I know I probably sound a bit too enthusiastic sometimes. But that's just how I am. I love reading. I love books. So I was thrilled when Lisa Ann Sandell agreed to be interviewed. I just fell so in love with her novel Song of the Sparrow. I gave it a brief review on November 2, but I just had a few more things to add before I get to interview.
In the midst of war and political upheaval, one young woman comes of age: Elaine of Ascolat--the Lady of Shalott. Elaine's story is bittersweet. She's saddened by the loss of her mother, yet surrounded by her family--two brothers and her father. Plus she's been adopted by the whole camp of soldiers--Arthur, Lancelot, Tristan, Gawain, and Gareth--all of whom call her friend and look upon her as as a sister. But therein lies the problem. Elaine is a woman whose counsel, healing acts, and mending are sought out by all...yet she feels overshadowed when the beautiful Gwynivere arrives at camp. How can she ever hope to compete with a woman who has everyone entranced? Song of the Sparrow is a story of a young girl finding out the difference between infatuation and real love. Make believe and reality.What inspired you to write Song of the Sparrow? (Or how did this novel come to be…)
I have always loved the stories of King Arthur, but one thing that has always nagged at me was the way the female characters were treated. Traditionally, they are portrayed as deceitful betrayers or damsels in distress—villains who destroy the men or ladies who need the men to rescue them. For instance, Elaine fell in love with Lancelot on sight, and then died of a broken heart when he spurned her. How unfair! So, one day, when I was studying in London during college, I escaped a gray and rainy day outside to wander the halls of the Tate gallery, when suddenly I came across a gorgeous painting that stopped me in my tracks. It was John William Waterhouse’s luminous painting of “The Lady of Shalott” from 1888. When I saw the terrible expression in the lady’s eyes, and reflected on how inhumanely she’d been treated, I knew I wanted to give her a better story.
Have the legends of Arthur and his Round Table always been something that interested you?
Yes, the legends of King Arthur and the Round Table have always fascinated me. The chivalry and romance and adventure of these legends—it’s all so beautiful. I wrote my thesis on Sir Lancelot in college, but even before then, I read books, watched movies, heard poems sung about these characters and stories.
Why do you think this legend has become so much a part of our culture?
I think the mythology of Arthur is such an integral part of our culture because Camelot represents the very best that we can wish for, from our countries and governments, from our fellow humans, and from ourselves—hope, liberty, freedom, justice, equality, brotherhood, love, and friendship. And Arthur attained this idealistic perfection, a sort of utopia. He built it, and then, in the most tragic way, lost it all. It was the perfection of hope that made Camelot possible, but it was the imperfection of humanity that destroyed it. And this is a classic and recurring tragic theme, one that we see played out every day on the world stage.
Going into this project, did you know which aspects of the story you wanted to change or “revise”?
I knew I wanted to really dig into these famous characters and try to understand them as people. Above all, I wanted to re-examine the legend from a woman’s point of view and to take a character who has really been a side note in the legends and bring her into the fore. That Elaine simply dies of a broken heart for the love of a man she doesn’t even know is so lame! I wanted to rectify that. But I also wanted to try to see through Arthur’s veneer and get at the real man who had to make terrible decisions.
How long does it take you to write a novel and see it through to the finished product?
I’ve only written two novels so far (though I’m working on my third!), and they came to be in very different ways. My first book, The Weight of the Sky, took me seven very long years to finish, and I was very undisciplined. I’m a master procrastinator, and I didn’t work steadily at all. The second book, Song of the Sparrow, came to me very quickly, and once I finished the research, which took about four or five months, I finished writing in about the same amount of time.
Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress?
The book I’m currently writing on is also a YA novel. The title is A Map of the Known World, and it’s going to be pretty different, I think, from Song of the Sparrow and The Weight of the Sky—at least in terms of the setting—as this one is set in a contemporary high school in the United States, and it will be in prose—a big change for me.
What do you love about writing? What do you find easiest? What do you find hardest?
I love playing with language, I love making up stories, and I love giving my imagination free rein and room to roam. I can sit quietly by myself for hours and just daydream and tell myself stories. But making the time and being disciplined about it is definitely the hardest challenge for me.
You write young adult books, what do you love about the genre?
I love many things about this genre, but first, I love the audience. I love that teen readers are so open and willing to experiment. I love writing about young adults, because it is such a pivotal time in life, when all of the crushing questions of life come into sharpest relief. What am I going to do? Who am I going to be? It’s an exciting and terrifying time that makes for very rich fodder for storytelling and for exploring characters.
Are you excited that your novel, Song of the Sparrow, has been nominated for a Cybil award?
I’m thrilled that Song of the Sparrow was nominated for a Cybil…it’s always amazing to hear that people connected to or enjoyed my work. There’s nothing more rewarding.
Does award-season (best of lists, awards, etc.) make you nervous or excited as a writer?
I try not to think about it, because if I do think about it, I get very nervous and it makes my stomach hurt a little bit.
I think that the cover of Song of the Sparrow is beautiful—strikingly beautiful. What was your first impression of the cover art? As an author do you have any say in the cover design? Or do you just cross your fingers and hope for the best?
Typically, authors probably do not get to contribute quite as much input as I did for Song of the Sparrow. I was in a special situation, though, since I work for Scholastic and know the art director who designed it. And, yes, it is strikingly gorgeous; she did a wonderful job—I’m so lucky! I was allowed to see the jacket design for this book from a very early stage, whereas with my first book, I saw it when it was done (and I love that one, too!).
Who has been your biggest supporter or mentor along the way for you on your road to publication?
I’m so fortunate to have many people in my life who have nurtured and encouraged me along this path. First, it was my parents who made me into the voracious reader I am. And I think being a great reader is the first step toward becoming a writer. They and my sister have always supported and encouraged me in my writing, as well. My sophomore-year high school English teacher, Bill McLaughlin, is the one who equipped me with the tools to write and continues to be a huge banner-waver. My agents, Meredith Kaffel and Charlotte Sheedy, and my editor, Aimee Friedman, all nourish and encourage me as a writer—and they don’t take any of my crap, either. This kind of honesty and trust and faith is priceless. And, finally, my husband, Liel Leibovitz, who is also a writer, was the one to really give me the kick in the pants I needed to finish both books, and more than that, he has been a true North for me. Liel reads everything first, and gives his true opinion. He’s just a tremendous pillar of support and encouragement and love, and I don’t know what I’d do without him—without any of these people in my life.
Your website mentions that you’ve always loved to read…did you have a reading hero growing up? Someone who encouraged you to read, to lose yourself in a good book…
I wasn’t super popular growing up, and books were like friends to me, and they were also an escape. And even now, when I find a good book, it’s like finding an old friend. My parents made sure that reading was a priority for me, and they totally fed the habit. My mom and dad took me to the library at least once a week, every single week. I still have my very first library card—I treasure it.
What were some of your favorites growing up? And what are some of your favorites now?
There are so many, but here are some of my favorite books from when I was growing up: Blubber and Deenie both by Judy Blume, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Edward Eager’s Tales of Magic series (Half Magic, Magic Or Not?, The Well-Wishers, etc.), Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, the Baby- Sitters Club books by Ann M. Martin,
Martyn Pig by Kevin Brooks, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer, The Pity Party by Alison Pollet, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and The Winter Room by Gary Paulsen are among my current favorites.
Are there any out-of-print books that you wish would make a come back?
One of my favorite books when I was little was a picture book called Clotilda by Jack Kent. All of the charm and sweetness and humor and brattiness and wonder of childhood are encompassed in these pages. Bring it back, please!
This one is for both you as a reader and an author. Do you write fan letters (or emails) to authors you admire? And have you received any fan letters from readers?
You know, I was so shy as a kid, I didn’t write fan letters to anyone (except for Jimmy Carter, but that’s a different story…), because I didn’t think anyone would care to hear from me. But now, as an author, I receive lots of fan mail, and it is the most amazing, wondrous part of being a writer. I LOVE hearing from readers—it’s so special, and it always means so much to me that someone liked the book enough to take the time to write an email or a letter. It’s just incredible.
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
Wow…what a brilliant and difficult question. It’s hard to choose between zipping back in time and spending that money on an amazing adventure now. I think I would want to visit Camelot—I would point my time machine to the year 499 A.D., and spend one evening sitting at the Round Table with Arthur, Lancelot, Tristan, and the whole bunch. Supposing they actually existed….