Monday, April 16, 2012

Author Interview: Liz Kessler on Writing, Time Travel & Social Networking

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Could you tell us about your path to publication, highlighting any curves, bumps or ah-ha! moments?

I started writing The Tail of Emily Windsnap whilst I was taking an M.A. in Novel Writing. At that time I was also doing some freelance editing work.

A colleague of mine from the editing company happened to be having lunch with an agent who had recently started taking on children’s authors and mentioned my book to her.

The agent – Catherine Clarke – liked the sound of my book and asked me to send the manuscript to her. She got me the book deal with Orion Children’s Books, and I have been with the same publisher and the same agent ever since.

Congratulations on the recent release of A Year Without Autumn (Orion/Candlewick)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this novel?

My inspiration for this book has to do with my fascination for time slip stories, and also for the idea that our lives turn in very big ways on very small moments. My father’s history includes one such moment, which I think deep down is a major part of my inspiration. (I wrote about this in a blog a few months ago. If you’re interested, you can read it here.)

A Year Without Autumn explores what might happen if we could go back to one of those small moments and change it. I love films like "Sliding Doors," "Groundhog Day" and "It’s A Wonderful Life." I wanted to have my own go at writing a story that dealt with those kinds of issues. And the most exciting thing for me is that it’s the first of three stand alone books which all deal with different elements of time travel.

What were the challenges of bringing it to life?

Author video & sample chapter.
When I first wrote A Year Without Autumn, it was quite different. There was an issue of one of the main characters having an accident that had paralysed her. After many discussions with my editor, we both realised that it would be impossible to tell the story in the way I wanted to tell it without it coming across as saying that being in a wheelchair is ‘bad’. We both felt that it was hugely important to avoid sending out a message like that.

The biggest challenge was figuring out how to deal with this problem and come up with something different.

Once we’d worked out how to do it, I think the book became much stronger for it in every way. And that’s the advantage of having a brilliant editor!

What thoughts do you have for other writers interested in crafting a time-travel story?

For me, the most important thing is working out the plot and making sure that it holds together. It’s very easy to get caught up in impossible loops when you’re writing a time travel story. So I would say the number one thing is to plot your story out and make sure that your timelines and all the characters’ movements (and attire, etc!) are accurate.

And then make sure you have at least one person who you trust to read it and tell you if it makes sense. As the author, I think it’s often hard to distance yourself from your own plot.

With a time travel book, this is even harder because sometimes you find that you’ve made certain links in your head without realising you haven’t actually put them down on paper!


You are also the author of an ongoing series, the Emily Windsnap books, and a completed trilogy, the Philippa Fisher books. What advice do you have for writers interested in crafting a series/trilogy? 

The funny thing is, I never actually set out to write a series. Both of these kind of emerged and developed as I went along – so I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask about this!

What I would say, though, is whenever you start a new book in your series, make sure to re-read all the previous ones as it’s all too easy to forget the small details about your characters or locations or minor plot points, and you can be sure that even if you have forgotten them, there’ll be someone out there who hasn’t and they’ll be happy to remind you!

Also, if the series is a success, be prepared to write more of them than you were ever planning to!

What can we expect from Emily Windsnap next?

Emily Windsnap and the Land of the Midnight Sun comes out in the autumn in the U.K., and next spring in the U.S. In her fifth adventure, Emily is off to the arctic on a dangerous mission set by none other than King Neptune! As usual friendships, relationships and courage will be put to the test…

What insights do you have for other writers interested in "creature building"--creating or reinventing a mythological being for story purposes? How did you go about it in your own books? 

Again I’m not sure I’m the one to ask about this. I’ve always seen Emily Windsnap first and foremost as an ordinary, contemporary girl. She just happens to become a mermaid when she goes in water. I don’t have a massive interest in or knowledge of a range of mythological creatures.

The thing about mermaids for me is that they represent the magic and mystery of the sea – and that’s what excites me.

Liz's local beach -- "for mermaid inspiration."

If I could give one piece of advice, though, I would say if you are creating a new kind of world or new kind of creatures, make sure you know your own boundaries for these. They can be as fantastical as you like; the important thing is that once you have made your rules, you must stick within them.

You've had an author blog and are now associated with a team blog. What insights do you have to share as an author blogger? What's your philosophy? How do you feel about it?

Liz's first published work.
If you are writing your own blog, you should really update this at least once a week and more if possible. I have found that any less than this and people will lose interest.

The thinking seems to be if you look like you can’t be bothered to do it very often, people will find they can’t be bothered to visit it either!

I was terrible at keeping my own blog up to date! The ABBA blog suits me perfectly because I only have to write a blog once a month – and I can just about manage this! It’s also lovely to feel part of a community and to share, and hopefully extend, our own and each other’s readership.

I wouldn’t say I have any particular philosophy about blogging, but I do like to write about things that feel meaningful to me, and hopefully inspire people to stop and think about some aspect of writing or life.

How about Twitter? (Follow @lizkesslerbooks.)

Twitter. Hmmm. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Twitter. In terms of feeling part of a wider writing community, and networking, and finding ways of telling people about your books and your activities – it’s absolutely fantastic.

I do find some of it quite difficult, though. I think it can be hard sometimes for any of us to read scrolls and scrolls of links and announcements about how wonderfully someone is doing - especially if you’re not having a great day yourself!



I also sometimes find it hard to think of things to say. Does the world really need to know that I have just walked my dog again? And do I really need to know that someone else has just had their third cup of coffee and is now off to the shops?

Sometimes it seems that there’s a little too much of this, and it makes me feel a bit odd about what exactly we’re all doing here! But once you get beyond that, Twitter definitely has a place in the world today – and I am glad to be part of it. After all, it led me to meeting you and doing this interview! 

What do you do when you're not writing?

Walk the dog! I also love surfing, swimming and bodyboarding, although I don’t do any of these often enough. I love to curl up with a great book. I love hanging out with my friends, and when it’s the middle of a cold winter, I love to get immersed in a great box set or some good films.

What do you love most about the writing life?

Liz's writing space
If I was to sum up what I love most about the writing life, I’d say the freedom and flexibility of it. That might mean the freedom to spend all day working in my pyjamas. It might mean the freedom to take my MacBook and go to work in a café. It might even mean the freedom to look out of the window, see that it’s a beautiful day and decide to take the day off and work double the hours the next day instead.

I love the fact that my job enables me to do these things, and I am honestly grateful for this fact every day.

Other than that, I adore the moments in creating a book where a piece of the plot suddenly comes together in a chills-down-the-spine kind of way.

Most of all, I love the fact that I get to do something I absolutely love every day – and call it work!

Cynsational Notes

Visit Liz Kessler.


3 comments:

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

I really enjoyed this interview, Liz and Cyn! Thanks! And I've enjoyed Liz's mermaid books, too. Every girl wants to be a mermaid and I was no exception when I was a kid. Maybe even as an adult I have a secret desire to be a mermaid, but I'll plead the 5th for the moment . . . ;-)

Looking forward to reading Liz's new book. I also just now read her blog post about the Jones family who saved her family in 1938/39. Wow. That is just stunning. Gives me chills.

angela cerrito said...

I really enjoyed A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN. It was so much fun to read this interview about you and your work. Your dog is beautiful. I will be on the lookout for tweets to keep track of his walking schedule!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Kimberley, oh, yes! I wanted to be a mermaid, too (and as a Kansan I'm vaguely nervous around big water).

Angela, I loved seeing that big pup, too. So lovely of Liz to let us peek into her scenic world(s).

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