July 18, 2009
Interview with Ellen Jensen Abbott
My plans for the second half of this week were messed up since I was locked out of my blog. Luckily Google fixed it quickly.
WATERSMEET, by Ellen Jensen Abbott, has gone into reprints and is up for YALSA's Best YA Book of 2009. She's been busy with the end of the school year, but took some time out of her schedule for an interview.
1. WATERSMEET deals with religious laws that can be pretty sickening. Did you have any historical events in mind or were you trying to avoid reality, in order to avoid certain connotations?
I'm not sure that it makes sense to say this, but I was trying to do both. I wasn't specifically referring to any historical moment, but there are plenty of examples of horrible religious persecution through history. Religion is a powerful force—and it seems like it should be a powerful force for good, but so often, it's bad! That was what I wanted to explore. Once I had that theme in mind, I let my imagination go. There is one religious ritual in the novel that is particularly intense, and it was an exciting scene to write, in its own bizarre way.
2. How would you describe WATERSMEET without using the blurb?
WATERSMEET is a quest. The physical quest the main character, Abisina, goes on has adventure, hardship, challenges, beauty and ugliness. And these elements are also present in her internal quest. She faces monsters outside—centaurs, minotaurs, the White Worm—but she also must face her own monsters—the prejudices she has been taught in the village where she was born. Conquering all of these monsters makes up the action of the story—with friendship, humor and a hint of romance thrown in.
3. Since I know you're working on the sequel now, I have to ask: anything you can share with us?
I can give you some hints! Readers have asked if Abisina is a shape-shifter like her father and if she will find romance in the next novel. I'll only say that both of these questions will be answered in the next novel—but I won't say how!
4. Which character do you identify most with and why? How much of your personality do you put into each character?
I think elements of me are sprinkled through all the characters. Because of this, I am not sure who I identify with. I know Abisina started out very similar to me, but as I wrote and revised, she insisted that she was not my clone. There are still ways she is like me—her longing for a home is very similar to how I felt as a child when my parents broke up, for example—but overall, she is her own person. I will say that one of my favorite characters is the dwarf, Haret. I love his crusty, grumbling exterior, masking a gentle soul within.
5. On your blog (linked to above) you have teacher, librarian, and book club guides posted. How did you develop those?
I've taught high school and middle school English for many years, so I did what I would do for a book I was teaching: consider the themes, characters and images and then construct questions and activities to help readers access those ideas. I had a great time doing it, too, because I wasn't limited in how many weeks I had to teach a book as I so often am when teaching. I could just let myself go as far as I wanted to so that teachers would have a lot of options as they considered working with my book. The faculty at the Westtown School, where I teach, has recently studied the theory of Multiple Intelligences and how they can be used in the classroom so I made a point of developing projects for all the different kinds of intelligences. For example, for kids with musical intelligence, I suggested they compose the music that the fairies might have danced to. For kids with Naturalist intelligence, I suggested they investigate more about herb lore and healing. For kids with spatial intelligence, I suggested they build a model of Watersmeet. In fact, this fall, I will get to put these lesson plans into action! WATERSMEET was chosen as a summer reading selection so I will be teaching my own book in September. And if I may say so myself, it really offers a lot of options for discussion and projects so I am looking forward to teaching it.
6. You're an English teacher, and we love English teachers here at In Bed With Books. What books do you really love to teach? Any parts of the canon you would never want to teach?
As a fantasy writer, I love teaching THE ODYSSEY. Monsters, heroes, magic, romance—what's not to love? TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is another one of my favorites. I also love teaching Shakespeare. I get the kids up and acting before they have time to get intimidated by the language, and we have a ball. This spring I taught two really different electives: Jane Austen and Science Fiction. Can you imagine more disparate topics? (We did read a little of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES in my Jane Austen class, which may be the one place the two worlds sort of come together.)
I love Virginia Woolf, but I've never taught her. I would not want to teach Henry James or T.S. Eliot. And I remember hating ETHAN FROME when I was in ninth grade, so I'd like to avoid that. (Please don't tell any of this to my department chair!)
6. What inspired the setting of WATERSMEET? Your bio says you lived by the mountains in New Hampshire, but was that all?
New Hampshire really was the inspiration, but I think it was the mountains as I saw them as a child. They're pretty amazing on their own, but in WATERSMEET they're grander, more otherworldly, more mysterious, more alive. I also return to New Hampshire every year for new doses of images. My family gets tired of me ignoring them while we're hiking, but I'm busy thinking about how to incorporate what I'm seeing into the next chapter or next book.
7. Did any childhood experiences shape WATERSMEET? What kind of books did you read as a kid?
I read the Chronicles of Narnia over and over and over again. THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER was my favorite. At the time, I didn't realize that this series was Christian allegory; I just responded to the creatures and characters and world. I'm sure my love of these stories is central to why I write for young adults and why I write fantasy. I was also a big fan of historical fiction, especially with adventure thrown in. I loved THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, THE LITTLE PRINCESS, stories about the sea, the WHAT KATY DID series—oh, I could go on and on! And that's another reason I write for kids and teens—that was when I was the most enthralled with reading. As I grew older, I continued to read a lot, but not with the same complete involvement. Reading got more cerebral. Now I get to read and write in that same excited, thrilling place all the time!
9. So you teach and write, but what do you do to relax? If you had the spare time, what hobby or skill would you cultivate?
I have two kids, so a lot of my non-work time is devoted to them and their activities. For relaxation I love to read, knit, and downhill ski. We ski as a family most weekends during the winter. I would love to spend more time in my garden. I love weeding! I would also like to join a choir. I was in one before I sold WATERSMEET, but once I made the sale I knew I needed to cut back. Someday, I hope to go back to singing.
10. What is most surprising about being an author?
Hearing from readers. Of course, I hoped I would hear from readers once my book was out in the world, but it's been so thrilling that it is actually happening! I have been especially touched by a few kids who have told me that they are not generally readers, but that they have loved my book. One mom said that her daughter stayed up all night for two nights to read WATERSMEET and then asked her mother to please find her some more books to read! Up until that point, she was an avowed non-reader. To think that my book may contribute to someone discovering the joy of reading—there's just nothing more exciting than that!
Ellen and I read several of the same books as children! But while I owned a copy of WHAT KATY DID, I never did read it.