Writer Wednesday: Merrie Haskell

I’m happy to have Merrie Haskell’s interview today.  Find out about her latest book, how she survived cultural jet lag, the germination of HANDBOOK FOR DRAGONSLAYERS, and more…

1.  First things first…a name and bio:

Merrie Haskell.  I spent my childhood with cultural jet lag as I shuttled between Michigan and North Carolina thanks to my parents’ custody arrangement, before settling on becoming a Midwesterner. Then I went to work in a library. Then I published a book.

2.  Where are you from and what’s your favorite thing about where you live?

I was actually born in Michigan, which is probably why I ended up back here, though I miss so very much about North Carolina–and the mild winters are the least of it. The scent of a loblolly pine forest, the rolling hills, the night bugs and tree frogs over short summer nights…  Durham Bulls games… pleasant accents… the proximity of the coast… Where I live now, we seize summer in both hands and hang on like summer’s a ski boat and we’re on a deflating innertube. I love where I live because of the people as much as anything; the landscape here is sort of flat, and the best thing we have going are our lakes–which *are* phenomenal, don’t get me wrong. I’m not sure *what* it is about the people, other than I feel at home among them in a way I don’t anywhere else in the world.

2.  Tell about your latest book.  What made you want to write it?

My next book is out in May 2013; it’s called HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS. It’s Upper Middle Grade. There were a couple of factors. The first was feet. I developed bone spurs that poke my Achilles tendon and one of my nerves; I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, other than I kind of couldn’t walk without screaming pain, and I didn’t know why. When I finally got a diagnosis–and blessed, blessed orthotics and some tips on pain management–it was this amazing revelation that I had been living in constant pain for several years, and only when the pain was relieved did I notice how pervasive it had been. Combine this with the fact that my dad was born with a club foot, something I had always wondered about but never really got to talk to him about–well, I wanted to write about someone who had feet issues.  Someone who dealt with constant pain but whose life wasn’t *about* that pain, as it were. It’s a very minor point in the book, but it was the first spark.

The second spark was the story of “The Princess of the Glass Hill,” which I had in my Grimm’s fairy tale collection as a kid, but almost no one I know has ever heard of it.  The story features–obviously–a glass hill, and three magical, metal horses. I wanted to write about three metal horses, so badly I could taste it, but I really didn’t want to be constrained to tell another fairy tale, and I certainly couldn’t figure out a great way to make a proactive heroine out of a girl stuck at the top of a glass hill.  Logistics, mostly–the logistics of being stuck in one place wasn’t interesting to me. Besides which, there’s not a whole lot more to that story that interested me, just the horses and how they’re captured, destroying a grain field on St. John’s Eve, and how they appear in a clap of thunder and lightning.

And the third spark was Saint Hildegard. After THE PRINCESS CURSE, I wanted to write something with Hildegard as the character.  In early drafts of HANDBOOK, she is quite a prominent character–unfortunately, she kept trying to take over the book, all rescuing people with her divine powers and miracles. So she had to get dialed back, but that is how I ended up setting the book on the Rhine–and how I ended up in an awesome castle overlooking the Rhine, drinking fennel tea, and typing furiously about evil elf knights. Even though my antagonist is never revealed to be an actual elf, “The Elf Knight” ballad (sort of a Bluebeard with elf powers) is my inspiration for him.

Oh! Also, sometime between now and May (though I don’t know for sure when), I suspect my short story “Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love” will appear in APEX MAGAZINE.  Since I write so few short stories anymore, I feel I must mention it. It combines so many discarded bits of my past–I was on my junior high North Carolina history trivia team, I wrote a paper about the anthropology of Civil War reenactors in college, and I was a huge theater geek in high school, so naturally writing about a theater robot who leaves the stage in a world where the American Civil War is fashionable makes all kinds of sense. Hm. Maybe I should NOT be trying to plug this.

3.  Where can people find your books?  

I keep my links pretty well up to date at http://www.merriehaskell.com/?page_id=75 (my bibliography page).

4.  What are you working on right now?

Another Middle Grade book. I *think* this one is about a blacksmith. Not sure, it’s early days yet.

5.  What inspired you to be a writer?

Once I realized that writing was a job you could have? I wanted it. I liked books so much, how could I not want to produce them and get paid for it? I think Jo March might’ve been the first inspiration–a character who wanted to be a writer–but once I read things that truly moved and inspired me–Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, L.M. Montgomery–I just wanted to do what the authors did.

6.  Who is your favorite character in your stories? Why?

I have a LOT of favorite characters. Mostly, I don’t spend time writing about people I don’t enjoy on some level.  I really, really dig Lacrimora from THE PRINCESS CURSE–my main antagonist of the book, the evil stepmother-to-be. A lot of what I know about her doesn’t make it to the page; Reveka, the point of view character (and another favorite), just doesn’t see it. Poor, misunderstood Lacrimora, poisoning people to save their souls! In HANDBOOK, the upcoming book, I’m ridiculously fond of my dragon character, Curschin.  I went with a very Anglo-Saxon take on dragons; they speak in kennings, and I had a ball writing that, coming up with the culture behind it, and figuring out how typical/atypical Curschin was.

7.  What is your favorite comfort food?

Dumplings. Seems like every cuisine owns up to having some sort of dumpling, and there is no wrong they cannot right, no matter their origin.

8.  What character from your stories was the hardest to write?

Honestly, Tilda from HANDBOOK. She is awfully prickly at times, and I was conscious that while I like prickly people, they are often more interesting as secondary characters, not protagonists.

9.  What’s the biggest challenge about being a writer?

Well, for me, it’s finding the energy (not the time, the energy) to write after working a day job all day. I could write before work, but that way lies being a sedentary lump. It’s an uncomfortable triangle, and throw spending time with your family, and the energy just goes wanting.

10.  Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

Persist, persist, persist. Balance your ego with rationality: don’t be so egotistical you think you have nothing to learn, but at the same time, don’t be so non-egotistical that you trunk every story after 1 rejection. Persist in learning craft AND persist in getting your work out there. Persist in getting rejections. Make a goal of getting 100 rejections before even beginning to judge yourself as a success or a failure or whatever.  Oh, and, remember that when writers give you writing advice, they’re actually telling you ONLY what worked for them, and not “the right way.” Even if they say they’re telling you “the right way,” I promise it’s really just that first thing.

11.  Who are your favorite authors and why?

Assume Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte as given…  right now, in the “I would buy anything they published, do not read jacket, do examine cover art” category, that would be Kristin Cashore, Megan Whalen Turner, and Tamora Pierce. Oh, and Sharon Shinn.  There are so many great authors that I love, but I suppose that’s how I would have to rate “favorite” right now–unconditional love.  Mostly, because all of these authors have completely earned my trust with their smart, tough characters, their emphasis on some level of gender parity, and basically, exciting plots in medievalesque worlds.

12. What books have most influenced your writing?

Probably everything written by Robin McKinley up to 2000 or so, plus or minus the Prydain Chronicles.  I have had a lot of aspirations and inspirations, but if you judge people by their friends, my friends growing up were Beauty, Aerin and Harimad-Sol, plus Taran.

13.  What tools are in your writer’s tool-kit?

Ha, I don’t know if I’d call this a tool, because it just seems to be a stupid lesson I have to learn over and over and over again, but when I can’t reconcile what a character wants, or some plot thread won’t resolve itself, I have finally learned that maybe, just *maybe,* that’s a bit of conflict that would actually be well served to be in the story, and that you can have another character help externalize the conflict.  I can’t decide if my character wants to stay home or leave home. Which makes the more compelling plot? Well…  pick one, and have someone else, like the father, want the opposite. Then we’ve just picked up a whole whack of tension and conflict for free, instead of having to engineer something.   The character can still be conflicted, but just by having something to fight against, you’ve made it all click into place.

The second thing I have to relearn constantly is articulation. I can’t tell you how many times I start to tell someone the issue I’m having, and by the time I’m done describing the problem, I’ve figured it out.

14. Where can people find out more about you and your books?

Why, at merriehaskell.com, of course.

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