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!
I’m always interested to learn about the inspiration for an author’s work, but I’m especially curious to find out more about where Watersmeet came from, because it takes place in a world full of magic and mythic creatures and unusual societies. Tell us about what inspired your novel.
I’m sure readers will see glimmers of Narnia and perhaps Middle Earth in Watersmeet. It is hard to be a fantasy writer today and not pay some kind of homage to Lewis and Tolkein. But I think all fantasy writers are inspired by the even older stories: mythology, folktales, epics. These ancient stories tap a very deep vein. When I read folktales across cultures, I am struck by their similarities. Why do these same themes keep coming up? Why are we as people so fascinated by them? Watersmeet is my way of joining this ancient conversation, adding my own twist, part of my time and my individuality, but still addressing the basic human questions.
Oh yeah—and it’s fun! I’ve always been a fantasy reader, attracted to stories peopled by different creatures and full of magic. I like being able to explore questions that occupy us in this world in settings that are not of this world. Being freed from the confines of reality, I can really delve into the question of what makes us who we are.
I imagine it took a very long time to build and create the world of The Northern Kingdom. I’m particularly interested in how you created the community of Watersmeet. What was your process for “world-building”?
As I said, I worked backwards in creating this world. I started much further along in the history of Seldara, as the land comes to be known at the end of Watersmeet. I have always admired the layers of Tolkein’s world in the Lord of the Rings. I began writing the story at the end of the cycle and what was clear to me even then was that Seldara was a world divided. I kept going back further and further in time so that I could understand the events that led to this division. My interest in folklore and legends made me want to know the legends of this world and what the truth was behind the legends. As I continued to look back, the legends became stories on their own. In the fourth book, the one I wrote first—it gets so confusing!—I had the battle of the hero Rueshlan and the monster Charach told by a character. And then I thought, why not write that story as it happens? And that became a central part of Watersmeet.
Watersmeet as a place followed a similar path. It appeared in the last book but very differently. When I went back to the beginning of the story, I explored its origins. How did Rueshlan end up there? Why did Charach want it? I grew up in New Hampshire so when I think of natural places, I think of the White Mountains and the northern woods, but for Seldara I wanted scale! So suddenly the trees in Watersmeet were enormous! And then those trees needed water, so they spanned three rivers. It just grew from there. But again, at the base of all this, was division. So I asked myself how Watersmeet fit into the division. And with each new question, some new element of this community was added.
Abisina grows so much as she journeys to Watersmeet and joins a new society. How would you describe her changes and growth throughout the novel?
Abisina needs to do two important tasks on her journey, outside of the actual trip to Watersmeet. She needs to learn that she does not deserve the hatred she has lived with for her entire life. Superficially, she knows this, but deep down she worries that all the insults hurled at her may have truth in them. Her second lesson is harder. As someone who has suffered through extreme prejudice, she has to learn that she too has prejudices—and she has to overcome them and accept both herself and others different from what she’s been taught is right or beautiful.
One major theme in Watersmeet is prejudice and the violence that can spring from terrible intolerance. What do you hope that your book will inspire readers to consider about these issues?
We all know prejudice and intolerance is wrong, and it’s easy to see it in the Vranians. They are so clearly intolerant of anyone who does not fit their narrow vision of what is acceptable. But when I read I feel like I am living in the main character’s skin, and I hope that readers, by living in Abisina’s skin, will see the more subtle side of intolerance, as well. Abisina has a hard time accepting centaurs because she has had a terrible experience with them. It’s hard for her to see that these centaurs are not all centaurs. Similarly, she assumes that all the people of Vranille are hateful and intolerant, but they aren’t. What unexamined intolerances do we carry ourselves?
You’ve got a fantastic Teacher’s Guide for Watersmeet at your site. (I’m guessing you created it?) How do you hope teachers might bring your novel into their programs?
I did create it—and it was fun! I think there is so much to talk about in Watersmeet. I teach ninth and eleventh grade English and I can imagine really good conversations and projects sparked by events in the story. Discussion could be about the nature of prejudice and intolerance as you suggest above, but there are also interesting topics in how communities are structured, the question of what is one person’s responsibility to another, and what rituals or beliefs or ideas tie people together. I have taught for years in a Quaker school, though I am not Quaker, and in the novel, I explore the question of when or if it is right to go to war. I am also interested in ritual and draw on rituals from much older human communities that still appear in various forms today, rituals like Midsummer celebrations, for example. We all seem to need ritual in our lives, even today. What are our rituals as families? Communities? A nation? How do we observe them? What new rituals could we make up to celebrate the life of our unique community?
In developing my teachers’ guide, I also used Howard Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences to help kids who don’t think of themselves as readers get something out of the novel. For example, I suggested students build models of some of the communities in the novel. I considered the values of each community as I developed them and these values are reflected in the physical lay out. Similarly, it would be interesting for students interested in government to write constitutions or laws for each community, reflecting which groups have power and which do not. Abisina and the dwarf Haret spend a lot of time traveling through wilderness and at one point they lose all of their supplies. Students could research wilderness survival as I did, and demonstrate some of the skills they learn. Herb lore, too, is very interesting. For science oriented students, there is cool information out there about old remedies for fever and nervousness. And it would be neat to see to what extent these plants are still used today in medicines. There are other projects in art, music and writing I suggest. Watersmeet offers something for all kinds of learners!
You let slip at your site that you are working on a sequel to Watersmeet. Could you give us a tiny teaser?
Hmmm. How much to let out of the bag? Let’s see. One of my galley readers lamented that there was only the barest hint of romance in Watersmeet. Another early reader wondered if Abisina would be a shape-shifter like her father. I can say that I too felt like these questions need to be answered—and they are! But I won’t say how!
4 Favourite Things
Favourite fantasy published for kids in the last 5 years: Oh, that’s hard! I read all the time. I’m a huge fan of Hilari Bell, so I’ll say Rogue’s Home, her most recent installment in her Knight and Rogue series.
Favourite scene in your book: Almost any scene with Haret, the dwarf, in it. I love that guy! He’s got a crusty exterior but is such a great guide for Abisina. I don’t know how she would have done it without him.
Favourite snack when writing:
Tea with anything. If they ever discover that tea is bad for you, I’m in trouble. English breakfast tea with milk, please!
Favourite thing about being a debut author: Getting reviews from real readers! Very few people had read Watersmeet until the bound galleys went out. It’s been so neat to get responses from people who are thinking about my characters, and enjoying being in this imaginary world. I’ve been especially pleased with all the teens who have responded through the YALSA Top Ten Teen Reads Galley program. I’ve heard from kids in Colorado, Michigan, and California—far from my home in Pennsylvania. My book is really out in the world!
Thank you so much Ellen for giving your time to do the interview, and congratulations on the release of Watersmeet.
Watersmeet is published by Marshall Cavendish.