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.

Check This Out: Breaking Sky

Break out your flight suits, kids! Today on the blog, we’re going up, up, and away, with the totally awesome Cori McCarthy. She’s here to talk about her new young adult novel, Breaking Sky, published by Sourcebooks on March 10. Perhaps you’ll recall that Cori was here in 2013 to talk about her first book, The Color of Rain.

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BSky Cover FinalCori is represented by Sarah Davies. Here is the synopsis for Breaking Sky:

In this high-flying, adrenaline-fueled thriller, America’s best hope is the elite teen fighter pilots of the United Star Academy.

Chase Harcourt, call sign “Nyx,” is one of only two pilots chosen to fly the experimental “Streaker” jets at the junior Air Force Academy in the year 2048. She’s tough and impulsive with lightning-fast reactions, but few know the pain and loneliness of her past or the dark secret about her father. All anyone cares about is that Chase aces the upcoming Streaker trials, proving the prototype jet can knock the enemy out of the sky.

But as the world tilts toward war, Chase cracks open a military secret. There’s a third Streaker jet, whose young hotshot pilot, Tristan, can match her on the ground and in the clouds. Chase doesn’t play well with others, but to save her country she may just have to put her life in the hands of the competition.

Exciting, huh? Stay put after the interview for a giveaway announcement.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Cori: (1) I am restlessly creative. (2) I do not like sweets, desserts, or chocolates, but if you place a bowl of pasta in front of me, beware of losing your fingers. (3) My goal for retirement is to live in the New England woods, writing full time without access to the internet. (4) My two big brothers are my heroes—well, tied with Walt Whitman.

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El Space: Tell us about Breaking Sky. What was the inspiration behind it?
Cori: The inspiration was about ten different elements coming together. I wanted to write about an unlikeable character. I wanted to write about fighter jets and militarized youth. And perhaps most importantly, I wanted to write something fun.

Front CoverEl Space: You’re known for your strong characters. How is Chase different from Rain in The Color of Rain? What aspect of your interior life did you give to Chase? Why?
Cori: Rain is all survivor’s heart, and Chase? Chase is a bit of a jerk. I have, at many points in my life, been a bit of a jerk as well. The problem is that I sometimes become obsessed with my creative ambitions, and I don’t always notice when I’ve hurt someone’s feelings or neglect them. Chase feels as badly about mistreating the people around her as I do, and she is constantly trying to rise above it. But as I have learned over and over again, it’s not easy to change who you are. Harder still to apologize for it in a way that doesn’t sound like an excuse.

El Space: Congrats on the movie rights to your novel being sold to Sony Pictures. How do you wrap your mind around that? What scares or excites you about the thought of being “the next big thing”?
Cori: Thank you! The movie news was as unexpected and as it was exciting, and I’m not sure that I have wrapped my mind around it. There’s an element of Hollywood that just can’t be predicted. Will the movie happen? Yes, no, maybe! I’m along for the ride. As far as the title “the next big thing,” I know less about processing that than I do about Hollywood!

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El Space: You’re also a screenwriter. How did that training enhance your writing of Breaking Sky?
Cori: Screenwriting taught me how to plot. Hands down. If you’re a writer who is having trouble plotting, I highly, highly, highly suggest taking a class or reading a book on writing screenplays.

El Space: Do you or someone you know have a military background? How much research did you have to do to write Breaking Sky?
Cori: I chose the Air Force because my grandfather and father served in the Air Force, and my big brother is currently a Master Sergeant in the Air Force. They inspired me, and then from there I did copious amounts of research. I read firsthand accounts of fighter pilots stretching all the way back to World War I. At the same time, I created a fictional jet and academy so that while I could use my research, I could also set my own rules. I mean, I don’t think anyone could write a book about West Point without having attended West Point, so I made up the United Star Academy and the streaker jets.

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Air Force bombers

Blank TShirtEl Space: I read an article online where a female recruit discussed her participation in basic training in the Air Force. She mentioned:

Around your 5 WOT [week of training], your flight can start designing a flight t-shirt. . . . . Let your shirts’ design represent the essence of your flight.

I love that idea. As an author, you’ve gone through a “basic training” of sorts now that your debut period is over and you have written multiple books. What would you put on a T-shirt to show where you are today—the “essence” of your career?
Cori: What a cool question. I think my t-shirt would say: CHASE RAIN. Beyond being my characters’ names, that’s pretty much what I do every time I sit down to write a book. I pull things out of the air and try to make sense of them. For every book that I’ve sold, there are two more that aren’t going anywhere outside of my computer. Some days writing feels Sisyphean. Some days it’s poetic. Most days? It’s the best job on the planet.

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El Space: What genre do you plan to tackle next?
Cori: For some crazy reason I’ve decided to write a contemporary story told from five different points of view! It’ll be out March 2016 and is called, You Were Here. I’m excited about it but also terrified because there are no flashy speculative fiction tricks. No distracting jets or heartbreaking prostitutes. This is a story that will allow every single person who reads it to peer directly into my soul. Will anyone like it? I have no idea. . . .

I’m betting we will, Cori. Thanks for being my guest.

If you’re looking for Cori, you can find her at the usual places: her website, her author page on Facebook, and Twitter.

Breaking Sky is available here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Great Lakes Book and Supply

One of you will win a copy of Breaking Sky just by commenting below. The winner will be announced on Thursday, March 26.

Author photo and book cover courtesy of Cori McCarthy. Walt Whitman photo from Wikipedia. Blank t-shirt from youthedesigner.com. U.S. Air Force bombers from osd.dtic.mil. Sisyphus from arrowinflight.wordpress.com.