When I first put this page together in 2003, background and biographical information was harder to find on the Internet than it is today. You can now find lots of information about me with a basic Google search, and you can also access the Reader Questions pages scattered around this site to learn more about me and my books. But I do have some excerpts from a variety of interviews here for those who are interested.
I'm a YA (teen) author, and there's a reason I write for teens. It has nothing to do with simplifying stories or dumbing them down—quite the contrary. In my experience, teen readers handle complexity and ambiguity in their fiction better than many adult readers do. Rather, I write for teens because I enjoy the opportunities for discovery that writing provides. I don't want to trot over old ground or pass along answers. I write because I want to ask questions and see where they lead me.
Teen readers are great companions for this kind of literary treasure hunt. Yes, there are many stories that don't resonate with them because their store of experience is so limited, but, by and large, teens know how much they still have to learn about the world. They're hungry for experience and ready to ask what it means. And because they're students, many teen readers have the habit of thinking critically. They engage with a text and explore it.
Some adults look for a book that will take them out of their comfort zone, but many adult readers don't. They ask only, "Did I like this book? Did I like the characters? Did I enjoy the experience of reading this?" They read familiar genres about familiar situations. And that's fine. Adults have to work for a living. They have to do laundry and get to the grocery store. They don't need to come home and face Twenty Questions from a book.
One of my earliest memories has no words or data attached to it.
In essence, it's nothing more than a snapshot. I see in my
memory a small room brightened by a single grimy window. Flyspecks
and dirt obscure the window so that I can't make out a view
beyond it. A spindly table stands in the center of the room, but
it is cheap, old, and gray with dust and time. I notice a rug on
the floor beneath the table, but its pattern is obliterated by dust.
In my memory, I feel wonder. This room is so like other rooms I know but so completely different. I am afraid of who—or what—might be living here.
I have no idea now where this place was, but when I went to college, I learned its name and why it frightened me. My dusty room was a liminal place, and such places awaken in us a feeling verging on instinctive dread. Liminality is a transitional state, emptied of one thing but not yet another, and the deepest, oldest layers of our brains warn us of its danger. Twilight, for instance, is neither day nor night. So is an eclipse. Caves, springs, volcanoes, mountaintops, and shorelines mark places where things change from one state to another. Our ancestors worshiped such places and peopled them with dangerous sprites. Magic rituals focus on liminal places and objects in liminal states. The corpse is such an object—it is, temporarily, neither the loved one we knew, nor is it dust, a part of nature. And the abandoned house is neither a place to live nor a place with another use. It is a "corpse" house—a place to avoid.
Liminal places seem supercharged with possibility. The normal rules don't apply there. Anything can happen. These possibilities frighten us because they threaten to overturn our orderly world. The devil waits for us at the crossroads. Closets—small uninhabited rooms—make us uneasy. Monsters hide in the empty darkness under our beds. We feel nervous about long, dark hallways.
Before I sent out my very first manuscript, I sat down and asked myself why. My answer: to earn the respect of my peers and to inspire the next generation of writers.
... My goals have sometimes put me into conflict with my editors. My current book, The House of Dead Maids, is a case in point. My agent sold that manuscript in 2006 to an editor who, in my opinion, wanted to make it less unique and more palatable to readers. (She told me later that she was under tremendous pressure to produce bestsellers.) I felt that this approach would ruin the book's usefulness as a "bridge" book to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, which is what I wanted it to be. So I had my agent buy back the book from that publishing house and take it to a house that would honor my goals for it.
That was a stressful time! I would lie awake nights calculating just what would happen if I had to buy that manuscript back with my own money. But Holt snapped it up and understood at once my vision for it. And I don't usually get sentimental about my books, but this one is so perfect that I cried when I held the first copy in my hands.
Last week, I learned that The House of Dead Maids has earned a star from The Horn Book, the oldest and most prestigious American journal of children's literature. Their review (which runs in the Nov./Dec. issue) calls my book "a worthy companion to its classic literary inspiration." On the same day, Brontëblog called The House of Dead Maids "a book that makes no concessions. And it is this cultivation of excellence and coherence that is the ultimate reason of its success."
That day was, hands down, the highlight of my publishing career. I remembered my painful decision to put on the brakes and pull the manuscript from its original publisher. I thought about my instinct to protect what was unique about it even if that would mean a reduction in sales. The risky journey had culminated in this astoundingly high praise from two sources I respected and admired. I glowed; I reread the reviews about a dozen times each; and then I went out and bought champagne.
"You see, we'll never get a bestseller out of her," my husband mourned quietly to my daughter.
"I know," she said. "What we need is Justin Bieber tweeting, 'chillin on plane readin HOUSE OF DEAD MAIDS - its CRAZY good!!' What we've got is Brontëblog."
And I'm just fine with that.
If I had come across Wuthering Heights in my teenage years, I might find Heathcliff's brooding passion for Cathy attractive. And if I were to read the book for the first time now, I'm sure I would find him repellant. But I first read Heathcliff's story when I was just a child, so it is the child Heathcliff who has always mattered most to me. When I was little, I noticed each of the injustices done to this unwanted boy, including the selfish cruelty of his foster father, who kept the child as a kind of pet but couldn't be bothered to provide for his future even though the old man knew he was dying.
The nine-year-old me found Wuthering Heights absolutely terrifying. Much of it was beyond my comprehension, making what I did grasp even more dreadful. I felt as if I were hiding in a closet and watching gang violence unfold in the room right in front of me.
Poor dead Cathy, wandering home after twenty years, gave me the shivers, but I found Lockwood even more awful for the way he treated the little ghost, rubbing her thin arm against broken glass to try to escape her. She was undead, my fourth-grade brain reasoned; she couldn't help being scary. He was a grown man, an adult, and adults in my world were supposed to help children, even if those children were undead. But the burgeoning storyteller in me tested his reaction and decided that it was probable, so I learned a horrifying life lesson from Lockwood's heartlessness.
That same heartlessness—selfish adult against helpless child—occurs again and again in the pages of Wuthering Heights. Solemn little bookish child that I was back then, I felt each new outburst of cruelty deeply. And when the mature Heathcliff stands aside to allow poor, ignorant young Hareton a chance at happiness—to me that was not, as some critics have termed it, a clumsy resolution or a tacked-on dénouement. To me, it was the moment of Wuthering Heights.
So it's no surprise that these are the major themes of my Wuthering Heights prequel, The House of Dead Maids. Two unwanted children enter that labyrinth of a story with only one another to rely on. The ghosts they meet are scary—because how can a ghost help being scary? It's in the very nature of the undead. But it is the adults in my book, with their selfish callousness, who have the power to terrify. And it is the one brief moment of compassion from an unlikely source that lights up the whole story for me and makes the journey worthwhile.
The above four excerpts came from the blog tour I did to promote The House of Dead Maids when it came out. If they haven't been taken down, you may find the full text of my posts about that book by following these links:
MacKids blog—an introduction to Wuthering Heights
In Bed With Books—Heathcliff's bizarre relationship with Cathy (my post begins after the double dash)
The Compulsive Reader—comparing the natures of Tabby and Himself (Heathcliff)
Teenreads.com blog—on my life as a schoolyard outcast and my early friendship with Heathcliff
The Book Butterfly—an interview asking about, among other things, music that characterizes the book and my ideas about what Emily would think of me
Carrie's YA Bookshelf—about the cruelty of adults to children in Wuthering Heights
Bookworming in the 21st Century—details about the setting of The House of Dead Maids
Rebecca's Book Blog—an interview about, among other things, getting the setting and narrative voice right
Babbling Flow—a wide-ranging interview about such topics as word choice and publishing success
Steph Su Reads—an interview about, among other things, favorite Victorian writers and favorite scary stories
Mundie Moms—on High Sunderland and its inspiration for Wuthering Heights and Seldom House
Jenn's Bookshelves—on the inspiration for the various ghosts in the book
The Spectacle—an interview about, among other things, life in Europe and why I write speculative fiction
Darkly Reading—on liminal places and their importance in the ghost story
Adventures in Children's Publishing—on the importance of staying true to your vision in the publishing world
Sonderbooks Blog—an interview about, among other things, life in Germany and my fondness for the free books-on-mp3 at Librivox.org (especially the ones narrated by Dr. Praetzellis)
ScFiGuy—an interview about writing for teens and how I feel about literary mash-ups
Cynsations—about humans and other monsters
What inspired you to write The Sky Inside? Were you nervous or excited (or a little bit of both) about writing a science fiction novel—or dystopian novel—as opposed to continuing on writing fantasy?
I was ready to write something different. I had recently been to a conference with Neil Gaiman, and he had mentioned friends of his who are afraid to write outside their genre, who said, "Oh, my editor would kill me if I did that," or made other comments of that sort. And he said, "Who's doing the writing here? Whose career is this?" In effect, he said, "Grow a spine!"
And I thought, Neil's exactly right. If I'm going to be writing books for years, I can't start limiting myself to certain genres or styles. I'll feel stifled and bored. I've got to try new things, even if they seem like a little bit of a stretch.
I was nervous about it, sure, not just because The Sky Inside is SF but because it has my first boy protagonist. But I trusted my new editor's judgment, and she loved the book. She's never read my trilogy, so I knew she wasn't distracted by what I'd already accomplished. She's been focused throughout this process on what I'm accomplishing right now.
What came first, the premise or the characters?
Personally, I feel that while the premise is strong—very strong—your novel does remain character driven. How important was it for you to have resonating characters that readers care about?
When I start a novel, I have a question I want to answer, not an answer I want to frame in a story. My novels start from "I wonder what would happen," not from "Here's what I want to show the world." If I already knew the answer to the question I had at the start, I wouldn't feel the need to write the book. So the premise, while important, doesn't interfere with where the characters want to take me.
The premise of The Sky Inside came from my mulling over Armageddon stories. So many SF books are about the end of the world. I thought, instead of that kind of a future, what if the future saw us having conquered our major problems of overpopulation, pollution, and aggression toward our neighbors? How would we have gotten there, and what would be the price? That's where Martin's suburb came from. We think of it as a dystopia because, let's face it, every society is a dystopia, but it's a world that works very well for a majority of the population—probably better than our society does today. Maybe we get bored at the thought of such a life, but a lot of our peers would describe it as the American dream.
It's very important to me to have strong, interesting characters because I have to spend so much time with them. I have a short attention span, and I can't imagine how boring it would be to try to work with characters who don't have a life of their own. Even though I have some dim idea of how I think a book will go before I start writing, my characters drive what actually happens. That's because, until I watch the characters living life minute by minute, I don't know much about them or their world. They often surprise me, and these surprises show up as plot twists in the books.
For instance, I had no idea that Martin would be attracted to William and be very touchy and super-sensitive about their differences as a result. That happened when he walked into the room with her. I had nothing to do with it. (William still isn't sure what to make of him. He's complicated her worldview.)
But the strangest example of the characters driving this story is the fact that I wanted The Sky Inside to be much more light-hearted, a boy and his dog having adventures in their neighborhood. I was even more taken aback than Martin was at the horrible reaction the Wonder Babies elicited. I thought the little children might be annoying, but I had no idea they'd be treated like pariahs. That wound up deeply affecting the entire plot. You'll notice that genetic engineering and the creation of children as consumer products is a long step away from my original premise. The answer to my original question evolved considerably.
I've often wondered when I was reading, and I don't know if this will come out the right way or not. But in the writing process do prologues come first or last or whenever the inspiration strikes? Is it the first thing you write or the last? I'm always curious if writers—and I know you can only speak for yourself—write their books in order from first to last or if they have an outline and they write portions here and there.
I ask this because your prologue seems so right. It has just enough spookiness or eeriness to unnerve the reader and serve as such a stark contrast to the opening chapters.
Sometimes prologues come last (or get rewritten multiple times), but when I wrote The Sky Inside, this prologue came first. I was very interested in the role the television played in this novel, and I wanted to get a feel for how it connected or disconnected the major characters, what it revealed and what it hid.
Besides, when I start a novel, I have to hook myself even before I hook the reader. If I don't get spooked out and fascinated by the world in the first couple of pages, I'll just drop the project and go write something else: survival of the fittest plot!
I always write my novels from start to finish. That's because the characters have to be allowed to do their own exploring as the novel progresses. It isn't about where I think I want to go, it's about what the characters want to get out of this process and how I can help them. They're the ones who have to live it, after all.
Do you have a favorite scene or a favorite quote from the novel? What is your favorite bit that you're extra-proud to have written?
I debated several times whether I should leave in Cassie's review of Peter Pan, where she says, "Tinkerbell thought she could keep her job if enough little children believed in advertising." Let's face it, I wrote that to make myself laugh, and it works like a charm every time. But I doubted whether I should be so indulgent of my own tastes in a novel. If my editor had protested, I would have removed it.
I'm proudest of my writing in Martin's scene in the suburb park after the vote on the product recall, the scene where he hides out at the top of the slide and he's missing his sister so much. That whole scene is pure Martin. He and I were really in sync that day. And I loved the Jell-O dream he had. It made us both feel better.
I'm also proud that I noticed what Martin noticed in the ruined suburb, that it wasn't the look but the spacing and rhythm of things that made it familiar: sidewalk, driveway, sidewalk, driveway; or garage, kitchen, dining room, living room. I had never noticed this before, but once Martin noticed it, it made perfect sense. It's walking around in a space, the length of time from A to B, that sinks into our bones. That must be why some archeological sites are never understood: we've lost the rhythm of life in and around them, so we can't figure out what they're for.
[The three paragraphs below appeared in the Dec. 22nd, 2003 issue of Publishers Weekly, in the biannual feature, Flying Starts, which introduces selected authors and illustrators making their debut in children's or young adult publishing. Elizabeth Devereaux conducted an interview with me and wrote the section about me and my writing. She is the author of the text below, putting my interview statements into quotes.]
The Hollow Kingdom features more than "monsters." Opening in 19th-century England, it introduces two strong but orphaned sisters, the elder of whom, Kate, is pursued by a goblin who wants to abduct her as his bride. PW's starred review praised the storytelling for its romantic tension and suspenseful twists and turns. But the substance of the story reflects many of Dunkle's interests. "I read all the folklore I can get my hands on, and all the anthropological studies," she says. "An author can't figure out just the pretty elements of an imaginary world. You have to figure out where the food supply comes from, too."
[Referring to the initial
idea behind the writing of The Hollow Kingdom]:
"I was thinking then about monsters and what it says about ourselves if we only create worlds where we are supreme. In the old myths, like Persephone or the Black Bull of Norroway, the alien race very often won. I wanted to create a situation where it is morally acceptable for the monster to win, and to deal with the culture shock that ensues."
Fantasy, she adds, is not escapism. "It is like a laboratory, a way for a writer to pinpoint what he wants to explore. In The Hollow Kingdom, for example, I can focus on what happens when an ugly old man has a relationship with a beautiful young woman. Is there a way for that to work? We find it unacceptable, because we think love depends on chemistry. But it's worth telling our teens that love depends on respect, generosity, self-sacrifice and allowing the other person room for growth."
SWJ: Tell us what inspired this amazing book. Your editor, Reka Simonsen at Henry Holt, told me you started it as a series of letters to your daughters who were in boarding school in Germany at the time. How did that come about, and how long did it take you to compile a whole story?
CD: I've been making up stories my whole life, but it never occurred to me to want to write them down. I always viewed "daydreaming" as a destructive force, something that stole time away from "important" work in spite of my own good intentions, and I used to try to train myself out of it, like nail-biting.
I homeschooled my two teenage daughters for two years, and that really kept me busy. It sounds obvious, but you have to learn a thing yourself before you can teach it to others. I was learning something new every day! We moved to Germany, and in April of 2001, the headmistress of a boarding school a couple of hours away invited the girls for a visit. They decided they wanted to give the school a try, and she suggested they finish out the school year there. One week later, they were out of the house.
For the first time in my adult life, I had no full-time work to do, and my brain promptly took a holiday. At the end of a week, I complained to my husband Joe that I was wasting all my time daydreaming. "Write it down for me," Joe said, so I did, sending each chapter off to the girls in a letter and continuing to work on my writing when they came home in July for their summer break.
Nothing else got done that summer, let me tell you! I was hopelessly addicted to writing. I completed that first draft, polished it a little, and sent it to Holt at the end of September just to see what would happen to it. By November, Reka contacted me about it, and we started work on revisions.
SWJ: This is an amazing tale for a first novel. It's part Regency romance, part fantasy, part historical fiction, with heavy doses of European folk tales. How in the world did you pull all of that together so successfully?
CD: Goodness, thank you!—I don't know how I pulled it together. I'm a bit like the centipede who gets along just fine as long as he doesn't stop to think exactly how he walks. I didn't sit down to pull together all those different elements. They just happened to belong to the story I was fooling around with when Joe told me to write him a book.
But I will say that myth and folklore have always been very important to me. My mother is an English professor who can't bear to own a television set—she sees it as a noisy, loud-mouthed stranger spouting nonsense right in her home—so I wound up reading all the time in order to stave off boredom. She owned books of comparative mythology and folklore, and she bought me the D'Aulaires' wonderful Book of Greek Myths and Norse Gods and Giants when I was very young. Then, in fifth grade, I discovered Lloyd Alexander's magnificent Prydain series, and that got me studying British folklore. So those things just naturally show up in the book. There's a strong taste of the Persephone myth in Hollow Kingdom, for instance. I've always found that story fascinating. And the "good people" frequently live under the Hill or under a lake in British legends. That's where the truce circle comes from, too.
Although I love folklore and myth and still read collections of folktales for pleasure, I don't like to read fantasy novels that much. They often begin too abruptly for me, and I have trouble suspending disbelief. That's why I began my own story as a Jane Austen-style historical novel. I wanted to ease my readers into the fantasy world, starting from something familiar.
SWJ: Tell us about your background. What informs your writing? (Reka told me you are trained as a YA librarian.)
CD: My mother's work is at the bottom of it all, I think. I was completely immersed in it. She used to teach everything from world literature to children's literature, so I grew up discussing archetypes, rhetorical devices, foreshadowing, perspective, etc., at the kitchen table. I was aware of children's literature as its own genre because of her, and I was surrounded by award-winning examples. I have always loved children's literature and preferred to read it above other genres even as an adult. There's something wonderful about it that I just can't explain.
I first got interested in foreign languages in elementary school, again thanks to Lloyd Alexander's work, and I studied Russian and Latin in college. Russia—now there's a culture with an amazingly rich folklore and literature tradition! My work with languages introduced me to other cultures and introduced me to the concept of culture shock, which is very important in The Hollow Kingdom.
In graduate school, I switched out of the Russian program into library science primarily because the library students seemed so nice. I took all the classes to become a children's librarian before taking the required cataloging course. Then I decided to switch my focus to technical services. The head of the children's program was appalled! But cataloging is very structured, and I turned to it as a way to keep those powerful creative tendencies in check. Reading children's books just made the daydreaming worse. In those days, remember, I was always trying to rein it in.
I was a cataloger for nine years at a university library, and I just hated to leave. What a beautiful library, and what wonderful people! My closest friends are there. My family has lived in Germany now for three years. Living as an "outsider" in a foreign country definitely influences my writing, and so does living among the great sites of European culture.
SWJ: Are you working as a librarian now, or do you get to focus all of your attention on writing?
CD: I get to focus all my attention on writing. I'm completely inept as a housewife, but that's what I am now. Reka once complimented me for turning a revised manuscript back to her quickly, but I told her it was either that or do the ironing. Writing is my own form of procrastination—it gives me a reason not to scrub the toilets!
SWJ: What inspired this host of remarkable characters? Are Emily and Kate based on your own daughters?
CD: Not really, although there are a few similarities. I've been creating characters and their dialogue since early childhood. I've grown up studying peoples' actions and word choices and using that background material in my story creation. I always start with a dramatic crisis and two strong characters. Then I sit back and watch them interact.
Dr. Shirley Fitzgibbons taught me in library school that Ursula K. Le Guin's parents were anthropologists and that she brought an anthropologist's eye to her fantasy worlds. That struck me as being a fundamental truth: you can never create a world, you only discover it. I try to think like an anthropologist about my cultures—what do they eat, how do they approach marriage and sex, what do their homes look like, what do they call art, what rituals do they have? And I try to think like a psychologist about my characters—what juicy rationalizations does this one indulge in, and how does he feel about his mother?
SWJ: And out come the residents of the Hollow Kingdom?
CD: Yes, Charm is a good example. This magical snake has no gender or peers. It's had the same job for 9000 years, and it still loves its work. Charm's character, then, came out of a rather dry background study. What traits would someone like that have? Wouldn't it be the ultimate boring work dweeb? From there, I developed Charm's conversation style and mannerisms. People love Charm, but let's face it: we'd avoid talking to that snake at a party!
Much of that "what if" work never needs to concern the reader, but sometimes it comes to light. For instance, I had worked out the characters and interactions of Marak's father and mother as background material for his own character. The last thing I did before I sent the manuscript off to Holt was to rework some of that material into a prologue.
SWJ: Some of the themes are very mature. The main character is pursued relentlessly by the Goblin King for the purpose of forced matrimony. What led you to submit this as a YA novel?
CD: You're right about those mature themes! Part of the book's inspiration was that "anthropologist's" eye, turned this time on folklore themes. The stealing of girls by "the others" has always been a fundamental element of folklore. But thinking logically, why would anyone want to do that? Why bring an outsider into your culture, force a physical relationship on her, and then put this disgruntled woman in charge of raising your own children? And if you are going to do that, what checks and balances will you have in place for it, how do you deal with the stress of it, and how will you socialize these foreigners?
This let me turn my attention to what I think makes a relationship work. Our society pushes the idea of physical attraction as the basis for a relationship, but Marak is sixty-one years old and hopelessly ugly. How can he and Kate find happiness given that they have no chance at that romantic spark? They do it through self-sacrifice and mutual respect; they work to understand each other and learn to value their unique qualities. That's what lasts when physical attraction fades away.
SWJ: There's a lot more to this novel than relationship work.
CD: Yes, the other main reason I tackled this adult theme is that I wanted to create a culture that would produce a serious case of culture shock in the reader. Cultural diversity is an important issue for teens to explore, but a culture isn't really different unless it has some values that are irreconcilable with our own. The goblin practice of abducting women is truly a foreign value. So is their monarchy and their refusal to eat female animals. My goal was not to present these as "better" values—that's not what cultural diversity should be about—but to present them to the reader in a way that allowed them to make sense in their cultural context. We don't have to adopt a foreign culture. If we can just learn to understand it, that's really an important step.
I think that the teenage years are the time to consider what a relationship should be, and there is no bad time to practice cultural tolerance and understanding, so I think that YA literature is the proper place for these mature themes.
SWJ: You've created a male lead who is a hideous monster on the surface, although his compatriots call him "elf pretty," who is compelled to kidnap and marry a human girl and hold her against her will in his underground kingdom, only somewhere in the mix he transforms into a romantic hero. How in the world did you turn the Goblin King into the Handsome Prince?
CD: I didn't turn Marak into a handsome prince: the reader does that for me! Marak is the same from beginning to end; it's Kate's perceptions of him that alter. In fact, because romance novels can wind up informing a teen's ideas of what sex and gender relationships should be, I deliberately set out to make Marak the opposite of a typical romantic hero, and Reka supported that goal and helped me meet it.
Many romantic novels that I've seen—and I admit I don't read them—feature a man who aggressively pursues a woman because she interests him physically; he uses his own attractiveness and physical power to dominate her, render her powerless, and keep her from making a real decision about their relationship. It's all about the allure of sexual power and its ability to cloud rational judgment and overwhelm free will.
Marak, by contrast, has no chance to use his attractiveness to sweep Kate off her feet. The very suggestion that he did so makes Kate laugh. His first wife went mad during their wedding ceremony—how's that for rejection? In spite of his looks, he could be one of those monsters who grabs the heroine and forces her into a passionate embrace, but that's just not Marak's style. He even plays it cool on their wedding night, strolling around with his miserable bride and making light conversation until she dozes off. He doesn't leer at her and demand his rights. He knows she finds him revolting. Their physical relationship is something that he establishes with kindness and tact.
Marak isn't pursuing Kate as a matter of personal taste, either. It's a state decision: he's a King, he needs an heir, and she's the best choice he has. He's quite relieved to discover that he likes her. Although he admires Kate's looks, he makes it clear from the start that it's her mind he really appreciates. He spends most of their courtship looking for opportunities to talk to her. He teases her in order to enjoy her social feints and quick-witted replies, and he praises her smart decisions even though they block his intended goal.
Rather than feeling dominated, Kate grows in emotional strength and confidence as a result of their courtship. Her guardian sends her running away in tears at first, but a few nights of standing toe-to-toe with Marak, and she's ready to take on Roberts with aplomb. Eventually, she makes the cold-blooded, rational decision to agree to the proposed marriage. Marak, in accepting her bargain, is all business in return, including her as a partner in the work he does to fulfill his part of the deal, pointing out the strategic difficulties she puts him in, and allowing her as much latitude as he can. He'd rather praise and admire her than crush her spirit, stating that her son will be a better King than he is because he will inherit his mother's superior traits.
That doesn't mean that Marak is perfect. He has plenty of faults! He's very callous; he has to make an intellectual effort to understand others' feelings and emotions. A seasoned leader, he has a smug tendency to trust his own decisions; he has a quick temper and a tendency to rashness, and he doesn't always master those weaknesses. He also has a somewhat annoying sense of humor, although his teasing of Kate is a sign that he accepts her as "family" rather than as a subordinate. He doesn't normally tease his own subjects.
SWJ: Reka tells me she worked with you on extensive edits of the original manuscript, whittling it by almost half of its original length. Was that hard to do? Tell us about that process.
CD: I had written The Hollow Kingdom as a serial novel, and I understand now why Dickens is so long-winded: serialization really encourages one to pad the text! And in my naiveté, I just assumed that a type-written page was the same as a book page. I was astounded when Reka pointed out that I'd written a 500-page novel! In her first email, she suggested that I cut the book by half, and I told her I would attempt to reach two-thirds. It wound up being sixty percent of its original length. Interestingly enough, the plot and characters didn't change that much; it was simply a question of saying the same thing with less text.
Reka has taught me many valuable lessons, but the most important is brevity. That first time through The Hollow Kingdom, I looked for every single word that could go, and I was fascinated at how much that punched up the book's intensity. You'd be amazed—text can always get shortened. You can tell the same story in 100 words or 100,000. Abridging, then, is really a question of figuring out what to throw away and what to keep in order to make the manuscript both fast-paced and lavish.
I revised The Hollow Kingdom three times for Reka. The first time was just the abridgment of the prose and a few character changes. The next time, we worked on a few plot matters—primarily on fine-tuning that trick of making the reader see Marak as an ugly enemy at the beginning and as a romantic ideal at the end. Reka was the one who pointed out that Marak needed to be uglier than he had been in the first draft. I thought he was already pretty frightful, but my readers were falling for him too soon! He always had his bicolor hair and eyes, but he acquired bowlegs, knotted joints, and a general impression of greater age. My daughters still say that "their" Marak looks like the first one. The third time through was quite minor; I don't think we even called it a revision. It primarily aimed at tightening and abridging further certain scenes that were still a little slow.
Working with Reka has been a real joy. She's a very involved and collaborative editor, and I trust her instincts. When she says there's a problem with something in a manuscript, I know that that problem really exists. It's my job to figure out how to fix it, and it's her job to react in the place of the reader and let me know whether I've succeeded. Somehow, she manages to make that process both rewarding and fun.
SWJ: Holt will be publishing the sequel to The Hollow Kingdom, Close Kin, in Fall 2004 and you're working on another historic fantasy novel for them as well. I know you're living in Germany now where your husband is an engineer with the U.S. Army and your daughters are still in school there. What else is in store for you?
CD: Actually, Joe is a civilian engineer with the Air Force. Sure, I know—that isn't much of a difference! We'll be here for another two years, and then we'll most likely return to Texas. Our daughters will probably stay behind until they graduate. That will be hard! Right now, we see them at least every three weeks. I'm not really prepared to lose them for months at a time.
I'm enjoying my interaction with the military and their spouses here. I'm involved with the local Officers' Spouses' Club, and because my husband is the deputy of a squadron commander, I get the chance to see what obligations fall to the commanders' spouses. The military spouses that I've met here are amazing. These women are ready for anything! They've lived all over the world, and they have to be very self-reliant because their husbands can be gone for months. At the same time, they are very outgoing and socially skilled because they have to make friends quickly wherever they go. Many of them move every year!
The spouses discovered that they have a writer in their midst, and they started putting together projects with me immediately: programs for their children through the Girl Scouts and the school and a presentation to the local book club. Find a resource and use it—explore a new opportunity—that's what these women are all about.