Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Author Feature: Jo Whittemore

Jo Whittemore is the debut YA fantasy author of Escape from Arylon (Llewellyn/Flux, 2006). She lives in the Austin area. Read Jo's LJ.

Escape from Arylon (Book One from the Silverskin Legacy) by Jo Whittemore (Llewellyn/Flux, 2006). In the first book in the Silverskin Legacy trilogy, debut novelist Jo Whittemore introduces high school freshmen and ex-friends Megan Haney and Ainsley Minks. A freak accident transports them from their sleepy suburb to the land of Arylon, where someone has stolen the powerful Staff of Lexiam. Before they can return home, they must help the wizard-king Bornias recover the Staff, or else both worlds will be in jeopardy. The author creates likeable and intriguing characters and a fun and fantastic fantasy world. The cliffhanger ending will have readers eagerly anticipating the second book in the trilogy, which scheduled for publication in July 2006. Ages 12-up. Recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith.

Jo Whittemore on Jo Whittemore: "I was born on Halloween night at a military base in Kentucky. My parents initially thought I was going to be a boy, so my father had the names 'Jedediah' or 'Jeremiah' lined up for me. Thank goodness I was a girl! The first years of my life I can recall are living in Boise, Idaho, and wishing every day that I could go to school like my big sister did.

"We weren't there long before we moved to southern California, where I fell in love with the sun, sand, and sea. We lived in Carpinteria right on the beach, so every day after school, we could run out the door and boogie board until dinnertime. When I was in second grade, we moved to Santa Barbara, and that's when I really fell in love with books. The local library had a program where you could go to the zoo for free if you read ten books and could give a summary on each one. I think it took me two weekends to get that free pass. One of my favorite memories was being chosen to attend the Author-Go-Round. I met Laura Numeroff when she was just getting started!

"When I was in sixth grade, we moved to Montgomery, Texas where my competitive side reared its ugly head. I joined every honors class and UIL competition I could. The only class I had trouble with was driver's education. I graduated third in my class and went to college at Texas A&M University where I majored in business administration. I wrote for the school paper, The Battalion, and drove campus buses for spending money. After I broke off a mirror, broke a set of doors, got a speeding ticket and hit two cars while driving the bus (all the events occurred at different times, by the way) I decided I probably needed to get out from behind the wheel. I started working at a hotel where I met my future husband, and when I graduated in December of 1999, we moved to Austin where I've been living ever since."

What were you like as a young adult?

Very, very bookish. I think I was probably the only kid my age who read the required reading books for fun!

What inspired you to write for teenagers?

The teenage years are difficult, and many teens turn to various outlets for comfort, one of them being literature. I like the idea that someone having a rough day at school could pick up my book and happily lose themselves in its pages, able to forget about the bullies and peer pressure for a little while.

Could you describe your path to publication, any sprints and/or stumbles along the way?

I'm embarrassed to admit that I started writing at 23 with the full intention of being published by 25 and a bestseller by the time I was 27. Talk about lofty goals! I’m 28 now, and only now seeing my book published (and that’s actually even quicker than normal).

It’s important for writers to understand that this is not an overnight business. Nor is it an easy one.

After I attended a booksigning in 2000 where my favorite fantasy author, Terry Brooks, was speaking, I was inspired to start working on a fantasy novel of my own. The success of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling was encouraging because it meant not only that fantasy novels were doing well but also that children’s fantasy novels were doing well. It took me roughly a year and a half to get my first copy of the manuscript written to send off to agents and publishers.

When I received my first pile of rejection letters, I was shocked and personally hurt that everyone didn't like my story. My ego was shattered, and I considered just trashing the whole project and writing a different story. Then, in 2003, I went to the SCBWI annual summer conference and had my work critiqued by Q.L. Pearce, an author, former editor and SCBWI advisor. She gave me encouraging advice and complimented my work, which made me feel a bit better.

At the same conference, Megan Atwood, the acquisitions editor for Llewellyn Worldwide at the time, stood up and announced that her publishing house was looking for middle grade and young adult fantasy novels. With a bit of my confidence restored from my meeting with Q, I walked up to Megan and spoke with her about my book. She gave me her business card and told me to read their submission guideline and send in my work. When I got home, I sent her my manuscript. In 2004, I got a response that they had enjoyed the work but couldn’t publish it in its current state. They suggested a few changes, and after I did a bit more revision, I got “the call” in 2005 with an offer for a contract. Roughly a year later, my first novel is now in stores.

Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, Escape from Arylon (Book One from the Silverskin Legacy)! Could you tell us a little about it?

Thanks! Escape from Arylon is the first book in a trilogy entitled "The Silverskin Legacy." It chronicles the adventures of two Earth teens, Ainsley and Megan, who find themselves transported to a world of magic with their only way home residing in a magical staff of elements. Unfortunately, the staff has been stolen, and it’s up to Ainsley and Megan to find it so they can escape from Arylon. The end has a bit of a twist that lets their adventures in Arylon continue to the next novel.

What was your initial inspiration for telling this story?

I've always loved fantasy novels, but my favorites have been the ones where the hero leaves this world for another. It's not only the discovery, it's also the fact that when you first enter a new world (or school or city), nobody knows who you are yet, and you can break out of any mold in which people have placed you in the past. No longer are you Megan, the plain tomboy. Now, you're a sword-wielding heroine!

What were the challenges (literary research, pyschological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

One of the main challenges was finding time. I had (and still have) a day job and working a writing career around that can be difficult. It was occasionally a challenge to the wallet as well because I would want to go to so many conferences and buy so many literary resources that didn’t exactly benefit the entire family. And patience. I have never had to be so patient in my entire life.

What is it like being a debut author in 2006? Any butterflies, surprises, learning curve?

This has been an incredible year so far. I’ve met so many excellent, supportive people, and since the book was released in March, butterflies have been putting up houses in my stomach. I’m surprised at how excited my friends are for me, and I’m surprised that I’ve become so passionate about what happens to my book. It might sound cheesy, but I’m still learning something new everyday.

Could you tell us more about Flux, the YA fiction department at Llewellyn?

Llewellyn is at a very exciting point in its YA life. They’re establishing a new imprint, Flux [PDF submission guidelines], that will handle all forms of YA fiction (currently, Llewellyn handles new age and fantasy). The people at Llewellyn are excellent to work with, are enthusiastic about their authors and they love what they’re doing, all good traits for a publishing house to have.

What advice do you have for beginning YA writers?

Be patient! That actually applies to all writers. When writing for young adults, you have to remember they are young adults. Don’t insult their intelligence by talking down to them in your writing. Young adults are smarter than many people give them credit for, but they also have a vulnerability you don’t want to forget.

How about those who write fantasy specifically?

Have fun with it. If you’re doing high fantasy, your world is yours to create as you wish, but remember that everything still has to have a logical order. Your magic needs to have rules, your civilizations need some form of governance, people still need a way to travel from place to place. Also, magic can’t fix everything. Your characters will need to rely on some internal strength (courage, wisdom, love) that helps them defeat evil in the end. Avoid using a deus ex machina, something that appears suddenly and provides a solution to an unsolvable problem (i.e., suddenly the main character develops the power to reverse all evil and he saves the world).

Are there any craft books that you especially recommend, and if so, why?

For learning about writing in general, I suggest the Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books by Harold D. Underdown (Alpha, 2004) [look for the second edition].

For tips on where and how to submit, I suggest the current year’s Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006). For tips on writing fantasy, I suggest How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001).

What tips do you have on writing a trilogy?

It’s wise to have a basic idea of how you want the trilogy to play out before you start sending it off to publishers because one of their questions will be, “Do you know how it ends?” Plus, if you know how the series flows, you can work elements of foreshadowing into each book, which your audience will love. It’s important to maintain consistency throughout the trilogy because your audience trusts you and has come to see the world and characters in a certain way. In other words, you can’t have the evil cousin from one book suddenly become loveable and kind in the next without good cause.

It’s also helpful to consider that your audience lives outside your series. While you’re familiar with everything that’s happened in the past books, your audience might only remember the key points, so you’ll need to work brief summaries into the text of subsequent novels.

What are your favorite recently published fantasies for young adults and why?

I’m a big fan of The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate), The Midnighters series by Scott Westerfeld (The Secret Hour, Touching Darkness, Blue Noon)(author interview) and The Faerie Wars Chronicles by Herbie Brennan (Faerie Wars, The Purple Emperor). I love stories that continue a character’s adventures, and all of these authors blend the real world with the magical world.

How about other YA titles that you've recently read and recommend?

I like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares and Follow the Blue by Brigid Lowry (Holiday House, 2004).

You're a member of AS IF! Could you tell us more about this organization? Why are its efforts important to you?

I am very proud of AS IF! (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom). The goal of our organization is to make certain that literature, especially for teens, remains free of censorship. Sadly, as far as we've advanced in society, there are still certain topics that people consider taboo (teen sexuality, homosexuality, magic). Instead of letting our children read books on these topics and educate themselves, we're encountering adults who would rather ban the books and leave children in the dark. AS IF! crusades against that. An uneducated mind is a dangerous mind.

Are you available for school visits, conferences, and other speaking engagements? If so, how should planners contact you?

I am available for speaking engagements. I love to talk to people! You can contact me directly at jo_whittemore@hotmail.com.

I love the drawing of you on your website! Do you do that yourself, hire someone, etc.?

Thanks! An artist/writer friend of mine, Kip Farrar, actually did the illustration. He was my boss at a past job, and when I wasn't working, I was always writing and not the most pleasant person to approach at those times. The original drawing has me with steam coming out of my ears, but with lovely picture-altering software, I now just look like I'm concentrating really hard.

You're one of the many author-bloggers. What can readers expect from your blog? What purpose does it fill in your writing life?

I've kept journals since I was a kid (though, back then the big news of the day was winning a game of tetherball), but my experiences have never been something that I felt the need to share with other people. Becoming a writer was a turning point for me. Now, I have a public outlet to let people know about my journey to becoming an author so they can get an insider’s perspective on how everything works. It’s also an excellent source of procrastination.

What blogs do you read?

I'm a blog maniac! I read the blogs of about 50 different people, all in the writing community, but the ones by published authors that I read religiously belong to (alphabetically): Holly Black, Meg Cabot, Debbi Michiko Florence, D.L. Garfinkle, Brent Hartinger, Sarah Darer Littman, Cynthia Leitich Smith (you!), Greg Leitich Smith, Cynthia Lord, Linda Joy Singleton, Maggie L. Wood, Lisa Yee and Sara Zarr.

What can your fans expect next?

The next book in the trilogy, Curse of Arastold, will be coming out in July.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I love to read, play games (board games, computer games, you name it), travel, spend time with my relatives, and eat! As I’m breaking away from my college years, I’m discovering food exists beyond hamburgers and French fries.

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