Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Interview with Susan Fletcher, Author of FALCON IN THE GLASS

I’m delighted to welcome Susan Fletcher to the Inkpot today, to talk about obsession, persistence, craft, and her new middle-grade novel, FALCON IN THE GLASS (McElderry / S&S, July 2013).

The award-winning author of SHADOW SPINNER, ALPHABET OF DREAMS, and many other books, Susan also teaches in the Vermont College MFA program. Everything I’ve ever read by Susan is beautifully written, and FALCON IN THE GLASS, set in Renaissance Venice, is no exception.  Here’s a summary of the action:

In Venice in 1487, the secrets of glassblowing are guarded jealously. Renzo, a twelve-year-old laborer in a glassworks, has just a few months to prepare for a test of his abilities, and no one to teach him. If he passes, he will qualify as a skilled glassblower. If he fails, he will be expelled from the glassworks. Becoming a glassblower is his murdered father’s dying wish for him, and the means of supporting his mother and sister. But Renzo desperately needs another pair of hands to help him turn the glass as he practices at night.

One night he is disturbed by a bird—a small falcon—that seems to belong to a girl hiding in the glassworks. Soon Renzo learns about her and others like her—the bird people, who can communicate with birds and are condemned as witches. He tries to get her to help him and discovers that she comes with baggage: ten hungry bird-kenning children who desperately need his aid. Caught between devotion to his family and his art and protecting a group of outcast children, Renzo struggles for a solution that will keep everyone safe in this atmospheric adventure.

Renaissance Venice and Murano come alive in FALCON IN THE GLASS, richly present in everything from the ferocity of the guilds to the smell of wood smoke and tar.  What inspired you to set a story there?

            Obsession. Well, it wasn’t a throw-it-all-away-and-join-the-circus kind of obsession, but ever since I saw a documentary on Venice many years ago, I’ve been dying to explore it both in person and through story.  What is it about Venice? I think it’s partly that it’s so stunningly beautiful, and when you wander through those old streets and canals you can almost imagine that the 21st century has dropped away and you’re living in the 15th century or before. And it’s also partly that Venice is, you know, sinking, and there’s this awareness that it’s not going to be around forever. And I think this sort of connects on a deep level to the sinkingness of everything beautiful in life. Wait! I mean, I don’t want to be maudlin but…  Everything beautiful is temporary, yes? And that’s part of what makes it so precious. And Venice reminds me of this in a piercing way that has haunted me for years.   

The “bird people” in FALCON IN THE GLASS fascinated me.  Their relationship with birds was eerie and magical, yet wholly believable.  Did you draw on existing legends to shape this, or did you strike out and create your own mythology? 

            Oh, I’m so glad you liked those guys! The bird people came out of my Dragon Chronicles series; in those books, people who can speak telepathically with dragons can also “ken” with birds. In my last book, Ancient, Strange and Lovely, I brought the bird people into an alternate 21st century. I began to wonder what the bird people had been doing all this time.  They’re different, so definitely they would have provoked fear and rage. That’s just what happens historically to people who are perceived as different.  Maybe they would have been forced to move from one place to another. Also, there’s a kind of neither-here-neither-thereness to the magic of the bird people. I mean, there are horse whisperers in real life; why couldn’t there be, like, bird whisperers, too?  One of the things that makes me want to spend time in my imagination with the bird people is that I can almost believe they might exist for real.

Craft and artistry play a big role in this book and in the life of the young apprentice Renzo.  Midway through, you write that Renzo reaches a point where he “no longer strove to master the glass but only to know it, to play.”  How does this idea of play resonate for you as a writer?

            Some people say you should write what you know, a piece of advice I flagrantly disregard at every opportunity. Well, okay, that was flip, and not entirely accurate. But I am often attracted to write about things I don’t know much about; I find out about them in the process of writing and research. However, it occurred to me that I spend the bulk of my days thinking about, teaching about, writing about, and in the act of attempting to create something original and harmonious. And that it might be interesting to try to write about that.
            For me, finishing a novel requires a kind of dogged persistence. It’s a long process requiring a suite of hard-won skills. But when I approach a book with a sort of grit-your-teeth determination, I can crush all the life out of it. My best writing comes when I lighten up and approach it in a spirit of play. For me, writing a novel is a delicate balancing act of craft, persistence, passion, and joy. And I imagine that this is true of other art forms, too.

As well as being a writer, you teach writing, too.  Has teaching changed the way you work as a writer?  Did it affect the way you saw the master/apprentice relationships in the book?

            I’m not sure that teaching has changed the way I write, but it has forced me to be more conscious about things I used to do by the seat of my pants. How do we know when there’s too much exposition, or when subplots are overshadowing the main plot? I’ve had to sit down and really think about stuff like that. Because of teaching, I have more experiences of seeing writers grappling with and transcending a difficult problem; I can sometimes borrow my students’ energy and hope and bring it to my own work. I’ve learned so much from my students. And from my colleagues at Vermont College, who are scary-smart and wise in the ways of art-making. 
            But I love your question about the master/apprentice relationships. As I wrote FALCON IN THE GLASS, I was thinking about this relationship only from the apprentice’s point of view, seeing it through Renzo’s eyes. So what does the book (inadvertently) say about mentors?  Well, Renzo is hungry to learn, as are many of my students. He gets bored with repetitive lessons. His love of the art originated with a nurturing mentor (his father) but the stress of an impossible challenge posed by an unsympathetic mentor forces him to create something entirely original. Hmm! Maybe what I’ve said (without thinking consciously about it) is that a hungry student can thrive despite his mentor’s personal style? That a nurturing mentor and one who poses seemingly impossible challenges can both be beneficial?

FALCON IN THE GLASS is filled with wonderful historical details—from the tools of the glassmaking trade to the Bocca di Leone, the Lion’s Mouth through which Venetians could accuse someone of heresy or witchcraft.  Can you share any tips about historical research?  How to do it well, and how to keeping it from overwhelming the story?

            I’m not an expert on historical research. Fortunately, I know how to find experts! A number of wonderful librarians helped me unearth the information I needed, including those at Vermont College, who, through interlibrary loan, have access to an array of books and articles that seems just about unlimited. 
            Also, there’s this whole serendipity thing, which I have heard other writers speak of as well. Sometimes when I’m casting about for someone who knows a lot about my subject matter, things just click into place in ways that seem almost miraculous. It happened to me again with FALCON IN THE GLASS. One example: A writer friend, Emily Whitman, mentioned to me that Patricia Fortini Brown, a Princeton professor and expert on Renaissance Venice, would be speaking at a local college in a few days.  I went to the lecture and introduced myself; Dr. Brown offered to vet my manuscript and answer questions. Her generosity knocked me out—and she was a huge help in confirming details and digging out little-known information.
            Yes, research is delicious, and it’s such a temptation to put in every cool fact I’ve discovered! And it’s also true that a detail, like a Bocca di Leone, can inspire an entire scene. But I try to put in only what my viewpoint characters would plausibly notice in the moment, and let the rest of it fall away.

Excellent advice!  I'm curious:  Are you an outliner?  Or do you like to see where the story takes you?

            Usually I’m not an outliner, but FALCON IN THE GLASS was an exception. I had taken a screenwriting class from my friend Cynthia Whitcomb, and she had demonstrated a technique of outlining an entire screenplay in advance. I thought, Hmm, I wonder… To my surprise, in a couple of weeks I had the outline of this novel. Even more surprising—the outline held up until I was about ¾ of the way through the first draft. I found that I didn’t mind knowing in advance generally where I was going. There were enough surprises along the way to keep me exploring. The next book is perking along without an outline, so I don’t know when I’ll try Cynthia’s method again.

Falcon in the Glass is a wonderfully original blend of history and fantasy for middle-grade readers.  What draws you to write for this age group?  What is it about the combination of fantasy and history that appeals to you?

            The worst year in my life was the year I turned fourteen.
            Most of my protagonists are fourteen or fifteen years old.
            Coincidence? Don’t think so. But the connection is not deliberate. I just want to write about kids that age.
            Sometimes I wonder if subconsciously I’m just trying to get fourteen right. Kind of like the movie Groundhog Day, where the Bill Murray character has to keep living the same day over and over until he stops making a total hash of it.
            I can’t go back and actually be fourteen. So maybe I have to do this, instead.
            As to the fact that FALCON IN THE GLASS lives in the borderland between historical fiction and fantasy…  I have always been attracted to the long ago and faraway. Can’t tell you exactly why.  And I love books with a little bit of maybe-magic. The kind of magic that wicks across the boundary between reality and imagination, suggesting there’s more to this world than meets the eye.

"Maybe-magic" is a beautiful way of describing it.  Thank you so much for stopping by the Inkpot today, Susan!


Interview conducted by Amy Butler Greenfield, who was on her way to a history Ph.D. when she gave into temptation and became a novelist. Her most recent book is the YA historical fantasy CHANTRESS (McElderry / S&S, 2013).  She lives with her family in England, where she eats chocolate, bakes cakes, and plots mischief.


  1. Thanks for the great interview, Amy! interesting that she used a screenwriting method for outlining. I love using Save the Cat beatsheets as a basic starting point for outlining and doing my bookmap.

  2. So glad you enjoyed it, Martina! And great to hear that Save the Cat is useful for you. It's my go-to starting point as well!

  3. Wonderful interview Amy and Susan! I'm adding Falcon in the Glass to my TBR book. I love the idea of maybe magic. And I also love Save the Cat. I just discovered it recently, and I know I will refer to it over and over!

  4. Thanks, Erin! I'm glad you're intrigued by the idea of "maybe-magic," too. And it sounds like we should start a Save the Cat fan club!

  5. ***I'm posting this message on Susan's behalf because Blogger's being persnickety and not letting Susan post it herself.***

    Thank you for the great questions, Amy! They were very fun to think about. Meanwhile, it’s clear that I need to look into Save the Cat. Although I did manage to think through FALCON mostly in advance, usually I just blunder my way along, following the desires or needs of my protagonist. I’m always on the lookout for things that can help me navigate my way through a first draft.

  6. Thanks for the great interview! I have been looking forward to this book for ages, but even more so now.

  7. A slow paced medieval fantasy that takes place around the islands of Italy. If you can make it to the second half of the book, the story does become more intriguing.
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  8. I just love how vividly Susan creates the setting for her books. I always feel like with her imagery I can step into the community/time period and really view the world. I was quite excited to read her newly released, yes you can get this fantastic book NOW!! book, Falcon in the Glass.
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