroes rule. But Meg Murry’s quest to find her dad never gets old to me. She reminds me that girls can be heroes. (Not that I doubted that truth. 🙂 ) I love her family dynamics, and find her belief that she’s nothing special very relatable. I felt that way as a kid. Honestly, I feel that way as an adult sometimes. The fact that her opponent is very powerful—the ultimate evil, actually—while Meg has no discernible power (that she knows of)—makes her an unlikely hero. It also adds high stakes to her journey. Her story inspires me to up my game with my heroine’s story.

The old saying, “You can’t go home again” isn’t always true. Sometimes you need to. Remember what Mufasa in The Lion King told his son Simba? Need a reminder?

What are your roots? Maybe for you those roots are your cultural heritage—a reminder of your family history and how it has shaped your life. Or maybe it is a return to a writing style you’ve loved, but let it go for some reason. Do you think maybe it’s time you returned?

While you think about that, I’ll move on to the winner of A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads.

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The winner is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Laura Sibson!

Congrats, Laura! 🙂 Please comment below to confirm.

Thank you to all who commented.

Hair photo from beautyskincarenatural.blogspot.com. A Wrinkle in Time covers from Goodreads.