Sunday, July 17, 2011

Surrender to Imagery

Imagery is descriptive language that not only engages the readers’ senses, but also evokes an emotional response. One of the most famous examples of imagery in poetry is probably the first line of Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” – The fog comes / on little cat feet.

I was pulled into a novel written by Sonya Hartnett this weekend and found myself alternately bobbing and sinking in an ocean of imagery. Some of the language literally caught my breath like the topmost hill of a roller coaster. Some of Ms. Hartnett’s images made me struggle to breathe. The story, Surrender, written in 2005 and awarded the Michael L. Prinz honor, has creeped into my head and seems to want to stay there, curled around the bulges and beating veins of my brain. Lurking like a snake. It is hiding among my own bits of story and snippets of words as if waiting for the right moment to make itself known in a new way.

The story is demanding and horrifying, inescapable and worthy of being shoved into a back corner of a high shelf when you are finished, just in case you feel the story calling to you another day. You will remember it. You will want to revisit the language, the story, and the images so brilliantly used by this writer. Most of all, it is human, this story. Full of contradictions, mysteries, and the honesty of lies told to oneself to keep the peace.

Here are some of the phrases, sentences and images that are echoing in my ears and keeping rhythm with the beating of my heart –

Page 15 – If my visitor walked away now he would seem like a daydream, like touching a tiger’s face in the dark.

Page 40 – His yellow smile – all of him is yellow – patrols the room like a lighthouse beam, falling on my sandy-beach aunt, on jagged-rocky-outcrop me, on the foaming blankets of the sea…

Page 159 – In this room, night is not black but gray. The door is gray, the walls are gray, the air itself is gray. Yet light skates goldenly round the door handle as it spins.

Page 165 – The sky above our heads dashed white with cockatoos.

Page 180 – The morning heat bulged and swore, trapped in the confines of the forest, a bully pinned furious to the ground.

Sort of exhausting, this story. Deep and treacherous and so beautiful. I was going to send it to a friend, but I think I’ll slide it onto the top shelf of my bookcase instead. I’ll keep it until another day when the images call to me again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Talking with Sarwat Chadda, author of Devil's Kiss...and a Book Give Away!

The first novel I wrote revolved around Hindu mythology – specifically the stories of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. I have a soft spot for traditional stories – myths of all types, legends, fairy tales, folk stories and the like.

And I’ll admit I’m a complete sucker for those History channel shows about topics like the Holy Grail or Lost Scrolls or the Shroud of Turin. (Ancient Aliens? Bigfoot? Giant Killer Catfish? Yep. I’ll get sucked into all of that stuff! Sounds so much like the stuff of myth to me.)

So when I heard of Sarwat Chadda’s books about the first female among the ranks of the Knights Templar, I couldn’t find a copy fast enough. Strong girl heroine. Ancient myths. Mysterious organizations with even more mysterious missions? Who could ask for more?

I was thrilled when Mr. Chadda agreed to answer some questions for me about his stories and his writing life. So please welcome Sarwat Chadda to Carpe Keyboard.

Carpe Keyboard: Since I just finished reading Devil’s Kiss, I’m dying to know if the ending was planned. It is unexpected (at least it was to me!) and I love the twist in the prophecy. Now…I don’t want to give too many spoilers in this conversation – but could you tell us if you planned all along to end the book the way it was finally published? Did you plan out the whole plot, or do you work more organically?

Sarwat Chadda: There’s a big divide between writers who plot and those that let the story develop its own path. I’m very much the first group. I usually have a strong idea of how it’s going to end, then work towards it. I must admit, I usually have to rewrite it several times to make sure the story does flow logically, and I can appreciate this is the risk of being too rigid about where you want the story to go. On the other hand I have read a few books where it’s clear the writer has a strong initial concept but isn’t able to deliver the goods at the end. Then there’s the sense of frustration that the writer failed to deliver on the key promise of any story teller, a satisfying ending.

The end is incredibly important and I want to make sure I’ve saved the best till last.

I love it when writer’s pick names for their characters that just seem so….well…so right. How did Billi SanGreal get her name? And what about Kay? An unusual name for a boy, but somehow it fits with his physical description without seeming too feminine.
All the Templars are named after the Knights of the Round Table. I like the idea the Arthur doesn’t exist in Billi’s world but, in centuries in the future, her adventures will be the myths of her world.
Billi’s name is different. I wanted to establish her Muslim heritage, her full name is Bilqis, and that name too has a lot of mythical resonance with the King Solomon legend (Bilqis was the name of the Queen of Sheba and her descendants were said to be the guardians of the Ark of the Covenant).
SanGreal is a name associated with the Holy Grail and the Templars and I wanted to give Billi a mythic quality. Again it’s a conceit, reminding us we’re in a world more ‘heightened’ than our own. It’s got to be painted bigger and more contrasting.

I’ve written before here on Carpe Keyboard about the distinct lack of parents in YA literature. If they aren’t physically out of the picture (dead mom, anyone?), then they are checked out somehow – not capable of having a relationship with the main character. Billi’s relationship with her father plays a huge role in how the plot moves along in Devil’s Kiss. Do you think readers relate somehow to parents being “checked out” or not fully involved in their lives? Why do you think this is such a pattern in literature and stories for young people?

I’m guilty of the dead mom but compensated that by adding a psycho father! The fundamental issue is what right-minded parent would allow their kid to go on death-defying adventures? So I made sure Billi’s dad isn’t right-minded at all. The dynamic between father and daughter isn’t much dealt with in kids’ fiction so I wanted to make sure it was central to mine.

That’s the same reason so many stories are sent in boarding schools, it’s all a way of keeping the grownups out of the picture. It was a challenge to take this new direction, of keeping the adults central to the story without sidelining Billi, but it was worth doing as it gave the story a fresh perspective

What research did you do into the Knights Templar and Christian tradition or mythology to write Billi’s story? I’d never heard of King Solomon’s mirror legend before… and I find it fascinating. (I happen to know a few myths and folk tales that revolve around mirrors…so I guess I’m particularly drawn to this one.)
The mirror story combines several legends. Solomon was master of magic and commanded the djinn and spirits through the power of a ring. But circles are a common motif in sorcery, so I translated that ‘ring’ to mean something circular, in my case a disk. Now the djinn and a form of supernatural creature, similar to angels and devils, and there’s a myth regarding the sorcerer Dr. Dee, who was said to have a scrying device that allowed him to communicate with angels.
I then tied the two things together, the ‘ring’ of Solomon and Dee’s scrying device are one of the same.

And about those weapons…. Sheesh! Billi really is the bad ass warrior she’s advertised to be! Do you have swords and maces hanging around your house for inspiration? Or at least pictures of weapons Billi and the Knights use? (And if they’re hidden in your closet or hung on the walls of your basement…I don’t think I want to know!)

Yes, I have a number of swords from the Middle-East, Asia and Africa. All totally blunt I hasten to add! They’re on display in my weapons’ cabinet with a few other artifacts.
I wanted the stories to be as real as possible so, given that Billi is a weapons’ expert, that needed to be reflected in the book. She would know the specifics so would deal with the specifics. It’s one of the ‘tricks’ of writing and helps make the setting more believable if you can go into specific detail. It could be anything, a car, a street, a building or sound.
This also meant that when it came to book 2, Dark Goddess, I needed to make the setting as realistic as possible. Since the story was set in Russia that meant me going out there and exploring so I could write a ‘street-level’ viewpoint.

You followed Devil’s Kiss with Dark Goddess, another Billi SanGreal story. What can you tell us about your next project? Will we see more of Billi and the Knights Templar?
I’d love to write a Billi #3 but there are no hard and fast plans yet. The next series is part of the same world but introduces a new hero, Ash Mistry. The first book’s due out Fall 2012 from Arthur A. Levine and called ‘Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress’.

Few books have made any use of the amazing India myths or used India as a setting. That’s about to change. It’ll take bad-ass heroes to a whole new level.

That said, it is the same world as Billi and there are plans for her to be in this series too, but not as a central character.

 When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Drop the kids off at school. Try and write 2,000 words a day. Pick them up. Then a bit of paperwork and admin in the evening. Monday to Friday.

Finally, any advice for budding YA writers? (Not that I…ahem…know of any.)
There is only one: Keep writing. Set yourself a word count (500 a day, whatever) and DO IT. Write whether you feel like it or not. The more you practise the better you’ll get. I promise you.

Thanks so much, Mr. Chadda, for your time and for sharing your insights with us! I’m off to find a copy of Dark Goddess...and I’ll wait impatiently for your new stories involving Indian mythology. Good luck with sales! I wish you great success!

One last thing!  Mr. Chadda has generously donated a copy of one of his books to Carpe Keyboard readers! If you’d like to be entered into a drawing to receive one of the Billi Sangreal books, leave me a comment below or post a link to this blog on your social network (and then tell me about it). I’ll draw the lucky winner on Monday, July 18, 2011.

(All Carpe Keyboard typical drawing rules apply. If the winner does not respond to me via email within one week of the drawing, I’ll put the book back in my stack for a different give away or I’ll draw another name from this lot.)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Talking with Writer Jay Asher, Author of Th1rteen R3asons Why

Jay Asher’s Th1rteen R3asons Why recently came out in paperback, after being honored by not only “best seller” status as a hardback, but also honored by many awards for excellence in YA literature.

Clay receives a package in the mail – a box full of cassette tapes with no return address. He listens to Hannah’s story. Her decision to kill herself, and the reasons why she decided suicide was the only answer.

I won’t be able to give the power and grace of the story any further justice…so I’d like to introduce Jay Asher. He was generous enough to take some time to do a Carpe Keyboard interview this month. Welcome, Jay ---


Carpe Keyboard: Wow. All I can say is wow. Th1rteen R3asons Why is one of the few books I’ve read this year that has given me chills from beginning to end. Congratulations on your skill – and on getting this amazing story published. Your website lists about 15 (did I count that right?) awards for this book. What are you? Some kind of super writer? Did you channel teenagers day and night while you wrote? I think you need your own theme song. And maybe a cape.

Jay Asher: I would love a theme song! But it'd be slightly embarrassing if they played it before book signings or school presentations. Maybe it should just come on when I open my front door and head out into the world. Yes, that would definitely be cool! But I've never been a cape person. They snag too easily.

The voices you write for both Clay and Hannah are eerily genuine. I felt like I could hear Hannah’s voice on those tapes. Any advice on achieving such pitch perfect voice? Clues? Hints?

Those voices just came to me the moment I started writing. They felt real, so the object was then to get out of their way and let them talk. Sometimes they said things I didn't quite understand, yet sounded genuine, so I kept those lines in. More often than not, those lines became clearer as the story moved along.

One of my favorite details of this book is how you tell Hannah’s story using her distinct voice, but we also get to see Clay’s reactions – Clay’s version, in some instances – of the same events. Why did you choose to have a female character commit suicide, but have a boy character so poignantly receive her story?

My personal understanding of suicide came when a close relative of mine attempted suicide. She was a junior in high school, like Hannah. I'm sure that's why the suicidal character first appeared to me as a female. Then I did some research and found that most people who attempt suicide are female, so I decided to keep the character as I originally envisioned her. Since so much of the dual-narration goes back and forth fairly rapidly, I thought it'd be easiest to visualize that change if the second narrator was male.

There are lots of comments and reviews posted on your website about this novel. Do you think you’ve reached young men or women who might feel like Hannah did? How does that make you feel?

I've heard from many people, teens and adults, who have felt like Hannah. Sometimes they felt like her long ago, but other times they felt like her when they picked up the book. Suicide is difficult to talk about, whether you're feeling suicidal yourself or you think someone you care about may be suicidal. Because of that difficulty, many people who contemplate suicide don't know who to open up to. So they'll pick up a book that mirrors their emotions. Over the years, I've heard from so many males and females who say the book inspired them to seek help. The first step in seeking help is acknowledging that people will understand, and even a fictional story can help people see that.

This may be too personal – but I’m going to ask anyway. Were you bullied or made fun of at any point in your life? Is there a part of you that knows, from experience, how Hannah feels? (Just so you know…as a reader, I definitely found myself remembering some of the more painful memories of high school where children aren’t children anymore and everyone can be a target. My guess is, most of your readers conjure up visceral memories as they hear Hannah’s story with Clay.)

I don't know if anyone gets through life without being bullied at least a little. So yes, I was bullied at times, but it was never too traumatic. In fact, I think I was lucky. It's weird that, since I wrote a book about teen suicide, so many people assume I must've had a difficult high school experience. Nope! I think anyone can write about anything as long as they try to understand people who had different experiences. It shouldn't be difficult to feel empathy for others.

I’ve posted here on Carpe Keyboard before about parents and their role (or lack thereof) in YA and MG books. Where the heck were Hannah’s parents? Was the choice to make them so removed from her story a conscious one? Why? 

Initially, it was due to the limitations of this particular story. It wouldn't make sense for Hannah to send the tapes to her parents, so I couldn't let her talk about them too much. But I also didn't want her parents discussed because readers (as well as the characters listening to the tapes) would've read too much into whatever she said. If I made them out to be wonderful people, the story would've been even more heartbreaking than it already is, and I had a certain level of heartbreak that I didn't want to cross. If I made them out to be monsters, then everyone would want to brush aside some of the things she talks about. They would've felt certain scenarios wouldn't have mattered so much if Hannah had a better home life. I didn't want any distractions from what Hannah was saying.

And what about Clay’s mom? She seemed sympathetic, like perhaps she knew somehow that he was going through something hard during that night. But she kept letting him lie to her – letting him distance himself when he was obviously in pain. I was glad she was in the story, but as a mother myself – I wanted to smack her in the forehead. Do you think she had to be relegated to the background in order for Clay to deal with Hannah’s story and his role in it?

Actually, more people tell me they love Clay's mom! Yes, he's lying to her, but Clay knows she's on to him. When they're in Rosie's Diner, he knows he's not getting away with it. But he also knows that his mom's there for him if he truly needs her. He knows his mom cares. I've spoken to thousands of teens since my book came out, and I think there were only three teens who ever asked, "Where were the adults?" But adults always ask that question.

When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

I mostly write at night. When it's dark outside and it feels like the rest of the world is sleeping, that's when I feel most creative.

Finally, any advice for budding YA writers? (Not that I…ahem…know of any.)

If you're writing something serious, and you have a message you're trying to put across, don't force it. Let readers figure it out for themselves by letting them watch the good and bad things your characters do. It's always more powerful when an author makes you feel something rather than tells you something.


Thanks very much, Mr. Asher, for taking the time to share some of your insights and writer’s story with Carpe Keyboard. And congrats again on the success of Th1rteen R3asons Why in paperback!