Saturday, December 12, 2009

An Interview with Zoë Marriott

The FNC is pleased to share with you an interview with Zoë Marriott. (Isn't her name cool? It sounds like she might secretly be the MC in a story somewhere.) As she tells us on her website, Zoë "was born on a rainy day in April twenty-something years ago." Her first novel, The Swan Kingdom, was released in the US by Candlewick Press in 2007. Her second novel, Daughter of the Flames was published by Candlewick is 2009. I stumbled across a mention of this novel on a random website, and immediately wanted to read it. If you're like me, you're constantly searching for that adventure-fantasy novel with the female protagonist (i.e. Tamora Pierce, Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy, Robin McKinley, Kristin Cashore)--and her books were certainly a gem to come across.

Read on to find out more about Zoë's books, what she does when she gets stuck, and why she ignores her sister. :)

1) What was your process like for drafting, revising and completing Daughter of the Flames?
DotF (as I call it) was quite a strange process. After finishing The Swan Kingdom (TSK) I intended to give myself a bit of a break and catch up on my reading, but instead more or less as soon as I submitted TSK another character popped into my head saying 'I never knew my mother's name...' and Zira was born. I knew the story that she belonged in right away, because I had already written a very rough synopsis for a book that crossed the common fantasy trope of 'lost heirs' with a female warrior months before, while still working on TSK. But although Zira wanted to me to get to work on her book straight away, I knew that I wanted to write something set in a quite unique landscape, so I spent a long time reading lots of books about Africa, Tibet and the Middle East and fooling around with ideas about religions and food and clothing and social systems. I drew dozens of maps trying to figure out how I would have mountains and rainforests and cities located in such a way that would allow the story to work. Basically I was just trying to get a hold on that setting. I might have spent a lot longer on my research, but one day my editor (who I was working with on TSK edits at the same time) made a comment to the effect that it seemed like DotF was a story where there was no 'black and white' and suddenly it all clicked together. I began writing furiously and finished the first draft in about five or six months. Then (as I usually do) I put it aside for about a week. At the end of the week I went back to it and went through a printed copy of the ms with a red pen and a fine toothed comb and then transferred all those changes to the electronic file. At the end of another week, submitted it. I have to say, though, that some of my favourite parts of the story NOW are parts which were suggested to me later on, in revision with my English and American editors (the night-time chase across the rooftops in the middle of the story, and Zira's sparring match with Deo after she tells him about Sorin).

2) Your first novel, The Swan Kingdom, is a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Wild Swans. How is writing a retelling different than an original novel? What's the hardest part of writing a retelling?
To be honest, there isn't really much of a difference at all! Other authors might disagree, but I've written four novels (the first one never to be published, the most recent one with my publisher now) and two of those were re-tellings, while the other two were original stories, and I really couldn't point at any difference in the process at all. Of course, that might be because I'm not a very faithful re-teller. I don't see a fairytale as a series of hoops I need to jump through - to me it's more interesting to use it as a jumping off point, and really play around with it. Whether the story is completely original or inspired by a fairytale, I still write my own synopsis and develop my own characters. The hardest part of writing a re-telling is other people's reaction, after the fact. Because The Wild Swans is not a very well known fairytale (not like Snow White or Cinderella, for instance) a lot of people who read TSK got really angry at me because they believed I had stolen the story from another, much more famous author and her very well-known book (also a re-telling of The Wild Swans). My book and this other writer's book were wildly different, but because they had the same fairytale basis of course there were certain similarities - and if you had not read the original fairytale you would not know that those similarities come from Hans Christian Andersen, rather than either of us. Other people held TSK up against that book and found it wanting because it *wasn't* the same. Plus people can be quite protective of their favourite fairy stories, and get annoyed if you change things. The book I just finished is based on Cinderella and I have a feeling I might get some flack because I've completely turned the fairytale on it's head...

3) What were the most difficult and best parts of building the world of the Sedorne and Rua for Daughter of the Flames?
The hardest part of it was starting. I knew what I wanted to write, but I felt I just didn't know enough to write it convincingly - so I ended up getting carried away with research into the Middle East and other countries, reading dozens of books, downloading pictures from the internet, writing pages of notes. Even after all that I still felt that I hadn't 'caught' the world that I wanted to create. But then the urge to actually write the story got too strong and I told myself 'Just write what you want and check facts later'. But at some point as I wrote I began to realise that although all the facts I knew were adding texture to my imaginary world, its true strength came from my imagination. It was okay to make my own decisions on this landscape and it's people, to change my mind about things, to do things that weren't related to the real world. It was okay to create things instead of copying them. When I decided to give the Rua facial tattoos that had religious and practical symbolism, that was a breakthrough moment; and after that it was pure fun. My absolute favourite creation is the summer palace in the rainforest, with the trees and the tamils and the monkeys. I want to go there!

4) How do you come up with character names? What about place names?
For characters, I like to play with real world names; why make something up when you can find so many beautiful real names from different cultures? I'm a little obsessed with meanings - I use baby name books and check the 'Behind the Name' website before I make decisions because I think it adds another layer of meaning to the story. I especially like it if I can use a name which has a strong significance in another culture, but which won't be immediately apparent to most readers. For instance, Branwen in the Welsh myths is a beautiful, doomed Queen - so I gave that name to Alexandra's mother in TSK. In my latest book the heroine goes through three transformations and has a different name in each one, and I drove myself mad trying to find the perfect sounding name with the perfect meaning for each one (especially since the book has a Japanese setting). Making up place names is really fun. I can't explain how it happens. I just know what I need (town, mountain, river) and the name pops into my head. I keep a notebook and sometimes a cool made-up word will occur to me, so I'll jot it down before it escapes and find a place for it later.

5) How did you know your novel was over?
I got to the end! My stories tend to appear in my head as a beginning and an ending, and then the hard part is writing all the stuff in the middle to join them together. I always know when the end has come, because it's something I've been struggling and striving for the entire time I've been working on the book.

6) In your novels, are there any characters that gained larger roles than you initially intended for them?
Ah, this is something that scares me. To be honest, my characters have a tendency to try and do this all the time - you as a reader will be able to tell which ones because they're the ones that puzzle you a little as you read. You think, 'I wish this person had been given a bit more characterisation'. That's because I've savagely cut them out so that they wouldn't take over! Rashna in DotF was such a person, as was Aunt Eiran in TSK. It's a frightening moment for a writer to realise that the story is shifting and warping around what is supposed to be a secondary character - that somehow their backstory is starting to take over. In the past my only way to deal with it was to do that character down. However in writing my last book (not published yet) I had a character that I loved so much I could not bear to do this. I couldn't cut her lines, I couldn't remove her backstory, it was unbearable. And as the story developed, somehow it worked. Instead of weakening the story, or muscling the heroine out, this character made everything better and more alive. So I think this is a sign that my skills as a writer have improved, and hopefully I won't have to strangle anymore secondary characters. By the way, when my third book comes out I bet you will be able to tell which secondary character I'm talking about!

7) When do you know things are working in your writing process? What do you do when you get stuck?
I know things are working when I sit down to write a couple of pages and come back to myself three hours later with cramp in my hand and twenty pages in front of me! It's so fun, and such a rush, that nothing compares. When I get stuck I sulk, whine, read manga, bake and then, finally, suck it up and force myself to get back to work. Usually locking myself in a quiet room with only a block of paper and a pencil (and my iPod) and staring at the paper until I a) pass out or b) write something, does the trick...

8) What advice would you give aspiring YA authors?
Don't search for the super-special-awesome-secret to getting published and becoming a millionaire like J K Rowling/Stephenie Meyer - it doesn't exist. People email me all the time asking me how they can get published, but in fact they ALREADY KNOW. You work hard, you finish your book, you revise and re-write it until it's as good as you can make it, and then you get hold of the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook or the Writer's Market (and there is some variant of this in every English speaking country in the world) and follow the rules laid out in it about submitting a manuscript. You repeat this (ignoring the rejections) until you finish your next book and then you start all over again. That's all anyone can do. Eventually, if you're talented, persistent and professional, you'll get somewhere. If you give up you never will.

9) You explain on your website that you both write and work a day job. How do you balance the two and find time to write?
It's a matter of priorities, and of putting your foot down. If you're not a full-time writer (and most writers aren't) your friends and family and office colleagues, no matter how nice, will just not get that writing is 'work'. I've got two books in print and have spent every spare minute writing for the past ten years, and people STILL don't get this. My friends still ask me to come out when I'm on a deadline and say, 'Awww! Just one night can't hurt!'. My mum still calls me up on my days off (when I've told her I'm going to be writing) to ask how to spell 'frustration'. My sister still makes snippy remarks about how I ignore her. As far as most people are concerned, those bits of your week that aren't spent in an office (or whatever place pays a salary) are 'free', and anything you do then is a 'hobby'. So, basically, you need to get used to being the bad guy. To saying 'No' - and keep on saying it until people realise they can't make you blow off your writing anymore than you can blow off a day in the office. It's really hard, and you will feel bad. A lot. But if you don't say 'No, I have to write five pages before the weekend, so I can't see you until then, goodbye' then, believe me, those five pages won't get written. Because someone will want you at the weekend too, and next week, and the week after.

10) Which authors have inspired you the most?
Suuuuch a hard question! The short-list has to start with Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley. Re-reading Tamora Pierce's books is what made me realise I wanted to write for young adults. Diana Wynne Jones inspires me, as does Megan Whalen Turner, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Garth Nix and Terry Pratchett are on the list too. Everything you read inspires you in some way, I think (even if it's to think, 'Wow, at least my writing could never be as bad as that!') so there's probably dozens more I'm forgetting at the moment.

11) Lastly, you're stranded on a deserted island for five years. What five books would you want with you?
For purely practical reasons, the first one would be something by Ray Mears (the prominent survivalist) or I wouldn't last five minutes. Other than that - Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, an omnibus collection of all the Abhorsen Books by Garth Nix and an omnibus collection of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce. And don't tell me that's cheating!

Thanks so much Zoë, for taking the time to chat with us!
For more information on this awesome author, check out her website, and of course, read her books!


  1. Hi :)
    Thank you very much for this excellent interview with Zoe. I enjoyed learning about a new (to me) author. Her novels sound great. Thank you to Zoe for sharing here today. I was wondering if Zoe was on Twitter?
    Happy Holidays,

  2. I love The Swan Kingdom, thanks for interviewing Zoe!

  3. Excellent interview - I'm also a huge fan of Robin McKinley. I'm so intrigued by your Cinderella retelling idea -- can't wait to hear more about it. Thanks for stopping by the First Novels Club!

  4. Wonderful interview! The Swan King sounds great and I love the cover. Well done and thanks!

  5. Great interview, Sara. Now I have to add more books to my To Be Read List

  6. Thanks everyone! And thank you to the FNC for such interesting interview questions. Sorry not to have replied to your last email: I've just gotten out of the hospital, so I'm a bit behind.

    I'm sorry to say that I'm not on Twitter - Facebook already sucks up enough of my life. If I Tweeted too I'd never write anything at all...

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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