Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Interview with Anne Nesbet, on writing a BOX OF GARGOYLES

First - wow!! You wrote a book about my three favorite things - chocolate croissants, gargoyles and Paris!

Thank you :)

Anne Nesbet

Q: Seriously, I love that the book starts with a BANG - really not a spoiler unless you haven't read the first word, but I was so intrigued by what happens next and the whole consciousness of the stone becoming self aware. It's such an unusual creative idea I wonder how it came to you?

A: The first few chapters of A BOX OF GARGOYLES were written and rewritten about three thousand times! Sequels are hard, especially when you really, really want the sequel also to be able to stand alone in a pinch. I kept experimenting (let's have Valko be the main character this time! let's start with a really long recap in the narrator's voice!), and my editor, Rosemary Brosnan, who is the best kind of loving perfectionist, kept sending me messages that basically amounted to "try again, please, dear."  Finally I was brainstorming on the telephone with her, and in total desperation I said something like, "Oh, forget all this--I'll do the beginning from the point of view of the WALL!" And Rosemary said, "Wait, YES!" So that's how the opening was born.

Q:  I haven't read the first book *blushes* but this really stands alone well. Did you conceive this as a separate story? Will there be more?

A:  I wanted this book to be something you could read and enjoy without having THE CABINET OF EARTHS in mind very clearly, if at all. So it makes me very happy to hear you didn't feel too lost or confused!  My model for sequels-that-stand-alone is probably Madeleine L'Engle's A WIND IN THE DOOR, which can absolutely be read by someone who somehow missed A WRINKLE IN TIME, though knowing the first book deepens a person's experience of the second book.

As to whether there will be more--who can say? My third book is not about Maya and Valko, though it continues to play with the ways science and magic collide. I do have a rough outline of a third book about Maya's family hidden away in a notebook in a secret drawer, though. So perhaps I will come back to these characters again someday.

Q: This is a really interesting exploration of fate, wiggle room and free choice. Where do you stand on fate versus free will? And did you have to do much research on these philosophies?

A: The problem of fate and freedom is something my brain has been chewing on for years and years like a very hard biscuit. I remember talking about determinism and the Uncertainty Principle with my high school physics teacher. I think at that time I was very stubborn about free will being impossible (I have mellowed since then), and I remember Mr. MacDonald looking at me and saying, "Thanks, Anne, for ruining my whole day!" I think everything about the universe has become more mysterious since I was in high school, however.

But of course in our day-to-day (or fictional) lives, it isn't so much what happens on the quantum level that worries us. It's the problem of feeling trapped, and wanting to find some wiggle room within all the unwiggly things that bind us. Middle school, for instance! You have to get up at some awful early hour, make the bus or the carpool on time, turn in your homework, eat your prescribed lunch at a certain hour (I once had a job, by the way, where the hours were 7:36 to 4:18, with a 42 minute lunch: I kid you not), and all the while behave according to a thousand picky laws and rules--where's the room for free will there? So I think there is a natural bond of sympathy and solidarity between your average middle-school student and your average Greek tragic hero. Maya, who is trapped in a bind that's even worse than having to eat cafeteria food in 42 minutes, has to figure out where the wiggle-room is in the awful spell that has trapped her. And I think she is very ingenious and resourceful about how she goes about it!

This is Anne thinking about wiggle room - or some serious plot points at least!

Q: It really reads like you've been to Paris - maybe even lived there - did you? And if yes, where were your favorite haunts and if no - how did you create such a vivid version of Paris? This is from someone who used to be dragged there every year as a kid - so your kid's view of Paris really felt real to me!

A: Yes, I've lived in Paris. When I was little my father worked sometimes in a lab outside Paris, and so when I was seven and ten and thirteen I was dragged (like you!) to Paris, and sometimes plopped right into the local schools. That was so much fun that I've kept returning to France all my life, sometimes dragging my own children along, poor things. (But how many kids can say they have gone snowshoeing on the decks of the Eiffel Tower?) I have many favorite corners in Paris, and I keep discovering new ones, because Paris is astoundingly full of magical corners.

Here's one story about a magical corner: for A BOX OF GARGOYLES, I needed an apartment building on the other side of the Seine from the Eiffel Tower for a slightly crazy new character to live in. I was thousands of miles away from Paris when I was writing that chapter, so I just opened a map of Paris on my computer and plonked my finger down on the screen and said, "She'll live THERE!" So then when we were next in Paris, I naturally thought it would be interesting to go take a closer look at this building I had chosen. And guess what? When I looked at the buzzer by the side of the door, I found the family name of one of my main characters right there on the list! Look, look: I'm getting goosebumps all over again, just thinking about that . . . .

Okay, so now I have goosebumps too!

Little known fact - most writers I know love graveyards! The Fourcroy Tomb - yes, it's really there! These are Anne's photos taken at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

Q: I love the violin scenes and the Dance Macabre - do you play and if so did you play like Pauline?
 A: I play violin and viola, which is like a larger violin. Many, many jokes are told about the viola and violists, so people who love the viola quickly develop either a sense of humor or a thick skin or both. And do I play like Pauline? Hey, what are you implying? Remember, she's bound to get tons better in another nine thousand hours!

HA! Sounds like me with a guitar!

Q: The Bulgarian aspect is very tightly woven into this tale, is that from your own cultural background or did it insist on being in there?

 A: It insisted! It absolutely insisted. Although I teach Russian literature (and Russian and Bulgarian are close cousins), I didn't know all that much about Bulgaria and Bulgarian mythology when I started writing these books.  I have always liked yogurt, though!

Q: I love the creepiness of so many scenes but especially the singing - no spoilers! Which made me wonder what are your favorite creepy movies, books or plays?

 A: Ooooh, sorry, but it's way too late at night right now for me to be talking creepy movies! If you're looking for creepy stories, though, Hans Christian Anderson would be happy to oblige. And Neil Gaiman's CORALINE does a lovely job of being creepy in a twenty-first-century sort of way.

Coraline is pretty creepy in the best kind of way!

Q: This story seems really bursting with sensory delights to me, taste, smells, touch, sounds and sights, all amplified. Did you have a sound track for this story or a stash of chocolate nibbles, or some other magical writing aid?

 A: My secret writing aids: good tea and long walks with the dog in the hills. And I am not averse to some dark chocolate, here and there. Not averse at all! But when I get really stuck, I eat something spicy to wake up my brain.

Interesting - I've never heard of that before!

And finally some quick fire questions...

What are you reading right now? 

A: Several things at once, of course! Dickens's THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP, Catherynne Valente's THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRYLAND AND LED THE REVELS THERE, and--as soon as I can pry it out of my kids' hands--P.S. BE ELEVEN, by Rita Williams-Garcia.

What movie did you last see?

A: In a theater? Fran├žois Ozon's IN THE HOUSE. It's a French movie about a teacher who gets a little carried away trying to turn his student into a good writer, and I saw it with my absolutely amazing father-in-law, because we always go to some wild foreign film together when I'm in town.

Croissant or Danish?

A: Croissant, of course.  With one exception: there's a bakery (Nabolom) in Berkeley with a blackberry cheese danish guaranteed to make even tired tastebuds stand up and dance. But otherwise: croissant, please!

Thank you so much Anne, it was a joy to read your book and an even greater joy to meet you! 
P.S. We are meeting up at Nabolom, right?


  1. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't caught up with The Cabinet of Earths yet, despite pretty serious yearnings. This interview has reawakened my thirst for the first book and now the second, so I'm really on it now. The approach to magic in these books just sounds so fascinating, quite apart from being set in Paris!

    1. Anne's writing blew me away so much I'm using her books in my kids creative writing class this summer!

  2. A-a-a-and just bought C of E for my kindle. Probably will hold out for hardcover (from my local bookstore) for Box of Gargoyles, but that depends on how feverish I get!

    1. Ellen, thank you so much! I hope you like it. It's always very moving to me when writers whose stories I have loved pick up my books. :)

  3. I almost didn't read this post today (catching up after weeks of conference speaking and travel) but I'm sure glad I did! I adore Paris; gargoyles are creepy cool; and it's got Bulgaria in it, too!? I've been to Bulgaria, spent 10 days traveling all over the country a few years ago. Loved it! Beautiful country, wonderful people, and my husband and I learned some Bulgarian before we left for the trip. The folks in shops and restaurants and hotels were so tickled we were speaking Bulgarian. They said they almost never heard Americans trying to speak it.

    P.S. Adore beignets! Especially chocolate filled!

    P.P.S. A big YES on cemeteries, too. :-)

  4. Well, as you know, there aren't lots and lots and lots of Franco-Bulgarian fantasy novels for the middle-grade set, so I hope you enjoy this one! :)

    I'm a fan of Bulgarian music and Bulgarian dancing and Bulgarian mythology and (of course) Bulgarian yogurt cultures, but I've not yet actually been to Bulgaria myself. I hope that happens someday!

  5. I loved how very real the children in Cabinet of Earths felt and I am certainly glad to hear Box of Gargoyles is great as well. Putting it on my list.

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  6. Fantastic to see a starred review for the sequel to what was a fantastic book. Also wonderful to see Anne Nesbet sporting a lovely new haircut (and hair)- Brava three times.


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