- The Verdigris Pawn is your debut children's book which was just published this July by HarperCollins. What can you say about it to entice new readers to read it?
THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is perfect for readers who like classic Middle Grade novels like The Chronicles of Prydain, or the work of Diana Wynn Jones. There’s a timeless quality to the story— it’s a quest that takes place in a quasi-medieval time period-- and yet it’s incredibly timely as it takes a very close look at issues around power, privilege, and social responsibility.
THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Beau has been raised isolated and alone. And despite the harsh and judgmental treatment he gets from his father, he has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects and how hated and feared their family is.
This all changes when Beau meets Cressi, a young servant girl, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land - and most especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for their family’s taxes.
This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But, to restore fairness and equality to the Land, he must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a game similar to chess!)
But when you're reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done.
This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places.
- I love reading for escapism. Will potential readers be able to escape into this story and where will it take them?
Oh yes, readers will absolutely find an escape in The Verdigris Pawn although it might not always be comfortable.
The Land is a place where the wealthy and the powerful enjoy luxurious and privileged lives, while the rest of the Land suffers to serve them. Craftspeople and merchants can live well enough, but they are subject to paying high taxes and surrendering the best of their crops and goods to the Manor. As for the poorest citizens, survival is nearly impossible. The only way they can afford to pay their taxes is by surrendering their children to Mastery House where they are raised to serve the wealthy.
The Land is a place where uneasy alliances are made and broken with regularity, and where you can’t always trust what you read, hear, or see with your own eyes. But it’s also a place where magic, long thought wiped out, might still exist, and where hope might once again reign.
- Can you tell us a little bit about the main characters in the book? What did they say to you when you started to write about them?
Right off the bat Beau told me he didn’t want to be who he was raised and expected to be. It wasn’t because he was rebellious or because he wanted to lash out, but rather because the role he was expected to step into didn’t fit. It was all wrong for him. Just because he was born heir to the leader of the Land, didn’t mean he wanted that role, or was well-suited for it. He also told me that having been raised isolated and alone, spending his days studying a version of history written by and for the victors of countless years of tyrannical rule, that he had no idea the depth of privilege he had. He told me that even though he felt utterly powerless, once he understood the truth, he’d do whatever he could to help set things right.
Cressi is in many ways Beau’s opposite. Raised in Mastery House and sent into service a year early she has endured hardships no child should ever have to suffer. And yet, her eyes are wide open, as so is her heart. She’s long suspected that her talents for healing come from somewhere deeper inside her than just a knowledge of herbs. And while the discovery of her powers is confusing at first, she never tries to deny them. She is both an a realist and an optomist. She understands that change is uncomfortable, but that’s no reason to avoid it. She also knows she could just as well bring the Manor down on her own, but she’s wise enough to understand that real power comes from unity.
Nate is not a POV character, yet we still hear him loud and clear. He’s been pushing boundaries since he could walk. He’s constantly been testing, watching, and waiting for the moment he could run away to fight for right.
Loyalty runs so deep in him that sometimes he forgets to look beyond what he wants to see in someone. But he’s no fool, once faced with the truth he’ll fight with all he has to right the many wrongs in the Land.
- You have worked in theatre and TV/film. What skills do you think may have been transferable in helping you to write this book?
I began my writing life as a playwright, so the three-act structure is baked into my bones, as is a love for dialogue and deep character development.
And while a 15-year long career in casting for theater, TV, and Film was somewhat of a detour, it also served to deepen my understanding of storytelling. Reading a script then working to find the exact right actors to bring the story to life isn’t as dissimilar to writing as it appears. It’s all storytelling.
- Where do you get your ideas from?
The inspiration for The Verdigris Pawn came from a writing prompt in a workshop some years ago. With the prompt, “tsk, tsk, poor little boy,” I saw this young boy being raised like a bird in a gilded cage in a Manor house on a hill, an old man his guardian (or perhaps jailer). It also sparked a new writing voice for me—it took some time, but the story eventually unfolded.
The idea for my next book was inspired by an old photograph of a young girl. She was so expressive, she invited me to weave an entire tale around here.
But I’m also inspired by philosophy and politics—not along party lines, but rather how we organize ourselves in society. Power, truth, how easily people can be corrupted are an endless source of fascination to me—and I think they’re important ideas for young people to think about and examine.
- The book cover was illustrated by Júlia Sardà and designed by Laura Mock. What were your immediate reactions when you first saw it?
Pure and utter heaven! I was so thrilled when I found out Jùlia Sardà would be doing the illustration for the cover. Her work is nothing short of amazing. Have you seen her Alice in Wonderland, or her Frankenstein? If not, do yourself a favor and run, don’t walk, to see her work on those two classics, and then stroll through her entire body of work. It’s stunning.
Laura Mock’s design had me at the very first! I love how she played with the pawn shape. There’s an air of mystery and danger to the cover, and yet it’s also such an invitation to adventure. That glint in Cressi’s eye, a hint of knowing and wisdom gets me every time!
The cover harkens back to an earlier time in children’s literature – it’s at once classic and very of the moment. It stands out as quite different from many covers today, and I love that!
- What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I’m the youngest of three girls from a family for whom conversation and debate was oxygen. Learning how to wield words and language, how to formulate my ideas and point of view into a cogent argument was probably do or die so I didn’t get steamrolled over.
But there was this one time when I was ten, maybe eleven years old, I remember getting very frustrated that I wasn’t being heard. I couldn’t get my point in amid the chatter. So instead of trying to match the cacophony, I get very quiet. But this wasn’t a retreat, or a capitulation. It was the first time I remember understanding that there’s also power in silence, in holding your thoughts back to listen and taking the time to fine tune (or sharpen) your argument.
- What do you love most about being a children's author?
The readers! I am constantly moved and impressed by the depth of thought and feeling of 10–13-year-olds. But it’s also a harrowing moment, when they’re leaving childhood behind and beginning to realize that they have choices to make- choices about who they want to be, who to trust, and how they can impact the world around them. It’s an honor to be a small part of the conversation with them.
- Are there any significant ways in which your book has changed since the first draft?
Oh, it has changed significantly. In fact, the book is quite different from the version my editors bought.
The story arc remained the same as did the themes and overall plot. It has always been Beau, Cressi and Nate’s story, but how the story unwound changed quite a bit. Back then there was a third POV character, and there was an additional antagonist—a woman who was Doone’s benefactor. The perils and pitfalls Beau faced were different and the game of FIST wasn’t nearly as central to the plot.
After a long conversation with my editors about what was and what wasn’t working, I realized that the only way to fix the book was to white page it – meaning, toss the version that existed and begin again from a blank page. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t scary at first, but it was also incredibly liberating. Rather than trying to Frankenstein the book back together, I was given the freedom to rejigger it from the very beginning.
Because I knew the world and my characters so well by that point it was incredibly fun to be able to begin again. I know there are several writers who do this as a matter of course – write a first draft, toss it, and begin anew. It’s a powerful way to work and to deepen your understanding of the world of the book.
- Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
I can’t reveal too much about my next book yet, but I can tell you that it’s another upper middle-grade fantasy. Like THE VERDIGRIS PAWN, it takes place in quasi-historical setting with fantastical elements. Set in a time period that looks like 1910, the story begins on an Island (think something like Mackinaw Island) that is home to the wealthy and privileged. The action then moves to the mainland and a city which is overrun by industry, pollution, corruption, and deadly lies. I’m very excited about this story and can’t wait until I can say more about it!