Today on the blog, you can help me welcome the awesomely splendid Janet Fox. I met Janet in a workshop during my first semester at VCFA. Janet is here to talk about her middle grade historical novel, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, which includes an element of magic.
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Janet: I love gardening and hiking in the mountains. Once upon a time I thought I would be a musician. I’ve been to the bottom of the sea floor in a submersible several times while researching my MS degree. I write every day, including weekends.
El Space: You’ve written a number of young adult novels. What inspired you to write this middle grade story?
Janet: Great question. This story was inspired by a picture of an odd piece of jewelry, which then ignited the premise. In fact, I was so inspired by that picture and premise that I began to write in a fever and had forty pages—most of which are still in the novel—written in five days—a record for me. The story came out in a younger voice, because the premise that grew in my mind slanted younger. I really had no choice in the matter!
But as with all my work, I had to write an ugly first draft before I understood who my protagonist was, and then I had to “find” her through revision and a lot of effort. In the end, only 12-year-old Kat could have told this particular story.
El Space: Congratulations on your starred reviews for Charmed Children! What was your process for bringing this turbulent time period to life in the twenty-first century?
Janet: Thank you! I’m thrilled, and so much credit goes to my agent, Erin Murphy, who made me polish to a shine before she subbed, and my incredible editor, Kendra Levin. Once I’d established the premise and the characters, I knew it had the feeling of a story set in another time, a time of turmoil. And by the very nature of the jewelry that inspired the story—a chatelaine*—I felt it had to be set in a castle. I chose the start of World War II because the Blitz would give me a reason to send children away from home and away from helpful adults, and because the war itself provided opportunities for additional threats to them and to those they loved. And, of course, the war was much more strongly felt in the UK than it was here in the US.
I do love research, and I tend to research a topic as I go. When I’d decided on the UK in 1940, I focused on all the details necessary to bring that time period to life for kids. Specifically, I wanted to focus on spying, because Kat’s father is a spy missing in action.
The main thing about bringing history to life in any book is to focus not on the history but the characters, because it’s the characters that readers relate to. Yes, getting the historical details right is important. But having the characters right is crucial.
El Space: I agree! How have your travels been a help to you in your writing?
Janet: I’ve been to Scotland three times—the third while the novel was in edits. I think having a feeling for a place is important—the smells and sounds, the food, the weather, the habits—there are so many little things that we take for granted that don’t exist elsewhere and vice versa. How would I know how water is such a factor in Scotland if I hadn’t seen the number of small streams and driven along the coast and hiked in the pouring rain? And I love learning about how other people in the world think and feel. Plus, travel is fun.
El Space: A drafty castle in Scotland is a great setting for a spooky story. But what’s the scariest place you’ve ever been?
Janet: Here’s an interesting tidbit, since readers seem to think this is a pretty scary story: I don’t do scary! I can’t watch scary movies, I don’t visit haunted houses, I avoid dark alleys. When I was a kid, I slept with the lights on and a huge pile of stuffed animals around me, like a fortress. Now, I did once live in a house I’m sure was haunted, and had several haunting experiences there. And the basement of that house gave me the creeps. Needless to say, I spent as little time as possible in that basement. But as to scary places in general? I avoid them!
El Space: I do too! I understand you also make jewelry. Please tell us about that.
Janet: I don’t make jewelry as a rule. But I did make some with charms that relate to the novel to give away to readers. Once you have the right tools and the right “ingredients,” jewelry-making is very satisfying and relatively easy. Etsy is a great resource, but I also found things in my local shops. Normally, my relaxing craft of choice is knitting.
I do think doing something with my hands—knitting, jewelry-making, piano playing, whatever—is a great way for me to relax the right brain and let it stew on a thought, and putting the left brain, which demands productivity and is a relentless editor, to sleep.
El Space: If you could recommend any book to your main character, Kat, to keep her encouraged during the time frame of your book, what book would you recommend? Why? What children’s story has been a help to you when you needed to be brave?
Janet: Interesting question! My favorite books, ever, are C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. I must have read them a hundred times each when I was young—and even now, for inspiration. I’d definitely recommend them to Kat because they feature children who brave pretty scary things alone and who succeed, even when some of them slip up. And if they’d been available, I’d recommend the Harry Potter books, because, like Kat, Harry faces some awful and even deadly trials, and, like Kat, he’s not perfect and makes mistakes; yet in the end he prevails.
El Space: What are you working on next?
Janet: I have a few things cooking that I’m excited about. First, another middle grade that’s a fantasy but also quite different from Charmed Children. Then a young adult contemporary with magical realism. And I’m playing with a possible sequel to Charmed Children—just for fun, because nothing’s settled there. My agent is also shopping a picture book, and a speculative YA, which you actually saw a bit of in workshop at VCFA! I like to have a bunch of things going at once.
El Space: Thanks for being my guest, Janet!
Janet: Thank you so much!
But one of you will win a preorder of Janet’s book from Country Bookshelf, plus some sweet swag. Comment below to be entered into the drawing. You might tell us a book that helped you when you needed to be brave. The winner will be announced on February 8.
Author photo and book cover courtesy of Janet Fox. Other book covers from Goodreads. London blitz photo from peanutonthetable.com. Children after the Blitz photo and caption from Wikipedia. Eilean Donan Castle from worldfortravel.com.