Yesterday, I reviewed The Glass Puzzle (comment for a chance to win a copy) by Christine Brodien-Jones, and today I’m delighted to have her stop by and answer a few questions.
Brodien-Jones has written two other middle-grade fantasy adventure novels, The Scorpions of Zahir (Delacorte, 2012) and The Owl Keeper (Delacorte, 2010). Booklist magazine praised her writing, saying “Brodien-Jones mixes fantasy and adventure in a way that would make Indiana Jones feel right at home.” She studied writing at Emerson College in Boston and has worked as a reporter, an editor, and a teacher. She divides her time between Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Deer Isle, Maine. Learn more about her life and work and download additional free discussion guides for her novels at her website: www.cbrodien-jones.com. Visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ChristineBrodienJones.
How did you decide to become a writer?
CB-J When I was growing up in a small town in western New York, my life was filled with books. I was always reading, always imagining: characters in fairy tales were as real to me as the people next door and I was sure there were tiny creatures under my bed waiting to grab my toes. At age seven I wrote a story about a dragon and told everybody I met I was going to be a writer. In fact, I never imagined myself being anything else.
My mother was my first “agent,” typing up the dragon story and sending it off to Jack and Jill and other children’s magazines. In my house there was never any shortage of books. My father read me the Sunday comics and Peter Pan and Uncle Wiggily and my mom brought home Little Golden Books from the A&P. The library was just around the corner! I’d check out seven books (the limit), read them and return the next day for seven more. At school I had enthusiastic teachers who encouraged me to write stories, poems and plays, and later in college I studied creative writing.
I fell in love all over again with children’s books when I became a mother and read to my own two boys. So many wonderful books to share with them! I wrote a little tale about a gnome and I think that was the defining moment: I decided I wanted to write books for children.
What do you like most about writing for young readers?
CB-J I write the kinds of novels I loved to read as a kid, and I’m hoping my books will find a way into the hands of young readers. I like to think that if my books fire their imaginations, they’ll want to write stories of their own.
The best part of all is meeting young readers. Whether it’s in a classroom or workshop, at a book festival or during a Skype session, I have so much fun talking with kids and finding out what they think about things. I love their enthusiasm and creativity, and the interesting observations they make about my books. I’ve also had fun choosing “young readers” to read/comment on my books before they’re published.
What are your biggest challenges?
CB-J Hmm, well, there is a dark, scary side to being a writer. The world of publishing is unpredictable and competitive, and the stakes are high and rejection pops up in countless guises: agents/editors returning your manuscript, a review that tears your novel to shreds, disappointing book sales, news that one of your books is going out of print. These are just a few scenarios that can raise an author’s anxiety level . . . then the self-doubt creeps in. I try to accept the useful criticism and ignore the rest. What matters is believing in yourself and being passionate about what you do. I love this advice from author/blogger Nathan Bransford: “Book didn’t sell? . . keep writing. Next book rejected? . . . keep writing. Asteroid falls to earth? . . . keep writing.”
World building has been one of my biggest writing challenges. When I was writing The Owl Keeper (Delacorte Press, 2010), which is set in a dystopian future, it took ages to weave together the disparate elements of this broken world I’d set into motion. I had lots of great ideas, but most of them were floating in space, unconnected to the story or to each other. My editor helped me pull together the loose ends and create an overarching framework that made sense. When revising The Scorpions of Zahir I had to let go of certain elements that didn’t really work. In a children’s novel especially every sentence counts—and everything in the book has to have a reason for being there.
Your latest book, The Glass Puzzle, is set in a real-life town in Wales. Did you visit Tenby or have another connection to it before you started to write?
CB-J Initially I set The Glass Puzzle in a small American town, but the story floundered: for me the setting was a bit too ho-hum. So I borrowed Tenby from one of my unfinished novels and the book took on a new life. Setting it in Tenby wasn’t all that difficult because I’m familiar with Wales. My husband Peter grew up there, we were married in Wales and over the years we’ve returned to visit friends and relatives.
I’ve been to Tenby three times, always in the off-season. It’s a gem of a town overlooking the sea, a former hangout for pirates and smugglers. In summer you can take ghost tours or hop on the mail boat that chugs out to Caldey Island. The historic district is charming and quaint, and beneath the town run secret cellars and tunnels. Tenby turned out to be a perfect setting for Zoé and her cousin Ian’s adventures.
How did you decide which actual historical elements of the town to use versus creating new stories about it to go with your novel?
Tenby is an alluring, mysterious backdrop for my story, with its ruined castle and watchtower, secret stairways and high cliffs. So I kept the town’s physical layout and historical landmarks because their inclusion made the book all the more rich. Certain names are so evocative: Dead House Steps, the Gaslight Company of Tenby, Five Arches, Upper Frog Street, Penniless Cove Hill. I added a single fantasy element to the town: Dragon’s Mouth, an inaccessible cavern cut into a cliff where a mystical runestone is hidden, but even that is based on a cave on Caldey Island.
The sunken island of Wythernsea is pure fantasy, although the idea comes from numerous accounts I’ve read about coastal towns in Britain being lost to the sea. When Zoé and Ian go through the puzzle, they end up in the parallel world of Wythernsea.
The men and women pirates I mention are real ones, but The Tombs below the museum and the Secret Society of Astercote are all imaginary.
In my opinion, The Glass Puzzle successfully walks a line for fantasy that is scary but not overly frightening for young readers. How did you create that balance?
CB-J When Zoé and Ian discover a mysterious puzzle made of ancient glass and put it together, fearsome winged creatures come through the glass into Tenby. Zoé and Ian are transported to the isle of Wythernsea where they learn that the Scravens, the frightening flying creatures, have invaded Tenby and are taking over the townspeople, one by one.
Young readers in the age eight to twelve group are at that magical in-between age of the ’tween, a marketing concept that wasn’t around a generation ago. Many of them read fantasy—and they don’t mind getting a little scared along the way. I grew up in a house where the stairs creaked at night and I knew someone—or something—was making its way up. I still shudder at the memory of a goosebump moment: that instant when the hairs prickle on your neck, your stomach goes hollow and you feel a catch in your throat.
I think there’s a fine line between goosebump and horrific, especially for younger readers, and we authors need to be aware of this. When I was writing The Owl Keeper my editor discouraged me from allowing the scientists to remove the eyes of the mutant skræks. She said it was too frightening for young readers and I agreed, remembering my ten-year-old son’s nightmares after reading John Belairs’ Eyes of the Killer Robot, where a scientist tries to take out Johnny Dixon’s eyes.
I try to make my monsters scary and threatening, but I don’t go overboard, or write gruesome scenes that will give readers nightmares after reading my book. The goosebump effect is really what I’m trying for.
Zoé, Ian and Pippin all bring different strengths of character to the story. Is there a message you wanted to convey to young readers through their actions?
CB-J In The Glass Puzzle I wanted to explore themes of belonging, identity, family and friendship. Eleven-year-old Zoé Badger, imaginative, carefree and adventurous, lives a transient life, moving with her mother from one town to the next—except for summers, when she stays with her granddad in Tenby, Wales. She loves Tenby more than any place on earth. She’s fiercely loyal to her granddad and to her cousin Ian.
While Zoé is more excitable and liable to go over the top, Ian is cautious and methodical, trying to work things out in a logical way. His approach to life is more down-to-earth; he tends to be practical and realistic. Ian’s a perfect counterpart to Zoé, while at the same time they “click” because of their shared love of folklore and exciting adventure games.
Pippin’s experienced a tougher life than either Zoé or Ian, and she’s much more savvy and streetwise. Her mother’s dead and she’s been shuffled from one relative to the next while her father travels around working odd jobs. After a rocky start, she becomes friends with Zoé and Ian, and as a trio they battle the monsters invading their beloved town. Even though their personalities are all quite different, in the end their friendship is what matters.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers at Mother Daughter Book Club. com?
CB-J I’d like to say how happy I am to be here at the Mother Daughter Book Club today! What a wonderful way to share books—the parent-child experience of reading books together is sure to create lasting bonds. My kids are grown now but books still play a big part all our lives. Lily and Iris, my one-year-old granddaughters, are crazy about books, too—they’ve been surrounded by them since they were born. Lily’s first word was “book!”
I’d love to hear what you think of The Glass Puzzle or of any of my other books, so zip me an email when you’re finished reading. You’re welcome to nose around my website at www.cbrodien-jones.com and check out my classes/book clubs page http://www.cbrodien-jones.com/disc.htm for Skype interviews. Also on that page are terrific downloadable discussion guides for my three books—check them out!
Hooray for books—have fun reading!