Class of 2k9 author Ellen Jensen Abbott is here for an interview today to discuss the inspiration behind her debut fantasy, Watersmeet, and to tell us about her journey towards publication. Welcome to Shelf Elf Ellen!
What inspires you? (People / Places / Art / Food / Ideas…)
There are lots of ways I could answer this question: myth and folklore inspire me, good fantasy novels that pull me into a different world inspire me, my characters inspire me. When I first began this story, it felt like the story chose me. I think it was Abisina, the main character, who spoke to me first—only she wasn’t Abisina then, and the quest she followed was quite different than it is now. She got a hold of me and I had to tell her story. But inspiration only got me so far. More days I had to make myself sit down and write. After the first fifteen minutes, or half an hour, or sometimes even longer—and truth be told, sometimes not at all—the process takes over. There is a joy in invention, in exploring your imagination and unearthing ideas and scenes and characters, watching them all emerge into three-dimensional people with motivations and psychologies and flaws, and into places with geography and history and religion. It actually is a bit like the endorphin high you get when running. It can be elusive, but when it’s working, oh my! And then these places and people stay with you, so when you are in the shower or driving to work or swimming your laps, you are still working out how the story will play out. That’s the inspiration that keeps me showing up at the computer.
Describe your path to publication.
I am not one of these people who always wanted to be a writer. So while I was always a good and devoted academic writer, it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I actually thought I might have a story to tell. I started writing non-fiction. Like a lot of new mothers, I wrote about my children. But I don’t read non-fiction or parenting articles, so it didn’t take me long to start writing what I love: fantasy. Then I heard about the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature Conference, the One-on-One Plus Conference. At the conference, they pair up every new writer with an experienced writer, agent or editor. It’s networking like you can’t believe. I was accepted to this conference for three years and was paired up with Gail Carson Levine, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and Clara Gillow Clark—three gifted, generous authors who were great teachers. I also met both the publisher of my book and my agent at Rutgers, though it took several years before all this came about. I submitted my first novel to Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish and it was rejected—very kindly. (Only writers get this whole “I got a good rejection” thing.) That was actually the fourth book in the series that begins with Watersmeet. Margery spent a lot of time talking to me about how to proceed with my work, noticing that this book felt more like a sequel than a first book. I had already started the first book, so instead of shopping the original book around, I wrote the book that became Watersmeet and submitted it to Margery again. She was no longer an editor but the publisher, so she passed it to Robin Benjamin, senior editor, and they bought it!
What has surprised you most about becoming a published author? How does the fantasy compare to the reality?
I was really not prepared for how much marketing I have to do myself. I understood this, I thought, going in. I’d attended enough conferences to know that, no matter how big or little the house you are with, the author is the one who sells the book. But the reality of actually doing it has caught me off guard. As you know, I’m writing a sequel, but so much of my time is spent marketing, I am struggling to squeeze in the writing. I need those endorphins! Continue reading