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Interview with picture book author Dian Curtis Regan

Dian Curtis Regan is the author of more than 60 books for young readers, ranging from picture books to YA novels. Her books have received many honors, including Best Books for Young Adults, Children’s Choice Awards, Junior Library Guild selections, Los Angeles Times Recommended Book, and New York Public Library’s Best Books. Space Boy and the Space Pirate was a 2017 finalist for the Colorado Book Award, and the winner of a 2017 Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. Space Boy and the Snow Monster is brand new this fall. Dian lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For what age audience do you write?

My books range from board books and picture books to young adult novels, and anthology stories. Mostly I write humor, although I’ve published fantasy, mysteries, and even a tall tale.

Tell us about your latest book.

SPACE BOY AND THE SPACE PIRATE, the second picture book in a trilogy, was a 2017 finalist for the Colorado Book Award, winner of a 2017 Crystal Kite Award from SCBWI, and the one book chosen by Colorado Humanities and the Colorado State Library Association to represent the state at this year’s National Book Festival in Washington D.C.

The third book, SPACE BOY AND THE SNOW MONSTER, was published a few days ago. The trilogy has been picked up by the international Space Foundation as “certified imagination products.” I am honored!

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

I hope readers get caught up in the fast-paced adventure when Niko’s imagination turns a cardboard box into a spaceship which blasts off to other worlds with his loyal crew: Tag, his dog, and Radar, his robot copilot. To quote Kirkus: “Intergalactic derring-do–and home in time for supper.”

Henry: “…and it was still hot.”

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

After publishing books in all genres, I can say that each book, from idea to finished product, is extremely challenging. No, it doesn’t get easier with each book. Plus, the shorter the text, the more difficult it is to get it right.

Henry: Coming up with the idea, deciding the manuscript is ready to submit, and everything in between.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?

To be conscious of where my time goes each day. It’s easy to waste hours on social media, but writing is a solitary endeavor. You have to turn off the noise. I have a sign in my office that says, “What you do today is important because you are exchanging a day of your life for it.” That is sobering enough to get me into the chair.

Henry: That is a great, mindful quote.

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

When I lived in Venezuela, I wrote three anthology stories completely different from anything I’d ever written. I’d been suddenly thrown into a totally different dynamic from living in the USA. But I’m proud of the stories. They would not have been written if I hadn’t moved to South America. ( SHATTERED—Knopf, SOUL SEARCHING—S&S, and FIRST CROSSING—Candlewick)

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Never send out a project too early. Stories need time to “steep.” Put it aside for a couple of weeks—or months. Your “undermind” will continue to work on it. When you pick it up again, you’ll be amazed at how many changes you’ll make.

Also, be aware of language. Rise above worn out descriptions, characters, and what my friends and I call “word pockets.” How can you say or show something better and more creatively?

When editors say they receive 50,000 manuscripts a year, it’s up to you to give them something they’ve never seen before. Something that makes them sit up and keep reading. It may take years to get your project to that place. Take the time.

Henry: That said, one must strike a balance between innovative and so far out that editors won’t take the risk.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

“When it comes to disciplining yourself to write, guilt is very useful.” — Susan Meyers, author

Henry: Also “Discipline is the refining fire by which talent becomes ability.” – Roy L. Smith

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?

I do a lot of “circling” before I settle in to work. Is that strange? When asked the same question, Ernest Hemingway said, “First, I defrost the refrigerator.” I can relate to that.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Time travel. What a great way to do primary source research. Or, imagine sitting with Margaret Wise Brown and her writer friends as they discussed one of her works in progress called Goodnight Moon…….

Henry: Also, a great way to never miss a writing deadline!

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

C.S. Lewis (because NARNIA), Lloyd Alexander (I met him once and tried to tell him he’s the reason I am a writer, but instead, I burst into tears), and Lucy Maud Montgomery (because ANNE OF GREEN GABLES).

Henry: I assume dinner would include crunchings and munchings.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Right now, I’m rather fond of Radar, the toy robot in Space Boy. At the beginning and end of the stories, he’s a small stuffed toy, but as the adventures begin, he grows tall and becomes an equal crew member alongside Niko and Tag–fighting battles and overcoming enemies.

Henry: Robots can make interesting characters. I just sold a picture book with a robot protagonist, TWO PIRATES + A ROBOT. It’s Firefly meets The Giving Tree.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Besides reading? Last year, we bought an RV. It’s a great way to travel—with the dog and cat. However, I do keep working while my husband drives. Other than that, my high school friends and I have started having our own adventures. We’ve been to Europe, Alaska, New York, the Caribbean, Nova Scotia, and even a visit to the Anne of Green Gables house on Prince Edward Island.

What would you like it to (accurately) say on your tombstone?

Visit diancurtisregan.com!

Henry: Best. Answer. Ever.

Where can readers find your work?

The Space Boy books should be available at any bookstore or online. Since I’m often asked for autographed copies of various titles, my new website is set up to take orders here: http://diancurtisregan.com/product/autographed-books/

To learn more, and to download a curriculum guide, visit diancurtisregan.com and spaceboybooks.com.

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Dian.

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Interview with author/illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton

Vanessa Brantley Newton was born during the Civil Rights movement, and attended school in Newark, NJ. Being part of a diverse, tight-knit community during such turbulent times, Vanessa learned the importance of acceptance and empowerment in shaping a young person’s life. When she read SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats, it was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book. It was a defining moment in her life, and has made her into the artist she is today. As an illustrator, she includes children of all ethnic backgrounds in her stories and artwork. She wants all children to see their unique experiences reflected in the books they read, so they can feel the same sense of empowerment and recognition she experienced as a young reader.

For what age audience do you write?

I create for ages 3-8 for picture books and then 8-12 for middle grade.

Tell us about your latest book.

My latest book is happily called, GRANDMA’S PURSE, written and illustrated by me. It’s been a while. The book is with Random House Publishing and due out in Jan 2018. All about a little girl who finds goodies in her grandmothers purse.

Henry: Grandmas are also known for hiding tissues in their sleeves.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

Simply the love and relationship of grandchild and grandparent, and that we can find out a lot about a person from what they carry with them.

Henry: So true!

What aspect of illustrating and writing do you find most challenging?

It’s always been the sketching for me. Layout out a book is so very frustrating to me. Each time feels like the first, and I approach each book like it’s the first one. Yeah I know I’ve done it a couple of times, LOL!! I really don’t know why, but it’s a little difficult to wrap my head around it. I think that I over-think it too much, and the need to please OTHERS can really rattle me a bit.

As far as writing is concerned, I am dyslexic and it makes it really difficult to come to an empty page and fill it with words. I don’t spell very well and my vocab is very simple, if you will. Not a really deep one, LOL! I have my own way of expressing myself, and as a dyslexic person I have to do it in a way that makes sense to me first. I love to write poems and sing. Music helps me to tell my stories. I also learn through rhyme. Once I get something, it sticks and I am able to use it however I need. This is how most children with dyslexia learn. I really don’t consider myself a writer, but more of a storyteller.

Henry: And a hugger!

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?

That we have to power to tell children stories that can uplift, scare, inspire, provoke empathy, cause them to see their beautiful selves, and to be creative — and that is a pretty power, but even more powerful, NEVER EVER LET ANYONE SPEAK FOR YOU!

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

Just recently, a book that was pulled by Scholastic called, A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON. Honestly, one of the most painful experiences of my career in children’s books. No one ever wants to be censored or have their book pulled, but this is what happened, and while it was painful, there was so much that I learned from the experience. I found my own voice and my own stories. We often like to give our characters adversity, but we will have none of it in our own very real lives. The fact is, we love adversity and hard times and frustrations put on to our characters. It’s the stuff that good books are made of. But in order to give your character that kind of magic that makes your readers care and feel about the character, you have to sometimes experience your own trials and tribulations as well. How did you come through the very hard stuff? The whole debacle made me turn in and go really deep. While very painful, much like baring a child. Nobody likes the labor pains, but holding the child makes it worth the while, and that is what this book did for me. I doubt that people would have even heard of Vanessa Brantley-Newton if this didn’t take place. Truly what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger for the journey ahead. It’s time to get busy telling children of color and children period, a different type of story. Stories that give them life.

Henry: You persisted!

What advice would you offer aspiring authors and illustrators?

Hone your talent. Really be willing to stretch yourself and put yourself in a real teachable environment. Learn all that you can from watching other illustrators and reading other authors works – people that have made it. What do you love about their creative flow? Compile that information in a notebook or sketch book. Try adding it to your work. I never had the chance to meet Erza Jack Keats, but I was student of his wonderful work. I put it in front of me and tried to copy as much as I could without copying LOL! I studied his line and how he laid out his books. Still studying him today along with Mary Blair and Fiep Westendorp and a host of others. DO YOU! You bring something special to the creative table that nobody else brings! Stop comparing your beautiful self to other people! They can’t do what you do, and you can’t do what they do. We are looking to see what you are going to share with the world.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

“Thoughts become things, so get busy thinking right thoughts and watch what happens.”

Henry: Nice. I like the related: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?

I don’t know if this is a really strange ritual, but seriously music and comedy in my office and lots of dancing heightens the frequency and creative flow. Every single day. Live, Love, Laugh!

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Oh this is one of my favorite questions ever!!!!! Okay I would like the power of Manifestation. The ability to make it so! To think about something and see it manifest before my eyes.

Henry: I’m gonna’ manifest myself some pizza and beer right now.

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

Langston Hughes because he makes me feel. Maya Angelo because she allows me to see me. Ezra Jack Keats because he’d cause me to do both.

Henry: But, I come in a close fourth, right? 🙂

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Venus because she was love and beauty.

Henry: Congratulations. You are the first author to answer that question with a goddess.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Sing Jazz and cook and laugh, laugh, laugh!

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

Here lies a woman who loved God and loved people and they all felt it.

Henry: Anyone who meets you feels it! 🙂

Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

Vanessabrantleynewton.com

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us. I had the pleasure of meeting Vanessa. She’s a hugger!


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Interview with Picture Book Author/Illustrator Karen Lechelt

Karen Lechelt is a writer, illustrator and artist. She was born in South Korea, raised in New Jersey and currently lives in San Francisco. Most of her stories have animals  wearing pants. Making books is something she finds impossible and impossibly wonderful. I had the opportunity to meet her at this year’s LA Times Festival of Books.

For what age audience do you write? 

Early readers (1-5), picture books

Tell us about your book. 

It’s about a young girl who while playing with her toys imagines asking them one simple question, WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOU? Their responses are sweet, silly and unique.

What DO YOU LOVE ABOUT that book? 

I hope readers and non-readers will begin to think about what it is they love about themselves…obvious I know, but that’s what I’m really hoping for.

Henry: Very nice.

What aspect of writing or illustrating do you find most challenging? 

Finishing a story or an idea is difficult for me. Ideas can come to me rather quickly. But completing the idea and the ending is almost always a struggle for me. I’m not a tidy person, and find it impossible to come up with tidy endings.

Henry: I’m a very tidy person, and it’s still a challenge to come up with tidy endings.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer/illustrator? 

To never give up on myself. After a hundred rejections and many moments of self doubt, ultimately it was MY voice (both verbal and graphic) that shined through the massive slush piles and landed me a wonderful publisher, agent and editor. I have to believe in myself otherwise no one else will.

Henry: Solid advice. That, and grow a thick skin!

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer? 

I’ve never been a fan of public speaking…actually I used to loathe it.  But since becoming a published author and presenting my book to over 500 students, children and adults, I’ve learned to enjoy the experience. And reading on the children’s stage at the LA Times Festival of Books is something I never expected to do and will NEVER forget. Also getting my picture taken with Jon Klassen AND Mac Barnett at LATFB was a huge treat for this fan.

Henry: I saw you there. Great job!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors or illustrators? 

I’m too much of an imposter to give advice.  But if forced, maybe I’d say no matter what, just enjoy the artful journey of storytelling.

Henry: Good advice. The artistic road is hilly, so enjoy the high points.

Do you have any favorite quotes? 

Not really a quote, but a cartoon by Jack Ziegler. A man walks into a party and thinks to himself “Yipes! Grownups!”. That happens to me almost every day…not the party, just the feeling.

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work? 

I don’t, but my dog does. He follows me to my desk, waits for me to turn around in my chair and say “I see you” and then jumps onto the small sofa. If I don’t acknowledge him, he stares through me until I’ve relented. Oh, and I do eat a lot of chocolate, but there’s nothing strange about that.

Henry: “Acknowledge me, hooman! One does not simply work without acknowledging me. It is folly.”

If you could have one superpower, what would it be? 

Having a 10 year old daughter, I have discussed this quite a bit. I would absolutely fly. I love traveling and eating.  So if I could fly I would wake up in the morning and eat bagels in NY, then fly to Paris for a ham baguette and croissant, then I’d go and eat Udon in Japan and end my day in Florence with waffles and gelato.  I’d be a very selfish superhero and happily very plump. If I couldn’t fly I’d maybe like to control the weather. I think I could do a lot of good if I could control the weather.

Henry: If you get too plump, it would affect your aerodynamics. Flying is a lot trickier than it first appears. I wrote a mock interview of Edna Mode, discussing the challenges of flying and other superpowers. 

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

I would love to have Haruki Murakami over for dinner because he is my favorite all-time author. I would want to ask him about the inklings and cats and shadows in his books. I would also love to eat with Mary Blair, although technically she’s not an author, but illustrator.  She illustrated one of my all time favorite picture books, I CAN FLY.  Her color, style and creativity are unrivaled. And lastly I would have Charles Bukowski at the table, because I love his writing, but more importantly, I think he would be horribly fun. Either I’d love him or end up kicking him out.

Henry: Wikipedia helpfully offers:
“Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer. His books and stories have been bestsellers in Japan as well as internationally, with his work being translated into 50 languages and selling millions of copies outside his native country. The critical acclaim for his fiction and non-fiction has led to numerous awards, in Japan and internationally, including the World Fantasy Award (2006) and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2006). His oeuvre received, for example, the Franz Kafka Prize (2006) and the Jerusalem Prize (2009). Murakami’s most notable works include A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–95), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and 1Q84 (2009–10).

Mary Blair, born Mary Robinson, was an American artist who was prominent in producing art and animation for The Walt Disney Company, drawing concept art for such films as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Song of the South and Cinderella. Blair also created character designs for enduring attractions such as Disneyland’s It’s a Small World, the fiesta scene in El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase, and an enormous mosaic inside Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Several of her illustrated children’s books from the 1950s remain in print, such as I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss. Blair was inducted into the prestigious group of Disney Legends in 1991.

Henry Charles Bukowski was a German-born American poet, novelist, and short story writer. His writing was influenced by the social, cultural, and economic ambience of his home city of Los Angeles. His work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women, and the drudgery of work. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels, eventually publishing over 60 books. The FBI kept a file on him as a result of his column, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, in the LA underground newspaper Open City. In 1986 Time called Bukowski a “laureate of American lowlife”.”

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

I like the cats in Murakami’s books because they are delegates from another world. When I read a Murakami story I may be entering a world that I actually feel like I belong to. I believe my dog, Mr. Jones, often tries to lead me down a rabbit hole.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Right now I’m really into painting…and chocolate.

Henry: Chocolate is becoming a theme here…

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

Lived a long happy life.

Where can readers find your work?

Tell them to check their local library! And if they want to buy it they can go to their local book store, Barnes and Noble, Amazon and the like.

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Karen.


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Interview with children’s book author/illustrator Daniel Kirk

Daniel Kirk has been writing and illustrating children’s books for over twenty-five years. In that time he’s published nearly fifty titles for Abrams Books, Hyperion, Scholastic, Putnam, and Simon and Schuster. His books include the best-selling LIBRARY MOUSE series. He lives in New Jersey, a short train ride from New York City.

For what age audience do you write?

For the most part I make picture books for young readers, and have made a few stabs into the realm of chapter books and young adult fantasy novels. But mostly I’m known for my picture books! My characters tend to be talking animals, though some of my more popular titles are about vehicles. Apparently people like the way I draw shiny metal things with wheels, but I prefer painting four-legged creatures.

Henry: As a picture book author myself, I’m amazed at people who can write picture books AND young adult novels. They are such different art forms.

Tell us about your latest book.

My new picture book is called RHINO IN THE HOUSE, and it is my first non-fiction title I’ve both written and illustrated. It tells the story of Anna Merz, an Englishwoman who moved to Kenya in 1976 to found a rhino sanctuary. She’d intended to retire there, but when she got to Kenya and saw how so many animals were threatened by hunting and poaching, she decided to do something about it. Anna had a fence built around thousands of acres of land, and arranged for rhinos in danger to be brought to her sanctuary. It wasn’t long before she discovered a baby rhino calf that had been abandoned by its mother. Anna named the calf Samia. My book is about the relationship between the woman and the rhino as she raised the calf to adulthood, and some of the challenges the two of them encountered along the way.

It’s a sweet story about Anna’s devotion to Samia, as well as a tribute to a woman who learned many things about rhinos that nobody had ever bothered to learn before.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

These days there are many endangered animals on the brink of extinction, and I hope that by sharing the story of Anna and Samia, I can encourage kids to understand that when they grow up, they have the power make a difference too. I want to reinforce the fact that endangered animals matter, and that there’s still hope for making our world a better place. As part of my research for this book I went to Lewa Downs in Kenya to see where Anna and Samia had lived. I’d like children to understand how important travel is to understanding the world we live in. At the back of the book I’ve devoted some space to sharing pictures and sketches of other animals I got to see on the range in Africa.

What aspect of writing or illustrating do you find most challenging?

I love coming up with ideas and developing them into stories. The challenges are in keeping it all as simple as possible, and keeping it fresh for myself as well as the reader. It can take months, or even years, to come up with appropriate endings for stories, find the right voice for characters, and figuring out what you DON’T have to say to still get across your ideas. People are always surprised to hear that picture books are not written in about the time it takes to read them. They look so simple! But of course, making things appear simple, even when they’re complicated, is very important.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being an author/illustrator?

Patience! I’m continually reminded that my first ideas aren’t always my best, and that nothing gets accomplished without a lot of effort and attention to detail. My brain and my hands never seem to work fast enough, and everything takes longer than I’d like. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough time to accomplish all the things I want to do. But slow, baby steps are the only way to really get things done!

Henry: Exactly. Patience and persistence.

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

Part of my mind is always tuned into finding inspiration in what happens around me. I hear and see things in the most common and ordinary situations that I wouldn’t have noticed if I weren’t making books. I guess you could call that “writer’s radar”. Certainly I’ve had lots of opportunity to travel and meet people as a writer that I wouldn’t have had if I had some other occupation, but in answer to your question, the biggest thing is the awareness that comes in every waking moment when you don’t just see the events of the day, but you see the way people and things are connected, and ordinary events teach us things about life. This is often how stories get their start!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors/illustrators?

Whatever you do with your writing, always do it foremost for the love of creating and sharing. Creativity has its own rewards, and those rewards are limitless.

Don’t box yourself in with too many self-imposed limits. Try writing in different styles and genres until you find your own voice and the things that you’re passionate about. Try not to look too much at other people’s work or you’ll be distracted from the quiet voices inside your own head. Don’t compare yourself and your successes or failures with other people. These are things that will throw you off balance and just make you feel insecure.

And remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Creativity is a journey—sort of like life in general!

Henry: And don’t quit your day job. Writing picture books is not a path to fame and fortune.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

I like a lot of zen snippets like “Chop wood, carry water”, and “first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is”. They combine the mundane with eternal verities in an appealing way. Here’s another–“The one who is good at shooting does not hit the center of the target”. I try to remember these when I find myself struggling too hard for perfection in my work!

Henry: “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.”

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?

When I was a little kid I did most of my arts and crafts stuff either in front of the TV or sitting at the kitchen table. I’d say about half of my creative time today is spent working at the kitchen table. There’s a lot of sunlight, and constant access to snacks. And my laptop functions as an entertainment unit, where I get music to work by, or a series on Netflix to listen to while I draw. I don’t know if that constitutes a ritual, or anything strange, but I’m not the kind of guy who likes putting on a suit and tie and sitting at a desk to get my work done. To me, that would be strange!

Henry: You had me at snacks.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I’d be the guy who could slow down time. To everybody else I’d look like a hummingbird, but I’d really be getting things done. I guess there’s already a superhero like that, The Flash, so I’d be like him. Except without the red costume.

Henry: But, then you’d have to be even MORE patient!

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

I’m kind of shy, so I don’t know about having them over for dinner. But I can imagine randomly bumping into some of my favorite deceased authors. The writer and artist James Flora was a big inspiration to me—even though our work is nothing alike. We both grew up in Ohio. So in my fantasy scenario I’m sitting next to him on a flight to Columbus, and I work up my courage to introduce myself as a fan. Then we discuss media and changing styles, among other things. Tove Jansson is one of my favorite author/illustrators, she created the Moomin books. I can imagine I bump into her on the ferry from Sweden to Finland and we might chat about the mischievous Little My. I love the Frog and Toad books, and actually, anything created by Arnold Lobel. I imagine I’m waiting for the subway train in Brooklyn, when I spot him on the platform. I’d have to ask him what he thinks Owl Tear tea would taste like!

Henry: I imagine Owl Tear tea tastes like disappointment.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Mythological creatures tend to be dangerous, and danger isn’t really my thing…but I can’t help being curious about Sirens, as I’ve always tried to imagine the song they sing to lure sailors to their demise. Is it the melody? The lyrics? The singing voice? I’d love to hear a short, non-fatal sample to help me figure that one out.

Henry: It’s the sirens’ dance moves…

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to write and illustrate books but my great passion is music. I’m in a couple of bands, singing and playing guitar, and I love harmonies and rhythm and playing with other like-minded people. Making books is good creative fun but tends to be solitary. When I write songs that’s solitary, too, but making music together is one of life’s greatest pleasures for me.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

When my time is up on this planet, I plan to have my ashes tossed into the wind over some lovely vista. No tombstone. The memories of my friends and loved ones will keep me going for a while, and if anybody finds my books in used book stores and likes what they see and read, that’s enough eternity for me.

Henry: Indeed, books are authors’ tombstones.

Where can readers find your work?

Well I certainly hope in new and used book stores, on Amazon and Ebay, and of course, in libraries. My website is danielkirk.com, and you can get a decent glimpse of what I do by checking me out online. I’ve also got a bunch of short videos that I just put up on Youtube for my new book, “Rhino in the House”!

Henry: Thanks for visiting with us, Daniel.


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Interview with middle grade novelist Henry Neff

Henry H. Neff is the author and illustrator of the five-book fantasy epic THE TAPESTRY, along with his newest creation, IMPYRIUM, which Entertainment Weekly named the #1 Middle Grade Book of 2016. Henry lives with his wife and two sons in Montclair, NJ.

neffhenry

For what age audience do you write?

My books are usually classified as middle grade fantasy, but I don’t really write for a specific audience or age group. I simply try to tell a story I find entertaining and figure the audience will sort itself out. While that certainly includes 8-12 years olds, I’d say almost half my readers are teenagers and adults. My stories are categorized as fantasy because they contain magic but you’ll also find lots of history, mythology, and even science fiction. They’re a genre stew.

Henry H.: Speculative fiction goulash. A potpourri of preposterous plot particles.

Tell us about your latest book.

My most recent work is IMPYRIUM (HarperCollins, October 2016). It’s the first in a trilogy that takes place in a distant future when our world is dominated by magical humans, most notably the godlike Faeregines, whose family has ruled the empire over 3,000 years. Unfortunately for the Faeregines, the family’s magic has been fading, and their many enemies have noticed. The story has two main characters: Hazel Faeregine, who is an outcast within the royal family, and Hob Smythe, a non-magical commoner and undercover revolutionary that serves (and spies) within the palace. Some have joked that it’s Game of Thrones—for kids! In addition to writing the story, I create all the interior art and maps. It’s been a lot of fun.

Henry H.: I enjoyed reading IMPYRIUM. My brain unconsciously kept translating Faeregines as Fae peregrines. Elvish falcons!

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

First and foremost, I want them to be entertained. But I also want readers to be challenged, and to make deep and lasting connections with the characters. I rarely work in black and white, and strive to give my heroes flaws and the villains motivation beyond simply being bad guys. There are some tricky topics broached in IMPYRIUM having to do with class, opportunity, the use of power, and institutional decay. As in real life, there are no easy answers to complex questions. Everything involves a tradeoff and there is usually another side to the story.

Henry H.: If we could peek inside villains’ heads, I suspect most of them wouldn’t consider themselves villainous. I agree with you that complex villains are so much more interesting. Gollum is much more intriguing than the uniformly evil Nazgul.

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

My rough drafts are painfully slow, as I suffer from a tendency to over-plan and edit while writing them. Having a roadmap is helpful, but excessive planning can smother creative spontaneity. Revising while writing kills momentum and can lead to losing sight of the forest, and instead obsessing over individual trees. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d write rougher drafts and take far less time doing so. If anyone is in possession of such a wand, please get in touch.

Henry H.: Unplug your computer mouse. You can only type. You cannot go back and edit (until the first draft is done). You’re welcome.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?

When in doubt, trust your gut — even if it’s telling you to do something that seems weird or risky. There’s no guarantee of success, but I believe this leads to better stories, a more interesting life, and fewer regrets. No one spends their final moments wishing they’d been more conventional.

Henry H.: However, one should take care not to extend this advice too far. Just because your gut says that a 300-page dystopian picture book sounds like a fun project, you should probably skip it.

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

Does having a family qualify? I reconnected with a former classmate (we attended the same elementary school) after my first book, The Hound of Rowan, was published. Danielle read it, sent a nice note, and we caught up the next time I was in New York (I was living in San Francisco at the time). A decade later we’re living happily in Montclair, NJ with our two beautiful boys. If I hadn’t left the corporate world to teach and write, I’d probably be alone with a bigger bank account and a lot less happiness.

Henry H.: Best. Answer. Ever.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Get your drafts down quickly, grow a thick skin, and truly embrace revision. Also, don’t over-romanticize the profession. This last one is important. Having talked with many aspiring authors, I’ve noticed that some believe publication is the ticket to fame and riches. I can tell you firsthand that it is not, and there are very few children’s authors that can live solely on their writing income, much less amass anything resembling wealth. If being rich and famous is your goal, there are more reliable paths than making children’s books. Write because you have stories to tell and enjoy telling them. If your book becomes a bestseller, GREAT! But don’t allow that to be your goal, much less your reason for writing.

Henry H.: All excellent advice. If I may elaborate, Henry’s thick skin comment refers to both dealing with agent/editor rejections, and unfavorable book reviews. Take solace that ALL authors get rejected. And don’t read reviews of your books. The positive ones don’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, and the negative ones are depressing.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” from Catch-22, and “Just keep swimming” by the ever-buoyant Dory. The former appeals to the wry cynic in me; the latter to my chipper optimist. It’s the Frosted Mini-Wheats of quotation pairings.

Henry H.: “There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears can come true at any moment.” – Hunter S. Thompson
“Fish are friends, not food.” – Bruce the Great White Shark

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?

When I settle in to write, it’s usually with a pot of coffee, noise-cancelling headphones, and Tchaikovsky’s “Arabian Dance” on repeat. There’s something about that piece I find conducive to writing. It has a soothing, almost hypnotic quality that helps put my brain in work mode. According to iTunes it’s been played over 23,000 times, so I’d say that qualifies as a ritual. I also pay tribute to Cthulhu.

Henry H.: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
Yeah, that’s soothing…

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Forget flying. My super power would be the ability to write a rough draft in four months or less. I would weep with joy. So would my editor.

Henry H.: A modest, but practical superpower. Well played.

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, and Philip Pullman. Tolkien because he’s the granddaddy of modern fantasy, LeGuin because she’s a marvelous writer whose penned iconic works in both fantasy and science fiction, and Pullman because I think “His Dark Materials” is not only brilliant but fearless. The dynamic would be an interesting one. I’d love to hear Tolkien spar with Pullman about whether The Lord of the Rings has merit beyond a basic children’s story (Pullman’s been highly dismissive of Tolkien’s work as anything resembling literature or even a children’s story of moderate depth). It would be fun to witness two opinionated, scholarly writers have at it. Meanwhile, I could ask Ursula how she manages to craft stories that portray both magic and daily life with such lyrical beauty and realism. I was tempted to resurrect Patrick O’Brien whose Aubrey-Maturin are my favorite books, but I’ve heard he was a superior, standoffish fellow. Sorry Patrick, you can’t come. If I could add a fourth, it would probably be Neil Gaiman. I admire his work and he seems the type to bring a good bottle or two.

Henry H.: That is one high-powered dinner soiree. But the pressure! You know they’re silently correcting your grammar.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

There’s a quotation in Impyrium attributed to a long-dead playwright that reads Keep your basilisks and harpies, your trolls and goblins. There is only one true monster and its name is Dragon. I should note, however, that the dragons I’m talking about aren’t overgrown lizards that are fodder for enterprising heroes. The dragons I’m talking about are mythological entities whose being is tied to some aspect of Nature or the cosmos. In my books, there are only a handful of dragons and they are ancient, godlike creatures whose mere presence is utterly overwhelming to mortals.

Henry H.: Dragon Is correct. Would you like to try Mythological Creatures for $400?

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Mostly, I chase my kids around. We have two young boys, ages five and three. They keep me pretty busy. Fortunately, I enjoy Legos, frozen waffles, and toilet humor.

Henry H.: The only thing scarier than a dragon is stepping barefoot on a Lego.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

“No vacancy.”

Henry H.: Wouldn’t it be preferable if your tomb remained vacant? Just sayin’.

Where can readers find your work?

You can probably find IMPYRIUM in your local bookstore or library, along with any of the major chains or online retailers. My first series, The Tapestry, can be purchased online and found in the odd bookstore with exceptional taste. My books also have digital and audio versions and some have been translated into a variety of foreign languages. For more information, you can visit my website at http://www.henryhneff.com

Thanks for spending time with us, Henry.