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Morris Award Interviews Part IV: Rachel Hartman

Posted on 2013.01.21 at 02:26
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Today I'm excited to host our fourth and final installment in this year's annual Morris Award interview series, with my conversation with Seraphina author Rachel Hartman! (Unfortunately, despite multiple efforts and the kind assistance of Morris Award committee chair Joy Kim, we were unable to reach Laura Buzo, author of Love and Other Perishable Items).

Seraphina written by Rachel Hartman, published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

When the death of a royal prince threatens the fragile peace between humans and dragons in Goredd, court musician Seraphina is drawn into the murder investigation. But even as she aids Prince Lucian in his mission to uncover the murderer, Seraphina conceals a dangerous secret of her own—her half-human, half-dragon heritage.

Welcome, Rachel Hartman!

First, give us the vital stats on SERAPHINA. What was the inspiration for the novel? How long did it take to write? Was this truly your first book, or are there secret manuscripts lurking in desk drawers or dark closets?

I drew my inspiration for SERAPHINA from many different sources, but the first seed of an idea came to me when I was a young thing of thirty and my parents got divorced. In the course of processing that grief, a question kept popping into my head: what if you married someone with a terrible secret, but you didn’t learn what it was until they were dead? (Full disclosure: my mother is not a dragon) That was Seraphina’s parents’ dilemma, in a nutshell, and everything else grew from there.

I had a baby in the house and could only really write during naps. Then he stopped napping. I started getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning. It took me three and a half years to write the first draft. I rewrote it on spec for a prospective agent. I divided it in two and rewrote it again for my editor. That editor left the publisher; my agent helped me find a new publisher, and I rewrote the book again for a new editor. I did three complete rewrites, each with a different plot, so if you want to count unpublished versions, the current incarnation of SERAPHINA is my fourth novel by that name.

From the start of that first draft to publication took a bit over nine years. It came out the day after my fortieth birthday.

--As a reader, I was particularly fascinated by Seraphina's mental garden of grotesques. What a unique idea that spun so beautifully into the plot! Can you tell us a little about how that came about?

It was inspired in part by an ancient mnemonic device called a “memory palace”. In Greek and Roman antiquity, this was a strategy for memorizing long lists. What you’d do is first memorize the floor plan of a large building with many sequential rooms. Then, to remember the items on your list – a grocery list, say – you would walk through the palace and put one item in each room sequentially. It helps, supposedly, to create an arresting visual image to go with it, so if there’s milk on the list, maybe the room is drowning in milk, and if there’s bread, it’s so huge you can bounce on it. Once you’ve placed everything that was on your list, then you go to the store and walk through the palace again, in your imagination, and see all your items in sequence. Apparently this really does work, although I’ve never had the patience to try it myself.

What fascinates me particuarly about the memory palace is the idea that the mind could have a geography, specific places and landmarks that you can go visit. That is, in fact, very much how I experience my own mind, full of not just places but characters as well. Maybe Seraphina’s half-dragon mind is just a writer’s mind after all.

--Tell us a little about the experience of being a first-time novelist.  Has it been what you expected? Any wisdom or insights or surprises to share about the joys or challenges of life during and after the first book?

The biggest challenge, and it’s ongoing, is settling down and getting the second book done. I love that people love the first one, don’t get me wrong, but I also experience that as pressure, as something to live up to, and it’s hard for me to write under pressure. I’m not someone who thrives on it; I tend to want to hide in a hole.

I have been so deeply moved by people’s response to the first book, though. I think everyone who loves books has had the experience of feeling like a book was written just for us. An author who’s never met me seems somehow to have reached into my brain, understood me better than I understand myself, and turned my reality into art. What a profound joy to hear from readers who’ve had that kind of experience with SERAPHINA. I’ve read reviews, gotten e-mails, and even received hugs from readers saying, “You wrote this book just for me!” And they’re absolutely right. I did.

--And finally: How much do you love librarians?

Lots and lots! There has never been a time in my life when I did not have librarian friends. I used to draw comic books and travel to comic cons, and it was always amazing to me how many comic book artists and writers are either married to librarians or were once librarians themselves. I’ve played D&D and been in writing groups with librarians. The written word has no faster friend or stauncher ally, and I’m so pleased librarians have embraced SERAPHINA as they have.


Rachel, and all the nominees, thanks for stopping by! And special thanks to our co-hosts, Blythe Woolston and John Corey Whaley. The Morris Award, and all the other ALA Youth Media Awards, will be announced next Monday, January 28, by live telecast. Stay tuned, and best of luck to all the finalists!

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