Thursday, June 19, 2008

Interview with Sarah Beth Durst, author of INTO THE WILD and OUT OF THE WILD

Last year I wrote about the debut novel of an author I first met at World Fantasy Con 2006 in Austin--Sarah Beth Durst! That novel was Into the Wild, the adventures of Julie, Rapunzel's daughter (yes, that Rapunzel) as she tries to save the world (not to mention her mom) from the Wild, the powerful (and leafy) force that wants to trap everyone into being a character in an endlessly retold fairy tale.

Into the Wild has been nominated for the Andre Norton award (which is basically the Nebula Award for young adult and children's literature), the E.B. White Award and the Cybils Science Fiction and Fantasy Award.

Today marks the release of the sequel, Out of the Wild. I was lucky enough (*brag, brag*) to get an ARC of this fantasy adventure novel when I saw Sarah at New York Comic Con.

There are a few books in my life that stick out in my mind as being "wonderful" in the most basic sense of the word--filling me with wonder. This phenomenon manifests as me lying there, slack-jawed and wide-eyed (not a flattering photo op), transfixed not just with curiosity over what will happen next, but with the certainty that anything could happen.

On that short list I'd put Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle, and now...Out of the Wild. It reminded me why I love fantasy--its ability to transport me to a new world and shed light on our own.

Plus, it's hilarious. Julie's cross-country journey with her dad Prince (a fairy tale prince, not the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince) takes us to Graceland, the Grand Canyon, and Disneyland, among other destinations. The mastermind behind the Wild's new growth spurt chooses these iconic locations to enact "fairy tale moments." I thought this was brilliant, since these are places around which we as a society have built up so many myths and fantasies.

Edited to Add: D'oh! I forgot to mention my favorite thing about Sarah's website: her Obscure Fairy Tales page, where she tells old tales, interspliced with a very funny running commentary (think Mystery Science Theater for fairy tales).

Sarah has generously offered to give away a signed copy of (winner's choice) a hardcover edition of Into the Wild or Out of the Wild to one lucky commenter. So read on, and good luck!

Q: INTO THE WILD and OUT OF THE WILD are partially set in your hometown (Northboro, MA). What's been the reaction of your former neighbors? Do you ever get letters from its residents saying how cool it is to be living in the "The Fairy-Tale Capital of the World" (and yes, there need to be real T-shirts that say that)?

Sarah: One of the kids from Northboro said to me, "Thank you for making something cool happen in Northboro." How awesome is that to hear? I know what the kid meant, though. Growing up, I always wanted something magical to happen to me (a dragon in the school cafeteria, elves in my basement, unicorns in the woods...), so setting Into the Wild and Out of the Wild in my hometown was pure wish fulfillment.

The reception from my hometown has been wonderful. Last fall, I visited every elementary school in the town, spent three days at the middle school, and a day at the high school. It was so cool talking with kids that know Rapunzel's Hair Salon is really Innovations downtown and that there really is a giant rooster sculpture outside the old Agway store.

While your books are written for middle-grade readers (ages 9-11), their themes resonate with adults, as do the characters of all ages (and most important, the sheer fun of it all). Did you always plan to write fiction for younger readers?

Whenever people ask me "What age are your books for?", I always want to say, "Well, I wrote them for me and I'm 34..." Seriously, I don't write with a particular age range in mind. In my mind, the only thing that makes these books "middle grade" or "lower YA" is that Julie, the protagonist, is 12-years-old. To be perfectly honest, the age label drives me a bit nuts. I think a far more relevant measure of whether you'd like the book is not your age but whether you like fairy tales.

I didn't always plan to write for younger readers, but I also didn't plan not to, if that makes sense. My main goal was to write the kind of books that I love to read: books where something magical happens, books where ordinary people triumph over incredible odds, books that make you smile as you read them.

Julie is an incredibly resourceful and intelligent heroine. Were there ever times while you were writing the books when you felt like she knew more than you?

Julie (Rapunzel's daughter) is way braver than I am. And more sensible. If I'd gone into the Wild, I would have been so excited to be in a magical world that I would've been eaten by a wolf in minutes.

You're familiar with a lot of fascinating, obscure fairy tales. Which is your favorite and why?

I read a TON of fairy tales while I wrote these books. Some of them were really obscure and really random. If I had to choose a favorite... I'm pretty fond of Tatterhood because she's a princess, she's ugly, and she kicks butt. And she's nice to her sister even though her sister has a cow's head.

Looking back on the year since the release of INTO THE WILD, what was the most surprising experience of being a debut author?

I think I was most surprised by all the little moments that come after the "someone wants to publish your book" call. Before I got the Call, I saw publication as one single large moment where someone taps you on the shoulders with an enchanted sword and says, "Now thou art published." Really, though, it's lots of little steps: seeing your words typeset for the first time, receiving your first reader email, signing your first book. It's been very cool.

If you could inhabit the life of any of your characters, enter their world and deal with it as that person, which one would you choose?

Gut instinct says Julie (my protagonist, Rapunzel's 12-year-old daughter) because she's the one who gets to fly on a flying bathmat, climb a beanstalk out of the Grand Canyon, and dance with a prince at a ball. But she also has to attend middle school, which I wouldn't ever want to relive. So maybe I should pick her mother Rapunzel because she's smart and brave. But she also had to live without her husband for five hundred years. My husband says I should pick the Wild because it's all-powerful. But it's also kind of the enemy... Really, I think I'd rather just stay me.

Conversely, which of your characters would you most like to bring to life in our world?

Gothel, Julie's grandmother. She used to be the wicked witch before she and the other fairy-tale characters escaped their fairy tales. Now she owns the Wishing Well Motel and tries to be not-quite-so-wicked (though she has occasional lapses -- there are an abnormal number of toads around her motel). I think it would be rather awesome to have a reformed wicked witch hanging around...

Same two questions, but use examples from another author's work (including television/movies/theatre)?

I'd like to be Beauty from Robin McKinley's BEAUTY (a retelling of Beauty and the Beast). I covet her library, which contains all the books ever written and all the books that ever will be written. As for which character to bring to life... I think the world could use a unicorn or two, or perhaps a few telepathic dragons (just friendly ones).

What's the weirdest tidbit of research you've ever incorporated into a book?

Before I wrote Into the Wild and Out of the Wild, I read a TON of fairy tales, including some really odd and obscure ones. The oddest bit that I found and used was this curse: "You shall become a black poodle and have a gold collar around your neck and shall eat burning coals 'til the flames burst forth from your throat!" Another odd tidbit that I used was the fact that Elvis's bathroom still contains the toiletries he used on the day he died in 1977.

What's your earliest memory?

I don't remember. Sorry, sorry, couldn't resist. Seriously, my earliest memories are all such a jumble that I can't pin dates on them. I remember that my preschool had a pet boa constrictor. My husband tells me this is an odd pet for a preschool, but since he spent vacations at his grandparents' retirement home in Florida which had alligators living next to the sidewalks -- six-foot alligators at a place filled with elderly people and their visiting grandchildren -- I really don't think he's one to talk.

I can tell you about my first real writing memory, the first time I ever experienced writing something that impacted another person. While I was in elementary school, my mom's friend Mrs. Casagrande lost her mother. Losing one's mother was (and is) such an incomprehensible loss that I gave Mrs. Casagrande the most personal thing I could think of: a collection of poems that I wrote. They weren't about her or her mother (whom I'd never met), but they were something that I created myself. I'd never showed them to anyone before. I just remember wanting to do something... to reach out in some way... and I think she understood. As a thank you, she gave me a blank journal, the very first blank journal that I ever owned, to write my poems in. I think that was one of the key moments that led to me wanting to be a writer, one of those pivotal moments that shape who you are and who you will become, even if you don't know it at the time. I still have that poetry journal.

Do you have any phobias?

I have a fear of skunks. I will flee them with the same gusto as I'd flee a rabid bear. I think my phobia may date back to kindergarten. We had a family of skunks living in our basement, and my teacher used to have to leave my coat outside the classroom because it was too fragrant to have inside. Really, I regard it as nothing short of miraculous that I wasn't called Stinky Sarah for my entire childhood.

My husband hates when people use the word 'barometer' to mean 'measure.' Which word usage faux pas drives you berserkest?

"He did real good." That one is so annoying that it's become a running joke in our household. Sadly, we've used the phrase jokingly so often that it's started to almost sound normal to me. I know I'm going to accidentally use it in public some day. Oh, well.

Let's say there's a TV show, movie, or recording artist that has a cult of you. Which is it? (i.e., what do you like that no one else you know likes)?

The Life and Times of Juniper Lee. It was a short-lived Cartoon Network show that was essentially Buffy the Vampire Slayer minus the whining. It was awesome.

If you had a free day with no responsibilities and your only mission was to enjoy yourself, what would you do?

Wow, such a day is inconceivable to me right now. I swear that I have never been as busy as I am now. Granted, it's all by choice, so I shouldn't complain. If I had a free day... I'd write, read, eat a lot of chocolate and pizza (not simultaneously), and maybe take a walk down the street. I know, I know, grand ideas, but it sounds heavenly to me.

If you could ask your favorite author one question and they had to answer honestly, what would it be?

What's your story? (And I don't mean that in a punny way. What I mean is: how did you get to be who you are and where you are and what you are? I actually want to ask this of pretty much everyone I meet. Whenever I see someone interesting walk by, I always think it's such a shame that it's socially unacceptable to walk up to someone and say, "Tell me your life story, please.")

If you could write in a totally different genre than your current one, which would you choose?

I'm really a one-genre kind of girl. I love fantasy. It's what I love to read, and it's what I love to write. I believe that there is no novel that cannot be improved by the addition of a talking cat. I do understand that realistic fiction plays an important role in literature, but between you and me, I always feel a little disappointed when I reach the end of a story and no one has developed magical powers or vanquished a demon or flown on a dragon. I would be happy to write for any age range (adult, YA, MG) so long as it involved some fantasy elements.

If you could tell a stranger just one thing about INTO/OUT OF THE WILD (other than what it's about--no cheating by quoting synopses or back cover blurbs), what would it be?

You won't ever look at fairy tales the same way again.

* * *

Give Sarah a comment or a question, or tell us which is your favorite fairy tale, down there in the comments before 5 p.m. EDT on Monday, June 23. I'll draw a name and announce the winner Tuesday morning. Due to the cost of postage, only entries from the US will be eligible.

If you don't have a Blogger account, just sign in as anonymous and leave your name at the bottom of your comment so I can call your name.

***I recommend against putting your e-mail in the comments, since that brings on spam (not from me, from the Bad Guys). HOWEVER, if you don't leave a way for me to find you, you must stay subscribed to the comments or come back to the blog to see if you won.***

Good luck!

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I actually find fairy tales rather creepy as an adult. They really are twisted horror stories directed at children. *shivers* But I do have a leaning towards the Gingerbread Man.

I think that might have something to Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crime books where the Gingerbread Man is a psychotic serial killer who likes to tear the limbs off his victims.

Not sure that says anything good about me...

Posted by: Blogger Katie at 6/19/2008 12:47 PM

i'm more a fan of fairytale retellings, like Ella Enchanted (Cinderella), Spindle's End (Sleeping Beauty), and, well, others that arent popping into my head at the moment :D

Posted by: Blogger Rachael Stein at 6/19/2008 1:29 PM

Huh, those books sound pretty awesome; I'll have to check them out.

I've never really had a favorite fairy tale, but The Clever Little Tailor, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon are both fun.

Posted by: Blogger celeste at 6/19/2008 1:29 PM

I've been wanting to read these books...

my favorite fairy tale is sleeping beauty, followed by cinderella!

Posted by: Blogger the story siren at 6/19/2008 2:08 PM

love fairy tales. I like the creepier the better. My favorite is Hansel and Gretel, which is a truly appalling story. Dad and mom abandons kids in the forest. Evil witch captures them and tries to eat them. I loved it as a kid and I love it now.
Into the Wild sounds great. I love finding new children books.

Posted by: Blogger flip at 6/19/2008 3:34 PM

My favorite fairy tell would be Cinderella.

Posted by: Blogger acdaisy95 at 6/19/2008 3:43 PM

My favorite fairy tale changes all the time. One that I wish got more press than it does is "Brother and Sister." Although there is a wicked stepmother, the brother and sister relationship is one of the healthiest in fairy tales. Plus the transformation is really cool.
I can't believe I've never encountered Sarah's books before! They sound great!

Posted by: Blogger Kimberly B. at 6/19/2008 5:45 PM

My favorite fairy tale as a child was Snow White but I also really liked Cinderella. I loved fairy tales as a child but as an adult they are all pretty scary. I do still really like them.

Sarah...your earliest writing memory is so great. What a kind and amazing thoughtful thing for you to as a child. It was so nice that she gave you your first journal.

Your books sound amazing. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Posted by: Blogger Lori T at 6/20/2008 12:14 AM

I really like re-telling of the famous fairy tales where the prince can save herself or saves the prince. Snow (retelling of Snow White) is my favorite right now.

I have not been able to find these books in stores and have not had time to order them. But I would love to read them.

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/20/2008 1:32 AM

I remember loving The Little Mermaid, but that isn't really a fairy tale is it? lol. I also loved Cinderella I still do.

And of course I love fairy tale re-tellings like Ella Enchanted.

I haven't read any of your books yet Sarah but I really want to!


Posted by: Blogger Breanna at 6/20/2008 1:42 AM

I like Beauty and the Beast. A monster succumbs to the beauty and kindness of a wholehearted woman!

I liked the little mermaid too!

Posted by: Blogger Ruth Schaller at 6/20/2008 12:13 PM

Thanks for introducing me to yet another new author, the books sound great! Growing up my favorite fairy tale was Little Red Riding Hood. I guess thats why my favorite genre to read now is Paranormal. (love reading about vamps, witches and werewolves)

Posted by: Blogger tetewa at 6/20/2008 12:18 PM

"I always feel a little disappointed when I reach the end of a story and no one has developed magical powers or vanquished a demon or flown on a dragon. "

That is so me! I will have to check these books out!


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/21/2008 11:25 AM

I loved the first one. It was awesome and I can't wait to read the next.

Posted by: Blogger Unknown at 6/21/2008 12:01 PM

I don't know if I have fear of skunks but I don't want to find out. lol


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/21/2008 12:47 PM

I haven't heard of these books but I would love to find out more. Off to Sarah Beth Durst's website!

Jamie Lynn

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/21/2008 1:56 PM

My fave fairy tale would have to be Beauty and the Beast. Just the original story though I haven't been able to find a retelling as worthy as the orignal.

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/21/2008 5:26 PM

Well, you also have William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Also his A Midsummer's Night Dream. His romances and comedies have fairy tale traits as well. But since they were written before the Victorians had bastardized and bowlderized the fairy tale, some say they don't count.

Neil Gaiman does marvelous fairy tales, and he remembers that fairy tales were adult entertainment long before they became treacle.

Posted by: Blogger mythusmage at 6/22/2008 2:14 PM

The Bremen Street Musicians

The rain kept pouring down, showing no sign of abating. Tumbleflop batted at the rump end of the mouse, still dressed in housedress and the rag end of a shawl.

The cat was not happy. Between the sniveling, weepy rodent and the excessive humidity he'd developed a case of the grumps. Besides, his meal had apparently never heard of laundry.

The rain also kept him from getting home. Home where he'd be fussed over, fed, fussed over, played with, fussed over, have a warm lap to sleep upon, and fussed over. Humans were such marvelous, wonderful creatures with a talent for fussing over one.

But here he was, caught by the rain in an old orangewood box with half a once hysterical mouse. Maybe he'd find her ailing pup, perform a mercy scarfing. But that meant...

Tumbleflop laid his chin upon his forepaws and glared out at the storm. So sunk in the funk was he that he almost missed the thud of a body impacting the ground. A large body. A body that smelled human. A body in pain from the high pitched screams it produced. A body not long for the world from the thuds and cracks and moanings being produced by it or by what other humans were doing to it.

Tumbleflop retreated further back into the back, to cower in a random dripping. The harmonica hitting him in the chest nearly made him bolt from his refuge. But he remember that pestilential rain and subsided.

Posted by: Blogger mythusmage at 6/22/2008 2:31 PM

Hello! I remember Jeri talking about your first book; I will have to check them out. I LOVE fairy tales (and I write YA). *G*

They sound like so much fun. I have no question. I'm brain-dead and if I don't enter now I'll forget to come back.

How's the weather in MA? (look, question! eligible entry!)

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/22/2008 4:58 PM

I'd really love to read these. I have always been big into fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. My favorite fairy tale is probably the one where the princesses dance all night and the prince has to figure out where they go. My favorite fairy tale retelling is Beauty by Sherri Tepper.

Posted by: Blogger Lenore Appelhans at 6/23/2008 4:05 AM

I love fairy tales, I remember some obscure book of fairy tales my grandmother gave me as a child. In it was a tale called "The Ladely Wyrm of Spindlestone". I have long since forgotten the gist of the story, but that TITLE! Loved it, it fair rolls off the tongue.

You didn't read that one in your research, did you?

Debi Murray

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/23/2008 10:38 AM

What great comments! You guys are all awesome!

Katie: Some are DEFINITELY creepy. I think Juniper Tree (Brothers Grimm) is the most disturbing one out there.

Book Muncher: I love those books! Also Beauty by Robin McKinley and Jack the Giant-Killer by Charles de Lint and a ton of others...

Celeste: East of the Sun is one of my all-time favorites too.

Story Siren: I'm actually really fond of the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. I think it's because they added a dragon. Always a good idea to add a dragon. :)

Flip: There's a really nightmare-inducing version of Hansel and Gretel that's part of the Godmother by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Still gives me nightmares, and I read it years and years ago. Hope you like Into the Wild!

Acdaisy95: Definitely a classic. Almost every culture has their own Cinderella variant. It's one of those universal tales.

Kimberly: Ooh, yes, I love Brother and Sister! Especially the part with the streams.

Lori: Thanks so much!

Emily: I love those kinds of retellings too. One of my favorite new picture books is the Paperbag Princess.

Breanna: Little Mermaid counts! Ella Enchanted is fabulous.

Ruth: Beauty and the Beast is my all-time favorite fairy tale. It's the one of the only tales that's really about love-over-time, not just lust-at-first-sight.

Tetewa: I read a ton of paranormal too (including Jeri's fabulous new book!).

Randi: Hope you enjoy them!

Kathy: Thanks so much!! I hope you enjoy Out of the Wild too.

Dolls123: I'd rather have a jaguar in the backyard than a skunk...

Jamie Lynn: Thanks for visiting my website!

Book-Adorer: Have you tried Beauty by Robin McKinley? That's my favorite Beauty and the Beast retelling.

Mythusmage: Those plays definitely have fairy-tale elements in them. Maybe that's why they're my favorite Shakespeare plays...

Jess: I was up in Massachusetts this weekend for my book launch, and the weather was lovely. Hope you enjoy the books!

Lenore: The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a great tale. There's a beautiful retelling of it in The Door in the Hedge.

Debi: I haven't heard of the Ladely Wyrm. Sounds fabulous! I must go find it... Thanks for mentioning it!

Posted by: Blogger Sarah Beth Durst at 6/23/2008 11:46 AM

Sarah, thanks so much for joining us and for doing such a wonderful interview! Everyone really enjoyed it, as you can tell. :-)

And the winner is...Jess! Please send your mailing address to me at jeri AT jerismithready DOT com, and I'll pass it on to Sarah.

Thanks to everyone who commented and asked questions! You've piqued my interest in some new fairy tales. :-)

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 6/23/2008 5:44 PM

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