Friday, September 16, 2016

Jessica Spotswood Talks to us about Poetry, Tattoos, and Strong Women

This week we're focusing on one of the founders of our YA author panel, "Shut Up and Write," the fabulous, Jessica Spotswood. Today we are lucky enough to feature an interview with her! 

1.    Can you tell us a little bit about your most recent book, Wild Swans?
Wild Swans is a contemporary YA novel about a complicated family, fierce female friendships, and first love, set on the Chesapeake Bay. It follows Ivy, whose mother abandoned her when she was two years old and has returned home the summer before Ivy's senior year, with the two half-sisters Ivy's never met.

2.    Both Wild Swans and the Cahill Witch Chronicles have amazing senses of place, despite being set in very different worlds. At what point in your process do you tackle world building?
Thank you! My editor on the Cahill Witch Chronicles encouraged me to think more about setting and layer in more description, so I feel like I learned a lot about world-building from her. With Wild Swans I set out to write a book where the setting functioned almost as another character. It's set in Cecil, a small college town on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay where everyone knows everyone else's business and has expectations based on your last name. I based Cecil off two real towns in Maryland: Chestertown, where I went to college, and Saint Michaels, where I've vacationed a few times. But I always find that my first drafts are mostly dialogue and internal narration, and then I layer in more description - richer, more specific details - in later drafts.

3.    One of my favorite things about your books is that they feature amazing women who may be flawed but also are fiercely trying to find their place in the world. Do you ever draw from the women in your life when you’re writing these nuanced and awesome women?
Thank you again! None of my characters are based on real people, exactly, but I am definitely inspired by the clever, talented, generous, amazing women in my life - my family and my friends and now the girls at the library where I work. Truly, I would be lost without my female friendships, so it's important to me to make sure that Cate - and then Ivy - had those too. In my opinion, female friendships are just as important as romance, and the family you choose and create through friendships is just as important, if not more so, than the one you're born into.

4.    In Wild Swans you’re also looking at the different ways women relate to each other (mothers to daughters, sisters, friends, granddaughters). How different was it to portray these varied kinds of relationships and the feelings that go along with them?
Cate's mom was dead in the Cahill Witch Chronicles , so it was especially different - and fun, and challenging - to explore a mother-daughter relationship. Mother-daughter relationships are so fraught! What does it mean to be a good daughter? Or a good mother? How much do we - should we - sacrifice to make someone else happy? I think we often define ourselves in relation to or in opposition to other women, comparing ourselves to our sisters or mothers or friends. It's really easy to either judge other women for making different choices or to get caught up in comparisons and feel insecure. Ivy compares herself to the brilliant, but troubled, women in her family and feels lacking. There are so, so many expectations put on girls and on women to be perfect. I struggle with that, too, to be honest. That's why it's so important to have amazing best friends who will support you in your choices and celebrate your successes and pick you up when you make mistakes.

5.    How different was it to approach writing a standalone like Wild Swans versus writing the Cahill Witch Chronicles  series?
It was sort of exciting, actually! Writing a trilogy is HARD. That second book, oh my gosh...middle books in trilogies are the WORST. They have to have their own complete character and story arc, but they also have to be a bridge between books one and three. Also, everything has to be more exciting, more heartbreaking, more romantic, bigger than book one -- but not as big as book three. It's a lot to balance! And for many authors, it's also the first book we're writing under a deadline. The first draft of Star Cursed was actually sort of terrible; it didn't work at all; I had to throw out 75% of it and just start over.

6.    Ivy’s coworker for the summer, the very smart and charming Connor has tattoos that feature selections from poetry. Is there a piece of poetry that you love enough to get made into a tattoo?
My favorite poem right now is Mary Oliver's "When Death Comes." I especially love these lines: When it's over, I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. I don't think I'd get it as a tattoo - never say never, but I have a different theme, which is that I've gotten a flower tattoo for every book I publish. I have three pink peonies for the three Cahill books, lavender for A Tyranny of Petticoats, and two orange Gerber daisies for Wild Swans and its companion. I'd love to eventually have a garden of wildflowers on both of my forearms.

7.    Who has been the most fun character to write? In Wild Swans? Probably Ivy's best friend Claire, because she's so funny and forthright. She threatened to steal every scene she was in. I am tentatively working on a companion book for Wild Swans, from Claire's point of view. I hope my publisher will like it and want it to be my next book!

8.    One of the themes of Wild Swans is finding your passion. When you were a teen did you know that writing was yours?
I've been writing since I was in fourth grade, and then I started writing these big sprawling historical novels when I was twelve. Writing was definitely my passion as a teen and I was very centered in my identity as The Writer in my high school class. Then in college, surrounded by lots of writers - my undergrad school has the largest undergraduate literary prize in the country - I sort of lost my confidence. Or maybe I just discovered another passion - theatre, specifically dramaturgy - which I studied in graduate school. After grad school, I realized that as much as I loved helping playwrights develop their work, I really missed creating stories of my own. I started writing again and I'm so glad. I think it is absolutely my calling. But that dramaturgy training was invaluable in my editorial work. I really love editing, too, and feel very lucky that I've gotten to edit two anthologies now - A Tyranny of Petticoats and TheRadical Element.

9.    Are there any YA books you would recommend for fans of your books to also try?
Of course! If you like books about sisters and witches, you might like Libba Bray's A Great & Terrible Beauty or Franny Billingsley's Chime or Zoraida Cordova's Labryinth Lost. If you like books about families and first love that take place at the beach, you might like Leila Howland's Nantucket Blue or Huntley Fitzpatrick's What I Thought Was True or - for a supernatural twist - April Tucholke's Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

10. Do you have a favorite place to write?
 Lately, I've been writing at the new Starbucks in my neighborhood because it always has tables and I love their venti unsweetened black iced tea. I write in various coffee shops around DC. Really, all I need is tea and my trusty laptop, which I bought five years ago when I got my first book deal.

11. You and Jon Skovron are the fabulous YA team behind our “Shut Upand Write” author series (whose next panel discussion will be September 22). What’s been your favorite thing about hosting this series? Are there any authors on your dream interview list?
I love that I've gotten to know so many more local writers, published and aspiring, in DC and MD and VA. We have such a wonderful, talented community to draw from! As for who would be on my dream interview list...some of my own favorite authors: Kristin Cashore and Marie Rutkoski. E. Lockhart and Libba Bray. I know Jon is good friends with Holly Black; I'd love to hear her talk about fantasy world-building!

12. What advice would you give a teen writer?
Read lots. Think about what works for you, what makes you want to keep reading, and what makes you put a book down, what makes you love a character, what makes you tell your best friends about a book. Write lots. Find a trusted friend or two to share your stories with and ask them what they love, what makes them want to keep reading, what questions they have or things that don't quite make sense for them. It's really good to get in the habit of getting feedback early on, because it's so important as a writer to be able to take constructive criticism.
Thanks so much to Jessica for talking to us today! You can find out even more about her by visiting her website:

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