Friday, September 9, 2016

Awesome Author Interview: Christina Soontornvat!

For today's post it is my supreme honor to interview Christina Soontornvat, author of the mesmerizing MG fantasy debut THE CHANGELINGS (which just came out earlier this week!). I met Christina earlier this year at a book event in Texas, and was lucky enough to snag an advanced copy of her book. I read it aloud to my six year old, and we both were absolutely enthralled by it. Here's the official book summary:

All Izzy wants is for something interesting to happen in her sleepy little town. But her wish becomes all too real when a mysterious song floats through the woods and lures her little sister Hen into the forest...where she vanishes. A frantic search leads to a strange hole in the ground that Izzy enters. But on the other side, she discovers that the hole was not a hole, this place is not Earth, and Hen is not lost. She's been stolen away to the land of Faerie, and it's up to Izzy to bring her home.

But inside Faerie, trouble is brewing-and Izzy is in way over her head. A ragtag group of outlaw Changelings offer to help, but she must decide whether a boulder that comes to life, a girl who looks like a ghost, and a boy who is also a stag can help her save Hen before it's too late.

Sounds great, right? Well, it is! Here are some links so you can get your hands on a copy:

DG: So, first off, I absolutely loved THE CHANGELINGS. I read it aloud to my daughter and she pronounced it her "most favorite book ever." Bravo! Could you share with us a little about where the idea for this story came from?

CS: You can’t imagine how happy it makes me to hear that your daughter liked the book! Up until now THE CHANGELINGS has been read by a lot of adults, but not many children. It is amazing to finally be at the point where the book is getting into kids’ hands. They are the audience I wrote it for!

So when I first started writing this story down I never imagined it would actually become a book. It began as a story for my nieces, whom I met for the first time when they were living in Ireland. Ireland is a fairly magical place and it’s not difficult to imagine the boundaries between our world and the world of fairies getting a little fluid over there.

At Christmas I started telling them the story of a younger sister who gets kidnapped by fairies, and an older sister who has to rescue her. They loved it and begged me to keep going. We live far away from each other, so the only way to keep up the story was to send it to them in the mail. I would write ten pages and send it off in a letter about once a week. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was drafting a novel!

My nieces still have a binder full of those original letters. The book has changed so much since that first draft, but the original heart of the story is still there.

DG: THE CHANGELINGS is your debut novel...congrats! Tell us a little about your path to publication. Was it a long journey or an overnight dream come true?

CS: Oh my goodness, is there a such thing as the overnight dream come true? If so, I hate those people (just kidding, but not really!). Actually, I’m pretty lucky that my path to publication – from the first word I wrote to having a real book on the shelves – only took about eight years.

I won’t go into all the details because they are pretty typical of what most authors experience. I’ll sum up my publishing journey like this:

  1. Wrote the novel. Revised.
  2. Got it critiqued. Revised.
  3. Queried agents. Got rejected. Revised.
  4. Queried again. Offered representation. Revised.
  5. Went on submission. Got rejected. Revised.
  6. Went on submission.
  7. Sold the book!
  8. Revised.

In other words, lots of rejection over the years and lots of revisions. I don’t know if there is any way to get around that part of the process, unfortunately. I do remember hearing MG author, Donna Gephardt, once say that the one trait common to all published authors is the willingness to dig deep and do the hard work of revision. That has certainly been true in my case.  

DG: THE CHANGELINGS feels like a story that's rooted firmly (and beautifully) in the wonder of childhood. Were you a bookworm as a kid? What were some of your favorite books?

CS: Such a bookworm! My parents owned a Thai/Chinese restaurant when I was growing up and I spent most of my life sitting behind the counter or in the supply closet with a book in my hands. I read anything, but I definitely gravitated toward books that took me as far away from reality as possible. I read all the Narnia books, lots of Roald Dahl and Tolkein. I also read a lot of picture books, particularly fairytale retellings. And I went through a period of about two years where I only read Calvin and Hobbes (the comic, not the philosophers!)

DG: Middle grade literature is a such a rich, wonderful market. What made you decide to write middle grade?

CS: My middle grade years were a bit tumultuous. During that time reading was what helped me feel grounded. I try to write stories that I would have loved as a kid: adventure stories full of danger and magic. I think that when you get lost in a book it can help you find your way in the real world. At least that was the case for me. Another thing I absolutely love in MG lit is how fiercely friendships are felt. At that age, your friends are the loves of your life. Creating those relationships between my characters is one of my favorite things about writing MG.

DG: For your day job you work in science education and you have a science background, but this story is an out-of-this-world fantasy, full of magic and whimsy. What gives? Does your science background inform and strengthen your fantasy, or is your fantasy an escape from your scientific day job?

CS: As far as content goes, my science background hasn’t had much of an impact on my writing. But when it comes to process there is a lot of overlap. I studied mechanical engineering in college. The number one thing you learn as an engineer is the “Engineering Design Process”, which basically boils down to:

  1. Make something.
  2. Test it out.
  3. If it doesn’t meet your criteria, go back and fix it until it does.

Hmm, does that sound familiar, fellow writers? When I was confronted with revising my novel again and again (see Question #2), it felt a lot like engineering. You just have to keep going until you get it right!  

DG: What advice would you give to an aspiring middle grade writer?

CS: Aside from “Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing”? I’ll share something I figured out only recently. We all hear the advice “Read widely in your genre”, and I totally believe that is true. You should definitely be up to snuff on the books that are getting published right now for your target readership. When I first started getting serious about publishing my book I only read MG fantasy published in the last decade. I read some really jaw-dropping, amazing books. I read some books that were good, but not my favorites. And I read a lot of books that people told me I “should” read.

During that time, I quit reading adult books because I didn’t have enough time to squeeze them in. And then I picked up The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson, which is the complete opposite of anything I’m writing or plan to write. I read it in one sleepless, maniacal sitting. And afterwards I felt so filled up and recharged – not because I learned anything immediately useful for my own writing – but because I just needed to get swept away by something. It felt so good to get lost in a book and just be a plain, old reader again.

My advice is do read in the genre and age range you are writing for. But definitely read books that sweep you off your feet, no matter what they are. Life is too short to do otherwise!  

DG: Finally, a question from my daughter. She is dying to know what happens next to Izzy and the Faerie you have a follow-up book in the works? Any other projects on your horizon?

CS: Tell your daughter that Izzy gets some more adventures! I just turned in the sequel to my editor – like, um, yesterday. And I also just started a new MG fantasy novel. It is set in a city along a river, sort of an alternate Bangkok, Thailand. It tells the story of a boy who escapes the jail he was born in and has to hide out in a temple. The warden’s daughter is onto him though and if she finds him, he’ll go back to prison forever. MG adventure/fantasy seems to be all that will come out of my brain at the moment!

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