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!
|In 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.
Guardian 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.