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Monday, November 16, 2009

WBBT: Plotting with Megan Whalen Turner

Three years ago, I discovered The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. I loved the intrigue, the clever foreshadowing, the characterizations and plotting. When I finished reading the next two books -- The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia -- I knew I needed to read these three books again, more slowly, to study the characters, the plotting, the subtle revelations, the prose.


Check out all the awards and honors...

Instead of Three Wishes: Booklist Editors' Choice List (Best books of 1995); 1996-97 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award Master List.

The Thief: Newbery Honor Book Award, 1997; American Library Association List of Notable Books, 1997; Best Books for Young Adults, 1997 (Young Adult Library Services Association); Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Blue Ribbon List (Best books of 1996); Horn Book Fanfare List (Best books of 1996); Books for the Teen Age, 1997 (68th Annual Exhibition, Nathan Straus Young Adult Center, New York Public Library); Selection of the Junior Library Guild; Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award Master List, 1997-98.

The Queen of Attolia: Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Blue Ribbon List (Best books of 2000); New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 2001; Parents' Choice 2000 Fiction Gold Award; Parent's Guide Honor Award, 2000; A Chosen Book of the Cooperative Children's Book Center, 2001.

The King of Attolia: Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Masterlist (Vermont); Horn Book Fanfare List (Best books of 2006); School Library Journal Best Books of 2006; 2007 Top Ten Books for Young Adults, Young Adult Library Services Association (Yalsa); Finalist for the Andre Norton Award, 2007.
So I'll admit it. I adore these books and am pretty much in awe of Megan Whalen Turner. Megan was kind enough to humor me in my fangirl moment and took the time to stop by and chat. You're going to love what she has to say.
Without further ado, please welcome Megan Whalen Turner...

HWM: How did you get your “break” into getting published?

Megan Whalen Turner: I owe it all to Diana Wynne Jones. She recommended my work to Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow.

HWM: You’ve written a number of short stories. What do you enjoy about this style of writing?
Megan Whalen Turner: I love how much a short story can hold—a world as big as that in any novel, but seen through a peephole. Like a knothole in a wooden fence, it focuses your attention. Joan Aiken wrote the best short stories and I've just spent the last half hour online trying to find an interview she gave a couple of years ago about her own work so that I could use her answer instead of having to think up one of my own. Unfortunately, my only copy of it is on newsprint packed in a box back in Ohio, while I am in California and will be until next summer. Another little lesson in why I should make electronic copies of important stuff.

Aiken, if I remember correctly, said that she thought the most successful short stories have events on at least two separate levels occuring inside them. No matter how brief the story, one plotline can't carry it. Until I read that, I hadn't realized how true it was. She also said that short story writing depended on a certain frame of mind and she wasn't sure she'd ever be in that state again. I think that is true for myself as well. As much as I love short stories, they come rarely—like little presents left on the doorstep. There's no ordering them online with guaranteed delivery, no matter how much I save up for it.

HWM: The Thief was published in 1996 and is well-loved by many. What inspired this book?
Megan Whalen Turner: There are so many different sources that feed a book, it's impossible to trace them all. I did have an idea in mind about a group of people traveling together with one severely undervalued member of the party, but I couldn't start writing until I decided on the setting. I took a trip to Greece and realized it was the landscape I was looking for. It gave me the second plotline for the book. I could have a thief go off and steal something, but I didn't think I had a story until I had hold of the larger events affecting Sounis, Eddis and Attolia.

HWM: Did you know The Thief would become a series or did the series evolve after the book was published?
Megan Whalen Turner: I didn't know I would write a sequel for The Thief until Barbara Barstow a Cuyahoga County Librarian asked me for one. As soon as she asked, though, I began thinking about what happened to Gen next. I considered writing another book and another and another about Gen pulling off a string of bigger and better and more clever tricks, but I realized pretty quickly that the next significant event in his story would be getting caught—because he would continue to take bigger and bigger risks until he finally was.

HWM: I loved how you wove in mythology, offerings to the gods, political intrigue, and the psyche in your books, while at the same time, adding a watch and firearms to show a more modern time. How much research did you have to do to create this incredible world?
Megan Whalen Turner: There were some college classes on Greek Thought and Literature, and a trip to Greece, and a fair amount of recreational reading, but most of it about Ancient Greece. My research into the time period I had in mind for the story—somewhere in the 1500's or so—was mostly reading about Western Europe. There is very little history at the layman's level about Greece after the fall of the Roman Empire and before, well. . . okay, there's just not much for the casual reader after the Roman Empire. You would think that the whole peninsula just evaporated. There are spectacularly dense scholarly histories, of course, but there are two problems with those. One, ugh. And two, too much research gets in the way of telling stories.

HWM: What were the challenges and surprises you discovered during your world building?
Megan Whalen Turner: Do you have any idea how HARD it is to write a sequel? Any? Really? I would tell you, but if I think too much about it, I have to go lie down.

HWM: Even though the Attolia books are a series, each book truly reads as a stand-alone, which is a rarity. How do you plot out your work so the reader is satisfied with the book ending instead of frustrated they have to wait for the next book?
Megan Whalen Turner: It's bad enough that I take so long to produce a book. Think what would happen if the book didn't have an ending. No, wait. Don't think about. Think about something else.

All I can say is that endings are very important to me as a reader and so they are important to me as a writer. I really resent stories without endings. I was once very flattered to be lumped in the same category as
Frank Stockton, but that's because of The Griffin and the Minor Cannon. Don't get me started on "The Lady or the Tiger?"

HWM: You have created incredible characters that spring to life -- Gen, the Queen of Eddis, the Queen of Attolia, the Magus, Costis. What are important things you look for as your character grows? When do you know you need to flesh out more of the character?
Megan Whalen Turner: It's more important, I think, to know when I need to flesh them out less. The reader doesn't really need to know the entire, plodding, story of Costis's life. They need to know just enough to believe that the rest of his life is there, somewhere out of sight.

But please don't take that as advice. Just because it is true for me doesn't mean that it is true for others. No one would ever say to
Susanna Clarke that she should cut out that needless backstory in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

HWM: I am excited to hear a fourth book to the Attolia series, A Conspiracy of Kings, is due to be published this spring (March 2010). What can you tell us?
Megan Whalen Turner: Well, I can tell you that it is about Sophos who has been noticeably absent since The Thief. He has changed a great deal in the last few years. It's also about Gen, who hasn't changed much at all, at least not in important ways. He frets. He sulks. He has the occasional temper tantrum, but comes through in the pinch. There are a couple of teasers up at the Greenwillow facebook page and I think there may be a longer excerpt up at some point.

HWM: Will this be the final book in the series?
Megan Whalen Turner: Oh, no. There should be two more books after this one. I just have to go lie down first.

HWM: What other projects are you working on that you can share?
Megan Whalen Turner: I've been working on my website. I hope to upgrade it from terribly dull to only moderately dull. In my defense I have to say that it was created last century. No one but the occasional librarian was reading anything on the web and I thought they'd like an easy way to locate all the reviews of my books. Now everybody has websites like jewel boxes or videogames and mine is as exciting as a reference book on the vowel shift in Old English. Actually—I'd like to have that reference book. It's more like a reference book on farm implements published in 1950.

HWM: I have to ask this -- Will you be on Twitter or facebook anytime soon? What about blogging?
Megan Whalen Turner: Well, there's the website upgrade, and I think I may be posting things occasionally at a Facebook page, but I won't be blogging on a reliable basis.

HWM: What is your writing routine?
Megan Whalen Turner: Routinely, I wish I had one.

HWM: Do you outline or write free-form?
Megan Whalen Turner: I don't outline, but I don't sit down in front of a computer with an idea and type until I see where it takes me, either. I usually have the story in my head, and tell it out loud before I sit down to translate what is in my head into words on a screen. I think of the first pass as a sketch rather than an outline.

HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Megan Whalen Turner: "Write." My husband said that. He repeats it regularly. Sometimes with exclamation points. Occasionally in all caps.

HWM: What is your most memorable fan moment?
Megan Whalen Turner: emerald-happy made these for me. Note that Eugenides has a hook in the first picture, but not in the second.

But see, his hands don't match, do they? That's because in the second picture it is his fake hand. They are held in place with little magnets and you can swap them out. The set also comes with a tiny sword for him to hold. Are they not made of win?

Not everybody sends me dolls, it's true, but my fans have been so great, so patient, so supportive, and so much fun. I can't say how honored I feel that they like my books.

HWM: If you found a way to go back to your tween years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Megan Whalen Turner: You mean, if I could be ten again as Sophos, or Eugenides, or Eddis? I'd definitely choose to be Eddis as a ten year old. But that would be Eddis in her world. Eddis in fifth grade at Cranston Calvert Elementary School, not so much. Fifth grade once was more than enough for me.

HWM: What makes you laugh?
Megan Whalen Turner: The idea of Eddis in fifth grade at Cranston-Calvert, frankly. Or Eugenides. Hoo-boy.

HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Megan Whalen Turner: As much as I would like to have super strength or invisibility, I think I'd like to fly most.

Thank you so much, Megan!


Other Places to Find Megan Whalen Turner:
Megan's Website
Excerpt from Instead of Three Wishes
Excerpt from The Thief
Excerpt from The Queen of Attolia
Excerpt from The King of Attolia
A Conspiracy of Kings teaser
Another teaser for A Conspiracy of Kings
Interview with Shannon Hale:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Sounis (book discussion and fan group for The Attolia series, with links to fan fiction and Readaloud recordings)

[Note: This interview, in part, was made possible by my involvement in readergirlz, and Megan Whalen Turner's visit to Kristin Cashore's readergirlz LiveChat. So thank you to the fab readergirlz and wonderful Kristin Cashore, who unknowingly put the possibility of this interview in my mind. And thank you again, Megan, for agreeing to this interview!]

For more WBBT interviews, click here to go to Chasing Ray's Master List


emmaco said...

Thank-you for a wonderful interview with one of my favourite authors! Lots of interesting tidbits in there.

tanita davis said...

I'm just going to sit down (after the Cybils, of course) and just start from the beginning again so I can be READY for the newest book.

Can't. Wait.

Those little dolls are THE cutest.

Thank you for the great interview! I really, *really* can't wait for more from this writer!!

ami said...


Beth Kephart said...

really terrific interview!!!!!!!

learned a lot, thought a lot.

well done.

Emerald said...

aiiiiiii! My dolls! *heart-stopping fangirl GLEE*

This somehow makes the next book seem even more real.

Shelf Elf said...

What an awesome interview HWM! I loved that you admitted to being a fangirl. Megan is a hoot. I also loved what she said about short stories being "like a knothole in a wooden fence."

Now dare I admit that I have not read this series yet? (Throw tomatoes if you want to). I own book 1 - does that count for something? It's been on my list forever. Now I swear I will.

Vivian said...

Thanks! I'm glad you liked the interview!

I cannot wait for A Conspiracy of Kings! This is such a bonus! And yes, the dolls are amazing.


Thank you!

Emerald!!!! You are the talented doll maker! I'm so glad you stopped by. If you have a blog, let me know and I'll link this interview to you.

Shelf Elf-
Oh my! I won't throw tomatoes if you go and read the book--it is so clever, so subtle and if you love intrigues like I do, you'll enjoy this series.

Charlotte said...

TWO MORE BOOKS! Now I have to go lie down too!!!

R.J. Anderson said...


This series is so brilliant. Can't wait for TCoK!

Thanks for a great interview, Megan and Vivian!

deirdrea said...

Thank you so much! What an awesome interview, with one of my very favorite authors!

What a wonderful way to start the week!

Little Willow said...

Wonderful interview. I know how much you love her books, HWM!

Megan, good luck with your website! Let me know if you need any help. Great answer regarding writing sequels. :)

Mordena said...

This interview made my day!! (and, uh, my day really needed making today) There can never be enough Megan Whalen Turner, enough Eugenides, or enough of Emerald's fabulous dolls!

kristin cashore said...

Hi Vivian and Megan, thanks for this great interview! Megan -- you're funny. :o)

Thanks in particular for the comment about recognizing which characters need to be fleshed out less. I'm going to think about that one today while I'm writing.

Megan, you take as long as you need to write whatever you want! :D You are so worth the wait.

emmaco said...

Vivian, I linked to this interview on the Sounis group on livejournal, and you'll see there's even more appreciation for this great interview over there!

Vivian said...

I know - 2 more books! Yay!

R.J. Anderson,
Thanks so much. And congratulations on the Carnegie Medal nomination!

I'm glad you enjoyed this interview!

DaNae said...

Oh thank you. Since I heard the heart-stopping news about the new book last June, March has seemed so far away. I tried to insert a countdown calendar in my blog, to cross off the needless moments of time before Conspiracy of Kings, but the technology was beyond my skill.

In this post I documented my reaction along with a bribe and a caution:


Vivian said...

Yay, LW, for good web designs!

Mordena, I agree!

Kristin, Thank you! I'm hoping I can make it to one of your Massachusetts book signings!

Emma, Thank you so much! I'll stop by.

Vivian said...

Glad you stopped by! It will indeed be hard to wait until March.

Sarah said...

You know what makes ME laugh is the idea of the Queen of Attolia in the kitchen next to the stove and microwave. ;-) But Eddis in elementary school is also an entertaining thought :-)

Heather Zundel said...

I may die of happiness right now. Thank you both for just making my entire year.

Rachel said...

Great interview! I can't wait for the next book (and the next and the next!). And that comment about Attolia next to the microwave...absolute hilarity!

Megan said...

Sarah! It was a great costume and you didn't put in a link!


a. fortis said...

I truly cannot wait to read these! Vivian, you always ask such great writerly questions. Thanks to you and Megan for the interview!

Angiegirl said...

This interview made my day. Thank you both so much for taking the time to conduct it. I die of happiness over the "two more books." As Kristin said, you take as long as you want. We will be here. I can't wait for more Sophos and am so glad Gen hasn't changed a bit. I hope he never does.

melissa @ 1lbr said...

That was a very fun interview! I, too, am drooling just thinking of those future books...

Ello said...

OH MY GOSH! I can't wait, can't wait, can't wait, can't wait!!!!!! I am dying to read Conspiracy of Kings!!!

And what a fabulous interview! Thanks so much!

Sarah Rees Brennan said...

Two books! I need to go sit down, lest I swoon from joy.

theyayayas said...

I'm with everyone else squeeing over the plus two more books! part. Thanks for the news, and the wonderful interview.


Paige said...

Wow. Like some of the other commenters mentioned, finding this blog post of yours just made my day! I started reading The King of Attolia on Saturday/Sunday and am almost done--I had no idea there were other books in the series, and went online to check out, and thats when I found this interview! I am now a total fan of these books. Great interview, I love hearing from authors, and it was also wonderful that you included those links at the bottom of the post--I'll have loads more fun reading to do! Thanks!!

Megan said...

Little Willow, thank you for the offer. I may be calling your name soon . . .

And thank you all for saying such nice things. You make me blush.


Theresa M. said...

Yay for more love for mwt! And it was mentioned above but I wanted to post it again that there is a wonderful community for fans of the Thief series and mwt's other works over at Sounis - http://community.livejournal.com/sounis/

Can't wait to read the next book!!!! It's already my highlight for 2010.

~ Mycenaeth

Joan Holub said...

Wonderful interview, Megan and Vivian. The cover of The Thief is one of the greats. I was unaware of these books--head in the sand about YA sometimes. But I love mythology and gods, and am now dying to take a look and become an awestruck fan myself!

~ Joan Holub

Priya said...

I really need to read this series...

historymaven said...

A Conspiracy of Kings plus *two more books*?! Be still, my heart!
You've made me very happy.

Such a wonderful interview -- tossing bouquets to you both!

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Great questions and overall great interview. Thanks for introducing me to these books!

Rosanne said...

I just told my youngest that the new Attolia book would be out in time for her birthday, and she attacked her big brother with a sword. It's just that exciting! (I know, appallingly poor supervision here at Casa Parry.)

We recently read all three books out loud together. I was a little reluctant to start because not every book I love sounds good out loud. I'm happy to say that these did just fine! And because my youngest has a penchant for looking up words she doesn't know, we know understand far more than we ever wanted to about ancient bath houses.

Sandy Shin said...

Thank you so much for the interview! MWT is so brilliant and funny. I cannot wait for Conspiracy of Kings. :>

Theresa M. said...

@ Rosanne: I read both the Thief and QoA to my parents and sister and thought they read excellently. =)Sounis also has a read-aloud thread for users to post files of themselves reading the books. It's really neat to hear how various fans choose to read the books out loud!

Vivian said...

I'm so glad you all enjoyed this interview -isn't Megan Whalen Turner incredible? Thank you for reading this!

To all the fans of Sounis - thanks so much for stopping by, sharing your site (yay Emmaco and Theresa M.), and wonderful comments = I've just added the link to Sounis to this interview.

And now, thanks to Rosanne, I have ancient bath houses on my mind.

Erin said...

THANK YOU, Vivian and Megan, for the fantastic interview. I am SUCH a huge fan of Gen and the Attolia books. I can't believe we get three more! YAY.

Memory said...

What a great interview! I'm excited to hear that there'll be two more books after A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS.

cindy said...

wahoo! what a fantastic interview! thank you HWM and MWT!!!

smileynann said...

Isn't Megan Whalen Turner the BEST ever?! Love her. One of my favorite things about her (and I know this is crazy, but just wait...) is that her books come out sooo slowly. I really would like them to come faster, but I love that she works at HER own pace, and I think she said once that she did that because she has young children. It gives hope to me, who is trying to be a writer with some small children around. :)

Hurray for more books!

tiegirl said...

I know I'm late to the party but AWESOMESAUCE INTERVIEW! I love my mwt GoogleAlerts even if it takes me awhile to get to them.

*waves to mwt*

Loyal Sounisian

Ceci said...

Thank you for posting this interview and for asking such good questions!

I just found these books in my local library last week, and read them over the course of 2 days. It's so exciting to find a new favorite author!

After I put down "The King of Attolia" a few hours ago, I figured that was it. I'm so excited to read here that there are 2 or 3 more coming, even if we have to wait!