Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Author Interview: R.L. LaFevers on Werewolf Rising

R.L. LaFevers on R.L. LaFevers: "I began writing when I was seven years old and penned my first poem ­ an ode to my Madame Alexander doll. After that I wrote an ode to The Chronicles of Narnia, my favorite books at the time. Luckily, I quickly outgrew my Ode Stage and moved on to other genres. Embarrassingly enough, my mother still has all these old masterpieces and charges an annual fee to keep them hidden from the public eye.

"Books were a huge escape for me as a child. My father introduced me to The Chronicles of Narnia [by C.S. Lewis] and I read that series once a year throughout the rest of my childhood. Other favorite escapes were: The Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; The Little House on the Big Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder; and The Once and Future King by T. H. White. As a teen, The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkien totally rocked my world.

"I wrote all through my childhood and during my high school years. I won awards in high school and considered going straight into writing then, but all the well-meaning adults talked me out of it. It was just too hard. Too much competition. Too much rejection. And while all of that it true, it is equally true that in the end, passion and perseverance can pay off, which it did in my case. I began writing seriously with a goal toward publication in my early 30s, when I had two young boys who were gobbling up books faster than teething biscuits."

Why did you decide to write for young readers?

I think one of the reasons I like to write for young readers is that their minds are still open. They're still in the process of learning. Their minds are growing as fast as their bodies, and they are willing to try on new ideas and new perspectives. I'm one of those adults who still believes in magic, small quiet magic, to be sure, but magic nonetheless, and I've found kids to be very open to that element. Probably because they're still so closely in touch with their own instincts and feelings when compared to the majority of adults. They are able to see and sense things that many adults have lost the ability or desire to see or sense any more.

Could you tell us about your path to publication--any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I'd always heard that one was most successful doing what one loved, and I love writing more than just about any other thing. While I'd always written, it wasn't until I stayed home with my two small children that I finally carved out some committed writing time. I practiced and practiced, took classes and workshops and went to conferences, trying to improve my craft. After a very long apprenticeship (nearly ten years), I finally had a book accepted for publication.

Things moved quickly after that. I sold five books in about a year and a half, one of which was a contract for a trilogy, which allowed me to quit my day job and pursue writing full time. The truth was, I couldn't have made those contracted deadlines and kept my day job, so it was the perfect nudge.

While I'd like to focus on your new release, let's briefly spotlight your backlist titles. Could you give us a snapshot description of each?

Unfortunately, my first novel, The Falconmaster (Dutton, 2003) is now out of print but it was a medieval fantasy that told the story of the village cast off, Wat, and how by rescuing two young falcons, he found his destiny.

Currently on the shelves is my Lowthar's Blade Trilogy (Dutton, 2004-), which is a heroic quest fantasy aimed specifically at young readers, 7-11 years old. When my own sons first graduated from easy readers to novels, they were so excited that the world of books was now open to them, but quickly became dismayed when there was so little action/adventure/fantasy out there that they, with their 3rd and 4th grade reading level, could actually read. The first book of the trilogy, The Forging of the Blade (2004)(excerpt) has been nominated to the TLA 2006-2007 Bluebonnet list, which was a huge thrill. The second book is The Secrets of Grim Wood (2005)(excerpt), followed by The True Blade of Power (2005)(excerpt).

I thoroughly enjoyed Werewolf Rising (Dutton, 2006)(excerpt). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Boy, this idea simmered in my subconscious just beyond my awareness for a long time. The first thing I ever published was a short story for Cricket Magazine called "Shield of the Wolf," which was another shape shifting story that dealt with a young girl in a medieval setting. I'd always known that I'd wanted to expand that concept or something similar into book length, but I could never get the darn thing to gel into a firm story idea that I could work with. Years went by until a perfect storm of events occurred; my boys entered adolescence, I read a book about the needs adolescent boys, and I'd discovered that fantasy was my writing niche.

My own two boys had just gone through their own joyful puberty experience and I was struck by how these poor kids were basically flooded with testosterone and--pow!--found themselves no longer kids, something else entirely. I became aware of how foreign this hormonal influx made them feel.

And while I remember that from my own adolescent experience, now having sons, it felt as the experiences were hugely different. I think perhaps our culture prepares girls slightly better for the changes they go through. There is a marked rite of transition, for one, and because of the nature of that transition, it is often talked about beforehand. But for boys, or at least the ones I knew, it was just this big, confusing hormonal dump that left them feeling completely unlike themselves.

When I tried to think of a story that could encapsulate that same feeling, shape shifting felt closest to what they might be experiencing: shock to discover this beast living inside them, with all sorts of urges and drives and needs that they had never had to deal with before.

Around the same time, and for obvious reasons, I read a book that talked about how boys and their life transitions were failed by our society, with only the Jewish tradition having a coming-of-age rite for their sons. The book further went on to say how desperate these kids were to have someone guide them through the first scary years of manhood; to have extended family support structures with all the male relatives helping these guys to understand what being a man was all about. And that this huge lack in boy's lives was one of the driving forces behind the increase in gang membership; they wanted an initiation and someone to mentor them into the mysteries of what being a man entailed. And as I looked at my sons and their friends and remembered my brothers coming of age, it really resonated for me. So I wanted to write a story that explored these issues in a dark, gothic way. Wolves were so perfect because of the Hollywood style werewolf cliche, which I wanted to play with a bit, and wolves also have amazing societal structures within their packs, which lent itself well to the story idea.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Like I said, the idea had been gestating in my bones for years and just needed to be coaxed out in some way or another. Truly, surviving male adolescence with both my sons and I intact was the catalyst. I started the book in October of 2001, finished it in August 2002, and sold it to my editor in January 2003.

One of the bumps the book ran into shortly thereafter was that I sent my editor a third book, The Forging of the Blade, a few months after Werewolf Rising and pitched it as a Lord of the Rings-styled fantasy, but for young emerging readers who needed the story told at a simpler reading level. She loved that idea, and in fact wanted a trilogy. She felt the market need was greater for shorter, boy-friendly books and so scheduled the trilogy to publish before Werewolf Rising, so there was a very long delay between acquisition and publication, over three and a half years.

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

Boy, there were a lot of challenges, of all kinds.

One of the biggest for me initially was to make the story bigger than just the protagonist watching his fur grow. While the core of the story was Luc coming to terms with his changing self, in order to be gripping or compelling, it had to be more than that. So I struggled for a long time trying to get enough conflict into the story so it wouldn't feel like a strolling travelogue through One Boy's Shape Shifting Experience. The characters were there, but putting them into dramatic conflict with each other was a bit of a challenge. I spend so much time avoiding conflict in real life, it's hard for me to go looking for it. Then, conversely, once I unlock that conflict door, it's hard to control and I can go over the top, so I had to try and temper the conflict so it didn't overwhelm and sink the story.

Another difficulty I faced was trying to be believable when the main character was in wolf form. I had to show the reader how differently that form perceived the world compared to the protagonist's human form. Hopefully, I was able to convey that.

The hardest scene in particular was the hunting scene, where again, I had to make Luc hunt a deer with his pack and then eat the fresh kill without being too off-putting. I mean, deer are very sympathetic characters! So I did a lot of research on how wolf packs hunt and then also some research on how Native American's viewed hunting and the whole dance between predators and prey and maintaining balance in nature. Barry Lopez's book Of Wolves and Men (Scribner, 1979)(excerpt) was hugely helpful in this regard, and hopefully the scene offers readers a perspective that is wholly different than their own, yet something they can understand.

One logistical challenge was that the book was originally turned in at 70,000 words, but when I got my revision letter, they said they wanted it cut down to 50,000 words because that was the length marketing had determined boys preferred. It would have been easier if they had said, this major subplot isn't working so let's get rid of that, but that wasn't the case. It was just a case of cutting as close to the bone of the story as possible. Consequently there was a mass grave for all the darlings I had to kill!

What do you think is at the heart of the enduring appeal of gothic fantasy, especially to young readers?

I think gothics do a fantastic job of making our deepest fears concrete; whether our fear is that we are a beast or horrible person, beyond love or redemption, or that those we love will be horribly destroyed or turn on us as monsters themselves. These are fears that most of us experience at one time or another, and gothics take those fears out of the abstract emotional realm and make them real. Or at least real for the duration of the book. Have the abstract made real can be hugely satisfying to young readers.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I would encourage beginning writers to approach their writing journey with joy. They are about to embark on a long, rich, satisfying apprenticeship, usually of many years. So instead of racing toward publication, if they can focus on the joys to be found in the act of writing, in the act of creating and learning their craft, they will be much happier. And not only study craft, but challenge themselves to find ways to apply it to their own work, because really, that's the hard part.

It can be helpful to try on lots of writing styles and genres until writers find one that showcases their unique writer's voice at its strongest. Also, read widely and well, and then stop and pay attention to those books that move you or resonate in some way. Learn the rules that exist, both craft rules and publishing rules, then learn when breaking them is the right thing to do. But mostly persist. Never give up.

How about those authors looking to build a career?

Look long and hard and honestly at your own strengths as a writer, then use those strengths to build a career for yourself. If you're a really fast writer, then a good career plan would incorporate your speed. If you are a slower writer, then you need to understand that about your process so that doesn't become an issue. Many publishers are happy to publish a book every eighteen months rather than twelve, so just be aware of that limitation. If you have an amazing command of language, then perhaps a more literary niche will suit you, whereas those whose skill lies more in storytelling might be better served writing more commercial fiction.

Don't try to be all things to all readers; accept that you write certain types of books that appeal to certain readers. This doesn't mean you can't stretch yourself or grow as a writer, only that if you try to please everyone, you will surely fail. Reading is too subjective for that.

Understand the concept of image branding, then explore whether or not that helps strengthen you as a writer or suffocates you, and act accordingly.

Put yourself on a true working writer's schedule to see if it works for you. If you can't get your muse to visit you except in dribs and drabs, then know that now before you commit to write a series that demands a book every two months!

Everyone has their own comfort level with where commerce and art meet. Understand where yours is. It will save you and your editor a lot of headaches. There is usually some core of our stories that are untouchable, by removing them we ruin it or make it a story we no longer wish to tell. Understand where your boundaries are.

And most of all, never, ever give up. Every setback you experience is one more road block you've conquered on the way to publication. I truly, truly believe that.

How about fantasy and/or gothic fantasy writers in particular?

Dig deep inside yourself to find what is truly terrifying. What fears wake you up in the middle of the night? What terrors are you afraid to look at too closely?

Don't be afraid to go dark and edgy. As a writer, it used to disturb me that I wrote about dark things, then a much beloved writing teacher pointed out that I go into the dark corners of life in order to shed light on them, and that felt more comfortable.

Try to find a premise or two of truth in the fantasy or gothic world you're building. The closer you can integrate it with our world or align it with the scientific principles we know, the more real that world will seem. Build the world fully, paying attention to both large societal elements and small personal details. The more real it feels to the readers, the more intense the reading experience will be.

Try, if you can, to crawl inside your character's skin and be that character. Don't just observe that character.

Try to build layers into your story for increased dramatic tension. Don't have the fantasy or gothic elements be the only element of the story, but try to have other layers as well, human nature, personal growth, universal truths. Great fantasy and gothic books are never just about the fantasy, but about the characters who move through these dark or fantastical worlds.

What do you do when you're not writing?

This is a little embarrassing, but not only is writing my day job, but it's my hobby, and my recreation, and pretty much everything in between! Some might say I'm obsessed. I'm also a writing craft geek. Love to discuss writing craft and processes and the way writers overcome their struggles with the act of writing.

However, when I finally manage to tear myself away from writing, I love to read, do multimedia-type collages or altered books, research myths and ancient history, go for long walks, usually in the woods or on winter beaches, visit museums, and spend time with my family. At various times in my life I have also pursued scuba diving, backpacking, hiking, and in one moment of sheer insanity, parachuting.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Well, it's another gothic fantasy, this time set in 1907 London. It's called Theodosia Throckmorton and the Serpents of Chaos.

Theodosia's father is the head curator of The Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. Her mother is a renowned archeologist who brings magnificent artifacts back to the museum.

Theodosia's problem is that she is the only one who can see the ancient Egyptian curses and black magic that still cling to the artifacts her mother brings back. Since no one else is able to see them, she's the one who has to try to neutralize them before the evil magic begins to affect the museum or those working in it.

When Theodosia's mother returns to Britain from her most recent archaeological dig, she happens to be carrying an object with a particularly vicious curse, one which has the potential to topple all of Britain. Theodosia must use all her resources and skills to nullify the curse and find a way to return the artifact to its rightful resting place before it destroys her country and her family.

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