Next stop on the author train: Megan Whalen Turner, of course. I read her three books The Thief (a Newbery Honor Book), The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia back-to-back soon after Maggie was born. I can't remember the last time I had such a wonderful, indulgent, giddy experience reading. These are technically young adult fantasy, I suppose, but I hate to slap a label on them. Really, they read like riveting political historical fiction. If you're a writer, you'll want to re-read these just to figure out how in the heck Megan accomplishes what she does and so gracefully. She is a true storytelling master. When I sent her my interview questions, she said she had just as many questions for me and asked if we could have an email conversation instead. We got carried away, spending the last several weeks telling each other stories and asking more questions, so I'll publish this conversation in installments. And now, the extraordinary Megan Whalen Turner...
Hello Megan! I am unable to stop adoring you from afar after reading The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia. You plot like no one I know. Reading your books is like watching skilled acrobats flinging themselves around but never falling. I would never dare to write like you, and yet you carry off the impossible magnificently and so smoothly it seems effortless. So I guess my question is, how do you plot? Are you a heavy outliner? Do you tackle the tough stuff in first draft or rewrites? That sort of thing.
Shannon, I am stymied. I really don't know how to answer. If I were to disagree with your gracious compliments I might look suitably humble, but maybe not. People might not believe me if I said you make me blush. And if I just take your lovely compliments with a smile, I look like, I dunno, like the Queen of England deigning to be interviewed, and that's not how I feel at all. I think your books are wonderful, you think mine are wonderful. How do you plot?
You picked acrobatics as a metaphor. I feel more like I am putting together a puzzle. I get the frame first and then fill in the little tiny pieces as I find them. And when I can't fit any more in, I always have some left over and I don't know what to do with them. Or I feel as if I am back in 11th grade physics class building a model bridge out of toothpicks, adding another little bit here or there to reinforce weak spots until the whole thing can hold up under the weight of being read by strangers.
Who is your first reader? What do your stories look like the first time you share them with someone?
I know, I know, I asked you an impossible question. I was being interviewed the other day for a newspaper and he asked me something like, "How does it feel to be so famous and adored?" And later, "How do you manage to write perfect books?" I stuttered, I hemmed. No way to answer that well.
My first reader is my husband, which is perfect, because I've trained him over the years to read my stuff well. He knows how to compliment me a billion times before the first criticism, lest I crumple under it all and flee. And he knows how to find specific things that don't work and point me in a better direction. And I know he loves me no matter what, so I can take the hits. Really, my early drafts are pretty bad. Lifeless, detail-less, confusing. I have to have a lot of hope to see possibilities in my first drafts. I think rewriting is where my storytelling really happens. Who is your first reader?
I'm curious how the Newbery Honor changed you or your storytelling, or didn't. Did you feel new pressure? Did it seem real or unreal, or did it affect how you wrote afterward? Do you think it changed how booksellers or publishers or readers see your books?
My first reader is my husband as well. I trust him not only to be a good critic, but an honest one. I never have to wonder if he is shining it on because he doesn't want to hurt my feelings.
I remember when I showed him a short story and for the first time, he couldn't put his finger on the problem with it. I knew there was a problem as well, but also couldn't nail it down. Finally, I decided that the problem was caffeine deprivation. I started the story while in the no-coffee stage of pregnancy, and the writing was just uninspired.
Caffeine is an essential ingredient in my prose. We have a phrase now for writing that just isn't coming together: decaffeinated at its inception.
Aargh. I was going to answer the question about the Newbery Honor, but I have to get everybody's hair cut. School starts next week. I'm sorry that this exchange is going at snail pace.
I got the call from the Newbery committee just as I was about to drive from New Jersey to Washington DC. We were only going to be in New Jersey for a year, so I'd kept my pediatrician in DC and I was driving down to stay with my parents whenever it was time for the boys' check-ups.
The call could not have been more of surprise. For one thing, I had my dates wrong for the ALA mid-winter conference. I thought they'd awarded the Newbery the week before. But after the shock and awe, I still had to drive down for the doctor's appointment and the baby had an allergic reaction to the MMR and I spent the next week worrying about him, and really, I still look at the little sticker on the front of the books sometimes and think, "Wow, when did that happen?"
I know what you mean! For the six months between the phone call and when the award was actually given, I kept expecting someone to call and say, "There was a mistake, sorry, you didn't get it after all."
Thank you so much, Megan. You've been so generous with your time. I could keep this going for weeks, but I'm slapping my hands to stop so I won't take advantage of you. If I might dare one last sneaky question...can you tell us what to expect from you next?
No! No! My turn!
I feel so prosaic talking about babies and vaccinations. Do you ever feel like you should be more glamorous for your fans? Do you worry about disappointing them by being too ordinary? I always thought my favorite writers must *glow* or something. Susan Cooper, I imagined floating through air. Katherine Patterson especially should have a saint-like aura. At least, they should wear flowing robes. Capes maybe. Authors ought to live in mysterious writerly places like Bali, or in a cabin in the Adirondacks. I don't know about you but I am in suburbia here and I sometimes feel like I'm letting the side down.
And here's a question. Do they people in your neighborhood know what a great writer you are? How do you introduce yourself?
As long as no one asks me, I usually don't mention that I write books. When people do ask, I say I write fiction for children, and they almost all say, "Oh, that's nice," and back away slowly. I am extremely reluctant to say, "Yeah, and I got a Newbery Honor Book award!" so I smile and nod and leave them to their assumptions. What do you say? You are -much- more famous than I am. Perhaps you don't have this problem.