One of my favorite parts of FAB week is the chance to ask the wonderful authors interview questions. One of my least favorite parts of FAB week is the chance to ask the wonderful authors interview questions. It is most definitely a love it and dread it sort of task. I am such a Fan Girl of my FAB picks that I never know what to ask or how to ask it in a way that won't make me sound like a blabbering fool. Thankfully, all of the authors are such FABulous people that their answers make my silly questions look good. And in truth, R.L. LaFevers had such great answers she made my questions seem fantastic! So read on my lovelies and get the dish on Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, writing, and what's next from R.L. LaFevers!
Chari-Dee: What prompted you to write children's books?
R.L. LaFevers: That’s an interesting question. I started writing again after I became a SAHM with my two sons. We read books all the time, we were absolutely steeped in children’s books, and I found myself reading my favorite childhood books to them and was struck by how timeless children’s books were, how deeply the got under our skin, more so than much of the adult fiction we read. And as I wrote more and more, I found myself drawn to writing for and about children. At first glance, it would be easy to assume that it was because I was around kids and reading so much kid’s fiction, but it was deeper than that. I think it has to do with the core themes that writers explore, because all writers have certain themes they are drawn to, and my themes tended to be about becoming aware of and stepping into one’s personal power; of that moment kids learn that they can act in a very real and separate way from their parents. I think that’s also the reason I write fantasy, because using fantastical powers is such a great metaphor for personal powers that kids begin to exercise and embrace. Another thing I learned recently while doing a class with a number of other published children’s authors, is that we discovered we all had a very strong sense of giving voice to our child selves, who never had a chance to be heard due to various familial circumstances and dynamics. So the real reason I write for children is probably deeply enmeshed in that.
CD: It can't be easy writing a children's book, as there is generally expected a subtle lesson to be involved. Do you find that a tough balancing act? Making the story enjoyable, yet putting a bit of life lesson in there? Do you go into a book knowing what the underlying message will be?
R.L.: You know, I emphatically don’t believe in putting a lesson in a children’s book. I think when you set out to write a book with a lesson, kids can smell it a mile away and it’s the kiss of death. Also, if you write a great story, the lesson is there, whether you intend it to be or not, and it will have developed organically, and I fully believe that any lessons in a kid’s book should evolve organically from the characters’ own journey rather than because the author wanted to teach readers something specific.
And sure, there have been many times I thought I knew what a story was going to be about—not because I planned it, but because I thought I could see the theme emerging as I worked. However, by the time I got to the end of the book, the theme had morphed on me. Werewolf Rising is a great example of this. I thought it was going to be about learning to control oneself, one’s power and one’s strength, but in the end, it ended up being about intolerance and bigotry. Or so it seems to me.
The other angle to this is you can’t really control what theme or lesson readers take from your work. The writer is only one half of the equation, and the reader brings their own history, perspective, and worldview to the reading process, which is the second half of the equation. So how that all balances out in the end is very case specific. An example of this was a conversation I saw on a blog regarding how I’d handled the concept of British colonialism and stolen national artifacts, but the truth is, I never intended to make a political statement on any of those things; they just grew out of the story I was telling.
With Theodosia, there were certain themes I wanted to explore, but there was no lesson I intended to teach. If anything, I simply wanted the story to validate young readers’ experiences of feeling overlooked by their busy parents, or feeling like they were aware of important things that no one else around them (especially the grown ups) were paying attention to.
CD: Theo is your first book about with a female lead (and I adore the dedication*) was there a reason behind going with a female this time?
R.L.: There was no particular reason other than just following a creative urge to try something different. I’d been surrounded by boys for years and my first five books were boy books, then for some reason I was struck by wanting to write a book for my own inner eleven year old self. I’d also thought for a long time that there should be more big fantasy adventures for girls, so I sat down and thought really hard about what book I would have loved to have read. I really wallowed in my eleven-year-old self and tried to write the book that would have been my favorite at that age.
Another component of the book was that it irks me that the word bossy or “being too clever for your own good” still gets applied to girls more often than boys. You rarely hear a boy being described as bossy—he’s confident or a natural born leader. I decided the perfect revenge would be to write a book where those very traits in a girl would be her shining strengths, the very things that allowed her to save her parents and her country.
Another concept that found its way into this book was kids’ abilities to notice things that adults around them no longer pay attention to. As a kid, I can so clearly remember knowing when someone had been in my room, even when nothing had been disturbed, or the ability to feel when someone was looking at you. Kids are so open to the world, in ways we adults have forgotten or discarded, and I wanted to explore that. But it could just as easily been explored with a boy protagonist as with a girl.
CD: Theo has such vast knowledge of Egypt and ancient myths, how much research did you have to do for this book? Have the things that Theo knows and love been something you have always been interested in?
R.L.: Well, my husband jokes that I am a writer so I have an excuse to do research, and he’s only half kidding. The truth is, I am mad about research. I’ve always loved it. Even when I was little I adored walking into libraries or museums because I knew I was in the presence of Knowledge. Answers to the Ancient Mysteries lay all around me and I only had to know which books to read in order to find those answers. It’s always struck me that the myths from ancient civilizations weren’t just a story, but were something the people of the time truly believed were true. What if they were real? What would that be like and how would that affect our world? This question is always in the back of my mind and the best place to explore it was in writing. So Theo’s love of research and working out puzzles were totally my own. As was her love of ancient Egypt. I’ve always been fascinated with Ancient Egypt and thought it was ripe for story possibilities.
I would have loved to be able to actually travel to London and the Valley of the Kings, but alas, my research budget did not allow for that. I collected a number of books on Ancient Egypt and archaeological findings and expeditions in Egypt, as well as some on the history of Egyptology, Egyptian myths and magic. I also did a lot of research on Edwardian London, trying to get a sense of the political and social climate, as well as just the logistics of living in that time period.
The internet was indispensable for my research. I was able to locate pictures of the British Museum near the turn of the century, find old archival photographs of the museum’s interior, as well as its displays and groups of school children who visited the museum. I was also able to find out when lifts went into operation in London and what sort of vehicles were in use. I was even able to find old street maps of London so that I could give an authentic feel to the world I was building and get the locations of things correct, although I did use artistic license with a couple of them.
CD: Theo has quite the job of removing some of the curses from these ancient objects, how did she find those removal techniques?
R.L.: Once again, research comes to Theodosia’s (and my!) rescue. All of the magic used or referred to in the book came from my own research into the magical practices of ancient Egyptians. The execration figures, sandstone from the tomb walls, amulets, all the magic was taken from scholarly works on the ancient papyri and writings of the time. Since her parents and the other curators were practicing Egyptologists and archaeologists, they would have had the books and papers and other research material at hand, and Theodosia was able to access them.
CD: Will there be more from Theo? If so, can you tell us a little about her next adventure?
R.L.: Theodosia’s not one to rest on her laurels. Her adventures continue in Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris, where, as a reward for discovering a new section in Thutmose III’s tomb, she is allowed to attend a formal reception in honor of one of the museum’s directors. While there, she announces that one of the most prized artifacts in his private collection—a mummy—is a fake.
This creates all sorts of problems for Theodosia (adults so hate being told they’re wrong!) including her grandmother insisting on finding her a new governess right away. Theo is also sent down to the museum’s creepy basement, or catacombs, as she calls them, to inventory all the junk that’s been collecting down there for ages. While there, she stumbles onto an artifact that just might be the Staff of Osiris, the wand the Egyptian god of the underworld used to maintain power over the dead…
CD: I think that these books will spark the imagination of so many young readers, what book was the first you can remember that sparked your imagination?
R.L.: Boy, the first one that I can remember is probably The Chronicles of Narnia. I so wanted to be Lucy! My dad gave me those books when I was eight, and I read them once a year for the longest time. Loved. Those. Books. I also remember another book, maybe even earlier, but I can’t remember the title of it. It was about a girl who discovered a fairy/elven kingdom behind some hedges, and when she had to leave, they gave her a ring that would glow whenever there were elves or fairies about. I so wanted a ring like that!
Another thing that totally sparked my imagination was my father. My parents were divorced and we had to shuffle back and forth a lot, often on loooong tedious car rides. And my dad would recite 19th century British poetry to us to keep us entertained on these long trips. The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Highwayman, Rudyard Kipling, all sorts of these deep, emotional poems (recited in his deep, gravelly voice) really instilled a love of the romance of history and bravery and the ultimate sacrifice of Man, and I think it was a huge influence on me and my writing tastes. Not to mention my love of all things British. ;-)
CD: Do you have any advice for your readers that may one day want to write stories like that of Theo?
R.L.: Read. A lot. Write. A lot. Let yourself play in worlds you create. Experiment. Take creative risks. Stories are one area where kids can have total control over their world, so go for it.
I knew at 8 years old I wanted to be a writer, but so many adults (perfectly well-meaning ones!) told me how hard it was to be a writer, how much competition there was, how much rejection there would be. They were trying to protect me from the hardships of life. But you know, sometimes the most satisfying experiences are the hardest ones; those are the experiences that force us to grow and change and learn. All of which writing has taught me to do.
So I say to kids don’t let the well meaning adults discourage you from your dreams. Keep working at what you love, and even if for some reason you don’t achieve a specific goal (publishing a book, acting on stage, whatever) you will still have had a much richer life by having been so involved in a creative pursuit.
I want to offer my most sincere THANK YOU to R.L. LaFevers for joining us this week. I absolutely ADORE her work, and I think that Theo is going to capture the imagination of many new readers for years to come! Be sure to join us tomorrow as Maggie gets the dish from Theodosia herself! And don't forget to enter this weeks contest for a signed copy of Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos and the contest for an ancient Egypt pen!
*The first part of TATSOC dedication: To clever girls everywhere who get tired of feeling like no ones listening.