Our second interview is a conversation with debut author Kit Grindstaff. She'll be reading here this coming Sunday, May 19, from her middle grade novel The Flame in the Mist, "a fantasy-adventure for fans of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass." Come join us at the seventh annual Mt. Airy Kids’ Literary Festival for Kit's lunchtime reading and book-themed refreshments!
Hi, Kit! Thank you for taking the time for this interview! It was very exciting reading your book, especially having read part of an earlier draft when you joined our writing group at the bookstore. I’m looking forward to your reading at the Kids' Literary Festival!
Thank you for the interview, Jen—and for inviting me to the store! I’m looking forward to reading at the “book lunch” too.
1) Some of your characters in the book are twins, or have family members who are. Do you have twins in your own family, or did this idea grow from someplace else?
I love that you asked this! Of all the blogger interviews I’ve done, nobody ever brought it up—strange, since as you know, it’s pretty pivotal.
As a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of twins, without knowing why. People often mistook my older brother and me for twins, which I thought was neat. I dreamed of having twin baby brothers, and later on fantasized about having twins of my own when I grew up and became a mum (which never happened) (the mum bit, anyway…). It wasn’t until I was older that I learned my mother had a twin who was stillborn. This left her an only child, and to this day she says the loss of that twin has affected her deeply all through her life. So I believe that in some way I picked up this fascination from her and from the untold story of loneliness that she lived with.
However, I didn’t consciously set out to make twinship a theme in the book. So its importance in the story is example to me of the wonderful way that the subconscious can work its magic into what one writes, as if such untold stories are demanding expression—in this case, my mum’s lost twin needing to be laid to rest in some way.
2) Please tell me about some rats you’ve known. How did you come to choose rats for Jemma’s companions? How do their personalities complement each other? Also, how did they get their names?
Ha ha! Well there was this guy….Oh, wait. Not that kind of rat. Actually, I never knew any furry rats. Guinea pigs, yes—Pikelet, Muffin and Flump—but I always feared rats. Living in London and New York, you see plenty of the brown sewer kind lurking in the garbage or scurrying across your path at night. Eek. And ew.
So I initially chose rats for Jemma because a) there’d be rats in a castle (so it made sense) and b) I thought the “ew” factor would be fun for kids. Little did I know how I’d fall in love with them. By the end of draft one, I swear, my lifelong fear of rats had vanished.
Originally their names were Scurry and Flurry, and they were the regular brown variety. Then, as their powers of telepathy evolved in the story and their role grew stronger, their names began to feel too cute and rhyme-y. So I changed them to Noodle and Pie. No idea why—the names just felt right, and chimed well together. It wasn’t until a very late draft that their fur turned golden. Which of course was perfect, going along with golden Light and the missing sunshine.
3) How does landscape affect your writing/writing process? Your bio says you “grew up in the rolling countryside of England, which is curiously similar to Anglavia.” Does the Mist have its origins there as well? Does it evoke a particular memory? And did any of the writing of this book take place in similar surroundings?
England can be very misty, for sure! And the memory of damp foggy winters certainly played into the Mist. But actually, classic Brit literature was a bigger influence. I read an abridged version of Great Expectations when I was 8, and Dickens’s description of the misty marshes where Pip first meets Magwitch wormed deep into me. In other books too, fog seems ever present. But thankfully it’s all logged in my memory, so I didn’t need to be immersed in it to write it!
4) Which characters’ voices were the most difficult to write? Which came the most smoothly? Do you have particular strategies to help you along with this?
I suppose one of the most challenging was Jemma’s herself, as she has no dialect, no particular idiosyncrasies. The others’ voices on the whole were very clear in my head—almost as if the characters were speaking, and I was merely transcribing.
In terms of dialect, though, Rue’s was challenging to get onto the page. When it came to copy editing all sorts of questions arose, for example about why I was substituting “yer” for “your” or “you’re” in some places and not others. I was embarrassed to realize how horribly inconsistent I’d been! For some reason, the logic of her speech was tricky, and it took me days to figure out how make it cohesive.
5) I saw this question in another interview with you, and I want to reiterate it here: What is some of the best writing advice you’ve received, and how has it helped you in your writing?
Hmm, I wonder if I’ll give the same answers now? First thing that comes to mind is love what you write, and write what you love. The road contains lots of pitfalls and frustrations, and without the passion to carry you through, it would be too tough. And besides, why expend time and energy on something you only feel half hearted, or even three quarter hearted, about?
For technical advice, a workshop I took with Donald Maass taught me three things in particular that really stick with me. First, every scene should count: every paragraph and sentence, even, needs to serve the story. Second, the main character should be changed, however slightly, at the end of each scene: what has she or he learned? What’s different now than it was before the scene took place? Third, Maass talked about microtension. As well as the big picture conflict, and/or internal conflict, there should be tension in every paragraph—some emotional significance that ramps up the stakes at every turn.
The idea of microtension was immensely helpful in revising action scenes. For example, in Jemma’s fight with the Aukron, originally it was only action. After Maass’s workshop, I added in two fleeting thoughts: Jemma’s defense of Noodle, and how his imminent death fires her up; and then her thinking of all the things she’ll never see or experience if she dies right now. Those two small things suddenly gave the scene much more consequence for her, and I think strengthened it a lot.
6) You also have a professional career in songwriting. What kinds of music have you recorded, and what other kinds of music do you enjoy? Do the songwriting and the prose writing ever overlap?
Generally, I’ve written pop songs. Pop with different flavors: pop rock, pop folk, pop jazz. Pop r’n’b, not so much. French café jazz—love!
To listen to, I’ve always loved classical music—Bach and Vivaldi are particular favorites for an optimistic hit first thing in the morning. Then there’s choral pieces (I once sang Handel’s Solomon in the university choir at Durham Catherdral in England—one of The Most Awesome Experiences ever!), Thomas Tallis, as well as chants, Tibetan bells, Christmas carols, Hindu chants, African choral. Some trance music, even. And Bhangra—a joyous way to get moving! The only genre I don’t love on the whole is rap—though there have been a few particular songs I’ve really liked.
As regards overlap, though both are “writing”, I don’t find there’s much connection between song writing and prose. The two are very different—3 minute story vs hundreds of pages of prose—and demand very different kinds of focus and creative process.
7) What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
Well, one begins with the letter ‘s’ and ends with the letter ‘l’ with a ‘q’ in the middle…The first draft is nearing completion, though there’s a tonnnnn of layering in to do yet. Other than that, I have two pet projects on the back burner, one told from two points of view across several centuries, the other from three points of view in a more futuristic England. And I often dream of writing a picture book someday. I have an idea, but as yet have no clue how to frame it.
And now, for our regular "3 for 3" book questions:
3 favorite books from childhood/teen years:
From childhood: The Famous Five (a series…sorry, can’t choose just one! They’re all an archetypal British blur), and Friday’s Tunnel, by John Verney.
From teens: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Getting into the classic and ghostly…Oh sorry, that’s 4. (I knew it was 4.)
3 books you've read recently that surprised you:
1. The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann. His prose style is delightful to me, the story both funny and tragic—and the fact that it was written by a 16/17 year old just adds to its “Whaaaa? Blown away!” factor.
2. Brianna on the Brink, by Nicole McInnes. I didn’t love the title, but Nicole and I both belong to The Lucky 13s, a group of authors who all have our books debuting this year, so I took the opportunity to read an ARC. The opening pages irritated me—Brianna’s voice was kind of glib—but the synopsis was intriguing enough me to read on, and I was so glad I did. Turned out I was missing the point of this glibness, which is part of Brianna’s defense system. A short book by most standards these days, but it packs an emotional punch. I really loved it.
3. The Fault in our Stars by John Green. I’d heard great things about it, and the book delivered. Only it was much better than I’d anticipated, and hit me way deeper.
3 books that influence/d your work:
1. The Golden Compass. I love Pullman’s world building, the steampunkish parallel Oxford he creates. I also love Lyra’s spunk. She definitely influenced my writing of Jemma.
2. Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. Not that the story bears any resemblance to The Flame in the Mist, but the beauty of Babbitt’s prose, especially in the prologue, is amazing—something to aspire to.
3. Last but not least, I still feel Dickens breathing through Jemma’s Anglavia! And since I’m writing a sequel—oh, there. I just said it. The ‘s’-word :-)
Thanks so much, Kit!
You’re welcome, Jen!
Kit Grindstaff was born near London and grew up in the rolling countryside of England. After a brush with pop stardom (under her maiden name, Hain) she moved to New York and embarked on her career as a pop song writer. Kit now lives with her husband in the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the SCBWI. The Flame in the Mist is her first novel. You can also find her at http://www.kitgrindstaff.com, http://www.facebook.com/kitgrindstaff and on Twitter: @kitgrindstaff.
On May 28th, come check out Cordelia's interview with Melanie Crowder, author of the debut middle grade novel Parched, as part of Melanie's upcoming blog tour!