Saturday, June 27, 2009

Interview with Ellen Jensen Abbott

Today we are thrilled to present an interview with Ellen Jensen Abbott, author of the debut novel, Watersmeet. Ellen is a member of the Class of 2K9.

Here’s a little bit about WATERSMEET (Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books):

From her birth, Abisina has been an outcast—for the color of her eyes and skin, and for her lack of a father. Only her mother’s status as the village healer has kept her safe. But when a mythic leader arrives, Abisina’s life is ripped apart. She escapes alone to try to find the father and the home she has never known. In a world of extremes, from the deepest prejudice to the greatest bonds of duty and loyalty, Abisina must find her own way and decide where her true hope lies.

Welcome, Ellen. I’m so excited for the opportunity to chat with you about your book. All of us Slushies are as of yet unpublished in the children’s lit. world, so we’re just dying to know:

As of April 1st you are officially a published author…how does it feel?

Thrilling—to hold that solid, glossy, real book in my hands. Overwhelming—to realize that I am so central to the process of getting the word out about my book. I didn't realize until publication neared that I needed an MBA in marketing! Unbelievable—I walked into a Barnes and Noble recently and saw a poster of myself. A poster. Of me. How did this happen?

Talk a bit about your journey to publication. How did it all start? How long did it take you? We all know it’s hard to get published; give us some insights into how you got there.

It was yen years from the moment I started my first novel to a book arriving on my doorstep. The book I sold was the second book I wrote and submitted for publication; the first did not sell. Key to the publication process for me was the networking I did. As everyone will tell you, you have to write well and have a solid manuscript to offer. But I found that it also really helped to meet people in the industry, learn from them, and develop relationships with them. I attended the Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature One-on-One Conference three different times. While there I met two critical mentors, the woman who became my agent, and the woman who became my publisher. From each of these four women, I learned both about the business and about writing. I made a point of staying in touch with each over the years as I continued to hone my skills. When I had a manuscript ready, I had people to send it to who knew me. I also felt like I had allies out there—folks I could contact who were in the business and would answer questions and encourage me when I got despondent. My advice is to make a point of meeting those people at conferences with whom you feel a connection, whose work you admire, or who you respect. Get their cards. Follow up with a quick e-mail. Stay in touch—not so much that you are annoying, but enough to keep you on their radar.

From the first few pages of Watersmeet you plunge the reader into a bleak and dangerous world. We can feel it, smell it, (almost) taste it along with your MC, Abisina. Can you give all us fantasy writers out there a few tips on world-building?

World building is the work and joy of writing fantasy. At times it is frustrating because you have worked out a complex plot point only to realize that the mountains you had to have in the last scene now prevent you doing what you want in the next! My advice is to go insane with details—and then cut lots of them out. You need to be familiar with all the particulars of your world to give it verisimilitude, but if you weigh it down with too much, your reader can get lost in minutia. Record keeping is key for me, too. I kept a calendar of my main character's quest, so that I knew how the weather would be changing as the days passed. I also marked phases of the moon so that it wouldn't be full in each scene. I also kept a map both of villages and the land as a whole so that I always knew which way Abisina, the main character, was headed, where the sun would be, and what she would see on the horizon. My world is pre-industrial and forested, so I keep tree books, bird books, animal books on hand. I researched survival guides, herbal remedies, and pre-industrial economies. Even a little reading in these areas gave me all kinds of ideas that translated into plot progression or details that gave more depth to my world.

Take us through a typical day in your life as a writer. How do you organize your time?

Ah! How I long for words like "typical" and "organized" in my life! The truth is that my writing life at the moment is catch as catch can. For the last two years, I have been teaching high school English. I'm not full time, but I am 80%. Think grading, grading, grading. I also have two children who play sports, take music lessons and go to a school that requires a lot of parent involvement. Then there's the mundane stuff: paying bills, cleaning the house, feeding the chickens. (Yeah—we have a tiny flock of chickens!) I've learned not to look for huge chunks of time for writing. If I wait until then, I will simply never write. I grab an hour here and an hour there—between when I get home from work and before my kids get home from school; on a free period at school; after the family has gone to bed. On weekends I take a bit more time, leaving the house for a cafĂ© so that my husband and kids don't feel tempted to interrupt me. Summers are heaven! And I am cutting back on my teaching next year so I can find more time.

What are you working on now?

The sequel, of course! It's great to be back in the same world, working with characters I am familiar with. At the same time, it's really exciting that these familiar folk are facing new problems and challenges.

Because we are a critique group, the Slushbusters help each other improve our writing and support each other through successes and failures. How have other writers in your community done the same for you?

One of the worst aspects of my ridiculously busy schedule is that I don't have time for a critique group. I can’t even scrape together the time I need to do my own writing! I have been in critique groups before and I know how valuable it can be to get feedback. I have just teamed up with another member of the Class of 2k9, which is a group of authors debuting YA and MG novels in 2009. (Check us out at Joy Preble, my partner, lives in Texas and I live in Pennsylvania, but we are both writing sequels to our fantasy novels. We've agreed NOT to read each other's first book. It's killing me because I really, really want to read her book (Dreaming Anastasia) but by being a new reader to her second book, I can see more clearly where there is too much or too little back-story about the first book. She can do the same for me. She recently read my first two chapters and helped me rethink some of the narrative style. I think readers are critical, in part, to remind you of what you know. She marked one spot saying, "I'm hearing you here instead of your MC." Duh! How many times have I given the same advice to authors or students—but here I was making the same mistake! That one comment sent me back to the whole MS as I realized there were loads of places I could do more with my character's voice.

What is the question you never get asked but are always dying to answer? And then, of course, give us the answer.

I really want to be asked what it feels like to win a Newbery Award! And as soon as I know the answer, I'll let you know!

And when that happens, I'll be one of the first to ask you! Ellen, it's been a pleasure chatting with you. Thanks for sharing. Best of luck with the sequel!


Sarah said...

Thanks, Ellen and Lisa, for the interview!

Ellen,I loved hearing how you worked writing time into your day. I remembered that you were a teacher and wondered how you found the time...

Tess said...

What a fantastic interview -- really full of good advice and insight. Plus, the book sounds very interesting. Will have to check it out....

Lisa said...

Definitely check out the book. As the cover suggests, it's a bit dark and bleak, but oh so rewarding! And the writing is lovely...all the Slushies know what a stickler I am for beautiful writing.