Hi guys! I am super excited to be sharing with you all this month’s LILbooKtalk! As a fantasy lover, I am always in search of magical and mystical worlds to become lost and entrapped in, away from the harsh life of reality. Thus, I was inspired to revolve this month’s LILbooKtalk theme around the magic of fantasy and the pursuit of Narnia with two wonderful MG authors, Christina Soontornvat and K. E. Ormsbee, both of whom I met in real life. I hope you enjoy this amazing and wonderful discussion!
About The Changelings
Izzy’s family has just moved to the most boring town in the country. But as time goes on, strange things start to happen; odd piles of stones appear around Izzy’s house, and her little sister Hen comes home full of stories about the witch next door.
Then, Hen disappears into the woods. She’s been whisked away to the land of Faerie, and it’s up to Izzy to save her. Joined there by a band of outlaw Changelings, Izzy and her new friends set out on a joint search-and-rescue mission across this foreign land which is at turns alluringly magical and utterly terrifying.
About The Water and the Wild
For as long as Lottie Fiske can remember, the only people who seem to care about her have been her best friend, Eliot, and the mysterious letter-writer who sends her birthday gifts. But now strange things and people are arriving on the island Lottie calls home, and Eliot’s getting sicker, with a disease the doctors have given up trying to cure. Lottie is helpless, useless, powerless.
And then a door opens in the apple tree.
Follow Lottie down through the apple roots to another world—a world of magic both treacherous and beautiful—in pursuit of the impossible: a cure for the incurable, a use for the useless, and protection against the pain of loss.
Questions are in bold
Kester: The first author we have today is Christina Soontornvat, author of the middle grade series The Changelings. I had the amazing pleasure of meeting Christina at the SE-YA Book Fest back in March! Could you describe to us a bit about your books and your background?
Christina: Hi! I’m super excited to chat with you. My Changelings series is a middle grade fantasy duology that plays with the Changeling. That myth says that wicked fairies steal human babies and swap them out with shapeshifters. In my books, the main character’s little sister has been snatched away, but there is no Changeling to take her place. So her big sister must both rescue her and solve the mystery of what’s up with the Changelings.
My background is in…mechanical engineering. You know, pretty standard fare for children’s book authors. The Changelings was my first book (2016), but I have always, always been enchanted with fantasy and fairytales. And I have been telling stories to anyone who would listen all my life. And the engineering does come in handy – revising a novel isn’t that different from re-designing a mechanical prototype. Just lots of dedication and elbow grease!
K. E.: I love that, Christina! I was an English major, which I’ve always felt is ye ol’ boring, stereotypical author background. Ha! Also, your books sound so amazing. I was fascinated by the concept of changelings as a kid (and still am!).
Christina: Yes, I get the sense that you also love all things creepy, Kathryn!
K. E.: Haha, I do indeed! I’ve always been a macabre soul.
Kester: By the way, Christina, I’m actually planning on entering as a computer engineering major in college.
Christina: Kester, that’s awesome! The world needs more book-loving engineers.
Kester: It does! I’ll try my best to find the time to continue reading and blogging then!
K. E.: Also, agreed that book-loving engineers are the best! My father is another one of them, and he’s one of the people who first instilled in me a love for reading & writing.
Kester: The second author we have with us today is K. E. Ormsbee, a fellow Tennessean and author of The Water and the Wild trilogy. I also had the lovely opportunity to meet K. E. at last year’s SE-YA! Would you like to share with us a little about your novels and your background?
K. E.: Sure thing, Kester! I began writing young and got my very first book deal out of college, with that aforementioned English degree. That book was The Water & the Wild, the first in a MG fantasy trilogy, which was inspired by my favorite childhood books and fairy tales, including Alice in Wonderland and The Gammage Cup. TW&TW was followed by The Doorway & the Deep. The final installment, The Current & the Cure, comes out in June. I first wrote The Water & the Wild in 2009, so it’s really wild to be coming up on the decade mark for this book series. Lottie Fiske’s story will always be my first love. This fall, Chronicle Books will be publishing my MG standalone, The House in Poplar Wood—my tribute to all things spooky and autumnal, AND set in Tennessee!
Christina: Oh, The Changelings gets started in Tennessee too! The first chapter is set in “The Jiggly Goat” (basically a Piggly Wiggly).
K. E.: I love that! Clearly, TN is inspiring.
Kester: Kathryn, I actually just got an ARC of The House in Poplar Wood a few weeks ago and I’m super excited to read it!
Kathryn: That’s fantastic to hear, Kester! I hope you enjoy the read.
I also write Young Adult contemporary novels with Simon & Schuster. My first YA novel, Lucky Few, is a Harold & Maude-inspired story set in my favorite city, Austin, Texas. My next YA, The Great Unknowable End, is a dual-POV story of two teenagers living in Kansas in 1977. It’s my homage to my favorite TV series, The Twilight Zone.
Christina: It so is. It’s magical. Especially when you’re a girl from Texas where there are hardly any trees! I feel like we have so many things in common. I live in Austin! I need to read your YA novel now.
K. E.: Wait! Christina, I had no idea you lived in Austin! I just moved here from Nashville back in August. I couldn’t stay away. But yes, I do miss all trees, and the bluegrass from my hometown in Kentucky. There’s no true proper autumn here, alas.
Christina: Crazy! We need to get together and write! Kester, this is supposed to be an interview, but it’s turning into a writing meet-up matchmaking service!
K. E.: It really is! Haha. I’d absolutely love that, Christina. Hurray for connections!
Kester: Both The Changelings and The Water and the Wild series feature a young girl who finds a portal to another world full of magic, mystery, and mayhem. Why do you believe being transported to a fantasy world is a beloved trope in children’s fiction? How has C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia and similar books influenced you as a reader and a writer?
Christina: For me, I always loved stories like that because I felt like they could actually happen to me. I grew up in a small town, in the middle of nowhere Texas. I didn’t fit in. I wanted to escape. But I was a kid. The only way I was getting out of there was if I found a magic portal! The Narnia books were some of my favorites. I looked for magic wardrobes everywhere.
K. E.: Oh, I was in love with the Chronicles of Narnia. I read the series backward and forward, and I literally wore the covers of the books. And I agree with Christina—I always had this sense of wonder and belief that maybe I could step into a wardrobe and find myself in Narnia. I was a very shy, bookish kid, and fantasy stories were a way for me to explore different lands and meet different people in a “safe” way that also developed my courage, curiosity, and empathy.
Christina: Yes, every topic–no matter how deep or difficult–is explored in fantasy stories. As a child I wouldn’t have wanted to read a realistic story about death or loss. For me personally, that would have been too much. But I could handle it in a magical tale.
K. E.: I’ve always loved portal fantasies especially, because I’m enchanted by that connection between fantasy and the “real world.” There’s so much potential and room for imagination, and I think young readers are particularly drawn to that. I know I was!
Christina: Yes, absolutely! Middle grade readers are the best. They will have faith in anything – a magic wardrobe, talking animals, shapeshifters – as long as it’s written well.
K. E.: Yes! They really are. And I agree, there are so many topics that are easier to approach and become acquainted with through a fantasy lens–especially as a child. I’ve definitely found that to be the case as someone who writes both fantasy and contemporary realism. There’s nothing I love better than hearing from and meeting young readers. Their passion, creativity, and devotion to stories is amazing.
Kester: I used to really dislike fantasy (since I always thought it was confusing with so many characters and places) until I’ve read some amazing stories with amazing world-building. The more I’ve realized how much the worlds act like refuges from reality (which is tough, especially for a high school student) that I just want to live in them!
Christina: Oh I love that description.
K. E.: Yes! I completely understand that, Kester. And I think different genres can speak to different stages of our lives. There were times I needed fantasy, and other times I needed a good contemporary, and others times I needed paranormal or nonfiction. They all bring such different perspectives and possibilities to the table.
Christina: By the way, Kathryn, I think it’s so interesting that you write both realistic and fantasy. Is your realistic all YA and your fantasy MG?
K. E.: And yes, Christina! So far, it’s worked out that way. Also, my MG have all turned out to be third-person and my YA first-person. Who knows what that means? It is nice to work on such different stories, though. When I get fatigued writing my MG, I just switch to YA, and it’s like a breath of fresh air.
Christina: That is super interesting. And I’m sure that it does mean something, and I love that you have no idea what it is!
K. E.: I tried so hard to write my last YA in third-person, but in the end I got 50K words in and realized I was forcing something that didn’t work. So it was back to first-person again! I’m incorrigible, I guess.
Kester: Here’s my next question: Could both of you describe to us the process that you used to build the magical worlds in your books? What real-life places, legends, and stories influenced the creation of Faerie and Limn?
Christina: The portion of Faerie where The Changelings take place is on the border between the world of fairies and our world. The setting is much like any border land – there is a total mashup of cultures. There are fairy shops and markets that sell trinkets and treasures from Earth. And the folklore and myths contain references to humans. My main character learns over the course of the novel that many things on Earth were actually imported from Faerie – music, certain trees, Davy Crockett (he was a Changeling by the way. Duh.)
K. E.: Christina, that is the BEST about Davy Crockett. Of course he was a changeling! Ha!
Christina: Right? Killed him a bear when he was only three.
K. E.: Limn is very heavily influenced by British folklore. I took the concepts of sprites, will o’ the wisps, and Barghest straight from the mythology of the British Isles. I was a huge anglophile growing up, which I think all began when I got to visit England at the age of nine. Some of my favorite children’s books were British, too, so I think it was only natural that I wanted to emulate. The process of world-building required lots of map making, giant Word documents filled with facts and timelines and descriptions, and plenty of conversations back and forth with my agent and editor. I love that, when it comes to my fantasy especially, the book is like an iceberg–only the tip of all that brainstorming and world-building and folio-building actually ends up in the final story. But it’s important to do that building, I think, for your world to really stand up to scrutiny.
Christina: Oooooh. I love that, Kathryn. And I agree – there is SO much to world building that the readers never see. But that the author has to do to make what ends up on the page believable.
Kester: What books have provided you an escape from the real world as a child and as an adult? What are some fantasy worlds that you did not want to leave?
K. E.: Narnia was certainly one of them. I also fell in love with the world of the Land Between the Mountains from The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall. And it wasn’t a fantasy world, but I adored the Elizabethan England of A Murder for Her Majesty by Beth Hilgartner; I wanted so badly to be like the cross-dressing Alice and solve royal murder mysteries in a cathedral boys choir! I re-read those books often; they really were an escape for me.
Christina: As a child, most of the books I read and loved were set in British-Isles-type worlds: Tolkien, Roald Dahl, The Secret Garden, etc. As an adult I have really loved the explosion in fantasy stories inspired by worlds beyond the traditional British magical boarding school (though Harry Potter is of course my fave!). I have loved The Reader by Traci Chee and Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao. I’m reading Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi right now and oh my goodness. It’s amazing.
K. E.: Christina, I adooored everything Roald Dahl, as well as The Secret Garden! I made a little “secret garden” for myself in the backyard growing up, and got a terrific case of poison ivy as a result!
Christina: Ha! That’s amazing. But I’m sorry you got poison ivy! See, things are better in fantasy books.
K. E.: Haha, they really are! I have to admit, I don’t often reading fantasy these days; I’ve been on more of a realism and nonfiction track. But I love picking up the occasional fantasy and losing myself in the thrill of the plot.
Kester: The possibility of losing a loved one, whether it be a kidnapping or an illness, is a theme that is shared by both The Water and the Wild and The Changelings. How do you tackle this theme along with those of family and friendship for young readers?
K. E.: It was a priority for me to take a lot of care with the depiction of Lottie’s best friend, Eliot, and his illness. Illness was something that affected a lot of my own childhood, and I think we do a disservice to children when we don’t touch upon difficult issues like this. Stories that grapple with hard subjects can be tough, but they’re also so important in providing a child with a helping hand, allowing them to see their story through another character’s eyes. And for children who haven’t experienced that particular trouble, books like these can help cultivate empathy for when they encounter them as they grow older.
Christina: Friendships are my favorite thing to write in MG books. When I was that age, my friends meant everything to me. I truly felt that I would do anything to rescue or save my friends. I would have fought a dragon or a witch or a goblin in a heartbeat if my friend was in danger. Of course I was never put to such supernatural tests! But I put my characters to those tests. And they stand up to those challenges, which I feel is a very authentic thing for that age.
I believe that in many MG books, the friendships are the romance. There is such depth of feeling between friends at that age. Finding a true friend can feel as heady as falling in love. And losing one can feel worse than any breakup.
K. E.: And yes! Like Christina, friendship was so important to me as a kid. As a pre-teen, I especially felt like a lot of stories suddenly made romance the main plot, when to me, the most vital, meaningful relationships to me were still my friends and family. So while I certainly include some romance in TW&TW series, I was intentional about not putting it at the forefront. I wanted to write a story that 12-year-old me would have really related to.
Christina: Yes, absolutely!
Kester: What are some of the challenges of writing a fantasy series versus a standalone, and how did you overcome them?
K. E.: Oh man, pacing can be difficult, as can exposition. When I first wrote TW&TW, I intended to write a trilogy, but I didn’t have the assurance of sequel, let alone a trilogy.
Christina: Probably my biggest challenge was that when I sold the first Changelings book I didn’t know it would have a sequel. I sold it as a standalone, hoping they would want another set in that same world! But I had to wrap it all up very nicely to stand alone, while also leaving some threads there for a future adventure.
K. E.: Yes! Same issue! It’s so hard to know what to introduce and what to leave out, and how to end that first book when you’re uncertain about what’s to come.
Christina: Wow, yes I think this is such a common thing that most fantasy writers face! One piece of advice I got that helped was from an author who told me not to save anything for Book 2. Put all your good ideas in Book 1. She told me you can always get more good ideas later, but why save them – you may never get the chance to tell that story!
K. E.: I love that advice, Christina! And I completely agree. I will say, though, having recently written the third and final book of my trilogy, it’s so nice to dive back into a world you’ve already established, with characters that your readers already know. Writing the sequel and third book were tough, but so much easier than writing Book One.
Kester: That’s very interesting to hear! Actually at SE-YA last year, during a panel, many of the authors said to market your book as a “standalone with series potential” along with writing a sequel if the story needed one.
Christina: Yes, I think that’s good advice. When you start sending a book out into the world – to an agent, or an editor – you really don’t know how it’s going to change. It might change…a lot. Mine did! If I had written more books than just the first, then might have all been wasted work. Or not wasted – but would definitely mean more work in revising!
K. E.: Same here! With my editor, I cut around ~25K of TW&TW, wrote about 50K of new material, changed the location, and cut an entire character.
Christina: Wow, yes I have killed–ahem, cut–many characters before. Entire living, breathing characters just slashed right out of the story.
K. E.: So for me, personally, writing a sequel ahead of time wouldn’t have been a good choice. But I certainly think it’s different from person to person, book to book, editor to editor.
Christina: Yes, absolutely. And once you do have a track record, and you have worked with an editor or a house, then it’s different.
K. E.: Yes!
Christina: But that stand alone first advice is definitely the right advice for first time authors.
K. E.: Agreed!
Kester: Before we end this LILbooKtalk, would you like to share any words of advice to young readers and writers reading this discussion?
K. E.: Absolutely! I have four bits of advice for young writers in particular.
1. Persist. Don’t give up. Publishing can be a brutal business. I was rejected by many agents and publishers before any of my books were published. It’s normal, and it’s not personal. Just keep trying.
2. Accept Criticism. Do keep trying, but don’t keep trying without revaluation your work. If an agent or teacher or critique partner or peer gives you critical feedback, listen, learn, and—if applicable—try to incorporate. Stories can be very personal—they flow from our hearts and minds onto the page. But it’s important to step back from our stories and accept the opinions and criticism of trusted individuals in our life. They can see our blind spots, and they can draw on on experiences we don’t have. So actively seek out critique partners and aspiring writers like yourself. Join or start a fiction-writing club. Be willing to read and critique other writers’ works, too. Together, you’ll grow!
3. Welcome Experiences. All writers—even fantasy writers—require real-life experiences. As a writer, it’s important to live in the present, get out there, and experience the world! Hang out with friends, people-watch, notice the cadences of conversations and how different personalities interact. This is all story research. Go to writing conferences. Read books on writing by established authors. Read good novels. Reread your favorite novels. Surround yourself with good writing!
4. Keep Writing. No matter what, keep writing. If you fail, keep writing. If you succeed, keep writing! Write, rewrite, and rewrite some more. If your first draft is abysmal, edit. If your second draft stinks, edit that too. Very few of us are Mozart-level geniuses who create masterpieces on the first try. So don’t lose heart. If you love writing, the best thing you can do for your craft is to keep. on. writing.
Christina: Listen to K.E.’s advice! It’s all good!
My advice – for writing and for life in general – is that you are going to be getting a lot of advice. And the trick is to figure out what to do with it all. You can find pages and pages of writing advice online or at conferences. Sometimes you will hear the same thing repeated (like that advice about writing a stand alone book), but many times the advice you get will conflict. It might conflict with what others have told you. Or it might conflict with what you feel in your own heart. In the end, you’re going to have to trust your own heart, make your own decisions, and write the books that call to you.
Oh, and be nice to people. All people. Everywhere. Even when no one else is looking. That’s just good general life advice, but you would be shocked how many adults don’t follow it.
K. E.: I think that’s such fantastic advice, Christina. Oh, and also, five: Discard any of this advice as you see fit. No size fits all!
Christina: Haha! Yes, I love that too. Speaking of nice people… Chatting with you Kester, and K. E. has been so great!
K. E.: And yes, Kester, I’m so grateful for this opportunity to chat with you and Christina! You’re doing such amazing work in the book world, and I so appreciate you taking the time to interview us.
Kester: Thank you so much, Kathryn and Christina, for joining me today for this LILbooKtalk! It was so great to talk with each of you, and I’ve definitely learned quite a bit from both of you!
K. E.: Thank YOU, Kester. This was so much fun, and I loved hanging out with you two.
Christina: This was great. Thank you for having us, Kester. You’re doing great things in the book world! This was great. Thank you for having us, Kester. You’re doing great things in the book world!
K. E.: Me too!
Thanks so much to Christina Soontornvat and K. E. Ormsbee for taking the time to join me in this month’s LILbooKtalk!
Christina Soontornvat is the author of the middle grade fantasy novel, THE CHANGELINGS, the story of an 11-year old girl who teams up with a group of shapeshifting children to rescue her sister from the clutches of a cruel witch. She is also the author of the forthcoming picture book, THE RAMBLE SHAMBLE CHILDREN.
Christina grew up in a small Texas town, where she spent most of her formative years behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant with her nose in a book. After pursuing a career in mechanical engineering and working in science museums, she decided it was time to get serious and write stories. She still hangs out in Thai restaurants. And she still has her nose in a book most days. She lives with her family in Austin, Texas.
About K. E.
K.E. Ormsbee’s Middle Grade debut, THE WATER AND THE WILD, is a fantasy published by Chronicle Books. Its sequel, THE DOORWAY AND THE DEEP, comes out October 4, 2016. Standalone fantasy THE HOUSE IN POPLAR WOOD publishes Fall 2018.
She also writes Young Adult novels as Kathryn Ormsbee. Her YA debut, LUCKY FEW, published with Simon & Schuster in Jun 2016, and her next YA, TASH HEARTS TOLSTOY, comes out Summer 2017.
K.E. Ormsbee likes clothes from the 60s, music from the 70s, and movies from the 80s. She is from the 90s. You can visit her online at keormsbee.com or follow her on Twitter & Instagram @kathsby.
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