Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Interview & Giveaway: Ellen Booraem on Death, Jelly Beans, and TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD

I have been a great fan of Ellen Booraem's since I read Small Persons with Wings, her novel about some marvelously touchy and irritable fairies. So I jumped at the chance to read an ARC of her latest, Texting the Underworld (Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers), in stores this month. I loved it, and you will too. Read more about it below in the giveaway section, and then enter to win your own copy.

In this interview, Ellen talks about how to make death funny and the secret to a non-corny Irish voice (which I am stealing). Also, for the record, she describes my own feelings about drafting vs revising to a precise T.  -Katherine Catmull

1. You have the BEST titles. I 100% read Small Persons With Wings because I correctly assumed that with a title like that, it had to be smart and funny and delightful (ed. note: If you have not read SPWW, read it—it was on pretty much every Best of 2011 list). Did the title Texting the Underworld just come to you, or was it A Process?
Ellen Booraem

It was definitely A Process. I can take credit for naming Small Persons with Wings, but absolutely not Texting the Underworld. The search for this title was terrifying at times—my editor Kathy Dawson and I emailed lists back and forth with various combinations of key words ranging from Death to Jelly Beans, and it seemed like we’d never come up with anything. (At one point, I did want to call it Death & Jelly Beans. ) We agreed only that we needed to combine the mundane with the otherworldly.  My memory has blurred, but I’m pretty sure it was Kathy who came up with Texting the Underworld.

2. I love how you treat such serious subjects — like 12-year-old Conor’s anxiety issues, and, you know, DEATH—in such a light, funny, but never unserious way. How do you balance the tone so beautifully?

Chiefly it’s a matter of setting up characters and contrasts that are likely to be funny—the banshee learning about the world through outdated Trivial Pursuit cards, for example—and getting them clear in my head before I start writing. Since the story’s about something inherently scary, like death and the unknown, I made my protagonist, poor Conor, the kind of person who’s least likely to tolerate such things. (He’s a naturally fearful kid who’s obsessed with mapping his known world.) Once you have elements that naturally lend themselves to humor, you’re free to write a serious book and let the comedy take care of itself.

Also, though, I think I’m incapable of taking anything too seriously. Sometimes it’s a curse—I’ve learned over the years that when tragedy happens I have to just keep my mouth shut, for fear of saying something utterly inappropriate.

3. I thought you did a wonderful job with the banshee Ashling’s voice. She spoke with foreign cadences, both Irish and ancient (and hilariously interlarded with modern slang the longer she’s with Conor), without ever falling into corniness or Tolkien-pastiche. How did you find that voice and keep it so consistent? (Am doing something similar in a book right now, and it makes me nervous.)

I was nervous about that, too. The last thing I wanted was to make Ashling some caricature Irish wench, and I certainly wasn’t going to use any gosh-and-begorrah vocabulary. So I did something sneaky—I gave her first few speeches a VERY Irish cadence, then stopped trying to make her sound any way in particular. I figured if I got her voice established in the readers’ minds from the outset,  they’d just assume she sounded Irish from that point on. I did make her vocabulary a little bit archaic, befitting someone who’d been stuck in the afterlife for sixteen hundred years.

4. I know that although you live in Maine now (which is at the top of my why-have-I never-visited places, by the way), you grew up in Massachusetts. Any Irish heritage? At least to my inexperienced eye and ear, you nailed the Boston Irish family at the center of this book.

Oh, I do hope that’s true! I really wanted South Boston to seem right, and I had a lot of advisers helping me make it so. My mother’s family was mostly Irish, and she definitely identified as such. The town I grew up in north of Boston was predominantly Irish and Italian, and there were Irish families in my neighborhood. I named Conor’s school after one of my mother’s best friends, who came from a big Irish family. When I was in Southie for research, the speech patterns and attitudes were very familiar from my childhood.

You definitely should visit Maine. It’s gorgeous.

5. Celtic mythology is a pretty significant vein in this book, though it’s not the only ancient source you use. How deeply did you have to dig yourself into that research? I thought I knew something about Celtic myths, but had never heard of Testing the Birds, for example, which is crucial in your story.

Oh, goody—I’m so glad the Birds sounded authentic, because I totally made them up. Ravens and the number three are common in Celtic tales, though, and if a crow or raven appeared on the battlefield it meant the Morrigan (a battle goddess) was near.

I did do a lot of reading, both in books and online, about ancient Ireland and Celtic mythology. I found the mythology a little hard to pin down, frankly—everything I read seemed to have a different take on it. I think that’s partly because none of it was written down until the eighth century or so, and then the writers were Christian monks who probably imposed their own beliefs. It was a big relief when I realized that the underworld needed to be multi-cultural and that I was going to have to make up a lot of stuff on my own.

6. This is your third book — how was the process of writing it different from the others? In general, do you feel like your writing is changing with experience? Complicating, or tightening, or lightening, or serious-ing, or — ?

This was the first time I wrote a plot synopsis before I wrote the book. Before, I knew the last line but not how I was going to get there. With a synopsis written ahead of time, I had to overcome the feeling that I’d already told my tale—I did that essentially by ignoring the synopsis when I started writing. But now I’m addicted to having a synopsis first—it’s a comfort to know that it is possible to make the plot work, even if you end up writing it in a completely different way.

Otherwise, I think the major thing I’ve learned (although I have to keep re-learning it) is not to let the supernatural elements take over for the basic human story. It’s easy to get distracted by all the bells and whistles and forget that the important story is about a person with a problem.

7. What was the seed idea for Texting the Underworld?

I was reading Abbey Lubbers, Boggarts & Banshees by the late British folklorist Katharine Briggs, and discovered her theory that a banshee was a maiden who died too young and came back to warn her family of an impending death. I’d always thought of banshees as horrible screaming hags. Briggs’s version seemed like she’d have an interesting tale to tell.

8. Which do you like better (or anyway which is less dreadable): drafting or revising?

Definitely revising. I have a love/hate relationship with drafting—it’s fun to be making things up, but I’m terrified of the blank screen.  During the drafting stage, I have to make strict rules: Write every day, and no lunch until I have a thousand words—otherwise I’d never get anything done. I also keep reminding myself of Anne Lamott’s reassurance that first drafts are supposed to be terrible. Revision is pure joy—that’s when you finally figure out where the story’s going and what might be special about it. So I’ll revise all day without having to impose any rules at all.

9. Tricia Hoover always asks her interviewees for a favorite inspirational thought at the end of her interviews, and I’ve found some great ones that way. Do you have one that’s working for you now?

I have this stuck to my computer monitor on a post-it note: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” That’s Marcel Proust, and I have no idea where I picked it up because I’ve never read Proust. ( I guess I should do that sometime.) For me that’s the core of fantasy: to give the author and the reader a new perspective on reality.

This was fun, Katherine—thanks for interviewing me!

The next stop on Ellen’s blog tour for Texting the Underworld is tomorrow at Prose & Kahn. See you there!

And now for the GIVEAWAY. Two copies of Texting the Underworld are up for grabs (U.S. only, sorry)--all you need to do is comment on this post, and be sure to leave your email. For extra credit, tweet about the giveaway and follow @EnchantedInkpot on Twitter--just see the Rafflecopter widget below. Entries close on August 21, 2013. Good luck!  And here's a quick description of the book:

Conor O’Neill always thought spiders—and his little sister, Glennie—were the worst kind of monsters life had in store. That was before an inexperienced young banshee named Ashling showed up in his bedroom.

The arrival of a banshee, as Conor soon learns, means only one thing: Someone in his family is going to die. Not only will Ashling not tell him who it is, it turns out that she’s so fascinated by the world above that she insists on going to middle school with him.

The more Ashling gets involved in his life, the harder it becomes to keep her identity a secret from his friends and teachers—and the more Conor worries about his family. If he wants to keep them safe, he’s going to have to do the scariest thing he’s ever done: Pay a visit to the underworld.

If only there were an app for that.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. What a great interview, ladies! I'm not generally a big reader of middle grade, but I think I need to read this.

  2. I am so excited for this book! I mean, I thought I was excited before, but now! I have entered the realm of SuperExcited!

    Congratulations, Ellen, and great interview, Katherine

  3. Thanks! And thanks to Katherine for such great questions.

  4. Great interview!

  5. An ARC of this book fell into my hands last month and I enjoyed it so much! Congrats on another successful book, Ellen, and what a wonderful interview!

  6. I really like Ellen's thoughts on the difficulties of pinning down the mythology, since I'm facing a similar struggle with my own WIP. Can't wait for the new book! CAN'T WAIT, AAAGGHH

  7. EVERYONE must read more middle grade--this is CRUCIAL.

  8. Mike, when it comes to mythology I figure we simply add to the canon!

  9. This looks great! Great interview also

  10. Lovely interview. Can't wait to read this.

  11. I loved, loved, loved Small Persons with Wings so this is going right to the top of the TBR pile!

  12. This story sounds so intriguing, plus I'm in love with the cover! Congrats, Ellen, on your new book, can't wait to read it!

  13. Begosh and begorrah, I'm not in the US but I shall be gettin' me own copy metinks.
    Tanking you Katterine and Ellen.

    Pops (my own leprechaun, who doesn't grant wishes or say begosh and begorrah either, heehee)

  14. *Ashling stares blankly at Pippa.* What is a gosh? And a begorrah, is it a food?

    1. As far as I know, it's an expletive like OMG :D

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Well, that's 2 more books added to my goodreads "want to read" list.

  17. Wonderful interview! And I love how the cover art meshes perfectly w/the title. My email is leandrawallace at Thanks!

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