We were awfully taken with Cybils Sci-Fi/Fantasy Nominee Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. It’s a novel with mystery, magic, adventure, sinister villains, cool Egyptian artifacts, a moody Victorian London setting, cool cover art and—perhaps most important—an inquisitive and indomitable heroine. Theodosia Throckmorton is brave and intelligent, and like many of us writers, she’s also an observer. Through Theo’s eyes, author R.L. LaFevers brings this rollicking tale of intrigue and magic to life.
When she’s not wearing her author hat, R.L. LaFevers is also a professional cheerleader! Only, without the flippy skirt and the pom-poms, Robin relies on her experience in the publishing industry to gives encouragement and support to introverted authors. Together with fellow author Mary Hershey, in 2007 this busy lady launched Shrinking Violets Promotions, and the website tagline says it all: Marketing for Introverts.
It’s no surprise that we were eager to interview this author, and we’re thrilled to death that she agreed to answer our questions! So, without further ado…
FW: First off, it’s important to ask how far along you are with the SEQUEL to Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. Reader greed is perking here: just how long do we have to wait?
Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris is all done and will be out Nov. 1, 2008, only a few more months! I’ll be signing ARCs at BEA and will begin posting teaser chapters on the Theodosia website beginning in September. So not too much longer!
FW: And please join us in applauding wildly for the world wide web debut of the new Theodosia cover art! (Please note that all cover art is used courtesy of Houghton-Mifflin, all rights reserved.) YAY! Wow! This is GORGEOUS! Illustrator Yoko Tanaka rocks the house! Thank you very much for letting us say YAY with you! Now, back to our prying questions…
Edgar Stilton, the most junior curate in the Museum is a lightning rod for the weirdness that goes on there… Theodosia’s noticed. Can you drop a hint about Edgar? Will we see him again? Is anyone else like Theodosia naturally? Are you?
Ah, Edgar Stilton. I just adore Edgar. And yes, readers will be seeing him again. He has an even bigger part to play in Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris. There is much more to Edgar than meets the eye.
As for your question as to whether or not anyone is like Theodosia, and more specifically, am I like Theodosia, I would have to answer with a qualified yes. Kids have amazing powers of observation and are still highly in tune with their own gut instincts. They often “see” or sense things that most grown ups miss. They haven’t gotten around to shutting down or ignoring large parts of their own experience if it doesn’t logically fit in with their preconceived ideas of reality or logic. It’s one of the reasons I love writing for children.
When I was a kid, I could always tell if someone had been in my room while I was gone, even if nothing had been disturbed. I could walk into a room where everyone was cheerful and pleasant and would KNOW that there was deep animosity between them. I can feel when someone is looking at me, and 90% of the time I know who is on the phone when it rings.
The thing is, when I do school visits and I ask the kids these same questions, a huge majority of them raise their hands indicating they’ve had similar experiences. But most adults discount this sort of sensory input or method of “reading” the world. And I thought, wouldn’t it be fascinating to read about a kid whose ability to do that was actually critically important? And in fact, maybe even instrumental in keeping the adults around her safe? Thus Theodosia was born.
FW: (See, that phone thing! I do that too! I knew there was a reason I really loved Theodosia. That’s a really cool premise for a novel! – Tad)
Theodosia bears a resemblance to other Victorian-inspired heroines of children’s literature: Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart, the girls from Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. What drew you to writing about this type of character? Who are some of your writing influences?
Many of my early reading influences were British, C. S. Lewis, E. Nesbitt, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien. Frances Hodgson Burnett. However, what drew me to Theodosia’s character were the reasons I stated in the above question: wanting to write about a girl who could sense things—vitally important things—that the adults around her couldn’t. Then I had to work backwards from there. What sort of environment would lend itself to creating the most conflict for a girl with these abilities? What sort of culture would provide even more conflict by stifling her or curtailing her freedom – both to move about and be heard? Then once I realized her parents would be Egyptology specialists, I had to set the book in a time when exciting finds were still being made.
FW: Do you remember the first words of Theodosia that you wrote? Did you change them, or did the first scene remain mainly the same? What sparked your interest in Egyptology?
I studied the small black statuette in front of me, wrinkling my nose slightly when I finally caught a whiff of the curse it contained. “Aha! I knew it!” I said, speaking out loud in my excitement. My words clattered around in the cavernous room before dissipating into the air and floating away in a swirl of dust motes.
Curses have a particular smell to them. It’s a subtle smell, and it can take a while to zero in on it, but once you’ve experienced the smell of ancient magic, you never forget.
Those are the first words of Theodosia that I wrote. And while I did begin the book with her sensing the curse on the statuette, I created a lot more context around it. My first drafts tend to be fairly bare bones—get the juice of the story down, then go back and fill in around it.
My interest in Egyptology has always been strong. Also, it seems to me that the Egyptian practices are the foundation for so many of the subsequent magical disciplines and theories, that it just seemed the biggest well to draw from.
FW: Writing a novel in the Victorian setting yet from a modern perspective surely required a huge amount of research. What were some of the resources you used to fill in the vivid details of Theodosia’s world?
Books that I found invaluable:
- Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders
- A New England by G. R. Searle
- What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole
A website that was particularly helpful was: Victorian London.
And then, of course, Google. My personal best friend.
You know, initially there weren’t a lot of challenges with this book — it was simply a “just for fun, just for me” project. Since writing is my favorite form of recreation as well as my job, I often have different projects going. At the time, I was working under contract on a trilogy, and Theodosia was my “down time” project. So I didn’t really think in terms of challenges while writing the book, but more like trying to solve a puzzle. It was my muses’ playground, so if it became hard, I let it go for a while and came back to it when I’d figured out how to make it fun again. The entire first couple of drafts were fairly stress free, and by the time I was done with those, the story had sort of “set” and it was either going to work as is or not. Of course, once I realized it was something I wanted to submit, it required a bit of shaping and polishing.
I did do a bit of juggling with the tone and language of the book. I heard Theodosia’s voice very clearly in my head, and early on I decided since I was writing historical fantasy rather than non-fiction, or even historical fiction, my aim was to evoke the time period rather than faithfully recreate it with 100% accuracy. I was very careful to consult with dictionaries and etymology guides to be sure that the words she was using were in fact in use at the time, as I wanted to avoid glaring anachronisms. However, while she speaks somewhat more formally than we tend to do today and she uses language and words that are true to her time, I also wanted her voice to be accessible to modern readers. If there were choices that had to be made between recreating true Victorian speech or making her accessible, accessible won. My own feeling is, when I am telling a story, everything I choose to include or use must serve that story, rather than the story serving as a vehicle for historical accuracy, or a thematic lesson of some sort.
FW: Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos contains elements of adventure, mystery, history and fantasy. Did you set out to write a book of a particular genre? What was the germ of the idea that became this book—what inspired you to write it? Did its crossing of genres make the process of finding a publisher difficult?
I actually didn’t set out to write a book combining all these elements. I knew it would be a historical fantasy and that was about it. The germ of the idea was that ancient artifacts still had magical power clinging to them, and there was a lone girl who had the ability to sense this. And I wanted her to have a grand, sweeping adventure—like so many boys in children’s literature get to have.
I don’t know that this mix of genres made it hard to find a publisher. I do know that a number of editors who read it loved a lot of things about it, but there was always one thing that held them back. One publisher wanted Theo to be American, another felt she wasn’t vulnerable enough, and yet another wanted more historical detail and setting. But I wasn’t comfortable making those changes. Then my agent had recently met Kate O’Sullivan from Houghton Mifflin, and decided she would be a good match. She was (and is) The Perfect Editor for Theo and me.
FW: You’ve written several other novels, including The Falconmaster, which is an old favorite. Do you think you’ll ever revisit historical fantasy fiction? What else (other than the next Theodosia) are you working on now?
I actually think I’ll focus more and more on historical fantasy, mostly because of the type of fantasy elements I prefer to write about: fantasy that has its roots in historical truths. History is so rich with the elements we consider fantastical today, that I like to go back and play with those. The thing is, what we consider “fantasy” today, was actually believed by earlier cultures and societies as truth or explanation or scientific discovery. By using these threads and expounding on them, I feel like it grounds fantasy in reality and gives it more of a “that could really have happened” feeling to it. Plus I just adore history. My husband teases me and says I only write fiction so I’ll have an excuse to do research!
In addition to beginning Theodosia Three, I’ve just finished up a chapter book about a young boy who is sent to live with a distant cousin of his father’s, and finds himself thrust into all sorts of new adventures. It takes place in the 1920s, before much of the current political climate and turmoil, so it’s historical as well.
FW: That sounds exciting! You mention on your blog that you’re not a fan of the idea of writing every day, and wrote that early in your career you were juggling parenthood as well. What has changed about your writing process? What is, for you, a successful writing day?
You know, I’m really not a fan of writing every day and I get rather tweaked when I hear people say you have to write every day to be a “real” writer. Well, that works for them, and hallelujah, I say. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and I strongly feel that everyone’s process is individual and has to work for them. I do think, in the very beginning especially, it’s important to commit to regular writing time in order to build some discipline and stick-to-it-iveness, which are hugely important in any writing career. But writing regularly can also mean devoting large chunks of time on the weekends, or devoting your entire summer to writing. It doesn’t have to be butt in chair every day.
I mean, think about it. So many transformative, creative processes require stewing time, or fermenting time, or even gestating. Pick which terms work for you, but the point is that sometimes a quiet, fallow mind is needed for the ideas to fully develop. Forcing yourself to write daily—if it’s not a natural part of your process—can interfere with that.
When my kids were younger, I wrote every day, many times a day. When they were napping, while I “watched” soccer practice, when they watched a video. However, the truth is, writing in snatches like that lets you develop some writing skills, but not others. I think sometimes it can be hard to go deep in those circumstances, to really immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about. Which can be a big drawback. As the kids got older I ended up with bigger, more solid chunks of writing time, which allowed my writing to grow further.
A successful writing day involves rolling out of bed, grabbing a cup of coffee and heading over to my writing spot—a rocking chair in our living room that looks out over the valley. I’m barely awake, but my subconscious is feeling very chatty due to all the good down time it had during the night. I usually write by longhand or on my Alpha Smart, whose keyboard is more comfortable for me than a laptop. Plus, there are no distractions such as email or the internet. A good day means six to eight pages in that morning burst, then maybe another page or two during the day when something else occurs to me. Depending on the project, I’ll spend the later part of the day on research or polishing what I already have or, quite often, working on plotting out what comes next and refining that in more detail.
My absolutely favorite part of writing is when the idea first begins forming and I get to play with it, massage it, watch it grow. It reminds me so very much of being a kid and playing in that fully imagined way that kids do. I love it.
FW: How did you and Mary Hershey come up with the idea of Shrinking Violet Promotions? If you could only give one piece of advice to introverted writers out there, what would it be?
Mary Hershey and I had many conversations (whine sessions, really) talking about how critical author promotion seemed to be and how difficult it was for us, both of us being introverts. As we talked and strategized and gnashed our teeth, we commented that we couldn’t be the only ones having this difficulty. The majority of authors, after all, are introverts. Too bad there wasn’t a support group for us introverted writers struggling with the concept of book promotion. We looked at each other for a long moment. Duh. We realized that we should start one, and that it would be a great way to give back to the writing community at large since we both feel very strongly about how incredibly generous and supportive the writing community has been to us.
My one piece of advice to introverted writers would be this: Don’t feel you have to do it all. Pick three areas you can comfortably manage (a website, printing up bookmarks, and volunteering for your local SCBWI chapter, say). As you become comfortable in those duties (and you will) then later you can find stretch goals for yourself. But whatever you do, don’t risk letting promotional duties kill your creative drive.
FW: We’re enormously grateful that you’ve stopped by. This has been both fun and informative, and we’re grateful for the support system you’ve set up for writers like us. Also, we can’t wait to get our hands on your next book! Thank you so much for your time! We wish you the very best as you continue to write amazing, entertaining, arresting and absorbing young adult books.
More author and illustrator goodness can be found on blogs all across the ‘sphere today; check out these links for more 2008 SBBT Monday goodness:
Adam Rex @ Fuse #8,
David Almond @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Dave Schwartz @ Shaken & Stirred
Elizabeth Scott @ Bookshelves of Doom
Laurie Halse Anderson @Writing & Ruminating
Susan Beth Pfeffer @Interactive Reader.
Mad props go to Colleen of Chasing Ray for organizing the Kidlit Blogging Fabulosity all over again into the blog-blasting beast it periodically becomes. Thanks, Colleen!