***Edited to add: I am extending the Giveaway until Saturday, June 16, 2012***
Today I am very excited to bring you an interview with Kate Milford. She is the author of one of my favorite books of all time, The Boneshaker, and her newest novel, The Broken Lands, will be released this September by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In addition, she is working on self publishing some really interesting companion novellas, which she is collectively calling The Arcana Project. The first novella, The Kairos Mechanism, is currently a project on Kickstarter (please check it out!) Needless to say, Mrs. Milford is a very busy person, and I am honored that she took the time to answer not just a few, but all of the questions I sent her. Also, make sure to check out the giveaway at the end of the interview for a chance to win a copy of The Boneshaker!
When did you first decide you wanted to be an author? When did you start writing and when did you finish your first book?
Well, my mother still has the poster from when I was “writer of the week” in first grade, and I claimed I was considering that as a future career, so I guess we can date it to then. I know I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t always know what I wanted to write. I wrote my first book about six years ago while I was really sort of struggling and in-between projects (I had been focusing on writing plays for a long time, but I was trying very hard to write a screenplay at that point). It took a full round of revision on that book and writing and revising another (the one that eventually became The Boneshaker) before I started to feel like maybe I could be good at it, but fiction immediately felt like a better fit for me; I like description too much for plays and dialogue too much for screenplays.
I found this post from you blog on your (lack of an) organizational process to be very funny as well as informative. Is there anything else you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Yes. I hate planning books out in advance. I’m dreadful at synopses. I always sort of feel like it takes about halfway through writing a book before I really understand what I need to know to figure out how it ends. Unfortunately, for completely understandable reasons, this approach seems to make everyone who isn’t me twitchy, so I’m learning to write synopses without grumbling (much). I guess, whether or not you actually utilize any sort of plan to write your books, it turns out that being able to plan is a critical skill, even if you’re only doing it to show agents and editors that you can.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work? Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?
I have no idea who I’d say my favorite author is, but one that was a huge influence growing up was Susan Cooper. I read The Dark is Rising like twice a year. It has such amazing atmosphere. But I love the way in which she took folklore and made it her own, constructing her own mythology while still allowing the source material to be (by the end of the series) recognizable.
I've noticed that a lot of the books you talk about really loving or having inspired you on your blog were books you've listened to in addition to/rather than having read. Likewise, the oral tradition of storytelling and stories within music feature prominently in your books. I preferred reading your books aloud and hearing them to reading them myself; there is a cadence to your prose that just seems to beg to be read aloud. Is this something that you have intentionally done?
Wow, that’s a great observation and a great question. You know, I actually haven’t listened to that many, but I have a particular fondness for ones that I’ve listened to; The Golden Compass springs to mind—the audio version of that one is SO GOOD. But most of the other books I’ve listened to are ones my husband’s read me during road trips (that’s how I discovered Chris Moriarty and Naomi Novik—Nathan read them and loved them and I wasn’t getting to them quickly enough, in his opinion). I adore that he does that, but it’s never occurred to me before that there might be a connection between my love of listening to Nathan read might have to do with my love of oral storytelling. I do love poetry and language—maybe the reason they have an “out-loud” cadence has to do with all those years trying to write plays?
Both of your books have what I would almost call reverence for storytellers. They are considered to be very important people for both the story as well as the communities to which they belong. You are clearly a storyteller yourself, but was/were there specific storyteller(s)from your youth that inspired that reverence?
My mom is an amazing storyteller, and so is my dad. My grandmother also used to tell all of us grandkids stories about the adventures of moonbeams who explored the galaxy. She used to make them up as she went along, the difficulty of which I have only recently come to appreciate. Also I have three best college friends who I still keep in pretty close touch with, and one of them (I’m looking at you, Holly) always used to make us tell bedtime stories when we’d sleep over. In fact, she still does it when we get together.
One thing I’ve learned: telling a story and making it up as you go along—that is flipping hard. I have exactly two stories I can tell aloud, and it’s only because I know them so well that I dare do it. I absolutely lack the capability to tell a story I’m making up on the spot, or to tell one I haven’t practiced. It’s a skill that has to be developed, and it’s one that used to be much more widely cultivated. But I’ll tell you this—even though I only have two stories in my repertoire, when I tell either one to a group of kids, they are spellbound, and I’m not sure that’s due to my oral storytelling ability. I think it’s that it’s a means of experiencing a story that’s completely different to what most of them have experienced before.
I've learned from your blog and the Kickstarter page that you work in an indie bookstore. Do you think that also working at the sales end of the book industry -- and interacting daily with customers -- has changed or informed the way you write or present your writing?
It has a little bit, because I get to talk to parents and to kids about what draws them to books and what puts them off. Unfortunately, what I’ve learned has less to do with the way that I write and more about what I think about presentation. I say unfortunately, because I have very little control over how my writing is presented. I think the two most important things I’ve learned are that boys actually will read about girls, as long as the books don’t look like they’re only meant for girls, and that there’s a big disconnect between book designers and book readers.
I’ve been really fortunate in that the people who’ve been involved in designing the books I’ve written have made tremendously smart and savvy choices. I see so many amazing books sit on the shelf because the cover says nothing about the book, or the cover tells half-the book-buying population that it isn’t for them, or the cover looks like a ton of other covers on the shelf. I’ve been very, very lucky.
But the good news is this: it is possible to write books for both boys and girls. This is what I want to do: I want to write about characters that anyone can enjoy, and anyone can look up to, no matter what gender they are. And that can absolutely be done, and I know that from what I see kids pick up off the shelf and what they tell me about their own reading.
All of your female leads are fiercely brave, smart and independent in their own ways while being completely different from each other. What were your thoughts while creating Natalie, Miranda, Illy and Jin? Did you set out to write role models or just interesting characters?
I just wanted to write good characters. I’m so glad that you included Miranda and Illy in that list, though. I adore both of them. You’ll see some fun moments with Miranda in The Kairos Mechanism, and she has some exciting things in store for her. I want her to be able to keep her girliness even as she learns not to let it hold her back from adventuring with Natalie. And Ilana Ponzi—she didn’t get nearly as much time in The Broken Lands as she deserved, but I love her so much. I think I might have to come back to her. I guess the whole thing is, I like to write characters that I can love, and that I think others can love. And I do love the boys as much as the girls—I adored Sam and Constantine and even Mike, who only shows up briefly in The Broken Lands.
I guess part of the challenge with the girls is that, when you’re writing historical fiction, you can fall into the trap of thinking that you have to either work within historical expectations or actively try to subvert them. But nobody’s personality is so simple that they’re completely either one thing or the other. A girl can be brave, smart and independent and still be a girl—by which I mean, Miranda can still love her dresses and hate to get them dirty even as she becomes more adventuresome. She doesn’t have to give that part of herself up. Jin can be independent and insist on taking care of herself and still decide to let Sam through her defenses—I sort of think she never lets them down, she just maybe lets him through. She doesn’t have to give up the part of her that wants never to have to ask for help. She just discovers that, for once, she wants to help someone else.
Random, only semi-related personal observation: I like being a girl and wearing heels, but I also love muay thai, and when I used to train I felt like my bruises were badges of honor. It might not have looked sexy to anybody else that I would walk around in dresses and heels even with splotches of purple on my shins, but I loved it.
Well, certainly he’s inspired in part by Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson, in that he’s a black blues guitarist who tells of having met the Devil at the crossroads. But he’s also inspired by my own brothers, both of whom are brilliant, mostly self-taught guitar players and who are capable of speaking with incredible eloquence through their music. My youngest brother has written songs inspired by Tom, and I think of him every time I write about how Tom sings. My older little brother is directly responsible for the fact that the string Tom gives Natalie is an E, that he wears the nails on one hand long for picking, and that he uses a bottle-neck slide.
Who is your favorite character to write?
Wowsers, that’s tough. Part of the reason that I know I can generate more novellas for the Arcana project is that I love them all so much. Oddly, though, some of my favorites to write are the villains. I particularly loved writing the scenes between Limberleg and Jack in The Boneshaker, and I adored writing High Walker in The Broken Lands. There’s something about writing villains that is just so much fun. And they’re challenging, too—some people don’t even like calling the antagonists of a book “villains”—but I love the difficulty of writing characters that are both entirely evil and entirely justified in their worldviews.
Both The Broken Lands and The Boneshaker hint at and include some pretty scary topics for middle grade/youngish young adult books -- death, illness, rape, abject poverty. They explore the ideas of good and evil but still have a very real level of moral ambiguity in most of the characters. I think it is both bravely and beautifully done. Again, is this something that you intentionally set out to do? Or did the stories just evolve that way? Have you ever considered (or been asked to consider) toning it down?
Another really good question. They definitely just evolve that way, and my editor at Clarion, Lynne Polvino, is outrageously, wonderfully, brilliantly supportive. The Broken Lands had a bit more iffiness than The Boneshaker (I think), and I will admit that when I submitted it to Lynne and got the first copy back with editorial marks, I went straight to the first scene when Jin talks about her past. I was terrified that there would be all kinds of notes about cooling it on the implied childhood horrors, but Lynne was way more concerned with my crummy first-draft writing than with the potential dangers of what I was writing crummily. She is really amazing that way, and neither she nor my agent has ever asked me to tone it down.
I also held my breath when the youngest of my beta-readers read the manuscript. They’re (well, they were at the time) 9 year-old twins who read the book with their father at bedtime. I was very, very curious (read: panicked) to know how they reacted to Jin’s past, and how their dad reacted to the possibility of having to field questions about it. But it turns out I did something sorta right: I was vague enough about what had actually happened to her and specific enough about the foot-binding that was also part of her childhood that the girls focused on the trauma of the binding more than anything else. So I guess I learned this lesson: that it is possible to layer the dreadful stuff so that older readers can find it, and younger readers can focus on other, maybe slightly-less dreadful stuff that’s a bit more out in the open.
I guess, ultimately, the thing is this: everything that’s happened to any of my characters has been (I think) justified by the world in which they lived. I didn’t set out to write a girl with Jin’s specific history, for instance; but as I researched the world in which Jin would’ve grown up, her past emerged. Then I had to make sure that I did enough research to do that past justice.
Actually, I did tone one thing down that I can think of: those same beta-readers, when they read The Kairos Mechanism, thought that I had made an outright statement about what was going to happen to Natalie’s mother, and I hadn’t intended to be explicit about that in the novella. I had only intended to describe Natalie’s fears. So I did need to correct that, but it wasn’t because I didn’t think the kids could handle bad news; it was just because I hadn’t intended for them to read into it what they did.
Kids can handle an incredible amount of angst. They already think the stakes for everything are life-and-death. I don’t worry about freaking them out, but I don’t want to freak them out gratuitously. I guess that’s the short answer.
Both books seem to deal a lot with the ideas of family -- biological and created -- and community and the different ways these ties influence who we are, who we become, and what choices we make when we come to the different crossroads in life -- physical and metaphorical. Is there a specific message in your novels that you want readers to grasp?
Absolutely—well, let me say that I absolutely intend to say specific things about families, at least. It didn’t start out as a specific goal; it arose naturally from the fact that I grew up in a family that was close and loving and supportive while still having its challenges. But now I’ve discovered that I love writing families. One of the things that happens frequently in kids’ literature is that the kid characters have to be separated from their parents in order to have their adventures. I really love challenging the characters to have their adventures while still being part of families that care deeply for them. Families come in all sorts, and the relationships that bind them can be totally different, but they don’t prevent adventure. In fact, they can be part of the most wonderful adventures—at least in my experience. But they aren’t always what you think they are.
Both The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands have such an incredible sense of place and time. Likewise, the folk-lore/mythology/cultural memory within your books feels very familiar; comforting even when scary. The fact and fiction is often so entwined that I have difficulty pulling them apart. (It blew me away when I found out the gingerfoot/limberleg thing was real!) How much of the books is realistic and how much is your own invention?
That depends. I guess each book is different. All I can tell you is, the way I write books tends to be that I read, and I read, and I read, and then I make lists of things I’ve found that I think are cool or interesting or inspiring: historical things or mathematical ideas or (lately) even computing concepts. Then, little by little, the story comes together out of the bits and pieces.
I don’t have hard-and-fast rules about the ratio of accuracy to invention, except that I don’t like to ignore fact in ways that might cause someone to think I’d just made a mistake, and I don’t like to do anything that would diminish the book or the story if a reader was inspired to go and learn more about the historical moment or personality. For instance, one of the only real historical characters in my current books is the newspaperman, Ambrose, who’s based on Ambrose Bierce. It’s not tough to figure out who he is when you read the book, and while I’ve allowed him to be the character I needed him to be for The Broken Lands, I tried to remain true to my understanding of him as a person and a writer. On the other hand, I did allow the historical gingerfoot to be more of an inspiration than a historical fact in The Boneshaker, and I did adapt a couple of real-world incidents and items for The Broken Lands (although I did feel like I needed to explain in the author’s note of The Broken Lands that I did that on purpose). So I guess it varies. I did feel a different level of responsibility for accuracy toward certain elements of Jin and Liao’s waidan in The Broken Lands, primarily because I was drawing on Chinese history and heritage and I didn’t feel comfortable messing with it in the same way I mess with other things (although I still messed with it a bit). On the other hand, I was perfectly at ease inventing a game played with prayer cards in which one character wins a round by playing cephalophores (saints that carry their own heads) against stylites (saints standing on pillars), with the idea that a thrown head could knock a guy off a pillar. Both kinds of saints are real, in the sense that there are actual saints depicted that way in real-world images, but the game is purely invented.
I did a series of school visits earlier this week in which I worked with the students to find weird historical things and use them as springboards to stories, and I said that I thought it was important to be able to let history inspire you, but then be able to let it go completely in order to find your story. Then you can go back and decide where you need accuracy and where you need imagination.
Finally, let's discuss your Kickstarter project. What made you, an agented and published author, decide to experiment with self-publishing? How has it been different from your usual process? What have been the biggest (or hardest learned) lessons of the experiment thus far?
Part of it is that I love when, as a reader, I discover connections between books, or find extra stories in a world that help to illuminate a story I’m immersed in. That’s what I want to do with the Arcana Project. I decided to do it myself because (bless them) publishers aren’t quite quick or agile enough for this kind of thing. Plus, since I’m only answerable to myself, I’m able to look at these novellas as a way to tie together books that might potentially be released by different publishers.
Every book I’ve got coming out, from The Broken Lands to the two books I just sold for 2014, is related in some way to the rest. Some, like The Broken Lands, are related specifically to Natalie Minks and Jack the Drifter; others are related only by virtue of being set in the world and sharing characters. (For instance, in The Left-Handed Fate, which is set in 1813, you’ll meet Jin’s uncle Liao as an eight year-old boy, as well as his father and half-sister). I kind of never stop thinking about what they’re all up to, and when. So the Arcana novellas can act as bridges between books, in addition to simply providing extra stories. The Kairos Mechanism, for instance, helps to explain how The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands are related.The two novellas I’m planning to release alongside the two 2014 books (The Left-Handed Fate and Greenglass House) will help readers to discover more connections: the connections between those two books, which take place in the same city (Nagspeake) in different eras, as well as their connections to The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands.
This kind of thing, while obviously a good idea for me personally and for the worlds and the readers, is going to involve cross-promotion between books that (in the case of the two 2014 titles) are going tobe released by different publishers. I think this is going to turn out to be good for everyone, but I don’t expect the publishers themselves to go wild about the idea. I don’t expect them to hate it, either; I just figure they’ve got enough going on promoting their own books without taking a chance getting involved with a project like this. I’m going to have to prove that it works. And I’m happy to do that.
The other benefit to doing it on my own is being able to do cool things like the reader-illustrated editions, and being able to do equally cool things like offering those editions free or pay-what-you-like. I don’t expect I’ll make much money off this project, and that’s okay. I’m hoping it will put me on the radar of tons of new readers and maybe that it will make enough money to do the next volume in the series without having to rely on crowd-funding.
But speaking of crowd-funding—the Kickstarter Campaign ends on June 9th! Until that time, even though we’ve met our funding goal, we can still raise money. At $7500, I can bump up the kid artists’ paychecks; at $9500 I’ll feel comfortable committing to the second volume of the series, and at $13000, I can commit to another reader-illustrated edition for that second volume. So please, folks who are reading, please go here and become a backer. There are SO MANY awesome rewards for backers, too, and I want you all to have one.
Oh, and I forgot—the toughest thing? It is really awkward to spend two months asking people for money. I am trying to maintain a modicum of elegance about the whole thing, to avoid being spammy or pester-y, and to avoid making people feel obligated. It is very strange, and slightly off-putting. But on the other hand, people have come out of the woodwork in support of the project, and that makes me feel better.
Kate Milford is the author of The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and The Kairos Mechanism. Originally from Annapolis, MD, Kate now lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband Nathan and their dogs, Ed and Sprocket. She has written for stage and screen and is a frequent travel columnist for the Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture (www.nagspeake.com). When not immersed in Americana, folklore, and obscure and odd history, she spends her time messing about with photography, getting excited about bourbon and rye, and wishing she were as cool as Nora Charles. You can also find her on twitter, goodreads, or her website, The Clockwork Foundry.
NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!
Kate is giving away one paperback copy of The Boneshaker. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post. For additional entries, tweet about the giveaway or mention it on facebook and post the URL in the comments section. Giveaway closes on Saturday, June 16, 2012, the last day to contribute to Kate's Kickstarter Campaign. Winner will be chosen via a random number generator (ie, my beautiful TI-89) and announced Sunday, June 17, 2012. You can also enter to win an advanced copy of The Kairos Mechanism by visiting the GoodReads page. Good Luck!