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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Middle Grade Author Interview: Kate Milford

Kate is the author of THE BONESHAKER and its forthcoming companion book, THE BROKEN LANDS (Clarion Books, Spring 2012), as well as several plays, a couple of screenplays, and an assortment of scholarly articles on subjects as diverse as self-aware ironmongery and how to make saltwater taffy in a haunted kitchen. She is also a contributing writer for the Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture at and a passionate shutterbug. Originally from Annapolis, she splits her time between Brooklyn and the Magothy coast. She has a husband called Nathan and two dogs called Sprocket and Ed, and drinks way too much coffee.

Your debut novel, "The Boneshaker," was released in May 2010. What are the highlights of your journey to publication?

The whole thing started as a short—maybe 150 page—draft I wrote fast, in just about two weeks in order to enter a contest. Needless to say, it didn't win, but that was my first effort at writing children's fiction. After that, I had lots of help in rewriting the story and lea
rning how to tell it better: my mom, my friend Julie, my husband, and then later, my amazing critique group and my agent, Ann Behar and my editor at Clarion, Lynne Polvino. I found my critique partners through the SCBWI message boards and they've become some of my very dearest friends. After some pretty substantial rewriting I spent weeks in researching agents, and I got very, very lucky and approached the right agent for me at a time when she was looking for what I had to offer. Then I got equally lucky when Ann placed the book with an editor at Clarion who not only loved it but really understood the story I wanted to tell.

ghts after the book sold: seeing the thumbnails for the illustrations Andrea Offermann did for the cover and the interior...seeing the advance review edition, which was the first “book form” of my story...finding the first copy in Word Books in Greenpoint and breaking down in tears...Betsy Bird's review for her Fuse Number Eight blog and Cory Doctorow's review for BoingBoing and every lovely review since then...getting my first email from a reader and every communication I've had with readers since...meeting Andrea and getting to see her original painting for the cover which is BEAUTIFUL...being invited to a middle-school book club last summer for a discussion and a Boneshaker-themed dinner...and, of course, being asked to write the next part of the story.

Why do you write for young people?

I like the fact that books for kids still rely on strong storytelling, strong characters, strong images, and basic human conflict. Kids will follow you through great leaps of imagination, but they won't stand for weak stories or characters. Also, there's something about the books you read and love as a kid that makes them stick with you forever. It seems to me that all the things that made me wish from a young age to be a writer ha
ve always been tied most closely to those books. Does that make any kind of sense?

Your prose in "The Boneshaker" has the feel of classic oral storytelling, and oral storytelling plays an important role in the novel itself. Did you intentionally develop that tone?

Yes and no. I wanted the narration to be intimate and personal, sort of conversational—I wanted to eliminate as much as possible the feel of an author's voice telling the reader what Natalie was thinking or feeling. At the same time, I did want t
here to be several instances of actual storytelling, too, and the prevailing wisdom (which generally I believe wholeheartedly) is that showing is always better than telling—so I knew I was going to be walking a fine line by having three or four places in the story where the passing of information came from one character telling another a story. If anything, I was worrying more about that—about keeping the storytelling bits from seeming like exposition. I'm glad it came together.

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

We are big Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows fans in my family, and I think my sister and I destroyed copies of The Westing Game and Fantastic Mr. Fox that we kept in the family car for long drives. But most of all I've always loved fantasy. In middle school I remember being utterly depressed after finishing Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence (my first experience with the sadness that comes with finishing a desperately-loved series), and I still read the second book every year or so. The Phantom Tollbooth is another one I loved endlessly and still re-read. I think the main thing I took from the fantasy I read as a kid was a love of world-building. Now that I think about it, even the stuff I was writing as a kid and as a teenager was more about the places I got to invent, their legends and history and geography and rules, than about the people in them. Which, by the way, is something I still get carried away with and have to rein in.

What prepared you to write for children?

That's a good question. I'm not sure. I'm the oldest of four sisters and brothers; maybe
that helped. I do love to read children's literature for its own merits, and I definitely write the kind of thing I like to read. Also I sort of also feel like I never outgrew age fourteen and I'm married to a man four years younger than I am, so that's like living with a kid on some levels.

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

The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper), The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin), The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster), Coraline (Neil Gaiman), His Dark Materials (Phillip Pullman), Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), The Crying of Lot 49 (
Thomas Pynchon), House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), The Innkeeper's Song (Peter S. Beagle, Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller), Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino), Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges)...problem with this question is I could really go on for kind of a long time...

What aspect of storytelling is most challenging for you, and how do you develop your weak areas?

I can overcomplicate things for sure. I like complexity and puzzles and the joy of a story coming together in the end, and sometimes I get way too ambitious. Also, again, sinc
e I love world-building so much, I often have to really reel in the part of me that wants to dwell on the history and lore of the world in which the story is set. As for developing those weaknesses, I'm undergoing some massive learning right now as I'm finishing The Broken Lands, which is the prequel to The Boneshaker. I had to build the story up from a half-page synopsis intended for a novella to a book-length manuscript in three months (including December, during which I got very little done), including all the necessary research (which was A LOT). This is turning out to be the best learning experience yet, because I don't have time to let myself get carried away with too much complexity. The basic story comes first and the rest gets layered on afterward. It's taking a lot of discipline, especially since as I get close to the end I keep figuring things out that solve early problems but that require massive retrofitting.

Because two sequels to "The Boneshaker" are planned, you have previously reserved your opinion on the character Simon Coffret, a guardian angel (of sorts) who did not fall from heaven, but jumped of his own free will. The Drifter, another prominent figure in your book, wanders eternally, recruiting defecting souls who desire something besides heaven or hell. Can you offer any comments on the existe
nce of third parties in "The Boneshaker's" universe--forces outside the rigid lines of good and evil?

I'm going to try and avoid saying much, because The Broken Lands is going to explain quite a lot of that. You'll learn more about the jumpers, about Jack the Drifter, and about the place they hold in the world. The Broken Lands will also give you a pretty good hint about what Natalie will face back in Arcane when we return to her story.

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

Oh, man, that's a good one. Well, ask me in a week and I might change my tune, but today what I want most of all is to be able to write short fiction. I lack the ability to be an effective storyteller in under 250 pages, and I really admire the efficiency that allows short story writers to be able to do what they do in such a brief span.

Your current work in progress is a novel set in Nagspeake. When can we hope to see it on shelves?

Well, as it turns out, we get The Broken Lands first, even though four months ago the thing was just a vague idea in the back of my head! Weird world, publishing. But that you can look for in Spring of 2012!


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