Saturday, January 1, 2011

Susan Fletcher on Dragon Chronicles Book 4: Ancient, Strange and Lovely

Atheneum, 2010
Happy New Year, one and all! Today, Susan Fletcher joins me to talk about the publication of Book 4 in her Dragon Chronicles series: Ancient, Strange, and Lovely, (Atheneum, 2010). Personally, I can think of no better way of ushering in 2011. 

A consummate crafter of award-winning historical fiction and fantasy, Susan teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. This is fitting, as her body of work successfully spans the often arbitrary divide between middle grade and young adult classifications. Her skill at writing is matched only by her genuine gift for teaching. Susan shared with me the particular difficulties she has encountered in writing and gave me much to chew on in this delicious (and nutritious) interview. Pull up a chair, tuck your napkin into your shirt and dig in!
AB: Congratulations on the publication of the fourth book in your dragon chronicles series, Ancient, Strange and Lovely.  I was delightfully absorbed by your imagining of a near future earth, especially with teens who have developed creative, if unattractive, body art that highlights and protests the spread of environmental toxins. What were the challenges of writing a novel set in the near future?

SF: The near-future technology was incredibly difficult to write about; everything else was the kind of challenge I enjoy.   I’ll talk about technology issues later (see questions #4, re: “torture.”)   Meanwhile, the body art, especially the skwebbing (skin + webbing) was really a hoot to invent and think about.  I concocted a new rock subgenre (eco rock), some eco rock groups (i.e., Mutant Tide, Radioactive Fish), and parts of songs (i.e., “Cryptid Rant,” “Dragon Dreams,” and “Philange Web Salute.”)  I cooked up a super-encrypted eBay-like site for poachers and imagined some of the crazy (and disgusting) things they might be selling.  I extrapolated from some of the environmental problems we’re having now to imagine bad stuff that might happen in the near future.  This wasn’t exactly what you might call “fun,” because it’s scary to contemplate.  But it was interesting.  I had the best time, though, imagining how people would respond to the environmental problems.  Especially kids.

AB: What led you to write this story for young readers in particular?

SF: Ancient, Strange and Lovely is a funny kind of sequel to the books in my Dragon Chronicles series: Dragon’s Milk, Flight of the Dragon Kyn, and Sign of the Dove.  The earlier books have a medieval setting and extremely long-lived dragons.  I’d always wanted to bring the series up to the present or near future, but I didn’t know exactly how to do that until…  Well.  More on that in question #7.  A funny thing about age groups.  When the earlier three books came out originally, they were listed for ages 10 -14.  When they came out in paperback, they were listed for ages 8-12.  And Ancient, Strange and Lovely, though the main characters are in high school, is listed for ages 8-12.  These are marketing decisions, I think.   I like to imagine that kids might enjoy this story well into high school.
The lovely Susan Fletcher

AB: In your rich world building, your main character Bryn uses some terms you invented, including “’tants” and words you re-appropriated, such as ‘seismic’. For me it was reminiscent of the slang argot of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. I loved the not-too-distant future lexicon. How did you go about coining words? What was your process? Did you enjoy it?

SF:  I had a blast coining new words, but it was also really hard.  Slang is so tricky!  If you use current slang, you run the risk of dating yourself.  If you make up your own slang, you run the risk of sounding fake.  One option was to strip out nearly all of the slang…but it was clear to me that some of my characters wouldn’t speak in Standard English.  They just wouldn’t.   I’m not talking only about the poorly-educated characters.  I’m talking, too, about the brightest characters, the ones who are most alive. They would play with language, almost revel in it.  So I knew I’d have to deal with slang.  I kept three running lists of words: technology words, words evocative of mystery, and current slang that I’d overheard or heard in movies or TV.  I experimented, combined words in unexpected ways, played with them.  I read the manuscript aloud, just listening to how it sounded.  I changed it over and over, sort of feeling for what felt right.  The final result is a combination of Standard English, invented slang, and current slang that I thought might be around for, like, decades.

AB: Ha! I think you're right about 'like' not going anywhere for awhile. On your website,  you say that Ancient, Strange and Lovely was “excruciatingly hard to write. I’m talking torture. So with the fun and the torture happening at the exact same time, it was like when you eat ice cream too fast and it freezes the inside of your nose.” On behalf of readers everywhere, thank you for enduring this ‘torture’. What made it so difficult?

SF: Technology is changing so fast that it not only marfles my mind – it defies even the experts’ attempts to predict the tools we’ll all be using in the next five to seven years.  I was constantly scanning through technology magazines to try to keep up with what might be coming down the pike.  But even if you know what technology is coming, you don’t know what’s going to “take.”  You don’t know how things are going to be adopted, and by whom.  You don’t know if something’s going to out-and-out tank.  The iPad, for instance, was introduced not long after I’d made the final changes to my book.  I wondered if Bryn ought to have taken a tablet down to her basement, for example, instead of a laptop.  But it was too late to make the change.  The problem with the near future is…  My book will (I hope!) still be in print when some of these issues shake out.  So I worried that in a few years the book might be dated or anachronistic.  My brilliant editor, Karen Wojtyla, suggested a solution.  It’s an alternative near-future, right?  I wasn’t predicting the near-future; I was simply suggesting one way it might pan out.  After that, I was able to relax – at least, a bit!

AB: How long have you been writing? What was the timeline between the third book in the Dragon Chronicles series, Sign of the Dove, and Ancient, Strange and Lovely?
SF: I’ve been writing forever.  Professionally, I started out writing advertising copy, moved to writing for national magazines, then to writing novels for kids and young adults (my favorite).   My first novel came out in 1988; the third novel in the Dragon Chronicles (Sign of the Dove) came out in 1996.

AB:  Your stories generally involve a young heroine who, rises to whatever challenge confronts her courageously. In Ancient, Strange and Lovely, I enjoyed the way you vary the point of view, alternating from Bryn's first-hand account, to a close-in third perspective of other characters. I haven't seen much of this in MG/ YA fiction. Could you tell us why you chose this method of storytelling?
The third book in the series.
SF: I’ve never tried changing points of view before.  Well, there was just a little bit of it with the harper character in Sign of the Dove, but that’s about it.  I can’t remember exactly how I decided to vary the point of view so frequently in Ancient, Strange and Lovely.  I do remember that when I started moving my focus to other perspectives, it felt incredibly liberating.  Seriously, it was a blast.  In my other books, when something happened that my protagonist didn’t know about, I had to use all the craft I possessed to bring in that information unobtrusively.  This time, I just shifted to a new perspective and vamped.  Stuff came out that I had no idea was in there.  I think that this technique may work best for books in which rather complex events outside the protagonist influence the direction of the story.  I’m thinking of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series and His Dark Materials series, for instance.  Or Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm.

As to the first person…  I started out writing Bryn’s parts in third person, but they felt kind of leaden to me.  When I switched to first person, Bryn came alive. My agent felt uncertain about the combination of first and third person.  My editor had no problem with it.  At some point, I think, you’ve just got to trust the way in which the book comes to you most alive.  No matter what the rules say, if it’s alive…that’s right.

AB:  There is an underlying theme of environmental stewardship which runs throughout The Dragon Chronicles series. Was this something that was initially intentional on your part? Has writing this novel in the near future helped you explore different facets of environmentalism?

SF:  Way back when I was writing Dragon’s Milk, the story sort of bent, all on its own, in the direction of endangered species.  It was a discovered theme, not deliberate.  But it was at that early point that the idea of the relationship between humans and the environment became integral to the series.  Two questions that I explored throughout were: What do we lose when an animal goes extinct?  And how does that loss diminish us?

I was pretty jazzed about taking the series into the near future -- re-exploring the theme of environmental stewardship in light of what we know today.  But for a long time, I couldn’t find a way in…until one day my daughter, a microbiologist, told me about a rare lizard whose spit has microbes that might be able to clean up some seriously wicked toxins.  Returning to the questions I’d asked myself in the earlier books, I began to think about the idea of interconnectedness.  If this lizard has microbes in its spit that might get rid of environmental toxins, who’s to say that dragons might not have similar microbes – only better?  Who’s to say that they might not really help us to clean up some of the environmental messes we’ve made?

So if dragons disappear, you lose more than just the cool flying-and-flaming thing.  You lose the ability to clean up the environment, too.

AB: I understand that you work with a critique group. How is that helpful to you? Aside from the critique group, what and/or who has been most helpful to you in developing your craft?

SF:  I’ve been in a critique group for more than 25 years.  Some of us have grown up together, as writers.  I have learned so much from these smart, sensitive people!   I hear their voices as I write and revise, particularly the ones who were there very early on.  For example, I can still hear Eloise McGraw saying that each book teaches you how to write that book, but not necessarily the next.  Ellen Howard’s examples of emotional honesty and depth are always with me; they’re what I’m striving for.  I feel Margaret Bechard’s finely-tuned bullshit meter go off when I’m trying to persuade myself that a piece is good enough, but I know in my heart that there’s something wrong about it.  When I despair of ever getting it right, I think of Winnie Morris bringing a piece back to the group again and again – vastly improved each time -- until we can’t find a single critical thing to say about it.  At first, I processed everything through the group.  Now, I tend to go through a first draft before I show my chapters to anybody.

The other thing that’s been helpful is to reread favorite writers to try to penetrate their secrets.  First I read the book, and let myself savor the whole range of emotional experience.  Then I go coldly back and ask:  How did she do that?

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 them so much?

SF: I don’t have time to read as much as I’d like to!  But definitely: I read.  Some of the kids’ and YA books I’ve enjoyed over this period are: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey; Skellig, by David Almond; The Crimson Cap, by Ellen Howard; The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt; Spacer and Rat, by Margaret Bechard; Thursday’s Child, by Sonya Hartnett; This Full House, by Virginia Euwer Wolff; The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo; The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer; Feed, by M.T. Anderson; Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel; Runt, by Marion Dane Bauer; One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams Garcia, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  I could go on.  This is just kind of a random sampling, books that are springing to mind at this moment.  Different qualities endear.  Some I love most for their deep exploration of a theme: The Monstrumologist, Feed.  For others, it’s a kind of mythic quality, books that don’t seem created, but feel as if they’ve always been in the world: The Underneath, Skellig, Thursday’s Child, Runt.  In others, I’ve fallen head over heels for their characters:  One Crazy Summer, This Full House.  And always, always, it’s the quality of the prose.

AB: What about writing comes easiest for you? What is most difficult about the craft?

SF: Sometimes, the words just come to me.  I wish I could figure out a way to make this happen on command.  There are parts of my books that have been written in the shower, or in airplanes, or in the car, or on walks, or while I’m in the middle of writing something else entirely.  There is an epilogue in Dragon’s Milk; there are many passages in Shadow Spinner; there is nearly my entire picture book, Dadblamed Union Army Cow.  There are more scattered passages like this throughout all my other books.  They just came into my head; I wrote them down.  Later, when I look at the finished books, I see that I hardly had to revise these passages -- these gifts -- at all.  For the most part, though, for me, writing is hard labor.  I don’t mean to over-dramatize it – no drops of blood springing from my fevered brow or anything like that.  It’s just work.   (My earlier comments re: torture notwithstanding!) The hardest part for me is when I’m partway through the marathon that is a novel, when I’ve done a whole bunch and there’s still a whole bunch more to do.  Trying to scrape up the requisite stamina and faith.

AB: You tend to engage in very thorough, often hands-on research for your writing projects. Could you tell us what went into preparing for Ancient, Strange and Lovely?
ALA Best Books for Young Adults

SF:  For Ancient, Strange and Lovely, I didn’t have the travel adventures that I did, say, for Alphabet of Dreams.  It was one of those books where I didn’t so much go out to find things as stay alert to stray stories and bits of information that crossed into my world.   There was the story my daughter told me about a lizard with a symbiotic microbe that cleaned up environmental toxins.  There was the newspaper article about a webcam, a thief, and a lawn dwarf named O’Merkley.  There was the lapidary store that I wandered into in Seattle, where I learned how to crack open a fossilized dragon egg. There was the story my hairdresser told me about people who engage in online trade in really creepy stuff, like shrunken heads.  There was a friend who wrote a book about an Alutiiq healer on a remote Alaskan island. All of these things, when they crossed my path, provided answers to questions the novel was asking.  All were serendipitous.

AB: In the meantime, what advice would you offer a writer who is just starting out?

SF:  I’m kind of old school on this one.  There is so much emphasis these days on marketing, platforms, new technologies.  The thing is, I’ve already worked in advertising.  I left that to do this.  I came to writing novels because I love to read them.   I’m talking about reading as in living a story, stepping inside of a book character’s world and breathing along with him, falling in love with him, breaking my heart over him, busting out of the tight little time-and-place box I live in and experiencing stuff I’d never imagined.  There’s a kind of magic in making that happen.  It’s sorcery.  And, ever since I first experienced this, I wanted to perform that kind of magic, too.

So I’d say, first, put your energy into learning how to perform that sorcery, to perform it as well as you possibly can.  Read and study books you love.  Take classes.  Go to conferences.  Read craft books and blogs like this one.  Write and rewrite your novel until you can feel the magic happening.  And then do the marketing.

Having said that, I want to say that marketing has become an important component in sustaining a career as a writer.  And I am very grateful, indeed, Amy, for this opportunity to chime in on your awesome blog!

AB: Thank you, Susan! It's an honor to interview you. Now, I must go and Google the lawn dwarf named O'Merkley forthwith.

1 comment:

Lisa Schroeder said...

Great interview, ladies.

I'm so impressed by authors who think about the future and imagine things for their books set in the future when it's so hard to know what it might really be like! I would just sit there scratching my head and go, I really don't know! :)