Interview with Author Pat Schmatz

Today I’m welcoming Pat Schmatz to my series of author interviews. Pat is the author of a number of novels for young adults including Bluefish, Mousetraps, Mrs. Estronsky and the U.F.O., Circle the Truth, and the recently released Lizard Radio.

Q: Welcome, Pat! Can you tell us about your new novel, Lizard Radio?

A: Lizard Radio is a coming of age story that takes place in an alternate universe, about Kivali, a gender-queer teen who might also sometimes be a lizard. It started a few years back when I sketched a young lizard wearing headphones. The lizard was trying desperately to get a signal. I began following the character, and she led me to some very unusual places. Kirkus Reviews called it science fiction, which surprised me. Others have called it dystopian. I don’t think it’s much more dystopian than our own world. I think my favorite description of it came from The Horn Book, who called it “mildly magical.”

More than anything, I’d say that it’s the story of Kivali figuring out how to tune into her own sense of ethics and truth, and to find the gray areas and gaps in the borders of a world that constantly demands either-or decisions and commitments.

Q: Many of your novels are character-driven, with a teenage protagonist who is, or thinks s/he is, an outsider. How do you go about developing your characters?

A: Like the lizard, most of my characters come to me as an impression, a feeling. They present themselves, and then I begin asking questions. I do a lot of question-asking throughout the writing process, actually writing out the dialogue of question and answer. I’ve found that a good tool for drawing out the character’s authentic voice. I also do a lot of work with setting, because I think setting and character are inextricably intertwined. I use poetry a lot. I’m not a particularly good poet, but I find the characters will often say things to me in poetry that they might not say in prose.

Q: You mentioned at a recent conference that because your novels are focused on characters, your books have been criticized for being “light on plot.” However, a starred review from Kirkus says that Lizard Radio has an “intricate, suspenseful plot.” Did you do anything differently when writing your most recent novel?

A: I did! I made up my mind that this time, by God, I was going to figure out how to plot. Someone had recommended The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson on draft #3, or maybe it was #4, I read from that book every day and followed instructions. I drew charts and graphs. I wrote out note cards. I hung graphs on my office wall. I thought very consciously about the rise and fall of action and emotion. I found it difficult – sort of like incorporating math into writing – but I think it helped.

Q: What do you find the greatest challenge in writing books for teenagers?

A: I don’t find any different challenges in writing books for teenagers that I do any other kind of writing. The greatest challenge for every writing project is to get a draft written. Once I have a rough story on paper, honing it is a matter of patience and hard work. But to go from the blank page to a real story, with living breathing people? That’s the challenge.

Q: What are some of the things you’ve done to promote your books?

A: I’m not a great promoter. When I visit schools or libraries, I like to have a topic or a workshop to teach. I find readings and signings excruciating, and I’m not much of a performer, but I do enjoy teaching. I’m passionate about books and creative expression – whether that’s writing, music, art, dance, whatever – so it’s fun to bring kids into that world with me.

I usually start my school visits off with the (true-ish) story about my very first school visit, which involved an almost debilitating case of nerves and an unfortunate encounter with a poopsicle (dog-flavored). That story generally loosens up the crowd and settles me down. Most everyone likes a good dog poop story.

Q: Do you have a favorite book or author?

A: The book that changed everything for me was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I read it when I was 10 or 11, and it told some truths that resonated for me in a way nothing else ever had. I decided after reading it that I wanted to write for teens. I’m amazed, when I talk with students about it now, how much kids still engage with those characters.

We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Q: Pizza or salad?
A: Pizza

Q: Ocean or mountain?
A: Ocean

Q: Tree house or doll house?
A: Tree

Q: Violin or piano?
A: Piano

Q: Comic story or learn-something story?
A: Neither. I’ll pick feel-something story every time.

Q: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?
A: Can I pick Ginny Weasley?

Great Choice!

To learn more about Pat and her books, visit her website http://www.patschmatz.com, like her on Facebook http://facebook.com/PatSchmatzBooks, or follow her on twitter http://twitter.com/schmatz5

Thanks, Pat!

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Best Books of 2014

In 2014, I read 119 books. Some were children’s books which is part of the reason that number is so high. Also, my house isn’t very clean.

Many of the books were good, but not many were great. Putting this list together was difficult. If I named only the great books, my list would be too short. If I named all of the good books, the list would be too long. I decided to go for diversity of genre, subject and audience. The books are grouped by intended audience, in the order I read them.

Children’s Books:

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz
I love the way the author uses the classic novel Treasure Island in this story of a brother and sister who live with their lying, oft-depressed grandmother for reasons they don’t quite understand–at least not at first.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
The deportation of the Jews from Denmark during WWII, as narrated by 10-year-old Annemarie, whose best friend is Jewish. The innocence of her voice and the simple yet suspenseful plot has made this story a classic.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ella (Cinderella) is cursed by a fairy with the gift of obedience, making Ella a slave to the whims of others. Ella is a great character and her quest for self-determination makes this a perfect book for young people.

Holes by Louis Sachar
Multiple story lines that blend together to perfection. Well-crafted characters, exciting action, and a strong message. Funny too.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
Rose, obsessed with homonyms and rules, is misunderstood by her classmates and her father, but not by her dog, Rain/Reign. When Rain goes missing in a storm, Rose has the skills needed to find him, but what she finds will surprise you. Beautiful, beautiful book. My vote for this year’s Newbery Award (not that I have a vote. . . )

Young Adult Books:

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater
“Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.” I read this so long ago, I had to take this blurb from the author’s website. I remember loving the characters, the horses, the slow-build romance, and the intense suspense.

Cress by Marissa Meyer
Third book in the Lunar Chronicles series, using Rapunzel as its fairy-tale base. Cress is a prisoner, not in a tall tower, but in a satellite. I love the character of Cress, possibly because she reminds me of me. I laughed a lot. Cannot wait for the last in the series, Winter, out in fall 2015. The prequel, Fairest is out in Feb 2015. (The order of this makes me crazy, but that is for another blog.)

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire
Set in the last years of the Russian monarchy, Egg and Spoon is a fanciful mix of history, folklore, philosophy, childhood fantasy, silliness, and very clever writing.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
In order to attend the school he wants in the fall, mildly autistic Marcelo must work in the mail room of his father’s law firm. His father, impatient and unsympathetic to his son’s issues, wants Marcelo to experience “the real world.” Marcelo learns a great deal about life, his family, and what he, himself, is capable of.

Silverblind by Tina Connolly
This world is alive with fantastical creatures, fey magic, and disturbing technologies. The main character, half-fey Dorie, is delightful and complex, and the romance flows easily within the greater plot (saving the fey world) which is well paced and suspenseful. Themes such as the environment and women’s rights are integral but not didactic.

Adult
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Exciting and suspenseful story of one fictional man’s life growing up in North Korea. What I liked most about this was the main character and the way he sees the world. A different mindset than I’m used to.

Redshirts by John Scalzi
Funny. Very, very funny. If you don’t know, “redshirts” are characters in Star Trek who don’t live to the end of the episode. Scalzi introduces us to characters in a Star Trek-like world who realize this is happening and what they do to avoid becoming a “redshirt.”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The fictionalized story of real-life suffragist/abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Gremke and their wholly fictional slave, Handful. Why had I never heard of these women? Their story is fascinating, painful, and inspiring.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Raised in the foster care system, Victoria won’t allow anyone close to her. She uses her knowledge of the language of flowers to help others, until she meets a man who also knows that language. Victoria’s character is absorbing and the mystery of her past intriguing.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
A psychologically scarred young woman cares for a physically scarred, wheelchair-bound man. The two fall in love. Will her love be enough to stop him from his desire to commit suicide? Moyes handles difficult issues deftly. A great book for book clubs because of the discussion it promotes.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
A female scientist is sent by her pharmaceutical company to a lab in the Amazon rainforest, after the death of her colleague there, to bring a renegade scientist and her discoveries back to civilization. What amazed me most was how Patchett was able to manipulate and alter my perspectives of the people and events as the story progressed. The ending is perfection.

The Cuckoo’s Calling / The Silkwork by Robert Galbraith
What holds these detective stories above the pack is the depth of the characterization. The stories are complicated, suspenseful and, in places, funny. Galbraith is really JK Rowling, so the level of writing should be no surprise.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
This isn’t the long-awaited final book in Rothfuss’s trilogy, but it does come from the same world. Auri, a minor character in his other books, is the only character in this novel. Although light on plot, Auri is such a compelling character that the book works. Rothfuss’s prose is so beautiful, you might weep.

If you decide to read any of these books because I recommended them, let me know what you think. Happy New Year!

Interview with Margaret Muir

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Today I’m welcoming Margaret Muir, author of Sea Dust, the nineteenth-century story of a young woman who hides aboard a ship bound for Australia hoping to create a new life for herself; Through Glass Eyes, a saga set in Yorkshire; The Black Thread, a dramatic tale set on the Leeds and Liverpool canal in 1898; The Condor’s Feather, an equestrian adventure across the Pampas of Patagonia in 1885; and Floating Gold, the first in a series of naval adventure novels set during the Napoleonic Wars.

Elizabeth: Please tell us more about your most recent novel, Floating Gold. Image

Margaret: Floating Gold is an Age-of-Sail nautical fiction adventure, written for a male readership especially those who enjoy the works of CS Forester (Horatio Hornblower) or Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander). Set in 1802, Captain Quintrell is entrusted with secret Admiralty orders and heads to the Southern Ocean aboard the Royal Navy frigate, Perpetual. Battling unforgiving seas, near mutiny and freezing Antarctic waters, the captain is unaware of the dangers awaiting him when he reaches his destination.

Elizabeth: Sounds exciting! You are currently writing the second book in the series. What will be happening to the main characters in this next instalment?

Margaret: In The Tainted Prize, Captain Quintrell and his motley crew again head south but this time the destination is Peru. Drama and intrigue lie ahead, however, action on the gun deck is tempered by the undertone of political unrest which is simmering in the Spanish vice-royalties in South America. Also of concern is the vast number of African slaves being transported to Peru to work and die in the silver mines. This raises questions about the social, economic and human cost of the slave trade.

Elizabeth: Many of your novels are nautical adventures or involve the sea as a setting, almost as a character. Would I be right in this?

Margaret: Yes indeed, Elizabeth, and thank you for your observation. Both for me and certain characters I create, there is definite affinity with the sea to the extent that it almost takes on a character of its own – a dual character that can be either male or female. The masculine Sea (metaphorically speaking) is dominant, powerful, cruel, exciting and mischievous, manifesting himself in violent storms and turbulent currents. Conversely, the feminine Sea is beautiful, mesmerizing, gentle and evocative.

Here is an example of this personification from The Tainted Prize:

For Oliver Quintrell, the sea was his comfort and companion and, when licking the salt from his lips, he had no doubt she was his mistress. Despite her foibles and fickleness, moods and mysteries, she was soft and sensuous – beguiling in her calms and tantalising in her tantrums. She was the force which heaved beneath him every day and lulled him to sleep every night. By constantly challenging him, it was the sea who made him fearless (not reckless), and it was the sea who would receive him into her arms on the final day of reckoning.

Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your fiction and how do you go about your research?

Margaret: As all my stories are woven around imaginary characters, it is the time, place and setting that provides the historical elements. Floating Gold and The Tainted Prize take place against a backdrop of the Napoleonic War in the early 1800s. This is a well-documented era and there is no shortage of information about it, however, primary source material written by sailors who served in the Royal Navy at the time, or copies of original ships’ logs are most valuable for research.

ImageWalking the gun decks of an original man-of war like HMS Victory provides a valuable insight into life aboard a fighting ship, and in October, I will be re-visiting Victory and the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. After that, I will sail to Gibraltar to learn its history and experience its atmosphere first hand, as it will be one of the settings in my next book. Academic study of the Napoleonic Era, the Atlantic World and the Age of Revolution has provided me with background material to pepper my books. And, last but not least, sailing as a crew member aboard various tall ships has left me with an insatiable appetite for the sea.

Elizabeth: Enough of your books—tell us about yourself.

Margaret: I was born and bred in Yorkshire, England but moved to Australia in 1970. For twenty-five years my priorities were my career in Cytology and raising a family, and it was not until I was made redundant in the mid-1990s, that I had time to do things I had always wanted to. One of these was to write. The other was to sail on a tall ship. The tall ship came first followed by a BA (Writing) which led to my first novel, Sea Dust (2005).

Though it is many years since I left England, it was the moors and the rugged Yorkshire coast that I called on for the settings of my first three books. And while world travel is something I have enjoyed in more recent years, this also has had a considerable influence on my writing. Visits to South America and the Antarctic Peninsula directly inspired the settings for my novels, The Condor’s Feather and Floating Gold. Today, I live in Tasmania, an Australian state settled in the early 1800s from convict stock. It is called the Island of Inspiration and its history has inspired me to, one day, write a book about one of its infamous Bushrangers.

Elizabeth: We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?

Margaret: Whatever you are having.

Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?

Margaret: Ocean, of course.

Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?

Margaret: Hate shopping. Loved hiking when I was younger.

Elizabeth: Violin or piano?

Margaret: Neither – prefer the sound of silence.

Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?

Margaret: Mystery.

Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?

Margaret: Heathcliff.

Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?

Margaret: Death – stirs deeper emotions.

Learn more about Margaret at her blog www.margaretmuirauthor.blogspot.com  and website: www.margaretmuirauthor.com

ImageFor the month of September, you can purchase Sea Dust on Kindle for $0.99:

http://www.amazon.com/Sea-Dust-ebook/dp/B008J1PPP2/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1347314267&sr=1-1

Floating Gold is on Kindle for $2.99.

http://www.amazon.com/Floating-Under-Admiralty-Orders-ebook/dp/B008K9E3FQ/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1347314408&sr=1-1

Margaret Muir’s other titles are available on Kindle and as paperbacks via Amazon.

Margaret, thanks for visiting my blog today!