Monday, August 03, 2009

Exclusive SCBWI TEAM BLOG Interview: Kathleen Duey...

Kathleen Duey has published more than 70 books for readers of all ages with a focus on historical fiction and fantasy. Many of her books are titles in her middle grade series: American Diaries; Survival; The Unicorn's Secret; and Hoofbeats. The Faeries Promise, a four-book set for young readers, will be out in 2010. Skin Hunger—first of a dark YA fantasy trilogy—was a 2007 National Book Award Finalist. Sacred Scars, the second book in the trilogy, has just been released and Kathleen is writing the final book now.

Other projects in the works include Free Rat, the near-future odyssey of a damaged and unwilling hero; A Virgin’s Blood, a thorny and complex love story; and Russet an ongoing Twitter novel, written in 140 character bursts. She's also written several terrific pieces for past editions of CWIM (which always makes this editor terribly excited).

Here we discuss
among other writerly topicsfear.

How long have you been attending the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA? Where were you career-wise when you first attended?

Hmmmm. Wow. About 14 years, I think. I have missed a few national conferences over that time, not many. I had published three books before I discovered SCBWI, but it was still like stumbling into a gold mine posted with signs that read: Take what you need. Come back often.

You say on your blog that “dark, atypical fantasy” is your new love. What’s atypical about your current work, the A Resurrection of Magic trilogy?

There is little that IS typical. There are two stories that go back and forth, every other chapter. There are two protagonists. One is written in a first person voice, the other is in third person. The stories happen about 200 years apart and the first story causes the second one. By the end of the trilogy, in the first story, almost 200 years pass. In the second story about 8 years will have passed.

The setting is the city of Limori. Because of the time span, the culture the characters live in has changed. Because it is a fantasy, a few of the characters are alive in both stories. Magic is a burden, a blessing, a secret, a cause for revolution, abuse of power—all things human are included. It is a very realistic fantasy.

The second book in your trilogy, Sacred Scars is an August release. Will it be available in the conference bookstore so I can get a copy? Would you tell me and my readers a little about the book?

Sacred Scars is out now and will be at the conference. I think they will have Skin Hunger (first in the trilogy) as well and a few of The Unicorn’s Secret (for 2-4th graders) too.

This is all I can say about Sacred Scars without spoilers: The stories of both characters absolutely astounded me as I wrote the second book. It is almost two hundred pages longer than the first book. Hahp’s sheltered life is far behind him now, he has to face choices no one should have to face. And Sadima’s kind heart leads her into terrible danger.

At the SCBWI Summer Conference you’ll be offering a breakout session on building a novel. Who should attend and what do you hope your attendees come away with?

Thanks for asking about this. Anyone at any level of skill who is writing novels for any age group should consider coming. I want to walk through novel structure in a different way, one that includes art and heart, not just craft. Competent novels are harder and harder to sell, in large part because of SCBWI’s wonderful resources, more and more people can write pretty well. But I think too many of us learn the rules—which are far more “teachable”—and lose the spark—which is more “discoverable”.

To move from my very competently written paperback series to the kind of books I am writing now, I had to recover the deeper parts of my own artistic process. It was tricky at first. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I set it aside and why, and I very purposefully set out to get it back. I hope to help others avoid the same detour.

You’ve said that your Twitter novel Russet has given you a creative jolt of “raw fear.” Why is it important to experiment and delve into things that are a little scary?

I have written three answers to this and erased them. Here is the real one: I remember standing on a stage in high school, shaking, holding my guitar, taking a deep breath and forcing myself to sing to an auditorium full of my peers. I didn’t think I would live through it. And when it was over, they clapped and cheered and I was happier than I ever remembered being in my life. I went home and wrote three songs, each one better than I had ever written before, many journal pages, and I practiced harder for months afterward.

Writers don’t get that performance jolt often, if ever. Our writer-friends and editors help us, we rely on extensive revision, and, in addition to all that, most of us adhere to pre-defined, marketable forms. I wanted the jolt back; I wanted to perform. And in order to complicate my life further, I decided to do a kind of literary improv. Every time I add text, I am scared to death. Once I post it, I don’t touch it again. I don’t plot ahead or outline. And I am very happy, awake, and alive artistically just now.

Tell me about that experience of writing Russet. How have readers responded? (Feel free to answer in more than 140 characters. Or not.)

I need more than 140 for this: The Twitter format was largely accidental. I had signed up for Twitter a year prior, but hadn’t done anything with it. One day I got a little e-notice that someone was following me. Following what? I had never posted. I couldn’t imagine writing anything of interest in 140 characters or less. I would rather spend my time writing stories than figuring out how…hmmmmm. It hit me: Weird format, real-time, no story in mind, just character channeling, online and live, very public…and it could blow up in my face a hundred ways. My heart started to thud. Perfect.

Russet’s audience is expanding rapidly. People write to say they love the story. Me, too. The whole text can be found here. It’s about 100 pages of story compressed into 23 pages of tweets.

And speaking of fear, attending an SCBWI conference for the first time can be a little scary. What advice can you offer conference attendees (particularly first-timers) on getting the most out of the event?

Before you go, decide what areas of your writing or art need the biggest boosts. Look at the workshops with those areas in mind and choose accordingly. If I am not sure of a session, I often stand at the back so I can slip out without disrupting anything and go stand in the back elsewhere.

Collect attendees’ and whoever else’s business cards and jot down who/why/what on the back. LOTS of people put together critique groups that last for years from conference acquaintances. Make sure everyone understands copyright and swears never to forward your work to anyone else without your permission. (Which you should never, ever give them.)

Eat well and get to sleep at reasonable hours so you can make the most of the conference. (With the exception of Saturday night. We must dance.)

Make use of conference attendee gatherings to learn how to critique and be critiqued. Both are important. If you see me walking past, invite me. If I can, I will join you.

Will you be formally critiquing manuscripts during the conference? Critiques, too, can be scary for new writers. What’s your advice on getting the most from a critique meeting?

I am critiquing. I almost always do. First, remember this: It is your book, your story, YOURS. Second, remember this: Because it is yours, you have almost no chance of seeing it objectively. None of us can. So listen carefully and with an open mind. Ask questions, take notes. You can winnow it all out later and use what seems right as a starting point for your own re-evaluation, and toss what doesn’t. This was a huge realization for me: The fix might best be made by making small changes over thirty (or forty or two hundred) pages, before or after the page upon which the problem was spotted.

Your keynote address is titled “Transmutation: Books That Matter.” Why transmutation as theme? How does this word apply to your career?

Well, I love that word, the old meaning of turning base metal into gold. For me, that describes the process of writing a book. And I think it applies to everyone’s careers. Especially now. We are at a turning point for books, for literature, for mankind, womankind, childkind. If we want literacy to survive, we need to make it indispensible to the next generation. And to do that we need to write books that really matter. And for screen culture kids, that will take art in its biggest, baddest, broadest sense, as well as craft.

You’re giving the closing address of the conference. Do you feel pressure to end with a bang? (And is going last scary?)

Pressure? Yes.
Scary? No. Terrifying!

photo: Sonya Sones


Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Awesome interview! I can't wait to hear her speak at the conference!

Anonymous said...

loved the book! can't wait to read sacred scars! brilliant interview! i'm so sorry i can't make it to the conference this year but i'm hoping to go on the 40th anniversary of sCBWI!

Cuppa Jolie said...

Love this interview. Thank, Alice. I thought SKIN HUNGER was...hmmm...crazy intriguing. Yeah, that works. Really looking forward to hearing Kathleen at the conference.

Rita said...

Lovely, lovely interivew with an absolutely awesome writer. I love how Kathleen Duey imbues everything she does with artistic awareness, aliveness, and precision. You can tell her work is forged in the fire. Her motivation for the Twitter novel showcases that exactly.

I'm really looking forward to this conference. Thank you both for sharing!

Carolyn said...

Wow! Great interview. Brilliant.

holly cupala said...

Nice interview! I have rarely met a writer so resolutely dedicated as Kathleen Duey. I'm glad to see her meeting with success!

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