It is a delight to welcome the immensely talented and witty Jacqueline West to the Inkpot! I remember picking up the first of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE (#1, THE SHADOWS) in a bookstore because I couldn't resist the cover image of a girl climbing through a picture frame into a clearly very magical woods. When I started reading, I was thrilled to find myself in the thick of a magical adventure with all the best ingredients: a spunky, imperfect heroine (Olive), a spooky house, extraordinarily gifted cats, and, of course, those enchanted pictures a girl might want to climb into. I loved THE SHADOWS and could not have been happier to ask Jacqueline West a few questions, now that #2 (SPELLBOUND) is out and #3 (THE SECOND SPY) on its way to bookstores in a couple of weeks!
Anne, on behalf of the Inkpot: Thank you so much for stopping by, Jacqueline! Standing in front of a painting and dreaming oneself into it--we've all probably done that at least a few times. Your books confirm my suspicion that no portal could possibly be as satisfying as a painting in a frame! Do you remember any particular paintings that you wanted to enter, back when you were a child?
Jacqueline: When I was little, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. It was a big old house (so of course it seemed absolutely gigantic and ancient to little me), and it had a lot of interesting antiques and art objects in it. I can still remember many of the paintings that hung on the walls: a girl picking wildflowers in a long pink gown, a shepherdess on a dark hill, a crumbling brown barn, several Norman Rockwell prints… It was very un-menacing stuff, unlike the collection in Olive’s house! I remember giving names to the people in the paintings, deciding ‘She looks like a Gretchen,’ and ‘He looks like a Charlie,’ and imagining what they might have been saying to each other when they were captured in paint, mid-scene. I almost got myself to believe that the paintings would come to life as soon as no one was looking, and the people in them would finally go back about their business. I think that’s where the idea of the living paintings came from. It’s funny: I never imagined myself actually climbing into a landscape or joining the painted people. I just wanted to live through the characters I created in my mind.
Anne: How about painting people or worlds? When I was in college, my friends and I worked for months on a collective felt-pen masterpiece, an illustrated map of fairyland. (Alas, it faded to nothing in the sun a few years after graduation.) Have you ever painted or drawn a landscape that you wanted to wander through? Or have your landscapes always been written, rather than drawn?
Jacqueline: Oh, I love the idea of a collectively created fairyland map! Maybe it faded because the fairies wanted to keep their secrets…
I’ve always enjoyed painting and drawing, and I’ve dabbled in art off and on, but I’m always frustrated by not being able to get the image in my imagination onto paper or canvas. My pictures never turn out the way I intend them to—sort of like Olive’s disastrous experiment with powerful paints in THE SECOND SPY! With writing, I’ve realized that I can get a lot closer to transferring what’s inside my mind to the outside. Now and then, I even put together a line or find a simile that’s exactly what I meant to say, and that’s a wonderful feeling.
Anne: Leopold, Harvey, and Horatio join a long and august line of fabulous fictional cats. All the best magical stories seem to have 'em, and I have to say yours are some of my favorites. But what is it with cats, do you think, that makes them so very story-worthy?
Jacqueline: Young readers often ask me that, especially when they learn that I’m a cat-allergic dog-lover! I explain that cats seem to me like they’d be awfully good at keeping secrets. My dog would give up all his secrets (if he had any, which he doesn’t) in exchange for a baby carrot. Cats always appear to have an interesting inner life. They’re so independent and self-contained and regal—it just seems like there has to be something fascinating going on in there.
Anne: Olive's parents make me chuckle every time they wander into the story, with their obsession with numbers and complete inability to understand what's really going on in Olive's life. Do you have any math-oriented people in your world, or does the mismatch between Olive and her parents really just stand in for the mismatch between almost every child of Olive's age and his or her well-meaning but slightly clueless parents?
Jacqueline: Ah, the Dunwoodys… No one in my world is quite like them, although I’m sure fragments of former math teachers are mixed into them here and there. I decided that math should be the Dunwoodys’ calling because I thought of it as the counterpoint to the McMartins’ magic. Math and magic each have their own rules and logic and complexities, but they run along parallel lines—or at least they do in Olive’s world. Because Olive is so different from her parents, she notices things about their new home that her parents don’t perceive at all. While they are caught up in the magic of numbers, she’s caught up in the magic of art.
Anne: Olive herself is a great character. She is lovable, but not perfect. She's a good friend, but she makes mistakes. She's scrappy and creative, but also has her worries and fears and weaknesses. Who are some of your favorite fictional heroines or heroes? Do you have a larger picture of how Olive should be growing and changing across the series?
Jacqueline: Thank you so much. The setting and many of the characters around her are fantastical, but I wanted Olive to feel real. She doesn’t have any inborn magical talents or superpowers; she’s not secretly a demi-god or a chosen one. She just uses the strengths that she does have to change her own world for the better, when she can.
Some of my own favorite fictional heroes and heroines are like Olive in this way. As a kid, I loved Anne of Green Gables, in part because of how Anne imbues the real, natural world around her with beauty and excitement and magic. I also loved Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, who is weirdly similar to Anne in that he uses his imagination to transform his whole world (with much more violent and sometimes disgusting results, of course). All of the animals in the Hundred Acre Wood are alive because Christopher Robin believes in them. Wonderland may only exist because Alice dreamt of it, or was curious enough to discover it.
Olive is flawed in many ways, and sometimes her shyness or her reluctance to trust others gets her into trouble. Throughout the course of the books, I knew Olive would find good friends for the first time in her life, and that she would then have to learn how to be a good friend herself. A lot of Olive’s inner conflict stems from this issue, and from her learning to have faith in her own strengths and talents—even if they aren’t exactly what she or her parents hoped they would be.
Anne: Since I brought up the "series" question just now, let me say that this is one series where the books just get more vivid and more fun as you go. I think my favorite so far is actually the third!! This makes me so happy, just to know that it is POSSIBLE to write sequels that have all the zest of the original, and that truly can stand alone. I hadn't reread THE SHADOWS (#1) before starting SPELLBOUND (#2), and I wasn't lost or confused for a moment. Kudos to you for bringing the reader so seamlessly along! Did you know from the outset that this would be a series? A series longer than three books? How many more do you have plotted out in your mind?
Jacqueline: Woo-hoo! So glad to hear that each of the books stood on its own! The truth is: I didn’t know that this would be a series until THE SHADOWS was finished. I had assumed that no one would want to publish one book by me, let alone two, so when my agent and editor first brought up the idea of a sequel, I was surprised, and then nervous, and then ecstatic. Maybe I had been subconsciously writing the start of a series all along, because there was nothing in THE SHADOWS that had to be changed in order for there to be a Volume Two. Most of the doors were closed, but a lot of windows were left open. Almost as soon as I started work on SPELLBOUND, my amazing editor (Jessica Garrison at Dial) brought up the idea of a longer series, and suddenly I had the freedom and the space to think in terms of a big, multi-part story. I’m revising Volume Four right now, and Volume Five will be the final installment. I know what’s going to happen in the last book, but I haven’t put anything more than sketchy notes on paper—I only work on one book in the series at a time; I can’t move on to the next until I know the one before it is truly finished.
Anne: Are there parts of Elsewhere we have not yet seen?
Jacqueline: Oh, yes. Absolutely. There are many more secrets waiting to be discovered, both inside and outside the house.
Anne: Your #1 villain is named Annabelle McMartin. I always knew Annabelle was a scary, scary name--I have friends who call me "Annabelle," and it makes me shiver. Now I understand why! I won't rest easy until Annabelle is thoroughly defeated, evaporated, melted, and/or reformed. When does the next installment of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE come out? How long do I have to keep looking over my shoulders whenever I go outside??
Jacqueline: Just one more year, I promise! Volume Four will be released in summer 2013, and if everything goes according to schedule, Volume Five will follow in summer 2014.
Anne: And . . . are you working on anything else that is non-Elsewhere-related?
Jacqueline: I am indeed. I’m currently at work on a YA project (the title is currently in flux) that’s very different from THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE. It may be released between books four and five of ELSEWHERE, but nothing’s set in stone yet. I’ll keep the Inkpot posted!
Anne: Thank you for taking on these questions, Jacqueline! I can't wait to see THE SECOND SPY hit the bookshelves in July--it's a great yarn, thrilling and moving. Congratulations on these lovely, wonderful books!