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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Author Interviews: Janni Lee Simner Edition

Today I have with me Janni Lee Simner the author of Bones of Faerie and Thief Eyes (which I loved and you can expect the review tomorrow!)

Hi, Christina, and thanks for having me here!

What gave you the idea for Thief Eyes? Why did you choose the setting?

Thief Eyes began back in 2002, during my first trip to Iceland. I was only dimly aware of the Icelandic family sagas--stories about Iceland's first settlers--then, but we had a copy of Njal's Saga on our bookshelves, so I started reading it, mostly out of a sense of obligation--it seemed like something I should read before visiting Iceland. By the end of the first page, though, should had given way to want. I was surprised at how comfortable reading Njal's Saga felt, as if I'd been here before. In a sense I had: I'm a lifelong fantasy reader, and Tolkien was among those influenced by Iceland's sagas and eddas. One of the things that pullled me in, in the very first chapter, was meeting Hallgerd, a woman whose uncle declares--while she's still a child--that she has "the eyes of a thief." Hallgerd goes on to play a role in the deaths of her three husbands, and she's still remembered for having refused her third husband, Gunnar, two locks of her hair so he could restring his bow in battle. I was partway through Njal's Saga when we left for Iceland, and I had Hallgerd's thief's eyes very much in mind. Then, during the second half of the trip, I found myself at Thingvellir, the site of Iceland's original parliament. Thingvellir is a pretty amazing place--it's located in a rift valley where the North American and European tectonic plates meet, and you can see the cracks in the earth beneath your feet where the land is pulling apart. Thingvellir is also one of the most-visited sites in the sagas--countless battles and confrontations take place there, and Hallgerd meets Gunnar there, too. (I should mention here that the characters in the sagas are mostly real, though no one is sure how much of their stories are fact, and how much a sort of historical fiction.) So I was walking through Thingvellir, my battered half-read copy of Njal's Saga in my backpack, when I realized that the characters I was reading about had walked the same ground I was now walking. They'd walked it more than a thousand years ago, but suddenly that didn't seem so long ago--at Thingvellir, the past felt near enough to touch. And then I heard a voice in my head whisper, low and full of rage, "I will not allow it." Later--when I was safely back home--there would be time for wondering where that voice came from and whether it was real. Just then, I did what any writer would do upon hearing a voice in her head--I sat down, and I wrote down the words I heard. I kept writing, only dimly aware of the tour groups wandering around me, until I had the opening of Thief Eyes--in which Hallgerd, unhappy with the first marriage her father has arranged for her, casts a spell to change places with one of her descendants, in hopes of escaping a life she doesn't want. I took that opening home from Iceland with me, and I kept thinking about it. Five years later I returned to Iceland to research the rest of the story--and to work out what happens when Haley, one of Hallgerd's descendants, gets caught in Hallgerd's spell while visiting Iceland to search for her missing mother.

What is your writing process like?

Messy! I tend to go through at least five drafts to get to a finished novel. In the first draft, I often tell the entirely wrong story, almost as if I need to get that wrong story out of the way so that I can get to the right one. Once I have words, no matter how awful they are, down on the page, I can begin shaping those words into the right story. The right story doesn't tend to really emerge until the third draft for me, and it doesn't become readable until the fourth or fifth draft. Some writers find the thought of so much rewriting terrifying, but I find it freeing. By giving myself permission to write badly, I also give myself permission to immerse myself in and enjoy the whole writing process. Stories don't have to start off perfect. Perfect is something to work towards (and never entirely reach). It isn't a starting place. Every writer's process is different, though. I think it's worth it for new writers to try everything--from strict outlining to messy fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing to see what works best for them.

Favorite Music?

I listen to a little of everything, but tend toward folk/pop/rock. Current favorites include Vienna Teng, Richard Shindell, and Lucy Kaplansky. Teng and Kaplansky were both part of the Thief Eyes playlist I listened to while working on the book.


Much like Ari, the boy Haley meets once in Iceland, I love the original three Star Wars movies. (Unlike Ari, I try to pretend the more recent three movies never happened. :-))

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I can't remember ever not writing--even before I knew how to write on paper I was holding conversations with an elaborate collection of imaginary friends. By high school I was filling notebooks with the openings of stories, as well as writing fanfic with friends. It wasn't until I got out of college that I spent what remained of my student loan money on my first computer (computers were way more expensive back then) and started working on finishing some of those openings and submitting them--on seeing whether I could actually write professionally, and sell the stories I wrote so that others could read them.

How long did it take you to write Thief Eyes?

Once I took the opening I'd written at Thingvellir and started working on the rest of the book, about a year and a half. (In between, my editor's revision letter for Bones of Faerie, my first YA novel, arrived, so I took some time off to work on that.)

What is your favorite book?

I remain deeply in love with Madeleine L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet , The Arm of the Starfish, and A Wrinkle in Time, all of which have been comfort reading for me for decades now. More recently I've enjoyed Kristin Cashore's Fire, A.E. Stallings' poetry collection Archaic Smile, and Caitlin Brennan's House of the Star. (House of the Star is due out in November, and it made my inner 11-year-old horse girl happy beyond words.) And of course Njal's Saga--I've reread Njal's Saga several times since my first trip to Iceland, and I love it more each time. (Though the Victorian translation available online is pretty slow going, and I would have hated the saga had I started with it--I recommend finding one of the more recent print editions instead.)

If you could have any guest over for dinner, dead or alive, who would it be?

After spending so much time writing about her, I think it'd be fascinating to have Hallgerd over for dinner--but only if I was promised she'd be safelly escorted back to her own time afterwards, because if we didn't get along--well, I think Hallgerd would be a very dangerous enemy. After writing Thief Eyes, I find I respect her, but I doubt she'd be comfortable to be around.

What would you consider to be the hardest thing about writing?

Whatever part I''m struggling with right now. :-) The beginning of a book, when it feels like there's no story--no there--there yet can be one of the most daunting stages. The easiest? I think it varies book to book. There are always moments of grace where things seem to just work, and I love those. I also love the moments when I realize that unknowingly I've already set up the thing that needs to happen next, even though I had no idea it needed to happen until just then.

What was one of your most embarrassing moments?

Well, there was that time in eighth grade when I wore the skirt I'd made in home ec class to a school event--though I didn't realize I'd done anything to be embarrassed of until the next day. Many of my embarrassing moments are like that.Which of your characters do you feel is most like you? I think all of them--protagonists and antagonists alike--have some small piece of me in them, but that none of them is entirely me.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Be stubborn, keep writing, keep revising--don't give up and don't be afraid to write in whatever way works best for you, no matter what seems to work for other writers. Also, don't forget, amid all the hard work (and it definitely is work), to have fun with your writing, too.

*I actually finished this post and the review back in May, but when setting up posts I didn't do this one well and forgot to hit post and instead hit save as *fist palms forehead.* I'm just glad I found it yesterday! So sorry guys that this one was delayed, but I really loved Thief Eyes so check back in for my slight fan girly review tomorrow!*


Lauren said...

Awesome interview! It was fun to find more about Janni as well as Thief Eyes.

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