January 11th, 2012

Interview with Anne Nesbet

It’s always exciting when the Inkies get to interview one of our own for a new book. But when it’s also an author’s debut book and happens to be a darn good read, that’s even better!

Anne Nesbet has just released A CABINET OF EARTHS with Harper Collins. The Goodreads summary is here:

All Maya really wants is for her mother to be well again. But when her baby brother James goes missing, 12-year-old Maya has to take on the magical underworld of Paris, in which houses have bronze salamanders for door handles, the most beautiful people are all hooked on the sweet-smelling “anbar,” and a shimmering glass Cabinet of Earths has chosen Maya to be its next keeper. With the Cabinet’s help, Maya may be able to do for her mother what doctors cannot: save her from death, once and for all. But now that the clock is ticking for James, the price the Cabinet demands may be too high.

So let’s get to it.

Maya is a wonderful heroine in this story. I personally love the analogy of her to the salamander. What do you think readers will most like about her?

Perhaps some readers may recognize a bit of themselves in Maya, who has to be quite brave and resourceful in a very new and unfamiliar place.  I do think most people, perhaps especially younger people, are keenly aware of what it feels like to be out of place, to have to walk into a room where you don't know anybody yet and find a place to sit and maybe even people to talk to.  Maya is thrown into a new world when her parents drag her off to Paris, but if you ask me, that's not entirely unlike being sent off to Middle School or Junior High.  Although in Paris, the croissants are better!

Without giving away any details, there’s a sinister sort of mystery that unfolds in the story and intertwines with some actual historical facts. Where did the idea for CABINET OF EARTHS come from?

Like most ideas, the ones that got tangled up into this particular story came from a number of different places originally.  The first thread was, believe it or not, the almost invisible Cousin Louise; I knew something perfectly awful must have happened to her long ago, and I really wanted her to be able to rise up and demand some justice for herself.  But an opaque & forgettable person doesn't work so well as a main character!  So Maya and her family appeared on the scene, and with them (since I was living in Paris at the time, and in an apartment with a glass cabinet full of mysterious bottles, to boot!) a setting, a door with a bronze salamander for a door-handle, all the various Fourcroys . . . .  Oh, and I found an old book about 18th-century chemistry in France that I could not put down!  Poor Lavoisier, who despite formulating the conservation of matter for modern science, still lost his head to the guillotine--I just knew he was mixed into the backstory somehow.

I confess, my favorite character just might be the unusually forgettable Cousin Louise, and every time you describe her I just smile (a human-sized shadow in a chair). Do you have a favorite character?

As you can see from the above, Cousin Louise has always been a favorite of mine, too, but I also love Maya, for being able to rise--bravely--above her many worries, and Maya's mother reminds me (by sheer coincidence, I'm sure) of my own mother, who loved to look very closely at pictures in museums.

You write as someone very familiar with Paris, where Maya’s family has recently come to live. Have you lived or traveled there?

When I was a child my father sometimes had long stints of work at a physics laboratory near Paris, and so my sisters and I would be dropped into the nearest French public school for months at a time.  That was a challenge, of course--the schools were tough!--but I also came to love the city very much and to feel at home there.  As an adult I've been lucky enough to keep returning to France with my family, and the rough draft of THE CABINET OF EARTHS was, in fact, written during a year when we were living in Paris.    

There’s a timeless feel to your book, as if it’s a treasure that’s always been on our bookshelves and always will be. I wonder what childhood books inspired you most in the development of your voice?

That's so kind of you to say!  I am not sure where "voices" come from, but I was always finding myself writing sad stories that despite my best efforts were also a bit funny--and funny stories that despite my best efforts were also a bit sad--so I suspect some complex combination of E. Nesbit, to whom I'm not, alas, the least bit related, and Tove Jansson and Edward Eager and Jane Langton and Mary Norton (THE BORROWERS is one of the saddest funny books I know), among others, may have had something to do with the way I tell stories now.

And finally, where can readers learn more about you and future news?

My website can be found at www.annenesbet.com.  One bit of future news that is already official is that there will be another book about Maya and Valko in about a year.  It's called A BOX OF GARGOYLES, and I am revising it right now.

Thank you so much for these thoughtful questions, Jen!  It is really an honor--and a long-held dream of mine--to be an official Inkpot Interviewee!