WBBT: Plotting with Megan Whalen Turner

Three years ago, I discovered The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. I loved the intrigue, the clever foreshadowing, the characterizations and plotting. When I finished reading the next two books — The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia — I knew I needed to read these three books again, more slowly, to study the characters, the plotting, the subtle revelations, the prose.

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Check out all the awards and honors…

Instead of Three Wishes: Booklist Editors’ Choice List (Best books of 1995); 1996-97 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Master List.

The Thief: Newbery Honor Book Award, 1997; American Library Association List of Notable Books, 1997; Best Books for Young Adults, 1997 (Young Adult Library Services Association); Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Blue Ribbon List (Best books of 1996); Horn Book Fanfare List (Best books of 1996); Books for the Teen Age, 1997 (68th Annual Exhibition, Nathan Straus Young Adult Center, New York Public Library); Selection of the Junior Library Guild; Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Master List, 1997-98.

The Queen of Attolia: Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Blue Ribbon List (Best books of 2000); New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 2001; Parents’ Choice 2000 Fiction Gold Award; Parent’s Guide Honor Award, 2000; A Chosen Book of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 2001.

The King of Attolia: Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Masterlist (Vermont); Horn Book Fanfare List (Best books of 2006); School Library Journal Best Books of 2006; 2007 Top Ten Books for Young Adults, Young Adult Library Services Association (Yalsa); Finalist for the Andre Norton Award, 2007.
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So I’ll admit it. I adore these books and am pretty much in awe of Megan Whalen Turner. Megan was kind enough to humor me in my fangirl moment and took the time to stop by and chat. You’re going to love what she has to say.

Without further ado, please welcome Megan Whalen Turner…

HWM: How did you get your “break” into getting published?
Megan Whalen Turner: I owe it all to Diana Wynne Jones. She recommended my work to Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow.

HWM: You’ve written a number of short stories. What do you enjoy about this style of writing?
Megan Whalen Turner: I love how much a short story can hold—a world as big as that in any novel, but seen through a peephole. Like a knothole in a wooden fence, it focuses your attention. Joan Aiken wrote the best short stories and I’ve just spent the last half hour online trying to find an interview she gave a couple of years ago about her own work so that I could use her answer instead of having to think up one of my own. Unfortunately, my only copy of it is on newsprint packed in a box back in Ohio, while I am in California and will be until next summer. Another little lesson in why I should make electronic copies of important stuff.

Aiken, if I remember correctly, said that she thought the most successful short stories have events on at least two separate levels occuring inside them. No matter how brief the story, one plotline can’t carry it. Until I read that, I hadn’t realized how true it was. She also said that short story writing depended on a certain frame of mind and she wasn’t sure she’d ever be in that state again. I think that is true for myself as well. As much as I love short stories, they come rarely—like little presents left on the doorstep. There’s no ordering them online with guaranteed delivery, no matter how much I save up for it.

HWM: The Thief was published in 1996 and is well-loved by many. What inspired this book?
Megan Whalen Turner: There are so many different sources that feed a book, it’s impossible to trace them all. I did have an idea in mind about a group of people traveling together with one severely undervalued member of the party, but I couldn’t start writing until I decided on the setting. I took a trip to Greece and realized it was the landscape I was looking for. It gave me the second plotline for the book. I could have a thief go off and steal something, but I didn’t think I had a story until I had hold of the larger events affecting Sounis, Eddis and Attolia.

HWM: Did you know The Thief would become a series or did the series evolve after the book was published?
Megan Whalen Turner: I didn’t know I would write a sequel for The
Thief until Barbara Barstow a Cuyahoga County Librarian asked me for one. As soon as she asked, though, I began thinking about what happened to Gen next. I considered writing another book and another and another about Gen pulling off a string of bigger and better and more clever tricks, but I realized pretty quickly that the next significant event in his story would be getting caught—because he would continue to take bigger and bigger risks until he finally was.

HWM: I loved how you wove in mythology, offerings to the gods, political intrigue, and the psyche in your books, while at the same time, adding a watch and firearms to show a more modern time. How much research did you have to do to create this incredible world?
Megan Whalen Turner: There were some college classes on Greek Thought and Literature, and a trip to Greece, and a fair amount of recreational reading, but most of it about Ancient Greece. My research into the time period I had in mind for the story—somewhere in the 1500’s or so—was mostly reading about Western Europe. There is very little history at the layman’s level about Greece after the fall of the Roman Empire and before, well. . . okay, there’s just not much for the casual reader after the Roman Empire. You would think that the whole peninsula just evaporated. There are spectacularly dense scholarly histories, of course, but there are two problems with those. One, ugh. And two, too much research gets in the way of telling stories.

HWM: What were the challenges and surprises you discovered during your world building?
Megan Whalen Turner: Do you have any idea how HARD it is to write a sequel? Any? Really? I would tell you, but if I think too much about it, I have to go lie down.

HWM: Even though the Attolia books are a series, each book truly reads as a stand-alone, which is a rarity. How do you plot out your work so the reader is satisfied with the book ending instead of frustrated they have to wait for the next book?
Megan Whalen Turner: It’s bad enough that I take so long to produce a book. Think what would happen if the book didn’t have an ending. No, wait. Don’t think about. Think about something else.

All I can say is that endings are very important to me as a reader and so they are important to me as a writer. I really resent stories without endings. I was once very flattered to be lumped in the same category as Frank Stockton, but that’s because of The Griffin and the Minor Cannon. Don’t get me started onThe Lady or the Tiger?

HWM: You have created incredible characters that spring to life — Gen, the Queen of Eddis, the Queen of Attolia, the Magus, Costis. What are important things you look for as your character grows? When do you know you need to flesh out more of the character?
Megan Whalen Turner: It’s more important, I think, to know when I need to flesh them out less. The reader doesn’t really need to know the entire, plodding, story of Costis’s life. They need to know just enough to believe that the rest of his life is there, somewhere out of sight.

But please don’t take that as advice. Just because it is true for me doesn’t mean that it is true for others. No one would ever say to Susanna Clarke that she should cut out that needless backstory in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

HWM: I am excited to hear a fourth book to the Attolia series, A Conspiracy of Kings, is due to be published this spring (March 2010). What can you tell us?
Megan Whalen Turner: Well, I can tell you that it is about Sophos who has been noticeably absent since The Thief. He has changed a great deal in the last few years. It’s also about Gen, who hasn’t changed much at all, at least not in important ways. He frets. He sulks. He has the occasional temper tantrum, but comes through in the pinch. There are a couple of teasers up at the Greenwillow facebook page and I think there may be a longer excerpt up at some point.

HWM: Will this be the final book in the series?
Megan Whalen Turner: Oh, no. There should be two more books after this one. I just have to go lie down first.

HWM: What other projects are you working on that you can share?
Megan Whalen Turner: I’ve been working on my website. I hope to upgrade itfrom terribly dull to only
moderately dull. In my defense I have to say that it was created last century. No one but the occasional librarian was reading anything on the web and I thought they’d like an easy way to locate all the reviews of my books. Now everybody has websites like jewel boxes or videogames and mine is as exciting as a reference book on the vowel shift in Old English. Actually—I’d like to have that reference book. It’s more like a reference book on farm implements published in 1950.

HWM: I have to ask this — Will you be on Twitter or facebook anytime soon? What about blogging?
Megan Whalen Turner: Well, there’s the website upgrade, and I think I may be posting things occasionally at a Facebook page, but I won’t be blogging on a reliable basis.

HWM: What is your writing routine?
Megan Whalen Turner: Routinely, I wish I had one.

HWM: Do you outline or write free-form?
Megan Whalen Turner: I don’t outline, but I don’t sit down in front of a computer with an idea and type until I see where it takes me, either. I usually have the story in my head, and tell it out loud before I sit down to translate what is in my head into words on a screen. I think of the first pass as a sketch rather than an outline.

HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Megan Whalen Turner: “Write.” My husband said that. He repeats it regularly. Sometimes with exclamation points. Occasionally in all caps.

HWM: What is your most memorable fan moment?
Megan Whalen Turner: emerald-happy made these for me. Note that Eugenides has a hook in the first picture, but not in the second.


But see, his hands don’t match, do they? That’s because in the second picture it is his fake hand. They are held in place with little magnets and you can swap them out. The set also comes with a tiny sword for him to hold. Are they not made of win?

Not everybody sends me dolls, it’s true, but my fans have been so great, so patient, so supportive, and so much fun. I can’t say how honored I feel that they like my books.

HWM: If you found a way to go back to your tween years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Megan Whalen Turner: You mean, if I could be ten again as Sophos, or Eugenides, or Eddis? I’d definitely choose to be Eddis as a ten year old. But that would be Eddis in her world. Eddis in fifth grade at Cranston Calvert Elementary School, not so much. Fifth grade once was more than enough for me.

HWM: What makes you laugh?
Megan Whalen Turner: The idea of Eddis in fifth grade at Cranston-Calvert, frankly. Or Eugenides. Hoo-boy.

HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Megan Whalen Turner: As much as I would like to have super strength or invisibility, I think I’d like to fly most.

Thank you so much, Megan!


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Other Places to Find Megan Whalen Turner:
Megan’s Website
Excerpt from Instead of Three Wishes
Excerpt from The Thief
Excerpt from The Queen of Attolia
Excerpt from The King of Attolia
A Conspiracy of Kings teaser
Another teaser for A Conspiracy of Kings
Interview with Shannon Hale:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Sounis (book discussion and fan group for The Attolia series, with links to fan fiction and Readaloud recordings)

[Note: This interview, in part, was made possible by my involvement in readergirlz, and Megan Whalen Turner’s visit to Kristin Cashore’s readergirlz LiveChat. So thank you to the fab readergirlz and wonderful Kristin Cashore, who unknowingly put the possibility of this interview in my mind. And thank you again, Megan, for agreeing to this interview!]

For more WBBT interviews, click here to go to Chasing Ray’s Master List

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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