After Amazon named The Book of Fatal Errors one of its best books of the month for July, they sent me some interview questions for their site. The questions were short but my answers were loooooong -- too long for Amazon's purposes! After trimming them down, I decided to put the extended play version here, for folks who want to know a little more of the story behind the story.
You have written picture books and nonfiction young adult books before. What was different about writing THE BOOK OF FATAL ERRORS, the first book in a middle-grade fantasy series?
Middle grade children’s books were so instrumental in making me both a reader and a writer that it feels remarkable that I published in so many other genres before writing one of my own. I was an early and avid reader and so began reading middle grade books when I was five or six. When I was nine I set out to read every novel in the children’s section of the library. I literally started with the A’s and moved through the stacks alphabetically, reading anything that seemed remotely interesting. My favorite books were always the ones in which something magical happens to ordinary kids, especially ones that were both funny and spooky.
The Book of Fatal Errors is thus written for the reader I was as a child – full of magic, adventure, humor and whimsy, but with a serious soul. Picture books have to be lean and spare, and nonfiction has to be true, so writing a middle grade fantasy was an opportunity to frolic. The book features bad-tempered fairies, avaricious goblins, an imp who recites terrible love poems, a train store owner who may or not be dead, a librarian with an unusual tattoo, a mystery hidden in a jump rope rhyme, a children’s book author who gets too close to her subject, and a monster who speaks your doubts out loud. I started writing it as a kind of lark, a fun side project while working on the kind of serious (and often depressing) pieces I write as a journalist. It might have stayed as my own private playground except that I mentioned it to an editor who was publishing one of my picture books and she asked to see it. I’d only written a couple of chapters at that point, but her encouragement and enthusiasm made me believe that I might actually be writing a real book.
Given how much I love reading middle grade fantasy, it’s probably no coincidence that the book is partly about the writing of middle grade fantasy books. One of the characters is Rufus and Abigail’s great grandmother, Carson Sweete Collins, whose fusty series about the Fair Folk of Glistening Glen resembles some of the old-fashioned children’s books I encountered during my alphabetical journey through the library stacks. Astute readers will find hidden references to other classics as well, including books by Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Mary Norton, and Lloyd Alexander. It’s not the first of my books to have references to classics hidden in its pages – my recent picture book A Book for Escargot does as well -- but it’s the first time I got to plunge headlong into the world of magic.
When writing nonfiction, I’ve sometimes yearned to be able to make things up – especially when I can’t chase down some key interview. But when writing fantasy, I often wish there was some existing resource to go to for reference. Creating whole worlds from scratch can be pretty exhausting. I sometimes get stuck on very basic mechanical questions – how exactly does seed magic work? How would characters get from here to there? Which creatures are visible to which people and why? In that way I end up approaching fantasy much like I approach nonfiction – I collect lots of reference materials, fill notebooks with diagrams and rules of the world, and agonize over questions that most readers will probably gloss right over. Even if it’s invented, everything should feel real. And generally, once I’ve invented it, it feels very real to me!
Feylawn is such a magical and unique setting. Were you inspired by any real life places when creating it?
Feylawn is a collage of places I’ve known and loved, most of them in California and Oregon, although there are a few bits transplanted from New England, where I grew up. My grandparents had a summer house in Maine when I was young, and part of what I wanted to capture was that summertime feeling of a place where nothing is required of you and the landscape can be inscribed by your imagination. Yet Feylawn itself lives somewhere near the California-Oregon border, and is partly inspired by the oak and madrone forest behind my mother’s house in Ashland, Oregon. We moved there when I was fifteen and within a week I'd encountered an older woman who told me in a confidential tone that she had recently encountered a fairy in the woods who had introduced himself to her as “a gentleman of the forest.” The notion of American fairies stayed with me and reappeared many years later when I sat down to write this book. Other places showed up as well. Feylawn’s apricot orchard was inspired by a magazine piece I wrote about the disappearing stone fruit orchards of Brentwood, California. The creek is similar to one in California’s Gold Country that I have camped alongside numerous times. The barn is partly inspired by one belonging to my friend Carson Ellis, who lives outside of Portland, Oregon and who I met after I'd given one of the characters her name. All of those special places have been stitched together in my mind to create a landscape that’s filled with West Coast beauty and mystery.
Which of the characters in THE BOOK OF FATAL ERRORS do you relate to the most?
To be honest, all of the characters reflect some aspect of me, from Garnet, the knitting-obsessed goblin, to Bobalo Fling, the poetry-spouting apricot imp. Iris is kind of my alter ego – I’m secretly as bad-tempered and irascible as she is. Rufus embodies my love of dreamy, unstructured time and my fears of failure, while Abigail reflects my experience being a smart kid who knew how to please adults. But if I had to choose one character, it would have to be the children’s book writer and illustrator, Carson Sweete Collins, who grew up running wild at Feylawn. While I grew up in a city rather than the country, my childhood was almost as radically unstructured as hers. From age 8 to 13 I attended an alternative “free” school where I spent most of my time reading, writing and drawing while desperately looking for the entrance to magical worlds. Carson is by no means the hero of the book, but I can relate to the trouble she had fitting into regular society when she became an adult, and to her desire to keep things the way they were when she was young. Carson put her personal concerns into her children’s books, just as I did, and like her I dream of a time when finished stories begin again.