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Monday, March 17, 2008

YA Author Interview ~ Elizabeth C. Bunce

Elizabeth C. Bunce is a native midwesterner who studied English and anthopology at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. A needlewoman and historical costuming enthusiast, Elizabeth lives near Kansas City with her husband and her dogs. A Curse Dark as Gold is her first novel.

Tell us about your book, A Curse Dark as Gold.

Curse is a retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin," set in a woolen mill during the Industrial Revolution. Charlotte Miller's determination is the only thing holding her family and village together despite debts, disasters, and rumors of a curse on the family mill. When a stranger appears with an offer that seems too good to be true, she must decide if his help is worth the price.

What are the highlights of your journey to publication?

I've been writing seriously most of my life—I served on literary magazine staffs in high school and college, and even "published" some of my early work in my grade school's Writing Center. But it took me a good six or seven years of being a fulltime writer before I started working on Curse. As I was writing it, I knew I had my first real, publishable novel… which gave me the courage to start submitting my work for the first time (I suffered from the opposite of an affliction most writers have: premature submission. I never thought my work was ready.). I took it to some conferences, where I had critiques with my future agent and editor. Both of them were very enthusiastic about my sample chapters, and urged me to send them the finished product. I'm glad they were so patient!

What is it about fairy tales? Where does their magic come from?

I think it comes from how much is left to the reader's imagination, and how much to the storyteller's discretion. Fairy tales are flexible and resilient, and can withstand being told in dozens of different ways, without losing their essential truths. They form part of the backdrop of our cultural consciousness, so their images and archetypes are imprinted on us from a very young age. They speak to our core fears and wonders: magic is still real, dark places haven't been flushed with light yet, and nothing is what it seems. And yet, the rules all still apply: evil is punished and good is rewarded, and everyone lives happily ever after (most of the time). Through all their flexibility and ability to surprise anew, their familiar structure is comforting and satisfying. As readers we recognize certain elements of the basic story, and the reward is in seeing how the storyteller realizes those elements. I think we never tire of seeing fairy tales play out in all their different permutations. They just don't get old.

Why do you write for young people?

Because of everything I just said in the last question: the sense of wonder is still alive, magic is still real, and dark places haven't been flushed with light yet. The age I write for is one of intensity: teens think deeply about serious issues, they are passionate about their interests, and that intensity and passion haven't yet been dulled by the mundane, wearing demands of bills and meetings and what-am-I-going-to-make-for-dinner that cools the fire in adulthood. Ideas are new and fresh and invigorating, and kids are open to experiences that feed that quick, passionate fever of imagination.

What prepared you to write for children?

Eighteen years of childhood, and the hundreds of novels I read during that time! I've also been studying the craft of writing more than half my life, and I majored in English (and anthropology) at the University of Iowa, which has a well-respected writing program.

What fiction most influenced your childhood, and what effect did those stories have on your writing?

I don't know that a particular book influenced me, so much as the fact that I grew up in a house of readers. I don't remember an age at which I couldn't read; in fact, I remember lying on the floor with a section of the newspaper, a few weeks before kindergarten started, and asking my father to teach me to read it. "You know how to read," he said gently. "That's the stock section!" I had an older brother who handed me his books when he was done with them, grandparents who gave books as gifts, and a mom who walked us weekly to the Bookmobile, where the three of us dragged home more books than we could carry. So when I announced my intention to become an author, nobody seemed to think it was an unusual or impossible goal. We didn't know any authors, but they were still a regular part of our everday existence.

What are a few of your all-time favorite books?

My favorite book when I was a kid was Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, which I got in a Scholastic book order in fourth grade. That was around the same time I first read The Secret Garden, which is a story that never loses its magic. These days I say my alltime favorite book is Peter S. Beagle's amazing novel Tamsin, which comes as close to perfect as any book I've ever read.

What's the best advice you've heard on writing for children?

It's got to be Jane Yolen's B.I.C.: "Butt in chair." That's the only way books get written, through the work of sitting there, writing, until you're finished. Period. Second best: "Read. Write. Repeat." Just like eating well to fuel an athlete's body, you need to fuel your author's mind with a hearty diet of quality words.

You belong to the Class of 2k8. Can you tell us a little about that marketing technique?

The Class of 2k8 is a collective of first time kids' novelists whose books are debuting in 2008. We're the offspring of the Class of 2k7, founded by author Greg Fishbone (The Penguins of Doom), who felt that in the busy children's book marketplace, debut authors stood a better chance of being noticed if they banded together. Our goal is to reach not just readers, but booksellers, librarians, and teachers, with news about 27 of the best new middle grade and young adult novels coming out this year. You can see us online at

How do you breathe fresh life into an old tale?

Primarily by believing that the characters are people, and that the world they live in is real. When the archetypes become living, breathing individuals, they really take on a life of their own… and that's where the freshness comes from. Of course, finessing the curious events of fairy tales into a form that's believably real is an appealing challenge, too.

What aspect of story is most powerful for you: strong setting, vivid characters, engaging voices, delicious prose?

That's really tough, because they go hand in hand (in hand); but I will say that I have a special affinity for strong settings, and I think it's something that I do well. I'm a firm believer in the idea that people and events are shaped by their landscape, and landscapes seem to speak strongly to me. But I don't know that you can bring any of that to life without delicious prose, so like I said: hand in hand in hand. And delicious doesn't necessarily mean complicated. Think of the simplicity of a perfect glass of lemonade: it's just sugar, water, and lemons. I love lush language, of course, but some of the best writing out there is beautiful for its spareness.

What aspect of writing is the most difficult for you to conquer? How do you overcome it?

Well, back to BIC again, I'm afraid! I'm a fulltime writer, so I don't have the discipline of a day job to force me into a routine. I'm completely responsible for that aspect of my work, and accountable only to myself. I go through periods where I struggle with getting much done… and other periods where I'm very productive for months and months at a time. I'm trying to learn to honor my process, even when it makes me crazy.

What do you consider the "proper" role of magic in children's literature, and where did magic come from, anyway?

Goodness, as if I could answer such a question! The proper role of magic? To entertain the reader! And to discuss "where magic comes from," I'd have to put on my anthropologist's hat. But for now let's just say I believe that—as scientifically advanced as our species has become—there is still more to the way the universe behaves that we don't know, than what we can explain.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

My favorite thing is that when the work is going well, writing is like reading a brand new book by your favorite author, with all the thrill of discovery and "what happens next?" unfolding before you. My least favorite thing? Because I work at home, I'm constantly surrounded by all my work paraphernalia (I have an office, but I sprawl all through the house), plus I work all day long sometimes (it's just turning 8 pm as I write this, and I haven't had dinner yet!). So I haven't yet figured out how to turn it off and walk away.

Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?

Well, that was kind of it! I try to start every day by working out, because I love the rush of endorphins that make you feel like you can do anything. Then I'll write for a few hours in the morning and spend the afternoon catching up with the world online and doing my business correspondence. I sometimes get a second wind early in the evening (like now) and can burn through some projects then, too. I'm also very much a night owl, and I can often get some good material written very late at night… although the sound of typing in bed disturbs my husband!

If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?

Well, at the moment I'm in awe of any author who can write quickly, like Sharon Shinn or my friend Jo Whittemore. I don't know how they do it! I would love it if just some of their speed could rub off on me…

Your current work in progress is …

A fantasy adventure I'm calling Starcrossed, about a young thief who gets mixed up in a religious civil war. She finds out that her friends are plotting against the throne, and she has to decide whether to join them or turn them in.

How often do you dust your house? (So fans know how much longer they must wait for your next novel!)

To be perfectly honest? Never. Dusting is one of my husband's duties (he's the only one tall enough to reach the top shelves of bookcases!). But I'm a very dedicated vacuumer.

Do you have a dream, something you'd love to achieve with your writing?

Really, all my dreams are coming true right now. Seeing Curse on bookshelves, getting emails from readers who are loving Charlotte's story… I can't imagine anything better than this.

Parting words?

Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat with you and your readers!


  1. A wave and a sigh from Iowa. I'm now adding yet another book to my must read list. Too many books, not enough time.

    Thanks for stopping by Novel Journey.

  2. I enjoyed reading this interview; you asked such unique questions that I felt I knew Elizabeth Bunce by the time it ended.
    I was especially interested in how she manages her time as a full-time writer.
    I am an author, too; my debut novel comes out in September 08 from Kunati Books. I am not fortunate enough to be able to write full-time; I'm teacher in my day job, but I plan to write as full-time as possible this summer, so it's helpful to see how others handle the lack-of-scheduled time in order to stick to the BIC mantra.
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse

  3. Go Elizabeth! I can't wait for her next novel.

    Wonderful interview.

  4. A great interview. Thanks.


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