Be sure to read my review of Michelle Knudsen's new YA novel, EVIL LIBRARIAN.
1) As I was writing my review of EVIL LIBRARIAN, I realized that what I wanted to talk about most was the relationship between Cyn and Ryan and the internal monologues the reader is treated to, especially the private, crazy stuff that Cyn (and all of us) thinks to herself. I have to admit, I groaned quietly to myself early on in the novel when it became clear that Cyn and Ryan were going to team up to fight the evil librarian, something that would, by all norms, mean that her romantic desires would be fulfilled. But, without giving too much away, you do a fantastic job subverting this norm.
Did you know early on that this was how you wanted their relationship to play out, or did it evolve organically as you wrote?
I knew Cyn’s crush on Ryan was going to be a central thread of the story, but I don’t think I knew exactly how it would play out at first. And then (also trying not to give too much away!) in the first draft I had Cyn and Ryan kiss somewhere around chapter nine, and my editor (the wonderful Sarah Ketchersid) gently but firmly said no, no, no, you can’t do that. And she was totally right — as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t let Cyn just have what she wanted, especially not at that point in the story. I apologized to Cyn repeatedly (sometimes out loud; luckily I usually write alone in my apartment, so no one had to witness me talking to my computer screen) while taking out all the lovely kissing she got to so briefly enjoy in the initial draft.
2) Also, again, without giving too much away, hopefully, I absolutely LOVE what you do in the final pages of EVIL LIBRARIAN. You capture so well the tenuous social scene of high school while also giving readers the best, most believable wish-fulfillment (and take-your-fate-into-your-own-hands) scene I've read - all the while bringing it full circle by linking it to an even from the start of the book. How did you get to this ending and did it feel totally right when you wrote it? (Because it felt totally right when I read it!)
I knew what the ending scene would be fairly early on, which almost never happens for me. It might have something to do with this being the first book for which I wrote a very detailed outline. I had about 80 pages or so of what I think of as the first first draft when I first sent it to my editor to see what she thought, and I didn’t really know where the story was going to go. And because YA was a new genre for me, my publisher (justifiably) wanted a full synopsis before they would draw up a contract. So I spent a lot of time trying to plot out the story, figuring out where to go from my initial 80 pages and what the book was really about and what was going to happen. Once I had a good idea of the general shape of the story, I knew that I wanted to end the story the way I did. And it helped when I was writing the real first draft to have that in mind, working toward it as I wrote all the other chapters. It was very satisfying when I finally got to write it!
3) I know from your website that you are a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which seems only right given EVIL LIBRARIAN. I was wondering if you watch any newer shows - like Supernatural - and how these may have shaped EVIL LIBRARIAN?
I don’t get any cable channels and keep not getting around to getting an antenna, so everything I watch is via streaming and often I’m a season or several behind. (Except for Doctor Who. I started watching the reboot in early 2013 at the insistence of my very wise friend Matt Phelan [see next two questions!] and now I’m fully addicted. I bought an iTunes season pass for Season 8 so I can watch each episode the day after it airs.) I love good stories in any genre, but my favorites tend to be fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural. (A few examples, besides Buffy and Angel: Firefly, Star Trek: TNG, the first couple of seasons of True Blood, the first season of Heroes, the first season or two of Misfits. I haven’t ever seen Supernatural — should I??) I’m not sure how or whether any of the shows I watch might have directly shaped EVIL LIBRARIAN, though, other than feeding and inspiring my brain with storytelling goodness. Watching (or reading) stories/plots/characters I love just makes me want to try that much harder to write something even a fraction as good.
4) I am VERY excited about your next picture book, MARILYN'S MONSTER, which is being illustrated by the phenomenal Matt Phelan. I know that most publishers want manuscripts under 1,500 words, with 1,000 being even better. How do you write a picture book and, having been an editor, do you think about this when writing a picture book? Do you ever test your picture book manuscripts out on kids?
I always think it’s a little funny that my first trade picture book (Library Lion) involved the idea of breaking rules, since as a picture book writer, I tend to break a lot of them. Most of my picture books are pretty long — I don’t think any one of them is under 1000 words! I’ve been very lucky in that my editor and publisher are willing to publish some longer picture books. As I’m sure you (and many others reading this) know, most picture books are 32 pages (including front matter/back matter such as the title page, copyright, etc.). Argus is my only 32-page picture book; Big Mean Mike and MARILYN’S MONSTER are both 40 pages, and Library Lion is 48! I will admit that I have kind of given up trying to write short, at least in my first drafts. Picture books are really challenging for me, and when I first get an idea, I don’t want to worry too much about the length — I just want to try and get the story down so I can start working with it. A lot of my revision process involves extensive cutting. And then Sarah helps me find more places to cut, because my manuscripts are invariably still too long when I send them to her. :) Again, I’m very lucky to have been working with her for so long ... I would never advise anyone to send out a too-long manuscript as a picture book submission, but since Sarah knows that I will, eventually, revise my stories down to nearly reasonable lengths, I can show her earlier drafts and get her feedback on the story to help guide me as I cut and cut and cut in subsequent versions.
I also always end up taking out more words once the sketches come in, because then it becomes clear that some parts of the story are being told through the illustrations, and there’s no need for me to tell them in the text, as well.
I don’t ever test my picture book manuscripts out on kids. I don’t think they’re ready for sharing with that audience until the art is there too, because the final book is so much more than just the words alone.
5) You have been paired up with amazing illustrators from Kevin Hawkes to Scott Magoon and now Matt Phelan. Many picture book authors say that they have no choice in who illustrates their book and often have no communication with the artist during the process. What is your experience in this area?
For my early books (which were mostly mass market) I didn’t have any say in the illustrators. With my picture books, the usual process is that Candlewick suggests an illustrator, sending me samples of his or her work and giving me a chance to share my thoughts (including whether or not I think the choice is a good one.) They’ve found wonderful artists to illustrate all of my books. For MARILYN’S MONSTER, I will admit that I brought up Matt Phelan’s name when I first sent Sarah the manuscript; as soon as I finished the first draft, I knew he’d be the perfect illustrator for that story. I’m so glad they agreed he was the best choice for the book (and that Matt agreed to do it!).
But even with Matt, who is a friend, I kept my nose out of the illustration side of things. This is usually easy, as the publisher doesn’t encourage communication and in most cases the artist isn’t someone I know before we’re paired up on the book. Some people are surprised by this arrangement, but I think it makes a lot of sense. It’s true that I envision the story as I write, and may have my own ideas about what characters look like, etc., but I’m not the illustrator. Something that I think can be hard for picture book writers to accept at first is that it’s not just your book. The artist isn’t just drawing to complement your words — he or she is contributing to and completing the story through the art. I do get to see sketches, and sometimes have comments or questions, but it’s not my job as the writer to tell the illustrator what to draw or how to draw it. The finished book is a shared creation, and I’m always so happy to see the ways in which the illustrator has brought the story to life and added elements I would never even have imagined on my own.
6) Finally, I have to ask - will Cyn's next two visits to the underworld be available in book form at some point in the future?
Follow Michelle on her blog tour at these stops:
WhoRuBlog : 9/9/14
Random Chalktalk : 9/10/14
Green Bean Teen Queen : 9/12/14
Elizabeth O. Dulemba : 9/13/14
Katie's Book Blog : 9/15/14
Word Spelunking : 9/16/14
Book Chic Club : 9/17/14