Five Questions: Catherine Egan

Julia can be unseen. She has the ability to “step back” into a shadowy place that renders her invisible to most people. It comes in handy when one is a spy. And Julia has been sent to Mrs. Och’s house to find out who is locked in the basement and what they are doing there.

Julia and her brother Dek have been on their own since their father disappeared and their mother was drowned for being a witch. Spira City is a cutthroat place where you live and die by your wits, and fortunately Julia is more clever than most.

But when things take a turn for the unusual at Mrs. Och’s house Julia is faced with a conundrum–should she do her job as she has been paid to do, or listen to her conscience?

JULIA VANISHES and JULIA DEFIANT are the first two books in the Witch’s Child trilogy, and I devoured them both. Julia is such a complex and likable heroine–funny, warm, and yet a little more ruthless than is good for her. I loved watching her character develop through the course of these two books, and I am waiting rather impatiently for the third, which Catherine says is slated to be released June of 2018.

I can’t mention all the characters, but I will tell you there is one named Pia, who is frightening, strong, devilishly quick, and rather ruthless herself. Julia finds her repulsive and yet oddly magnetic, like a tragedy from which she can’t look away.

I can’t tell you enough how much I loved these two books. Julia is such a complex character, and I found myself swallowed whole by the story. I aspire to write books as thoroughly good as these.

Here are Catherine’s five questions:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

I don’t think I can pinpoint a single seed – every story is the result of a few seeds that manage to connect. I can identify three main “seeds” that turned into JULIA VANISHES.

The most obvious seed was just the idea – I don’t know from where, really – of a spy who can step out of sight, so she’s there but unseen, though not fully invisible either. Another seed was connecting this vanishing spy to the world-building of a failed book. I’d written close to two hundred pages of a book about witches before giving it up, but when I decided to write a spy story, I returned to that disaster of a half-written book for salvage. I pulled out the entire setting and a number of side characters, like the fanatical, witch-hunting prime minister, Agoston Horthy, the fiercely protective witch Bianka and her magical little boy, and my favorite character, Pia, a villain I knew I had to use somewhere.

The third seed was a kind of daydream-image of a girl in a nightgown creeping through a dark house, picking a lock, and entering a room full of books. That became my first chapter. Julia herself emerged as soon as I began to write, and pulled the whole story along after her.

I always imagine my stories will be fun, rollicking thrillers, and they always come out much darker than I intend. After a friend pointed out that most of my characters have lost either a parent or a child, I had to acknowledge that I plant my story-seeds in the ever-fertile soil of my worst nightmares.

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I’m an outliner through and through. I can’t even start to write until I have a thorough, chapter-by-chapter outline. In the process of drafting, of course, I do diverge from my outline, but whenever that happens I panic and I have to stop and remake the outline to fit with the new direction the book is taking. This happens several times over the course of a couple of drafts, so maybe I’m really part pantser masquerading as an outliner. I do use my outline as kind of a crutch. I envy the faith and courage required to just leap into a story without a plan and see what you emerge with at the end.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

Style is probably the hardest thing to trace back to particular influences, and also the hardest thing to change about one’s writing, I think. I desperately admire a kind of spare and flawless prose – think Kazuo Ishiguro – that I couldn’t dream of emulating.

I’m sure everything I read creeps into my writing one way or another, but when trying to think about influence, it’s easiest to think about late childhood / early teen reads, when I first began to think of writing as a craft. For the first time I wasn’t just absorbed by a good story – I was recognizing good writing.

The two books that leap to mind immediately are Louise Fitzhugh’s THE LONG SECRET, which was a revelation about writing complicated shades-of-grey characters, and how seeing a character from different perspectives changes everything (Harriet from HARRIET THE SPY is a central character, but she is mostly seen from Beth Ellen’s point of view), and Dodie Smith’s I CAPTURE THE CASTLE, also a master class in character, voice, and giving the reader what they need instead of what they want.

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

No! When my children were smaller I wrote with all kinds of noise in the background, but now I prefer silence whenever possible.

5. What are you reading right now?

I just finished THE BOOK OF DUST – for fans of Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS, it doesn’t disappoint – and now I’m reading Carmen Maria Machado’s riveting short stories, HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES.

 

Catherine Egan is:

My books: JULIA DEFIANT, JULIA VANISHES, Shade & Sorceress, The Unmaking, Bone, Fog, Ash & Star
My blog: bycatherineegan.wordpress.com
My superpowers: high-kicking, list-making, simultaneously holding two opposing opinions
My weaknesses: fear of flying, over-thinking and then making bad decisions, excessive list-making
My allies: my made-for-walking-in black boots, Mick, the English Language
My enemies: decaf, low blood sugar, the passage of time
My mission: the coexistence of ambivalence and joy.

Five Questions: Katharine McGee

The Thousandth Floor

It’s one hundred years in the future, and New York is still the center of civilization, but with wicked cool new technology. Contact lenses can make calls and show your social media feed, cars are replaced by self-driving machines, and the tallest building in town is now 1000 stories tall: complete with schools, shops, parks, and houses–there is literally no need to go outside. Why would you want to?

Some things never change, however, and the wealthy still live extravagantly on the upper floors, teens still party and experiment with sex and drugs, and the course of true love still doesn’t run straight.

The Thousandth Floor and its sequel The Dazzling Heights follows a group of teens as they try to navigate their way to adulthood. Avery is the golden child, genetically modified to be gorgeous and smart. Her friends Eris, Leda and Cord all go to an exclusive school “Up Tower,” while Rylin and Watt, kids from the lower floors stumble into their orbit of parties, expensive clothes, and killer digs.

The Dazzling Heights

But things aren’t as perfect as they appear on the surface. Many secrets and troubles exist between the different players and someone ends up getting hurt. Will the others keep the secret, perhaps the deadliest secret of all?

Katharine McGee has put together a tale that is at once gleaming with polish and raw and authentic. I would pitch it as Gossip Girl of the 22nd century, and it really is a glossy read filled with lifestyles of the young and rich and the all-too-real troubles of a teen from any age: substance abuse, bullying, sex, and forbidden love. I really enjoyed these both and look forward to the next in the continuing series. Here are Katharine’s five questions:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

I lived in Manhattan for five years after I graduated from college, working as an editor of young adult fiction. This was back when the dystopian craze was all the rage, series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. I couldn’t stop thinking about those books, wondering what it said about us as a society that we were obsessed with such bleak, dark visions of the future. What would the future look like if, instead of destroying the world, we actually got things right—if each generation left the world better than they found it? I wanted to write a non-dystopian young adult novel set in the future, but hadn’t quite figured out what would look like.

Then I read an article about a concept called “vertical urbanization”: the idea that cities in the future will grow increasingly tall until they become massive skyscrapers. The idea captured my imagination. I mentioned it to my boss at work, who said the phrase “the thousandth floor,” and I knew I had my title right there! 🙂

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I’m an outliner through and through! I couldn’t survive without an outline, especially since I’m dealing with five different narrators, whose stories all intersect in complicated ways. One of my old writing professors called this the domino effect: if you change one thing that happens to one character, it creates a ripple that extends through all the stories. So before I write I spend a lot of time on my chapter-by-chapter outline. It inevitably changes along the way, but that’s just part of the process.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

My favorite series of all time is still Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—there’s really nothing else like it, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t yet read it. I’m also very into George R.R. Martin lately, in no small part because of the way he so deftly handles his various narrators, killing off characters and then cycling in new ones, all while still maintaining a heart-pounding sense of urgency. I’ve been trying to do something a bit like that with The Thousandth Floor!

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I’m one of those people who needs silence to write! Somehow my brain has trouble sorting through the prose, especially dialogue, when there’s music on. It’s like my brain can’t process the words of the music and then also come up with new words at the same time! So I’m not very good at getting work done in cafés: I mostly work in my home office, or occasionally in a library. But I do play music between scenes to take my mind off things!

5. What are you reading right now?

I just finished Kendare Blake’s One Dark Throne, which is the second in a fantastic fantasy series set in a world where three princess sisters have to kill each other, and the one who lives will become the queen! I’m also reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, an adult historical fiction/fantasy about the rise of early modern Europe. It’s one of those epic, sprawling stories that builds an incredible and intricate world, so I’ve been savoring it.

Katharine McGee

Katharine McGee is originally from Houston, Texas. She studied English and French literature at Princeton University and has an MBA from Stanford. It was during her years in New York, working as an editor by day and writing by night, that she began a manuscript about life in a futuristic skyscraper. The Thousandth Floor is her first novel. She currently lives in Houston with her husband. Check out her website at katharinemcgee.com.

Five Questions: Maria Alexander

Snowed by Maria Alexander

Snowed by Maria Alexander

Welcome to my next author interview! This week I am talking with Maria Alexander, the author of the amazing YA horror novel Snowed.

Charity Jones is a 16-year-old engineering genius who’s much-bullied for being biracial and a skeptic at her conservative school in Oak County, California. Everything changes when Charity’s social worker mother brings home a sweet teen runaway named Aidan to foster for the holidays. Matched in every way, Charity and Aidan quickly fall in love. But it seems he’s not the only new arrival: Charity soon finds the brutally slain corpse of her worst bully and she gets hard, haunting evidence that the killer is stalking Oak County. As she and her Skeptics Club investigate this death and others, they find at every turn the mystery only grows darker and more deadly. One thing’s for certain: there’s a bloody battle coming this holiday season that will change their lives – and human history – forever. Will they be ready?

FIVE QUESTIONS:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

Many years ago, on a miserable November night, I was feeling especially Grinchy as I was driving home from an awful, long-distance job. I’d always had a tempestuous relationship with Christmas. So when an instrumental version of “Carol of the Bells” came on the radio, it struck me as the darkest piece I’d ever heard. I’d just read Neil Gaiman’s “Nicholas Was,” which already had me in a myth-twisting mood. By the time I got home, I had a new story in my head, and all I had to do was sit and write. “Coming Home” was the result: a wicked flash fiction piece that was part social commentary, part bah-humbug, and completely surprising. I shared it with Neil, and he said, “This is the story I should have written.” That floored me, of course, but I knew I’d done something different.

It was published a dozen times and stolen even more before it was produced as a one-act play by Women in Theater in Los Angeles, and even adapted to podcast by Pseudopod.org. But I knew it had potential to be a bigger work. I didn’t really figure out how to adapt it to novel, though, until late 2012.

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I come from a screenwriting background. So, structure is very important to me, which means I outline. When I started Snowed, I thought I was writing this sweet magical romance. But something terrible fell out of nowhere at the end of Chapter 5 – something I hadn’t anticipated but it felt right. (If you’ve read the book, you know what that is.) That’s when I realized I was actually writing something very dark. I went back and totally revised the outline. I’m working on the sequel, Inversion. The first draft only took three months because I knew the broad strokes and all the characters. So, I don’t always need a thorough outline to write, but I do need to know the big moments.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

It’s changed a lot since I switched to YA. It used to be authors like Caitlin Kiernan, Clive Barker and Tim Powers. Now I’m not so sure, although a couple of readers have said the Snowed is reminiscent of Joe Hill, who I love. I’d say that Philip Pullman has been and will always be a big influence on anything I write for younger audiences, as His Dark Materials had a major impact on me. And I read a lot of what my friend Nancy Holder writes, so no doubt she’s in there, as well.

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

Usually, and especially when I’m thinking about story, but never anything with lyrics unless it’s in another language. Just movie soundtracks, ambient, and classical music.

5. What are you reading right now?

A lot of stuff people are offering for Bram Stoker Awards consideration, actually — everything from horror poetry to novellas. But I’m really excited to dig into Gretchen McNeil’s newest book, I’m Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl, even if it’s not particularly dark. We met this year in San Diego at an event we were both signing at. She’s going to be the YA Guest of Honor at StokerCon 2017, and I look forward to spending time with her again.

 

Maria Alexander

Maria Alexander

Maria Alexander is the award-winning author of Mr. Wicker, numerous short stories, and two poetry collections. Her nonfiction is used in curriculum at Champlain University. Her debut YA novel, Snowed, from Raw Dog Screaming Press is being called “one heck of a page turner” by adults and “kick-ass” by teens. For more information, visit her website.

Thanks so much for your time, Maria! Seriously, you need to read this book. Charity Jones is whip-smart and sassy. I wish I had known her in high school. Go and get your copy here:

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