This interview was originally posted at Random Acts of Reading on 4/3/2013
KH: One thing that makes Rump so special is the way you allow readers to sympathize with the character of Rumpelstiltskin, who is typically cast as a villain. What inspired you to write about Rumpelstiltskin as a likable, if misunderstood, kid?
LS: I like misunderstood and unlikely heroes. They make us think in different ways and broaden our views. When I think of the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, I think about how much we don’t know about him, and yet he is the villain because he tried to take the queen’s baby. (Note: She did agree to the bargain!) Was it even possible to consider that Rumpelstiltskin could be a hero? I love a good challenge as much as I love unlikely heroes, so off I went!
KH: Classic fairy tales have been written and rewritten over the years. What draws you to these stories? Why do you think they have such staying power?
LS: I think what draws me to these stories is the extremes, even the brutality of the situations. Witches that steal and eat children? A wolf that stalks a girl in a red cloak? And a little man who can spin straw into gold and wants a baby? These tales have incredibly high stakes, but they’re also so nuanced and mysterious.
I believe the reason these tales have such staying power is because of their unique details and their ambiguity and flexibility. The term “fairy tale” itself holds meaning for us. We usually associate it with happy endings and a lack of reality. (The former is sometimes true; the latter I disagree with completely.) I think fairy tales stay with us because they are actually wonderful representations of real life, but through a lens that is less painful to look through. Brutal things happen in real life, things we can’t always explain, try though we might. Good things happen too that we can’t always explain. So I think fairy tales stick with us because we live them, whether we get a happy ending or not, and the tales are a kind of comfort and validation.
KH: The world you’ve created is full of characters who defy expectation: peace-loving trolls who subsist on vegetarian sludge, and deceptively adorable pixies who launch dive-bomb attacks when their prey least suspect it. I guess this is a two-part question, because what I’m wondering is: a) Do you have a favorite fantastical creature in the book? and b) Is there a message here about appearances being deceiving?
LS: a) Most people pick the trolls, and I really like them too, but I think I have to pick the gnomes. Their character and mannerisms were inspired by my youngest child, who was (and still is) a chubby, bowlegged, raspy, grunty little guy who toddled around making random and hilarious pronouncements. He’s such a delightful creature, and that’s how I see the gnomes. They make me laugh and I wouldn’t mind a world where they existed.
b) I wasn’t consciously setting out the show how appearances can be deceiving (though I certainly believe that’s true). Making the trolls gentle and the pixies vicious was more about irony. I’m always delighted when I discover that something I thought was one way is actually another (unless the thing goes from good to bad, I guess). I think that’s where I was coming from when I created the trolls and pixies, but perhaps beneath it all is my belief that things, and people, aren’t always what we expect, for good or ill.
KH: Tell me a bit about the importance of names in Rump’s world. Does the idea that “your name is your destiny” translate in real life?
LS: Names were the starting point of this story for me. Everything in the original tale seemed to revolve around a name. If the queen could guess the little man’s name, she could keep her child. Why? What was so important about it? Folklorists believe that Rumpelstiltskin was some kind of demon, and to know a demon’s name was to hold power over them. That answer works just fine, but there are clues in the story that Rumpelstiltskin is more sympathetic than we give him credit for. In the beginning of my work on Rump, one of my first decisions was to create a world where your name is your destiny. Every virtue or fault leads back to your name. That’s a lot of pressure for parents! And a heavy load to put on a child, especially if your name is Rump.
I think this sentiment does translate into our own world. Maybe we don’t believe that a name will determine your destiny quite in the same way that it does in Rump, but we do believe names hold power. If we didn’t, we’d just call each other A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3 . . . or Slop and Bork, like the trolls. Names hold meaning, history, culture, and belief. We name our children after great people, hoping they’ll follow in their footsteps. We name them after flowers or trees, hoping they’ll be just as beautiful, spiritually if not physically. Or we name them something unique, hoping they’ll be totally individual and make their own path in the world. Does it work? I can’t say that names always have the effect we hope they will, but they certainly mean something to us and to the people we meet. We wouldn’t put so much effort into them if they didn’t.
KH: Your background includes dance, music, and theater. What drew you to writing as a career?
LS: All my experience and background in the arts revolved around my love of story. When I studied ballet, I loved it most when we danced a story. (Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are my favorite ballets.) In music and theater, I loved the arc in character and story, the rise and fall of action. I loved the longings, and triumphs, and tragedies. I feel it is story that gives any art form its real power, those representations of life that have a beginning, middle, and end. This is what drew me to writing, and my background in the arts has had a profound effect on my writing.
KH: You’ve had some impressive mentors, including Kirby Larson and Franny Billingsley. Tell us a little about what you’ve learned from them.
LS: Kirby Larson was my first mentor, and Franny Billingsley has been my latest. It’s interesting to compare what I learned from each of them in the opposite ends of the decade I’ve been writing. Kirby was a perfect mentor for starting out. Beginning writers’ hearts are extremely tender and fragile. Though we need criticism, we probably need larger amounts of praise and encouragement, like a young child learning to walk. Kirby was perfect for this. She kept me going. She believed I had potential. From her I learned the importance of reading like a writer, and incorporating what you feel is effective writing into your own work.
Franny has also been extremely encouraging, but since my goal with her has been to take my writing to another level, I basically asked her to kick my rear end like a drill sergeant. (She’s still a very nice drill sergeant.) From her I’ve learned the importance of letting go of your own agenda as a writer and allowing the characters to take over in driving the plot. Once things are set in motion, you have to let the cogs turn to the next thing, and the next, and resist the temptation to step in and take control. She has helped me to let go of fear in my writing and jump off the cliff, even if you don’t have a parachute and you don’t know what’s at the bottom. She’s taught me faith and patience.
KH: How has being a parent shaped your writing? At what point in the process do you share your books with the kids, if ever?
LS: What’s great about having kids while writing for kids is that I’m always immersed in their world. I’m constantly reminded of how bright, unique, and incredibly imaginative children are, and that definitely helps me to write for them. They bring me back to my own childlike frame of mind. (Maybe too much sometimes.)
I don’t share my writing with my kids until it’s pretty much a finished product. However, my daughter is an avid reader and a little sneak. Sometimes I catch her at my computer reading my latest manuscript that I left up, but honestly it’s kind of fun to see how excited she gets about something I’m writing.
KH: Rump is your first novel. In what ways has the publishing process matched and differed from your expectations? Feel free to take the Fifth on this, but how painful was the revision process?
LS: Ha! I’ll just say that I did an excessive amount of homework on the publishing process before you took on Rump, so I was expecting just about every horror story out there, from demon editors who change your whole story to horrible covers. So I’m happy to say that my experience didn’t match my expectations at all! You’re not a demon, Katherine! And I love my cover!
The revision process was painful and stressful, but only because I cared so much about my story and wanted it to be the best it could be. I think you’ll recall a blog post I wrote about this a while back, while we were in the midst of revisions. It’s very difficult, especially when you’re up close to a manuscript, to see how small changes will affect the big picture. And knowing that there’s a problem does not always mean you know the solution. So yes, revising is stressful, but there’s a collaborative art to it that’s quite wonderful.
KH: What are you working on now? (And when can I get a crack at it with my trusty red pen?!)
LS: I just slapped another fairy tale on your desk! Let the red ink flow! I’m also working on a young adult novel, which is very different from Rump, but it still has legendary elements that make it feel a bit fantastical, even fairy tale–like, so I don’t think I strayed too far from home.
KH: Your family always has such adorable holiday card photos! Do you have a favorite costumed family portrait to share with our readers?
LS: Oh my goodness, are you referring to our Star Wars Halloween photo? That’s my husband’s favorite family shot. Brings tears to his eyes.