NiFtY Author Erin Bow

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.

EB: Oh, dear.  The story of my path to publication makes people hate me, because I got so lucky.

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.)

(Click on the images to make them bigger; enlarging them here was making them too blurry.)

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

Danger. Have Book. Will Ignore. Everything.

Long, long, long ago, when I was a little munchkin, I loved to read books. Fast forward through the awkward middle school years, the dark teen angsty years, the wow-I-can-sleep-in-every-damn-day college years, and into the I-will-never-get-to-sleep-in-ever-again years of parenting. And I still love to read books.

It isn’t always as easy to find the time, and I almost never have the peace I used to have for it. But I still sneak books in wherever I can. While I’m fixing lunch, I might take a little extra time than usual. There might be one or two unnecessary trips to the bathroom during the afternoon. For the excruciating weeks when I had to stand in Z’s doorway as she fell asleep, I listened to audiobooks.

But it’s always a risk. If the book is terrible (and again and again I wonder how these things are even published, but that will always remain one of the world’s unsolvable mysteries)…where was I? Oh yes, if the book is terrible, and I read the whole thing (as I almost always do, because even if I hate the main character or think the plot is completely contrived or will scream my head off if another teenage protagonist LOVES the library)…where was I? So if I get through it, I’m grouchy because I wasted time on a dumb book.

The even bigger risk, though, is a book that sucks me in. With a short one, like Elizabeth Scott’s The Unwritten Rule, where the main character is totally completely forever in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, I’m pretty safe. I can get through the book in a couple of hours, quickly unload the dishwasher, read Z a story and jet to the park, and I feel like a good stay-at-home mommie.

But if it’s a suck-you-in book and it’s big and fat, like Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution, and I have to get to the end of the story and it takes me more than a day, and I let everything go – housework, play dates, personal hygiene…those are the dangerous books. It’s a safe bet that we will eat, but the meals might be a little later than usual, and perhaps less involved. And heaven forbid if Z’s potty breaks don’t coincide with my own. “You have to what? But I just sat down with my book!” Suddenly I regret potty training.

If you want to get sucked in, here are some recent favorites. I’ve reviewed some of them here in my blog and helpfully provided the links…but why waste the time on a review when you can go read the book?

So it’s the weekend, you’ve got plenty of time. Get thee to a bookstore!

Spirit Bound by Richelle Mead

The set-up: After Rose failed to kill her ex-lover, Dimitri, who turned Strigoi (evil vampire) in a previous book, Dimitri sends her creepy-stalker death threat messages. Meanwhile, Rose graduates from the Vampire Academy and goes to the Moroi (nice friendly vampire) Court. From there, everything falls apart. Not the plot, really, although the thread of it winds around, but Rose’s life and handle on the world.

 

Main character’s goals: Rose wants to change Dimitri back from his evil vampire state (think Buffy wanting to save Angel), but failing that, she is determined to kill him (think Buffy wanting to stake Angel).

My reaction: BIG SPOILER HERE, BUT IT ISN’T REALLY A SPOILER BECAUSE THE BOOK DOESN’T EVEN HAVE AN ENDING….Please please please can we just have a beginning, middle, and end in a YA fantasy anymore? Please? I thought this was the last book. Imagine my surprise when instead of a happy ending we are left with Rose about to go to trial for murdering an important Moroi vampire. Imagine the swear words that poured from my mouth in a very un-mommy-like stream. Mmmkay, spoiler over.

Of interest to writers: You CAN write a sequel-begetting ending without cliffhangers. I have seen it done before and done well. Try Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien, for one of my favorite examples, or The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, which I have reviewed here and here, respectively.

Bottom Line: I love Rose Hathaway. She’s tough and gutsy and not afraid to call the Moroi queen a “sanctimonious bitch.” Bella Swan would pee her pants even thinking about doing that.

Second Bottom Line: I have had it with YA fantasies not ending. I am now all about the contemporary fiction. Well, after I read the last in the Vampire Academy series.

Dear Blog.

Dear Blog,

We’ve had a pretty good year. In fact, I think we just passed our one-year anniversary. Quick investigation reveals January 29th as our first blog post together…I didn’t bring you flowers or anything. Oops.

The truth is, Blog, that when we began our relationship I was in between projects. Putting the finishing revisions on one manuscript, getting ready to begin another…and I didn’t realize what  a time investment you would be. At first I planned to do five posts a week. That lasted all of about, I don’t know, two weeks? That’s a generous guess.

Then we cut it down to three, which is doable. Oh, Blog, I don’t know how to say this, but…I’m seeing someone else. I’ve been seeing her for awhile now. When you and I took that break a couple of weeks ago, things started getting serious between me and her. She’s…oh, she’s high-maintenance and it’s all ups and downs. One minute I think she’s the best thing in the whole world, and the next minute I’m ready to cast her into the fireplace. She is completely bewitching, absorbing, and all-around mind-bending. Every step forward with her revisions brings me three steps back, and she’s a headache and a pain and she makes me want to scream sometimes and I LOVE EVERY MINUTE I SPEND WITH HER.

My current manuscript. Sigh. Even draped in her myriad imperfections, she is divine.

I feel a passion for her that I just don’t feel for you anymore.

Can we still be friends?

I think we should still see each other, but maybe slow things down a bit. Our dates might not be as regular. Definitely we should get together at least once a week. Miss you already! Bye!

With care, gratitude, and respect,

*Beth

Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien

The set-up: Many years in the future, sixteen-year-old Gaia is a midwife to mothers in the sectors outside the Enclave, which is a city of privileged people. The first three babies delivered each month must be given to the Enclave, families of which adopt the babies.

Main character’s goals: Gaia’s parents are arrested by authorities in the Enclave. When they aren’t returned home, Gaia decides to rescue them.

My reaction: Do you really want to know? Probably not. This is a very personal reaction. Within the first few pages, I was quite upset. Sick feeling in my stomach, the whole works. Here’s what happened: O’Brien’s book begins with a birth. “Bummer,” I thought. “My manuscript begins with a birth. Not a big deal, though.” I kept reading. Then, the birth mother’s name is Agnes. “WTF?” I said. “My birth mother’s name is Agnes.” Seriously, what are the chances? And then, the baby gets taken away. SAME THING IN MY NEW MANUSCRIPT. Which is also a post-apocalyptic dystopian story. At this point I was beyond speech. The whole mood, along with those details, reminded me so strongly of my manuscript that I had to put the book down.

But only for an hour or so. Because the writing is excellent, and the story is too. On the bright side, the similarities between O’Brien’s and my stories end after the points I saw in the beginning, and hers is science fiction and mine’s fantasy. But for awhile there I was upset, and, I’ll admit it, pissed off. And I kinda needed to throw up.

Of interest to writers: Mood and tone! The beginning of this has so much mood you could siphon some off and distribute it to five other books, and it would still have this great mood. I mean, wow. If I hadn’t been so upset over my own issues with the beginning, I might have enjoyed it even more.

There’s a way-obvious sequel-begetting ending, BUT this is a complete novel. Writers everywhere, take note: you can end a book in a way that allows for sequels and keeps readers interested, without dangling your hero off a cliff.

Bottom Line: Fabulous book. You’ll enjoy it even more if you aren’t writing about a woman named Agnes giving birth and needing to say goodbye to her baby right away. (Or you could cut your prologue…which you should do anyway.) (Yes I’m talking to myself. I’ll stop now.)

If you want to find out more about Birthmarked, you can visit Caragh O’Brien’s page here.