Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Interview with Sybil Nelson, Author of the Priscilla the Great Series

If you haven't already done it, check out the high-action superpower fantasy series, Priscilla the Great. Think The Incredibles meets Kim Possible, with some Alex Rider thrown in for good measure. Please welcome the rather amazing Sybil Nelson to The Enchanted Inkpot!

Okay, first of all, tell us a little about your nice, strong action heroine, Priscilla the Great, and her series.

Priscilla the Great [Book One] is about a quirky, spunky, tomboyish twelve-year-old girl who one day discovers she can shoot fire out of her fingers. A couple of things that set apart this book from your average superhero books are the humor and the family element. Priscilla has a hilarious sense of humor and a quick wit. She often gets herself into outrageous situations. Throughout the novel she also grows closer to her family and they all learn to appreciate each other a little more.

Then there's you—writing multiple books as Leslie Dubois and Sybil Nelson, working on a Ph.D. in Biostatistics... please explain your seriously underachieving life!

I’ve always been somewhat of an overachiever and I have such diverse interests that I can’t limit myself to one thing. I won’t even get into my musical talents. I’m currently practicing for a piano performance.

I have to ask a time-honored question: How did you come up with the idea for the Priscilla the Great books?

Do you want the real answer or what I tell everyone? I’ll give you both and let you choose... [Editor's Note: Sybil agreed to share both of these answers!]

Truth: Due to a change in birth control, I ended up having my period for a month straight. I was so annoyed and wished that my period could bring me something besides cramps and chocolate cravings. I thought it would be cool if my period could also bring me superpowers. So I got the idea for a girl who got superpowers on her first period. I wrote the entire book in less than 30 days. When HarperCollins showed interest in the book, The Adventures of PMS Girl, they convinced me to get rid of the period concept and to change the book to Priscilla the Great. After eight months of editing with them, they ultimately rejected the book. It was later picked up by WorldMaker Media and is now published with Little Prince Publishing.

What I tell everyone: I really wanted there to be a book that triumphed the power of being a girl. There are lots of great action books for boys, but not so many for girls. I used to love reading comic books as a kid and I am addicted to the X-Men. I thought there needed to be a superhero book for girls that are like me when I was young.

Anyway, once I had the concept down, on came Priscilla’s personality. I was a high school teacher while I wrote this book and Priscilla is a combination two of my students, Ellen and Helen. (The rhyming of their names is purely coincidental). Helen would come to class every day with a different story of something ridiculous that had happened to her. I still remember having to delay class after she told me she had spent the whole day with her hands in her armpits because she shaved without shaving lotion and it was still burning her. I was laughing too hard to teach. Then there’s Ellen with her red hair and freckles. I always thought she was completely adorable, so I modeled Priscilla after her.

Thirteen is a tough age, and I like how you make that age come to life with Priscilla. Do you draw on memories of your own middle school days to write about her?

Not really, actually. My nose was almost completely stuck in a book during that time period. I think I more closely resemble Priscilla’s friend Tai.

Team Kyle or Team Marco? Or should we be watching out for Team Ian? Can you tell us a little more about Priscilla's budding love life?

Personally, Kyle is my favorite. He’s sweet and fun and totally into Priscilla. And while Marco does have that brooding, strong, silent type thing going on, I’m not sure he’s spirited enough to keep up with Priscilla. As for Ian, he’s just a thorn in Priscilla’s side. He even annoys me and I created him.

It is interesting to note that Marco will be the first character in the Priscilla universe to get a spin-off. I’m already working on Dark Marco, which tells of Marco’s life before he met Priscilla.

You've got a kind of mad scientist thing going with these books, and of course, you are obviously a science person. What part does your science background play as you write the series?

My science background has a lot more to do with these books than you might think. I can’t count the times I’ve been sitting in a lecture or at a conference and come up with an idea for the book based on actual science. Of course, I switch it up and make it fit a middle school book and a lot of it is completely out of my imagination, but real science definitely inspires what I create. The entire fifth book of the series, The Time Traveling Bullet, is based on these actual bullets that can bend around objects at the nano level. After listening to what Airy Bullets could do, I outlined the major plot development for that book.

How did you choose Priscilla's superpowers?

I write really fast and I write whatever comes to me. I originally wrote the book in less than 30 days and I just randomly picked a power as I needed it and they stuck. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t all powerful, though. That’s just boring. She has to have some weaknesses. So while most of the other Specimens have telepathy and super speed, Priscilla doesn’t.

These books are action-packed, plus you include pop culture references. Are you a fan of action movie or thrillers? Tell us about your cultural influences.

I am huge X-Men fan. And I love action movies. Literally, all it takes to entertain me in a movie is a few explosions. Add in a car chase or two and a few fight scenes and I am one happy camper. I am also a fan of pop music. I love pop music more than Priscilla does. I used to hide that fact, but I don’t care anymore. I love Justin Bieber and I don’t care who knows it! I also love Justin Timberlake, Usher, Big Time Rush, Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha, Jason Mraz, Ludacris, Eric Hutchinson, PussyCat Dolls, etc. But for some reason I can’t stand Katy Perry or Rihanna. Ugh.

Being book people, we also need to know what you like to read. What were your favorite books when you were a kid? What about now?

I read so much as a kid I wouldn’t be able to pick a favorite. I do distinctly remember going through reading phases. I had a comic book phase, a romance phase, a Babysitter’s Club type book phase etc. I remember in high school going through a British Literature phase. All I read for a year was Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, and Shakespeare. I think that phase has stuck a little because I’m completely addicted to historical fiction. I don’t know why, but I love reading about people who lived hundreds of years ago. Phillipa Gregory is one of my favorite authors right now. I also love to read contemporary Young Adult novels.

There's been a lot of talk in the past year or two about representations of minority characters in children's literature, both on book jackets and inside the books. As a black woman who has written books with white, black, and Latina main characters, can you give us a few thoughts on race in MG/YA fiction?

I could probably write a book just on this topic alone. But I’ll try to keep my thoughts short.

In a study by Andrew Weaver from the University of Indiana, he took made-up movie synopses and created six different movie posters, one with an all-white cast, one with an-all black cast, and several with different combinations. He found that white participants were more likely to want to see the movie with the all-white cast no matter what the plot was. It wasn’t a matter of racism, just a matter of them feeling that the movies with the black cast weren’t intended for them. I feel the same can be said about books. I think the publishing industry agrees.

Here is a great article by Justin Larbalestier about the subject. Her book Liar is about a black girl named Micah. But when Bloomsbury published it, they put a white girl on the cover. The publishing industry believes that books with black people on the cover do not sell. In fact, some stores and libraries won’t even stock them. If they do, they are relegated to an entirely different section. When I was a teenager, I used to hate having to go to a different part of the library to find books with people that looked like me. It felt like literary segregation. I became a writer because I wanted there to be stories that I liked to read that featured people of many cultures.

The reason why books and movies with black people don’t sell is because they don’t get the marketing power behind them that other movies and books do. I mean, white movies and books that aren’t marketed well don’t sell either. There is no difference. And until the publishing industry decides to invest in books with multicultural characters, the issue will persist.

Notice how I didn’t mention the music industry in the above rant. I don’t think Columbia Records is worried about what race of people is going to buy the next Beyonce song. In the music industry, I think race actually matters less. It’s not uncommon to see white suburban boys listening to hip hop or teenage black girls singing Taylor Swift lyrics. The movie and publishing industries need to take a note out of the music industry songbook and market everything to everybody.

Anyway, with that in mind, I have a Celebrate Black Books blog hop planned in which participating blogs will have a giveaway of books with black main characters or with minorities on the cover. It starts February 24. Go to www.SybilNelson.blogspot.com to participate.

How did you become a writer? What is your advice for a young person who would like to write books?

I became a writer by writing. That’s really the only definition. Getting published doesn’t make you a writer. Getting that story inside of you on paper is what makes you a writer. I started writing because I saw that there were stories that needed to be told that no one else was writing. So I decided to write them.

You seem to have a really full life. How do you find time to write?

I don’t sleep. Literally, I get about four hours a night. That’s it.

Let's end with a few questions about you. What are a couple of your quirks? And an Inkpot classic—what's your favorite dessert?

I don’t eat a lot of desserts. I’m more of a salty person than a sweet. But I can’t resist cupcakes. There are actually not one, but two stores here in Charleston that only sell cupcakes. They are glorious.

Um, I think from reading my interview you can see some of my quirks. I’m a black biostatistician who loves historical fiction and pop music. Doesn’t get much quirkier than that! I’m also addicted to the TV show Hoarders. Have no idea why. And my dream is to one day become famous enough to go on Dancing With the Stars. Another one is that I hate feet. I even hate it when my own children put their bare feet on me. So, of course they do it at every opportunity. Oh, and I recently found out I have this thing called synesthesia which causes me to see numbers and days of the week as colors. I really thought everyone saw numbers as colors and argued with my husband about it for weeks. I thought he was crazy. I finally put it up on Facebook and through the comments realized that not everyone did. Turns out I’m the crazy one! Someone finally told me about synesthesia and I looked it up and yep, that’s me. Wow, I have a lot of quirks.

Synesthesia, cupcakes, a knack for science, and a strong dislike of feet—plus a very fun action fantasy series about girl power, Priscilla the Great! Thanks, Sybil!

Interviewer: Kate Coombs


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