Monday, October 24, 2011

Author Interview -- Erin Bow

We have a special treat for you today. An interview with author Erin Bow!

"My name is Erin Bow, and I'm the author of Plain Kate (Scholastic 2010), which just -- HUZZAH! -- won the TD Canadian Children's Literature award, one of the top Canadian awards for kidlit.  I also write poetry, and have two books of poetry published under my maiden name, Erin Noteboom.  They won prizes too.  I'm married to James Bow, also a YA novelist, and we have two small daughters.  We live in Kitchener, Ontario.  I tweet at @erinbowbooks, and have fun website with a blog HERE."


MAGGIE: There's a story behind every book, and you're the (published) author of more than one! Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind your books, in particular Plain Kate (which is an absolute must-read!)

ERIN: I think all writers have something that they don't work on, something that's a gift.  For me, it's characters, and some "original equipment" for the story: a bit of premise and set up.   I don't usually know where these things come from, but with Plain Kate, I at least remember when it came.

I was on an airplane.  In fact I was heading home from a trip, and I was very tired.  I'd also just read a big collection of Russian Fairy Tales.  I leaned my head on the window and watched the plane separate from its shadow.  The plane rose and the shadow stayed on the ground, getting thinner and stranger.   I imagined that happening to a human shadow; it struck me as so Russian, so Fairy Tale.   And suddenly, from nowhere, this character waltzed into my head: Katerina Svetlana, called Plain Kate, a wood carver and the daughter of a wood carver (I'd also just been talking to my dad about his woodworking).  A fairy tale girl, by which I mean a strong girl in a tight spot.  I knew she'd be forced to sell her shadow.  And I knew that she'd have a talking cat.

That was all I knew -- the "original equipment" of the story -- and it took some time to find out more.   But the first few pages, that I wrote on the plane that day, remain almost untouched in the final draft.

Erin's Books
MAGGIE: How cool! Characters rock. I really enjoyed your characters --  especially Taggle, who was his own character -- throughout Plain Kate. Do you have any advice on characters? How do you bring them to life?

ERIN: You're going to hate me, but I really don't have advice about characters.  I don't work at them, I don't design them. Now, PLOT I work on, because I'm not very good at it, and so I have a hundred tricks to compensate.  But characters are just given to me. They come real and I have to try to keep true to them.

One general trick I have is to read everything you write out loud.   Read it while you're drafting and read it again when you think it's finished.  It's easier to spot anything that rings false that way -- and particularly easy to spot where a character's voice has drifted a little.  Voice is key.  Dialog is the scene-by-scene heart of getting characters to come to life.

MAGGIE: Well, it's totally working. That brings me to the next question: voice. Voice is so important in a novel, and you've really got yours down. What are a some tips for teen writers on voice?

ERIN: I think having a voice as a writer is mostly about confidence.  It's sort of the same as public speaking: you want to sound like some version of yourself, not nervous or stilted or artificial, as if you were about to faint at any moment.  People will feel bad and awkward and want to leave.  That confidence might come naturally to some people -- I think many writers have never thought about their voice at all -- but for many of us, it has to be earned.

How do you earn it?  Two things, I think: practice and play.  Practice is just writing a lot -- and particularly finishing things.  Most young writers start things and don't finish them.   It's so hard to push those early stories or poems forward.   Ira Glass said something amazing about this -- that writers get into the game because they have taste: they know good writing when they see it.  And then, because they have taste but don't yet have skill, they dislike their own writing.  They can see all its failures.  How do you keep going when you're failing like that?  Well, first know that everyone fails at first.  Ray Bradbury said you have to write a million bad words before you write one good book.  Let's hope he's overestimating that, but still, take it from Ray:  everyone fails.  But it's by making yourself finish, keeping going at things, that you'll fail better.

The second way to earn confidence is to play.  Just lower the stakes for yourself.  It doesn't have to be the next New Yorker short story, it just has to -- and here you should fill in the blank.   Be a fairy tale told from the villain's point of view.  Be a soap opera that's so over the top it will make people laugh.  Use rhymed couplets.   You can't succeed at a whole novel/play/book of poems all at once, but you can probably do this, and it will hone your skills and sharpen your confidence.  Pick new forms, play games with them.  Fan fiction, frankly, is a great set of training wheels.  My husband (he's also a novelist) and I both wrote fanfic, and he wrote A LOT of it.   Probably a million words.

MAGGIE: How did you know (each time) that your novels were DONE? In particular the first time, when you decided to start querying?

ERIN: I committed a terrible terrible querying sin, actually:  I queried on an incomplete manuscript.

In my defense, it's not quite that simple: I queried on picturebooks and mentioned that I also wrote YA, and had two manuscripts in progress.  The agent said:  "The picturebooks, not so much, but could I see the YA?"  I said:  "Well, PART of them."  She read part of them and said:  "Can I see this the second it's done?"  My second book, Sorrow's Knot,  sold as an unspecified "book two" when I sold Plain Kate; I acquired a deadline before I even had a draft.  So, learning when a thing is "done" is not yet a skill I have had to have.

It is, though, one I urgently need to develop.

Just now I am faced with a big revision letter Sorrow's Knot.  Because of my deadline, I sent my editor a draft that, though a long long way from a first draft, was not yet as good as I knew I could make it.  I had ideas for things I wanted to change to make it better, but I felt I didn't have time to pull the manuscript apart and try them.   And now I have those leftover ideas for changes, along with my editor's ideas and concerns, and it's hard to see where and how to pull those two things together.  I have totally lost the steam and the thread, and am in general finding this very hard.

In the future, I'm going to live by this rule:  I will pass on a book when I have made it as good as I can.  Not sentence by sentence good -- one could noodle endlessly.  Maybe not even paragraph my paragraph good.  But when I'm out of big ideas, ideas like "tighten this chapter" "change that character from a friend to a sister" "ditch that subplot altogether" --- when I've sorted through all those ideas, I'll be ready to let the book go.   

(Happy side lesson:  you can commit the cardinal sin of query letters  -- querying on an unfinished manuscript -- and still end up with a hot shot agent and an eventual six figure deal.  Queries are worth stressing over, but the writing itself will out.)

MAGGIE: Do you listen to music while you write?

ERIN: Most of the time.  Each of my books has an iPod playlist, and those 20 or so songs get played to DEATH.  For Plain Kate, I mostly listened to this moody Norwegian fiddle-driven folk group, Bukkene Bruse.  This, for instance, is the Plain Kate theme song. Cheery, huh?  But beautiful, and puts me right into the fog and birch trees and grandness of the story.

My current novel in draft takes place in a future where they've lost the suburbs, the cars, and (apparently) the electric guitar.  There's a lot of bluegrass going on there.  I never did find quite the right music for Sorrow's Knot, which may be part of my problem as I struggle to crack it back open.

MAGGIE: Awesome! Music rocks (I just LOVE the song! It's beautiful!). Most of us here at Write On! aren't agented or published authors yet. Is being a published author as wonderful as it seems?

ERIN: I suppose that depends on how wonderful it seems!

The best part, far and away, is that people are actually reading the book.  I had two big dreams for Plain Kate.  One was that it would be THAT book for someone, the book they fell in love with as a young person and read over and over, a book that really stuck.  It's too early to say if that's true, but the people who love it really seem to love it, so I have hopes.  The second dream was that someone would adopt a pound kitty and name him Taggle -- and I learned recently that someone did.

There are hard parts too.  I've always wanted to make a living writing, and I'm hugely privileged and thrilled to get to do so (more or less: I recently got a part-time job that was too cool to turn down, and stopped taking in freelance stuff).  But it is a bit tricky getting paid once every 18 month or so.  And it is hard not to put your heart on the line, you know?  Hard not to take all the reviews and reactions personally.  Hard not to feel like a failure when you're asked to revise, which of course happens over and over in the course of making a novel.  Hard not to feel like a fraud on the days when writing doesn't go well, which is frankly most days.

But then there are days when you actually create something -- when something actually comes to life.  There's nothing like that.  Few greater joys in the world, and I say that as someone with a lot of joys: a happy love affair turned long marriage, a couple of fabulous kids, the kitchen, the garden ....  Writing is the equal of any of these.

MAGGIE: Favorite books (and authors)? 

ERIN: At this point I'll confine myself to YA and not tell you about my obsession with cookbooks or that I think Mary Oliver is a poetry god.

My THAT books books -- the ones I read young and keep returning to -- include The Lord of the Rings, The Last Unicorn, and The Wizard of Earthsea.  I think if you were to mix those books together you might get something like Plain Kate.

Let's see, though, the best handful of YA books I've read in the last few years might include Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness, Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon, Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere, Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall ...  I'm sure there are others that just aren't snapping to mind.  

MAGGIE: Three reasons why you love being a writer?


1. Because geekily researching weird stuff like, say, the ethnobotany of the North American prairies makes me happy.
2. Because writing itself, word by word, makes me happy.
3. Because I'm not particularly good at anything else.

MAGGIE: Chocolate or vanilla? 

ERIN: Chocolate!  Dark chocolate with orange and chilli.  Or caramel and fluer de sel.

MAGGIE: Excellent choice! And to wrap things up, what is the best advice you can give to an aspiring teen author?

ERIN: First, God bless you.

Second, listen: Everyone is going to tell you that this is not a good way to make a living, and everyone is right. Be prepared to keep your day job. Be prepared to eat lentils. Be prepared to keep your day job and lentils, because your developing tendency to gaze at the wall and talk to fictional people may make you unemployable anywhere better than Burger King.

But do it anyway. If you really want to, do it anyway.

Start now. Read everything. Fill notebooks with stories or just with compost -- you'll need a lot of compost to grow a few good stories.  Finish at least some of what you start: poems, stories, whatever.  Edit and make them as good as you can make them. Find someone to share them with -- a few someones, maybe other writers, people you can both learn from and teach. People you can lean on and really trust. And then maybe think about publication. But even if you don't publish -- and many don't -- write. Because you want to. Out of love. Write, write, write.

MAGGIE: Thank you so much for doing this! You've been awesome.

And to the rest of you at Write On!, if you haven't already, go grab yourself a copy of Plain Kate! Trust me, it's worth it.


  1. Great interview, Maggie! Thank you and thank you, Erin, for this insightful interview! LOVE LOVE LOVE Plain Kate! Definitely one of my favorite books of all time. Exquisite writing, enchanting story!

  2. Brilliant!!! Maggie, that was a DELIGHTFUL interview. Things are really starting to rock around here! <3

  3. Lovely interview - Erin's grace and humility are as inspiring as her creative gifts.

  4. Great interview! It's nice to find another research nerd.

  5. That was fantastic. I haven't read Plain Kate, but it's bumped up to the top of my list now. :D

  6. wat is the theme of this story???

  7. I just read Plain Kate and thought the language was beautifully poetic, then finally checked the bio and realized Erin was a poet. No wonder! Plus the book has such a haunting, mystical tone. Yay, Erin! And thanks for the interview.