Michelle Knudsen is the author of 40 books for children. Her best-known title is Library Lion (Candlewick Press), which was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into several languages. Her latest book is a middle-grade fantasy novel called The Dragon of Trelian. Formerly a full-time children’s book editor, Michelle continues to edit manuscripts on a freelance basis and has also worked as a bookseller, substitute teacher, library supervisor, and managing editor, among other things. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her diabetic cat, Cleo.
1. What drew you to the fantasy genre in general, and to dragons in particular? Why?
Fantasy novels were the first books I truly fell in love with as a child — the ones I had to read over and over again. They are still my favorite kinds of books to read, with science fiction a close second. I think a big part of it is the endless possibility in fantasy. You’re not limited by the rules of the “real world,” and so when you open a fantasy novel, you know that almost anything might await you between those covers. I love the adventure and the magic, and the thrill of discovering and exploring entire new worlds. I love the way characters are often set against seemingly overwhelming obstacles and challenges, and the way the fantasy setting can somehow make those characters feel even more real.
Writing fantasy is appealing for the same reasons reading it is: the possibilities, the adventure, the magic. I think you can also explore themes and ideas in fantasy that might seem melodramatic in realistic fiction. The fantasy world lets you come at problems and challenges in a different way, and I think you can take your characters places (both literally and figuratively) that would sometimes be harder to approach in a contemporary, realistic setting. Fantasy can also be timeless in a way that realistic fiction cannot be, and that appeals to me as well.
As for dragons, I’m not sure when my love affair with dragons began. Probably as soon as I first encountered one in fiction. They are the embodiment of fantasy — magical and otherworldly, powerful and mysterious, dangerous and delightful, and full of endless possibilities. I used to collect pewter dragon figurines as a child, and even today I’ve got pictures of dragons posted up on the walls around my desk. (I especially love dragon images by John Howe and Ciruelo.) They’re very inspiring! They always make me want to get lost in a story, either my own or someone else’s.
2. Did you always want to write for a middle grade audience? Why or why not?
I knew I wanted to write fantasy long before I knew I wanted to write for children. I always dreamed of writing fantasy novels “someday,” but through my college years I was mostly writing for adults — newspaper arts and entertainment reviews, a few magazine articles, and many (never published) short stories. After college I got a job in the children’s division of Random House, and although I’d never really thought about writing for children before, it suddenly seemed a perfect fit. The more I learned about children’s publishing, the more I loved it. Most of my experience on the job was with younger books, though, and everything I wrote before this novel was for younger readers. I still love writing for young children, but writing for slightly older readers has allowed me to create a far more complex story than anything I’d written previously. I loved getting to develop a novel-length plot, and to be able to spend more time with my characters, getting to know them in ways that just aren’t possible in a picture book or beginning reader format.
3. Can you give us a little preview of the next book in the series? How do you plan to develop your characters?
Without giving anything away from the first book, I can say that there are still some big issues left to resolve in the story! Certain problems were solved but others remain, and Calen and Meg still have some tough challenges ahead. In the next book, Calen will be exploring his magical abilities on a much deeper level, learning more about his own power and about the Magistratum and what it means to be a mage in the current climate of the world. Meg is still struggling to find a balance between her role as a princess and her relationship with her dragon, and will need to find a way to make all the different pieces of her life fit together.
4. What is your writing process? Do you outline or just dive in?
With shorter pieces, like picture books, I often just let myself go in the first draft, writing all the way to the end without much planning or thinking ahead, and then use subsequent drafts to find the true shape and meaning of the story. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and I end up having to abandon the story, but I still can’t usually seem to approach picture books any other way. For novels, I like to start the same way, just writing and seeing what happens, but then pretty soon I need to step back and try to figure out some things. I do a lot of focused freewriting, trying to answer questions that have come up in the writing and looking for motivations for the characters and thinking about the consequences of their actions and what plot events might lie ahead. I try to outline sometimes, once I’m a little way into a book, but usually the best parts of the story are things that happen while I’m writing, things I never planned out ahead of time.
5. What advice would you give to a teen reader who wants to write fantasy?
First, read a lot of fantasy! It’s important to see what else is out there, to figure out what you love most about fantasy, to see how other authors have done things and evaluate what has worked for you as a reader and what you think hasn’t worked so well. I also think it’s really important to spend a lot of time thinking about the world of your story. You don’t need to figure everything out ahead of time, but at some point you’re going to need to know about the landscape, the history, the culture, all the different elements that would affect the way your characters live and think and act. Think about the rules of any magic you use — it should never be too easy, and there should be an internal logic to the way things work. Fantasy readers are very quick to pick up on inconsistencies or anything that feels false within the story. But most of all, have fun! The joy of writing fantasy is letting your imagination run wild, thinking of ideas and scenarios that excite you and make you wonder what will happen next. Let yourself go crazy in your first drafts. You can always go back and rein things in later on if you need to.
6. Who are your favorite authors and books?
This is always such a hard question to answer, because there are so many! When I was first starting to love fantasy, I read lots of Piers Anthony (especially the first nine or so Xanth novels and the first three Adept books; I started to lose interest later in the series); Robert Asprin (the Myth series); and Tad Williams (first Tailchaser’s Song, then the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy). Today my favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold (the Miles Vokosigan series and the Chalion books); George R. R. Martin; Tanya Huff; Patricia A. McKillip; Robin Hobb; Kate DiCamillo; Leo Lionni; Peter McCarty; and selected books by Stephen King (especially The Eyes of the Dragon, The Stand, The Shining, and the Gunslinger books). Fairly recently (recently for me, not necessarily recently published) I’ve really enjoyed Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley, Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt, The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, and Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey. Oh and I think everyone should read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (of course). And Feed by M. T. Anderson. And all the Jenny and the Cat Club books by Esther Averill.
7. Do you have plans to write in another genre? Why or why not?
I suppose it’s possible I’ll write a non-fantasy novel at some point, but I don’t have any plans to do so in the immediate future. I never seem to get ideas for realistic stories, and that’s really perfectly all right with me, since fantasy makes me very happy. Right now I’m working on the sequel to The Dragon of Trelian and another, unrelated fantasy novel for YA readers. I do plan to continue writing picture books, though, because I love those, too. Although I guess my picture books also tend to have some kind of fantasy element as well! My next picture book is called ARGUS, and is coming out in Spring 2011.
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