All of your books have plots that seem intensely personal: Aria of the Sea takes its inspiration from your difficult choice of pursuing a career as a dancer; Avielle of Rhia deals with your own despair in the face of terrorism; the Firegold series is inspired by your in-laws’ orchard and your interest in uniting the creative self and the practical self; and, most personal of all, The Phoenix Dance addresses the issue of mental illness, bipolar illness in particular. Do you find writing therapeutic? How does writing help you make sense of your every day life?
What a good insight! I think my writing does come out of things that I am trying to sort through in my own life. For example, in White Midnight I explore a Rose’s intense desire and dream to own land that she has a spiritual relationship with, land that she loves. I have this same desire. I think the best writing comes out of passion, something that inspires intense feelings in the author, and that often comes from personal emotional experience. My characters are also able to work things through in ways that I cannot, and become who I wish I could be. Rose does come to own her own land. And take Avielle, in Avielle of Rhia, for instance. By the end of the book she has acquired the “Magnificent Heart.” She has one shining magnificent moment where she no longer hates and fears the terrorists. Instead, she wishes for their hearts to be opened. I wish I could have a moment like that. And through Avielle, I can. My characters let me live life in a transformative way.
While your books are personal, they also have universal themes and have been called “classic.” How do you think fantasy settings affect authors’ and readers’ interactions with universal themes such as choosing a calling, dealing with fear, and struggling to find one’s own place in the world?
This is difficult to answer. All I can say is I think that the more intensely personal and particular you become in your writing, the more universal you become. The universal is found through the particular. Fantasy, because it so often speaks through archetypes, shoots to the heart of what is universal. Take dealing with fear, for example. Fantasy can conjure up the vast and powerful darkness lurking in all of us through such particulars as magic objects, evil wizards, dread powers, and horrible landscapes. All of these are doorways to the subconscious mind where the deepest fear–and the deepest understanding–lurks. Fantasy brings the inner world out into the light, where we can then examine it with understanding and compassion, and then gain new insight into ourselves and our world.
In your school visits, you teach students how to write fantasy. What about the fantasy genre appeals to you especially?
Fantasy opens vistas in my spirit. I feel that fantasy speaks directly to my subconscious mind, where images and connections are born. It takes me deep inside myself as a writer. I love venturing into unknown lands. And I love the relationship between magic and the spirit. In all my books, magic is the ultimate source of the hero’s true knowledge about herself. The magic calls, reveals, and finally, illuminates.
When you make your school visits, you take your “Fantasy Toolbox” with you and utilize physical objects to help students create stories. Would you talk a bit about the kind of exercise you might do, and why you use the physical objects rather than just using words?
In my middle school visits, I teach a fantasy writing workshop where kids learn about the elements of a fantasy story. Kids love the “Fantasy Toolbox.” The props inside help me to illustrate my points. For instance, I put on a villain’s hat when I am talking about the role of the villain. I wear a cape when I talk about the role of the hero. And I throw a stuffed dragon into the room when I talk about obstacles. This is really a form of theater, and the props keep the kids interested. They are always wondering what is going to come out of the toolbox next. This is so much fun for me and the kids.
What is the best part of visiting schools? Do you have any anecdotes about particularly memorable school visits?
The best part of visiting schools is that I actually get to see and interact with my readers. Writing is such a solitary pursuit. I love seeing the kids, feeling their energy, hearing their questions. And it is great for kids to get to see a real author and realize that an author is just an ordinary person like them. This helps them to understand that they can be writers, too.
Once, as I was leaving a school after a visit, a boy ran up to me and asked me to sign his baseball! I felt as if I had truly arrived! I’ll never forget that.
What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
I read all kinds of books. Lots of middle grade and YA. Fantasy, contemporary, historical. Some recent books that I have loved are SOLD by Patricia McCormick, THE FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson, THE THIEF by Megan Whelan Turner, SAINT IGGY by K.L. Going, DRAGON’S KEEP by Janet Lee Carey, and ON POINTE by Lorie Ann Grover. I am just starting GIRL OVERBOARD by Justina Chen Headley.
You are a founding member of readergirlz. Why is it important for girls and young women to see strong female characters in the books they read?
In these days when women still earn less than men, when being a size one is the standard for beauty, when women are still under-represented in many fields, it is critical for girls to read about strong female characters. They need to see that girls and women can be powerful, as forces for change, especially. In books, girls can start out timid and become brave; the reader can see them transforming and transform along with them. That is why we—the readergirlz divas/authors Janet Lee Carey, Lorie Ann Grover, Justina Chen Headley, and me—have made it the mission of readergirlz to promote strong female characters.
Thanks so much for the interview!