One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Shannon Hale
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I’ve been trying to write this introduction for a week now and I think the problem is that I live in the same city as Shannon Hale, which means that I see her around now and then, at libraries or bookstores or whatever. And I like her a whole lot. She’s exactly as awesome as you think she is (probably a bit more, actually.)
So I’m jotting down ideas for this introduction but they’re all about how nice she was at Snowbird that one time, or how she graciously smoothed over that awkward situation with the convention, or how much fun it was when she won both the 2003 Utah Children’s Book Award and the 2003 Utah Speculative Fiction Award for The Goose Girl. I’m thinking how much I love reading her blog and how amazed I am at her time management skills, her good humor, and her thoughtfulness about a myriad of issues.
And those are all true things and good times, but I want (need) to talk about the writing here because seriously, Shannon Hale’s writing. Her books, whether they’re adult romantic comedy, middle grade fantasy, or YA science fiction, are often called “spellbinding” and “captivating” and “lyrical” (an oft-overused word that is utterly appropriate here) and they are certainly all those things. She’s one of the few authors I re-read for language as much as for story (honestly, I could have spent most of this interview interrogating her about her metaphor creation process.)
And yet, I’m still thinking about how happy she was talking about her movie Austenland at the Sundance Film Festival and how when she and her husband drove over to my house like normal people to pick up some boxes of books, they made me laugh really hard. Shannon, if you were less awesome it would be a lot easier to talk about your work. On the other hand, your work speaks (oh so eloquently) for itself, so I guess we’re good. Thank you, thank you for taking the time to talk with me, especially during the busiest month ever, and for writing really excellent books.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I was dramatic. As a teen I felt as if I was living in a tragic drama, whereas now I’m in a comedy of errors. I felt everything profoundly. I ached and hoped and daydreamed and regretted and longed. I think I was fairly smart but unmotivated. I’d do homework but forget to turn it in. I rarely dated. My group of friends was all-important, and the ups and downs of friendships consumed me.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I also did theater and hoped to be an actress. Two impossible dreams!
What were your high school years like?
I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a fancy side of town, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought we were struggling because my parents were super frugal and while the people around me went on trips and bought new cars and ate out at restaurants, we often dined on poached-egg-on-toast and were lucky if we got to rent a video once in a while (certainly no cable!).
Right before I entered high school, the boundaries changed. I was supposed to have gone to East High (which years later would be the backdrop of High School Musical) but ended up going to West High. Which was on the west side of the city. Across the tracks, like, literally. I heard scary things: “druggie school,” “gang school.” Some teacher had been stabbed. There were shootings.
By the end of our freshman year, I was the only girl from my elementary school friends who hadn’t transferred out of West High. I loved it. I never saw drugs or guns. The school was so diverse, people from all kinds of economic, religious, cultural, racial backgrounds. It was such a breath of fresh air for me. (Though I did become ashamed of my fancy neighborhood and tried to keep my address a secret.)
I did like school for the most part. I liked friends and learning, though I remember also being so tired all the time. I loved my English teachers and Drama teachers. Those were my homes. I was also a part of a peer leadership/improv group that was uber important to me. Led by our high school counselor, we created and performed short scenes about high risk issues (drug use, rape, bullying, suicide, etc.) without resolutions. We then processed the scenes with school audiences across our state and sometime traveling to other states. My friends from that group became (and some remain) some of the most important people in my life.
Ps. I like poached egg on toast. I make it all the time for my family.
What were some of your passions during that time?
I was a theater geek. Besides the improv group and my high school drama classes, I was involved with a community theater. What is my problem that I choose hobbies/professions so replete with rejection? I did over a dozen plays with the community theater, rarely earning a speaking part and never a lead. In The Little Mermaid, I was listed in the program as “Plankton.” I also played a lot of fairies. Oh I wanted to be cast as Anne of Green Gables so bad it hurt! I practiced my audition for months! Alas. Good training for becoming a rejection-riddled author.
I loved to read, of course. The last books I remember really loving in high school was the Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy by Patricia McKillip. And then around age 16 I decided that to be an adult I couldn’t read fantasy or adventure or any genres anymore besides the classics assigned in literature classes. (And young adult literature really didn’t exist yet.) It took me many years to get over that assumption and fall back in love with reading.
My favorite movie in high school was The Color Purple. Drama.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
I tend to make close friends and then keep them forever. I had a best, best friend in high school who decided our senior year that she was over me and told everyone but me. I was clueless for months and just kept trying to be her best friend despite the weird vibes. Then someone finally broke to me what she’d been saying. That hurt so much. No book rejection or theater rejection compares to being rejected by those you love the very most.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
I don’t remember being very good at anything as a teen. I was okay smart but didn’t get great grades. I loved theater but didn’t get cast in significant roles. I loved writing but didn’t produce anything noteworthy. I feel like those years for me were a battleground. I learned a lot and got bruised and challenged and discovered my passions, but they were not a time for me to shine. At the time it sucked, but objectively I’d rather not peak in high school.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? Did you heed that advice?
One day my older sister was driving me somewhere and we passed a boy from my school.
Me: “He’s in one of my classes.”
Her: “Why didn’t you wave?”
Me: “We’re not really friends.”
Her: “Always say hi to everyone. Use their name. You’ll always have friends if you say hi to everyone whose name you know.”
Before then I think I’d been worried it was uncool to show interest in others. After that I took her advice. I did always have friends, though I don’t know if that was the reason. At the very least, I felt good. Maybe my smiling at people and greeting them by name as I walked down the halls made someone else feel better too.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I was so intense. I wish I could’ve let things roll off me. I have lots of regrets all the time, a thousand things I’ve said which I wish I hadn’t. But I was experiencing life in all its complexity and intensity. I don’t know if I could’ve done it any differently.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
I love schools. I love the learning environment. I love the silly things, like Spirit Week and improv hazing and that time my friends and I kidnapped the honor society for a night on the town. Random, strange, risky things you do as a teen. I never drank or used drugs and never regretted that decision. But I certainly did stupid things, thankfully while sober. I think that’s what the teen years are partly for, a time to act and try stuff out and learn and explore, hopefully while avoiding doing any permanent damage to yourself or others.
Every Day I Write the Book
Though you’ve written across numerous genres, many readers consider you primarily a fantasy writer. You’ve said that part of the “magic of fantasy” is getting to write about something and then have reader’s decide for themselves what it means. “If I wrote a story about a girl who was addicted to drugs,” you’ve said, “or depressed, or obsessed with something…the story would always be about those things. Realistic fiction is so important, but it is by its nature limiting. But when I write about a girl who learns to control fire and is almost overcome by it, each reader can read into that her own metaphor.” Six years and more than half a dozen books later, have your feelings about fantasy changed at all? Do you think that kind of freedom of interpretation can be found in a more contemporary—but still speculative–setting (like Dangerous)? Are there any other genres you’d like to explore?
I like to write everything. I get bored easily. I wish I could be a Shannon Hale brand and everyone would always know what to expect from me and I’d be shelved in one place in the bookstore instead of five (if the bookstores carries my books to begin with) because I think that’s a smarter career choice. But I can’t be that author.
I do love fantasy and am drawn to write stories of a speculative nature. There’s just so much space to run around and explore! But my books for adults tend to be contemporary realistic romantic comedies, and I love that too. I do think readers receive stories in contemporary settings and/or without fantastic elements more concretely. That’s not a bad thing. But I’ll go to bat over the value of fantasy any day.
As a faithful reader of your blog, I’m fascinated by your posts about gender, especially in regards to the publishing industry, reader preferences, and authorial considerations. I could ask about a million questions on this subject, but since that’s not really practical, I’d like to ask about the idea of “strong girls.” You’ve pointed out that strong male characters are the default, because “boys and men are strong,” while strong female characters are noteworthy “because that’s not expected, not true to life. Not normal.” And that often a female character is described as “strong” when (and only when) she takes on traditionally male roles. “I still stumble across the idea that the ‘cool’ girls, the honorable girls, are the ones that grew up wrestling in the dirt and eating worms and never crying. Why? I don’t want to propagate that nonsense.” Could you talk a little about why it’s so important to you that your “strong female characters” go beyond the typical warrior princess motif, and about how you create characters that don’t fit the usual “strong girl” mold? Do you consciously try to address that imbalance in your own writing or is the process more organic than that question implies?
It’s still so strange to me that anyone bothers to read my blog, let alone my books. Thanks! Yes, and to clarify, I personally don’t think that strong female characters aren’t true to life but observe that that seems to be the general supposition. For example, I’ve never been asked, “Why do you write strong male characters?” even though I do by any definition of the word. But I’ve been asked dozens of times in interviews “Why do you write strong female characters?” Joss Whedon gets asked that too and he said he sometimes answers, “Because you’re still asking that question.” (paraphrased)
Humans tend to make hierarchies out of things. Masculine is better than feminine. See how girls are praised for pursuing traditionally “masculine” things and how boys are shamed for pursuing traditionally “feminine” things. The point of feminism should be that girls can choose how they want to be and not be trapped into a few limiting roles. Feminism loses power if we shame “girliness” or “girlie girls.” If you want to wear pink ribbons or love fashion or want to be a mom more than anything or devour romances (vampire or otherwise), feminism should say, go for it! Just as much as it should encourage the girls who go out for lacrosse or follow car racing or dig technology.
The only conscious decision I made in this regard was with my first book, The Goose Girl. I was tempted to have her love sword play and become this kind of warrior girl who could take down the boys. There’s a place for that kind of story, and The Blue Sword was one of my favorite books of all time. But I also wanted to show a different kind of strength that can be just as or more powerful. The powerful women I know aren’t powerful because they can beat someone up. They’re powerful because they’re thoughtful and clever and bold and loving and fearless and willing to make mistakes. Kind of like the powerful men I know. I didn’t want to write the kind of stories that place physical prowess above all other attributes.
Ha! I could go on forever too.
When PBS asked about your favorite part of the writing process you said “language is for me the most satisfying part of writing. When I find just the right verb or just the right sentence comes out, I can get chills…because something worked out perfectly, just came together.” “Words,” you said in another interview. “Words make me want to write. I’m not inspired by music, like so many authors. I wish I was. I’m rarely inspired by real life events. But words do it for me.” This is a fairly unusual statement and I’d love to know more. How do you know when a word or a sentence or a paragraph is just right? What is that process like? Do you have specific steps or strategies you use to select the right word, to coin a perfect phrase, to create a really evocative metaphor? Do you own a dozen thesauruses?
I use a thesaurus like a mad woman. I use my computer’s thesaurus (in fact, it’s open at the moment–I used “riddle” up there as a verb and then I double checked that it meant what I wanted it to mean.) Sometimes it doesn’t give me enough options so I’ll go online for a deeper thesaurus. I like following the white rabbit, so to speak, looking up a word then clicking on one of its synonyms and then another synonym searching for something I don’t know I’m looking for. Sometimes I’ll read a poem, jot down a few words I haven’t used lately, and try to incorporate them into my writing that day.
When I experience something (like heartache, a burned fingertip, a torn tendon, an unusual sunset) I’m automatically trying to find the words to describe it. Maybe singers will sing to themselves as they cook dinner or drive a car. I’m forming sentences in my head. I’ve written 20 books, but I don’t want to ever describe something the same way twice.
Can we talk about Dangerous? You wanted to write science fiction–not dystopian, not set in the future– and you wanted to write about superheroes. About and for (though not exclusively) girls. In some ways this book is a huge departure for you—contemporary SF written specifically for teens—but it’s the type of book you say you would have “gobbled up” as a teen, had such a mashup existed. You’ve said that you love the “fairy tale landscape because it feels like home,” so while you’ve crossed the genres streams many times before, it seems like this book might have presented a unique challenge. Dangerous roams pretty far afield from that fairy tale landscape, in a myriad of ways, tackling not just a relatively rare subject (teen girl superhero!) but doing so in a contemporary setting and against the advice of a lot of “smart people.” Was the experience of creating Maisie’s distinctive world significantly different than writing within more recognizable, more familiar, genres? Where did her story come from and do you think our world is finally “ready for Maisie Danger Brown?” (And because you mentioned it once in an interview many years ago, I have to ask whether the fairy tale of the “Armless Maiden“–the girl who loses both her hands–had anything to do with it?)
I’m honored that you’ve clearly done so much research for this interview! Honestly you’re making me blush. I do love the fairytale landscape. That is where my imagination, especially as a teen, tended to linger. But contemporary is in some ways easier. The lexicon I can pull from is enormous, not to mention current events and pop cultural references. Long ago far away you’re so limited in vocabulary and similes.
In college and grad school, I wrote short stories, most with contemporary settings. I’ve penned three books for adults with contemporary settings. But never before with young adult novels. Like I said, I get bored and have to constantly challenge myself, so that challenge + scifi + superhero was just too delicious to put off.
And it was a challenge, but I don’t think it was necessarily the genre or setting. Forest Born (my fourth in the Books of Bayern series) was the hardest one to write. It’s not like once I’ve written in a particular genre I’ve learned it utterly and all subsequent books are easy bake cake. Sometimes stories come fully grown and clothed like Athena from Zeus’s head. And some take an elephant’s gestation cycle.
I had some missteps with this book. I probably cut about 500 pages in all. That’s just how it goes sometimes.
When I was working on the book initially, I really didn’t think I was doing anything extraordinary. After all, superhero stories are a staple of the movie theater and comic books. It wasn’t until someone told me I couldn’t do it that I realized what I was trying hadn’t really been done before. I was told so many reasons this book would fail (not by my own editor, to clarify.) But the story just works for me. It’s like finding the right word. Who can say why it’s the right word? I just try a bunch of different ones and that one feels right. Same with the story. I gave it years to develop, explored many different ways to tell it and different pieces of the story until I found the ones that just felt right. This story works for me. Now it’s up to each individual reader to decide for themselves.
And no, I didn’t consciously draw from the Armless Maiden for Maisie, but now that you mention it, maybe I did subconsciously! After all, I didn’t consciously mean for Princess Academy to be a retelling of Cinderella when after the fact I can see so clearly that it is.
Just Can’t Get Enough
This question comes from Rainbow Rowell: “Shannon, I’m writing a graphic novel for the ﬁrst time this year, and I’m really nervous about it. Would you tell me how the writing process is different for you — between traditional novels and graphic novels? And how is it the same? Do you have advice for a ﬁrst-timer? Thank you!”
Yay, I’m so glad you are! I love graphic novels. For me, the process is essentially the same as writing a novel. Stories are stories. The main difference is, of course, a graphic novel is a visual medium. I never want to use words for anything that a visual could communicate better. So in the revision process I am mostly deleting, restructuring, ﬁnding ways to use fewer words and allow the artist to tell the story. I also loved knowing and being friends with the artist. He so clearly understood the story we wanted to tell. Communicating with him helped me write a better script. There’s a thousand different ways to write a GN script, and the best way was whatever was best for the artist. Like the director and actors and crew of a movie, the artist takes the script and brings it to life.
Shannon has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Laini Taylor. Watch for an interview with her in a couple of weeks!
Shannon’s mother says she was a storyteller from birth, jabbering endlessly in nonsensical baby-talk. Once she could speak, she made up stories and bribed younger siblings to perform them in mini-plays until, thankfully, an elementary school teacher introduced her to the wonder of written fiction. At age 10, she began to write books, mostly fantasy stories where she was the heroine.
She continued to write secretly for years while pursuing acting in television, stage, and improv comedy and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Utah. Shannon was finally forced out of the writers’ closet when she received her Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Montana.
A few years and many rejections later, she published her first book, The Goose Girl, an ALA Teens’ Top Ten and Josette Frank Award winner. Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born continue the award-winning Books of Bayern series. Newbery Honor winner Princess Academy is followed by New York Times best seller Princess Academy: Palace of Stone. She is currently writing a third book to complete the series. Book of a Thousand Days received a Cybils award and was featured on many best of the year lists. Her first book for adults, Austenland, spawned a movie which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie was purchased by Sony Pictures Classics. It can be seen in theaters nationwide. Shannon co-wrote the screenplay with director Jerusha Hess. A companion novel, Midnight in Austenland, is now in paperback. Her third book for adults, The Actor and the Housewife, was the City Weekly readers’ choice winner for best novel of the year. She and her husband Dean Hale co-wrote the graphic novels Rapunzel’s Revenge, an Al Roker’s Book Club for Kids selection, and its sequel, Utah Book Award winner Calamity Jack.
Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends, was published October 2013 and the sequel, Ever After High: The Unfairest of Them All will be published March 2014. Shannon’s latest, the YA SF superhero novel Dangerous, was also published March 2014.
She makes her home near Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, with her super-human husband, their four young children, and their pet, a small plastic pig.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor