Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
An Interview with the oh-so-awesome
A: The quick skinny: I grew up in the Chicago area, went off to Cornell University for college, graduated and took about as corporate a path as you can imagine (picture me with hair, wearing a suit and tie, and sitting at a long table where senior executives squint and grimace at PowerPoint slides). The job was challenging and I worked with some truly brilliant and talented people, but I had a nagging suspicion (i.e., would wake up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m.) that I was wasting my life and whatever creative gifts I might possess. A few years later I had a life-changing conversation with my brother, whom I suspect had grown weary of my existential whining. He posed an unexpected question: How would you spend your time if you had all the money in the world? My response was almost immediate: I'd teach high school and write children's books! It's amazing how simple questions can clarify one's values and priorities. Following this conversation, I left my job and secured a position teaching history and fine arts at a San Francisco high school. The day classes let out for the winter holidays, I began writing what would become The Hound of Rowan. I can't overstate the pleasure and fulfillment I felt as I penned those initial, fabulously recyclable pages. The prose was appalling, the ideas half-formed, but I knew that I was embarking on a journey I was meant to take. It was like finding a missing puzzle piece and fitting it into your soul. The experience shaped the way I described Max McDaniels's reaction to the tapestry he finds in the museum. That tapestry shed light on Max's identity and started him on his adventures. Writing did the same for me.
Q: Like me, you are also a teacher. How do you balance your teaching job and family with such a successful writing career?
A: I'm sorry to say I haven't taught since 2009 when I got engaged and moved to New York. I do miss teaching, however, and remain in close contact with many of my former colleagues and students. It's incredibly gratifying to see young people growing up, falling in love, doing meaningful work, and making parole (I kid). I hoped to continue teaching when I moved east but I quickly learned that I'd enjoyed an unusually flexible arrangement in San Francisco. The school where I'd taught was on a block schedule, which meant that classes only met on certain days of the week. The head of school had been kind enough to tweak my teaching schedule so I only had to come in three days per week. That support was invaluable to getting my writing career off the ground. While interviewing at several schools in Manhattan, I asked if they could maybe—just possibly—manage a similar arrangement, The question brought polite but incredulous stares. I doubt some of those eyebrows have ever come down. Given the response and my publishing contract, I elected to write full-time. It's probably a good thing — we now have two young boys and life is hectic enough without throwing classes into the mix. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the profession. Someday, I hope to teach again, even if it's just a class or two.
Q: The Tapestry series includes five books. As an author, how did you manage the progression of your story line from book to book (what was your organizational system or thought process to keep it all together in your mind and smooth from book to book?)
A: The Tapestry was originally intended to be a trilogy. After finishing the second book I realized that I couldn't tell the tale I wanted in three volumes. It simply wasn't enough runway to fully develop the story and character arcs I envisioned without accelerating them to the point of absurdity. Truth be told, The Tapestry should probably be six book. THE RED WINTER is a massive finale and could easily be split in two: Rowan's war against Prusias, followed by our heroes hunting after Astaroth. Why was I so off with my initial projection? I can think of three reasons: 1) Some ideas weren't fully-formed when we pitched the series; 2) I was an inexperienced writer who underestimated the time it would take to develop my larger narratives; 3) Stuff changes while you're writing a series — new ideas pop up, cannibal hags demand more screen time, etc. However, I don't mean to imply that I simply made the story up as I went. I'm a fairly meticulous planner and always knew what The Tapestry's final scene would be—even before I started writing the first book. It's always helpful for writers (especially those tackling a series) to have an idea of how they want things to begin and end. The middle is negotiable. Completing six novels has taught me that ideas, characters, and entire story lines will inevitably change during the writing process. While I try to have enough of an outline to peg how certain characters and narratives will develop, I don't plan to the extent that I'm merely executing a rigid blueprint. That would smother those little, in-the-moment epiphanies that spark many of my best ideas.
Q: Impyrium is set in the same world as the Tapestry books. When did you first get the idea to return to that world?
A: The initial ideas for IMPYRIUM came knocking in the wee hours while I was on my honeymoon in Rome. I'd recently finished The Fiend and the Forge and my brain was so fried that my imagination was stuck on overdrive. I couldn't fall sleep and was lying in bed, my mind racing through ideas for Books 4 and 5, when it made an unexpected leap into the future—a future thousands of years after the The Tapestry's conclusion. I don't want to give away Tapestry spoilers but the idea hinged on an empire ruled by dynastic families (several descending from established characters) locked in an uneasy truce with ancient demons inhabiting undersea kingdoms. It triggered an avalanche of ideas so exciting that I barricaded myself in the hotel's tiny bathroom so I could flip on a light and scribble them down in a notebook. My poor wife must have thought I had food poisoning.
Q: How did it feel to change the world you had already created?
A: It was a blast! Enough time has passed (3,000 years) since The Tapestry that the world is really very different. It's bit like comparing the present day to the Iron Age. Most of the people living in Impyrium don't even realize we existed. This is partly due to propaganda, but our entire history and civilization have been consigned to a prehistoric, almost mythic past. New York, Tokyo, and Paris might as well be Atlantis. In this future, mankind has essentially split into two species (an aristocracy of magically-gifted mehrùn that rule the world, and the masses of ordinary muir that serve them and do the grunt work). Rowan (The Tapestry's school of magic) still exists but its context and character have changed. Building on the world and mythos I'd created allowed me to really stretch and challenge my imagination, but it also made good use of my time as a history teacher. Good historians don't simply memorize facts; they can identify patterns and forces at work over time. I've always been interested in the life cycle of empires, and how institutions can grow, flourish, and later decay into an echo—even a mockery—of the vision and energy that fueled their creation. These are major themes throughout IMPYRIUM and play a key role in the narrative and character development. Overall, it's been a really fun ride and there's a lot of exciting stuff yet to come!
Or begin the Tapestry Series . . .
Shannon Whitney Messenger decided it was time to give middle grade stories the attention they deserve, and "Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays" was born. For a full selection of MMGM posts, visit her website HERE.