Welcome to South Wiggot, where everyone knows everyone and life is pretty steady. One day, a crate lands in the middle of the road. As eleven-year-old Bryan watches, an odd fellow who looks a lot like Colonel Sanders pops out of the crate. Something strange has come to town - and things are only going to get stranger in the coming days.
Such is the basis for Reality Leak by Joni Sensel, a new comedic fantasy for kids. After writing for magazines and drafting screenplays, Joni (pronounced Johnny) has found a new cozy home in the world of children's literature. Today, we talked about her novel, luck, ACME, and our mutual love for The Phantom Tollbooth.
Among your promotional items are packs of Authentic ACME Wish Seeds, complete with planting instructions. Do you wish on dandelions or shooting stars? Do you look for lucky signs?
I don't wish on dandelions, but I do love to blow on them and set them free. I do like to think of shooting stars as good omens, though, and I totally see messages and significance in quirks of the natural world -- call it a pantheist's tarot. It's nutty, I know, but fun. And since writers thrive on seeing and creating meaning and order where none, perhaps, exists, it seems only natural.
There are other fictional ACMEs out there, such as the company that supplies Wile E. Coyote with technogadgets in Looney Tunes cartoons or the detective agency in the Carmen Sandiego computer games. Would you willingly work for any ACME corporation?
Well, don't tell Warner Brothers, but Wile's ACME is what I had in mind, at least as inspiration. But if I worked there, I'd try to improve their quality control so the dynamite wasn't always blowing up off schedule.
At this point (my day job is freelance business writing), I don't think I'd willingly work 9-5 for ANY corporation unless I was pretty desperate. Been there, done that. And I like self-employment; it's about the only way I can work in my sweats at midnight!
How did Christian Slade come to be the illustrator for this book?
He's one of two illustrators my editor, Reka Simonsen, was interested in working with for the cover and internal art. She sent me his website link to check out, and I was excited to have the opportunity to have even a wee part in that selection process! I'm not sure how Reka first learned of his work, though.
Reality Leak is your debut novel. Was it the first full-length manuscript you ever completed?
Nope. I wrote a dozen screenplays, an adult novel, a sock-drawer memoir, and an adult non-fiction book first. But it was my first full-length kids' book!
You had previously written two picture books, The Garbage Monster and Bears Barge In. Had you always planned on writing for kids?
Actually, no. I started out trying to be a screenwriter. It was great training for visual, action-oriented writing, though.
I was shopping two family-oriented scripts in Hollywood and started hearing advice to get them published as kids' books first. I don't think it's much easier to sell a novel than to option a screenplay, but when I realized I didn't have what it takes to make it in Hollywood, I decided to give that advice a try. I'd already begun dabbling in stories for kids. Apparently, it wasn't such awful advice, and I'm so glad to have found my "tribe!"
Your next juvenile novel, The Humming of Numbers, sounds like a mix of fact and fantasy. Do tell.
It's a touch of fantasy in an historical setting. The story, which takes place in early Christian Ireland, tells of a young monk who wants to become an illuminator, but who also struggles with an unusual gift -- the ability to hear auras in numerical terms. He's thrown together with a budding witch, upsetting his assumptions about the divine and the diabolical. When Vikings attack the monastery, Aidan and Lana overcome their differences and pool their extraordinary talents to outwit the raiders and, of course, find love.
You love The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster as much as I do. How old were you when you first read this fun fantasy?
My cool fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Storch, read it aloud to us. I'd been mostly a horse-book girl before that and it really opened my eyes to imagination and language -- and to the idea that the kind of whimsy in Dr. Seuss books was not only for little kids.
Has Tollbooth or any of your other favorite stories influenced your own writing?
Tollbooth, absolutely, and also Dr. Seuss, in that they validated playful, alternative perceptions of reality. Stephen King has taught me a lot about creating characters.
Actually, I think a lot of what I read influences my writing eventually, because I'm always reading for technique as well as story.
What are your ten favorite novels of all time?
TEN? Whew, okay, let's see:
The Phantom Tollbooth by N. Juster
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Dark Tower series by Stephen King (I'm counting that as one loooong one)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Feed by M.T. Anderson
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin
The Same River Twice by Chris Offutt
The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman