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The Inkpot's Jennifer Nielsen: An Interview … and A GIVE-AWAY!!

Eleven-year-old Elliot Penster has his own personal bully and an impoverished family struggling to function. As if that weren’t enough, last Halloween he sacrificed most of his candy to rescue a little girl from bullies—only to discover that the bullies were Goblins and he had been named king of the Brownies, whom Goblins like to eat.

 Having vanquished the Goblins and imprisoned their leader in his first book, you’d think he could go back to hiding from his bossy science project partner. 

But no. Now he’s been kidnapped by Pixies, and they want him to confront a Demon. 

Inkie Jennifer Nielsen has absolutely no mercy. This week, Sourcebooks publishes her ELLIOT AND THE PIXIE PLOT, the second in the three-book series that began last year with ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR.  

I hate to think what she’ll do to this kid in the third book. 

Jennifer lives in Northern Utah with her husband and three kids. The first Elliot book was her debut novel, but she’s now sold a whole new three-book series to Scholastic. Good going, Jennifer! Find out more at her web site, www.jennielsen.com

LATE BREAKING NEWS: Two randomly chosen commenters on this post will win a signed copy of either ELLIOT AND THE PIXIE PLOT or ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR! (Sorry, Inkies, you’re not eligible.) Get commenting, people!

 

Jen, remind us of where this all started. Your web site says you got the “idea for the first chapter of something”—presumably the first Elliot book—while doing the dishes. What was that first glimmer? How did the idea change as you went along, especially as it turned into a series? 

There’s a warning that appears at the start of ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR, which was the idea that got me out of dishes that night (don’t you love it when a writing spark is the cause of procrastination?). It’s begins with the line, “As of today, there are only seven children who have ever read this book and lived to tell about it.” The entire introduction is in the book almost exactly as I first wrote it. I’d always hoped for the story to become a series, and it actually hasn’t changed much from my original concept. 

In the first book, Elliot wins our hearts by being a normal elementary school kid who falls into a war with Goblins. Now he’s King of the Brownies but he also has a science project due. Is that grounding in reality hard to maintain when the fantasy is so action-packed and compelling? 

As a writer, I tend to look at the “whole” character, which means I build them in the entirety, not just for the particular circumstance of that plot. That technique has helped in writing Elliot, because no matter what extraordinary adventures he’ll encounter in each book, I always think of him as this perfectly normal kid dealing with very ordinary life circumstances such as family, schoolwork, and girl cooties. I think treating Elliot as a boy first, and a Brownie King second, is part of his appeal to readers: other than the minor detail that he’s just won a war against the Goblins, he’s really not much different than they are. 

The Underworld and its operating principles have really expanded in this second book. Beyond the original Brownies and Goblins, we meet Pixies, Fairies, and other far more menacing creatures, as well as getting a sense of daily life and even the mechanics of night and day. Did you do all the world-building in advance, or just jump in and follow where the story led you? 

I love world building – it’s one of my favorite parts of fantasy writing! I wish I could say I did a lot of advance planning, but for this series, it was jump in and follow. Since the Underworld wouldn’t have stars, my favorite new creation is the Star Dancers, creatures who paint the Underworld sky each night and their colors fade by morning. 

Your bad guys range from the sometimes-comic Goblins to downright terrifying Shadow Men. In your opinion, what makes for a satisfying (and sufficiently scary) monster? Has it been a surprise when some of them turned comic? 

In this series, the Shadow Men are the only villains I’ve created who aren’t comic in some way. I have three rules for creating scary villains: 1) Get the reader to identify with the protagonist so that when he becomes afraid, the reader feels that too. 2) The villain should always be stronger than the protagonist, always with the advantage to win. And, 3) Never simply crazy. Crazy is a writer’s copout for a real motivation. 

But for those villains who have comic edges, I actually like that. They still meet all my rules, but I think Elliot is a kid who can see the absurd in life, and through his eyes the reader sees that humor can be found nearly everywhere. 

These books are hysterical in a way that appeals to the nine-year-old in all of us. The omniscient but slightly scatterbrained narrator keeps breaking in to address the “Dear Reader,” chocolate cake is an Underworld punishment, and there’s a shapeshifter named Harold. How do you keep that insane, youthful vibe alive when you’re slogging through a manuscript?  

For whatever it says about my maturity level, I actually find it really easy to keep that vibe alive. Those who know me well say they can hear my voice in the tone of the book, so I might need to accept the reality that the slightly scatterbrained narrator is me! 

Elliot at one point is forced to steal a sleeping demon’s sock, which to my ear is much funnier than stealing, say, his shoe. It’s the great mystery of humor: They’re both attached to the same body part … why is one funnier than the other? Do you ever attempt to theorize about this stuff, or would that just rot your funny bone? 

Hmm, theorize about humor? Okay, but it’s going to be incredibly un-funny. Humor is born when it’s not what a person expects to hear. In your example, the shoe is more obvious and thus, less funny. Also, humor comes when you can create the ridiculous but make it sound logical. It’s ridiculous to need anyone’s sock and yet there actually is a logical reason why it must be that item. That said, I don’t work too hard at any of the humor in the books. Elliot is living in an incongruous adventure, so the humor creates itself. 

You just sold Scholastic another trio of books, The Ascendance Trilogy. The first book, THE FALSE PRINCE, publishes next spring and already is inviting comparisons to THE HUNGER GAMES and (be still my heart) Megan Whelan Turner’s Attolia series. Can you tell us a little about it? Also, how are you managing to breathe? 

In THE FALSE PRINCE, four orphans, including a defiant boy named Sage, are forced into competition to become an impostor prince. Sage’s life balances on a sword’s point – he must be chosen or he will certainly be killed. 

Scholastic has high expectations for this book and they’ve been incredibly generous with all their work on it thus far. Quite honestly, the first time I saw the comparison to HUNGER GAMES and THE THIEF, I did stop breathing. It started up again once I realized that the real test will come once the book is released. I really hope people like it! 

Back to Elliot: Any hints about what he will face in the third book of his series? 

The third book is ELLIOT AND THE LAST UNDERWORLD WAR, which will release in February 2012. Even if it wasn’t his fault, Elliot has to face consequences for the events of PIXIE PLOT. So this trilogy will end with Elliot battling the evil Demon Kovol against the destruction of Earth. I had to smile in your introduction when you wondered what I’ll do to this kid in the third book. The answer is: Plenty. It’s an Underworld War, and Elliot is at the center of it all. It should be a lot of fun! 

Can’t wait to read it. Thanks for the interview, Jen—good luck with ELLIOT AND THE PIXIE PLOT!


Tags: ellen booraem, interviews, jennifer nielsen
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