Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Interview with Michelle Knudsen
I'm happy to be a part of Michelle Knudsen's blog tour for her first novel, a middle grade fantasy novel, The Dragon of Trelian. You can see my review of the novel which I posted yesterday.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your journey towards becoming a published author?
I started out as a children's book editor. After graduating from Cornell University with an English degree, I was hired as an editorial assistant at Random House Children's Publishing. I hadn't really known I wanted to work in children's books before that -- I originally had dreams of working in adult fantasy and science fiction -- but it turned out to be a really great fit for me. I began doing some children's book writing on the job: text for board books and lift-the-flap books, licensed projects, and other manuscripts that were being written "in-house" as opposed to by an outside author. Soon I started writing and submitting my own stories. After a few years I left Random House to move upstate and to focus more on my own writing. I continued to do some freelance editing (including the Junie B. Jones series by the wonderful and hilarious Barbara Park) but mostly worked on my own books. During this time I wrote my picture book Library Lion, and also started the first draft of The Dragon of Trelian.
While you've written many books for younger readers, this is your first novel, right? What did you learn about yourself during this process?
I guess the most important thing I learned was that I really could write (and finish!) a story so much longer and more complex than my previous books. I had wanted to write novels pretty much forever, even before I knew I wanted to write for children, but it had always been a very scary prospect. On the day I sat down to start the first chapter, I kept expecting someone to burst in and say, "Stop that, what do you think you're doing? You can't write a novel!" But no one did, and so I kept writing. It took me a really long time to write the entire first draft. I stopped often, sometimes putting the manuscript aside for months at time, when I needed to focus on other things or just take some time to figure out parts of the story.
What inspired you to write The Dragon of Trelian?
I'm not sure there was any one thing that inspired me. I grew up reading fantasy novels, and I think I always knew that if I ever did write a novel, it would be the kind of fantasy novel that I loved reading myself. Once the initial ideas and characters started coming to me, I think I consciously tried to work on some of the fantasy elements I had loved most as a young reader (and still do love): magic, dragons, castles, danger, adventure, a little romance, and most important, true friends who really cared about each other. I have always believed that I learned a lot about what makes someone a good person and a good friend from the books I read growing up, and I wanted to create main characters who would be the kinds of people I would want to know in real life.
How long did it take to write?
A really long time! The first draft took nearly four and a half years. As I mentioned earlier, I did often set it aside for long periods, working on other books in the meantime, but even so, I think I was just going really slowly, trying to give myself time to figure out what I was doing as I went along. The first draft was finally complete in November 2005, and then I worked on revisions with my agent and then my editor for about another three years. Of course, there were long periods where the book wasn't in my hands, while it was with my editor or the copyeditors or the production department -- all of those things add to the total time it takes to bring a novel from first draft to final book. I kept making little changes almost all the way up to the end, though, probably around November or December 2008. There are actually slight differences between the finished book and the advance reader copies (galleys) that went out to some early reviewers, because those galleys were made from an earlier pass that didn't include my last round of changes.
Do you have a favorite scene or a favorite quote from the novel? What is your favorite bit that you’re extra-proud to have written?
Ooh, what a great question! One of my favorite scenes is definitely the second time Calen and Meg are at the hidden window, when they overhear certain things that I won't mention because I don't want to give away anything for those who haven't read it yet. I also really like the scene in the hedge maze with Meg and Maurel. I like the way Meg and her sister interact (I had a lot of fun with Maurel in general), and it was fun and challenging trying to capture what that scene would have felt like for Meg, how scared she was and how she felt she needed to be brave for her sister's sake. Oh and the scene with Meg's first kiss was a lot of fun to write about, too! That was very enjoyable to imagine. :)
What was your first impression of the cover art for The Dragon of Trelian?
It's always a little strange to see the first illustrations of characters I've created. Jakl as shown in the cover art isn't exactly the Jakl I pictured while writing the story, but I think it's a great cover. I'm a big fan of Antonio Javier Caparo's artwork, and I love that the cover is just so striking -- I've had it at book festivals and I've seen it catch a young reader's eye from across the room -- that's a great thing to see!
What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?
I love the feeling of getting lost in a story, when it becomes so real to me that I forget that I'm sitting at my computer, typing away. I love when I'm actually able to capture what I intended to, or -- even better -- when something unexpected happens while I'm writing that totally surprises me and introduces some new element or idea. I'm not sure what part I would say is easiest...a lot of the time, none of it seems easy! There are moments when I'm deeply into a scene when the words almost start to feel like they are writing themselves -- I guess that part is easy, when it happens, since it makes the writing feel almost effortless in that moment, but those moments don't really happen all that often. I think the hardest thing about writing is just doing it, day after day. It takes a long time to write a story, and a lot of work and revising and thinking and trying things out and starting over, and it can be hard to just make yourself keep going when everything seems very difficult. It's worth it, when the words come together and the characters come alive and you end up with something you can be proud of, but it always takes a lot of work to get there, and it can be really hard.
Can you describe what a typical day is like as a writer?
My days vary a lot. In addition to writing, I do some freelance editing work and I'm also in grad school, working toward my MFA in writing for children and young adults at The Vermont College of Fine Arts. So any given day will depend on what my immediate deadlines are like in any of those areas. I spend most mornings on the computer, catching up on email and reading blogs and articles. I often try to get outside in the afternoon if I can, to take a walk in the park or to run errands, and I also usually use afternoons and evenings for writing and/or editing. My best writing often happens at night, and if things are going well I might keep working until midnight or later. Of course, some nights I don't work, and instead go out with friends for dinner or movies or other fun things. I also don't always write every day, although in a perfect world I definitely would.
How do you find the time—do you find the time—to keep reading? Do you have any recent favorites?
I try to squeeze in reading whenever I can. I don't always have the time I'd like to read for long stretches at once, but I've found that smaller bits of reading time here and there definitely add up. There is always a book in my bag, so I can read on the subway, or in line at the post office, or sitting in waiting rooms, or wherever. I always read before bed (sometimes long after I should be asleep!), and sometimes I will curl up on the couch with my cat and a book in the afternoon or evening. Lately I've also started listening to audiobooks, so I can "read" while taking walks or while doing the dishes or other things around my apartment. A few titles I've read and loved recently include: The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip, Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, and The Dollmage by Martine Leavitt. (None of those are recent publications; I'm often reading things years after they come out, and by the time I get to the "new" books, they are often no longer new! There are so many books I want to read and authors I still haven't discovered, it's hard to stay current.)
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
Wow. Okay. Well, I've seen too much Star Trek to feel comfortable messing with the time-space continuum, so I'm not sure I'd try to go back and right any historical wrongs, as much as I might want to do so. I would definitely want to go back and visit some medieval kingdoms, though, and get a real look at how things were back then. And I would love to go back and meet my grandfather who died before I was born. And get to know my other grandparents better, who also died too soon. And actually it would be fascinating to learn more about my family history going back several generations. Hmm -- once you start thinking of uses for a time machine, it's hard to stop! There are all kinds of people from history it would be so amazing to meet. Um, in some completely non-messing-with-the-timeline kind of way, of course. Since the money is limitless, I would donate enormous amounts to lots of charities, especially to help cure diseases like cancer and ALS, and to fund education causes and help homeless people and anything else I could think of where money could really make a big difference. And, again, since the money is limitless, I would use some for purely selfish reasons, getting myself a great apartment with a fabulous office with a big, old desk and a really big flatscreen TV to watch movies on. :)
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