Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Author Interview: Caroline Carlson

by Cordelia Jensen

Hi, Caroline! Welcome to the Big Blue Marble Bookstore Blog. We are very happy to have you here so close to your book release. Before we get started, here's a synopsis of Magic Marks the Spot:

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags.
    But Hilary is not the kind of girl to take no for answer. To escape a life of petticoats and politeness at her stuffy finishing school, Hilary sets out in search of her own seaworthy adventure, where she gets swept up in a madcap quest involving a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a talking gargoyle, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas.

MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT is the first installment in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy. Books 2 and 3 are forthcoming in 2014 and 2015.

Your book is so funny and when my husband read it aloud to my kids, I could hear them laughing and laughing. Is most of your writing humorous? Did you always write funny stories?

I’m so glad your kids thought the book was funny! I’m always a little worried that I’ll be the only one who thinks my jokes are worth laughing at. But I figure if people only laugh at a quarter of my jokes, I’ll throw in four times as many jokes as I think there should be, and then the book will be just funny enough for readers.

I love writing humor, and I find it very difficult to write fiction that’s not funny. I hate being bored while I’m writing—I’m convinced that if I’m bored while I write a scene, my readers will be bored while they read it. So I write little jokes into the manuscript to keep myself laughing, to keep myself engaged in the story, to keep myself glued to the page in the same way I hope my readers will be.

In college, I spent nearly an entire week trying to write Serious Fiction with no jokes in it. I produced the single most obnoxious, pretentious, and dull piece of writing that has ever been created. It was a crime against fiction, so I don’t do things like that anymore. I do enjoy reading other people’s serious books, though.

There is also a lot of heart to your book. And Hilary herself is very brave. Did you know what Hilary's emotional journey would be from the onset or was it something that changed as you did revisions?

One of the things I struggle with most as a writer is remembering to give my characters rich emotional lives—or any emotions at all, really. Characters’ emotional journeys just don’t come as easily to me as their physical journeys do, and that’s been very problematic, because a character’s emotions should always be informing her external actions and the choices she makes.

When I started working on MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, I knew that I needed to give Hilary a very simple, straightforward emotional journey that I could state in one sentence so I wouldn’t forget about it. And I knew that I would have to be quite deliberate about working her emotional arc into the book. I decided that Hilary’s emotional object of desire would be her father’s respect; her longing to earn her dad’s approval is what drives her forward. I thought keeping track of this emotional thread would be simple, but it actually grew and changed and became much more complex and interesting as I drafted and revised (and revised and revised) the story.

In revisions with my editor, I did a lot of work to draw out Hilary’s emotions in specific moments. It can be difficult to gauge whether you’re giving your readers too much emotion or too little; there’s a fine line between writing characters who are maudlin and writing characters who are emotionless zombies, and I’m still working on finding that balance in every scene I write.

The gargoyle is my favorite. I read on the blog El Space that the gargoyle came from a story you wrote in high school. Are there any other characters in the book that existed before--either in your mind or on the page?

I’m happy to hear you like the gargoyle! I love him, too. Actually, I have to say that I really like all of my characters, even the villains. Other than the gargoyle, all of them are brand-new for MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, but some characters were planned more thoroughly than others. I knew a lot about Hilary before I started writing the book, and I knew quite a bit about her father and about her mentor, the pirate Jasper Fletcher. Other characters, like Hilary’s school friend Claire and her governess, Miss Greyson, showed up without any introduction and proceeded to make themselves at home; I had to learn about them as I wrote.

What scene in the book do you feel most proud of? (Without giving too much away . . .) Is it one you struggled to write or one that came to you all at once?

There were two scenes that I rewrote dozens of times each: the second scene in the book, and the scene that takes place at the story’s climax. I’m sure I could rewrite them both another dozen times, but I’m proud of the work I put into them, and I’m happy that I was able to make them work more or less the way I’d hoped they would.

My favorite scene in the book, though, is one that came easily to me. I barely touched it in revisions, so it’s still almost exactly the same as it was in the first draft. It’s the scene that involves a lot of pirates standing in line to interview for a job on a treasure-hunting expedition. It also happens to be the only scene in the book that was written at a coffee shop. I don’t like writing in public places, and I prefer to write at my desk at home, but the only two scenes I’ve ever written in coffee shops (one in MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT and one in its sequel) have been two of my favorites, and they haven’t needed much revising. I may need to rethink my stance on coffee-shop writing.

When you write do you think about a specific kind of reader or audience? Do you think about what you want this reader to take away from the story?

In general, I try to write the kinds of stories that I loved when I was a kid, but I’m not usually consciously aware of my audience while I’m writing. (Now that the book is about to come out, though, I feel extremely conscious of my audience!) I also don’t think consciously about the book’s themes or messages, and I’m always surprised when my editor or another early reader points out the themes that have popped up in my manuscript. Somehow, my own interests and questions about the world manage to sneak onto the page while I’m not looking.

I know you are currently working on sequels to Magic Marks the Spot. This must be very time-consuming. Do you ever do any free writing on the side on other stories or do you strictly stay in the Pirate world?

At the moment, I’m thoroughly in pirate mode: I just turned in my final draft of book 2 in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy, and I’ve been doing some brainstorming as I prepare to write book 3. I do have a couple of other projects I’m looking forward to working on when VNHLP #3 is finished, though, and I’ll occasionally take notes on those projects when I get a good idea that I don’t want to forget.

And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:

1. What were your 3 favorite books from childhood/teen years?

THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones

2. What 3 books have you read recently that surprised you?

AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor
OCD LOVE STORY by Corey Ann Haydu

3. What 3 books influence/s your writing?

FEELING SORRY FOR CELIA (and its sequels) by Jaclyn Moriarty

Thanks so much!

Caroline Carlson is the author of MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, a funny and fantastical seafaring adventure for young readers. She grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA from Swarthmore College and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Caroline lives with her husband in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, amidst many stacks of books.

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to place a special order for Magic Marks the Spot (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1), due out September 10. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Next up: September 24th, Cordelia interviews her former teacher the charming author Mary Quattlebaum!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Author Interview: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

by Jennifer Sheffield

Hi, Catherine! I’m so excited to see a new book from the Dairy Queen universe -- thanks for bringing it to our attention! Heaven is Paved with Oreos was a lot of fun to read, and full of fascinating images and plot turns.

While D.J. Schwenk doesn’t appear all that often in this book, her character is clearly important to Sarah, the narrator. It was cool to see D.J. from the outside, from the point of view of another character. How did it feel to write this shift? Also, is there another person in your life named D.J., or did you really dedicate a book to one of the characters inside it?

Ever since Dairy Queen, I've wanted to show who D.J. is from *our* perspective rather than simply her self-deprecating voice … so the shift to Sarah's POV was really wonderful. I dedicated the book to D.J. because she's been such an important person in my life. In many ways, she's made me who I am, and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to thank her. (And, yes, I do understand that she's a fictional character. But as many writers will tell you, fictional characters take on their own voices and power. Writers have much less control than one would think.)

I love Sarah’s voice, which is so different from D.J.’s and yet is imbued with the same sense of being entirely hers. What got you interested in Sarah Zorn as a character with a story of her own? I remember you saying once that you often rewrite scenes from the points of view of other characters, to see how they look different. Did this story come out of that process?

Sarah, I will confess, is the byproduct of my desire to write a book about Rome. Once I decided that, I spent years (literally) searching for a character to narrate the trip. I also had (see question #1) this desire to write a bit more about D.J. With hindsight, Sarah seems the obvious choice, but boy oh boy did it take a while to settle on her. It helped that she was such a minor character within the Dairy Queen trilogy -- I don't think she had a single line of dialogue. This gave me the freedom to really explore her, and make her who *she* is; I didn't have many constraints.

The trip to Rome is full of references to a 150-year-old travel book, Two Lady Pilgrims in Rome, by the intrepid Lillian Hesselgrave. Is this based on a real book? How did you learn about the 7 pilgrim churches?

Oh, Lillian. If I could, I'd write all of Two Lady Pilgrims myself. Sadly, the book doesn't exist outside of my head, though many travel accounts from the era are equally snarky -- the writing of James Jackson Jarves, for example, or the letters of Charlotte Eaton. It seems that most English-speaking visitors were as parochial and misinformed as Miss Hesselgrave. I believe I first learned about the 7 pilgrimage churches from Wikipedia -- one of those little asides that Wikipedia is so good at, "San Paolo fuori le Mura is one of Rome's historic seven pilgrimage churches" kind of thing. So I started digging around -- which was hard, because there's surprisingly little information -- and realized quite quickly that this would be a wonderful organizing principle for the trip. The 7 churches also helped reinforce other story lines, especially Z's. Thank you, 7 churches. Thank you, Miss Hesselgrave, for giving me a way to present the history of Rome.

I spent one day in Rome once (a Monday, which is a bad day for it, as many places are closed) and I was entertained by the occasional flashes of memory when Sarah went someplace I had been – the Spanish Steps, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Coliseum (which she mentioned, though I’m not sure they saw it). What are your experiences with travel abroad, Roman holidays, and pilgrimages, and how have they influenced your writing?

Obviously I had to go to Italy to research the book, so that was a hardship (joke). I went with a friend who'd never been to Rome, and we had the most amazing experiences visiting the seven churches … I'm getting chills, remembering the singing pilgrims in San Paolo, and the Sunday services at San Sebastiano (the church that Sarah doesn't make it to), and the funeral at San Lorenzo. The trip was such an incredibly special experience. If people reading my book then travel to Rome to see these churches … Wow. Wow wow wow.

I've never thought of myself as a pilgrim in the historic Catholic sense of the word. That said, I believe that a pilgrimage like this, even by someone as sniffy as Lillian Hesselgrave or as skeptical as myself, improves the totality of the universe.

I noticed that, along with Oreos, ice cream figures rather heavily in your new book -- as plot device, ice breaker, mood assessment, comic relief… I’ve observed the influence of food on your other books (particularly the fantasy ones), but it generally hasn’t been something so consistent. What role does ice cream play in your own life, and what flavor(s) do you prefer?

It's strange, but I'm not actually that passionate about ice cream, or Oreos. I mean, I like them (WHO WOULDN'T?), but I can live without them, too. Favorite flavors: coffee, vanilla, mint chocolate chip, gianduia (a hazelnut-chocolate gelato that's death) and, oddly, a coconut gelato I had in Paris that I mistakenly ordered thinking that "nois de coco" meant "chocolate nut," not "coco-nut." Surprise! But it was great.

I am passionate about food generally, which you've surmised from my other writings. I enjoy eating only slightly less than I enjoy cooking (because cooking is both cooking + the promise of eating, so it's the best of everything). And I love to write about food, especially when it's so helpful to the story!

In my second read of Oreos, I realized that, like Dairy Queen, this book deals with questions of communication and lack thereof – what people say or don’t say, and how to talk about difficult things. And of course it was funny (and gratifying) for D.J. to be giving advice and being a role model on these matters. Were these conscious decisions, or did they grow organically in the writing?

These were not conscious decisions at all. As I said, much (possibly everything) about Oreos evolved of my desire to write a book about a girl visiting Rome -- specifically visiting San Paolo fuori le Mura and observing pilgrims, and then visiting Santa Maria del Popolo and seeing the Caravaggio. I wanted her to be with an adult who falls apart in front of the Caravaggio so that the girl has to take responsibility. And learning how to talk about difficult things -- how to talk, period -- isn't that what growing up is all about?

The fact that it's D.J. giving advice on communication skills is the cherry on the sundae.

VoilĂ , more ice cream!
Do you have other projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?

Last November I returned to Rome (another hardship, I know) with my husband to fact-check Oreos. While visiting our 5th church, I happened to be reading my favorite guidebook that mentioned that walking the 7 churches earned one an indulgence. "Wait a minute," I thought; "If you're supposed to WALK the 7 churches, shouldn't there be, you know, a ROUTE?" So I sniffed and sniffed around the internet, and then when we got home I sniffed around historic guidebooks and church histories, and I couldn't find one. There is no official route! So now I'm writing -- attempting to write -- an adult non-fiction book about the 7 churches and what the route might be. It's quite ambitious. If I think too much about it, I hyperventilate.

And now, for our regular "3 for 3" book questions:

1. What were your 3 favorite books from childhood/teen years?

Such a difficult question! (I just asked my daughter her 3 favorite, and she wailed, "There are so many!") But I'll try:
- The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell. The prose is so simple and so beautiful.
- Watership Down by Richard Adams. Books don't need to be about "important" subjects; they only need to be brilliant.
- Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster. The book was published in 1912, but it could have been published yesterday. Totally adorable.

2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you?

- Heat by Bill Buford. I managed to finish the book without eating everything in our kitchen. I only ate half.
- How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks. She weaves a history lesson into extraordinary narrative. Amazing.
- No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. I thought it was going to be a typical biography, and it was anything but.

3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work?

- Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. The voice. The voice. The voice.
- Rome in the Nineteenth Century by Charlotte Eaton. The real Lillian Hesselgrave; she wraps her insults in gilt-covered ribbon.
- Several groupie autobiographies that I won't list by name because they're rated R, but they really helped me understand the 1960s and where Z was coming from.

Thank you for joining us, Catherine!

You're welcome! This was a huge treat!

Catherine Gilbert Murdock lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children. She is the author of the Dairy Queen trilogy, as well as Princess Ben and Wisdom's Kiss. Unlike Sarah, Catherine loves poached eggs on pizza -- especially when eating pizza in Rome. Although she likes eating almost anything in Rome … For more information, visit her website: catherinemurdock.com.

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to place a special order for Heaven is Paved with Oreos, due out September 3. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.
On August 27th, come check out Cordelia's interview with Caroline Carlson, author of the forthcoming Magic Marks the Spot, first in the series The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Janet's Five New Arrivals for Toddlers and Beyond

Where Do We Go When We Disappear? by Isabel Minhos Martins (Tate Publishing, $14.95)
Where do socks go? Where do puddles go? "Nothing is too empty a place to go. And besides, if we all go there, it will cease to be nothing in no time. (We can't do that to it.)" Can we?

Alphablocks by Christopher Franceschelli (Abrams, $16.95)
Presented in this block size book is a large cut out of each letter followed by an engaging illustration.

Journey by Aaron Becker (Candlewick Press, $15.99)
With her red crayon, a young girl creates a journey to a magical world and returns home with the help of a mythical bird.

Global Baby GIRLS by Global Fund for Children (Charlesbridge, $6.95)
Proceeds from this board book of baby girls' faces support organizations around the world which provide "opportunities for girls to grow, thrive and be strong".

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck (book 8!) by Jeff Kinney (Abrams, $13.95)
Coming in November...Preorder your copy THIS Saturday, August 10 (from 10-1), when the Wimpy Kid Book 8 Mobile comes to your own Big Blue Marble Bookstore! Click here for the Facebook event page.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Quote: David Levithan (and Rachel Cohn)

"We believe in the wrong things, I wrote, using the same pen Boomer had used on his arm. That's what frustrates me the most. Not the lack of belief, but the belief in the wrong things. You want meaning? Well, the meanings are out there. we're just so damn good at reading them wrong.

"I wanted to stop there. But I went on.

"It's not going to be explained to you in a prayer. And I'm not going to be able to explain it to you. Not just because I'm as ignorant and hopeful and selectively blind as the next guy, but because I don't think meaning is something that can be explained. You have to understand it on your own. It's like when you're learning to read. First, you learn the letters. Then, once you know what sounds the letters make, you use them to sound out words. You know that c-a-t leads to cat and d-o-g leads to dog. But then you have to make that extra leap, to understand that the word, the sound, the "cat" is connected to an actual cat, and that "dog" is connected to an actual dog. It's that leap, that understanding, that leads to meaning. And a lot of the time in life, we're still just sounding things out. We know the sentences and how to say them. We know the ideas and how to present them. We know the prayers and which words to say in what order. But that's only spelling.

"I don't mean this to sound hopeless. Because in the same way that a kid can realize what "cat" means, I think we can find the truths that live behind our words. I wish I could remember the moment when I was a kid and I discovered that the letters linked into words, and that the words linked to real things. What a revelation that must have been. We don't have the words for it, since we hadn't yet learned the words. It must have been astonishing, to be given the key to the kingdom and see it turn in our hands so easily."

- Dash & Lily's Book of Dares, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

This quote actually conflates learning to read with learning to talk, which makes the analogy a little inaccurate. However, while currently in the midst of the latter and heading for the former with my own child, I find the magic moment here still takes my breath away.