Author Dia Calhoun took the time to answer some questions for the Winter Blog Blast Tour. 

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!        

Back this summer when we did Recommendations from Under the Radar, I wrote about Kerry Madden’s Maggie Valley trilogy. Kerry was kind enough to answer some questions for me for the Winter Blog Blast Tour. Here’s the interview!
You write in several modes: essayist, fiction author, playwright, journalist.  Are there any techniques that you use consistently, regardless of what you’re writing?
I think voice is a huge part of how I get started or I’ll think of an opening line. In Gentle’s Holler, however, it was action – I knew I wanted to open with a girl in the red maple tree and a new baby sleeping in a drawer. With my essays, it’s usually something that I have to write because it’s timely. I recently wrote an essay about my annoying neighbor with barking dogs who shouts, “It’s a free country” as an excuse for bad behavior. I began that essay with: “IT’S 1 A.M., AND THE DOGS next door are barking again.” But with a play, it’s always a line of dialogue…After 9/11 my father declared, “Just because Osama Bin Laden rides a camel doesn’t mean I have to, by God!” And that line opened my play “Chattanooga Flamenco.”
You moved a lot as a kid.  Do you think this has had a particiular influence on your writing?  If so, how?
Absolutely. I was very shy, tall, and awkward, and I listened hard to the way kids talked so I could attempt to fit in a tiny bit. On each moving day, (when I refused to get into the car) my father informed me that I would forget the town and all the people I knew – I disagreed. And out of pure defiance, I vowed not to forget, and in each new football town, I poured my heart out in letters to friends left behind, blasting pitiful music so the rest of the family could feel the suffering eminating from my room. (What a pill I was!) My mom always got us a library card in each new place and she would say, “You’re so tough! You’ll make new friends, Kerry Elizabeth! I know it!” She was a born cheerleader, and I was the sullen daughter. 
On your website, you talk a lot about how it is important for children to tell their own stories.  Why is this especially important to you?  What benefits do you think children get from telling stories?
I had a fourth grader teacher who told me I was a good writer. Typically, teachers told me “Aren’t you big and tall?” “Good night, what a tomboy!” “Don’t you listen well at church like a good girl!” When this teacher said I was a good writer, it meant something. It mattered. So it’s something I try to give back to kids to let them know that they have stories inside them too. I also tell them about Eddie, a short boy in my sixth grade class who humiliated me on a regular basis – and a tiny bit of Eddie went into my first novel, OFFSIDES. Not long ago, Eddie read OFFSIDES and wrote to me to apologize. So I tell the kids that stories they are living now will feed their books down the road – whether they are love, revenge or adventure stories. The kids seem to like this…
What about Maggie Valley drew you to set Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, and Jessie’s Mountain there?
I love the Smoky Mountains. We were flat broke when I was writing GENTLE’S HOLLER, and I wanted to spend time in my head in a place that was beautiful. I had no idea I would get to write two more Maggie Valley stories. It’s an area I know well having lived in North Carolina and East Tennessee, and I love the people. I also tried imagine my husband growing up with twelve siblings. All of that fed into Maggie Valley settings…then I found out that Ghost Town in the Sky opened the year I wanted to set my novel, so it was perfect to have Emmett, the big brother, long to run off and be a gunslinger at Ghost Town.
You do a lot of school visits.  What is the best part of visiting schools?  Do you have any anecdotes about particularly memorable school visits?
There are so many stories. Last week, I did a school visit at Sewanee Elementary in Sewanee, Tennessee, and a first grader was fascinated by my husband having 12 siblings. He shouted, “12! 12! That’s 7 plus 5. That’s so many! Did you hear that? Seven sisters? Five brothers? What the heck?” He slapped his forehead, and the teacher had to calm him down. He was so funny. An older boy (8th grade in Waynesvillve, NC) couldn’t believe I’d let him write about bass fishing. He’d been forced to attend my workshop, and warned me, “Lady, I am not a ‘rider!'” (writer) Then he wrote a great piece about fishing, nightcrawers, and bragging. I try to help them see that they can write about what they know and love – what matters to them.
Livy Two’s voice is very true to that of a precocious child.  It doesn’t sound like an adult’s attempt to sound like a kid.  How do you preserve that child’s voice in your writing?
Her voice was just in me…I was a kid who kept her mouth shut in public, but I would get passionate in my own home, driving everyone crazy. I also keep scraps of a journal in my character’s voice and this helps me find the rhythm and language. And in Jessie’s Mountain, Livy Two is older so she’s changed from the first two books, and this happened naturally. I couldn’t keep her ten when she was thirteen – a huge difference in a girl’s life.
When you were a senior in college at the University of Tennessee, you pretended that year in Knoxville was a year abroad.  Do you still pretend now?  What kinds of things do you pretend?
I do pretend…last week, I drove the backroads of Alabama with my husband, and we stopped to pick black-eyed susans and hackberry branches to give to one of my favorite authors, Mary Ward Brown, who wrote: IT WASN’T ALL DANCING and TONGUES OF FLAME. I picked the flowers and stared out at the fields of cotton blossoms – a train roared in the distance. I felt like it could have been 1930 or 1950. There is a timelessness out in the country, and I imagined Truman Capote or Harper Lee in the backseat of some old Ford as kids driving the same back roads in a car full of relatives. When my daughter, Norah, (now 8) and I stayed for a few weeks in the Smoky Mountains, I watched her play, chasing lightning bugs, listening for the family of groundhogs who lived under the cabin…It felt like the rest of the world was so far away, so I tried imagine what it would be like to be a woman raising kids in a mountain holler…I love getting away from my day-to-day adult life. I’ve been so lucky to have my own three children who love to dress up, bicker, play, cause trouble, and love…I want my stories to have love and hope. Another favorite writer of mine, Kathryn Tucker Windham, said she was raised on the four L’s: “Listening, learning, laughing, and loving.” I hope I give a little of that to the kids in my workshops.
Thanks for the interview, Kerry! You can visit Kerry’s website at