Interview with Shannon Messenger
Ever since I discovered Keeper of the Lost Cities, Shannon Messenger has been one of my favorite authors. Her latest book in the Lost Cities series, Neverseen, came out this past Tuesday. Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with her for a few minutes. Hope you enjoy!
Gama Ray Martinez: I am here with Shannon Messenger author of the Lost Cities series and the Sky Fall series. Shannon, to start off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Shannon Messenger: Well, I’m really not all that interesting. I mostly live my life from deadline to deadline these days so honest I’m not joking when I say I’m not all that interesting because I pretty much write about 14 hours a day right now. Pretty much, the only other thing I ever say about myself is that I’m bordering on crazy cat lady territory. I have six cats so I think that really does sort of put me in the crazy cat lady territory except I’m married so we’re the weird cat couple instead.
GM: I think that makes it better.
SM: It does. I really really does. I keep telling my husband he can’t ever leave me because then I have to get rid of the cats too.
GM: Your first book Keeper of the Lost Cities is the first in a series. Can you tell us a little about that series?
SM: Yeah. I always call it Lord of the Rings meets X-Men. It is following the story of 12 year old Sophie who finds out she’s not human and that she actually belongs to this secret world call the Lost Cities, and that someone took a lot of trouble to hide her with humans and not let her know what she really is. Now that she’s been found, she has to figure out how to be what she really is, but also kind of figure out why someone hid her away. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say it has to do with secrets that have been planted in her brain. She is telepathic. She has very strong telepathic powers, but she also has memories in her mind that aren’t hers. As we go through the series, we start to learn more about those secrets and the group that is behind her existence. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a totally biased opinion coming from me.
GM: Well, I agree, and I have to say the part where she finally left to go into the lost cities was absolutely heart wrenching.
SM: Thank you. That scene, I probably wrote twenty times because sometimes it was too sad, sometimes it wasn’t sad enough. Finding that right balance, especially since Keeper is the first book I ever wrote, so I was very much still learning how to write. That scene, I’m so glad whenever someone tells me that they love it because, man I worked hard to get that scene right.
GM: Keeper is quite a bit longer than most books aimed at that age group. Did that give you any trouble?
SM: You know, it’s funny. I had heard a lot about word count and middle-grad books and I knew Keeper was definitely over that. The first book is a hundred thousand words, and they say when, you read agent blogs, that it should be no more than sixty thousand words so I had wondered if I would have a problem with it. The funny thing is my agent never batted an eye at it. My editor never batted an eye at it. My readers, in fact, I usually get request for “Make the next book longer.” I have actually. Each book gets longs. Really, the only downside to it that I’ve experienced is that it’s sort of twice the work for me. I’m kind of doing two books for the price of one, which I don’t know if I that really puts me in the smart category, but it’s just one of those things where the story needs it because it’s a really intricate world. It’s really elaborate cast of characters, and if you tried to rush through that, you wouldn’t feel what you need to feel. I work very hard to make sure that the books read fast even though they’re long. I don’t understand how kids do it, but I will hear from kids who read the books in three or four hours even though book 3 was I think 640 pages so clearly there are some kids with some super powers out there because I can’t read it that fast. I think there are certain readers that really want to fall into a story. If you’re looking for the kid who’s just looking for a book to finish his book report, he’s probably not going to pick mine. I’m saying that it’s a boy just by defaulting to the male gender there. Girls do that too. They’re probably going to go for one of those 120 pagers so that they can be done. For the kids that absolutely enjoy reading, I think that’s who’s finding my books. I actually have heard from quite a few parents and teachers who say that my book was that gateway book for kids to fall in love with reading. I think they just have to look past the thickness of the book and trust that the chapters are short and it reads really fun. Again, that’s a biased opinion.
GM: Well, good. Now, I understand you went through, was it twenty-one drafts?
SM: It was twenty, but yes, it was twenty drafts to get Keeper published. In my defense, I never completed the first ten of them. I’d get about halfway through and realized I was bored which is sort of writer’s 101. If you’re not even interested with the story you’re telling, you’re probably doing something wrong. I got my agent on draft thirteen. We revised five times together. Draft eighteen was what sold, but then, of course, and editors job is to edit so two more revisions for my editor and draft twenty. I always say, “Yes, the first book I ever wrote did get published, but it really wasn’t the first book I ever wrote because I wrote that same book twenty times. It’s technically the twentieth book I wrote.
GM: How many books will Keeper go?
SM: I honestly don’t know. I have really wanted to let the story unfold on its own. When we sold it, we sold it as a trilogy, so we knew there had to be three. Book four is coming out. I’m not allowed to comment on whether there will be a book five. There might be some news coming on that front soon. Each book, I go into it knowing what story I still have left and it may be that I get that all in in one book. It may be that I realized I need to go into another book. We’re just playing it by ears. I just don’t want it to be one of those series where the last book is a little lackluster because there really wasn’t enough story left. The author could’ve condensed that into the other books. I just want to make sure that I’m trusting the story not how many books I’m arbitrarily saying it should be.
GM: Sophie has a stuffed blue elephant named Ella. Now Ella is a real stuffed blue elephant, is that right?
SM: Yes, in fact I still sleep with Ella. When I go around to school visits and things, I bring Ella with me to show to my readers, although I should confess it is technically Ella number two that they’re seeing because the real Ella, I’ve had since I was four and I’ve slept with her every night so she is not as bright blue as she used to be. There is pretty much no stuffing left in her head. I don’t think that would really make the impression on kids that I would like it to. It’s a toy that was a brand called Puffalumps which totally reveals that I was an 80s child. I went on eBay and found that they had the exact same Puffalump but still in the box fresh so I bought Ella number two and Ella travels with me so that everyone can see what a nerd I am and that I still sleep with bright blue elephants. My goal is that if these books ever become Harry Potter huge, maybe we can get Fisher Price to start making this Puffalump again so come on universe, make this happen. I want that to be my gift to humanity, bringing Pufalumps back.
GM: You also have a young adult series called Sky Fall. Can you tell us a little about that one?
SM: Sure. For one thing, I always say the whole Sky Fall thing technically has no relation to James Bond unless of course, that makes you want to read it then yes, it is all about James Bond. It’s called the Sky Fall series because the first book is called Let the Sky Fall. For some reason, it just morphed and that’s what everyone calls it. It’s actually about air elementals. The elevator pitch I use is The Last Airbender meets Twister with kissing. It’s equal parts romance and wind wars. It’s told in dual POV, which is a ton of fun. The two main characters are Vane who’s seventeen years old and has absolutely no idea that he is an air elemental. He’s kind of a lazy, kind of useless guy. I call him my dude in distress. Then there’s seventeen year old Audra who’s tasked with protecting him because of a mistake that happens. She has to get him to remember who he is so that they’ll be able to be strong enough to survive this threat that’s coming for them. He, being typical seventeen year old boy is kind of more interested in the fact that she’s rather attractive and would rather hit on her than train with her. It’s a really funny dynamic of getting to have him be hopeless at the romantic stuff and her really tough as nails, throwing him into walls every time he’s being difficult. It was a lot of fun to write. It’s probably the funnest book I’ve ever written.
GM: How many books will that series go?
SM: That is a trilogy. Two books of it are out. The third book called Let the Wind Rise is coming out on, I believe it’s April 26, but sometimes release dates change, so just know it will be spring 2016
GM: Did you have any difficulty switching between the middle-grade and YA genres?
SM: Not really because I’m a very character driven writer. When I’m writing Sophie, she’s thirteen, and I’m thinking very much like a thirteen year old girl and when I’m writing Vane and Audra, they’re seventeen, and I’m just really channeling that. The only thing that really huts my brain is that Sophie’s story is written third person past tense and Let the Sky Fall is written dual POV first person present tense, and usually when I switch, the verbs are wrong for the first couple of chapters and then I realized, “Right, I need to switch tenses,” which does also help me get into the voice, but it usually means I mess up verbs in the beginning and sort of curst the fact that a difference tense in the beginning. Once I fall into the rhythm I’m glade because it helps me to really have their voices be distinct.
GM: When working on either series did you ever realize that you accidently foreshadowed anything in an earlier book that you had to write into a later one?
SM: I don’t know if I would say accidently. I definitely love to do what, in my screen writing classes, my teachers would tell us to leave ourselves bread crumbs. Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re going to do with them. You’ll just throw something out there and think, “Well, it can stand on its own and people won’t think it’s too weird”, but you could go back and play with it later. I have done that a lot and sometimes, I will surprise myself with what I’ll come up with to use it for. I’d love to claim that everything single thing I planted I knew exactly what it was going to be, but sometimes no. Sometimes, I have a vague idea and then I come up with something way better. It’s good to leave yourself those things because then it does look like this is what you’ve bene planning and not that it came out of left field. It’s a good habit to get it, but the down side of it is that if you plant it too obvious readers will start emailing you about it and you start thinking, “I have to figure out what that could be now because everybody wants to know what it is and I haven’t figured it out yet.” It’s give and take as is anything with writing.
GM: You studied screen writing and film production so have you ever thought of making either series into movies or TV at all.
SM: I have a film agent who shops the rights. One thing that surprised a lot of people was when we were first having conversations on that, I made it very clear that I don’t want to be the one to write the screenplay. Not that a writer really has that much say unless you’re Suzanne Collins or something. They usually say, “We’re buying your rights and we’re hiring a professional screenwriter.” The reason for that is that screenplays and books are completely different things and I’ve taken enough classes on adaptation to know why things would have to be changed and what things would have to be changed, but my brain can’t come up with what I would change them to because what they are is how I want them. I think that if it were to ever be made into a movie, it would be done better justice by someone who’s not so personally attached to the reasons why I did what I did and could step in and say “We can combine those characters. We can combine that location. We can do those things.” I would be like, “No, we need that character.” I just think it would have a better possibility of being a good movie which is what you go for. It’s so often not what comes out when these things happen. It’s amazing how many bad movies have been made off of books. I would think it would be better if I step back, not that I wouldn’t want to have some say over reading wat somebody else does, but I would really like somebody else to write it.
GM: Do you finish the book from series before starting on the book from the other one. Do you switch between them? How do you manage that?
SM: When I first committed to the two book a year contract, I would say naïve Shannon, her plan was for six months of the year, I’d work on one book and then for six months of the year I’d work on the other book and neither path would ever cross. Then reality came down and, for one thing publishing is sort of like a game of hot potato. You turn the draft in and then it bounces back to you with revision, and you turn the draft in and then it bounces back to you with revision. You turn it in again and now its copy edits. Then you give it back and now its first pass. You get to a point where you thinking, “I’m so sick of reading this and I have to read it again.” Each one of those things takes time. I try to at least only draft one at the same time, but right now, I am starting to draft one and revising another because they’re just aren’t enough months in the year. I really really need a TARDIS so if anyone has a direct line to the Doctor and let him know that I don’t even need to be a full-fledged companion. I’m fine with just being a single episode. I just need about three more months so if I could just chill in the TARDIS for three months and then have him drop me back off, that would be great. Please. Preferably, Doctor number ten.
GM: Well, maybe he’s listening so we’ll see what happens. Why so many cats?
SM: I knew that was coming. You know what? It is because I swear there is some sort of beacon on my house that is calling stray cats to it. Some of it’s my fault. My husband and I went to the shelter and we decided we were going to get two. That way they could be friends with each other, and then a year later, this little starved cat wandered into our yard, and I couldn’t just ignore him. He was a black cat which they can have a really hard time finding a home so I thought, “All right, we can put a dish of food out.” Then, he made a friend. Then that friend turned out to be pregnant with kittens. There was one point in time when we had eleven cats because we had the kittens. Of course, you have to keep the kittens for eight weeks before you can give them away so of course, I fell completely in love with one of those kittens so we kept that. That brought us up to five. Then the sixth one was our doing. We just decided we had too many in the gray black and white scale. We needed an orange one for some diversity in our cat representation so we got one more orange one and we have said now that we are done. Although we have had a few strays wander in and out, but they didn’t stick around, and we’re kind of glad about that because seven cats really is beyond weird cat couple. It’s just starting to become a little strange.
GM: What are you working on now?
SM: Right now, I am revising Let the Wind Rise, which is the third book in the Sky Fall series. I just got my edits and its due very very soon. It’s kind of a drop everything and work on that deadline. Hopefully once I finish that, I can get back to the draft that I owe in January which I’m not allowed to say what it is yet, though I’m sure some people can guess and then after that, I’m not sure.
GM: Well that was all I had for you, Shannon, so I just want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
SM: Thank you so much, and thank you to anyone who’s listening. I know that I have a tendency to ramble so seriously, big round of applause for anyone who made it through all of those rambling. Go have a cupcake.
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