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23 June 2010 @ 09:15 am
Inkie Interview: Deva Fagan  

“All I wanted was to charm a single stinking wart onto my face. Yes, onto, not off.” With that compelling first sentence, we learn several important facts about Prunella Bogthistle. She’s magical but not necessarily proficient. Her priorities and beauty regimen are not those of the average young lady. And…oh yeah…she’s no lady.  

THE MAGICAL MISADVENTURES OF PRUNELLA BOGTHISTLE, Deva Fagan’s second middle-grade fantasy, follows Prunella from her home among the Bottomlands bog-witches and into the much less magical Uplands. Exiled because she can’t make her curses behave, she wants to redeem herself by wresting her ancestor’s grimoire from the evil Lord Blackthorn. She’s joined on her quest by an exasperating young thief named Barnaby, who seeks the lost Mirable Chalice. Finding the chalice will win him fame and fortune and…oh yeah…break a curse that is dooming the Uplands.

Nothing is exactly what Prunella thinks it is. It seems everyone she meets—whether homeless pondswaggle or lonely ghost— has a surprise in store for her, even members of her own witchy family. Before she’s through, she’ll find her true calling and revise her preconceptions on a whole raft of subjects, notably giant alligators, the function of magic, who’s good, who’s evil…and who’s Barnaby. 

School Library Journal called this “a colorful, fast-paced fantasy…recommended for fans of funny, fairy-tale-inspired stories.” And Kirkus Reviews, which does not praise lightly, said: “Spunky characters and surprising plot twists will keep readers laughing and turning pages.” Find out more at devafagan.com, where you can read the first chapter here.

Congratulations on your second novel, Deva! How was the publication experience different this time around?  

In some ways it was more fun, because I was a bit more mellow and able to enjoy things that I was too freaked out about to enjoy last time around. This time I really started to look at my “writing career” as a long-term journey, and see that the important things are writing books I love and meeting other fantastic book people, not obsessing over my Amazon ranking or number of Facebook friends.

In other ways it was much tougher, but that was due to the book itself. I wrote my debut novel very very fast (for NaNoWriMo, actually). It just sort of flowed out, and although I did revise a fair bit there were no huge reworkings. With PRUNELLA, which I sold as part of my original book deal based on a synopsis, I ended up writing a complete first draft and then tossing it and restarting from scratch. The point of view changed, the plot changed; about the only things that stayed the same were Prunella, the Bottomlands, and the fact that there was a magic chalice involved! But it was something I had to do, because that first draft was not working. And yes, I did spend quite a bit of time curled up in a pathetic tearful ball hugging my dog and listening to my husband reassure me that life would go on. Tossing that first draft and realizing I needed to produce a new draft (one that was actually GOOD, hopefully) in the next few months (I had a deadline!) was probably the toughest challenge of my writing career so far. But I am so glad I did, because it was what allowed me to really find the heart of the story and the characters. 

This book is delightfully upside-down and inside-out. Prunella, for example, wants nothing more than to become a “good” bog-witch—by which she means a warty and unkempt person who curses others. What was the first glimmer of an idea that turned into this book, and how did it become so wonderfully twisty? 

Hah! Well, it all started with the characters of Barnaby and Prunella. And I must admit that Barnaby and Prunella were in fact inspired by characters my husband and I designed for a “dark and twisted fairy tale” Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) event. We wanted to play some fairly silly characters with a backstory that put them at odds with one another, mostly so we could amuse ourselves exchanging repartee. So we came up with the idea of an incompetent witch who is thrown out into the world until she can curse the thief-turned-hero who invaded her grandmother’s garden. The Barnaby and Prunella in my book are entirely different people, but they are loosely inspired by that initial concept. 

As in your first book, FORTUNE’S FOLLY, we chuckle our way through life-and-death situations: Prunella vanquishes a giant alligator only to get herself embarrassingly wound up in spidersilk. It’s not every fantasy writer who can combine adventure with humor. Is it a conscious decision to be funny, or do you even have a choice? 

I never actually think of myself as trying to be funny. I’m just trying not to be boring!  

I’ve been thrilled and humbled when reviews have called my books funny, because my own favorite type of entertainment is the sort that combines real emotion and drama with humor (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter). 

I don’t know when I’ve met a broader range of supernatural characters: the pondswaggles who haunt wells and moats, the horrifying pumpkin-headed jacks, the even more dreadful spectral stallion. Where did they all come from? And if it was your brain, how on earth do you sleep at night?  

I wish I had a useful answer to this question, but the truth is I don’t know where these things come from, most of the time. Like a lot of writers, I am a lifelong magpie, a collector of cool, shiny tidbits. You know, the weird little images and names that don’t fit anywhere particular, that you store up so that they eventually trickle out into your fiction when you need them. That spectral stallion has been in my head for a while, and now that I think about it, it’s probably some sort of weird conflation of the Red Bull and the Last Unicorn from the animated version of Peter S. Beagle’s lovely classic. Likewise there’s a character in PRUNELLA named “Skillamug.” That was a word I picked up from my husband, who had this giant plastic bug from when he was a boy that he and his brothers called “the Skillamug.” What a great word, right? So that stuck in my head and fell out again when I was writing PRUNELLA. 

Both of your books have a strong “message” about controlling your own fate and finding your own identity. But mostly they’re funny, fast-moving page-turners. Do you know what the theme will be going in, or do you figure it out after the first draft? How do you balance message with story-telling?

 As I said in my recent Topic of the Week post here on the Inkpot, I find that “message” tends to come out of individual character choices, rather than the other way around. So when I started PRUNELLA, I knew the two main characters were both confronting personal choices about family and societal expectations. And I knew they both were basically compassionate people at heart. But from there on it was all about what each of them actually did, what choices they made based on their experiences. I do write from an outline, and I do have some inkling of theme, but it’s the characters first and foremost. They drive everything else.

Prunella describes herself early on as having “clear brown skin.” (And she appears that way on the cover, praise be!) But skin color is mentioned only once, that I recall, and it isn’t an issue at any time in the story—when Uplanders show prejudice against Prunella, it’s usually because of her wild clothes or untidiness. Was this “post-racial” approach deliberate?

Yes, it was deliberate, and I am very, very happy to report that it was never an issue anywhere in the publishing process. My editor and publisher (Henry Holt) embraced and supported the book and were very deliberate themselves in ensuring the cover was accurate. I am enormously grateful to them for that! 

When I began dreaming up the setting for Prunella and Barnaby’s adventures, I envisioned a rich and colorful world populated by people of all sorts. So that is what I tried to depict, both in the primary and the secondary characters. I wanted to write a book that readers of all sorts could look at and find themselves in. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I wanted to try! 

Similarly, my third book features a main character who is Taiwanese-American, and a host of secondary characters who are every color from brown to white to blue (hey, they’re mutant aliens!). Because the real world is a diverse and colorful place, and I want my fictional worlds to be as well.

Your third book, a sci-fi called CIRCUS GALACTICUS, is coming out in 2011. Three books in three years is swift work for anyone, but you have a full-time day job as a software engineer! How do you manage to combine the two? And how well do the two fields interact?

Apparently I do write relatively quickly, although I bet there’s a story in my future that’s going to demand longer at some point. As to fitting it all in, I actually figure I have it better than a lot of writers, who are not only writing and holding day-jobs, but also being parents!  

I make my schedule work by getting the writing in early, before I go to work. It helps that I have a very supportive spouse who handles a lot of the household maintenance and chores if I need extra writing time. 

Working in a technical field (I have a MA in Mathematics and work on geodesy software to smash the round world flat for mapping purposes) has provided one specific thing to my writing, which is a desire to try to spread a love of science (on earth and beyond). It’s part of what led me to write my third book, which is not particularly technical, but is informed by my own love of astronomy and the mentality of “let’s go out and explore this marvelous universe we live in!” 

My day job itself doesn’t cross over much into my writing world, except that it provides the financial support (and health insurance) that allows me the security to throw myself into my imaginary worlds and write for the joy of the stories themselves. I certainly daydream about writing full-time, but because I have neurotic tendencies, I think maybe it’s actually a good thing I don’t need to look at my writing as “the thing that pays the mortgage.”

 PRUNELLA BOGTHISTLE calls out for a sequel. Any chance of that? 

I’d love to spend more time exploring Prunella and Barnaby’s world and dealing with the ramifications of what happened in the first book. In particular I’d like to uncover more of the history of both their families: Prunella’s mysterious parents, and Barnaby’s pack of ne’er-do-well brothers who ply their criminal ways on a giant paddleboat. Whether or not I actually get a chance to do so will probably depend on the success of the first though!

 At the moment I’m working on a sequel to CIRCUS GALACTICUS, which is also a huge amount of fun, since I love that world and those characters too! 

Thanks for chatting, Deva. Good luck with PRUNELLA! 

Thank you, Ellen! 


 
 
 
R.J. Andersonrj_anderson on June 23rd, 2010 02:18 pm (UTC)
Great interview, with lots of fun questions and answers -- and Prunella is a delightful book that I hope will be discovered and enjoyed by many readers!
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:03 am (UTC)
Thanks RJ! Ellen is a great interviewer!

And happy release day to you and Linden too!
jen_wrote_this on June 23rd, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC)
Prunella sounds like a fabulous book. I like the way you discuss the diversity of race within the story. That it's not about the diversity; it just is. Great interview!
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:03 am (UTC)
Thank you!
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on June 23rd, 2010 02:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the great interview Deva and Ellen! I'm sorry to say I haven't read Prunella yet (the tower of books next to my bed is becoming frightening) but I must. go. get. Prunella. today! The world sounds magical in more than one way and I absolutely adore the idea of pondswoggle and bog-witches and giant alligators! The whole story sounds like so much fun! Congrats Deva! Can't wait to read it!
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:04 am (UTC)
I am partial to the giant alligators myself!

And no worries. I have my own ginormous to-read pile (or, actually, bookcase full).
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on June 24th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
Actually, I woke up thinking about your book today and decided I have to go get it NOW. Can't wait!
marissa_doylemarissa_doyle on June 23rd, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC)
Ellen is an awesome interviewer...and she had a equally awesome subject. Thank you both, ladies...I think my daughters and I will both enjoy Prunella (I'm waiting till Toadstool to buy it, so I can have it signed.) :)
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:05 am (UTC)
Thanks Marissa! Can't wait to see you at the Toadstool!
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on June 23rd, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC)
Oh Deva! I always knew you were awesome, but I never realized just HOW awesome until now! I have to read your book. It is moving way up on my TBR list (which is like 5 miles long). Thank you both for the great interview!
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:05 am (UTC)
Thank you Lisa! I hope you enjoy it!
annastanannastan on June 23rd, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
I adored Fortune's Folly and can't wait to read about Prunella! There's something about fairy-tale-inspired worlds that just draws me right in.
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:06 am (UTC)
Thanks, Anna! I feel the same way about fairy-tale inspired settings. I look forward to reading *yours* one of these days!
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on June 23rd, 2010 06:16 pm (UTC)
I am both terrified and inspired by the story of throwing out your entire first draft. Based on those reviews (and that first line) it seems to have worked out well. Can't wait to find out for myself!
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:07 am (UTC)
I was definitely terrified! But it taught me some very useful lessons that hopefully will help me avoid that fate in the future. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right?
mguibordmguibord on June 23rd, 2010 07:46 pm (UTC)
That is simply, the best first line I've read in a long time! I'm looking forward to reading this. Nice interview :)
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:08 am (UTC)
Glad you like it, Maurissa!
katecoombs on June 23rd, 2010 08:55 pm (UTC)
Prunella is SUCH a fun book! (I reviewed it at Book Aunt last weekend.) Thanks for the interview, Ellen and Deva. And I'm dying to read Circus Galacticus!
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:08 am (UTC)
Thanks Kate, both for commenting and for the review! And yes, I am super excited about CG too. Almost to the point I feel like I am "cheating" on Prunella, heh.
A Deserving Porcupinerockinlibrarian on June 23rd, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)
Oh oh oh I so have to read this now! Thank you for suckering us in with the first chapter, too!
Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 10:10 am (UTC)
Hah! I am glad to hear my dastardly first-chapter-excerpt plan worked!

Hope you enjoy the rest of it! And thank you for commenting!
ctrichmondctrichmond on June 24th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful interview! I'm really looking forward to reading Prunella and I can't wait to get my hands on Circus Galacticus! (I write MG science fiction and I love that sci-fi is getting some attention. :o)

Devadeva_fagan on June 24th, 2010 09:11 pm (UTC)
Yay, scifi! I've been noticing a bit more on that front lately-- though possibly it's just my wishful thinking-- but my fingers are crossed that it's getting at least a bit of a resurgence, possibly as an offshoot of the dystopian and steampunk trends.
natalieag on June 25th, 2010 12:12 am (UTC)
Great interview. I loved Fortune's Folly so can't wait to read this one. It's always inspiring to read about a successful writer who keeps her day job. I know that's how I'll have to do it and you give me hope I'll be able to handle it all.
Devadeva_fagan on June 25th, 2010 01:19 am (UTC)
Thanks! So glad you liked FF!

Balancing things can be tough but I do think there are advantages to keeping a day job, even when it's possible to quit (not that I'm at that point yet!). Good luck!
thehappynappybookseller.blogspot.com on June 28th, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
I loved The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle. ( and to prove it I even wrote out the whole title)

So Deva please consider a sequel. Does a sequel getting published sometimes depend on the sales of the first book?
Devadeva_fagan on June 28th, 2010 06:16 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Doret! I am so glad you liked it, even with the long title, heh.

I would definitely be interested in writing a sequel, but my publisher has not asked me for one yet, and I suspect whether they do or not will depend on how the first one does. So, basically, if folks out there would like to read a sequel, the best thing to do is to tell other people about the first book. Word of mouth is really still the best way to help books succeed, I think.