Interview: Anne Ursu
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Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. Then the snow came...
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Snow Queen. Those familiar with Andersen's stories will recognize other characters that make cameos in the book, such as the Little Match Girl. The characters are brought to life through Anne Ursu's poetic and thoughtful words as well as occasional illustrations: ten black-and-white images created by Erin McGuire are sprinkled throughout the book.
Yesterday, I posted my interview with artist Erin McGuire. Today, author Anne Ursu is dropping by as part of her blog tour. Keep reading to learn about her writing influences, the inspiration of hazel trees, and the awesome power of kids.
Did Breadcrumbs begin as a story about best friends or a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen? In other words, which plotline came first?
Actually, both. I read "The Snow Queen" and was inspired by it to tell the story of two best friends and the fairy tale world that intrudes upon their friendship. I loved the idea that, while growing up can be a process of losing friendships - in this particular case, the girl was going to try to get her friend back.
When you were Hazel's age, who was your best friend?
Laura Triplett. She lived around the block from me, and we had all kinds of adventures together when I was a kid. When I was a little younger my other best friend was a boy, Billy Sherman, with whom I shared an obsession with all things Garfield.
It sounds like you have fond memories of them.
How did Hazel get her name?
I wanted to pick a name that sounded like it could come from a fairy tale. I liked that it was a name that might seem plain to the person who has it, but really had these connotations of magic. A hazel tree might look ordinary, but a good witch would know its real power.
Did Hazel pop into your brain fully formed, or did she change while you wrote?
When I started writing, I knew Hazel would be someone who always felt that she didn't quite belong, and indeed wasn't quite made for the world as it is. One of my writer friends told me once about a comment on a report card she got as a kid" "Laura is doing better this marking period, but she still stares out of the window and appears stupid." That pretty much defined Hazel for me.
I teach at Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children, and just before I started writing this book one of my students gave a thesis talk called "Being Awesome." Dave said that as much as we talk about wounding our characters, we also needed to remember that kids are, well, awesome. They could put on capes and slay dragons and conquer worlds, and in our writing we shouldn't forget to celebrate their awesomeness, too. I wanted Hazel to be awesome - except the world wouldn't recognize it, and wouldn't let her be.
In the first draft, as Hazel navigates the fairy tale woods, she's very much up to the fantasy world. This is the world she understands. And while it's very nice for a writer to construct a character arc in which the protagonist spends the book getting affirmed, it doesn't make a very good story. And I really wanted to do something more than that - what was the point of the journey if Hazel finished it in the same place she started from? For the book to have any resonance, the fantasy world could not be a real escape.
What about Jack?
As for Jack, I wrote the first draft thinking mostly of who he was to Hazel. I didn't realize that the most important question of the book, really, was why would he leave her and go with the Snow Queen in the first place. I wanted to let the magic mirror do everything - but this story isn't a fairy tale, not really. There had to be something real there, something that would make him want to escape from his life. Because otherwise it would be too easy to bring him back.
Is there anyone for whom you'd go on a journey such as this?
I have a four-year-old boy named Dash. I would save him from any witch, wizard, sorcerer, impish demon, or bad-tempered fairy that dared cross our paths.
Of course, he would probably just bite them first.
Tell Dash I said hello! How did you decide which Hans Christian Andersen stories to incorporate in Breadcrumbs?
I loved fairy tales as a child, but I tended Grimm-wards. I think I always found Andersen's stories a little simple and moralistic. Even as a child I thought there was something a little too easy about "The Ugly Duckling." Nothing comes without a cost.
I didn't necessarily want to populate the woods with people from Andersen's stories, but I wanted them to feel resonate with Andersen's world. So I read an anthology of Andersen's stories before I sent Hazel into the woods to get them into my mind, and then just saw what came out.
I was surprised when "The Little Match Girl" showed herself near the end. My mom took me to a ballet performance of that fairy tale when I was a kid. She didn't know the story when we went, and apparently still feels guilty she took me to this day. I do remember an image of a girl on stage lit by matchlight, but I don't remember being traumatized by the ballet. (Unlike, say, when the babysitter took me and my brother to some talking animal cartoon at the local movie theater called Animal Farm.) Though maybe somewhere I always wanted to save the little match girl, and here I could.
Thanks for saving her. I'm playing the Matchgirl in a project right now, and I've learned so much from being in this story... but I digress. Continue. Tell me about the other Andersen stories that wiggled their way into your heart and into your book.
In the original "Snow Queen," Gerda throws a pair of red shoes into the river, and when I was revising this got me thinking about the other red shoes in Andersen. Hazel wants to dance, and this story about the seductive allure of magic and about its actual costs seemed appropriate. Still, I had to think about it - it's such a gruesome tale, and the way I wanted to use it was no less gruesome. I was conscious of how weird it was that I was questioning whether ideas from a fairy tale were inappropriate for middle grade fiction. But, while I didn't notice this as a kid, there's a really dark undercurrent to Andersen - as there are too many fairy tales. And in the end that darkness fits for the woods Hazel finds herself in.
Was the title of the book always Breadcrumbs?
When I began this book it was actually just called The Snow Queen.
What made you change the title to Breadcrumbs?
After I handed in the first draft my editor said I should consider changing it, since this book isn't remotely a straight retelling. I sulked, procrastinated, pestered everyone I know for suggestions, came up with 25 mediocre titles, yelled at my editor a couple of times, sulked some more, despaired, and then one day said, "Oh! Breadcrumbs!" And that was that.
Your middle grade trilogy, The Cronus Chronicles, incorporated Greek mythology. What is it about myths and fairy tales that draws you in, personally?
Part of it simply is that I loved these stories so much as a kid. I read D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths about a hundred times, and my fairy tale anthologies another hundred. I love the way these stories endure, how they make up our collective narratives. And I just love the way magic interacts with stories - you can do so many more interesting things once you allow magic into the world.
Indeed. When writing for an adult audience, what are the biggest challenges? What differs when you write for children? Note: I consider Breadcrumbs to be for all ages. I've been recommending it to people that I know will enjoy it, regardless of their age, knowing it will delight kids and adults alike.
I'm really happy to hear that; I think adults who don't read kids books don't know what they're missing. I believe writing for young people allows for more freedom. There's more room to experiment - not just with magic and fantasy, but with elements of storytelling like structure and narration. Kids simply don't bring the same expectations as an adult literary fiction reader, and so for the writer you have a much bigger field to play on. I think kids' books, too, require you to think very thematically, to make sure your book asks questions, and I like the challenge and opportunity this presents.
Amen to that.
And of course I like that fantasy is considered a legitimate mode of storytelling. My adult books did have fantastical elements - my second book, The Disapparation of James, is about a family who takes their boy to the circus and a clown accidentally makes the boy disappear into thin air. The book is about the randomness of loss and the way we process it, and the magical realism allowed me to explore these ideas in a richer way. I was at an event once sitting at a table with my books, and a woman came up and asked me what James was about. I told her, and she looked at me and sniffed, "Oh. I don't like that magic stuff. I like Atonement."
I like writing kids' books better.
What are your ten all-time favorite books?
Five kids' books: When You Reach Me, Holes, Harry Potter, Speak, and The Tale of Despereaux
Five adult books: The Magician's Assistant, The Time Traveler's Wife, Feast of Love, Human Croquet, The Giant’s House
Visit the author's website at http://www.anneursu.com/
Read my interview with Erin McGuire, the illustrator of Breadcrumbs.
Read an excerpt of Breadcrumbs.
Follow the Breadcrumbs blog tour!
Monday, 9/26 – Guest Post at The Book Whisperer
Tuesday, 9/27 – Review and Book Giveaway at Mundie Kids
Wednesday, 9/28 – Review and Skype Giveaway at Great Kid Books
Wednesday, 9/28 – Book Giveaway at 5 Minutes for Books
Thursday, 9/29 – Interview at Bildungsroman
Friday, 9/30 – Review, Guest Post, and Book Giveaway at Bookalicious
Saturday, 10/1 – Interview and Skype Giveaway at Kid Lit Frenzy
Sunday, 10/2 – Review, Interview, and Book Giveaway at The Reading Zone
Monday, 10/3 – Guest Post at Galleysmith
Tuesday, 10/4 – Review at Galleysmith
Tuesday, 10/4 – Guest Post, Review, and Book Giveaway at The Book Smugglers
Wednesday, 10/5 – Review and Illustrator Interview at A Backwards Story
Thursday, 10/6 – Guest Post at The Mod Podge Bookshelf
Friday, 10/7 – Interview at Book Rat
To celebrate the release of Breadcrumbs, Walden Pond Press will be giving away an iPad and an iPad cover with Breadcrumbs cover art on Twitter. For more information about the Tweetstakes, visit the Walden blog at http://waldenpondpress.blogspot.com/
On Tuesday, October 4th at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST, Breadcrumbs author Anne Ursu (@anneursu) and Bigger Than a Breadbox author Laurel Snyder (@LaurelSnyder) will doing a Twitter chat hosted by Paul W. Hankins called Magic is Real: Magic, Fantasy, and Realism in Middle Grade under the hashtag #magicisreal.