I met Ellen Jensen Abbott last July at the Festival of Books organized by the SCBWI in Doylestown, PA. We bonded over our shared love of Fantasy and writing, and over the fact that we were "Agent" sisters, as her agent has just offered to represent me.
Some months before our meeting, I had read and loved Ellen's first YA fantasy, Watersmeet (Marshall Cavendish, 2009) and was glad to learn its sequel The Centaur's Daughter was coming out this September. I was even happier when she agreed to send me an ARC copy of same, when I requested it with the excuse of hosting her interview today.
September is already here and for all of you who were not so lucky to get an ARC, the wait is finally over. Please join me to congratulate Ellen on the release of The Centaur's Daughter, that is both a thought-provoking look at human's prejudice and the wrongs it creates and a wonderful adventure.
Hi Ellen, and thank you for being here with us at the Inkpot.
Q. As I reader, I was very excited to read The Centaur's Daughter because I wanted to return to the world you so vividly created in Watersmeet and learn what happened to Abisina. As a writer, struggling at the moment with the up millionth rewrite of my own sequel's first chapter, I had a different goal. I wanted to know how had you conveyed in those few opening pages all the information from the first book necessary to bring the reader up to date.
I must say you did a wonderful job, introducing the characters and explaining their background while keeping the action going. So the question is: Was this first chapter as easy to write as it is to read or did you struggle with it? In other words, was this first chapter the one and only chapter you wrote or did you rewrite it several times?
A. Carmen, you have just made my whole month!! I struggled with the issue of how much backstory to include throughout the novel, but particularly at the beginning. And now, as I am writing the third installment, I am struggling again. So yes, I rewrote more times than I can count. What I learned in the end, is that it becomes very clear…eventually…what backstory needs to be in and what is not only overkill but annoying to a reader. At times it became a war with my ego. I worked so hard to make a compelling first novel that cutting the details in the backstory seemed like cutting them from Watersmeet! I had to remind myself that Watersmeet was still out there with all its twists and turns. I’m trying to remember to relax about backstory as I write the third. I’m letting myself put in all the backstory I want in the early drafts; I can cut, cut, cut once I get the story on its way. (Even as I say that, I suspect it’s easier said than done!)
Q. Now for my favorite question, Where did the idea for Watersmeet come from? Did you have the story arc for the three books in your mind when you started writing?
A.The trilogy, to me, is about the birth of the nation of Seldara and its founding hero, Abisina. I saw that from the start. But there is a whole lot of detail that needed to be worked out—and still needs to be worked out—to get from the two separate and very different communities of Vrania and Watersmeet in the first book to even the possibility of a unified land at the ed. At times I feel like I’m negotiating peace in the Middle East! And there’s even more detail to work out about Abisina’s personal growth and adventure. She is the driver of the story, and while I know where she needs to end up, I am also continually discovering how she will get there. She doesn’t make it easy! The biggest mistake I made was trying to have her fall in love with someone after she had already given her heart to someone else. She refused to cooperate. It was some of the worst writing I’ve done—and happily it’s all been deleted. I have to follow her lead as I feel my way through the story.
Q. In the world you have created, prejudice against those that are not perfect is brutal. Because perfection is defined as having fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, Nazi Germany comes to mind immediately. Was this your intention?
A. No, but unfortunately, it’s not hard to find a number of historical examples that could be the inspiration for the Vranian society in Watersmeet and The Centaur’s Daughter. We humans are so good at finding ways to make people outsiders! Religion, skin color, ethnic background, and on and on.
Again, it was Abisina who led me to that part of the story. The first thing I knew about her was that she was an outsider. In my mind, she looked like a student I used to have at the Westtown School who was Latina, with dark wavy hair and brown skin. I began to explore if it was her coloring that caused her outsider-ness. I did a lot of writing to understand her situation, and the community, the history, the legend of Rueshlan and Vran and Vigar began to develop.
I also liked the issue around coloring because it’s always irritated me that so many European fairy tales emphasize “fairness”—the blonde, blue-eyed, pink-cheeked heroine. As a brunette myself, I remember hating those descriptions as a kid. I wanted to be a princess too!
Q. I know you are a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia, was the centaur in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe your inspiration for the centaurs in your story?
A. Not that centaur specifically, but the classes of creatures Lewis uses in his books certainly inspired me. I recently read that Tolkien didn’t approve of Narnia, even though he and Lewis were long-time friends and members of the Inklings writing group at Cambridge University. Tolkien felt like Lewis was presenting too much of a mix of English, Norse and Greek images. His own Middle Earth borrowed from one source alone.
But that’s what I loved about Narnia! In fact, as an American, a mix feels right. I grew up in the American melting-pot. I didn’t learn much about my particular ethnic folklore. I always felt like all folk-lores were available to me—so I drew on all of the ones that I had a connection to as I wrote Watersmeet and The Centaur’s Daughter. My fantasy world is western because it was these folklores that I read and knew as a kid, but it’s as much Greek as Norse as Irish as English as some hybrid of them all.
Q. What was your inspiration for the names of your characters?
A. Again, all kinds of references. My two central centaurs, Kyron and Icksyon, are named after and roughly based on the Greek centaurs Chiron and Ixion. The Sylvyad trees are named after the Latin word “sylvan” for wood. Abisina is named after her mother, Sina, because I thought Sina would want her daughter to hold onto a piece of her. Sometimes I go through baby books and find names that have meanings similar to qualities in the character I’m naming, but I usually change a syllable or two to make the name more suitable for fantasy. I also hit on a Basque baby-naming web-site and fell in love with the names there. They sounded so beautiful. I often make up names according to sound, but it’s much easier to do this if you begin with a real name and play with it to make something new. And there are times when I’m completely out of names! One of my jobs at the end of a manuscript is to go back through and find names for the characters who are called “DD” or “XX” or “the boy with red-hair.”
Q. How many more books should we expect in the world of Watersmeet?
A. I am in the middle of writing Book 3 which I see as the last in this cycle. I won’t rule out a companion book or books down the road, but I have also started a contemporary fantasy that I’m excited about. There will at least be a longer break between Book 3 and whatever may come next.
Q. Why fantasy and why YA? Did you consciously choose to write a YA novel?
A. I don’t think I consciously chose YA fantasy, but it makes a lot of sense that when I let my imagination run it brought me a teenage girl who lived in a fantasy world. I was an English major in college and have been an English teacher since I graduated, so it’s clear that I love books and reading. But it was as a young adult that I was most transported by books—before I learned to look for symbolism and motifs and interesting figurative language. And the books that most transported me were fantasy—especially Narnia. Even now, I find myself reading YA like I did when I was younger—just throwing myself into the story and getting caught up in it. At times, I finish a book and realize that I could have learned something from the author’s style or story-structure or plot pacing, but to get these lessons, I have to go back and re-read because my first read was just a headlong rush.
Q. Borrowing the idea from fellow inker Cindy Pon, I will end the interview with a very personal question, but instead of pastries, let's talk coffee. Which one is your favorite espresso, latte or mocha?
A. Pumpkin spice latte! As someone who grew up in New England, fall is the most evocative time for me: crisp air, blue, blue sky, and brilliant leaves. Pumpkin Spice latte brings some of that feeling to me in a cup.
Thank you so much Ellen for sharing your creative process with us. It resonates with me and I hope with our readers too.
Ellen Jensen Abbott is the author of Watersmeet and The Centaur's Daughter (Marshall Cavendish) and is hard at work on the third installment of this fantasy series that takes place in the world of Seldara. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Brown University and a master’s in education from Harvard. When she is not dreaming up stories about Seldara, she teaches English at the Westtown School in Pennsylvania.
You can learn more about Ellen by checking her blog at http://ellenjensenabbott.wordpress.com/
To read the first chapter of The Centaur's Daughter click below: http://ellenjensenabbott.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/chapter-1-centaur1.pdf
Interviewer: Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban
Two Moon Princess (Tanglewood Press, 2007, 2010)