Author Interview: Rachel Hartman

Rachel HartmanRachel Hartman is the author of the much loved Seraphina and the only author I have unabashedly fangirled over. Here’s what her official bio states: Rachel was born in Kentucky, but has lived a variety of places including Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, England, and Japan. She has a BA in Comparative Literature, although she insists it should have been a BS because her undergraduate thesis was called “Paradox and Parody in Don Quixote and the satires of Lucian.” She eschewed graduate school in favour of drawing comic books. She now lives in Vancouver, BC, with her family, their whippet, and a talking frog and salamander (who fight zombies)(really. There are a lot of zombies in the Pacific Northwest). (source)

Our theme on The Book Wars for this month is Canadian Children’s Literature and while doing some stalking research on your background, I found out that you were born in Kentucky and have lived in a number of places including Japan. Would you identify yourself as a Canadian now? If so, do you see your Canadian identity reflected in your writing and the characters you create? Does your experience of different cultures (country cultures as well city cultures) make you more keenly aware of the effect a culture has on the stories popular among them?

I do identify as Canadian now, and proudly so. It is a great privilege to be able to move to a new country, fall in love with it, and decide it’s going to be your home. That said, I’m still sometimes really conscious of the places where I’m American, where my Canadian friends find me abrasively direct or shockingly ambitious. And I still occasionally pop out a “y’all” as a badge of my ethnicity.

My journey to Canadian citizenship was, I think, reflected in successive drafts of the novel. The book (and I) started out quiet and introspective, but the world of the novel widened as I became more open to living here. Studying for my citizenship test coincided with bringing more politics into the plot. The mountains and crows of BC began working their way in.

My experience of other cultures has actually made me cognizant of how culture flavours our interpretation of things. “Universality” is something I was taught to look for in English classes, a hallmark of great literature. I’m no longer convinced it exists. Even among readers from my own culture, people interpret what they read through the lens of their own experience – especially fantasy, where so much is couched in metaphor. All I can do is write honestly, and try not to take it too much to heart when readers feel I haven’t reflected their experiences and interpretations accurately.

Seraphina has been translated into more than fifteen languages now, which is exciting, and it’s interesting to see how the book is being received in other countries. Germany, in particular, has embraced it. But, see, it was difficult finding a Chinese publisher willing to take a chance on it because dragons have a very specific cultural meaning in China. My agent finally did sell it there, but the verdict isn’t in yet.

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 I recently read Among Others by Jo Walton and in it the protagonist discusses the effect the landscape she grew up in had on her character. How much do you think does the landscape, the natural landscape, contribute to the construction of a character? Would Seraphina have been person had she been brought up on a farm rather than in the city?

Let me just say, quickly, that I love Among Others like nobody’s business. The protagonist is sixteen, and I was sixteen the year my dad had a sabbatical in England, and it brought back so many memories for me. I stayed up ridiculously late reading it, and not for the plot – which is pretty subtle – but because I loved being there again.

So, that said: I think the landscape absolutely contributes to character. Some people will be more sensitive to it than others, but I don’t think anyone escapes its influence entirely. Seraphina is very much a city girl, and I play with that a bit – for instance, when she rides a horse for the first time, she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing. It has been pointed out that I, too, didn’t quite know what I was doing with those scenes: Seraphina should have been significantly saddle-sore after riding all day. Oops.

Seraphina also has an inner landscape, in the form of her Garden of Grotesques. It’s more bucolic than what she encounters in daily life. I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of a geography of mind, where your preoccupations manifest as physical locations. I think it’s particularly relevant to fantasy writing. Why do I need cathedrals and forests and half-timber houses in my work? What do those places mean to me, beyond being a backdrop for action? The subconscious is always bubbling to the surface; settings come up again and again, and I think they come up for a reason.

Seriously, setting is my favourite element of fiction (as my old English teacher, Conan the Grammarian, used to call them). And it’s so often taken for granted, or painted in minimal strokes.

 What I most loved about reading Seraphina was the language you use. I learned English when I was in grade one and my main source for new vocabulary was the books I read for entertainment. You use the “excoriate” in Seraphina and I thought that was wonderful because I hadn’t heard of it before. Have you ever been advised by your editors etc. to use simpler language in your writing? Do you think it is important to use sophisticated language even in books primarily targeted at younger audiences? 

I think it’s important to use language that comes naturally to you, the writer. Words are tools, and using them well requires practice and familiarity. I read a lot of 19th century novels during my formative years, and so there are a lot of archaic words I know, and use, without particularly thinking about them (I may also owe my overuse of commas to those same novels; usage has changed over time. My editor is always saying, “They’re not pepper! You can’t just sprinkle them wherever you want!”).

My editor likes big words, too. “Camelopardine” made him giggle. It’s a shared weakness, I fear, because he won’t ask me to remove them, even if maybe sometimes he should. The only words I recall being asked to change were a bunch of architectural terms. I was trying to describe the cathedral, and so I was using basic cathedral terminology – apse, transept, clerestory – but it was so early in the book that he was afraid the words would be a barrier to entry.

I think challenging vocabulary is sometimes more off-putting for adults than for children, however. When I was eleven and twelve, I read Lord of the Rings five or six times all the way through and never felt I had any trouble understanding it. When I reread Tolkien as an adult, I was shocked at how many words I had to look up, and I wondered why they hadn’t bothered me as a kid. The difference, I think, is that children are used to not knowing all the words. An unfamiliar word doesn’t bother them, the way it bothers adults, because their brains are still plastic and learning new words all the time from context. As an adult, an unfamiliar word is like a stone in my shoe; I have to go look it up.

I know you are hard at work on the sequel to Seraphina. Could you tell us about the process of writing? Do you outline your chapters or do you jump in and let the story carry you wherever it will?

 Am I a pantser or a plotter? I think I’m somewhere in between the two. Neither method works perfectly for me. Seraphina, in its original incarnation, was all seat-of-the-pants. The result was a richly-themed book with fully realized characters and little in the way of plot. I had to rewrite it multiple times to make it plottier. With Shadow Scale, the second book, I decided I didn’t want to go through all that again. I outlined it mightily. And y’know what’s happened? I’ve had to rewrite the whole thing, multiple times, to give it some heart and soul and theme. I’d laugh, but it’s actually been way more painful than doing things the other way around. Give me a few years, and then I’ll laugh.

Here’s a secret, though: as I’ve been sweating over the latest revision of Shadow Scale, I’ve also begun entertaining a theme-laden, character-centric idea. Since I have no choice but to keep it on the back burner for now, any time I think about it, I’ve been trying to pin down the plotty bits. Then I’ve been stretching them, solidifying them, shoring them up where they’re weak.

So this time I’m trying to do both at once. Will it succeed? Well, we won’t know for sure until I get a chance to start writing it. There’s nothing as beautiful or ingenious as the book you haven’t written a word of yet.

One of the most prominent themes in Seraphina is identity; Seraphina strives to find a balance between her human and dragon self while living in a world that reviles dragons. While struggling for self-acceptance and a sense of belonging in the world are two issues common in adolescents, they are not limited to that age as adults, too, often grapple with similar issues. Did you intentionally set out to write children’s literature (though I think Seraphina has more crossover appeal than other books and perhaps cannot be truly classified as strictly children’s literature) or was this a marketing decision? My colleagues and I were discussing the wisdom of defining a book’s audience before writing (or while writing). Do you think it is better to simply write and trust that the writing will find its readers? 

I always intended to write for kids. Even way back in sixth grade, when I had my very first inkling that maybe writing was something I could do, I was going to write for kids. In those days, my greatest aspiration was to win the Newbery Award. It was right up there with the Nobel Prize, as far as I was concerned. (I even tried to read all the Newbery winners, although I failed at this endeavour; Carry On Mr. Bowditch was my Waterloo.)

At the time, I was still reading kids’ books, so I had no notion that there were other kinds of books to write. When I was about fifteen, they dragged me kicking and screaming out of the children’s section of the library and made me read adult books. I loved the classics (especially fat Russian novels), SF/F, and Latin American magic realism. Still, when I thought about writing, it was always for kids. I wrote and illustrated a comic book for many years, and that was for kids. I really think it’s because I loved reading so much as a child. That was the age when books were most magical to me, when a single book could still change my life. Those are the authors who held my hand through lonely or difficult times, the friends I can never thank. My writing is my thanks.

There was a certain amount of marketing involved in deciding whether Seraphina was to be YA or MG. I didn’t much mind which it was. I think in the end it got the YA designation as a hedge against future books in the series; YA gives me more flexibility of subject matter, so I can take off in more different directions. Out in the field, however, you see teachers and librarians giving the book to kids as young as 5th or 6th grade, which I think of as MG territory. It’s probably not surprising that adults enjoy it too, since I am (technically) an adult myself, and I wrote something I liked.

That said: my favourite thing about art is that there are no rules. Is it best to consider audience beforehand? I don’t know. I did it, and it worked. I haven’t tried it the other way around, but I can certainly imagine that that might work really well for some people. Try it both ways. Try it upside-down. If it works, it’s right.

Finally, is there a particular Canadian children’s novel that you have read that has stayed with you and inspired you? Are there any titles you would like to recommend to us?

I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know much about Canadian children’s literature until I moved here! I did read Susan Juby’s Alice, I Think before we moved, and was astonished to learn that Smithers, BC, was indeed a real place.

But y’know, ignorance is opportunity, I say. It has been a tremendous joy to meet other Canadian children’s authors and discover this wonderful literary treasure that was here all along (even if I was too much the self-centred USAmerican to see it). Kenneth Oppel, Erin Bow, R. J. Anderson, Shane Peacock… I feel like it’s my birthday all the time.

Let me just end with a shout-out to my friend and neighbour, Susin Nielsen. Her YA novel The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen was one of the best things I read last year. It’s hilarious and devastating by turns, and I inhaled it in one sitting (which I hardly ever do). It’s also set in Kitsilano, which may not be a selling point for the world at large, but was unexpectedly delightful to me. It’s like seeing someone you know among the extras in a movie. She does not pull her punches in this book; it’s about bullying, and recovering from one of the most heartbreaking tragedies imaginable. It’s upsetting, timely, necessary, and great.