Interviewed by Monika Davies
Gail Carson Levine has been a prolific children’s author since she published her debut novel, the widely beloved Ella Enchanted, a 1998 Newbery Honor Book. She has since published a remarkable collection of novels for young readers, including Dave at Night, an ALA Notable Book and Best Book for Young Adults, Ever, Fairest, The Wish, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, The Fairy’s Return, A Tale of Two Castles, and several others. She is also the author of two picture books, Betsy Who Cried Wolf and Betsy Red Hoodie, the nonfiction Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly, as well as her newest, Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It, False Apology Poems.
Gail has a keen sense for what will resonate with young readers, and her characteristic wit and humour are key aspects of all of her published works. She is also a great encourager and supporter of budding authors, and her blog is a robust compilation of advice for writers young and old.
Having grown up immersed in the imaginative and colorful worlds of Gail’s novels, I was delighted to have the chance to interview her via email from her home in Brewster, New York.
Who were the writers you admired most when you first began writing? Which authors most excite you now as a reader?
I began writing for children when I was thirty-nine, and I read most of the Newbery bookcase at my local library. I especially loved Joan Aiken and E. L. Konigsburg. At the moment, oddly enough, I’m a full-time student going for a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry, and poetry is what I’m reading. I admire Sharon Olds, Ted Kooser, James Wright, Robert Hayden, Lisel Mueller, and many more.
Do you have your reading audience in mind when you sit down to write?
Mostly I write to tell myself a story, but if I’m losing my way an imaginary reader gets bored and rings an alarm bell. Then I have to reconsider what I’m doing.
You’ve discussed on your blog that part of your writing process is to keep extensive notes for all of your stories, and if your “books were people, notes would be their journals.” Can you talk a little bit about how you structure your notes in terms of world building? For instance, how do you keep track of invented languages in your novels?
For the languages, I write a glossary, and I keep a list of information I have to remember about the world or the characters. But mostly I just write about possibilities in rambling paragraphs, and often what I don’t use I forget. Occasionally I’ve picked a spot at random in my notes to see what I was thinking and then I’ve wondered, Why didn’t I do anything with that? Mine isn’t an organized approach!
Why do you write for children? Is there something in particular that draws you to writing for a younger audience?
I write for children because my most important reading experiences took place when I was a child, when reading provided privacy in the bedroom I shared with my older sister. I write back to the child I was, who read for escape.
Many of your novels have a fairytale foundation, but have been built into engaging stories that offer a twist on the original narrative. You’ve discussed on your blog why you often write stories based on fairytales—could you expand on why you think these stories resonate with your readers so much?
I don’t have much to add. Maybe my interpretations connect with children because I include feelings and thoughts a lot, and my readers recognize themselves in the interior lives of my characters.
Your stories are consistently quite funny, and you have a knack for pulling the right amount of humour out of any given scene. How important is humour to your storytelling?
Humor is important to me! Life is chock full of jokes, some ironic, some purely funny. I try not to miss any of them. Naturally, they work their way into my writing.
In your experience, is it possible to feel too much sympathy for one of your characters?
Sure. I know I’ve been guilty of this, but I can’t remember with which characters. If we fall too much in love with important characters, we may not let bad things happen to them, because we’ll suffer too. We have to harden our hearts, though, and challenge them and make them miserable, and, sometimes, even kill them. I also sometimes get too interested in secondary characters. In drafts of Fairest, for example, I was fascinated by Queen Ivi and gave her scenes that slowed down the action. My editor had to pull me back from the edge of creating a lumbering story.
One of your upcoming publications is Stolen Magic, the sequel to A Tale of Two Castles. What do you enjoy most about stepping on familiar ground and revisiting characters? Which writing process is easier: the first book or its sequel?
The first book is easier, because everything is fresh and I’m not worrying about repeating myself. I wanted to write a sequel to A Tale of Two Castles because I love the three characters who continue into the next book: the dragon Meenore, the ogre Count Jonty Um, and my heroine the human girl Elodie. I’d like to write more, although mysteries are challenging for me, and this second book took a long time to write. Mysteries seem to beg for series.
You’ve written a wonderful guide for young (and older!) writers called Writing Magic, and you have plans to release another guide based partly on your blog entitled Writer to Writer in early 2015. Your main mantra to young writers is to “save what you write”—is there a personal anecdote behind this piece of advice?
I guess. I grew up in a small New York City apartment where, to save space, my mother threw out everything that wasn’t essential. As a result I have few mementos of my childhood and almost nothing of my creative acts.
You are quite active on your blog, responding to comments and questions from both fans and aspiring writers. You’ve built a very inclusive and safe space for your readers to discuss their writing. Has maintaining your blog become an important part of your daily routine? What effect would you say this has had on your writing?
I’m so glad you characterize it that way! I was hoping it would be safe and inclusive. Depending on the day, I do check the blog a few times or not at all. It doesn’t require constant monitoring because the people who post take their cue from the tone of other comments. I’ve had to delete comments only twice, once because someone was selling something, and once because a comment was unkind. It helps me to write about writing, reminds me of the issues I need to pay attention to, and sometimes a comment will make me see an aspect of writing in a fresh way. Plus, recently, I appealed to readers on the blog for help coming up with a subtitle for Writer to Writer. And they came through. The subtitle will be From Think to Ink, contributed by Eliza.
You generally write fiction, but your most recent publication is Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It, a sassy and amusing collection of poems riffing on the “false apology” style of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” poem. How important do you think it is for writers to try and experiment with different types of writing?
It’s important if the writer hankers for new genres. If, however, she continues to be excited by the work she’s been doing, if it still feels fresh to her, if she doesn’t need a break, there is no shame in staying the course. We work through issues in our writing, and sometimes that takes a long while, in some cases a lifetime. I’ve been drawn in by poetry, and I want to write more of it, and I loved my forays into nonfiction in Writing Magic and the forthcoming Writer to Writer, but I’m not abandoning fiction for kids. On the other hand, I doubt I’ll ever write fiction for adults or a memoir because neither feel congenial to me. Having said that, who knows?
Monika Davies is in her final semester of the UBC Creative Writing program and has been writing stories since she could define exposition. She is a co-founder of Outwrite, the reading series for BFA Creative Writing students at the University of British Columbia.