What are your favorite childrens books?
The Westing Game, His Dark Materials, 21 Balloons, Half Magic, The Shining, The Hound of the Baskervilles
I dont believe theres any such thing as a childrens book. A good story is a good story. Its that simple. I find The Westing Game just as entertaining now as I did when I was 10 years old. Ive even been known to thumb through Dr. Seuss when Im at the bookstore.
Who are your favorite childrens authors?
Phillip Pullman, Stephen King, Jonathan Stroud, Lemony Snicket
Ive always liked my fiction dark and disturbing. By the time I turned twelve, Id read every Stephen King book I could get my hands on. Im afraid it didnt do much for my mental health. I still check behind the clothes in my closet before I go to sleep every night, and Im convinced that one of my bathrooms is haunted.
Who or what was your biggest influence in deciding to become a writer?
I started writing stories in the third grade, but my subject matter tended to be a little bizarre. My teachers were rarely amused to read my accounts of man-eating shrubs or haunted broom closets, and most of them thought I was very odd. (And badly behaved, but thats another story.) Then, I landed in a class taught by a woman named Patricia Berne. At first, my classmates and I were convinced she was insane. Though Mrs. Berne appeared quite pretty, prim, and proper, she would routinely jump up on her desk when she wanted to make a point, and on occasion, she snorted like a pig for emphasis.
Aside from certain members of my family who share my sick sense of humor, Mrs. Berne was the first person to enjoy my stories, and she always encouraged me to write more. But most importantly, she taught me that its good to be a little strange. Nothing could be more boring than being normal.
What inspired you to write your latest book?
A few months before I began writing Kiki Strike, I read in the morning newspaper that a huge hole had been discovered on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Of course, I immediately ran outside to take a look. It seemed that in the middle of the night, the front lawn of a nursing home had collapsed, revealing a hidden room deep beneath the ground. From what I gathered, the room was more than a hundred years old and still furnished with chairs and tables.
After seeing the hole for myself, I grew fascinated by underground New York. I read everything I could find on the subject and learned there were secret rooms beneath many of the buildings in Chinatown, some of them linked by old tunnels. I wondered what it would be like to explore the world beneath the streets of Manhattan, and since my day job prevented me from doing it myself, I invented the Irregulars to do it for me.
Whats the best thing youve ever written?
Im still quite fond of the first story I ever wrote, which was titled The Alien Mine.
If I recall correctly, it was the first in a series of stories that I wrote about finding strange things hidden deep in the forest that surrounded the house in the mountains of North Carolina where I grew up.
Is there any particular ritual involved in your creative process?
I dont have a lucky pen or a charmed coffee cup, if thats what youre asking. Im proud to say that I owe my first book to something I call butt power. Butt power is the ability to sit on your butt for hours at a time, staring at a computer screen. Lots of writing teachers will blather on an on about talent and technique. But there are plenty of talented people who have never managed to finish a single paragraph. Thats because the real secret to writing a book is butt power. It doesnt matter how talented you are, if you sit still long enough, youre bound to have a few good ideas.
What is your favorite color?
Black, of course.
What are your least and favorite foods?
When you grow up in the rural South, you cant be a picky eater. Ive been served squirrel, bear, snake, and alligatorand Ive enjoyed them all. In fact, Ill eat almost anything, and Ive had numerous bouts of food poisoning to prove it. The only food I refuse to touch is eggs. (Which are really quite foul when you think about it, no pun intended.)
When I was younger, I had a rather sadistic nanny who had a freakish fondness for egg salad sandwiches. She served them for lunch almost every single day. Rather than starve, I swallowed chunks without chewing, then ran to the bathroom to gargle with mouthwash. I survived, but to this day, I cant bear to be in the same room as an egg salad sandwich.
Do you have a pet?
I dont have a pet at the moment, but I had plenty growing up, including three goats, a ferret, several dogs, two hamsters, and about a dozen cats. All of them met tragic ends that are still too painful to discuss.
What subject did you most enjoy at school . . . and least?
Until I reached high school, English was my favorite subject. But once I took my first chemistry lesson, I never looked back. I absolutely loved the experiments. For me, there was no greater thrill than strapping on a pair of goggles and playing with toxic chemicals. Its not surprising when you consider that chemistry is somewhat of a family obsession. I have several uncles who spent their youth inventing ways to blow things up. They even taught me a trick or two.
On the other hand, Ive always loathed spelling. I still cant spell, but neither could Thomas Jefferson, so I figure Im in pretty good company.
What is your favorite film?
Im a big fan of Tim Burton, and I love all of his movies, particularly Peewees Big Adventure, which I consider an unparalleled classic. However, if I had to choose just one film as my favorite, I would probably pick Rushmore. I think Max and Ananka, the main character in Kiki Strike, share a great deal in common and would probably get along splendidly.
If you hadnt been an author, what would you have been?
Over the years, Ive had plenty of terrible jobs. Ive been a cleaning lady, a corporate executive, and the assistant to a rather cranky Polish dentist. But Ive always wanted to be an archaeologist.
My father loved archaeology, and when I was a kid, he would take the family to visit the ruins of ancient cities around the world. At some point during each vacation, my younger brother and I would disappear and attempt to break into the tombs and temples that tourists werent allowed to enter. Luckily, we were both small enough to wiggle our way past a surprising number of gates. We saw things so amazing that I still dream about them at nightthings youll never see on any TV show or in any book.
How long does it take you to write a book?
About two years.
How long have you been writing books?
About two years.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Everywhere. Newspapers, magazines, books, PBS, snippets of conversation I overhear on the street. Theres some pretty fascinating stuff going on if youre willing look for it. Most of the fantastic things in Kiki Strike are actually based (sometimes loosely) on fact. There was a giant hole in the middle of Manhattan. There is a castle in the Hudson River. There are tunnels underneath New York. Rats will eat almost anything.
I love books about witches and demons as much as the next person, but sometimes the real world is far stranger than fantasy. As far as Im concerned, no ones invented a magical realm thats any more fascinating than New York City.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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