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Little Willow

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Interview: Sara Lewis Holmes

For author Sara Lewis Holmes, sketches led to letters, which in turn led to an epistolary novel. Letters From Rapunzel should be read and shared. Learn more now about the story behind the story in this interview with the author herself.

I think that each of us has the potential to be a hero, even as we're looking for someone else to save us. Tell us about your story's journey.

I started Letters From Rapunzel on the basis of a sketch and a title ... and a whole lot of curiosity! I didn't have a clue as to where I was headed, and the length of a novel intimidated me after writing only short stories and poems. So I used the letter technique to trick myself. I would pretend that my main character was writing letters to me. Well, I never got any further than that. She had such an engaging voice, and a great story to tell, and I let her have at it.

The letter format posed some difficulties (How can I reveal plot? What would she really tell someone in a letter?) but ultimately, it helped me write honestly and despite some desperation mid-way through the writing, I'm glad I chose this format because it invites the reader into Rapunzel's head and heart so quickly.

After I won the Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest with my manuscript, my editor and I worked even more on strengthening the story by adding the crucial element of time (How much time passes between each letter? How do letters written in the dead of night differ from those written during the light of day?) and we expanded the fairy tale theme so Rapunzel sees many more characters, and not just her dad, in terms of their fairy tale equivalents.

Truly, it was surprising to me how much this story changed on its journey, and yet so many original bits, things that had come from my journals of years ago, stayed completely unchanged.

Though the final novel does not have any sketches, it holds other forms of art, such as poetry and madness. How difficult was it to discuss parental depression, writing from a middle school student's point of view, being a parent yourself?

Much like Rapunzel, I've been on the outside, looking in, while someone I loved struggled with depression. For me, it was my older sister, and not my parent. I transferred all those feelings of being helpless, and wanting to do something magical to save her, to my character as I wrote.

On the other hand, I didn't want the novel to be about depression; I wanted it to be about how uniquely Rapunzel sees the world, and how that might both help and hinder her in her quest to rescue her dad. It's a middle-schooler's point of view, for sure, and she makes a lot of mistakes, but never wavers in her love for her dad.

It was important to me that this NOT be an issue book, but a book that a kid would read and recognize a voice, a voice that expressed a need to be heroic and a voice that said that Story is a powerful force in keeping us going through dark times.

The story is comprised of letters your narrator writes to a stranger with a post office box. Did you select P.O. Box #5667 randomly, or does the number represent something?

It doesn't represent anything specific; I liked the sound of it more than anything, and the fact that the numbers go forward with some hesitation there in the middle—kind of like my character, who has to deal with both looking forward and looking back at her life.

Much like the leading character in Aimee by Mary Beth Miller or the sister in The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, your protagonist's name is not revealed until a crucial moment (and it shall not be revealed here, either). Did you always know what that name would be?

Her name appeared in a journal entry I wrote before I even knew I was going to write this book. I loved it, and saved it, and when I realized that Rapunzel in my book was going to be a real girl and not a fairy tale character, I went back and found that entry, and it seemed the perfect thing for a poet dad to name his daughter.

What prompted you to shield her name?

I wanted to protect her name because in fairy tales, your name is power, and you don't give it out except to those you trust. At first, Rapunzel doesn't trust the person she's writing to. And she doesn't want to be who she is anyway, because her life's falling apart. She'd rather see herself as part of story she can control. When she finally claims her real name, she's claiming who she is, too.

When I show customers your book, their reaction to the title and cover art is frequently, "Is this a fairy tale?" Did you have any say in the jacket design?

No, I didn't, and authors rarely do. I like the way Rapunzel is in a fairy tale tower, and yet, her letters are drifting out to a modern neighborhood. But I do think that the cover has been confusing to some.

Did your background in physics and government help (or hinder) your writing and publication?

Ha! I have no idea. Maybe! There's a bit of physics in there, when Rapunzel designs her ideas for rescue from the tower. And my government degree was more about international relations (I wanted to be a diplomat) so I guess there's a bit of negotiation in there as well. I don't regret my diverse academic background (did I tell you that I also have half of a master's degree in systems management?) and I think all things work together if you're a writer. You're not always in control of how they do, and they surprise you, but nothing is wasted. It's one of the joys of being a writer.

When is your next book, Everyone You Know, due for release? Who is the target audience?

My next book is with my agent now. I'll keep you posted when I hear anything. It's another middle-grade novel, although when I say middle-grade, I tend to write for upper middle-grade, and even more towards middle school. It's an audience that's sometimes squeezed out between novels for younger readers and edgy YA. I like to do books with big questions for readers who want some substance to their books, but also want humor and fun and some playing around with storytelling techniques and words.

What are your favorite fairy tales?

I love East of the Sun, West of the Moon. What a gorgeous title! And the girl gets to be the rescuer!

I remember loving The Princess on the Glass Hill from Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book. (As a teen, I read my way through Lang's fairy tale collections.) It has the classic format of the younger son winning the hand of a princess by performing impossible feats, but what I remember is the image of the slippery glass mountain and the fact that he gets all the way to the princess, but then goes home and is humbly revealed to be the winner later.

I've always been fond of the humor in The Brave Little Tailor. He kills seven flies and suddenly, he's a great warrior!

Our discussion of her book's jacket led to further discussion. Please share your thoughts!

Read my review of Letters From Rapunzel and my favorite poem from the book.

Visit Sara Lewis Holmes at her website and blog.

Please add your ideas to The Very Big, No Kidding, We're Changing the World, You Bet! Good Deed List.

Tags: books, covers, cybils, interviews

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