June 17, 2020

Conversation with Christine Taylor-Butler (Part I)

        I met author Christine Taylor-Butler a couple of years ago when we participated together in a reading of middle grade sci fi and fantasy books.  When I set about recruiting a few authors to join me in a conversation about working on SFF (Sci Fi/Fantasy) for kids, Christine was one of the first people I thought of.  She has written more than 80 books including lots of science and history titles for kids, as well as the first two books in The Lost Tribes series.  (Once again, I’ve broken this up into two posts because of length.)

Anne: You write such a broad variety of books on such a wide array of subjects that I’m especially curious about your inspirations.  Let’s start with your process for non-fiction...  

Christine: I have relationships with a number of publishers who call and ask if I'd be interested in writing about "x" and suggest a fee. The industry name for that is "work for hire." Sometimes I'll get a subject and think, "I am not even remotely interested in that." But the wonderful thing about researching subjects I'm not familiar with is that I have to immerse in the subject until something about it clicks with me. That way I can distill the information down to make it interesting to a reader. For example, I remembered American History as being the most dull academic subject to get through as a child. I cringed when asked to write a series. But I like a challenge. So it became fascinating to learn how dysfunctional our founding fathers were and the lengths it took to come up with a coherent Constitution (there was an early one that didn't work), and a national government that functioned. The publisher gave me wide latitude to build the narrative which included a sidebar on how constantly paying ransoms to pirates played a role in getting Congress to act on building a navy. A well-known reviewer said I found a way to present the Bill of Rights, for example, as a living, breathing document.

Anne: I, too, love researching and discovering the little tid-bits that grab my imagination.  When I talk to kids about writing, I tell them that it’s the things that make them curious that are likely to make a reader curious, too.
        Where does your sci fi/fantasy fall in this?  Of all genres, what is it about science fiction that makes you choose to work with it?

Christine: I focused on science fiction because it’s my wheelhouse. I’m fascinated by stories of untapped potential and how science can enhance or override our innate abilities (or common sense). I grew up looking at stars in the night sky and imagining that a truly infinite universe might hold an infinite number of species living millions of light years away. Science fiction dreams of what isn’t a reality yet, but could be in the future.

Anne: Did you have to push to add SFF to the non-fiction line-up, or did the publisher ask you if it was something you were interested in, or what was the dynamic there?

Christine: It was nearly impossible to sell children's science fiction as a woman when I first started. There was a lot of preference in the industry for male authors, early on. Women could write fantasy as long as they were not an ethnic minority. I don't say that to be racist. It was just a reality. If you tried, the editors wouldn't understand the rhythms or the nuances. So ultimately the books would die a short death on the shelf and the industry would say "see, told you that stuff doesn't have an audience."  I considered self-publishing but that's a long story for another time. In an industry dominated by female editors and librarians, the gushing always seemed to be over mostly males. I wrote an essay on it during Women's month two years ago that got a lot of attention. [You can read Christine’s essay here.]  I did a statistical analysis of two American Library Awards and the skew towards men (in some cases the same men winning the same awards over and over again) was stunning.

Anne: As someone who did go the self-publishing route and therefore doesn’t have much experience with the mainstream publishing industry, I’m fascinated (and depressed!) to hear about this aspect of things.  I do hope things are shifting.

Christine: I also ran across the problem of publishers wanting me to stay in my "lane."  One of my favorite editors who made sure I had a steady diet of fun science topics to write, also knew I was working on a speculative series. After she started her own publishing house, she called and asked if she could publish Tribes. I think that was fate. Move Books is a small indie publisher but the founder has a long history in commercial children's publishing (and once worked in the music industry) so she has a great eye and her staff are sticklers for finding amazing illustrators and printers. They were also really sensitive to maintaining my voice and vision throughout the process.

Anne: That sounds like a happily-ever-after for the Lost Tribes!  Can you tell me about the inspiration for Tribes?  There’s the over-all plot idea, there are all the different characters, and there are the individual puzzles and mysteries along the way… Can you point to particular inspirations for any of those?  Or broader influences in the sort of story or the sort of world you wanted to create?

Christine: You know, I initially wanted to write picture books. I read a lot of novels, but writing picture books seemed less intimidating. I wrote a story about siblings who suspected their mother had a secret and set out to test their hypothesis. Of course their plan didn't work, and the mother had a logical explanation for everything she did. But on the last page it is revealed that their suspicions were correct - something I revealed only to the reader. The siblings remained oblivious.  I sent it to a large publisher and the editor thought the story was too scary for little children. I was perplexed since the story was written with humor. He suggested I turn it into a novel. That took some thinking. One day I was playing with a hieroglyphic font and thinking about one of my uncles who never thought anything I did was good enough. And suddenly the first puzzle and the first plot point of an uncle who never approved of the protagonist came into being. After that I couldn't stop thinking of the dynamics of that relationship, parents who are desperately trying to hide a family secret, and friends on the block who help the protagonist work through a challenge all the while circumventing their own distaste for each other. That is probably the only time I had a story that wouldn't let go. But I also wanted to showcase readers who don't often find themselves in the pages or who are the "side kick" friend with no speaking parts except to tell the hero how great he is. Since my hero isn't that great, I have smart snarky characters who take pleasure in reminding him and it becomes the basis for something fun.

Anne: I love your illustration of how so many elements in our lives come together into a story idea: our own lives and backgrounds, our false starts, and our serendipities.  This also touches on the question of what’s special about working for children?  Why do you choose to write stories for children as opposed to adults?

Christine: My family consumes a steady diet of books because we were raised that way. But when I was a college interviewer, many high school seniors reported not having the time, or the patience to read for pleasure. They were focused on content required to pass an academic or admissions test. But those students who did read for pleasure seemed almost embarrassed to admit it. It was science fiction and fantasy that had captured their imaginations.  I wanted to write stories that helped children become voluntary lifelong readers and to fuel the needs of those older “closet” readers. And honestly - a lot of adults are also readers of our work. So perhaps there’s something about writing for children that feels accessible and hopeful.

Anne: I think it’s also the case that the ever-present instant gratification of all our phones and computers makes reading seem like too much work sometimes -- there’s always going to be a path of less resistance.  This really upsets me!  But I agree that I want to write books that will tap that love of reading that I know is still there and/or could be there for so many.  For myself, I enjoy reading the books written for kids because I find that at its best juvenile SFF really wrestles with the deep questions without feeling the need to throw in gratuitous sex and violence to keep our attention!
        I assume your science background must influence the sorts of stories you’re interested in telling.  How does your background inform your stories?  And do you think it also affects the way you imagine and build a story?

Christine: I think it does. I can't detach the science background from the writing. I'm always trying to figure something out. Life is kind of a puzzle so it stands to reason I would include them. I grew up without a lot of money but I could afford to spend my allowance on puzzle magazines at the drugstore. So that was my entertainment - cryptograms, crossword puzzles, word searches, etc. And I have really nerdy friends. One is an investigative reporter who is always sending me odd facts she digs up in her own research that she thinks might be interesting. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with bog bodies, for instance.  Although I love pure fantasy, there are such weird unsolved mysteries on Earth, as well as quirky facts, I thought - why not use them and increase a reader's working vocabulary of life outside of their city or state? So I research and discover more than I bargained for. For instance, discovering that Islas Ballestas, an island off the coast of Peru, is filled with Humboldt penguins, massive sea lions, and birds. It was once a principle source of bird droppings which was then sold as fertilizer. So I thought, "I have to get the characters there!" It was just so gross but an awesome scene with them having to find a clean place to step while searching for an artifact and trying not to antagonize the massive sea lions. Another place I explore is the Devils Triangle off the coast of Japan. It has similar unexplained phenomena as the Bermuda Triangle. And compasses do weird things in that region. So I hid a secret base there. My editor indulges me because I send her fun facts to digest when the books go in for editing. Really - the whole book is about problem solving when you have little to go on for clues. Life, a mission, a friendship going sour. Those are the puzzles that get unpacked in the series.
Anne: I actually know a lot about bog bodies, but your other examples are new to me!

        We’ll stop here for now, but tune in next time (on Sunday) as we dig more deeply into questions of representation, making the world a better place, and Christine’s writing advice!

[Pictures: Christine Taylor-Butler, picture from Christine;
Cover for The Lost Tribes.]

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