Franny Billingsley Interview Transcript
The author Franny Billingsley was interviewed by Scholastic students.
Hi Franny, and “WOW!” We give your books to everyone, so I'm taking some responsibility for your success! Okay, here's my question: My children Hannah (now 11) and Jack (now 8) hate, hate, hate to write. I get something out of them if I let them dictate, but they aren't learning much about writing that way. They'll brainstorm and organize for days but can't seem to produce what we'd call writing. How hard do you push your kids to write when they don't want to? How can I convince mine that it's worthwhile?
I actually don't push my own kids to write. And in fact, when I was a kid, I didn't do much writing at all. I don't necessarily think there's a correlation between writing when you're young and becoming a writer when you're older. However, I do run writing workshops, and I find that the way that I am most successful is by breaking down the project into small parts. So first, for example, I might have them create a character by telling me what the character carries around with him or her. If your character carries around rocks and feathers, you get a pretty good idea of what kind of kid you have. Then I try to decide what my character's problem is. Then I have the kids write just a couple of sentences of the beginning of a story in which they show me that the character has a problem. So it is by breaking it down into very small components that I think you can most successfully encourage kids to write.
How did you come up with the idea of the Folk?
That is a hard question to answer. When I first started writing The Folk Keeper, there were no Folk. It was only after I sent a draft of my novel to my editor and she told me that the character Corinna didn't want anything that I decided I wanted to give Corinna something that she really wanted, and that was to be a Folk keeper. It's by giving your character something that they really want that you spark narrative energy. I really don't know how the idea of the Folk came to me. It seemed to come out of the blue in one of those “light bulb” moments, but I suspect that it was based on my love of stories when I was a kid that contained deep dark places and menacing creatures, like for example The Princess and the Goblin (a novel by George MacDonald). I wish I had a better answer for this, but I think it's linked to my early reading and love of folktales.
In your Author's Note, you say that the idea for The Folk Keeper came to you because you were reading stories about Selkies. What interested you about Selkies?
I think I loved the bittersweet quality of the Selkie stories. That makes them very strong to me. I love the way in which in a lot of them the Selkie woman goes back into the sea — which is happy because that is where she truly belongs, but it's also sad because she leaves her children on land. I find that a very powerful conflict, and I wanted to explore it in a character who herself is both Selkie and human and will have to reconcile those warring elements inside her.
If you were Corinna at the end of The Folk Keeper, do you think you would have made the same choice that she did?
There is a little bit of every author in our characters, and I have asked myself that question and I do think I would have made the choice that she did. Although I must admit that part of me is drawn to the wild life, the life of the sea without the complications of the complex world of human emotions. But for me, ultimately, life is about those relationships and those emotions, and I know that in the long run, I would never be happy if I did not embrace a life of human relationship and love.
Do you think you'll write other books about different mythological creatures?
Yes, and in fact I'm already doing so. But because I'm in the middle of my story and right now it feels rather fragile, I won't say exactly what it is. But I can say it is an old British folktale, or fairy tale, of which there are many, many versions.
Are you planning a sequel to The Folk Keeper?
I am not planning a sequel to The Folk Keeper. I feel that Corinna's story has been told and her future is best left up to the imaginations of my readers. I could, I suppose, revisit the world of the Folk, but I often find sequels disappointing. It is, I think, because I have such a strong emotional and visual connection with the world of the first book and I expect the second book to give me that same experience, which of course it never really can — with few exceptions. It is a little like watching a movie of a book you really love. You may also love the movie, but it will be a different experience from your experience in reading the book. So perhaps it is because I am a coward that I do not feel that I dare write a sequel, for fear of disappointing myself as well as my readers.
Do you think any of your books will be made into movies?
I think it's possible that my books might be made into movies. They are rich in images, which would be great for a movie. However, a movie company did look at The Folk Keeper, and while they loved the images and the story, they felt that a lot of the story was too internal and that it would require a lot of rewriting to make it into a successful screenplay. The same, I suspect, might be said of Well Wished. So although I would love for them to be made into movies — good movies — I'm not positive that will happen.
Franny, I've heard you talk about your work in Maine. I'm wondering whether the Maine landscape, or any other landscape you've visited, has influenced your settings?
I modeled the setting for The Folk Keeper on the Orkney Islands, which are a group of islands north of the mainland of Scotland. Incidentally, they are not unlike some parts of Maine. I knew I needed a geographical setting with great precipitous cliffs plunging into a raging sea, and once I did some research on possible settings and came upon Orkney, that seemed like the perfect place. Orkney is also rich in Celtic and Norse lore, and so emotionally and thematically as well as geographically it resonated strongly for me.
What is your background?
I grew up in Chicago, where I read all the time. Then in my early 20s, I made a very unwise decision, and I went to law school. I hated law school, but I thought, “Well once I get a job as a lawyer, it will be different.” It was — it was worse. I practiced law for five years, hating it all the time. At the end of five years, I decided to quit my job, live on some savings, and travel to Europe. I brought with me all my favorite children's books, and when I started to reread these books I had loved as a child, I thought, “How could I have gotten so far from what I truly loved?” I had always loved the world of books, the world of imagination, and I had let myself get drawn away from it. So once I came full circle, back to the world of children's books, I decided to make a life for myself inside that world, and that is when I started writing. I worked in a children's bookstore for many years before I was published and have just now been writing full-time for about two years. I am back in Chicago, living in the house that I grew up in (and that my mother grew up in) with my husband and my two kids and my father.
Can you talk more about the themes of your books? Do you see connections? What themes are you drawn to most?
It seems to me that I only write about one thing, and that is identity, the issue of who you are or what you're meant to be doing. In my two published books I have explored these themes in precisely the same way: using the device of a skin — a physical skin — to allow my heroines to explore who they are. So when Nuria in Well Wished is stuck in Caddy's body, she has to figure out who she still is, what constitutes the core of her that remains with her even though she's in a different skin. And when Corinna finds her seal skin, she not only has to determine if it fits physically, but whether it fits emotionally and whether she will use it to take her into the sea or whether she will embrace a life on land. I am still struggling with the theme of my third book, but I would not be at all surprised if you saw many of the same elements in that one too.
Which of your two books do you like better, Well Wished or The Folk Keeper? Do you identify more with Corinna or Nuria? Do you like either one of them better than the other? Or do you identify more with another character in your books?
Asking me which book I like better is a little like asking me which of my two kids I like better. There are times when it is easier to be with one or the other, but that doesn't mean I love either of them more. Having said that, however, I do recognize that The Folk Keeper, because I had more experience as a writer when I wrote it, is a better book in my opinion. But that doesn't mean I like it better. In terms of which character I most identify with, I think I would have to say it is Nuria; she is most like me when I was a kid — always running, always living in an imaginary world, always a little disheveled, never quite knowing what my homework is, never quite doing things on time. I was not, however, bold and brave and as confident as I think Nuria is. In many ways, Corinna doesn't resemble me at all, but we do share a kind of fierce and determined streak. I think to be a writer you have to be enormously determined because it is very difficult. You have to tell yourself that you will never give up. That is a lot like Corinna in her fierce determination to become and remain a Folk keeper, no matter what the price. I was able to borrow this streak from myself and give it to Corinna. In each book I identify most strongly with the principal protagonist, Nuria and Corinna. I like them both in different ways. They are both quite real to me, and even though Corinna is a kind of person I could never be, I identify with her too. So neither is my favorite. I don't feel that either is more successful than the other.
At the beginning of The Folk Keeper, Corinna is not very likeable, but then by the end she is. Were you ever worried that people would stop reading the book because they don't like the main character at first?
That's an interesting question. It took me five years to write this book, and I think I was so relieved to finally in the last year come upon a character whose fierce passions provided the combustion that has allowed me to write my story, that it never occurred to me to worry about how she would be received. After the book was published, however, I came to realize that many people did not care for Corinna at first. And actually that surprised me, perhaps because she, after all, is my child. And in my eyes she can do no wrong. I wouldn't say I really worry about people putting down the book. The book is what it is. It has to be what it is; I couldn't have written it any other way. It's not a book everyone will like, and I accept that. For those people who can't get past Corinna's character in the beginning and have to put down the book, for every such reader, there is a reader who loves Corinna's fierceness and strength and will rejoice in her inner growth.
I like that The Folk Keeper had a mystery with a surprise ending. Did you have to plan it all out before you started writing, or did you make it up as you went along?
I divide writers into two characters. There are planners, and there are plungers. I am a plunger. I don't really plan anything out. I jump into the story with just the bare bones of an idea, and then I work it out as I write. Now that is not to say that after I get a handle on my story, I don't read it through in a kind of left brained, analytical way and ask myself, “What have we got here?” If in Chapter 11 there is a major revelation, well, then maybe I need to plant clues in Chapter 7 and Chapter 4. So in some ways, once I discover the ending — I discover the surprise — I work backwards to create a plot containing the necessary clues and hints that will seem as seamless as possible.
Do you think it takes longer to finish books doing it the plunger way?
I suspect so, but I don't know. It is always tempting to think that the grass is greener on the other side, and so at some level, I envy those plotters. From my point of view, their lives seem so neat and orderly. They plan out their books; they just write them; they don't agonize like I do. But, of course, I'm completely wrong about that. It seems easy to me only because that's not myself. Perhaps a plotter spends four years plotting and one year writing, and I spend five years writing. I really cannot say.
How long did it take you to write The Folk Keeper? It says in your Author's Note that you wrote four drafts. Is that more or less than for Well Wished?
It took me about five years to write The Folk Keeper. In my Author's Note when I say it took me four drafts, I intended to infer that it took me four drafts in the final year of the writing of it when my editor was involved in the process. I had innumerable drafts leading up to those four drafts. How many, I cannot say. Well Wished took me about seven years, and again, more drafts than I can really count. The thing is that I am such a messy plunger-ish sort of writer that I may begin a book, realize a third of the way through that I'm completely on the wrong track, and go back and begin it again. Is that one draft? Is that half a draft? My process is so chaotic and non-linear that I don't count the drafts in the same way that another writer might be able to.
Does it ever frustrate you that it takes so long from beginning to end?
Yes! I often wish I could be one of those writers who's able to write several really good books a year — like, say, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. How does she do it? It does seem to me that everybody writes more quickly than I do. But I have to accept that this is my process. It helps me to look at other areas of my life. For example, I like to decorate our house, and I like to paint the walls with stencils. I do not pick easy projects. I pick loooong labor-intensive stenciling projects that take me years to finish. So when I look at this part of my life, I realize that that is just who I am. I am a single project person who works on a very complicated project and who takes a long time to process all the different elements of that project. So yes, I would love to write more quickly, but when I can be mature about it I realize that that is just not who I am.
It says in your bio that you didn't find your writing voice until you started writing fantasy. Why do you think that happened?
That is a good question that I don't have a very clear answer to. There are probably many small answers that add up to a larger answer. One is that I love the atmosphere of fantasy; I love reading it, and I love writing it. I love the lace and the daggers and the velvet cloaks and the mists and the dragons. I also love what fantasy can do. I spoke earlier about the fact that both of my books concern a search for identity and that my heroines discover who they are through magical means, through the literal trying on of “skins.” So I can in a fantasy take an abstract concept like identity and give it a literal identity. In some ways this makes dealing with the themes I'm interested in, these abstract themes like identity, easier to grapple with because I can give them a concrete reality.
Do you plan to write any non-fantasy books in the future?
I have an idea for a book that's a combination of fantasy and realism. There are two parallel stories, one being fantastical and one being realistic. Of course, right now this idea is like a shining picture in my mind, and I haven't yet started to wreck the idea by writing it. So who knows if I will actually manage to write it. I do love fantasy, but it's possible that some day I will write a book that's purely a realistic novel. I can't say for sure.
What are your favorite books? Are they fantasy books too?
Many of my favorite books are fantasies, but not exclusively. When I love a book, it is often because of the narrative voice. So, for example, a book called I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (author of 101 Dalmatians) is not a fantasy, and in fact, nothing much happens. But I adore that book because of the first-person narrative voice.
Why did you choose to format The Folk Keeper like a journal?
I tend to love books that are romance adventures, whether they are fantasies or not, like Mara: Daughter of the Nile [by Eloise McGraw ], like many of Diana Wynne Jones's books and Robin McKinley's fantasies, and I also love gothic atmospheric romances like Jane Eyre [by Charlotte BrontÃ«] and Rebecca [by Daphne Du Maurier]. In the answer to the previous question, I mentioned a book I love: I Capture the Castle. It is written in a journal format, and it is this format, I think, that allows the character to have such an immediate, unique voice. I wanted to try to achieve something like that in The Folk Keeper. Also, I wanted Corinna to be writing her story as it was unfolding. It was important to me that she not be looking back over her shoulder, knowing her own secret but not sharing it with the reader. And so for that reason too, the device of a journal was perfect.
In The Folk Keeper, is Finian based on anyone real?
Finian is not based on anyone real, but if you meet anyone like him, let me know and give me his phone number.
It says on your Web site that you have won a lot of awards. When you were writing The Folk Keeper, did you think about how people would compare it to your first book?
Yes, when I was writing The Folk Keeper, I thought, “I will never write a book as good as Well Wished.” And that, I think, is because Nuria was so real to me during the writing of Well Wished and it took so long for Corinna to spring to life that I despaired that she would ever be as compelling a character as Nuria. It is inevitable to compare yourself with your early books, and I find myself doing the same thing in the writing of my third novel, worrying that my readers will be disappointed after having read The Folk Keeper.
We're almost out of time. Is there anything else you'd like to share with the interview participants or kids in general?
For those of you who are interested in writing, I have two pieces of advice. One is to read as deeply and widely as you can. As I said before, I didn't write much when I was a kid, but I read. I filled myself up with wonderful words, and it was by doing that that I am able to create the scenes and images I do now. Second, never give up! The people who become published writers are the people who — although they may be disappointed; they may be frustrated; they may despair — never stop writing, never stop trying to learn to be better writers, and never stop submitting to publishers. I began writing in 1983, and I was first published in 1997, so I had a long apprenticeship. I had to hang in there through a lot of dark years, but I am so glad that I did. And almost every writer I know has had the same experience. Determination is everything.