May 12, 2020

Conversation with Sarah Jean Horwitz (Part I)

I met Sarah Jean Horwitz, author of the two Carmer and Grit books and The Dark Lord Clementine, on a panel in which we were both doing readings from our middle grade fantasy books.  I loved her books and what she had to say about them, so I invited her to join me in a conversation about writing fantasy for kids.  Read on for her special insights on fairies, Infants of Darkness, and the best way to blow up a steam car.
        (This turned out long enough that it will be posted in two parts.  Here’s Part I.  It seemed like the better part to begin with.)

Anne:  What’s special about fantasy that led you to choose this genre?

Sarah:  I love the magic and escapism of fantasy, but I also love how it can enable us to explore bigger issues, either through metaphor or with the safe bit of distance that comes with setting your story in another world. You can explore all the juicy themes and characters you like, plus with added cool sparkly bits. Who wouldn’t want more sparkly bits? 

Anne:  Me, too.  The combination of deep moral questions with fabulous cool stuff is, well, magic!  Are there any particular juicy themes you especially want to explore in your writing?  Or any sparkly bits that are particular favorites? 

Sarah:  While I don't usually make up my mind ahead of time and think, "In this work I want to explore X theme," I do notice I tend to gravitate to some of the same ideas. I love exploring deep friendships, chosen families, and letting your freak flag fly. ;)  In terms of sparkly bits, I really love fairies, and find myself returning to fairies and fairy magic in a lot of my work. There's something so tempting about the wildness and beauty of fairyland - something so alluring about these beautiful beings who don't operate with the same moral code as humans do. I'm not one of those people who yearns for any lawless/idealized wild west sort of past, but I do like to dip my toe into the waters of a stranger world for a little while. 

Anne:  My Kate and Sam books feature fairies simply because my then-six-year-old daughter asked me to put fairies in them.  And that segues into the question of What’s special about writing for children?  Why write for children, or more specifically middle grade?

Sarah:  To tell you the truth, I sort of started writing for children by accident. Before I was a children’s author, I studied screenwriting, and most of my projects were written with adults or young adults in mind. But it just so happened that the first idea I had for a book included a thirteen year-old boy protagonist and a heaping dose of fairy magic, so writing it for kids seemed like the best option! Fortunately, that voice came naturally to me, and I’ve never looked back.

Anne:  I assume the screen-writing background must have an influence on the way you envision stories and lay them out, both in the large scale and scene-by-scene.  Are there any particular tricks or hold-overs from screenwriting that influence your book writing?

Sarah:  Screenwriting is very structured and, at least for lots of mainstream stories, very plot-driven, and I definitely think my screenwriting education helped me get a handle on writing for children specifically, because that also tends to be more plot-driven. Kid readers aren't going to stick around while you wax poetic about the landscape or don't have your characters actually do anything until fifty pages in! I use a three act structure-based outline that I learned in my feature film screenwriting class in college to outline many of my projects to this day. I also had a writing mentor in college who always encouraged me to make my writing as "sexy" as possible. Ha! He didn't mean sexy sexy, but he did mean dynamic and rich and exciting. Pump up the visual imagery, the stakes, or whatever you can, in every scene. That's definitely stayed with me, especially when it comes to writing fantasy. 

Anne:  In other words, crank up the sparkle!

Sarah:  I tend to write books with my past younger self in mind. I ask myself what kinds of stories and characters twelve year-old Sarah would have wanted to read about (and what twenty-eight year-old Sarah wants to read about now!) and then I try to write them.

Anne:  I also definitely write largely for myself, although as you imply, I’m not sure there’s always too much difference between child me and adult me.  We both like adventure, and magic, and trying to do the best you can in the world, and wonder, and curiosity and...  

        Here endeth Part I.  Tune in next time (on Friday) for the rest of the conversation.  (You can find more info about Sarah and her books HERE.)

[Picture: Sarah as Clementine, photo from Sarah Jean Horwitz, 2019;
Cover of Carmer and Grit: The Wingsnatchers.]

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