There's something luminous about Emily Whitman. At least that's what I remember thinking when I met her at the book signing of a mutual friend last spring. Maybe it was her sparkling eyes, or the warmth and kindness in her smile that day. But after reading her debut YA novel Radiant Darkness, I suspect Emily glows from the embers of a once rebellious teen still burning within her. How else to explain how deftly she slips into the skin of her heroine, the young Persephone? And yes, you read that correctly- this Persephone is a heroine. She is no innocent victim, abducted and raped by lewd and lascivious Hades. Emily Whitman's Persephone chooses to assume her role as Queen of the Underworld. Why? Well, she loves Hades, for starters, and the realm of the dead is not as bad as you might think. Plus, she's sick of being coddled by an overprotective goddess - her mother.
I discovered that Emily comes from a rich family pantheon- of writers. But she's not interested in retreating to Mount Olympus and hoarding her creativity from mere mortals- she's ready to share her savvy with us.
AB: Congratulations on the publication of your book, Radiant Darkness (Greenwillow, 2009). Clearly, you have a passion for Greek myth and an aversion to smothering matriarchs. I was captivated by your re-imagining of the ‘rape of Persephone’. What led you to write this story?
EW: It came at me sideways. First, I realized I wanted to explore the time when you’re on the cusp of adulthood, straining at your chains, ready to break out into the world; and then I thought of Persephone, the archetype of a girl leaving home. In the myth, she’s kidnapped, raped, and then rescued by her mother. I wondered, what if Persephone wasn’t the ultimate victim, but a strong young woman with a choice? In Radiant Darkness, she finally tells what really happened, and why mortals got her story wrong.
AB: What was the timeline between the kernel of the idea to publication of Radiant Darkness?
EW: In 2005, I was starting to write creatively again when a friend took me to an SCBWI conference in Portland. It helped me realize I wanted to tell Persephone’s story, and that meant a novel. I had no idea how to write a novel! I began throwing my characters into scenes, discovering how they talked, acted, felt. A month later I went to the Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference. I have a confession to make: I went because it was close to home, so I could dedicate a week to writing without paying for airfare or a hotel! Well, it gave me just what I needed: how-to, approaches, excitement, energy. Faculty members were supportive and positive. I was so inspired, I decided to come back in a year with a complete draft of a novel. In 2006, Steve Geck of Greenwillow was the visiting editor at the conference. He read my first ten pages and said he’d like to see the rest. After multiple revisions and much back and forth, it finally went to an acquisitions meeting in April 2008. The result was a two book contract. Radiant Darkness came out last April, and Wildwing (Greenwillow, 2010) is coming out this September!
AB: What led you to write for young readers in particular? What about children's fiction appeals to you?
EW: It had become the bulk of what I read! My son and daughter have always been ravenous readers, and between us we were inhaling a lot of great books. And at the library I was helping kids and teens find books to read, hearing what they liked. This is an amazing time for YA lit. I love its immediacy, power, and emotional curve. The pacing. That it’s about a time of transformation, of finding your strength.
AB: When at Harvard and Berkeley, did you study children’s lit while pursuing degrees in history and literature?
EW: I don’t think it would have occurred to me to study or write for kids at that point! But I loved anything to do with language and stories. I remember a great poetry writing workshop, and a tutorial on light verse. I studied French cabarets and song lyrics as a way to look at shifting notions of class. I loved reading fat 19th century European novels. In grad school I became interested in finding the stories in history—but that’s a long time ago. This is a lot more fun!
AB: How helpful has being a part of SCBWI been for you? How about Linda Zuckerman’s Children’s Book Conference?
EW: Huge! I continue to be grateful and amazed by how supportive, talented, and friendly the kids/teens writing community is in Oregon. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in writing or illustrating kids’ books join the Oregon branch of SCBWI, go to their conferences, and get on their listserve.
The Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference was really what jump started things for me. It left me feeling, “I can do this!” It’s a very intimate conference, and something magical happens over the course of a week, getting loads of new ideas through talks, workshops, and conversations; and connecting at meals and through the day with faculty who are committed to teaching, and with participants who range from beginners to published authors.
AB: This summer, you’ll be on the faculty of the very conference you feel jump started your writing career- Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference. What will you be teaching?
EW: I’ll be giving a talk on character, and one on writing for young adults, as well as leading a workshop. The conference is sponsored by PSU and held on the Reed campus, July 19-23. Liz Bicknell, editorial director of Candlewick Press, will be there this year. You can check out the faculty, schedule, and registration info here.
AB: Do you work with a critique group? What and/or who has been most helpful to you in developing your craft?
EW: I trade pieces regularly with two other writers. I also share work with a friend who’s a screenwriter. My daughter is a fantastic reader with spot-on insights into character. She calls it like she sees it. I’ve learned, though, not to share things during the early stages of writing. That doesn’t work as well for my creative process.
As for craft, I’m always hungry for new techniques, exercises, and ways of seeing. I gobble up inspiration anywhere I can find it: conferences, workshops, books about craft, and reading, reading, reading.
AB: Are you able to read much current middle grade/ YA fiction? If so, what are some books published in the last 5-10 years that you've enjoyed? What makes you like it/them so much?
EW: Um, how much room do I have? I just read The Mysterious Howling—that was fun. Hunger GamesCatching Fire for their nonstop pace. Jellicoe Road. Black Juice—that tar story! Harry Potter. The Knife of Never Letting Go. The Porcupine Year and Diamond Willow were MGs I enjoyed. The Goose Girl for turning a victim tale into a heroine tale. Oregon authors are doing fantastic stuff. Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch was haunting, amazing. I loved Susan Fletcher’s Alphabet of Dreams. Check out books by Christine Fletcher, Sara Ryan, L.K. Madigan, Suzanne Young, Lisa Schroeder, Rosanne Parry, Linda Zuckerman, Suzanne Blackaby (poetry), and April Henry.
AB: What about writing comes easiest for you? What is most difficult about the craft?
EW: I love the earliest part that’s like falling into a dreamworld, where I see and hear and touch everything and my pen is dashing across the page, and I’m not worrying at all if things are right or good because I know I can always fix it later. I also like the first slash-and-burn edit, where my pages turn into giant x’s and arrows and blue pools of scribbled inserts. More challenging for me is figuring out what makes a story slow down in places, rearranging things. And I do endless nitpicky edits, over and over, trying to get the little things just right. Those drive me insane. And the copy editing stage is a necessary evil.
AB: Unless I’m gravely mistaken, you have a sister Lissa Rovetch, aka L. Bob Rovetch, who wrote the HOT DOG AND BOB series. Did you both always know you’d be writing for children, or did you come to it independently?
EW: Yes! Lissa is my wonderful, talented sister—and the author of Hot Dog and Bob, and “Ask Arizona,” a monthly feature for Highlights, Ook the Book, Trigwater Did It, Cora and the Elephants, and much more. She illustrated There Was a Man Who Loved a Rat and Other Vile Little Poems—said poems being written by my mother in her 80s! Lissa also teaches classes in writing and illustrating kids’ books, and in creativity, which makes sense, because she’s probably the most creative person I know. She was writing and illustrating kid’s books back when I still thought my future was in academics, and that’s a while ago. She helped me start on my own journey by convincing me to write some passages for a project she was working on. Thank you, Lissa!
AB: What advice would you offer a writer who is just starting out?
EW: Write! Read! Write! Don’t expect it all to be good, just keep going and when something interesting appears, follow up. Let yourself be inspired by books, conferences, other people you meet on the writing path. Share your work with people who are both kind and insightful. Connect with the local writing community. Get used to saying “I am a writer.”
AB: Emily, thank you so much for your time and thoughtful responses. One last question: can you tell us a bit about your upcoming novel WILDWING that will be on shelves in the fall?
EW: WILDWING is a sweeping tale of love, time travel, and the wisdom of following your heart. The front flap says it really well: When Addy is swept back in time, she couldn’t be happier to leave her miserable life behind. Now she’s mistaken for Lady Matilda, the pampered ward of the king. If Addy can play her part, she’ll have glorious gowns, jewels, and something she’s always longed for—the respect and admiration of others. But then she meets Will, the falconer’s son with sky blue eyes, who unsettles all her plans. From shipwrecks to castle dungeons, from betrothals to hidden conspiracies, Addy finds herself in a world where she’s not the only one with a dangerous secret. When she discovers the truth, Addy must take matters into her own hands. The stakes? Her chance at true love . . . and the life she’s meant to live.