Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Faery Rebel: RJ Anderson Unveils the Writing Life

When I was a little girl, it didn't seem to me that writers were real people. Instead, they were otherworldly beings, touching down in our world just long enough to impart snippets of wisdom and adventure and magic. I wish I could say I've grown out of that world view, but, well, I'd be lying. And when you meet authors who reinforce such beautiful thoughts, how can you nay say them? Meet R.J. Anderson, author of Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter, and you will see exactly what I mean.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? How long did it take to finally commit to the dream?

I started writing my own stories for fun when I was eight, but it wasn't until I was twelve that I really decided I wanted to sit down and write a novel that could actually be published one day. That first book didn't make it much beyond the third chapter or so, but over the next seven years I wrote probably about half a million words of fan fiction and original short stories. I completed my first fantasy/SF novel at nineteen, and it was awful. But writing it—and especially finishing it—was a big step forward for me.

What aspect of Spell Hunter are you the proudest of?

Just the fact that it exists and is actually going to be sold in bookstores is huge for me! But as far as the story itself goes, I think I'm most pleased with the way that certain themes and… I hesitate to say "morals" because that makes it sound preachy, so maybe "ideals" is a better word… came out naturally in the course of revising the manuscript. I didn't want to force anything in there, but on the other hand, I didn't just want to write an exciting story with no depth or substance to it, so it was a relief when I realized that there actually was more going on than just "tough faery action heroine kicks crow butt, saves world, details at eleven".

What do you feel is your best writing strength?

I used to think I knew the answer to that question, and now I really don't! But a number of editors have told me they think my prose style is really strong, flows well and has a literary quality to it. Which is good to hear, because I tend to obsess about the rhythm of every phrase, the way it looks to me on the page, and sometimes have to rewrite a paragraph five or ten times before I'm satisfied. So it's nice to know I'm not totally wasting my time there!

What writing quirk of yours makes your family nuts?

When I'm really focused on writing, I tune out everything around me. So I can have a whole conversation with somebody while I'm staring at the computer, and say "uh-huh" and "yes" and "no" in all the right places, but as soon as they leave the room, I've forgotten everything they just said. Which they find very annoying when they try to talk to me about the same thing later and I just go "Huh?"

Born in Uganda, raised in Ontario, schooled in New Jersey: How have your various environments influenced your writing?

I was too young when we left Uganda to remember any of it, but I grew up hearing about it from my brothers and my parents all my life. So in the book I'm currently working on, when I was trying to decide on a foreign country for my missionary-kid hero to be coming from, I naturally thought of Uganda. Since then I've been doing a lot of research, trying to appreciate the country from the perspective of someone who's grown up there, and the more I learn about it the more I think I'd really love to go there someday!

As for Ontario, I've lived in so many different cities around the province that I've got a really good sense of how each community is different, how each one has its own character and atmosphere and history, its own kinds of stories to tell. I think that's helped me with my world-building as a fantasy author, and also given me a wide range of settings to draw on for contemporary books.

I was only in New Jersey for a year attending Bible school, but while I was there I wrote the first draft of the book that eventually became FAERY REBELS: SPELL HUNTER. The school campus had beautiful wooded grounds that I used to walk around every day, with huge old trees, a big pond, and a river with a bridge over it… all of which inspired me for settings and incidents in Knife's story.

C.S. Lewis is one of your favorite authors. How do you feel he's influenced your writing? Your world view?

Hugely. As a child my father read the Narnia books out loud to me, and that sparked my lifelong love of fantasy. Reading Lewis's essays on writing, particularly "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's To Be Said" and "On Three Ways of Writing for Children", helped me to understand something very important about writing for any audience – that you always have to let the story, the ideas and mental pictures that fire your imagination, come before anything else. You can't start with a message or a moral or even a "point" because if you do, the story will become glib and superficial; as Lewis wrote, "the only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author's mind." So when I write stories, I always start with the characters and their situation, and if anything of spiritual or philosophical significance develops naturally out of that, fine; but if it doesn't, well, I'm not going to force it in. Fiction and particularly fantasy can be wonderful for stimulating the imagination and getting the reader to think about the world in a new way, but it is a terrible medium for preaching sermons.

What advice do you have for authors seeking representation?

Firstly I always say: don't give up, no matter how many rejections you get or how frustratingly long the process takes. But at the same time, do take seriously any specific, constructive criticism you might receive, and try to learn from it. A comment like "This isn't the right manuscript for me" or "I'm afraid I'm going to have to pass on this one" isn't going to tell you anything and you'll only drive yourself crazy trying to interpret it. But if you keep getting letters from agents that say things like, "Your story has an interesting concept, but I felt the characters lacked depth," or "I liked the plot, but the heroine's attitude and actions in that situation seemed unrealistic to me," then maybe character is something you need to work on.

Another crucial thing to remember is NEVER BE RUDE TO AN AGENT. Never write back some snippy, defensive letter telling them how wrong they are or how sorry they'll be that they rejected you. In fact the only thing you should ever write back to an agent who's rejected your manuscript is, "Thank you for your time and consideration." That isn't sucking up, that's just good manners, and depending on the quality of your writing it might even inspire the agent to offer you some valuable advice or refer you to another agent who would be a better match for your work. That's how it happened for me!

Thank you, Rebecca! You've been awesome, and now I'm more excited than ever to get my hands on Spell Hunter!

I enjoyed doing this interview -- thank you for coming up with such great questions!


cindy said...

*waves flag* i LOVED FAERY REBEL -- everyone read this book! =D

and thanks for another great interview, alex. wonderful answers as well, rj!!

laughingwolf said...

excellent, alex... thank you!

Tara Maya said...

Oh, it sounds great! Thanks for the interview.