Archive for April, 2012

Peeking at the Mystery of THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW, with Robin Wasserman!

April 25th, 2012 by Terra | No Comments | Filed in Talking with Other Authors

Having author friends is really fun, but having author friends whom you also used to work with is its own special kind of great. Robin Wasserman and I worked on the same floor together (she even had my job, before I had it) years ago in publishing, and watching her writing career unfurl has been a distinct pleasure. Robin is already the author of an intimidating number of great books (Hacking Harvard, Shattered, the Seven Deadly Sins series and more), and her newest title, The Book of Blood and Shadow (Knopf) is packed with history, mystery, science, romance . . . and of course more than a little blood.

Here’s the summary: When the night began, Nora had two best friends and an embarrassingly storybook one true love.  When it ended, she had nothing but blood on her hands and an echoing scream that stopped only when the tranquilizers pierced her veins and left her in the merciful dark.

But the next morning, it was all still true: Chris was dead.  His girlfriend Adriane, Nora’s best friend, was catatonic. And Max, Nora’s sweet, smart, soft-spoken Prince Charming, was gone. He was also—according to the police, according to her parents, according to everyone—a murderer.

Desperate to prove his innocence, Nora follows the trail of blood, no matter where it leads. It ultimately brings her to the ancient streets of Prague, where she is drawn into a dark web of secret societies and shadowy conspirators, all driven by a mad desire to possess something that might not even exist. For buried in a centuries-old manuscript is the secret to ultimate knowledge and communion with the divine; it is said that he who controls the Lumen Dei controls the world. Unbeknownst to her, Nora now holds the crucial key to unlocking its secrets. Her night of blood is just one piece in a puzzle that spans continents and centuries. Solving it may be the only way she can save her own life.

Robin took some time to answer the complicated questions I had about this twisty, gripping book, and, as usual, she had a ton of smart things to say. (To learn more about Robin and her books, visit www.robinwasserman.com.)

TEM:  It’s clear that an inordinate amount of research went into this book. What were some highlights for you during this process? Lowlights? Secret discoveries?

RW: At the beginning, just getting to do the research at all was a bit of a(n embarrassing) highlight.  I’m a recovering grad student and much as I never thought I’d actually miss homework, it was kind of fun at the beginning to dive back into reading about history and getting to count it as “work.” Especially since reading other people’s books turns out to be infinitely easier than filling up blank pages of my own. There were a few times when the reading list got overwhelming (it turns out there’s always more to know…especially when you’re looking to procrastinate on actually writing) and more than a few times where I found myself taking long afternoon naps with a book in my hands. (Technically working?) But in general, I really enjoyed letting the research take me where it wanted to go, finding out all about the weirdnesses of my Renaissance people (like the way Edward Kelley supposedly got his ears cut off as punishment for fraud, and the fact that everyone thought he’d turned a baby into a donkey) and the history of secret codes and ciphers.

That said, as much as I enjoyed reading about Prague, the biggest highlight of the research phase was absolutely getting to go there myself and poke around all the ancient streets and sites that my characters were going to visit.  I went on my own, and was so embarrassed by my horrible Czech pronunciation skills that I think I spoke maybe two sentences over the course of a two week trip, but it was beautiful and amazing and productive. (And I’ll admit that I still love to be able to say the sentence, “I went on a research trip to Prague.” It wasn’t nearly as glamorous and exotic as it sounds…but it does sound pretty great, right?)

TEM:  You have an enviable ability to end a chapter with the kind of sentence that both wraps up the chapter, and then propels the reader to go further. As a fellow writer, I have to ask you: where did you learn this amazing skill?

RW: It’s funny that you asked about that, because no one ever has, but it’s something I’ve always been aware of and a tiny bit ashamed by, maybe because I know exactly where it comes from. My first job out of college was editorial assistant at a publishing company, and one of my jobs there was writing cover copy, ie the snappy, hopefully intriguing summaries on the back cover of books. When done right, cover copy has to encapsulate the flavor of the book, draw the reader in, and leave them hanging on enough of a cliffhanger to force them to buy the book.

Not to brag, but I was kind of a cover copy genius.

Okay, that’s totally bragging, but maybe it’s allowed if I say it was probably the only part of my job I was good at?

I loved writing cover copy. I could have written cover copy all day long. And when I first started trying to write novels, I’m afraid kind of just writing paragraph after paragraph of cover copy—cryptic paragraphs ending with a gut-punch of a last sentence. Which is great for the back cover, but probably gets a little tiresome when you string together an entire book of them.

Eventually (I hope) I figured out the difference between writing about the story and writing the story itself, but old cover copy habits die hard and, as you say, the occasional punchy cliffhanger can come in handy when you’re trying to persuade someone to turn the page…

TEM:  There’s a lot about trust in THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW: whom to trust, whom not to trust, what to do when your trust gets broken . . . Can you just . . . talk about trust and where it fits in either your own head and/or this book?

RW: One of the great pleasures of writing this book was that I really had no idea what it was about until I finished it. I mean, I knew what the plot was, but—not to sound like an eighth grade English teacher—I didn’t really know what the themes would be until the story filled out on the page. I didn’t know that I was telling a story about grief and faith and choice and trust until it happened, and I think sometimes that’s the only way it can work. What I did know, ahead of time, was that the book was going to focus a lot on belief, because that was so central to the plot and mystery—but it turned out, as I wrote, that the concept of belief extended itself into so many parts of the characters’ internal lives that I hadn’t imagined, especially when it came to their relationships, and their beliefs about who to trust.

The characters spend a lot of this book grappling with the question of faith and how you can decide what to believe in even when you don’t have all the information you need to decide (which, in life, is almost always the case). And even though they’re usually talking about it in terms of religion and the Lumen Dei, the fact is that every day they—and we—have to decide who we’re going to trust and what we’re going to believe when it comes to the people who are most important to us, something that I think becomes especially confusing in adolescence, when relationships can be so intense and confusing and in flux, and it sometimes feels you don’t know who anyone really is, and barely even know yourself.

Is trust possible if we can’t know anything for sure? When is trust foolish and when is it brave, and are there times when it’s both at once? What do you do when your reason and your instincts are telling you opposite things about who to trust? What do you do when you’ve been completely wrong to trust—how do you trust again? Does real strength mean surviving on your own, or finding the courage to lean on someone else? And how do you know who to lean on?

For me, these are the questions at the heart of the book (not to mention the heart of life), and it was one of those awesome, aren’t-I-an-oblivious-idiot surprises when I realized how neatly they dovetailed with the story I was trying to tell.

TEM:  There are so many twists and turns in THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW, that it’s difficult to talk to you about it without any spoilers. Still, I’m curious about what elements you knew were going to turn out certain ways, and which ones were surprises during the writing process.

RW: I’m an obsessive pre-planner, and even though with this book I tried to keep the plotting a little looser than usual, at least in terms of the character interactions and the emotional arcs, I knew pretty much everything about the twists and turns of the mystery before I even started writing. I have a bunch of computer files for this book, and several of them are named things like “What people think is happening vs what’s REALLY happening” and “Who does what, when, and why.” I figured out the solution to the mystery ahead of time, along with what all the clues would be and how they would be found. I also made sure I knew who the various potential villains were, what motivations they had, and exactly who was secretly betraying whom at what parts of the story. I felt like I couldn’t write the deception and the intrigue until I knew exactly how people were being deceived.

I’ve talked to a lot of other writers about this, people who’ve written mysteries at least as intricate as this one, and a lot of them say they plotted their books out as they went along. I honestly can’t imagine how it. It’s like hearing someone tell me they can fly.

TEM:  You have an incredible network of writer friends. How, specifically, does a writing group like this help you? (Versus working solo in a room of teacups and heavy drapery.)

RW: When I do work solo, which happens a lot, it’s more like a room of cookies and unopened mail, but I take your point. I’ve been really lucky to stumble into a close-knit community of incredible writers, many of whom have been very generous with their time and wisdom, reading my drafts and telling me exactly how to turn a disaster into something…well, slightly less disastrous.

While it’s definitely a relief to be able to break up that solitary life of isolation by meeting up with friends at a coffee shop (and I find my best work is often done under the peer pressure of someone typing furiously on their own laptop, presumably writing something brilliant while I stare out the window), that’s like the cherry on top.  The actual sundae, chocolate sauce and all, is having a community of people who are struggling to do exactly the things that I’m struggling to do—write, write well, write without going completely crazy over the writing and all the non-writing things (sales, marketing, tweeting, selling, waiting for editors to call you back, etc etc etc). I often feel totally unworthy to be part of this group of writers who are so insanely talented, but for some reason they keep me around, and I’ve benefited a ridiculous amount from their company, their comfort, and their advice.

Which is a longwinded way of saying: Awesome friends are awesome. Everyone should have some.

TEM: THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW feels so much, to me, like a work that could have been serialized in the old days of Victorian magazines. (The Elizabeth Weston stuff seems it could be its own entire book.) Since you’ve done great series in the past, I’m curious: Did you consider making this a series? And if not, why not? If so, why did it turn into a stand-alone book?

RW: Actually, a huge part of the appeal of this book for me was the idea of getting to write a stand-alone—tell a straightforward (if twisty-turny) mystery and wrap it up in a single book. Like you say, I’ve written a lot of series, and when I started Blood and Shadow, I’d just come off three years of writing the Cold Awakening trilogy, which was in some ways a great experience and in other ways an exhausting one. I’ve jumped around a lot, genre-wise and style-wise in my career, and that’s largely because I often get sick of whatever I’m doing and want to try something completely different. So after three years of writing a dystopian trilogy about bitchy mechanical teenagers in the future, it’s probably not surprising that I plunged into a contemporary stand-alone about nerdy teenagers plundering the mysteries of the past.

And I’ll tell you, I loved it. After dragging a story out over multiple books, it was incredibly satisfying to be able to contain everything I needed to say in a single volume…and to finish it feeling like I’d really taken the characters to the conclusion of their journey and could now start fresh on something brand new.

TEM: Eli and Max, as the boy characters/love interests of this book, are so interesting. Both of them have so much appeal, and yet both of them also have traits that make you go, “Hmm, I don’t know . . .” Can you talk a bit about developing these characters, and what you were trying to do with them?

RW: It’s always a challenge to develop interesting, believable, three-dimensional love interests, but as I discovered with this book, it’s significantly more of a challenge to do that while making sure that the other characters, and the reader, barely know anything about them.  That was probably the toughest part of both Eli and Max—giving up just enough of their character to make you feel like you knew them and cared about them, but not giving up enough to spoil the mystery.

They were difficult in different ways. In terms of his interactions and his style, Eli came pretty easily to me, as that kind of snarky, banter-iffic guy is one I’m very comfortable writing. (Raised, as I was, on the combined ouevres of John Cusack and Robert Downey Jr.) With him, the challenge was making him seem untrustworthy enough that we worry about him, while appealing enough that we don’t think Nora’s a complete moron to trust him, and making him somewhat rootable even though we know basically nothing about him.

On the other hand, we learn a lot about Max up front, and there, for me, the biggest challenge was coming up with a character that wasn’t that typical snarky guy.  I’ve written very few genuinely nice guys as love interests, and one of the things I set out to do when I started this book was find a way to write a kind of shy, nice, slightly weird  guy—ie the kind of guy you might actually meet and fall for in real life—as a compelling love interest.  My starting point with him was Christian Slater’s character in Pump Up the Volume, who I think is the most compelling shy guy ever portrayed on screen (with, as you know if you’ve seen the move, some seriously hidden and unexpected depths).

TEM: What do you most hope readers take away from reading THE BOOK OF BLOOD AND SHADOW? What do you want them to gain/learn/experience/understand?

RW: That’s such a tough question because it’s not like I went into this book hoping to preach a message to the reader. I guess I hope that they come away from the novel with some sense of the way that religion and science have always been intertwined, and the idea that there can be a continuum between knowing and believing, and that it’s always a good thing to keep asking questions about how we do both. But honestly all I want is for people to take away something from the book—to read it and (in addition to enjoying it) feel like it gave them a new perspective on life or a glimpse of some recognizable truth, something they realize they’ve known but have never put into words before. I want people to recognize something of themselves in the pages—to grab onto some kernel of the story that has some relevancy in their own lives, and for them not to be able to get those parts out of their head, even after they’ve closed the book and gone on with their lives. That may be asking a lot, but it’s my dream for all of my books.

But no matter what, I’m thrilled by the idea of anyone actually, voluntarily, sitting down and reading it in the first place. Love it or hate it.  I still find it totally unfathomable that real people are spending hours of their lives with this story that I just typed into my computer one day. (Well, a lot of days.) It seems insane to me that anyone would agree to do that, and I’m beyond grateful that they do.

TEM: Thanks a bunch, Robin! I’m grateful to you for this amazing interview, and we’re all very grateful that you keep writing!

 

 

Happy National Poetry Month

April 18th, 2012 by Terra | No Comments | Filed in After the Kiss

Poetry is my favorite. It’s part of why I wrote a whole novel in verse (After the Kiss)–because I just love what a good poem can do to you inside. The combination of the right image, the right feeling, and the right word is, simply, exquisite.

April is National Poetry Month, a month when everyone gets to celebrate poetry for thirty days. There are a lot of great activities out there around it thanks to the Academy of American Poets, and you should look around your town for special poetry readings or events that might be going on near you.

But I think poetry should be celebrated every day–not just in April, so I’m sharing some sites today that will help you do this. These are some of my personal faves, so even if you only look at them once, I hope you will.

In the meantime, grab a good slice of cake, something sparkly to drink, a party hat, and a poem, and get your poetry party on!

Young Adult Review Network — This is an AMAZING site
that is full of all kinds of fantastic writing advice, writing by young people, interviews with writers, and, of course, fantastic poetry.
Check out the state-by-state poetry project they’ve been doing all month!

 

The Writer’s Almanac — Okay, The Writer’s Almanac doesn’t always
have poetry on it, but the way Garrison Keillor reads makes everything
sound like poetry. There’s great information about poets there,
too, so it totally counts.

Poets and Writers Magazine — I started reading this magazine
when I was in high school, and every time I crack open a copy (or click on one),
I discover something wonderful.

 

Enjoy these. Enjoy April. And, above all, enjoy yourself some poetry!

TAKE A BOW, Elizabeth Eulberg! I Think You Are Great!

April 11th, 2012 by Terra | No Comments | Filed in Talking with Other Authors

I can’t remember, exactly, when Elizabeth Eulberg and I first met, but I know it  was when we were both working for Scholastic (circa 2001 or -2), and I DEFINITELY  know that her peppy energy and now-famous personality struck me at once. This history of ours makes me all the more glad to be one of many people cheering Elizabeth’s career as an author, with The Lonely Hearts Club, Prom and Prejudice, and now Take A Bow (released April 1st) on the shelves.

In spite of our past connection, Elizabeth and I had no idea that we were secretly working on books that would turn out to be fraternal twins. I’d be excited about Take a Bow no matter what, but the uncanny parallels to Being Friends With Boys make me even moreso. I took some out of Elizabeth’s busy schedule to ask her as much as I could about Take a Bow, and here’s what she had to say!

TEM:  The similarities between TAKE A BOW (just out) and my new book, BEING FRIENDS WITH BOYS (released May 1st) are sometimes creepily close. And yet neither of us had any idea what the other was working on. Any reflections on why the collective unconscious pointed us both in these specific ways?

EE: Totally agree with you. It’s amazing the similarities, but each book is it’s own unique story. Maybe it’s because we are both so cool? (Obviously!) Besides that, I’ve always been fascinated with performing arts high schools since I was a kid. Music played such a huge part of my teen years, so I wanted to write a book set in that environment. I have noticed that there have been a lot more performance-based books out lately. I think (and I’m curious to hear about your inspiration) that the popularity of Glee may have something to do with it, although I have this idea before then. But I’ll admit that it’s success made me happy that people would be interested in a story about the arts in school.

(TEM NOTE: I agree that Glee has something to do with this, but maybe also that people just need, these days, the joy and delight that’s associated with singing along to your favorite song? For myself, I picked a band motif because I thought that was a project that a girl and several boys might realistically work on together. It’s not like they’re going to sit around and do each other’s nails!)

TEM: Every time I picked up TAKE A BOW, I have to admit (because of the jacket copy), I had either Madonna’s “Take a Bow,” or Irene Cara’s “Fame” playing in my head. And music plays a really important role in this book, though you don’t often mention specific performers. So I have to ask, what was going through YOUR head while you wrote?

EE: The title TAKE A BOW didn’t come until after I was done writing the book (and the title did come from my iTunes). But music always plays a huge part of when I write. For this book I listened to a lot of alternative bands like Arcade Fire, The Shins, and Death Cab for Cutie. And Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” plays an important role in a scene so I had that on repeat while writing that scene. I can’t imagine writing without music!

(TEM note: I love that “Beat It” scene!!)
TEM: Emme (your main protagonist) and Charlotte (mine) are both girls who prefer to blend into the background, but are pushed, during their stories, to find their own voices. The band element in their lives is obvious. But what do you think it is about being surrounded by a lot of good guy friends that encourages this?

EE: I think, unfortunately, that girls can be very competitive with each other. Guys are, generally speaking, more laid back. I really wanted Emme to have a very different group of friends from Sophie, who she’s known since she was little. The band dynamic really worked well and I spent a lot more time with the band than I originally planned. I think every girl really needs a couple of good guy friends.

TEM: Let’s talk about Sophie. (Emme’s best friend in TAKE A BOW.) I felt like you were DEAD ON with her voice, and this kind of character. And yet I had a hard time empathizing with her. Can you just . . . talk about her?

EE: Yes, Sophie! I knew when I was writing Sophie that she was going to be a character that people had strong reactions to. And I have to admit that she was a blast to write because she is so different from me.

The idea of Sophie came from something that happened to me as a kid. I was the best music student at my little private school that I went to, and I honestly didn’t have to work that hard. Then I went to public high school…and was third chair! I was suddenly the little fish in the big pond. I took this to a more extreme place with Sophie, who was the best in her neighborhood, but once she got to this extremely competitive performing arts high school, talent is the norm and she was no longer special.

Sophie is extremely driven and her quest for fame takes over. I found myself standing up straight and typing a lot faster when I was writing her. I didn’t hold back with her and try to make her someone that people would necessarily like. There are a lot of Sophie’s in the world (I’ve meet a few!), and I felt pretty strongly about not putting a pretty bow on her. She is who she is and isn’t going to apologize for it!

TEM:  Another character who really stands out in TAKE A BOW is Carter. I just loved his storyline, his character, his voice, everything. I’m curious about his development during your writing process: did you have him nailed all along, or did he surprise you? (Without spoilers, of course.)

EE: Carter completely surprised me. He was originally supposed to be a secondary character. When I conceived the idea for TAKE A BOW, it was supposed to only be from Emme’s point of view. Then I decided to take a shower. I was in the shower thinking that readers really needed to know what was going on in Sophie’s mind, then I realized they also needed to hear from Ethan as well. Suddenly Carter popped into my head and I realized a secret about him and knew that he had his own story to share. I stepped out of that shower with the book going from one point of view to four. I now only take baths. :)

TEM:  From a writing standpoint, I felt like the banter between Emme, Jack, Ben, and Ethan was so enviably real: simultaneously sweet and harassing. What influences created this fabulous result?

I looked at Jack as a wisecracking older brother, one with a permanent smile on his face who doesn’t really take himself (or anything) too seriously. I think he’s good for Ethan (who can be too emo for his own good) and Emme (a little too naïve and sweet for her own good!). Then I saw Ben as the quiet one who would give as good as he got from Jack. Once I had that dynamic in place, the dialogue between them was easy. I really loved writing those scenes. And I so wish I was in that band!

(TEM note: Yeah that would be a good band to be a part of. Wonder how we can get them to ask us to join?)

TEM: Another thing I’m in awe of regarding TAKE A BOW was the balance and tension you created by telling the tale from both Ethan AND Emme’s perspective. Can you talk about how you planned/managed/executed that?

EE: Aw, thanks! I figured out when each character would tell the story when I was outlining. I wanted to leave some mystery for the reader, which can be hard to do when you give them everybody’s perspective. This is why I would end one character’s point of view at a certain point. I think a lot of people will be groaning at the switch in POV a few times and it’s totally on purpose! I don’t want to make readers suffer, however, you need to build suspense.

TEM:  Okay, and on a fun note: you have met, I think, more celebrities than anyone I know. Care to share favorite encounters?

EE: It’s funny because my favorite celebrity encounters are the ones that I end up making a fool out of myself. I’ve been around a lot of famous people for my former job as a publicist, so I’m usually professional and calm. But every once in a while, my inner fangirl/geek unleashes herself and always at the wrong time. My friend and I were meeting New Kids on the Block (you read that right, New Kids on the Block!) and we LOVED them as kids. She was freaking out while we were waiting in line and I kept laughing at her and saying, “It’s so not a big deal, just relax, it’s going to be fine.” Then it was our turn and as soon as Joey McIntyre (who I had posters of on my walls and ceiling as a kid) looked at me, I LOST it. I turned into this babbling, nervous idiot. I kept twirling my hair and saying the most ridiculous things: “We’ve been waiting twenty years for this moment, no seriously twenty years. And like, our parents wouldn’t let us go backstage when we won passes and it was so not fair. And like, now I can talk to them again since we finally get to meet.” I only wish I was joking about this. I’m surprised security didn’t take me away. It was hilarious!

Oh, and then there’s the time I met Kiefer Sutherland in a bar and he bought me a drink. Let me repeat that: Kiefer Sutherland bought me a drink. That required it’s own blog post. http://www.elizabetheulberg.com/blog/?p=344
Thanks, Elizabeth, for this great chat AND your great books! Readers, if you’re interested in learning more about Elizabeth, her books, and her life, visit http://www.elizabetheulberg.com/