Worlds Beyond Imagination, from the LA Times Festival of Books

Three finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult literature – Jonathan Stroud, author of The Ring of Solomon, Megan Whalen Turner, author of A Conspiracy of Kings (the book that took home the award), and Rick Yancey, author of The Curse of the Wendigo, came together for the Worlds Beyond Imagination panel, to discuss writing fantastical stories. But as the moderator, Ms. Cindy Dobrez, was quick to point out – obviously these authors’ worlds were not worlds beyond imagination, as they did manage to put them down on paper for us to read!

Moderator: Good fantasy requires strong world building – could you each speak about the genesis of each world and the research that you do, even though you are writing fantasy?

Megan Whalen Turner: I had the idea – as Jonathan said earlier, sort of the kernel of an idea – for a story, in which people were traveling together in a group and there would be one member of the group who had been underestimated, both by the people in the group and also by everyone, but I didn’t really have a landscape to set the book in until I had traveled to Greece. It was very important to me that the landscape of the book not be Middle Earth, because I think that we can all read pretty much three Tolkien knock offs, and then we’re done. And I think it would be a terrible, terrible thing for young readers to come to the three knock offs and then get to Tolkien and say, oh, dwarfs – been there. So it was very important for me not to be a knock off Tolkien – I wanted a different landscape, but I grew up mostly in the eastern half of United States, and growing up it was great that every single place I lived look like Middle Earth – trees, rolling hills, rocky outcrops – because I could play Hobbit anywhere, but then when it was time for me to invent a landscape that didn’t  look like that, I didn’t have any other experiences. And I kind of floundered around for a while because I wasn’t looking for something really exotic – I didn’t want to make a jungle, I didn’t want to make a desert – I didn’t really know what I wanted to make except that it was simultaneously going to be sort of familiar to be people and yet not have elves and dwarfs in it. Then I visited Greece and I realized that was a landscape that everybody recognizes – at least, everybody who’s gone through 6th grade in the United States and had to do Greek gods and goddesses. I figured that was an introduction to that world for most of my audience, and that if I placed a book in that world it would simultaneously be absolutely clear I’m not in Middle Earth, and yet still be in some way familiar to readers, so I wouldn’t have to explain every single detail of the landscape.

Jonathan Stroud: In my case – the Bartimaeus series – I kind of had it easy, really, because I lived in London for about seven or eight years, so I know it very well. That’s actually a key thing, when you’re writing fantasy and you’re going to introduce all kind of things from your imagination, stuff that doesn’t exist, then it’s very helpful to mesh that with somewhere that does exist, which is very concrete, very realistic – which your readers kind of know, or at least have an imaginary idea in their heads. And so London for me, as for many other writers, was perfect. I was able to throw in all sorts of demons and magicians and stuff into essentially a completely realistic cityscape. I found it more tricky with the Ring of Solomon, which is set in ancient Jerusalem – and I did a bit of research for that, I went down to the British Museum and I hung around looking at little gold objects, and read a few books about Biblical history, and kind of realized quite quickly that people didn’t have much of a clue what it was like back in Solomon’s time – there are a few reconstructions of Solomon’s temple and roughly what it might be like – but I fairly quickly decided that, having done my research, I was going to kind of ignore it and just write a more fantastical place. Because there is a problem I think, with research, generally, in that if you do too much research it will sort weight you down, all those facts will sort of oppress you – it’s good to have it in your head, then put it to one side, and let your imagination speak.

Rick Yancey: Tolkien… I remember in the very first book I wrote, around 15 or 16, I combined my two great loves, which were science fiction and fantasy – so I had dwarfs in space. Really. They had like space gadgets and space ships but they were also dwarfs. I may still do something with that… The original idea for The Monstrumologist seres was actually sort of more high tech, set in the present day, like monster hunters who had all these cool gadgets and stuff – and as I was working on that idea, it really wasn’t working for me and so I returned to – I love history, and one of my favorites periods in history is the 19th century. I love the literature of that period, I just love the idea of the gaslight and guys in dark coats and the carriages, and sort of that whole Sherlock Holmesian feel, and that’s what really popped this book for me. And in terms of a landscape, for me – what appealed to me about horror, in particular (because these are pretty scary books) is the bizarre things happening in very familiar sorts of settings. The more familiar and realistic you can make that setting, the more horrifying it can be, because that’s when we get really scared, when something familiar is all of a sudden something unfamiliar. So I wanted to make that landscape extremely realistic – and talking about research, you’re absolutely right. I’m the sort of person, I start researching and it becomes almost like an end to itself. I get totally lost in it, and all of a sudden I’m 10 miles from the question I was trying to answer – it’s like, oh wow that’s really cool about ancient Greece, but that has nothing to do with my book…

Moderator: You each have some wicked funny scenes in your books – does the humor come easily to you, or is it a struggle to be funny on the page?

Jonathan Stroud: It depends on the day. Some days I sit down and I have my Bartimaeus head on correctly and I’m just sort of writing away and I’ll start thinking of cheeky comments and cheap gags, and I put them down and start chuckling inanely to myself, and you kind of get on a role and within a few pages, you have a huge number of silly jokes – most of which you later on remove, because you realize they aren’t actually that funny – but you pare it down to a few one liners. It’s just very much of the moment. And one of the things that I’ve found in my books, the Bartimaeus stories, was that you can have too much of a good thing. Bartimaeus, as those of you who’ve read the book know – he’s very confident, and swinging these jokes, and he’s quite an intense sort of character to write, so I quickly realized it would be a mistake to have the whole book in his voice. It would be like being at a party and having somebody come up to you with a drink and cornering you and telling you all kinds of great jokes and after a while you’re dying to escape out the window. And so I quite quickly realized I was going to have to alternate the chapters, so some of the chapters were more cool and downbeat and objective, and it kind of balanced quite nicely. Humor, you’ve got to use it carefully, otherwise it cheapens what you’re doing.

Rick Yancey: I think that’s exactly right – especially in my kind of story, I think humor is absolutely essential because there are moments when you need that comic relief. I do it when I’m writing – the tension is so great, sometimes the story turns so grim and so dark, that I feel the need as the writer to lighten it up a bit and have something mildly humorous, because it is so dark. I kind of pride myself on having a pretty good sense of humor, and if I can make myself laugh, then I trust at least one other person reading it will laugh – hopefully it will be my editor. My limited sense is, if I tell a joke and someone doesn’t laugh, I just assume they have no sense of humor.

Megan Whalen Turner: I don’t really have much to add except to agree that yes, you have to be funny and not funny in exactly the right doses. Also that you use it as a release valve, in order to prevent things from growing too strained – because I do write very intense scenes in some of the books, and when I come across things written in other people’s books, like, say, this one (points at Rick Yancey), I start to read faster… (pantomimes flipping frantically through the pages). I don’t want to push my readers to the point they stop reading, that they’re so uncomfortable they’re backing away, so I will deliberately lighten things up.

Rick Yancey: It’s so instinctual – it’s an instinct you develop as a writer, it’s really hard to explain to someone-

Megan Whalen Turner: We need to do something here.

Rick Yancey: Right.

Moderator: It’s been said that fantasy for adults and fantasy for children is actually a single genre – Rick posted on School Library Journal that if he saw Curse of the Wendigo in the hands of a middle schooler, he might be tempted to rip it away to avoid irreparable harm to their psyche. What are your thoughts about reading levels and target ages for your books?

Rick Yancey: I don’t know about you two, but I never think about that. I never have in my mind, okay, here’s Cory, he’s 15 years old and he’s into football and girls and what would he like to read? I never think about that – I always think of myself as the first audience. I figure it I’m not being entertained by a story, if I’m not being carried away and totally absorbed in it, than no one else is going to be either. When I get start getting bored with my own story, I know no one’s reading it. I kind of made that comment to School Library Journal in jest – I do think there are some advanced middle school readers that are fine with the books. You have to know your kid – kids are at different reading levels.

Megan Whalen Turner: I have a pretty clear idea of who my audience is – they’re people who like the kind of things I like. I’m just assuming that there are all these people who like what I like, and that’s why it’s so flattering when someone says, oh, I love Diana Wynne Jones and Rosemary Sutcliff and you. You know? That’s really a compliment, to know that I am in the same category, and am writing for the people who like the things I like to read. But as far as the age of the reader, I don’t think that matters.  I think that it’s really the kind of reader. So when people come up to me and they say, so I have a 13 year old, will he like your books? Or, my nephew is 10, would he like you books? And I think – I don’t know. You nephew could be any different kind of person who might like it or might not like it – being 10 years old, or 12 years old, or 14 and 8 months, is not really the thing that’s going to qualify you to be a reader for my books. You have to like fantasy. If you’re Cory and all you like is football, you could be 22 and it still might not appeal. So usually when people ask me: I have this kid, would he or she like the book, I ask what else they’ve read, do they like fantasy, and have they read books, voluntarily, that were printed in the year before they were born. Generally speaking, a kid who likes The Hobbit, they’re a good pick, But even if they’re reading science fiction and fantasy but they’ve never read anything more than a couple of years old, it’s going to be a bigger challenge for them.

Jonathan Stroud: Fantasy – we are kind of lucky, because as a genre it pretty much spans across the board, from kids right up to aged men and women. When I do events – I think my record in terms of young age was a tiny girl, aged 8, who staggered up to me and she had all the Bartimaeus books in a teetering pile, and she could barely hold them. I was bowled over by the fact that this little girl had read them already and she knew them better than I did. And then you get people who are 80 who are reading them as well. The line, I think, is as you said, you have to write for yourself – when I sat down to write Bartimaeus’ story, I was writing it both for the adult I was then and for the 12 year old boy I had been. And so I did sort of have a grade in my head – 12ish was roughly the age I expected – but at the same time, you have to enjoy the book now to have enjoyed it then, or no one else is going to.

Moderator: A children’s book critic called Megan the queen of subtext – multiple readings of Conspiracy continue to yield a rich appreciation of the text. I think that could be said for all three of you. Would you like to share your thoughts on multiple readings? Do you try to set up situations that become ah-hah moments for readers the second time through?

Megan Whalen Turner: I think the answer is, yes.

Moderator: The queen of subtext has spoken.

Rick Yancey: There was so much in that answer. I’ll be thinking about that one.

Megan Whalen Turner: I’m glad you picked up on that… There’s actually so much to that question I don’t know where to start. Do I write a book meaning for it to be a different type of story the second time through? Yes. I know that a lot of people read my stories with the idea that there is a mystery, and that they’re going to solve it before they get to the end of the book and they’re going to find out if they were right or not. The deal is just to give them enough reasonable clues that a really clever person would have figured it out, but not too many. But that is not my concept of what I’m doing – I’m not providing you, as a reader, with the clues you would need to catch on before the end of the book. I’m telling you one story, and I’m giving you information at the very end of it that I expect to create a back-formation of an entirely new story. And I know that some people come to The Thief especially and they feel that they’ve been tricked. They thought they were in a mystery story and that they would be given enough information, so when they find out at the end of the book that it wasn’t the story that they thought it was, they feel like I should have given them more and bigger clues. But what I find interesting about that is that as you read the book a second time through, I think what you find is that the clues are roughly (holds arms wides) this big. It’s just the power of conventional thinking, because you think it’s a type of story, you just don’t think about other things, no matter how big and bookmarked they are. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised – it’s only now that people are saying in pretty much every review, wow that twist ending, that you’re starting to see people saying, I guessed it ahead of time – mostly people are still surprised when they get to the end, and that was what I was working for in The Thief. Not quite as much in the other stories, but it’s a pattern that I like for the whole series- you read one story, you receive information, then you get a slightly different story – because I’m a re-reader. Books I like I read again, and again, and again, and again, and I want to write for the people who read again.

Jonathan Stroud: I don’t tend to re-read myself – I’ve got favorite books that I will re-read, but I know there are people out there who will find a book that they love and they will re-read it several times in very quick succession – I’ve never done that.  So I don’t think I write my books for people to re-read, even though I know that some people do. But you put in various levels of information, I think, in a text, and on a fundamental level you’ve got this story which has to be entertaining and move at a certain pace, and that’s the primary one, where even someone who’s skim reading on the train will enjoy that story. And then underneath that, you insert layers – you insert other bits of information which deepen the reading experience, which potentially some people won’t get but most will – things like in jokes and other sorts of bits and pieces and references, a deeper level which potentially someone whose had read it 16 times, and read the other books, and come back, and is a real fan, they’ll pick up the whole thing – they’ll see everything. So I guess in a way we’re doing the same thing.

Rick Yancey: It’s like Neapolitan ice cream. Whenever my Mom would buy Neapolitan ice cream – I hated vanilla and strawberry, so she would say, just eat the chocolate part then, and shut up. It’s Neapolitan ice cream, and I purposely do that – there are things in the books that which I know an adult reader is going to pick up and increase their enjoyment of the story-

Megan Whalen Turner: Like James Henry.

Rick Yancey: Exactly. That was very sub textual too, what you just did… So for fourteen year olds, they’re just going to want the chocolate. And it’s not going to diminish their enjoyment of a story, they’re not going to think it’s any less of a book because they didn’t try the vanilla or the strawberry, but for another reader, who loves complex fantasy stories, they’re going to  really enjoy that whole flavor.

Megan Whalen Turner: And unlike the ice cream, it doesn’t melt. So when the thirteen year old turns fifteen and goes back to read it-

Rick Yancey: And it’s like oh, I think I’ll try the strawberry. By the way, I like the strawberry now. Still don’t like the vanilla.

Moderator: There’s a doctoral thesis in there somewhere… Jonathan, fans cheered when we heard there would be a forth book in the Bartimaeus trilogy, although we questioned your math skills. Bartimaeus has been described as sardonic, cocky, mouthy, sarcastic, mischievous, etc. Where did Bart come from, and is there a bit of you in him?

Jonathan Stroud: Yeah. Well, he was there right from the beginning – the whole series really began with Bartimaeus, and with his voice in particular. It was around 2002, and Harry Potter was everywhere and fantasy fiction was everywhere, and I was trying to think of an idea for a new take, something that would be a story about magic which wasn’t going to rehash the Middle Earth themes, or the Harry Potter themes. As I was walking along one day I suddenly had this flash of inspiration, which was that I would have a story in which we had wizards, and the wizards would be very powerful, there might even be a kid wizard in there, but they would not be the heroes; wizards would be the bad guys. And I would have a genie as my main character, and he would be a slave, and it would be his voice. And that was really it – I went home and started just writing, and I wrote what became the first chapter of The Amulet Stone, the first Bartimaeus book. I wrote it very, very rapidly – as soon as I began writing it, with no clue what the plot was, not a single idea of where the story was going to go or anything about it, but immediately the voice, this voice, came out -this very sarcastic, world weary boy who has been around a long time and thinks he’s far cleverer than everyone else. I immediately knew that he was good and I could do something with him. I wrote about 60 pages, powered, fueled, by Bart’s voice, still not knowing where I was going, no plot or structure really at all, it was purely riffing on this guy’s voice. And then I had to calm down, stop, and take a deep breath, and turn it into something that was coherent. For a long time I was sort of swaggering about thinking, yeah, of course I’m Bartimaeus, he’s kind of mean, clever, and he’s got a way about the ladies… And then I gave my book to my mother and she read it and said, of course you realize that one of these characters is you – and I though, yeah, that’s right – and she said, Nathaniel. So… If you haven’t read the book, he’s kind of an uptight, anally retentive twelve year old kid. It really was true – he was me, really. Bart is how I would like to be.

Moderator: Rick, what kind of horrific childhood did you have? Where did the gruesome horror in your Monstrumology books come from?

Rick Yancey: It’s like being with my therapist… I was a wimp. I don’t even watch scary movies. The one scary movie I saw was Paranormal Activity – did you see that movie? About the girl who is possessed by a demon, and she gets up in the middle of the night, she walks around the corner of the bed, she stands by the boyfriend and stares at him for like three hours while he sleeps, he has no idea. So I was late with the first book, pulling these all nighters trying to finish a monster book, so it was like horrifying – 3 o’clock in the morning and I’m writing about being dismembered… So I had developed this ritual where I would check all the windows and the doors, because everyone would be asleep, and I was tiptoeing around, checking the refrigerator and the showers – every bad thing happens in the showers…

Megan Whalen Turner: But you didn’t you see those movie?

Rick Yancey: Well I saw the classics, like Psycho and The House on Haunted Hill

Jonathan Stroud: Oh yeah, that’s a scary movie.

Rick Yancey: Yeah… So I would try to ease myself into bed because I didn’t want to wake up my wife, but I still couldn’t fall asleep because I still had that story going on in my head, and I was kicking myself, thinking, you don’t even do scary and you’re writing this really scary thing, you’re such an idiot. And I would lay my head down, sit up, lay my head down, sit up, because I was convinced my wife – just like the girl – I would close my eyes, she would stand up, come around the bed, and stare at me. One morning she had to get up to go to the bathroom at like four in the morning and I had just drifted off to sleep and I heard the floorboards creak and I sat up and I said: WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!? She jumped, she was like aagghh… What do you mean what am I doing, I’m going to the bathroom! I said, no, you’re not! I’m lying in bed, you were standing there, you’re staring at me! Like the girl! She was like, when are you going to finish that book, that book is making you very weird…

I used to watch- there used to these creature features on a Saturday afternoon – remember those? And it was a Saturday afternoon, and I was smelly, because I was a teenager, and my mother said, get in the shower! And I said, can I use your shower? Because I was scared, and that was comforting somehow – and she said yes, go ahead – but the thing about their shower was that the light switch was on the other side of the door, not the side with the bathroom. Who does that? So when I’m in the shower, my brother, my big brother – he was a jock in school, all the ladies loved him – now he’s bald. You know what his nickname is now? Shrek – what he did was, I was taking my shower – there’s a shower scene, like there is in every horror movie, in House on Haunted Hill, and so he sneaks into my parents room and turns off the light while I’m in the shower. Isn’t that horrible? The big, bad brother…

Megan Whalen Turner: The entire book comes from a shower incident?

Rick Yancey: No, I don’t… I mean, who can really say where they come from. There’s something that bubbles up out of us, there’s something about it that keeps us writing. I don’t like to question it – it’s like questioning the muse, you know?

Megan Whalen Turner: No, I don’t blame you – it’s like if we look at it too closely, we’ll break it.

Rick Yancey: That’s the way it feels. It’s fragile. You can’t handle it too much.

Moderator: I noticed this morning that A Conspiracy of Kings was dedicated to Diana Wynne Jones, a legendary fantasy author we lost in March to cancer. And I was wondering if any of you would like to speak to what Diana meant to you, as an author or as a reader.

Megan Whalen Turner: About 18 years ago, I was living down in San Diego – my husband had gotten a Guggenheim and he said, we can go anywhere in the world that you want to live for a year while I write this book, where do you want to live? And I said,  some place with hardwood floors… The year he’d been working at the National Humanities Center, we lived in a condo that belongs to the American Dean of Humanities at Duke, and they had carpets on top of their carpets. They had wall to wall carpeting, and then they had throw rugs on top of the wall to wall carpeting, and then they had littler rugs on top of those rugs, and I felt like I was living inside a padded room. And so I didn’t care where we lived, but I wanted to have some place with wooden floors – which I didn’t get, we ended up living in an apartment down in Del Mar which had wall to wall carpeting, but it had wooden ceilings! So we used to lie on the floor and look at the ceiling for clarity. And that’s where I wrote the collection of short stories. I knew from experience that when I quit my job and we moved for a year, that I would be good for about 6 weeks of vacation and then I would start to go nuts. But it’s very hard to pick up a job when you tell people that you’re only going to be in town for a year, so I decided that when I started to go nuts, I would put the nutty feeling into my writing. And I thought the short stories would be a good place to start, and it would demonstrate whether or not I could actually finish anything. And so I wrote the stories, and my husband asked, well, do you think they’re any good? And, I’m writing for myself, I don’t know – I have no idea at all. And he said, maybe you could send them to somebody. Who would you send them to? And the person I admired most at the time was Diana Wynne Jones, and I foolishly let those words come out of my mouth, and my husband said great, we’ll send them! And I said, no, we won’t. And he said either I could send them to Diana Wynne Jones or he would. And I decided it would probably be more embarrassing to have him send them, and so I wrote a cover letter and sent her two of the stories. And she wrote back to say I was a writer of great style, competence and originality. And you can tell how important that phrase has been to me, because I repeat it to myself. In slow moments in front of the screen, when there is nothing, I just keeping saying: writer of great style, competence and originality. Then my husband passes behind me, whispering: writer of great style, competence… So she not only gave me the name of an agent and sent my stories to her, but she also gave me the touchstone, really, for my writing from then on. And I’m going to miss her terribly. I didn’t know her as well as I might have, because I’m a little bit anxious still about meeting my heroes. I know that in this day and age people seem to be really comfortable with the idea that your author has a blog, and tweets, and everybody gets to know them, but I loved her books so much, and they have meant so much to me that I’m almost reluctant to share them. And to have a personal Diana as opposed to the person who is in the books… So although I’m going to miss her very, very much, I still have her on my shelf.

Jonathan Stroud; I met her, only once, very briefly, when my first Bartimaeus book came out, I was on a panel with her. And she was already fairly frail, and she had her neck in a brace and a bad back,  and was very erect and very regal. She kind of had this imperious reputation and I was really nervous to be in the same room as her, but she was very incredibly gracious and very – as with your story, she had that generosity of spirit.

Rick Yancey: I’m very star struck by authors. I’m star struck right now… I get around authors and I still feel a little- I was on a panel once with a Nobel laureate, and it was like, why I am here? Writers of her caliber… When I was growing up, an author was like a rock star, and I still have a little bit of that feeling in me. When I walk through the authors’ green room – I saw R.L. Stein this morning sitting by himself at a little table, reading a paper, and I though – that’s R.L. Stein! I have goosebumps!