|The Sid Fleischman Award-Winning Book|
|The award-winning author, Michelle Knudsen|
Michelle Knudsen is a New York Times best-selling author of more than 40 books for young readers, including the picture book Library Lion (illustrated by Kevin Hawkes), the middle-grade fantasy novels The Dragon of Trelian and The Princess of Trelian, and the young adult novel Evil Librarian, which was awarded the 2015 Sid Fleischman Award for Humor. Her most recent book is the picture book Marilyn's Monster (Candlewick, March 2015), illustrated by Matt Phelan. Michelle also works as a freelance editor and writing teacher, and is a member of the Writing for Young People MFA faculty at Lesley University. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Here's our interview...
Lee: Congratulations on winning the Sid Fleischman Humor Award for your debut YA novel, EVIL LIBRARIAN!
Michelle: Thank you!! :) I’m still kind of in shock about it. But it’s a really really happy kind of shock!
Lee: Tell us about the book…
Michelle: Sixteen-year-old Cynthia Rothchild's best friend develops a crush on the new, young, and REALLLLY hot high school librarian. At first it seems fairly harmless, but after assorted incidents of sinister weirdness, Cyn quickly realizes that the librarian is actually a demon — one who is slowly sucking out the life force from all the kids in school and planning to steal away her best friend to be his demonic child bride.
Meanwhile, Cyn is the tech director for the school musical — they're doing Sweeney Todd, to which Cyn is passionately devoted, and even in the middle of a demon invasion, the show must (of course) go on. So she's trying to save the show from technical disaster and trying to get the attention of her own desperate crush, Ryan, who is playing Sweeney in Sweeney Todd (and who eventually gets mixed up in the demon stuff too) all while trying to save her bewitched BFF from eternal damnation at the hands of the evil librarian.
It’s been described as Buffy-meets-Glee, which I take as an enormous compliment and would like to think pretty accurately captures the spirit of the story. It's basically a funny, creepy, demon-filled, musical theater horror romance adventure.
Lee: Nicely summed up! So okay, this was your YA debut, but you’re well published in multiple categories for kids - you’ve done middle grade fantasy and easy readers and board books and activity books and picture books – you wrote the picture book Library Lion! What’s your take/advice to share on writing across so many different categories?
Michelle: I’ve always written in multiple categories (although, as you note, not YA until this book), and I’ve never really thought about the how and why of it ... some story ideas are just more suited for a certain kind of book, and so usually I just let the story tell me what kind of book it needs to be. I knew Evil Librarian was young adult both because of the content and the age of the characters. Sometimes I’ll deliberately try to come up with a story for a certain format (usually board books or early readers), but otherwise I just try to think of good stories and then figure out what kind of book they want to be. :)
Lee: So, I’m thinking about what makes something funny, and it seems that one of the secrets must be that to the characters, nothing is funny. In EVIL LIBRARIAN, for the main character, Cyn, every aspect of the story feels life and death and super-serious, whether it IS life or death or whether it’s about her crush liking her back… What would you say is a secret of funny?
Michelle: I wish I had a good answer for this! I’m pretty new to intentionally trying to write funny (as opposed to being funny accidentally, which I think happens for me more often). I do think you’re right that part of it is about the characters themselves not thinking things are funny (Cyn’s feelings about Ryan for example), but I don’t think that’s always the way it needs to be ... there are moments in the book where I think Cyn sees the humor, too. To be honest, mostly I try not to think too much about the mechanics of trying to be funny and to just let Cyn’s voice and perspective bring out the humor ... then, in subsequent drafts, I play a lot with word placement and timing, to try to make the funny parts as funny as possible. I’m not a fan of mean-spirited humor, so I also try to make sure that we’re laughing with Cyn as much as possible, not at her.
Lee: That's an important distinction, glad you brought that up. There are moments of horror mixed in with moments of levity - tell us about managing the balance.
Michelle: I think horror and humor are so great together (like the literary equivalent of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups!). Playing with both of them can also make each one more effective. It’s like the classic horror movie element where there’s a scary noise in the closet, and then something jumps out and for a second OMG you’re terrified but then oh, it’s just the cat. And everyone laughs in relief. And then the really scary thing happens, just when you were relaxing because you thought the danger was past. On the other hand, unless you’re really trying to torture your audience, I think moments of levity are needed to give people at least an occasional break from the darkness. Evil Librarian is more funny than dark, but even in much darker books, I think readers value the relief of those moments of levity.
Lee: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Michelle: Both! With new stories, I usually dive right in, pantser-style, figuring out what the story is about as I go along. Then, usually around the 70-80 pages mark, I stop and try to figure out (usually via lots of freewriting and asking myself questions) what’s going on and who these characters are and what needs to happen. At that point I start working on an outline. I never used to be an outliner, but for my last few novels I’ve found it super helpful. Once I get the general shape of the plot down, I get more specific, trying to write up a chapter-by-chapter outline before I go back to finish the first draft. For sequels, like the third book in my middle-grade fantasy series (THE MAGE OF TRELIAN, coming out February 2016) and the upcoming sequel to Evil Librarian, I don’t need to get quite so far into the draft before outlining. In those cases, I’ll make a lot of notes about my ideas and then try to go right into the outline without the 70+ pages of figuring-it-out-as-I-go first draft. All of that really only applies to novels. For picture books, I almost always just start writing and wait to see what happens.
Lee: You start off the book’s acknowledgements with a shout out to the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. How did doing that MFA program help you as a writer?
Michelle: The VCFA program was amazing — I got to work with wonderful faculty and fellow students, and it really helped me take my writing to the next level. I became a much better reviser, which is hugely important to my process now. And I learned to take risks and try new things. For example, I’d really never worked in first person before, and decided to force myself to try a novel in first person while I was there. I ended up starting two of them (Evil Librarian and a completely different book, more of a fantasy, that I hope to get back to soon!) and finding a lot more variety in my writing voice and style than I’d known was there. The support system was (and still is) really valuable to me, as well. The students and faculty all cheer one another’s successes and serve as essential resources when one of us needs information or stumbles over a writing or publishing obstacle of some kind.
In June 2015, I joined the faculty of Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program, and I’m so excited to be working with my students and trying to give them the same kind of guidance and encouragement I received when I was getting my own MFA. I can already tell I’m going to love being a part of Lesley’s Writing for Young People program.
Lee: Congrats on that! How long have you been involved in SCBWI, and what impact has it had on your career journey?
Michelle: I first joined SCBWI a very long time ago ... I can’t even remember how far back! Early in my career, I found the online resources and forums especially helpful. Talking with other writers and getting answers to questions and general support was so important in giving me both the information and the encouragement I needed to move forward. Since then, I’ve been to book festivals started by regional SCBWI groups and spoken at regional SCBWI conferences, and I love having the chance to give back to the writing community, trying to help newer writers in the same way I was helped out by more experienced writers when I started out. I’m also listed in SCBWI’s guide to freelance editors, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with many new writers on a one-to-one basis that way.
Lee: In addition to being feted and receiving your Sid Fleischman Humor Award at the big Golden Kite Luncheon, you’ll be leading / co-leading two workshops at the upcoming summer conference. Tell us about Saturday morning’s breakout workshop, OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE: BUILDING YOUR FANTASY UNIVERSE.
Michelle: Worldbuilding is a particular interest of mine as a fantasy and science fiction writer (and as a lifelong sff reader!). We’ll talk about different worldbuilding strategies and techniques for revealing your invented world to your audience without getting in the way of the story.
Lee: On Saturday afternoon, you’ll be on a breakout session panel with Jodi Reamer and Julie Strauss-Gabel, BUILDING A CAREER BODY OF WORK. What should we expect?
Michelle: Since our panel includes an agent, an editor, and an author, we’ll be able to share our different perspectives and talk about all sides of the publishing process. I’ve never worked directly with Julie, but Jodi’s worked with each of us for many years, and knows us both really well. I’m looking forward to our discussion!
If you'd like to attend Michelle's sessions, cheer her on at the Golden Kite Luncheon, and benefit from all the business, inspiration, craft, opportunity and community of the SCBWI Summer Conference, join us in Los Angeles July 31 - August 3, 2015.
Details and Registration information here.
If you'd like to be entered in the drawing for a free copy of Evil Librarian, leave a comment on this post. We'll randomly pick a winner one week from this posting. Good luck!
Illustrate and Write On,