Emily Whitman: Wildwing Q&A

Today we’re delighted to present an exclusive Q&A with Wildwing author Emily Whitman. Many thanks to Emily for answering all our questions (in addition to all the great content, ideas & effort she put into this week’s features)!

Wildwing contains plenty of details about life in the 13th century. What sort of research went into writing the book?

I’m a research junkie! It lets me imagine myself living in a different time. Thank goodness for libraries. For Wildwing, I read everything from kids’ books with lots of illustrations to scholarly tomes. Some highlights: Emperor Frederic II’s classic book on falconry from the Middle Ages; medieval manners; the role of women in society; a book investigating the household accounts of a baronial castle; and an article from 1850 translating the letters of a 13th century castle steward (the wily steward in my book might have—ahem—borrowed some phrases from these letters for his own).

And then, of course, there’s also hands-on research, which is even more fun. Wildwing revolves around falconry, and I was lucky enough to spend time with several falconers and their magnificent birds. From that I got sense details, experiences, and emotions that went into the book. I wrote a blog post about it called “The Peregrine Wonderfuls.”

What kind of liberties did you take with the history when writing Wildwing?

I’m a strong believer that in fiction, research needs to serve the story, not vice versa. I changed a number of things. In 1240, the language at the castle would have been French. I briefly toyed with having Addy study French in school so she’s ready to jump in, but I finally decided it worked better to have everyone speak English. I also reasoned that people in the 13th century sounded modern to themselves, so the language flows in a way that’s accessible rather than “ye olde England.”  On the whole, though, I wanted readers to see, smell, and experience the Middle Ages as Addy does. Both a medievalist and a falconer were kind enough to read the manuscript, and they gave me great feedback so I could get things right.

When Addy goes back in time, she lands in the 13th century. Why this time period? Why not some other moment in history?

I had an idealized castle in my head when I started, and it turned out my vision matched the 13th century. Addy starts out feeling like she’s landed in something out of a fairy tale: jousts, gowns, dungeons. Also, I love Romanesque churches with their wonderfully strange carvings, their relative simplicity compared to the later complications of the Gothic style. (Take a look at the church that inspired Addy’s). Above all, for this story, I wanted the social stratification and restrictions of medieval society, the view that you have a given place in the order of things, determined by God. (And yet there were university programs where people could study to become castle stewards, a way to rise in the world. Very interesting.)

Addy travels back in time from 1913. How would the story have been different if she was traveling back in time from 2010? Why is it so important to the story that she comes from 1913 and not 2010?

The time just before World War I was a cusp, and cusps interest me, that teetering between two worlds. In many ways 1913 is enough like our time to be familiar, with schooling, telephones, cars. On the other hand, society was much more stratified than it is today. Because Addy is born out of wedlock, she’s scorned, shunned. And before the war, women had very few options for work. They were at the mercy of their employers in a way that would shock us today. So here’s Addy, fatherless, excluded, a smart, feisty girl facing a future where her options feel very limited indeed. How do you stand up for yourself in that setting? How do you find an inner compass? Setting the story in 1913 heightened a number of these questions that interested me.

I love the description of the time traveling lift. Any inspiration from H.G. Wells? How did you come up with the concept for the time machine?

Years ago in Paris I visited a family in an old apartment building, and there was this fantastic ancient elevator. You’d squeeze in—there was barely enough room for one person and a suitcase—and peer out the open metalwork as it creaked its way up the center of a winding staircase. It was a good match for a time travel machine that feels, not otherworldly, but very much manmade. A book of photos of elevators from the turn of the century sealed the deal. They were beautiful! A combination of human craft and art on the one hand, and the glories of science and technology on the other.

Your other book Radiant Darkness is a spin on the story of Persephone. What drew you specifically to that story? What made you want to put a YA twist on the story?

Ah, cusps again! Persephone is the archetypal girl on the cusp of womanhood. In the Greek myth, she’s ripped from her mother’s safe world and forced to be Hades’ bride; she weeps in the underworld until she’s rescued by her all-powerful goddess mother. Now, I love the strong heroines in YA these days, and I wondered, what if Persephone wasn’t the ultimate victim after all? What if she was a young woman who fell in love and made her own choices? In her break for independence, she sets dangerous forces in motion, and is forced to discover who, and what, she really is. Our own power can be so scary, we don’t even see that it’s there. We have to learn how to use it, grow into ourselves.

If you met someone in a bookstore, and they were thinking about buying your book, what would you say to convince them?

Do what I do when a book calls to me from the shelf. Check out the cover. Read the first page. Open the book at random in two places and read a paragraph. Are you intrigued? Do you hear a voice, see something vividly, find yourself wondering what happens next? There you go.

What question do you always wish someone would ask you during an interview?

Can anybody write?

Now answer that question.

Yes. The trick is opening up enough to find your own voice. Not some idealized voice, not some teacher’s vision of topic sentences and perfect spelling: Your voice. From the heart. The fine tuning can come later.

Flash Questions:

If you could trade places with one person for a single day, who would it be & why?

A sailor glorying in a strong wind, a skier at the top of a perilous slope—excited, fearless, and capable.

What was the last movie you saw?

The Secret of Kells.

Biggest TV addiction?

So You Think You Can Dance; Glee; Masterpiece Mystery.

Guilty pleasure?

French fries (Shh…don’t tell).

Fruits or veggies?

If you can bake it in a pie, it’s my friend.

Karaoke song?

No! This would not be wise! I whistle.

Favorite childhood toy?

Two stuffed animals, a koala and a dog.

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