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07 April 2010 @ 09:26 am
Interview with Debut Author Karen Healey  

Hi, Karen, and welcome to the Enchanted Inkpot! I enjoyed reading your debut novel, Guardian of the Dead (April 1, 2010), and look forward to talking with you about it.

First off, I love to hear other writers talk about their creative process. Can you talk about how you write? Do you work first on voice by drafting scenes, and then focus on plotting later? Or do you build an outline first, rough or detailed, etc…

At this stage of my career I'm a very linear writer – I start at the beginning, have a vague idea of the end, and then storm ahead. When I've got a draft down, I start pulling it to pieces. This may change, though – I'm finding much fewer substantial changes are necessary for my second to-be-published book, Summerton (at least on this round). Maybe I learned something after rewriting Guardian eight times!

Guardian of the DeadIn less than a day I had been harassed, enchanted, shouted at, cried on, and clawed. I’d been cold, scared, dirty, exhausted, hungry, and miserable. And up until now, I’d been mildly impressed with my ability to cope.

At her boarding school in New Zealand, Ellie Spencer is like any ordinary teen: she hangs out with her best friend, Kevin; obsesses over her crush on a mysterious boy; and her biggest worry is her paper deadline. Then everything changes: In the foggy woods near the school, something ancient and deadly is waiting.

We’ve been talking on the Enchanted Inkpot lately about diversity in fantasy and the importance (and challenge) of incorporating other cultures. What were some of the challenges you faced in incorporating aspects of Maori culture & folklore in your story?

Because I'm Pākehā, and not Māori, making sure I wasn't misusing the original stories in an inappropriate or disrespectful way was (and still is) a concern. I knew from the beginning that after I had done all the research and written the book as well as I could, I would need to approach cultural consultants and ask for their advice, and make changes based upon that.

I wrote a a blog post on the subject that covers what I did in an attempt to approach other peoples' cultural treasures with respect. I hope I managed to get it right, or at least not egregiously wrong and harmful, but it's really not up to me to decide that.

I also thought it was important to include characters of ethnicities other than Māori or Pākehā, too – New Zealand is a very diverse place, but that's not always reflected in our literature.

Jumping off from there, I feel world building in particular is one of Guardian of the Dead’s strengths. Can you talk a little about the evolution of your story world and the importance of research?

In a way, I totally cheated! Christchurch, where the majority of the book is set, is where I went to university. I based a lot of action in spaces with which I was familiar: the campus, the student union theatre, Cathedral Square, Riccarton Bush. I was no longer living in Christchurch by the time I wrote the book, and there are minor discrepancies, but it was a space that was fairly easy to imaginatively inhabit.

But I also had to write about Napier, which I haven't visited since I was about thirteen, and for that I relied upon web image searches, travel books, and friends of friends giving me impressions of their hometown.

I also altered both places – I put stone steps up a cliff in the Napier regions that I bet  Napier-based readers are going to find hilariously disconcerting, and I invented a high school for Christchurch that doesn't actually exist, Mansfield College. I went to public school, so putting together a private high school involved a lot of looking up boarding school rules and regulations and sort of smooshing them together. Mansfield had to have some restrictions, or the story would lack consequences for some of Ellie's actions, but it also had to give her enough freedom to legitimately go into the city and explore. I'm pretty satisfied with the results, but perhaps boarders will be shaking their heads and sighing.

almost felt like a horror novel to me at times (granted I’m a total horror weenie, so take that with a grain of salt! :)), but overall I’d call the story a dark contemporary fantasy. Was balancing the darker elements of the story at all a challenge for you as a writer?

A lot of people think it's a horror novel, or horror-tinged, which surprised me at first, until I realised that I don't think of it that way because I know what's going to happen to the characters. I think a lot of the scare factor in any horror novel comes from the fear of what might happen, and I knew all along! Which is just as well, because books like Dan Poblocki's The Stone Child freak me right out. (I'm totally reading his next book. I'm just going to do it in the daytime.)

I didn't really have any trouble with the darker elements – to me they grew naturally out of the world I was writing, where actions and choices have consequences that are sometimes destructive, where violence and danger exist in the world (both magical and mundane) and where few victories are without cost.

What scenes were the most difficult to write and why?

Fight scenes are the devil. I can't throw a punch – in fact, I tend to react to violence by freezing up. So, having given the protagonist years of tae kwon do training and a black belt, I found myself putting her in situations where she would have to use them, and I would have almost no idea of what to do next. Fortunately, my best friend (who is also a writer) runs a martial arts school and advised me on all the fight scenes.

From reading, I never would have guessed you weren't a tae kwon do expert! You certainly did your job making it feel real.

Your characterization is also fabulous. I feel a story can only be as strong as the main character, and Ellie is a wonderfully flawed character. What do you love/admire about her? Is there anything about her that would kind of bug you if she were your friend in real life?

I very much admire courage, and Ellie has a ton of it – more than me, definitely! But I don't think we'd get along so well in real life. She thinks theatre is weird, whereas I think it's awesome, and since we're both prickly, fairly anti-social people, we might rub up against each other in annoying ways.

Iris, though, Iris and I would get on great!

I absolutely loved Mark & Kevin! Mark is a rich, darkly mysterious character, and yet he also exposes a vulnerable side that I found appealing. Kevin is so strong and loyal, and yet his motives at times came into question. If you could spend an afternoon with either one of them, who would you most want to hang out with and why?

Kevin, definitely. Which is not to say that Mark and I couldn't have a decent conversation about comics, but at some point he'd lie to me or try to enchant me for my own good, and I'd have to smack him with my New X-Men omnibus. Kevin is honest, fun, and smart about science, which is something I'm both fascinated by and really crap at.  

Thanks so much for joining us, Karen!
I especially enjoyed hearing your take on your characters! I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions and I wish you all the best with your new release.

You can learn more about Karen and her books at www.karenhealey.com.
katecoombs on April 7th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
Another cool book for my TBR pile! Thanks to you both for the interview. (Now I want to go to New Zealand, and not just because of Lord of the Rings.)
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on April 7th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
I'm with you, Kate! Let's pack our bags for New Zealand. ;-)
dawn_metcalf: Smile!dawn_metcalf on April 7th, 2010 02:18 pm (UTC)
I have been on pins & needles waiting for this book to come out! Fantasy + Culture = AWESOME and I've been following Karen from "girls and comics" long before I knew she was a Tenner.

Can. Not. Wait.

rllafeversrllafevers on April 7th, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for this GREAT interview, Lena and Karen! I've been intrigued by this book ever since reading Karen's blog post on the cover and can't wait to read it.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on April 7th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
GUARDIAN is an engrossing, deliciously creepy read, Dawn. I think you'll enjoy it!

And, RL, the article on Karen's cover was my first introduction to the book and made me want to read the story and interview her. I was curious how she handled the cultural aspects of the story -- and wasn't disappointed! :)
kellyrfinemankellyrfineman on April 7th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
Terrific interview. And my M (age 15) read Karen's book in late March and adores it. She just reviewed it for a school project, in fact, and the Maori legends were something she particularly enjoyed, not having known anything about them before reading the book.
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on April 7th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
I read the book! What a cool concept, I was fascinated by the entire culture you depicted, both the Maori and just New Zealand in general, having never gone farther from the US than Canada.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on April 7th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
Hi, Kelly & Lisa,

Wonderful to hear that your and yours enjoyed the book.

wanderingdreamr: echowanderingdreamr on April 7th, 2010 05:18 pm (UTC)
I hardly think it's cheating to set a book in a place you live/lived, I actually wish authors would do it more since the settings feel much crisper and solid when it does happen.
And now to wait on pins and needles for one of the libraries near me to get a copy of it...
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on April 7th, 2010 07:20 pm (UTC)

Interesting... I've been thinking about this a lot lately and I appreciate when a work has a feel of authenticity (like Karen's does). There's something to be said for being familiar with your setting. (Not that a writer can't write about a setting she hasn't been to, and do it well. And in the case of fantasy worlds, no one has been there. ;)) If at all possible, my personal preference going forward is to at least visit the places I'm going to write about.

Thanks for your comment!

charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com on April 7th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the interview--this one is going on my tbr pile too.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on April 8th, 2010 11:15 am (UTC)
Awesome interview - thanks, Lena and Karen. I'm fascinated by the idea that you wouldn't get along with your main character in real life... now I have to think about whether I would get along with mine. Hmm. (And that is an incredibly awesome blog post!)
wendydelsol on April 8th, 2010 12:22 pm (UTC)
Great interview. I'm intrigued to read something set against such a fascinating backdrop. I, too, have always wanted to visit NZ. That's the great thing about reading; it can take us there vicariously.
let's get the seven lines.bookshop on April 8th, 2010 01:41 pm (UTC)

oh, i loved this interview. thank you both.
nandinibnandinib on April 8th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
I've been looking forward to this book since I read Karen's post about the original Allen and Unwin cover ("My screams, they were heard from space.") Already recommended it to my largish brood of teenage nieces (and nephews) over in Australia. Love how she was careful to include not just white and Maori characters but those of other ethnicities. She's right that New Zealand is quite diverse. Ditto Australia. Including said brood, which is probably devouring the book right about now.

Thanks for a great interview, Lena!
(Anonymous) on April 8th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
*TBR pile groans and falls over.*

Great interview. Love the discussion of the fight scene problem--sometimes fiction requires almost as much research as nonfiction! I'm horror-shy, too, Lena, but it sounds like I'm going to have to make an exception here.
ebooraem on April 8th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)
That was my post above. *sigh*
Cinnamoncinnleigh on April 8th, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC)
I'm with the others. I think my TBR wishlist might just collapse. ;)

Karen, if you're still hanging around the blog, was it hard to write the story while still trying to respect the original stories? Did you find yourself ever having to stop and reevaluate where you were going?
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on April 8th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
Thanks to everyone for your comments! :)

Ellen, I've been known to accidentally leave anonymous comments too. It happens. :) And this book is definitely worth making an exception if you're a horror weenie like me. There's creepy tension and some "light" gore (now doesn't that sound funny?? ;)) but Karen handles it very well.
chocolate in the fruit bowlkarenhealey on April 8th, 2010 09:20 pm (UTC)
Quite often, yes. And I'm still nervous about it! If you follow the link above, I discuss one change in more spoilery detail.
jen_wrote_this on April 12th, 2010 01:27 pm (UTC)
I love Karen's obvious connection to her characters. She clearly knows them well and it's fun to read about her speaking of them as if they are real (because aren't all our characters real to us?).