I’m a huge fan of Robin LaFevers. She’s a wonderful resource on writing craft and actually shares her writing process on her blog. Robin, under the name of R. L. LaFevers, is also the author of a wonderful series, well actually two, that my children adore. And that is magical in my book.
THEODOSIA AND THE STAFF OF OSIRIS (November 2008): Winter 2008-2009 Kid’s Indie Next List.
NATHANIEL FLUDD (September 2009): A Junior Library Guild Selection.
Robin kindly offered to host a THEODOSIA AND THE EYES OF HORUS (book release date April 2010) ARC Giveaway. This is the 3rd book in the Theodosia series. Let the singing begin. All you have to do is answer a question in the Comments section at the end of this interview: If you could create your own secret society, what would it be? Please keep this clean. DEADLINE, Monday, November 30th, 11pm EST. Winner will be announced December 1st.
HWM: Why children’s books? How did you get your “break” into children’s books?
R. L. LaFevers: Kids are so much more open to the world of possibilities around them than many adults. Their minds are fresh and eager and willing to go along on an adventure. They are soaking up everything like little sponges, trying on ideas and philosophies, worldviews and ideologies—often without even realizing it.
Also, I’ve had a rather satisfying adulthood, whereas my childhood was another matter. I felt powerless, voiceless, swept along by events I barely understood and couldn’t control. For me, those were the ages that were most ripe with material and issues that act as good story fodder.
My break came at an SCBWI National Conference where I had signed up for a manuscript critique. My critiquer was a new agent, Erin Murphy, who liked the manuscript enough to offer representation. Needless to say, it was my best conference EVER.
R. L. LaFevers:You are not alone in thinking THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENT OF CHAOS was my first book. For some reason, when it was reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly they referred to it as a debut. I’ve felt a bit guilty about that ever since, but really, it wasn’t my fault.
My first five books were all boy books and centered around more traditional fantasy concepts. Not only was it the kind of fantasy I loved while growing up, but also it was the kind my sons couldn’t get enough of. Since I was raising boys, I was hyper-aware of what they looked for and couldn’t find it in reading material. I wrote to fill that void.
For the longest time I thought it was selfish and self-involved to write from who I was as a child, or for my own entertainment. How presumptuous of me to assume that what I felt or what fascinated me would be of any interest to anyone else! The rationale that boys like my sons needed books like these helped me feel less selfish about writing. Unfortunately, I don’t think one’s strongest stories necessarily come from that rationalizing type of place.
I first heard the idea of being a “selfish artist” from Laurie Halse Anderson when she spoke at SCBWI National, a number of years ago. Even with her good advice, it took me a long time and a number of books to get that really, as writers, that’s one of the most vital things we have to offer our audience; our truth, our reality, our idea of Other. THEODOSIA was the first book I wrote from a selfish artist place—my story, written to please me and to heck with the rest. I think there is a hugely important lesson in there that it has turned out to be my most successful book, by far.
HWM: I looked at the published dates of your books and am in awe. It appears you’ve written a few books in a close time span. I’m sure there are writers out there who will want to know, how did you do this and keep all the worlds and voices straight, while keeping yourself sane?
R. L. LaFevers: When I sold THE FORGING OF THE BLADE, the publisher wanted a trilogy, which of course I was only to happy to go along with. Since it was targeted at that younger middle grade reader, we didn’t want our audience to outgrow the books, so they decided to publish them in quick succession.
Right about that time the company I worked for was relocating to the Midwest, so I quit my PT job and just focused on writing the trilogy. It was still pretty grueling, in no small part because I hadn’t planned well or ever written a series before, so I had a number of corners I’d painted myself into and had to wiggle out of along the way.
In fact, the trilogy become such a slog that I needed to find a way to renew my love of writing—to reconnect with why I started writing in the first place; the creative joy rather than the hard slog it had become. So I started a ne
w project, just for me, that would be a book written just to entertain and please myself. I’d work on the trilogy during the week, and allow myself to play with my new story on the weekends as a means of creative renewal. (That book was THEODOSIA, btw.)
Part of the key to working on multiple projects at once is having the works-in-progress be in different stages. I might be doing brainstorming and world building on one book, while revising another. I usually only write the first draft of one project at a time, though.
Also the tone and feel of a book factors hugely in this. For example, I can work on a THEODOSIA book and a NATHANIEL FLUDD book at the same time, but not my dark medieval YA. The tone and feel of that project is just too far away from the others to be able to jump back and forth.
As for sane, well, the jury is still out on that one.
HWM: Why do you write fantasy? Historical fantasy?
R. L. LaFevers: I can’t seem to NOT write fantasy. I’ve tried to write realistic fiction, but a whiff of fantasy always sneaks in, so in some sense, it’s just a part of my world view. Seeing the small magics and mysteries around me makes life vastly more interesting.
Also, one of the themes I’m drawn to is the issue of personal power and taking kids from feeling powerless to a place where they begin to feel as if they have some power over their lives. Fantastical power is a lovely, subtext-laden vehicle for personal power.
I lean toward historical fantasy because I like to write about those times when magic and reality meet, and I think they meet in history. It fascinates me how so many of our modern fantasy conventions are actually culled from old myths, forgotten religions, and ancient cultures.
HWM: I love Theodosia. How did you go about creating her character and voice?
R. L. LaFevers: THEODOSIA was born of a number of my own experiences as a child. I really allowed myself to go back and wallow in my own eleven-year-old self, to remember and feel what it was like to be eleven and what my huge frustrations were at the time. And then I just let her run with that.
One of the things I was constantly accused of at that age was being too sensitive. So many of the things I noticed or found worrisome were dismissed as unimportant by the adults around me. However, kids are so much more open to the world around them, in ways we adults have forgotten or discarded, and I wanted to explore that, reconnect with that. I decided the perfect revenge would be to write a book where those very traits in a girl would be her shining strengths, the very things that allowed her to save her parents and her country.
I also think one of the most difficult thing we ask of kids is for them to be mature and responsible and to take care of things, yet we rarely give them the true power or authority to accomplish those tasks. So I wanted to play with that concept as well. I wanted to illustrate that Catch-22 kids can often find themselves, needing on some level to take care of their parents or siblings, yet be very poorly equipped to do that.
HWM: My children are thrilled to hear another Theodosia book will be out next spring. And also an audiobook is in the works! What can you tell us?
R. L. LaFevers:Yes, we’re hugely excited about the audio book! Audible contracted to do all three THEODOSIA books in audio, and they are in the process of recording them right now. That’s all I know.
Theo’s third adventure is called THEODOSIA AND THE EYES OF HORUS and takes her even further into the world of secret societies, sacred artifacts, and ancient mysteries. It also introduces one of my favorite characters, the Egyptian magician Awi Bubu.
HWM: Except for Theodosia, your other protagonists are boys. How do you keep the voices authentic (male/female)?
R. L. LaFevers: Oddly enough, for a long time I felt more comfortable with boy voices than with girls. I had seven brothers while growing up, I am the mother of sons and was surrounded by boys for years. I feel like I get them and the way they communicate. And even though I’m a girl, girls can be a bit of a mystery to me. During my school years I felt like an outsider and was puzzled by the cliques and politics of girlfriends.
If you’ve been around boys all your life as I have, the distinction is pretty clear. A lot of it is about stepping into the skin of the character and seeing and feeling the world from his viewpoint, wearing his filters, and using his speech patterns. I don’t write about a boy or a girl. While I have the pen in my hand I am that boy or girl and try to see the world through their eyes and filters. Although I will admit that each boy character I write tends to possess one characteristic of a boy I have known. This acts as an entry point for me to access his boy-ness.
HWM: You have a wonderful way of world-building in your books. What were the challenges and surprises you found along the way?
R. L. LaFevers: One of the greatest challenges of world building is knowing what to put in and what to leave out. I always maintain that writers have to know 100% of the details of the world they’re building, but might only use about 20% of those details in the book. All the rest of the world building is used to inform the worldview and perspective of the characters.
Some tools I use when building a world are loads of research, character journaling, collaging, and detail brainstorming. I really think key details—like the contents of Theodosia’s curse removal kit—help bring the world to life.
HWM: What types of research do you do for your books?
R. L. LaFevers: Tons. In fact, my husband jokes that I am a writer so I have an excuse to do research, and he’s only half kidding. The truth is, I am mad about research and it is probably one of the reasons I write historical fantasy—all that lovely research!
I would have loved to travel to London and Egypt and Arabia, but my budget doesn’t allow for that. Instead, I relied on a number of research books on Victorian and Edwardian London, Egypt, archaeology, ancient Egyptian magic, myths, legends, and bestiaries. Also, I would never have been able to write some of these books except in the Age of Google. I was surprised at how much detail I could find on the internet, information I couldn’t find in books; pictures of the British Museum near the turn of the century, old archival photographs of Cairo and Luxor in 1907, when lifts went into operation in London. I was even able to find old street maps of London so that I could get the locations of things correct, although I did use artistic license with a couple of them.
HWM: FLight OF THE PHOENIX, the first book of your NATHANIEL FLUDD, BEASTOLOGIST series was just released last month. I think we were the first ones to buy your book from our local bookstore. What did you do to celebrate?
R. L. LaFevers: To celebrate, I went to Texas and did a two week round of school visits and a book signing event, as well as a couple of drive-by signings. It was a fabulous opportunity to share the book with thousands of young kids. Having written so many books, and so many of them series, I tend to shy away from doing too many launches here in my hometown. I don’t want the local booksellers to get LaFevers fatigue.
HWM: NATHANIEL FLUDD is your youngest protagonist. What were the challenges for writing for a younger age group?
R. L. LaFevers: There were a lot of challenges in writing young! One was keeping it short, as I knew I wanted it to be a shorter book. And the second was staying true to what a younger kid would notice, react to, feel. Once again, for me, the secret seems to be climbing into the skin of the character. I really spent some time with my own ten-year-old self, as well as re-connected with who my sons and their friends were at ten-years-old in a visceral way. What were their fears and hopes and worries? What kept them up late at night? When they were feeling timid, how did that timidity affect how they viewed things? What held enough power over them that they would be compelled to take action, even though they thought they were too afraid to do so?
Really, I think the key to connection with any given character is to access some of our own age-specific memories. Not the stories we remember being told about our childhood, but with actual, visceral childhood memories of ourselves at a given age. Not because every character is a thinly disguised version of ourselves, but so we can shift our mind back to those age-specific feelings and world view.
HWM:I understand from your blog that you’re writing a new book — this time, a YA! Are you able to tell us anything about it?
R. L. LaFevers: Oh, my beloved YA. I’m still pretty close lipped about it because it’s only ¾ of the way done and I won’t be able to get back to it until I’ve finished Theo Four. But I will say it draws heavily on the bones of fairy tale and old Celtic myth, and takes place in late medieval France. And it’s very, very dark, and also, I hope, very, very romantic, in an old world, rip-your-heart-out sense of the word, not the calf eyes/mooning sense of the word. I’ve been working on it off and on for four years, three of which it took my editor and agent to convince me I really could write it as a YA and not burn in hell. (My internal editor is a cranky old Catholic nun. SO not helpful.) But the trick for me was again, going back and remembering what thrilled me at fourteen and fifteen, and once I was in that place, of course, this was a YA. For YA it is SO critical to put that well meaning adult aside and access our inner sullen/rebellious/slutty teen.
HWM: You’re very involved with helping out other writers. You offer up writing advice on your blog and you’re part of the Shrinking Violets Promotions team and fAiRy GoDsIsTeRs, iNk… How do you find the time and what have you found to be the most rewarding about these projects?
R. L. LaFevers: Well, you’re very kind to say so, but it’s not hard to find time to do the things you love to do, and I love talking to other writers about writing, so that’s easy! The most rewarding thing has absolutely been the people I’ve met and the communities that build up around the blogs.
HWM: What do you like writing the most: the beginning, middle or end of the story? How long does it take for you to figure out the end?
R. L. LaFevers: Oh the beginning. I adore the beginning because the story is so full of possibilities. I can take this road, or that one, or play with this element or throw in that. But by the end of the first act, the story has begun to take shape and one has committed to certain directions.
However, when I begin a story, I do often know the final climax scene and the resolution scene. Mostly. The part that I struggle with the most is from the mid-point to that climax scene—keeping the tension, building it in a steady climb to the big ka-boom.
HWM: What is your writing routine?
R. L. LaFevers: I pretty much get up every morning, grab a cup of coffee, then begin while my subconscious is still accessible. I write either with an Alpha Smart (because it doesn’t let me edit very well and the keyboard shape is easier on my wrists) or by long hand, usually for two or three hours. If I’m just starting a book, a lot of that time is spent brainstorming, journaling, playing with different plot ideas, world building, or asking key questions in the hope that they will unlock the secrets of my character.
Another important thing about my process is that I don’t write every day; I don’t believe that’s necessary. I need fallow periods, so I take them when needed. I also tend to do what some would call outlining, but I think of as more of just thinking up scenes and what will happen next far enough in advance that I don’t spend hours spinning my wheels. A lot of that is mostly assembling and creating and building the material I will need as I write the story.
HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
R. L. LaFevers: The best single piece of writing advice I ever heard was from Susan Elisabeth Phillips when she spoke at an RWA conference. She said, very simply, “Protect the work.” This is probably the best because it is the most all encompassing. Protect the work, whether from your internal editor, from misguided ideas of what the market wants or needs, or from misguided input. It can also mean to protect it from our own ignorance or lack of craft tools.
HWM: What advice would you give to all those NaNoWriMo writers out there?
R. L. LaFevers: Don’t stress. It’s only a game to get you really focused, nothing more that that. Simply by doing NaNo you’ve proved that you are committed to this idea of writing, that you are compelled to put words to paper. Enjoy it. By the same token, if doing NaNo doesn’t work for you, or your work from it is unusable, don’t despair. That might just mean that slamming through a quick and dirty fi
rst draft isn’t YOUR process. Lots of writers shudder at that approach, so it just means you’re one of them and not one of those who thrives on that. But don’t walk away! Continue to experiment with all sorts of different approaches and processes. You never know when you’ll find one that sticks.
Also? Nothing is wasted. Not even stuff that appears to be pure dreck. It’s important to know what doesn’t work so we can get that much closer to what does.
HWM: What is your most memorable fan moment?
R. L. LaFevers: I received a letter from a mother who had bought THE FORGING OF THE BLADE books to read to her younger son. Her older son was twelve-years-old and a rabid NON-reader. However, soon he started listening in. Even better, she later found him reading the books under his covers with a flashlight—the first fiction books he’d read on his own. THAT, I thought, THAT is what keeps us writers slogging forward. The best review ever.
HWM: If you found a way to go back to your tween years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
R. L. LaFevers: Theodosia, absolutely. She says and thinks all the things I wished I could have had the gumption to say.
HWM: What makes you laugh?
R. L. LaFevers: Life’s little absurdities—luckily there is no shortage of those.
HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
R. L. LaFevers: Wait. What? You mean I’m NOT a superhero??