After briefly talking, I asked her for an interview and, to my surprise, she was quick to accept. So, here it is. Our first Author Interview.
You have what can be described as an extraordinary entrance into writing and publishing. Would you mind telling that story?
Not at all. You’re right—I tripped over the pot of gold.
My family moved to Germany in support of my husband’s job. After about a half a year of intensive language study with me, my daughters started at a German boarding school so that they could hear German day and night. That left me alone and jobless for the first time in my adult life. Within a couple of weeks of their leaving, I began writing a YA novel for them. I would send them a chapter a week to cheer them up.
Mind you, I had never had the goal of writing fiction for publication, and this was the first fiction writing I had done since middle school. But I was a trained YA librarian, and when the novel was done, I realized it wasn’t too bad. I polished it for a month and then decided to try to submit it somewhere.
Since I was in Germany, I didn’t have access to the typical writer’s manuals, and I knew absolutely nothing about the business. The only thing I could do was check the names of the publishers who had released my daughters’ books and go online to see if they took unagented manuscripts. Holt (the publisher of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, which we owned) took unagented submissions, so I shoved my manuscript into an envelope and sent it off. Then I turned my attention to the problem of getting an agent.
I had just obtained photocopies of the agents’ pages from writers’ resources and had started reading through them when my editor at Holt contacted me, ready to get to work on the manuscript. That was six weeks after the manuscript went into the mail. I didn’t get around to thinking about agents again until I had three more novels under contract and one released.For most writers, especially young writers, that first novel can be overwhelmingly daunting. What were your struggles and triumphs when you set out to write The Hollow Kingdom and how did it affect the way you wrote your following projects?
Do you remember the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence? Anything you’re not supposed to be doing is fun. That first novel was tremendous fun because it was nothing but an entertaining hobby to occupy my spare time. I had no ambitions for it. I had no obligations.
At the time, the computer game, Myst, was out. I would try things in Myst for a few minutes, get disgusted, and work on my YA novel instead. Anything is easier than solving Myst—even getting published!
When my editor complimented me on the speed with which I produced a revision, I told her, “It beats doing the ironing.” Now I have seven books out from trade publishing houses, a manuscript with my agent, and another manuscript under contract. Now I do the ironing for fun!
What was the genesis of The Hollow Kingdom trilogy?
As with most projects, it had a genesis that stretched back decades, and it also had an immediate trigger. The long-term part was my love of folklore, which began before elementary school and grew with me. My mother was an English professor who was herself fascinated by myth and folklore, so I knew all about Childe Roland when I was a kindergartner. As the years went by, I did more and more research on British folklore in particular; my mother dragged me with her to the university library on a weekly basis, and we didn’t have portable electronics back then. Nowadays, I would just rack up a new top score in Angry Birds, but as it was, by the time I was in sixth grade, I was reading master’s theses on topics like the drowned city and the holy well. The central idea of The Hollow Kingdom—the idea of being stolen by the “fairies”—was one that had been familiar to me for a very long time.
The immediate trigger was a monster movie in which (as usual) the plucky young hero triumphs in the end. I thought that was ridiculous. Give me an intelligent monster whose survival depends on whatever he or she is doing, and I don’t think the plucky young hero will stand a chance. (That’s why Marak, my monster, has done so many years of boring research and has so many shelves of useful books to help him meet his nefarious goals: whatever is crucial to your survival is worth studying.) The movie got me thinking about how these sorts of situations were handled in folklore. Our ancestors were more honest with themselves, and in their stories, the magical races often won. And that got me started plotting The Hollow Kingdom.
What made you choose to write a trilogy of books first as opposed to staggering them between novels or simply starting with a single novel?
Since I wasn’t writing for publication, I let my daughters guide my progress. They wanted to know what happened next, so I wrote what happened next. I was working with an editor by then, sure, but my daughters were still my primary readers, and this was still just a lark.
I think that’s important, by the way. I think that the freedom to write what you want to write—to please yourself—has to be there from the beginning, or the writing suffers. I think too many hopeful novelists spend far too much time thinking about the market and not enough time thinking about the story they really want to write. The result can be derivative and uninteresting. After all, if you don’t hook your first reader—yourself—then how will you hook others?When you were writing The House of Dead Maids, did you have any worries about living up to or being compared to a book as well known and respected as Wuthering Heights?
Absolutely! The fear existed on two levels. On one level, there was the worry about writing a good enough work: what I called “writing for Emily.” I researched meticulously but also daydreamed meticulously; I reread and reread Wuthering Heights until its ideas were coming out my fingers. But I had something I really wanted to say, and that drove me forward.
I wanted to address the weird pact that Heathcliff and Cathy have obviously made about being buried together and staying together in the afterlife. The need to put my own thoughts out there drove me through the fear.
Then there was the fear that readers would misjudge the work and think of it as fluff. That’s happened to some extent, but not all that much, and it’s happened more with the readers who don’t know Wuthering Heights well than it has with those who do. I did a number of things to help ameliorate that. First, I published a lot of my research free on the Internet: if you search my website under my The House of Dead Maids pages, you’ll find a small book’s worth of research on the Brontës and on Wuthering Heights. I’ve even posted a page of useful criticisms of my own novel in order to explain my thinking about those issues. And I did a blog tour when the book came out so that I could blog about this background research and about my serious goals for the book.
That’s paid off. The reviews of The House of Dead Maids have taken note of the scholarship, and reviewers accusing me of shoddy work or poor preparation have been thin on the ground. Of course, in some cases they’ve found other things to complain about, but that’s fine. I never mind an honest personal response to a work of fiction.
On your website you list many of your influences and most are what can be described as classic literature. With such influences, what made you want to write YA fiction?
If you think about it, much of classic literature is YA fiction, and almost all of folklore is. It deals with the dangerous transition between childhood and marriage: Cinderella goes to her first dance, the Black Bull o’ Norroway decides to take a wife, Jack goes out into the world to seek his fortune, and the story ends with a wedding. Think about the myths, too: many of them center on the Hero Journey from youth to settled maturity. Think about the early works of literature. Is “Hamlet” an adult story or a YA story? Which one is “Romeo and Juliet”?
These are the sorts of stories that have always mattered to me. I couldn’t care less, to this day, about the bored housewife and her two tired insurance-salesman lovers; I couldn’t care less about the failed marriage or the failed job or the disappointing son whose girlfriend needs an abortion. YA is where the identity is forged. YA is where we’re scarred for life. And those are the interesting stories.
What do you think are the merits of YA fiction as compared to genre or literary fiction?
You can tell I love YA, can’t you? Of course, we sometimes make less money, but the good news is that we have more freedom. I can switch genres, for instance, within YA, without losing my editor or house or audience. And the gatekeepers of YA hold my writing to a higher standard than I think some of my adult-fiction colleagues have to face. I have to please eleven-year-olds, but I also have to please the librarians, teachers, and parents because they buy the books for the eleven-year-olds. Adult-fiction writers can get away with pleasing just their readers, who often seem as undiscriminating as eleven-year-olds. I pick up books in the bookstore, read a couple of pages, and think, “My editor would never let me get away with this.”
Do you see yourself ever writing a novel for adults?
Not if I can help it. It’s just not my genre. And I’m doing well in YA. I don’t need to switch.
What is your preparation process for writing a novel? Do you plot? Do you use note cards? Do you have scenes planned and then write between them?
The first part of a story I get is usually a character and a really big problem. Then I brainstorm some other possible problems big enough to sustain an entire novel. I also get a color palette right away, along with an emotional mood.
I do a lot of daydreaming at this point, and I continually ask myself, “What do I want to happen? What do I want to see?” The process, early on, is nonlinear. In my mind, the novel resembles an unknown continent with the scenes as towns, scattered here and there, but I’m not sure about the pathways between them yet or which ones I’ll bypass as I write. I know some scenes in perfect detail, and I have only a glimpse of others. I’m asking myself, “Who is this person? Where did she come from? Why doesn’t she look anybody in the eye? How was she raised, and what does she like or hate?”
I almost never write that stuff down. I don’t want to lose the excitement of discovery, which is part of the magic that keeps me working on a draft. When I write a bunch of details down, I’m afraid I’ll be done with it and won’t want to think about it any longer. But every now and then, I’ll write down a little bit in preparation. For my new novel, I’m actually thinking of playing with note cards for the first time and having a fun day filling them out and moving them around on the floor. It just sounds like a good time to me, and I’m sure I’ll learn something too.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve either sold finished drafts or had an editor interested enough and patient enough to wait for a finished draft. I’ve rarely had to write down synopses of more than just a page or so in length, and even then, I haven’t had to stick to them.
How do you keep yourself energized and excited when writing a 200-page novel?
I ask myself, “What’s more fun than doing what I’m doing right now?” And the answer had better be “Nothing.” If it isn’t, then something’s wrong with the story or something’s wrong with me, and I have to fix either one of those before continuing. Honestly, if writing isn’t the most enjoyable part of your day, then why do it?
I write my novels in order, from the first page to the last. That way, the pull of the narrative and the thrill of discovery keep me going. I can never know a scene as well as I know it when I write it, and the little things I learn along the way begin to affect the story I’m telling. They surprise me along the way, so I know they’ll surprise my readers.
If things start to slow down and get boring to write, then I know they’ll be boring to read as well. That’s another clue to go looking for a problem.
Do you ever get stuck, tired, or bored during the writing of a novel? If so, how do you overcome those obstacles?
I wrote one of my novels for an editor who didn’t like my writing style. God only knows why she wanted me as an author, but there you have it. That was a difficult novel to write, and it’s definitely my weakest: not what she wanted and not what I wanted either. The writing process for that book was awful because I mentally censored myself as I wrote, knowing that she didn’t like the way I ordinarily put my sentences together. I felt as if I were writing with broken hands.
If the novel hadn’t been pre-sold, I wouldn’t have written it. But it was, so I did. In order to do it, I set a timer on my computer. At first I set it for twenty minutes at a time because we can do anything for twenty minutes, can’t we? Then I worked up until I was setting it for an hour at a time. I also had word-count goals in a big Word file and checked them off daily.
There’s a lovely little piece of productivity software called Freedom that turns off the Internet on your computer for a set amount of time. I just found out about it, but I already love it. Every writer needs it. I’m using it right now! It enables me to keep working on a difficult sentence without stopping to see if anyone’s posted something interesting on Facebook.
Our readers would be interested to know what your physical writing process consists of? Do you write longhand, use a typewriter or a word processor? How many hours a day do you write and do you write every day? How do you juggle writing as well as family and traveling promotion?
You can probably tell from the above answers that I’m an organic writer; I don’t put myself into a set place or a set routine when I write. Instead, I truck my laptop all over the house. (I always write all my drafts in Word.) I’ve written entire novels in bed, for instance. At the moment, I’m writing at the kitchen table, which seems particularly nice because it has a good dose of natural light from the nearby windows. I’ve worked on manuscripts on trains, in temporary lodgings, and in hotel rooms. Again, it has to be the most fun thing I do, and if it is, then why wouldn’t I want to do it?
The recent memoir that I wrote with my daughter was very painful, however, and her serious illness caused my family a lot of trauma and a lot of stress. She was my number one priority for a couple of years, and her illness came right behind writing for the editor who didn’t like my style. Those two things ate into my love of the craft. I honestly thought for a while that I wouldn’t write another book, and the writing I did do was turning out to be not much like me and also not very interesting to me. I began a couple of drafts and discovered that I didn’t want to read those books.
So I took a break for a few months. My editor who has the pre-sold manuscript is an old friend and understands. And already, I can feel the love for the work returning. It’s becoming the most fun thing I do again. A complete manuscript won’t be far behind, and when it comes, it’ll be what I like to write and to read again.
So I believe that sometimes it’s important to take time out to heal or to grow. Our imaginations are always with us, but we only have so many years with our families and friends, and our children grow up faster than we think they will. My hiatus meant no advance money last year, but I’d do it again. Real life needs to come first.
We are very interested in multi-media and transferring our work into other mediums. Do you have an interest in expanding any of your works to other mediums, such as podcasts, plays, film, TV series, etc?
That’s not really me. I like to write old-fashioned, atmospheric books. And I’ve held onto my movie rights when speculators came sniffing around because I don’t see them turning into movies very gracefully—at least not movies I’d want to watch.
A major discussion amongst our members and our blog readers is how to market your writing. Should you market yourself as the author (i.e. “branding”) or should you market the story?
I was at a convention recently when this question came up, and a seasoned bestselling author said it best: “Write the frickin’ story.” It’s the story that an editor or agent will fall in love with. They couldn’t care less about who you are. And it’s the story the reader will find in your bookstore or library. It needs to be the best thing it can be.
You’re not dealing with an unlimited amount of time here. A little marketing is fine, but if it’s a question of improving your writing with research and targeted reading or working on the blog that will “brand” you—then for God’s sake and for the sake of your readers, put the writing first. Yes, marketing can help in the sense that you can make friends in the business, and some of these friends can open some of those doors. But at the end of the day, if you don’t have a good story to offer when those doors open, you’re done. You’ll have to start all over with a new manuscript.
A friend of mine wrote me the other day, asking for a blurb for his unpublished manuscript.
He was hoping to interest editors with it. I checked with my editors and with my agent, and they all wrote back saying that this would do no good at all. Editors like to put blurbs on covers because readers care about blurbs, but editors couldn’t care less about blurbs when making their decisions to acquire manuscripts, and neither could acquisitions committees. Their only concern: Can we bring this manuscript to the market in such a way as to enhance our reputation and make money? They know they’re the ones who will have to invest a lot of money in that story to bring it to publication, so no amount of marketing you do will overcome an editor’s or a publisher’s own gut feeling about a manuscript.
Nothing you or I can do in terms of marketing will ever equal what a trade-publishing house can do for your book. It won’t even come close. So the best marketing strategy you can have is to write the kind of story that will become a lead title for a major house. Very little of your own marketing will affect whether that happens. Your story has to sell itself.
Another big question in the We Put Words On Paper camp for the past few weeks has been about the performance, or lack thereof, at fiction readings. Do you think the author should put on some sort of performance or is a good reading just about charisma and finding a funny or interesting portion to read? And do you have any advice for giving a good reading?
Dickens set the bar pretty high, didn’t he? But this is really up to the author. It’s a question of the place the author wants this to take in his or her career because it has nothing to do with the actual writing. For instance, I know some authors of grade-school fiction who make a lot of money on their school visits because they put on a fabulous show. That’s an important source of income to these authors, and they’ve made the conscious decision to work up the show for that reason (and also because they love interacting with the kids).
Myself, I hate to do readings longer than about five minutes. I’d rather talk to an audience, and
I know that as an audience member, I’d rather hear five really exciting minutes than twenty kind-of-boring minutes. Not every story will appeal to every member of an audience, so when I do read, I feel an obligation to choose something generally appealing, and I try to read it well. I think that’s nothing but simple courtesy and proper respect for the audience.
What’s next for you? What should we be on the lookout for?
The hiatus I took to heal and regroup is leading to a nice, quiet year or two for me. The anorexia memoir I wrote with my daughter, Vanishing Girl, is on editors’ desks at the moment. One of them is taking it to her acquisitions committee, another is thinking hard about it, and we haven’t heard from the rest yet. That’ll probably be my next book, although there’s really no telling at this point, and it’s probably eighteen months out at best. And the untitled manuscript I’m working on is still a good two years away from publication.
Thanks for inviting me to answer questions for your blog! The best of luck to you and your fellow writers, and may all your offers be higher than expected.
Clare Dunkle is a Texas native, former librarian and the author of seven YA novels. Amongst them are The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy and her most recent, The House of Dead Maids, a prequel to Wuthering Heights.