Sunday, March 13, 2016

Spells for Writing: An Interview with Award-Winning Novelist Katherine Marsh

Today I'm honored to host award-winning middle-grade novelist Katherine Marsh on Pub Hub!

Katherine's fourth novel, The Door by the Staircase, draws from the traditional tale of Baba Yaga and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and BCCB. It's also a March Junior Library Guild selection. Katherine is the author of Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, The Night Tourist (an Edgar Award winner) and its sequel, The Twilight Prisoner.

I asked Katherine about her process and her inspiration for this story, as well as the importance of fairy tales and the secret ingredients for writing.

Tell us a bit about your process. Are you an outliner? A daydreamer? A fast-drafter? Is your process the same for every project?

There is always this illusion that there is one way of writing that works best: the three-act structure, the outline, the write 500 words a day no matter what approach. While it’s helpful to get a sense of the range of ways in which writers work, the most important quality for a writer to have is the openness to allow yourself and your process to change and evolve. DOOR is my fourth published book and I feel like I’ve probably used every trick—outlines, free writing, character portraits, starting with a theme I’m interested in etc.--to get a story going. To me writing is a lot like being a parent: just as you adapt your parenting to a particular child, you adapt your process to the particular story you have to tell.

How do you know when you have a marketable story?

I’m old-fashioned on this: Generally it’s when you have something to say. Does your story distinguish itself from others on the market? Does it make the reader want to know what happens next? Does it make the reader understand something about human nature or experience? These are the type of questions I ask myself.

At what point in the process do you know this?

Sometimes I don’t know this until I’ve finished an entire draft. This is very important to understand: I’ve published four novels but I have two completed ones in a drawer and countless partials. This is not because I’m a crap writer (though many days I feel this way), it’s because even the most successful authors have false starts. And come to think of it, I don’t even like that term false starts because the manuscripts I haven’t published have taught me as much, if not more, about writing. When you’re frustrated by rejections or dead ends, it’s important to come back to the idea of writing as a practice not as an end.

The Door by the Staircase was partly inspired by the Baba Yaga story. What did you find so fascinating about the original tale?

From Grimm to Baum, Western witches are usually either good or evil (mostly the latter). What I love about Baba Yaga is that she’s both. She eats children and anyone else who mistakenly wanders into her forest kingdom but she also will sometimes help a visitor —especially one she finds morally worthy and clever. To me she harkens back to the pagan nature goddess who can be both cruel and kind. I love her ambiguity and feel she represents a more complex and contemporary portrait of femininity than her Western counterparts.

Do you think fairy tales should be required reading for modern-day kids? Why?

I do. Fairy tales are a great way for kids to process human nature and emotion. But I think too many fairy tales are over-sanitized. This started happening hundreds of years ago when male collectors such as the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault transcribed and abridged the dark and symbol-rich oral tales told by women and continued into the 20th century when fairy tales became vehicles for all sorts of patriarchal social engineering. A good fairy tale allows kids to experience fear, violence, grief, love, loss while at the same time cushioning these difficult themes in symbolism and fantasy.

What are some books/stories that have stayed with you from when you were young?

I absolutely loved, and still love, The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. I am an only child and the isolation that Karana faces living alone on that island was both my greatest fantasy and my greatest fear.

In your book, Baba Yaga does several powerful spells. If you were to compile the spell for writing, what three ingredients would be the most essential?

1) Time, not only to write but to read, daydream, and observe the world—which are also key parts of the process. 
2) If you have a family, it really helps to have a supportive partner, someone who takes your commitment to writing as seriously as you do.
3) A sense of worth, faith that you have something to say and that the world needs to hear it.

About The Door by the Staircase:

Twelve-year-old Mary Hayes can't stand her orphanage for another night. But when an attempted escape through the stove pipe doesn't go quite as well as she'd hoped, Mary fears she'll be stuck in the Buffalo Asylum for Young Ladies forever. The very next day, a mysterious woman named Madame Z appears at the orphanage requesting to adopt Mary, and the matron's all too happy to get the girl off her hands. Soon, Mary is fed a hearty meal, dressed in a clean, new nightgown and shown to a soft bed with blankets piled high. She can hardly believe she isn't dreaming! But when Mary begins to explore the strange nearby town with the help of her new friend, Jacob, she learns a terrifying secret about Madame Z's true identity. If Mary's not careful, her new home might just turn into a nightmare.

For more information, visit Katherine's website:

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