Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Author Interview with Erin Bow!

Erin Bow is the author of Plain Kate, a fantastic fantasy/magic adventure tale with a diverse cast of interesting characters. She also has an incredible talent with words, as you can see in her book as well as, much to my delight, this interview. Erin was gracious enough to answer some of my questions below. So welcome, Erin, to Steph Su Reads!

1. Your website describes PLAIN KATE as a "Russian-flavored historical fantasy." What sort of research went into the writing of this novel? What was the most interesting thing you did/discovered for research?

Research, even for an invented world like Kate's, is never ending. Fortunately most of it was library or internet research. I really owe the research librarians at the University of Waterloo a huge debt. The Society for Creative Anachronism helped out with a few sticky bits. I spent a couple of days hanging around a horse barn so that my horses wouldn't be too awful. And I learned enough about wood carving to make a small one with hurting myself. Much.

On the other hand, the middle of the novel takes place on a small punt, and my research into punting consisted (in its entirety) of rereading Three Men in a Boat. I fear it shows.

The hardest, weirdest, best research is always in the details. There are two things I learned that I really wanted to put in the story, but didn't fit: the first is that medieval woodcarvers used the skin of sharks as sand paper. Kate's too poor, so she uses a wet leather pad dipped in sand: what a pity! And I wanted to use the Hussar knights, whose armour included huge wings. But it turned out Kate's part of the world was a bit low-rent for them.

2. All of your works so far involve a lot of research. What drives you to tackle projects that require so much research in unfamiliar cultures?


I'd like to know that one, myself. In the first chapter of the book I just started, I created two lead characters from two different real historical cultures, who between them speak three languages I don't speak. YIKES.

I really don't know what draws me to these projects. I think it's that I like my fantasy worlds to feel big and well-lived in. My pet-peeve with high fantasy is that sometimes the setting feels like a setting for a stage: gorgeous, and about three inches deep. My pet-peeve with historicals is that sometimes they seem like the same old story with some feathers and human sacrifice glued on. There's no sense of language, culture, architecture, foodways, landscape, ecology, belief... it all just doesn't work.

Starting with a real setting helps me avoid that. It may be that I don't have the right kind of imagination to create a big, well-lived in world from scratch, a world like Middle Earth or Earthsea or Attolia or even Hogwarts. So, research it is.

(On a related note: I'm sick of everyone in fantasy being white. I'm aware that it's dicey for a white chick from Omaha to write about, say, Aztecs, but still....)

3. Yes, I agree with your answer big-time! So you used to work in physics--I love physics! What do you like about it? What was the best part about working at CERN?

You love physics? I'm so glad! People usually react as if I have trained a giant squid to follow me everywhere: you know, impressed, but somewhat wary.

I think what I like about physics is that you can ask questions that are so basic they are almost nonsense, such as, “why does a ball roll downhill?” I mean, yes, gravity, but the ball has potential energy at the top of the hill and kinetic energy at the bottom; why is the kinetic energy “better”? In high school I asked this and was told, “Well, gravity.” In college I asked it and was told about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics and the heat death of the universe. In grad school we started talking about the idea that there's no particular reason for the only-forward nature of time we experience as humans, and that the universe in most ways works just fine without that notion. Which is cool. I like the leap from simple-minded to astonishing. Poetry is like that too.

The best part of working at CERN was hanging out with a bunch of really smart people. That was fun! We all worked together, bounced ideas off each other, cooperated to get stuff done, spun ideas out over coffee and napkins. We also climbed mountains and formed bands and threw frisbees around. The Russians I worked with taught me to play cards and drink vodka (I never got good at either) and my roommate from Bombay taught me to cook Indian food. What's not to love? Besides the radiation, the rampant sexism, and the sixty- to eighty-hour work weeks, that is?

4. Linay, the "villain" of PLAIN KATE, turns out to be a marvelously complex character. Who are some of your favorite villains in YA literature, and why?

I just spent fifteen minutes starring at my bookshelf, trying to jog my memory. Before I did that I was going to say that I love villains, and always fall for villains. But I didn't come up with any villains that I loved. What I do like is, well, Snape: the villain on the side of light. Or, someone like Sherlock Holmes, the anti-social genius. Or the anti-hero. I just read The Demon's Lexicon, for instance, and Nick, the protagonist, is violent, cold, and difficult – for very good reason. I liked that.

What I like, in short (and in fiction) is people with baggage, people with damage, people who are a little bit crazy, a little bit off. They make good characters. I wish more people handled villains this way. I think there are very few people in real life who are cackling and twisting their moustaches, you know?

5. Can you tell us about how you reacted when you heard that PLAIN KATE had sold to Arthur Levine?

My experience is a little unusual, because my book went to auction, so I knew The Call was coming. Round Two Bids were due at 11:00 AM. Torturously, they didn't come in on time. They trickled in, and my agent refused to show them to me (wisely) until they were all ready. It was 7:00 PM before the last bid came. Meanwhile, I was at work, writing an article about the physical strengths of nanostructured films. I'm not sure it was a good article, mind you.

When Emily, my agent, finally called, it suddenly became clear that what had been a very good bid in the initial round one was now a shatteringly good, ditch your job, change your life bid. And it was from Arthur A. Levine. "Erin," said Emily, who had worked on the book with me for three years, "I have been dreaming about making this call for a long time." And then we both started to cry.

It's been wonderful to work with Arthur and his imprint and all the people at Scholastic, too. They've been a dream. I'm so grateful.

6. Taggle is totally endearing in his "cat-ness." I was wondering, who are your favorite literary felines?

I love Princess Arjumand, the cat who nearly destroys the space-time continuum in To Say Nothing of the Dog. And there's Mogget from Sabriel, of course. People often compare Mogget and Taggle, but Mogget's most fascinating characteristic is that he isn't a cat, and Taggle's best quality is that he is a cat – who just happens to talk.

7. Favorite way to kick back and relax after a long and busy day?

Bath and a book, of course! Before kids, I was capable of spending the evening in the bathtub, reading an entire book and using all the hot water in the house. Sometimes these days words get to be too much, and then my hubby and I opt for video and popcorn. I love both good and bad science fiction. I'm a Doctor Who fangirl, for instance. And I love to rent movies like, say, The Core, and have some friends over and mock it until a beverage comes out of someone's nose. We actually have a travelling trophy for that.

8. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, especially those of whom, like you, also have seemingly unrelated interests and passions?

I wish I could tell young me: don't let anyone push you into picking a passion. Follow them all. Find a balance and let the balance shift as it needs to. Yes, this means you won't “get ahead” particularly fast, and it means people in both literature and physics will routinely look at you as if you have a duck on your head. But both are important to who you are. You will not regret following your passions, even if you follow them into dead ends.

For aspiring writers: write. It is difficult, and often stupid, and doesn't pay very well. Do it anyway. Start now. Read everything. Fill notebooks with stories or just with compost -- you'll need a lot of compost to grow a few good stories. Edit and make them as good as you can make them. Find someone to share them with -- a few someones, ideally. Other writers are good if you're not competing with them; they will Get It. In any case you need people you can both learn from and teach, people you can lean on and really trust. And then maybe think about publication. But even if you don't publish -- and many don't -- write. Because you want to. Out of love. Write, write, write.


Thank you, Erin, for that insightful and engaging interview! It's been a real treat for me. I hope you check out Erin's gorgeous written book, Plain Kate, if you can!


  1. I love that Erin mentioned Princess Arjumand! To Say Nothing of the Dog is such a great book.

    I think I'm going to have to push Plain Kate up a few notches in my TBR pile.

  2. Oh wow, PHYSICS! You must be very smart to be good at science and to be an author too. Cool.

  3. I've seen this one around alot! Great interview! I know this sounds weird but sometimes reading an interview with an author makes me want to read a book more than the actual blurb does. lol.

    So interesting! Great interview as always Steph!

  4. wow, her description makes me want to work in physics! minus the radiation and hard work involved.. i mean cool colleagues and frisbee is the dream :p
    great interview steph, i really want to read this one!


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