Today, I’m excited to bring you my interview with Erin Bow in conjunction with the official blog tour hosted by Scholastic Canada. Her debut YA novel called, Plain Kate in North America (but will be released as Wood Angel in the UK) is about a young orphan, who is so skilled with her carving knife that whispers of witchcraft begin circulating about her. In exchange for her shadow, a stranger named Linay offers to give her the means of escaping the town, but this exchange doesn’t leave Plain Kate trouble free.
Please check out this interview and feel free to leave a question for the author in the comments on either September 18th or 19th. She won’t be able to stop by this weekend because she is reading at a book festival, but she will be stopping by early next week to respond to all of them.
YA Book Shelf: Most of your North American readers will be more familiar with German and Danish fairy tales than Russian ones. How do Russian fairy tales differ from their Western European counterparts? What was it about them that spoke to you?
Erin Bow: I read a lot of fairy tales. I find that with the German, Nordic, and French ones, even if I haven’t heard of them, they seem familiar, as if they were all set in the same Fairy Tale Kingdom. On the other hand, I’m reading Innu tales right now and having a hard time getting to grip with them at all.
Russian tales hit that sweet spot between familar and strange. They come from just over the edge of the map, smelling of new spices and long roads. Maybe because they are less familiar, they seem wilder and darker than the Grimm tales.
Anyway, I read this huge set of Russian tales, and fell under their spell, and while under that spell wrote Plain Kate. The setting turned out more Eastern European than Russian, but I hope the wild strangeness of the Russian tales does come through.
YABookShelf: Having written, published, and even won a CBC Canadian Literary Award for your poetry, you definitely have a poetic voice. Had you always intended to write a prose novel or did the inspiration for the tale suggest the current form to you?
EB: Plain Kate bubbled away at the back of my mind for a long time before I started it, with a great bang and rush. The first thing I wrote down was the first sentence: “A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate.” So the fairy-tale tone and the prose form were set from the first minute.
YABookShelf: I read that your first glimpse of this novel came while you were taking off the runway from a very busy and exhausting trip – in other words, your subconscious. Once you had the idea for a novel, did you plot the major events out or did you continue to allow your subconscious to move the plot along and then rework it later?
EB: Yes, I wrote that first sentence – the first chapter, in fact – on a plane!
It’s kind of you to say I allowed my subconscious to move things along. Another way to put it is that I am not good at plot. So not good. My hubby is a natural storyteller with a transparent prose style, but I can’t plot my way out a paper bag.
For Plain Kate, I fumbled through about the first third. I got stuck over and over. I couldn’t figure out what to do with Taggle and wrote a draft without him. I got to the end of that first third and then got really, really stuck, and left it there months. And then, suddenly, I had a mysterious evening when I was able to write a treatment for the remaining two thirds of the book. I was mostly right about it too – I did have to rework the ending several times, but the final ending is quite close to the one in the outline.
Oddly enough, I did the exact same thing with my work in progress. Can we call it a process?
YABookShelf: Much of Plain Kate involves an intimate knowledge of the Roamer’s (Roma) rules and society. How did you research these aspects of the book, including appropriate names and the language, given that much of their culture exists orally?
EB: I should first say that the Roamers are not meant to be an historically accurate depiction of the Roma, any more than Kate’s world is an historically accurate description of, say, Poland. But I like fantasy worlds that feel big and well-lived in, sand I can’t create them from scratch: I have to start somewhere. So when researching the townsfolk of Kate’s world, I pretended it was the Polish/Lithuanian frontier in the 16th century, and there I got architecture and food and the flavor of the language, but invented a witch craze that’s very different from the real one.
And in researching the Roamers, I started with the Roma. I was hesitant to do it, because Roma culture has been badly used by others, at best a prop to fantasy, and at worst as a reason for attempted genocide. But Plain Kate called for a wandering people, and it seemed just as disrespectful to ignore the Roma and invent a new one.
I did my research mostly through books. There’s a great one that the university scrounged up on Interlibrary Loan: Ficowski’s The Gypsies in Poland: History and Customs. Also good is The Gypsies of Easter Europe. The more contemporary Bury Me Standing point out the stereotypes to me, so that I could avoid tripping over them. (I hope.) And an ethnographic study of the various Roma languages i found online was helpful especially with names.
Still, when I found out that gypsy wagons – vardos – came onto the scene later than my book is set, I kept them in anyway. It’s fiction.
YABookShelf: Talking animals and more often found in middle grade novels than in YA ones, but other dark moments in this novel are definitely meant for an older audience. While writing Plain Kate, did you have an ideal reader in mind?
EB: Well, sort of. I wrote it for me.
Really, I don’t spend much time calibrating my books to a certain age range or considering how young readers will relate to them. I think that would be deadly to me as a writer; I think it would come through in the book as calculated, condescending, false. Instead, I just write books that are like the ones I like to read, and I read mostly YA.
(I’m not criticizing other writers; their process may well be different)
YABookShelf: While fairy tales are often one-dimensional, both the setting and characters of Plain Kate can be described as colorful, dark, and dangerous simultaneously. Kudos! Who was your favorite character to write and why?
EB: I liked writing Taggle. He was so easy to write. Kate was a pain in the neck, because she’s one of those people who understates everything, and withdraws from strong emotion, and so it was a challenge to keep her seeming cold on the page. Linay spent most of the novel trying to hide his real emotions and motivation, which is also hard: he’s saying and doing one thing, but somehow, you have to hint that hes feeling and thinking another.
But Taggle – Taggle just says what he’s thinking, regardless of how it makes him look and regardless of whether anyone wants to hear it. He doesn’t care what you think of him; he takes it for granted, in fact, that you admire and adore him. He is concealing no emotion and has no hidden agendas. He was a hoot.
YABookShelf: What novels spoke to you as a teen and what YA novels currently on the market would you recommend to my readers and I?
EB: My favorite books in junior high were Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, The Last Unicorn. Plain Kate is sort of at an intersection of those. In high school – well, confession? In high school, I read vast numbers of Star Trek novels. What I tell kids in the classrooms I visit is that what you don’t read doesn’t matter – as long as you like reading it.
So, recommendations are dicey. I don’t want to make anyone a required reading list. But I will tell you what books I’ve read recently and adored: Paper Towns, Incarceron, The White Darkness, A Love Story Starring my Dead Best Friend , Lips Touch Three Times, the most recent Thief of Eddis book, A Conspiracy of Kings, and Countdown.
I’m really in the mood for a great high fantasy right now, so if anyone has recommendations, I’ll take them.
YABookShelf: Both Plain Kate and your current work in progress depict storytelling, oral cultures. Does the poet in you make these types of narratives and characters particularly relevant to you? How so?
EB: Hmmm, I would not have made that connection. Interesting.
I don’t know that Plain Kate features story telling in any clear way. It does reflect a little through Kate’s woodcarving, on the nature and function of art, and what it means to be an artist. This seems to be an obsession of mine.
Sorrow’s Knot, my work in progress, is a different story. Two of the major characters in Sorrow’s Knot are in fact storytellers, and storytelling has a real and vital role to play in that culture. (It repels zombies. Seriously. Well, sort of.) There’s a lot of reflection, interconnections of history, mythology, and story. There’s stuff about being caught in a story, somehow programmed to replay the stories we inherit, even if they are tragedies. And there’s direct stuff about what it meast to be a storyteller – how that distances you and sets you apart.
As a poet, yeah, distance and apartness hits pretty close to home.
Thanks for having me, Melissa! So glad you enjoyed Plain Kate!
YABookShelf: Thanks for agreeing to do this interactive interview with me, Erin! Your answers have got me thinking in a number of new directions about your debut novel.
Readers, I hope that you enjoyed my exchange with Erin Bow and want to remind you to leave your comments and questions in the comments section of the site for her to answer next week.