I had not heard of Megan Whalen Turner until a couple of years ago, when a fellow fantasy lover recommended that I read her Newbery Honor-winning book The Thief. Immediately my mind conjured up images of a quasi-medieval near-European setting, and I imagined it would be a tale of some ragamuffin boy raised on the streets and forced to pick pockets for a living, who would spend the book getting into various escapades before finding a greater purpose and/or a loving family to care for him.
I could hardly have been more wrong. Megan Whalen Turner's books are about as far from predictable as it gets. Even the setting is fresh and unusual: a group of kingdoms based loosely on Byzantine-era Greece, where political intrigue and power plays abound, and every landmark is steeped in ancient history. Instead of relying on whizz-bang displays of magic to turn the tide and save the day, the outcome depends on the hero's ability to out-think and outmaneuver the people around him... and Gen, the Thief of the stories, is a master of subtle machination.
But even Gen must ultimately answer to the gods, and that's where a whole new layer of richness comes into the stories. The main plots may be firmly rooted in the human world and its concerns, but the gods are never far away...
Megan Whalen Turner's first book was a short story collection entitled Instead of Three Wishes (1995). She followed this with The Thief (1997) and its sequels The Queen of Attolia (2000), The King of Attolia (2006) and the just-released fourth novel A Conspiracy of Kings (2010). She also has a lively, creative and enthusiastic fanbase in sounis, a LiveJournal community dedicated to discussing and celebrating the Gen series, re-enacting favorite scenes in Lego, and spinning yarns (both figuratively and literally) based on the books.
The Enchanted Inkpot is delighted to feature this interview with Megan Whalen Turner!
Hi, Megan! Thanks for agreeing to chat with us about your books -- a lot of us Inkies are big fans.
Let's kick this off with a question on craft. Your novels are rich in political intrigue and complex interpersonal relationships, not to mention all the geographical and historical details of your invented world. How do you keep track of all these threads when you're writing, especially now that you're into multiple sequels? Do you have scads of notebooks filled with details and ideas, or do you somehow manage to keep it all straight in your head? (And if so, can I have your head when you're done with it?)
RJ, I am afraid that by the time I am done with the next two books, you won't want what is left of my head. I do research the way magpies accumulate shiny things. I use Scrivener, now, which has helped to organize my very random collection. For A Conspiracy of Kings I imported the Battle of Breitenfield, the battle of Solway Moss, the Tao de Ching, Persepolis, and a fair number of pictures, including ones of Big Sur and the Portland Vase. The nicest thing about Scrivener is having inspiring photos running down the right hand side of my screen as I work.
I love that about the Scrivener writing software too! Instant inspiration. Okay, so let's imagine you're just starting a brand new book. Can you give us a rough outline of your writing process from the time you first start thinking about a book to the time you've got it editor-ready?
Funny you should ask-- I am starting a brand new book. I intend to do a sketch of the story that will be about half the length of the final draft. Then I mean to leave it in a drawer for three months to age and then I'll rewrite it until I've thought of everything I can think of on my own, and then I'll send it off to my editor for advice before we add the final touches. That's the plan. Sadly, I've found that admitting to having a plan is almost always the first step in the plan going horribly wrong. So who knows what will happen, now RJ? You've made me fluff the plan completely and whatever happens now, it's all your fault.
Eeek! I am so sorry! Now the entire sounis community will have me granched for interfering with your Mysterious Creative Ways!
Seriously, though, what do you find to be your biggest challenge(s) when writing? Do you have any particular techniques that help you over the creative hurdles, other than knitting and lying down? (I see you've taken up surfing of late... does that help, or is it just cool?)
Well, it's impossible to think of anything but surfing, while surfing, and that clears the mind. Also, I find that after I've managed to stand up, even for a second, on a skinny tilting board on a constantly moving surface, I feel amazingly confidant that I can do anything, including write another book.
Wow, I've got to try that. Pity there isn't much surfing on Lake Huron...
Now for my own personal pet favorite question. Your books don't feature magic or fantastic creatures, but they do have a strong supernatural element in the form of the gods. I've noticed that although you've been careful not to let the gods take over the story, you seem to have made it quite plain that in Gen's world they really do exist. May I ask what first drew you to the idea of bringing the gods into these stories, and what keeps you coming back to explore the relationship between the spiritual and the physical realms?
Those gods were inspired most strongly, I think, by the Undying in Diana Wynne Jones's Dalemark Quartet. I read Drowned Ammet and Spell Coats and came away feeling that the mythology in those books must have been based on one somewhere in the real world, but as far as I know, they weren't. I wanted to create a mythology that felt as real. Moreover, I wanted to do it with a female in charge of my pantheon. I knew it would be difficult to make my gods and goddesses so conventional that they seemed real while there was this one glaringly unconventional aspect that might disturb my illusion. I measure my success by the number (the increasingly disturbing number) of reviews that mention the Myths of the Greek Gods included my books. You can measure my concern by the increasingly frantic author's notes in which I say, Fiction Here! All Made Up! TOTALLY FABRICATED!
I never would have guessed that people didn't know their Greek gods anymore. I thought they were as fixed in the North American elementary school curriculum as Sumer. You do know about Sumer, RJ? Tell me you've heard of Sumer.
I have heard of Sumer! Honest! I swear! It's the season right after Spring, right?
Ahem. Sorry about that. So did the character of Gen leap from your brow fully formed when you were writing the first draft of THE THIEF (which seems like the kind of thing he WOULD do!), or did he develop over a number of drafts? Has he ever done anything that surprised you?
Well, he has always been something of a headache. I'd have to say that the character in my head was fully formed the moment he appeared. That doesn't mean that his representation on paper didn't go through several drafts. There's a great deal more of him in my head then there is in print, and the challenge has been presenting just the details about him that will generate a character in the reader's mind that is similar to the one in mine.
A headache... yes, I can definitely see that about Gen! So what drew you to writing for MG and YA readers in particular?
I write primarily for myself. So I am going back to write the kind of stories I didn't get enough of when I was middle school and high school. I wish I'd read more Sutcliff when I was in high school. I am very glad that I found Diana Wynne Jones, except that I didn't find her writing as much as I, um, stole it. (See the next question)
Can you share with us a book you loved in childhood, a great author you discovered as a teen, and something you've read and particularly enjoyed from the last five years or so?
As a child, I loved the Narnian Chronicles.
Me too! Yay for Narnia! Oops, sorry, go on...
As a teen, I borrowed Dogsbody by DWJ from a very dear friend and NEVER GAVE IT BACK. This was a person so special that he forgave me and is still a friend to this day. Lately, I feel as if the whole world is conspiring to produce my favorite kind of book, and I don't think I can pick just one. Some of the ones I'd pick are competing in School Library Journal's Battle of the Books, and as a judge of that contest, I think I'll bite my tongue, now.
Indeed! And for the record, Megan's post, judging between Deborah Heligman's Charles and Emma and Frances Hardinge's The Lost Conspiracy, went up just today.
So, Megan, you've said elsewhere that there will be two more books in your series about Gen and his world (yay!). Is there anything not-particularly-spoilery but interesting that you can tell us about them?
How about . . . there are elephants? Not in the next book, but in the one after that (I think, these things are never certain until they are in print) someone who shall remain nameless foolishly thinks he can intimidate Eugenides with an elephant and all Gen thinks is, "How can I steal one of those?"
Elephants! I love it! Can't wait to read that scene. Thanks for sharing this delightful tidbit with your readers, Megan, and for letting us interview you today!
Thanks to my fellow Inkpot members for suggesting questions for Megan -- there were so many great ones I'm sorry I couldn't use all of them!
If you've read Megan Whalen Turner's books and enjoyed them, or just want to learn some more about her characters and their world, why not check out our recent Book Club Post on the series?
R.J. Anderson is the author of Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter (blurbed by Megan Whalen Turner!) and its forthcoming sequel Wayfarer (a.k.a. Rebel), both published by HarperCollins.