Erin Bow first grabbed my attention when someone handed me a copy of Plain Kate (click here to read my review). I picked it up and could not stop. Her writing is so beautiful and…. oh, sorry. I just woke up from a fangirl swoon. Here’s our interview! Check out her pole-dancing writing studio! Exclamation points are a side-effect of fangirl-dom!
BH: You have been BUSY since I last visited your website. What are all these projects you have going? Wait, that would take forever. Could you choose one new project to describe in a paragraph for us here?
EB: Hmm, it’s hard to pick! I guess most of my time is going into the first draft of my third novel, a dystopian for young adults called Children of Peace. Here’s the pitch:
A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages. The Children of Peace – sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals – are raised together in small, isolated schools called Prefectures. Under the tutelage of gentle, monkish artificial intelligences, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.
Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of Prefecture Four. Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace — even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water — she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.
BH: Okay, yeah, I want to read it. You probably don’t need a beta reader, but if you do… Moving on. Tell us a little about your path to publication.
I put a lot of research into agents, and landed the first one I queried, the one at the very tippy top of my list. She worked with me for a couple of years on Plain Kate (it took some time, but in my defense I had two babies in there) and then sent it out to this amazing list of editors, seven of them, I think. I not only got an offer right away, I got a bunch of offers (told you my agent was amazing), which ended up in an auction. I was and still am thrilled to be with Arthur Levine, of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic. He’s a genius editor and a great cheerleader for the books he loves.
BH: I wouldn’t say your story makes me hate you. Much.
It has been months since I read Plain Kate, and I still keep going back to it when I want some inspiration for creating a great setting and mood combination. Did that mood come naturally to the writing of the book, or did you have to work at it? Please tell me you had to work at it.
EB: That mood comes courtesy of this 800-page volume of Russian fairytales I read just before starting Plain Kate. I soaked them in and they took me over, and the mood just came tumbling out.
But of course there’s work. A pet peeve of mine is historical fantasies where the world seems just a few inches deep, like a stage set. Pretty: but not workable. I think to really get a setting to work you have to know really nitty-gritty practical things. What the people eat, and where they get it? What do the tools of their trade look like? What are they afraid of when the lights go out? A good fantasy world needs an economy, an ecology, and a mythology.
Some of the things I needed to know for Plain Kate: How do you polish a carving without sand paper? How do you catch a chicken? Keep your feet dry in rainy weather? The research was truly endless, and I still feel as if it’s thin in places.
BH: You write both fiction and poetry, and some pretty great personal essays, too. How do you balance your different projects and the different parts of your brain that you get to tap into?
EB: I try to set aside blocks of time. Sometimes I, say, edit one book in the mornings and draft another in the afternoons. Sometimes I give myself three weeks or a month to finish such and such a chunk, and do little else. I try really hard not to switch back and forth between things. Starting is always the hardest part, and starting over and over again is frustration and a waste of energy. (And I do it all the time. I have the attention span of a goldfish that’s off its meds.)
I also try to keep writing business out of my office: I do submissions and interviews and blogs and things after the kids go to bed. My office is dedicated to the writing part of writing. I don’t have a phone or wifi. (Recently some wifi has started leaking in. I’m considering copper mesh. See: goldfish, meds.) When I’m in my office, I write. When I’m not, I don’t.
BH: What does your workspace look like?
EB: I rented an office half a year ago – and with the exception of marrying my husband, it is the best choice I ever made. The space is somewhat .. unusual. (Note: if the photos aren’t visible, you can click here to see Erin’s Office on Flickr.)
People think I’m kidding when I say I work in a pole dancing studio, but I’m not. My office is their spare room. It can only be reached by crossing the dance floor — check those poles! It’s cheap because I can’t use it at night, when the dance floor is, um, busy. And it’s fun because when I need to clear my head I can swing around a little.
I furnished my office with a hodgepodge of things that were either free or cheap – but it doesn’t feel makeshift. It feels cozy and practical, like a yurt. In this picture you can see the little loveseat (curbsourced) for curling up, a chair (Salvation army, recovered) handy for pulling up to the loveseat for coffee with friends, and of course a big desk (Goodwill) with lots of room for bulletin boards. You can see the picture boards here for Sorrow’s Knot (upper left) and Children of Peace (lower right).
My office is a highly ritualized space – and I refuse to feel silly about that. I often find one needs to coax oneself closer to inspiration, the way a church coaxes one closer to God. So my office is furnished with ritual objects and relics.
Here, you can see the objarka my editor sent me when bidding on Plain Kate, beside Plain Kate’s NYT review; a doorway shrine; a hand-cast pewter cat given by a good friend and some fiddly stones; the timer of short naps and the glass bird of holding when you want to start over; the tin angel celebrating the finish of my second novel, Sorrow’s Knot; the wall of things that mean stuff to me, including the porcelain birds that were my great grandmother’s, a map of Tenochtitlan, a bundle of grass from the monastery where I wrote my first book of poetry, a 1942 advertisement for a Waterman “Commando” fountain pen, and a reproduction of the original cover of A Room of One’s Own.
BH: Your office has inspired me. I am now working on converting our converted garage guest room into my writing studio. Must find a great big pole.
What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?
EB: Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance, on meter in poetry. It is basic – you don’t have to go into being able to scan, which is good, because I have dreadful trouble with scanning. But it is also bottomlessly good, and I could read it over and over, just to soak it up. I read that book, and Heaney’s Beowulf, and somehow decided that what the world really needed was a children’s version of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight in 200 rhymed quatrains, beginning with a beheading and turning on an illicit kiss. I can’t imagine why I can’t get that published.
BH: (I have difficulty with scanning, too. Glad to hear I’m not alone in this.) What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?
EB: Ribe Tuchus – keep your butt in the chair. Sit still.
My biggest enemy, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is inertia: the reistance to starting. But if I promise myself I’ll just Ribe Tuchus for ten minutes, keep my hand moving across the page – often that’s all it takes to stop hating myself and wanting to get a job in a bank.
Every day I have to figure that out again. (Goldfish.) Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus.
BH: Thank you, Erin, for taking the time! For more on Erin and her writing, you can visit her (very awesome website) at erinbow.com She’s also on twitter as @erinbowbooks