May 15, 2020

Conversation with Sarah Jean Horwitz (Part II)

... And we’re back with Sarah Jean Horwitz, fellow author of MG fantasies.  If you’re tuning in for the first time, check back to the last post for the first half of this conversation.  And without further ado:

Anne:  Have you ever run into snobbery about writing for children being less prestigious than adult literature?

Sarah:  I’ve only ever received a handful of disparaging comments about writing for children, and the “prestige” factor has never bothered me much. I know kidlit is great, and so do most people whose opinions I’d value, anyway. ;) The only thing that bothers me lately is when people assume that I write for young adults. I get called a “young adult author” all the time, which frustrates me, because I have never written a young adult book in my life! It would be like if I had a friend who was exclusively an elementary school teacher, and I knew this, but I kept introducing her to people as a high school teacher anyway. Sometimes people forget that there is a whole world of children’s literature between “picture books” and “young adult.”

Anne: That’s interesting.  Any idea why people seem to make that assumption?  And you sound like you have no interest in ever writing YA - is that the case, and if so, why?  (What did 17-year-old Sarah like to read?)

Sarah:  I really don't know why people make that assumption. I think that YA is such a part of the cultural consciousness now, with all the big movie and TV adaptations and bestsellers making the headlines, that maybe people jump to YA now as their first point of reference for any children's literature that's not a "classic" or very obviously for the youngest readers. The fact that I write older middle grade probably doesn't help my case much, either. 
  I won't say I'll never write YA - in fact, I just got an idea for a YA story this past week! - but it's highly unlikely. Honestly, I sometimes find the "teenaged voice" and teenaged characters annoying! Ha. Oh, that's going to come back to haunt me, I know. But I do have a bit of a grouchy "get off my lawn" attitude when it comes to teenaged characters, and the voice has never come as naturally to me as a writer. And that's pretty weird, because I LOVED YA in middle school, high school and even a little past college. I read mostly YA and was very passionate about it. As I got older, though, the bloom went off the rose, and I discovered a lot more joy in middle grade books. 
  Part of what I like about writing middle grade characters is that, in general, they're less jaded and a bit more open to new experiences. I like the inherent hopeful quality in lots of middle grade that I feel like is missing from a lot of YA (not all! but a lot). 

Anne: I tend to agree.  Sometimes I feel like YA books are “checking off all the boxes” and it feels manipulative or artificial.  Or perhaps a better way to put it is that our culture seems to have a very narrow view of what it means to be a teenager or what the teenage experience is like, and YA books seem to adhere to that narrow view all too faithfully (not all! but a lot).  Given that one of the things I like most about fantasy is that it allows you to imagine infinite scenarios instead of merely the usual “realistic” ones, I find it a little tiresome to be railroaded into checking those same old boxes all the time.  I agree that MG books often feel a little freer, more hopeful, more willing to simply imagine “what if?”  That said, I have a YA work in progress at the moment (with faeries, too), so we’ll see how that goes!
  Did you have any particular inspirations or anecdotes about The Dark Lord Clementine?
Sarah:  As strange as it sounds, I have two babies to thank for the idea for The Dark Lord Clementine. The first is my friend Brooke’s niece, whom she nicknamed “the Dark Lord.” Ha! I’m sure little Fallyn will appreciate that when she’s older. The second is my old high school English teacher’s daughter, whose name is...Clementine! Yup. A few years ago, I was playing with baby Clementine with some friends, and we were trying to get her to make the sounds of her toy farm animals. We’d say, “What sound does the pig make, Clem? Does the pig go ‘oink oink’? Does the cow go ‘moo’?” But Clementine just sat there stony-faced, not humoring us at all, which I thought was so funny. And so I put on this scary voice and said something like, “The animals say nothing. All of the animals are silent. They are always silent.” And everyone cracked up laughing, and then I remembered Brooke’s nickname for her niece, and it occurred to me that The Dark Lord Clementine and Her Silent Farm would be such a fun title for a book. So it started this sort of running joke with my friends, but then I started thinking...what if it really was a book? And the whole idea spiralled from there.

Anne:  This is a great story, and such a great illustration of how ideas connect and pop.  One of my books (not quite MG, though) started with the title “Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster,” which I had thrown out to a bunch of 4th graders as a minor joke in passing, and to my surprise they LOVED it and clamored to get the story.  So, are there any fun background stories for your other books?

Sarah:  Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster is a GREAT title. It is not surprising to me that the kids loved it. ;) 
  I don't really have fun origin stories for my other books - mostly the ideas just kind of show up in my brain - but I do have a fun research story. For the second CARMER AND GRIT book, I was doing some research on steam cars, and I needed to know the quickest way to sabotage a steam car's engine to make it explode. (Yes, my Google search history is very colorful indeed.) I managed to get in contact with a British steam car society, and I explained the information 
I needed, and they were utterly offended. They sent me an email scolding me for even entertaining such a question, because steam cars were incredibly safe, and any suggestion that their engines could explode amounted to spreading misinformation! I could unnecessarily damage the reputation of steam cars everywhere! So I got a real telling-to on that front. ;) (In the end, I mostly exploded the car with magic. Because why not? It's magic!) 

Anne: That seems legit.  You can blow up anything with magic, so no one can say it’s the steam car’s fault.  =)
  Yeah, writers’ search histories can be all over the place.  Sometimes I get some very odd ads, and I always want to tell the computer, “Just because I’m looking up Victorian tree-hanging cradles doesn’t mean I need to buy Pampers.”
  Anyway, I really enjoyed your books, and I appreciate your taking the time to have this conversation.  Best of luck on the current work-in-progress, and I look forward to seeing you next year, (always hoping that next year will be back to in-person events, of course).

        You can find info about Sarah Jean Horwitz and her books HERE, and me and my books HERE.

[Pictures: Sarah Jean Horwitz, photo from Sarah;
covers for The Dark Lord Clementine and Carmer and Grit: The Crooked Castle, from Sarah;
cover for Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster, from AEGN.]

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