Thursday, January 19, 2012

Morris Award Interview: Elizabeth C. Bunce

This year's Morris interview series will end at the beginning—with the award of 2009. This is a a sweet moment; the future's on the horizon. Elizabeth and I extend all the congratulations our hearts can hold to this year's Morris winners. 
Arthur A. Levine\Scholastic
ISBN 9780439895767
I'm delighted to offer today's interview with Elizabeth C. Bunce. Three years ago, her debut A Curse Dark as Gold earned the first Morris gold. It has been quite an adventure since then. Here is part of her story...
This supernatural novel retells the story of Rumpelstiltskin, setting it at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and centering it around the life of Charlotte Miller. When the bank wants to repossess her mortgaged mill, Charlotte strikes a bargain with the mysterious Jack Spinner, (a creature who knows the art of turning straw into gold), but then discovers she must free her loved ones from a generations-old curse. 
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Charlotte Miller strikes a bargain with the malevolent Jack Spinner, who can transform straw into gold, to save her family’s mill.  With masterly writing and vivid characterization and setting, Bunce weaves a powerfully seductive tale of triumph over evil. (Description from YALSA Morris Award Winner List)
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The Morris Award, itself, debuted in 2009, when A Curse Dark as Gold was selected for the gold. Did you have any notion what was happening to you and your book when it was nominated? What has the award meant in the years since?

Did I have any notion? Oh, good heavens, no. I hadn't heard of the award, and consequently had no reference for it. My editor called me one December evening with the news, to which I listened politely and dutifully made notes. She then asked if I wanted to call my agent, or if I would like her to do it. I ought to have Understood at that point, but I said, "Uh, no, you, I guess." I then hung up and went about what I'd been doing (taking the garbage out), but my phone rang again less than a minute later. I picked up to hear my agent say, "Oh, my god, you amazing woman." It was at that moment that I began to have some inkling of what this meant. (To put it into perspective, I also had a hard time explaining to my family what it meant. I finally hit on saying, "It's like the New Artist Grammy.")

In the months that followed—particularly between Curse being selected in January, and going to ALA in July to receive the award—it was very strange. (At the same time, Curse also received several other very intimidating honors, including recognition from the Smithsonian!) At first, I found writing in the shadow of the nomination and the win to be pretty daunting. I kept thinking that I had to do it again, only better, that Everyone was expecting me to write another award-winning novel... and I hadn't the faintest idea how to do that!

I finally realized that when I wrote Curse, I had never sat down to write An Award-Winning Novel. I sat down to tell my characters' story with truth and authenticity and heart. And that is my job. And I know how to do that, and the awards and the reviews (good or ill) and sales are completely outside the scope of my work and the parts that I am responsible for.

Well, of course, it turned out that nobody was actually expecting me to do anything... except me. And those expectations were harder to let go of. In many ways, I was picturing the Morris Award--not just for me, but for all of us who've been honored--as a sort of springboard to ongoing success. You think a debut novel recognition would put you in front of booksellers, librarians, and readers as One to Watch, and that your future work would get a little boost because of it. It doesn't always happen that way! There are no coattails.

... You also don't think the next person who receives the award will die shortly after her second book comes out. My perspective about the award has definitely changed in the last few years. It truly is a recognition of a debut novel, and nothing else—but that is a difficult and wonderful achievement all on its own, and I don't believe I gave myself enough time to really take in that experience for its own worth.

You are a fabric artist as well as storyteller. What can you share about relationship between the creation of text and textiles?

16th Century
Purple Damask Kirtle
18th Century
Caraco Jacket & Petticoat

I've been a needlewoman all my life, but I've only really been sewing about as long as I've been writing professionally (I met my agent the same summer I tiptoed my way through my first period gown). It's fascinating to me how the two crafts mirror each other, the one becoming almost a metaphor for the other in my mind. There is the same initial rush of Glorious Idea; then the delicious plunge into research, seeking knowledge and inspiration; followed by the careful outlining of the project and first tentative test-fittings, to see if the Idea is actually workable... then the settling down to the actual work, the step-by-step route of one small detail after another, during which the twin demons of self doubt and lack of skill threaten at every turn... accompanied by PLENTY of ripping-apart and re-working along the way to get everything just perfect... and finally, the nearly surprising moment when it all comes together at the end, and you realize it looks almost just like you'd hoped it would--only better.
A Curse Dark as Gold is a story complete in a single volume. You followed with the Thief Errant series, with two of Digger's adventures published so far. What are the rewards and challenges of writing a series? 

For me, writing Liar's Moon, the sequel to StarCrossed, was far easier than either of my standalone novels... but the writing is only part of the whole book experience. Watching one book's fate tied so closely to another is probably the most challenging aspect for me. What has really been surprising, in terms of my own catalogue, is how much Curse literally stands alone--in the sense that there are so many people who've read Curse and enjoyed it and still write to me about it and ask me to do events to talk about it... and have no idea I've published two more books! The book really does become its own entity, apart from its author. And there's both wonder and frustration in that, to be sure.

World building is essential to the success of fiction, especially fantasy. In your own process of world creation, how much is imagination and how much is scholarship?  

Wow, what a great question! Because the research is such a big part of my process, and I'm so dedicated to getting it right, I want to say that it's the lion's share of the process. But that rather shortchanges my own contribution to the creation, which is my whole job. I mean, that is what I do—I make story. So I'm going back to the analogy of costuming again, and say that the research is the underpinnings, the structural support--the corsetry and hoop skirts and all the hidden but-oh-so critical foundations without which the artistry of the gown would collapse. It's important, and beautiful to the creator, but the viewer doesn't need to (and perhaps should not) see it. It permits the artist—the seamstress, the writer—to experiment confidently with the fabric of the creation, shaping the illusions and story and experience that you want the reader to take in and knowing it will all hold together.

What advice would you give to this year's crop of debut writers?

My advice actually hasn't changed since I gave my acceptance speech, where I said, "Write as though they'll never let you write another book." Because the fact is, "they" might not. It doesn't matter how many awards you've won, or how good your last book was. If there's anything the experience of the Morris Award has taught me, it's that we have no idea how many books we'll get to write, so make this one The One. Give it everything you have.

Lightning round:


No; are you kidding? I have trouble committing to shoes for fear I won't like them once I get them home!

Do you write every day?
I work on story every day. I may not commit something to paper/keyboard, but there is never a day when my story people are not moving about in my consciousness or talking to each other. Isn't that the peculiar gift of being a writer? I can't imagine life without my imaginary friends.

The best thing you've eaten recently is...

Over the holiday season, I tried real egg nog for the first time. I think history will bear this one out.

Last song you added to your music library...

When it comes to comfort, how do contemporary under garments stack up?
Ha! Well, I just have one word for the people who turn their noses up at corsetry: underwire (shudder). 

BONUS: Meet Digger... 

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