Jacqueline West: The Second Spy Q&A

Posted July 5, 2012 by amandaleighf 1 Comment

Yes. We’ve been raving about The Book of Elsewhere series for a few months now. So you can imagine how thrilled we are to finally celebrate the release of The Second Spy. The 3rd book in Olive Dunwoody’s darkly painted adventures is available in bookstores across the country TODAY!

And we’re kicking off the release with an exclusive interview with Jacqueline West, followed by several contests and lots of fun prizes (including two signed copies of The Second Spy).

Happy Release Day! Keep poking around Novel Novice today for some  exciting surprises. We hope you have fun getting lost, “elsewhere.”

Exclusive interview with Jacqueline West, author of The Second Spy:

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? 

I’ve loved books and stories for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a writer.  Or maybe it would be better to say that I never thought I could be a writer.  Stories seemed magical to me, bigger and better and more real than real life, so I assumed that the writers who created them were magical and larger-than-life, too.  Unfortunately, I was a pretty ordinary girl with a pretty ordinary life, so I thought there was no chance that I would turn into a writer.

There were lots of other things I thought I might grow up to be: a paleontologist, an archeologist, a veterinarian, a marine biologist, an actress, a singer, a teacher.  I was curious about everything, and I changed my mind a lot.  One of the only things that didn’t change was my love of stories.  When I was nine or ten years old, I started trying to write stories and poems of my own…and then I hid them in my dresser, underneath my socks.  After years and years (and years) of writing, I began to feel brave enough to let other people read my work, and then to have people publish my work, and when I was in my mid-twenties, I realized that I might have turned into a writer after all.

How long have you been writing the Book of Elsewhere series?

I started to write the book that became The Shadows ten years ago, when I was still a college student.  I had to work on it in bits and pieces at first, between classes and jobs and the rest of my real life.  There were times when I gave up on it completely and focused on other projects instead, but Olive and her house kept tugging me back.

The entire process, from first scribblings to publication, took about eight years.  By the time the fifth—and final—book in the series comes out, I will have been working on The Books of Elsewhere for over twelve years.  That’s more than a third of my life.  Whew.   

How did you come up with the idea for these books?

The seed that sprouted into everything else came from a house in the town where I grew up.  My school bus would pass this particular house every day on the way to junior high.  It was more than a hundred years old, and it had obviously once been very grand, but now its green paint was peeling, its porches sagged, and its windows were always dark.  The man who owned the place was a retired physician, and he filled his spare time with odd hobbies—like building the little wind-powered machines that were scattered across his overgrown lawn.  There were mobiles and whirligigs and miniature windmills that looked like mutant people, and whenever the wind blew, all these contraptions would start to spin…   In other words, it was a very strange place.  And I would gaze at it through the bus windows and wonder, ‘What kind of people would live in a house that looks like that?

Ten years later, when I started writing The Shadows, I got to come up with my own answers to that question.  I knew that the house should have a mysterious and magical history, which is where the McMartins and the three cats came in.  I decided that the family who moved into the house in the present should be completely out of place in their own home.  They should be mathematical and scientific and so different from the house’s former owners that they wouldn’t even notice some of the magical things hidden in the art and architecture around them.  And that was the start of the Dunwoodys.

When I began putting all of those pieces together on paper, I was just trying to write something that my brothers and I would have liked when we were kids.  We liked books that were funny and creepy and full of weird magic—books like the Bunnicula series, and Calvin and Hobbes, and almost everything by Roald Dahl.  When I had finished writing the book, I realized that other kids might actually enjoy it too, and I started looking for a publisher. 

I read you’re allergic to cats, but they have a big place in Olive’s discovery of McMartin’s secrets.  What gave you the idea to have cats play such a prominent and important role in the story?

The cats came with the house, just like they do in the story itself!  As soon as I started writing, I knew that there would be three cats in the house.  It took me a few years to figure out everything else about them—what their names and personalities were, what their role in the house should be, and so on.  But they were there, from the very beginning.

I like cats, but it’s true that I am allergic to them, and I’m really more of a dog person, anyway.  Kids often ask me, “Then why didn’t you make them three dogs?” and I explain that my dog would tell you anything you wanted to know in exchange for a piece of cheese.

As loyal as they are, I don’t think dogs would be very good at keeping secrets.  Cats, on the other hand, have an aura of mystery.  Their eyes seem to say, ‘I know things that you will never, ever understand.’  And cats are so independent.  They seem to exist with us, not for us.  (And sometimes they don’t even want to exist with us.)  I thought that was the right attitude for a centuries-old, extremely powerful creature to possess.

Were you a lot like Olive when you were younger?

Not really!  Olive is an only child; I have two brothers.  Olive has moved to new towns and new schools over and over; I lived in the same town from the time I was born until I went away to college.  Olive lives in a neighborhood full of old homes and old people; I grew up on a street full of newish houses and newish people.  Olive’s parents are not like my parents. Really, I think I was a lot luckier than Olive.

There are a few things that Olive and I do have in common: I was fairly shy as a kid (I’m still hoping I’ll grow out of it, actually), and I loved art projects and books and daydreaming and exploring.  As far as deeper characteristics go, Olive isn’t based on any person in particular, but parts of her were inspired by kids I’ve known and taught over the years—kids who aren’t half-god, or part monster, or endowed with magical powers, but who are kind and creative and brave and much, much stronger than they think they are.

Did you always plan for Olive’s story to be a series, or did the plot thicken as you wrote?

When I started working on The Shadows, long before I found my agent or my editor, I thought of it as a stand-alone book.  I had so little faith that anyone would want to publish it that I never dreamed they would want another.  But as soon as we started the publication process, my agent and my editor asked, “What do you think about a sequel?”  And what I thought was, “Of course!”

Oddly enough, there was really nothing I had to alter within The Shadows to make it work as the start of a series.  Doors were closed but not locked; enemies were defeated but not destroyed.  And Morton was still stuck in his painting.  Now I can’t believe I was just going to leave him there, but apparently I was.  (Morton would be furious with me if he knew this.)

I’ve found that I can’t plan too far ahead when I’m working on something large-scale like this.  I’m not a detailed outliner, and I like to work on just one book in the series at a time.  If I’d had all five books mapped out, when it came to revising, I would feel like I had constructed an absolutely massive tower of Jenga blocks, and I’d have to pull the pieces out from the very bottom.  If I only work on one volume at a time, each book leads me into the next one, and I don’t feel like I’m forcing the story to move toward some predetermined point.  I have plenty of ideas for what’s going to happen next, of course (and for how it’s all going to end!), but I leave myself a lot of wiggle room.

You are also a published poet and it shows in your writing. One of my favorite qualities of your books is their lush, colorful, and poetic language. How much do you feel your love of poetry has influenced your writing of Olive’s world?

Oh, thank you.  I wrote a lot more poetry than fiction as a young adult, and I’m sure that the habits I developed then have soaked into all the writing tendencies I’ve got today.  When I write fiction, I still tend to think like a poet.  I’m extremely conscious of word choice and rhythm, and I know I use a lot of figurative language…especially similes.  I have a bit of an addiction to similes.

How will you celebrate The Second Spy release day?

I’ve discovered that release days tend to be like most of my writing days, with a bit of extra email sprinkled on top.  But this year, because the release date is July 5, I think I’ll pretend that the fireworks of the night before are all celebrating The Second Spy

If you could step into any (known) painting in the world, which one would it be and why?

Ooh, there are so many that I’d like to visit!  I love Salvador Dali, and almost all of his paintings would be wondrous and slippery and terrifying on the inside, I’m sure.  Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is tempting, and so are most of Maxfield Parrish’s paintings, but I think they might get dull eventually.  In the end, I think I’d go with something by a local artist named Andy Van Schyndle.  I own several of his prints, and they’re full of creepy carousels and goats on swings and magical trees and gorgeous night skies, and I would LOVE to explore any and all of them.  You can see some examples at his website, wagalabagala.com.

What were your favorite books to read as a child?

Well, I already mentioned Calvin and Hobbes, Bunnicula, and Roald Dahl, but they deserve to be named again.  I loved the classic Winnie the Pooh stories by A. A. Milne, and The Wind in the Willows, and Alice in Wonderland—books that are quirky and clever and full of adventures with talking animals.  I probably read Little Women more times than I’ve read any other book, with Anne of Green Gables coming in a close second.  I had a collection of beautifully illustrated fairy tales that I absolutely pored over, too; each volume was named after a gemstone, so there were ‘Sapphire Fairy Tales’ and ‘Ruby Fairy Tales’ and so on.  And I loved Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, even though the illustrations gave me nightmares.

Flash questions:

Favorite ice cream flavor?

Mint M&M.  If I can’t get that, Mint Oreo will do.

Worst fear?

Sheesh, I have too many to count, and I’m not sure which one is the worst.  The dark.  Deep water (and the fish that might be in it).  Heights.  Parties where I don’t know anyone.  Driving in strange cities.  Airplanes.  Loneliness.  I’m a mess.  But it gives me some good writing material.

Saturday night take-out: Mexican or Italian?

Italian—especially if deep-dish pizza is available.

Private concert, whose playing?

Tori Amos.  She chats with me between songs, and then we become best friends forever.

You’re stranded on a deserted island with only one book, which one would it be?

Ah, the meanest question for book-lovers!  It would probably be wisest to choose the collected Shakespeare, because every sort of story in the world can be found in it. (And for the splendor of the language itself.  And because it’s nice and long.)  But in the end, I’d probably go with Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, because it makes me feel happy and hopeful every time I read it.

The Books of Elsewhere, Jacqueline’s fantasy series for young readers, is published by Dial in the USA and will also be published in Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Indonesia, Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, and Catalan. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of print and online publications and has garnered several awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize and two Pushcart nominations. Cherma, her series of poems about Wisconsin’s Bohemian immigrants, was published in March 2010 by the University of Wisconsin’s Parallel Press chapbook series.


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