Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Plain Kate: 10 Questions with Erin Bow

Today's interview is with Erin Bow, who's debut YA novel Plain Kate hits American shelves September 1st. Here's a little bit about Plain Kate:

The drizzle had broken into patches as they walked. As Drina scooped up the pale sand, Kate found herself standing in the smudge of shadow cast by the deadfall. She had never before noticed the way shadows gave things weight, made them look heavy and real and connected to the ground. Without hers...

She edged into the light.

Her shadow looked strange and thinned. It seemed not cast against the ground, but floating above it, like a fog. What Linay had said was true: No one would notice this, at first. It was just an uneasy little change, like the half-felt movement of a boat that slowly induces a great sickness.

Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver's daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden talismans are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade”: a dangerous nickname in a country where witches are hunted and burned in the square.

For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate.

Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the angry town, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes she can't live shadowless forever -- and that Linay's designs are darker than she ever dreamed.

You can read the first chapter of Plain Kate here at I'm warning you, though; once you read the first chapter, you're not going to want to stop. Now: on to the interview!

Welcome, Erin! Tell us a little about yourself as a writer – do you outline, or wing it? Do you write daily, or in snatches?

I write Monday to Friday mornings, while my daughter is in kindergarten. I go out with her in the morning, to the nearby coffee shop -- I have a table that's "mine" -- and just write. I write with a pen in a notebook, and type things up later. I may be the last living long-hand novelist.

As for outlines -- I know I should outline, but I hardly ever do. Typically I struggle through the first third of a novel, get hopelessly stuck, and THEN have a breakthrough and about three cups of coffee and stay up all night scribbling down the outline for the rest of the book. Sometimes this requires me to go and do part one over again.

If I were to put a positive spin on this -- spin, Erin, spin! -- I'd say I have to get to know my characters and their world very well before I can understand what their story is.

When – and why – did you begin writing?

When I was two and a half I used to make up song lyrics and demand to have them written down. Early masterpieces include "No Dogs Allowed in the Grocery Store" to the tune of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho." I think most children are natural poets and story tellers. The trick is not to stop.

As for me, I'm like the sad guy in the addiction awareness commercials: my obsession has gradually taken over more and more of my life. I would like to thank my publisher for enabling me.

What was your process writing this book? What did you have trouble with, and what inspired you?

I have trouble with plot. Always have. I've spent months stuck, and more than once. I have a note from one of the foreign agents that says: "I love the way Erin has structured Plain Kate. It's all so well thought-out, but on the other hand, it doesn't seem constructed at all, because it is written with such ease and persuasiveness."

That made me laugh, because it's not true. I had no idea what was going to happen until it happened, and even then I was often wrong.

On the other hand, I have great faith in my characters. They are real to me. I know how they talk; I know what they choose; I know even how they stand, what they look like sleeping. Really, I just feel the need to stick with them until I find out what their story is.

What did it take to get Plain Kate on bookshelves?

I had such good luck with geting published that my story is dull. I landed the agency at the very top of my list, the first one I approached. And they, in turn, got multiple offers from publishers the first time they sent the manuscript out. I am aware of how unusual this is. It's as if I got struck by lightning while winning the lottery.

On the other hand, I have a stack of drafts taller than my coffee table. So I did hold that lightning rod just as high as I could.

A lot of the magic and superstition in Kate’s world is based on Russian mythology, which I think is interesting, because it’s not something you see used an awful lot outside of fairytales.

It was fairy tales that inspired Kate's world: I had just read a three-volume set of Russian fairy tales when I started the novel. They are scrumptious: full of surprises and transformations, full of darkness -- even more full of darkness than the Grimm tales, which are darker than most people know. There are heroes that read better as tragic villains. There are some great female heroes too.

The setting turned out more Eastern European than Russian, in the end. The only thing that's explicitly Russian is the rusalka (a sort of vampiric ghost). Still, I hope I caught some of the flavor of Russian tales: the transformations, the darkness, the tragic villain, and the brave female hero. Also, because the novel grew out of fairy tales, I felt brave enough to include what might seem a Disney choice: the talking cat, Taggle. You'll have to trust me on this -- Taggle could eat any one of Mickey's minions for lunch and have class left over to shine his whiskers.

Do you think being a poet as well as a novelist helped, or hurt, your fiction skills?

Oh, I'm in love with words, and poetry has made me good with them. This, for instance, is Taggle's entrance: "He was a dandy with one ear cocked, a gleam on his claw and a glint in his eye. He sauntered through the market square elegant and tattered, admired and cursed: a highwayman, a gentleman thief. His name was Taggle, for the three kittens had been Raggle, Taggle, and Bone."

I like sentences like that. If you like sentences like that, I write a lot of them.

But I think sentences like that are useless without a good story. One of the reasons I prefer to read YA, even though I'm technically a grownup, is that in a YA novel you are guaranteed a story. It won't just be beautifully written words that add up to nothing. Being a poet did not help me there, not a bit.

Here on Headdesk, I have a minor obsession with the rules of writing. Is there any particular rule you write by?

Ribe Tuckus: keep your butt in the chair. Most mornings, when I start writing, I would rather read a book; I would rather scrub the toilet; I would rather gnaw off my own foot than write. So I've learned to keep sitting, and keep my hand moving, until the magic words come. Some mornings they never do and those are long mornings. But if I didn't sit, if I waited until I felt like writing, I'd write maybe twice a month.

If you knew a teenager who aspired to be a novelist, what would you say to them?

First, God bless you.

Second, listen: Everyone is going to tell you that this is not a good way to make a living, and everyone is right. Be prepared to keep your day job. Be prepared to eat lentils. Be prepared to keep your day job and lentils, because your developing tendency to gaze at the wall and talk to fictional people may make you unemployable anywhere better than Burger King.

But do it anyway. If you really want to, do it anyway.

Start now. Read everything. Fill notebooks with stories or just with compost -- you'll need a lot of compost to grow a few good stories. Edit and make them as good as you can make them. Find someone to share them with -- a few someones, maybe other writers, people you can both learn from and teach. People you can lean on and really trust. And then maybe think about publication. But even if you don't publish -- and many don't -- write. Because you want to. Out of love. Write, write, write.

How have you grown as a writer, and how do you hope to see yourself grow in the future?

From this book, I learned how to edit. The first re-draft I did I completely fluffed. It was as if my agent had asked me to remove walls and move the staircase and instead I'd painted and added a rug. I just didn't know how to pull a story apart, to combine two characters into one or move chucks of the plot from one end of the book to the other. It took two more edits before I really got the idea.

Next … Well, I'm sure there are other things that I not only don't know how to do, but don't even know that I don't know how to do. I intend to find out what they are, probably by attempting them and falling painfully on my face.

What’s next for Erin Bow?

I'm about half-way through another YA fantasy, called Sorrow's Knot.

In the world of Sorrow’s Knot, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be home to something hungry and nearly invisible, something deadly. The dead can only be repelled or destroyed with magically knotted cords and yarns. The women who tie these knots are called binders.

Otter is the daughter of Willow, a binder of great power: a proud and privileged girl who takes it for granted that the will be a binder some day herself. But when her mother's power begins to turn inward and tear her apart, Otter finds herself trapped with a responsibility she's not ready for, and a power she no longer wants.

Thanks for coming Erin, and best of luck!

About Erin Bow...I'm a city girl from farm country who studied particle physics. I even worked for a while at CERN before ditching science for a lucrative (ha!) career writing books. These days I write fantasy novels for young adults, and poetry (which is published under my maiden name, Erin Noteboom).

My first novel, Plain Kate, is due out this September from Arthur A. Levine books at Scholastic in the United States, and from Scholastic Canada. Chicken House will be publishing it in UK, Australia, and New Zealand: that debut is scheduled for January 2011.

I'm married to another YA author, James Bow. We have two preschool girls, Vivian and Eleanor, and a cat who answers (when the mood strikes him) to Augustus Asparagus, First Cat of the Empire. We are massive geeks, mild activists, and very happy.

To learn more about Erin and her writing, check her out at


ElizabethLiberty said...

Wow! Thank you for this interview, Creative A! Erin isn't the only long-hand author still alive, that's for sure -- I like to do notebooks because I can take them anywhere (not just somewhere with electricity) and because I don't have to worry about a lot of fragile tech. All the tech I need to worry about with notebooks is word tech, and that's fine with me. :) The semi-outline (as I like to call it) is one of my characteristics as well. I will wade through the first third of the story completely lost, and then only when I've painted myself into a corner will I outline anything. I'm a die-hard wing-it author. :D
The encouragement about being a teen writer was just what I needed.
Again, thank you for this review! :D

Creative A said...

Elizabeth, I envy your (and Erin's) use of notebooks and longhand! ...I think at heart I would like to write longhand, but my hand cramps up after just a few lines, so it's a keyboard for me. I carry notebooks around just for the nostalgia of it. :)

Glad you liked the interview, and thanks for the comment!


ElizabethLiberty said...

I guess it's something you have to adjust to. I could only write for a few minutes at a time at first because my hand would freeze into the shape of a pencil. (there's a funny picture. :P )I'm not an especially fast typer (79wpm is my fastest speed, ever) and I can't resist doing a little editing along the way, so I can't get the stuff into digital copy very fast. I'm blessed to have a friend who types it up for me. I almost never leave the house without paper and pencil, and if I do I feel like something is missing all day. *sigh* The malady of authorship, I guess...and I like it.

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