Two Chicks: For the readers: can you tell us a little bit about THE FOUR SISTERS Books and the characters?
ES: BURN is the second book in this series of original fairy tales. It follows Elanor, a character first seen near the end of STRAY, and introduces readers to her world in the Western Kingdom, one that is ruled by the Wicked Queen Josetta. It is a continuation of some of the storylines introduced in STRAY, and includes familiar characters from that book, such as Aislynn, Thackery, Brigid and Rhys.
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Ali: Why fairy-tales?
ES: I’ve always loved fairy tales. There’s something really fun about playing with stories that lend themselves so well to new interpretations. No one looks at the same fairy tale in the exact same way and I love that.
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Angie: The fairy tale influences in Stray are, of course, obvious. But I felt a real Margaret Atwood Handmaid’s Tale vibe, particularly about the subjugation of women, in it. And I loved what you did with the undeniably feminist underpinnings of the story. Am I totally off-base or was this deliberate?
ES: Thank you! I love it when people can see my feminist underpinnings (that sounded dirty). But seriously, yes, it was quite deliberate. I’m a huge fan of THE HANDMAID’S TALE. I think it’s a testament to how little things have changed that so many writers (because there have been several recent, excellent YA books dealing with similar topics) still feel that these are issues that still need to be addressed.
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YA Highway: What is your favorite thing about Stray?
ES: I love Aislynn’s friendship with Linnea and with Brigid. My female friends were such a vital part of my teen years and I wanted to write a story that really celebrated that type of relationship. Because of that, all the scenes between the girls ended up being the most fun to write.
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AiYAP: What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?
ES: I’ve always felt that writing requires three things: talent, tenacity and a thick skin. Perfecting the last two skills is the best way to achieve the first. In other words, if you don’t give up and are able to learn from constructive criticism, you’ll become a better writer.
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LO: Why this audience? I always think of that story about Malinda Lo and Ash, where she wrote it for an adult audience but her publisher realized that it would be perfect for the young adult market if she made the heroine a little younger. Was Stray always a young adult novel, or did it become one?
ES: Stray was always a YA novel. In fact, very early versions of Stray were my (failed) attempt to recreate my favorite teen fantasy book: Dealing with Dragons. I think I write for teens because I remember how passionately I felt about reading at that age and how influential it was. Reading was an emotional experience, which I think is something we can lose as we get older. There’s this unfortunate belief that there is a certain type of book that is acceptable reading material (usually written by white, middle class, straight men about white, middle class, straight men) and you can’t possibly be a good writer/reader/person if you don’t write and/or enjoy those types of books. I think that is a very distancing philosophy, and definitely something I experienced in both my college fiction and literature classes. You begin to feel like your tastes and preferences aren’t valid unless they line up with those of the literary world, which is so very narrow. Rediscovering YA, both in reading it and writing it, has caused me to fall in love with books the way I did when I was a teen—with complete joy and utter abandon.
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GB&GW: If Stray had a theme song, what would it be?
ES: Wow. This is a fantastic and incredibly difficult question. Since I am a musical theatre nerd, and I’ve been known to describe STRAY as a cross between WICKED and INTO THE WOODS, I’m going to cheat and chose a song from each, a mash-up if you will. And if someone wants to make an actual mash-up of “For Good” from WICKED and “On The Steps of the Palace” from INTO THE WOODS that would be pretty amazing.
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Alyssa: Is there anyone you’d like to mention, any critique partners or family members or friends, anyone that played a unique or special part in the creation of this story?
Elissa: My mom! She might not even know this, but so much of Aislynn is based off of her. She grew up in a strict, religious household, not as extreme as the Path, but with a lot of rules and guidelines that might seem unusual to someone who didn’t grow up with them. For example, Orthodox Jews aren’t allowed to mix meat and milk – ever. So something like eating a cheeseburger, which a lot of people do on a regular basis, was a really big deal for her. It was a significant, important form of rebellion against a belief system she was in the process of challenging. Similarly, a lot of Aislynn’s actions throughout the book might be perceived as insignificant in the face of such sexism and oppression. But when it’s the only culture you’ve ever known, “small” acts of rebellion can often be an incredible act of bravery.
LR: Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.
ES: Like most other writers, I was a kid with a big imagination and an even bigger appetite for books. When I was eleven or twelve, I read THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, which inspired me to start keeping a journal. It also was the first time that I truly understood that a writer was a person – that people wrote books. And so I wrote. Hannukah plays and terrible poetry and romantic novellas and gritty short stories. I wrote and wrote and wrote and a few years ago, I had the idea for what eventually became STRAY.
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DFT: In Stray you have created a type of society where women are forced to live a certain way or they are punished and shunned. Why did you decide to create this type of atmosphere? Were there any historical events that inspired you to create this type of society?
Elissa:Sadly creating the restrictive, patriarchal society in Stray wasn’t much of a stretch. There are plenty of historical examples of sexism, but there are just as many current events to draw from. All over the world there are belief systems, like the Path, obsessed with controlling women. Even in our own “enlightened” culture, there are daily examples of how much we fear women and their bodies – from high schools banning girls from wearing yoga pants because they’re too “distracting” to political pundits making jokes about how dangerous it would be to have a female president because she gets PMS and might blow up the globe. The roots of the Path are very present in our own world.
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One of my favorite things about STRAY is that there is just so much diversity. We hear a lot from fantasy authors about how hard it is to incorporate non-white characters into high fantasy and fairy tales because of the European basis of so many of these stories. Did you have trouble with this?
I have to admit, STRAY wasn’t as diverse in its early drafts. In fact, most, if not all of my characters were white. My reasoning was, well, I’m drawing a lot of inspiration from the European version of these fairy tales, so “historically” it wouldn’t make sense for there to be people of color…it’s pretty silly to hold onto an argument of “historical accuracy” in a story where women get their loving hearts removed when they become Fairy Godmothers.
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What was the hardest scene to edit out?
I’m terribly heartless when it comes to editing. I tend not to get too attached, which makes it easier when your editor recommends cutting over 100 pages from your manuscript. If my words were my children, I could probably give Miss Hannigan a run for her money. (I knew I could throw a musical reference in here somewhere.)
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Can you share a few of your favorite books from childhood?
I was a total indoor kid (and by was, I mean, I still am) so I read ALL THE TIME. But there are a few books that I loved then and continue to re-read now, like DEALING WITH DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede, REDWALL by Brian Jacques, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster and JACOB HAVE I LOVED by Katherine Peterson.
Read the rest of the interview at OneFourKidLit