Hey Christine! Tell us a little about yourself as a writer – do you outline, or wing it? Do you write daily, or in snatches?
Being a slow, dreamy sort of writer, I need long stretches of time to write. I love the process of creating fresh, quirky characters, and being slowly pulled into their world. When I’m writing, I forget everything else. Usually I write from early morning (ideally after having been for a long walk) to late afternoon. Weekends are for catching up with the rest of my life.
Throughout my writing career, I’ve struggled with plots and endings. Early on, I never outlined my books: instead I would plunge in, starting with a weird character, quirky premise or evocative setting. Invariably, at some point midway, the plot would get more and more tangled and then the story would implode. This was due to the fact that I had no idea where my book was going!
In recent years I’ve gotten more organized: rough outlines of characters, plot and ending to begin, and filling in more details as the book evolves. I try to keep the outline flexible. You have to balance, between a story that holds together and one that isn’t too calculated. Compelling characters need room to breathe and be spontaneous.
When – and why – did you begin writing?
I wanted to be a writer from the age of seven, when I wrote my first short story, a ten-page fantasy called “Leo the Dragon.” My mom was my first “agent,” typing it up and sending it to children’s magazines. And my dad read books and the Sunday funnies out loud to me. The library was around the corner from my house and I spent hours getting lost inside books. I was fortunate to have teachers who encouraged me to write down all those stories bottled up inside my head, and numerous mentors along the way.
The Owl Keeper is actually your second book for middle-grade readers. What’s your publishing experience been like, between your debut The Dreamkeepers, and this new novel?
I sold THE DREAMKEEPERS without an agent, which happened more frequently then than it does now. Believe it or not, my publisher, Macmillan, was still using typewriters in its offices! Promoting my book in 1992 consisted of school/library visits, book-signings and local interviews. Online promotion and networking were years into the future.
The year after my book came out Macmillan went bankrupt and my editor moved on. I continued writing – and submitting – novels to publishers, but with college looming ahead for our two sons, I decided to take a fulltime teaching job. That left little free time to write.
The turning point came in 2006, when my husband Peter encouraged me to quit working and write. It was kind of scary, a sort of now-or-never leap. A few months later I signed on with Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. He loved THE OWL KEEPER and promised to find the perfect home for it. And he did, with Krista Marino, a senior editor at Random House/Delacorte Press. I’m really fortunate to have them both, because they’ve made all the difference.
What was your process writing this book? What did you have trouble with, and what inspired you?
When I started writing THE OWL KEEPER in November 2001, just after September 11th, the world felt terribly bleak. I wanted to write a story about hope. Before falling asleep at night I would see this young boy in a forest without colors, standing beneath a tree. On a branch overhead perched an owl with a broken wing. Nearby was a dark rushing river, and a path alongside it. Max was going to have to follow that path: his story, I realized, would be a journey.
The manuscript went through numerous revisions, and emerged a very different book by the end. In the first draft Max was searching for long-dead ghosts who haunted the pathways along the river, but for some reason they never quite gelled. Eventually I had to let them go.
Having Krista for an editor was like taking an intensive writing course! She really helped me breathe life into Max and make him a sympathetic character that readers could relate to. Also she helped me develop the framework of the story and pull all the loose ends (there were plenty of those!) together.
In The Owl Keeper, your main character Max is allergic to sunlight and only comes out at night. I think that’s a really cool way of flipping things on their head. Could you talk to us about that? Why choose this particular disability?
Around that time I read an article in The New York Times about certain children who are unable to tolerate ultraviolet light. I also saw the film “The Others,” a Gothic tale about two children who are fatally allergic to sunlight. To give THE OWL KEEPER a twist I went on to create a hero who must avoid the light. Max loves the dark, and spends his nights beneath the owl tree, yet at the same time he carries a special light within him – I guess you could call it hope.
Of course there is another kind of darkness: ancient evil forces that are taking over Max’s world and destroying everything he loves. Sickly and timid, Max is an unlikely hero. Yet at some point he must become brave and summon up the power to fight the dark forces.
How do you deal with criticism, and rejection?
I try to accept the useful criticism and ignore the rest. Over the years I received letters from editors who rejected my manuscripts yet took the time to explain how I could improve my writing. Often their advice was extremely beneficial. Being rejected is always difficult (I cringe remembering those fat manila envelopes landing on my doorstep, signaling the return of yet another manuscript), but you can’t take it personally. You have to be philosophical, and believe in yourself, and keep writing.
Here on Headdesk, I have a minor obsession with the rules of writing. Is there any particular rule you write by?
Beware of clichés. Don’t overwrite. Avoid overly long passages of description. Make every word count.
If knew you a teenager who aspired to be a novelist, what would you say to them?
To paraphrase British crime author Ian Rankin: read lots, write lots, learn to be self-critical and what criticism to accept, be persistent, have a story worth telling, don’t give up.
My advice is to write every day. Keep a notebook/journal to record moments, overheard conversations, fleeting impressions & emotions. Open your mind to new experiences. Be passionate about what you write. Trust your reader; not everything has to be explained. Respect your characters, even minor ones. Write honestly. Believe in your creativity.
How have you grown as a writer, and how do you hope to see yourself grow in the future?
The years between my two books were in some ways like an old-fashioned apprenticeship, where I continued to write and polish and streamline my novels. I also learned never to give up.
As for the future, I’d like to think I’m ready for anything, because each new story presents different challenges. I hope to continue writing novels for young people, ages ten and up. I hope I can fire their imaginations and help them appreciate and treasure the amazing power of stories.
What’s next for Christine Brodien-Jones?
I’m currently working on an adventure-fantasy novel set in Morocco, in the Sahara Desert, which Random House/Delacorte Press will also be publishing. The narrator of this book is a feisty young girl named Zagora.