Reading Past, Present, and Future

Fountains of Silence

I’m in a holding pattern with my own writing at the moment while I await editorial feedback on my book in progress (more later) so I’m able to tackle the books on my bedside table. Here’s what’s happening now:


I just finished This Tender Land  by William Kent Krueger  Set in 1932, the book follows four runaways from the Lincoln School, where Native American children are forcibly sent, as they launch a canoe and head for the Mississippi River. They encounter tragedy, heartbreak, kindness, and hope. Some lovely passages, exciting incidents, and interesting characters. Think Homer’s Odyssey.  I greatly enjoyed the book and will search out another by William Kent Krueger.

I’m now reading (gobbling up is more like it) Fountains of Silence by the brilliant Ruta Sepetys. Madrid, 1957. Silence, secrets, danger, fear.  Such writing, such research! I’m gobsmacked.

Next up is an indie titled The Serpent, The Puma, and the Condor, written by Gayle Marie. It’s a tale of Machu Pichu. Incas, conquistadors, and the tragic conflict of cultures. I can’t wait.

On Creativity: Susan Fletcher

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.


Susan FletcherSusan Fletcher writes:

I find it both harder and easier to be a writer in days like these.

Harder, because the “hate, trauma, and tragedy” feel so intense right now, and it’s right there in our faces all day long. It seems difficult—and maybe even irresponsible—to turn away from the suffering and crises of our times to cocoon myself in my writing room and in the worlds of my books.

That said, I’ve found in the past that when there is tragedy in my personal life, writing can be a refuge. I can dive down into a book I’m writing and live in another place for a while every day. Right now, it’s 13th century England, in the menagerie at the Tower of London. In times past I have time-traveled to medieval Persia, Renaissance Venice, and places that never were. Writing gives me a break from the relentlessness of seemingly intractable 21st century problems. When I emerge from my writing room, the “real world” comes rushing back, but I am somehow better able to face it.

What’s more, writing offers a kind of sideways wisdom into the very difficulties I am facing. I’ve found that the crisis from which I am “escaping” by writing about a different world … seeps into the world of my book in altered form and lets me see it from different perspectives—at a distance from the intensity of emotion. Indirectly and through fiction, I gradually blunder my way to a better grasp of my thoughts and feelings … and then I can give them voice.


Susan Fletcher is the author of a dozen books for children and young adults, including Dragon’s Milk, Shadow Spinner, and Alphabet of Dreams. Visit her website.


On Fantasy: Karen Cushman

Karen CushmanFor a few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Today, it’s my turn. Grayling’s Song is available at your favorite library and bookseller today. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know.

Q: What was (is) the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Ahh, the magic. What in this imaginary place was normal and what magical and how did it work?

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

bk_grayling_180pxA: I discovered that a fantasy world has as much history, as many rules and boundaries and limitations, as historical fiction, but I had to invent them. I seem to like boundaries that are given to me, and so I found the fantasy harder going.

Q: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

I read several fantasy novels in preparation for writing Grayling’s Song. Two of my favorites are the beautifully written Seraphina for the world building, the way complex elements came together, and the striking visuals —I love the image of the dragon scales on her arm–and the fantasy/horror novel, Something Red, for its marvelously evocative, creepy, oppressive, menacing atmosphere.

Q: Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A: I’m tempted to say Pook the shape-shifting mouse, for obvious reasons, but I would so like to see Desdemona Cork the enchantress with her cloud of hair and the blue tattoos on her face. I look forward to being enchanted.


On Fantasy: Gennifer Choldenko

For the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Next up, Gennifer Choldenko, whose book No Passengers Beyond This Point is set in an original fantasy world.

Gennifer CholdenkoQ: What is the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: The most challenging part is developing a completely original fantasy world. There are a lot of novels based on fantasy worlds that seem closely aligned with previous works. While you can make a case that a familiar trope fantasy can still be engaging, it isn’t what I am interested in writing or in reading. But how do you create something totally original? I believe fantasy worlds are a gift. I don’t think you can “try” to write a fantasy, so much as open your mind and your heart to the possibility.

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: In some ways, writing fantasy is remarkably similar to historical fiction. In both, you create a place and a sensibility which is not in a reader’s frame of reference. In both you have to give your reader a lot of carefully selected details that make the world come to life for him or for her. With historical fiction you can depend on research to feed your process at every stage of the game. There may be parts of your fantasy world which are fed by research—and if there are, lucky you—but that is not a given. The pure creative idea generation is at its most powerful in the fantasy genre.

No Passengers Beyond This PointQ: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: I love to read. I especially love reading (and listening to) middle grade fiction. Generally, I read everything I can before I start writing. But I stay away from books I think might be similar to what I’m planning to do. I don’t want to inadvertently plagiarize. As for a favorite, I never like this question. Who has a favorite book? I adore: The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Oz books, A Wrinkle in Time and Charlotte’s Web. These are all books I read as a child. One of the reasons I write for kids is because I believe books you love during the ages eight to fourteen become a profound part of who you are. Certainly that is true of me.

Q. Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A. Kids always ask me what is my favorite of my novels. Generally I say: “the one I’m working on right now” which is true. On the other hand I have a special place in my heart for No Passengers Beyond This Point. Partly this is because writing it was such an incredibly intense experience. The ideas came to me as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope: a thousand different pictures I couldn’t write down fast enough. One of the characters in the novel is named Bing. He is the imaginary friend of the character Mouse. Since I had an imaginary friend when I was little who was named Bing, I would really like to invite him to dinner. I would ask him why he came to me. And why he left.

Thank you, Gennifer, for answering these questions with such candor. Do read all of Gennifer’s books: the historical Al Capone series, the contemporary If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, and her recent and exciting historical thriller Chasing Secrets. Learn more about Gennifer Choldenko on her website.


bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. Lena Dunham wrote, “Like all Karen Cushman’s gorgeous novels, Grayling’s Song delves into the past to let us know what we must ask of our future. I want Cushman’s books to raise my children for me: that way I can be assured they’ll grow up witty, vastly knowledgeable, and tough as nails.”

In no other place or time

Q. Some people feel that if the writer has lived through it, it can’t be termed historical fiction. Teachers are considering historical fiction to be anything before 2000, because their students didn’t live through those times. How do you feel about this? Is The Loud Silence of Francine Green historical fiction?

A. Jane Yolen says that children think a historical novel is about anything that happened before they were born. But that misses what I think is the most important attribute of a historical novel: it tells a story that could not possibly have happened in any other place or time, a story that results from the combination of character and circumstances. The character would not have been faced with the particular situation or issues at any other time. The situation springs from the period, focused through individuals. For example, The Loud Silence of Francine Green and the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s/early 1950s. Or Catherine Called Birdy facing an arranged marriage for her family’s gain. Or the science that made alchemy believable while superstition prevailed in Alchemy and Meggy Swann.


My favorite books of 2014

It’s award season and best of 2014 season, and so I am weighing in. Here are my favorite books of the past year. No money, no gold statue, just my sincere thanks for hours of reading joy.

five books

Nest. Middle-grade fiction by Esther Ehrlich. Set on Cape Cod in 1972, Chirp survives a difficult year through the healing power of family, the natural world, and her growing friendship with the irresistible Joey. Nest is real, touching, true, and wise.

All the Bright Places. YA fiction by Jennifer Niven. This beautifully written book allows us into the worlds of the smart, dark Violet and the boy who teaches her to live while he plans to die. A gorgeous book with fascinating characters.

Tiger Queens. Historical fiction by Stephanie Thornton. Lengthy, detailed saga of the women who supported Genghis Khan and strengthened his kingdom.  I was immersed in his world for days and loved it.

The Goblin Emperor. Fantasy by Katherine Addison. After a tragedy strikes, the half-goblin youngest son of an emperor has to learn whom to trust, how to rule, and how to survive, in a hurry. I loved the world building and Maia, the goblin emperor, who is much smarter and more lovable than he thinks he is.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth. Fiction by Christopher Scotton. A boy grows in courage, understanding, and forgiveness during a summer he spends in a small Kentucky coal town with his grieving mother and beloved grandfather. The end is riveting and life affirming but I hated to see the book end.


Is this historical fiction?

The Meaning of MaggieIs a novel set in 1988 a historical novel? I’m sure every ten-year-old would say yes although I think of 1988 as just yesterday. Megan Jean Sovern’sThe Meaning of Maggie is set in 1988. I didn’t even think of it as historical until days later. I just thought it a terrific book, charming and touching. Smart, funny, stubborn Maggie deals with her father’s incurable illness as well as all the other vicissitudes of being eleven. The characters are appealing, the situations believable, and the ending realistic but filled with hope. I recommend it to you and all the eleven-year-olds in your life.

Meanwhile, at a school for gladiators in Pompeii

Curses and SmokeCurses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Schecter introduces us to Lucia, the daughter of the owner of a gladiatorial school in Pompeii, and her childhood friend, Tag, a slave who tends to the wounds of injured gladiators. Lucia is unwillingly betrothed to an older man who will invest in her father’s school, and Tag hopes to become a gladiator and buy his freedom. Mount Etna however  has other plans for them. The historical setting is compelling and the story suspenseful. I’d especially recommend it for young readers not familiar with the tragedy of Pompeii.

A Wedge in Her Subconscious

Margi PreusCatherine, Called Birdy blew my mind. It might have been the first time it occurred to me that history was stories and not just dates and proper names. That story wedged its way into my subconscious and I am sure had no small role to play when I set out to write my first story based on history. Karen Cushman showed the way. I’ll just say it, I think she’s a genius.

Thank you, Karen Cushman!

Margi Preus

Thanks to A Mighty Girl

I appreciate the shout-out about Catherine, Called Birdy. It’s a thrill to find my book on your wonderful site. Readers, be sure to visit A Mighty Girl for more book recommendations.