Interview: Suzanne Harper
Current Mood: silly
Current Song: The Pun Song from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
The March Hare: "Now then: What did the father ghost say to his son?"
The Dormouse: "I don't know. What did the father ghost say to his son?"
The March Hare: "Spook only when you are spooken to."
- from the 1972 musical film version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Thanks, tea party critters. Now I'm going to speak with author Suzanne Harper about spooks, Shakespeare, Hannah Montana, spies, and Brian Boitano, among other things.
The title character in The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney has the ability to see, hear, and speak to ghosts. Have you ever had a ghostly encounter?
I once had what I'd like to think was a ghostly encounter - of sorts, anyway! I was in my early teens and my family was visiting relatives in Ohio. We had gone out to a lake, where we were hanging out, skipping stones, etc. I wandered across the road to an old cemetery that was divided in half. On the left were graves from the Civil War era; on the right were more recent graves. I love history, so of course I went to the left. As I was reading the headstones, I started to feel faint and then I started to hear cannon booming from the woods. At first I tried to tell myself I was hearing things, but the cannon kept firing. I walked over to the newer side of the cemetery and suddently I felt fine and didn't hear any cannon. After awhile, I convinced myself that I was just hearing things, so I went back to look at the Civil War graves - and once again, I felt weak and the cannon started to boom! At that point, I left the cemetery in a hurry.
That's a great question! I think I'm a lot like Sparrow's mother, in the sense that I can be rather vague and preoccupied (in her case, it's because she's seeing ghosts; in my case, it's because I'm in my own world, thinking about characters and plot twists — or maybe I'm just a vague and preoccupied person). I hope to one day be able to channel my inner Grandma Bee – I would love to be as unabashedly eccentric and self-assured as she is!
You took a trip to Verona, Italy, the setting of The Juliet Club, your second novel for teens. Did you travel there before or after fully plotting your story?
I went to Verona once for a day and a half before I started writing – in fact, it was about three years before I actually started the book. After I finished the first draft, I traveled there again and spent four days walking every inch of the city. Both trips were helpful. I needed to go the first time because I had never been there at all. However, I got a lot more out of the second trip because I had actually written the book, so I had specific questions that needed to be answered. Also, I knew my characters very well by that point, so I could think about what Kate or Giacomo or the others would do in certain situations. There are parts of the book that come directly from that trip. For example, the small section where Kate hears someone playing the clarinet at dusk – that happened to me and it was a magical moment.
Is Romeo and Juliet your favorite play by Shakespeare?
No, actually, I've always had the same problems with the play that Kate has — I was annoyed that Romeo and Juliet weren't more sensible! (Writing this book helped me move beyond that, by the way.) My favorite play is Much Ado About Nothing, as you can tell by the plot devices lifted from that play. </b>
From one playwright to another: Please tell me more about your plays. </b>
Glad to be talking to a fellow playwright! I've written three plays. I always think they're going to be dramas and then they end up as comedies, although they do start from a serious place. (I think my novels are the same way; funny — I hope — but with serious issues underneath.) My first play, for example, was "The Belief Factor." It was about a woman who thinks she's being haunted by the ghost of her dead mother. The woman brings in two parapsychologists to investigate, then they're joined by the local minister and an overbearing church lady who think the ghost might be the devil, then the parapsychologists' assistant begins channeling the ghost (although some people think she's faking it) and it goes on from there. I was really interested in studies that show that you're more likely to see a ghost if you already believe in ghosts, so the play is really about belief. This was originally going to be VERY SERIOUS...then the ghost showed up on the first page and threw a jar of pickles on the floor, and that was that.
My second play is called "The Worthy Matron of the Eastern Star." Again, a comedy, this time about two newspaper reporters who are working on the night desk for a small-town paper. They have to write obituaries, among other things, and the serious aspect is their debate about what makes a life "worthy." I produced this, with the lead actor, for a three-night run at Ensemble Studio Theatre. I'm working on turning this into a screenplay, which is much harder than I thought it would be. It's turning out to be really different (many characters bit the dust), but in a good way.
My third play is called "Shady Grove," about a traveling spiritualist in Texas. It's the most recent one and it's pretty muddled right now
In addition to your original works, you've also written tie-in books for Hannah Montana and High School Musical. How did you come to be involved with Disney?
I worked for Disney for 14 years on Disney Adventures magazine (the last seven years as editor-in-chief). I knew a lot of people in the book group and, when I went freelance, they were kind enough to offer some writing assignments. I wrote the first novelization of High School Musical before it aired – no one had any idea how huge it would be! I'm very grateful and happy to be working on that and "Hannah Montana."
You've also published various pieces of non-fiction. Were any of these books been assigned, for lack of a better word, by a publisher or editor? Which books were inspired by your own personal interests and research?
The first two books I ever published were "Lightning" and "Clouds" for the school and library market. Those were both assigned. The next book, "Boitano's Edge: Inside the Real World of Figure Skating," was inspired by my own fascination with the sport. I approached Olympic Gold Medalist Brian Boitano about working on a book together and was lucky enough to find my agent and editor (also skating fans) through that book. I've since done non-fiction books that were proposed to me by the publisher, such as "Hands On! 33 More Things Every Girl Should Know" and "Terrorists, Tornados and Tsunamis: How to Prepare for Life's Danger Zones." I'm currently working on another such book with the International Spy Museum; it's tentatively titled "So You Want to Be a Spy."
I want to read that based on the title alone! What's the target audience age group?
The target group is middle grade, although I think older teens will want to read it! I'm working with the director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, who worked as a case officer for the CIA for many years. He gets a lot of questions from people of all ages about how one can work for the intelligence community. This book is going to answer all those questions and more! In my first interviews with him, I've discovered so many cool, interesting facts about the spy's world.
If you were a spy, what would be your codename?
Hmm, my spy name? I guess I'll take the pen name that I've used on some of my books: N. B. Grace. There's an aura of mystery about the two initials, I think — and I'm sure one needs grace when one is spying.
Hands On! 33 More Things Every Girl Should Know has practical applications. Do you have any hidden talents or special skills?
I wouldn't say it's a talent, but people are always surprised to hear that I box. I started doing it four years ago for exercise, but I've actually gotten into the ring a few times to spar in front of a crowd! That experience definitely proved to me that we should all try things we think we can't do, because you never know....
What are your ten most favorite books?
Okay, you're ending with an impossible question! There are many books that I love, so, in order to narrow the list down to ten, I think I'll focus on the ones that are the literary equivalent of comfort food for me (meaning, I re-read them because I know they'll make me happy). Let's see:
1. The Thief, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (I'm counting those three books as one, since they're a series! J)
2. The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope (Loved it since I was about 10, have re-read it every year since)
3. The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope (See above)
4. Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (two books that I'm again counting as one; I also love her spookier fiction, but these stories about raising her family always lift my spirits)
5. Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard (sounds like just another self-help book, but it's not. I've given away at least 20 copies to friends. At first I read it because Leonard draws on his experiences with the martial art of aikido and I thought I'd learn something that would help me in boxing, but I found something that was applicable to many aspects of life, including writing.)
6. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (a great book for anyone who wants to be an artist)
7. Death of a Peer by Ngaio Marsh (a classic from the Golden Age of mysteries; I love all her books, but this is my favorite)
8. Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers (another mystery classic; I read, I think, all of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh starting at 13. I only read occasional mysteries now, but I really imprinted on these.)
9. Anything by Edward Eager (I can open one of these books, read the first paragraph and be transported back to my ten-year-old self in seconds)
10. ...and I'm going to leave one spot open in the hopes that the next book I read lands on this list!
For more about The Juliet Club, check out my Shakespeare Spinoffs booklist.
I also read and reviewed Hands On! 33 More Things Every Girl Should Know.
Full-length review of The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney to come. Watch this space.