August 31st, 2009

Interview with Joy Preble, author of YA fantasy, DREAMING ANASTASIA

Like a lot of the blogosphere, I've been waiting with great anticipation for the launch of Joy Preble's debut, Dreaming Anastasia (Source Books).  I have a soft spot for fantasy, and Joy's novel is definitely a fantasy! For example, it features the not-so-dead Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia and Baba Yaga, the witch from Russian folklore. With a strong heroine and a handsome love interest, no wonder everyone is waiting for its arrival!


It was my pleasure to sit down (virtually) with Joy over a glass of good Russian vodka—also virtual!—and talk about Dreaming Anastasia.


EJA: What drew you to the fantasy genre? I know you write contemporary fiction that is not fantasy. Why did Anne's story seem to need fantasy?


JP: I guess I’ve always been drawn to fantasy, although typically not high fantasy with realms and elves and centaurs and the type of extensive – and fascinating, I might add – world building that you do in your YA Watersmeet. But in 4th or 5th grade I read Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and I adored it. The whole idea of the tesseract, the classic war between good and evil, that planet where everyone had to be exactly the same and the little boy was bouncing the ball out of sync… Loved it. But thinking back, mostly I loved Meg. I loved that Meg was underestimated at school but that she was this really heroic, smart girl. I was a quiet, bookish, nerdy little girl with big dreams and this character just floored me. From there, I read other fantasy that had mostly to do with magic and sometimes witches. Edgar Eager’s Half Magic. Eleanor Estes The Witch Family, which I’d totally forgotten about but have started seeing on the shelves again. And like you, the Narnia books, although I never made it through all of them. Beyond that, I’ve always enjoyed fantasy in film and TV. In fact, I had to laugh when Little Willow over at Bildingsroman and Slayground was publicizing our class of 2k9 because I’d “known” her on line for years during my years as devoted Buffy and Angel fan girl. And what tied most of my fantasy preferences together, was typically kick ass female protagonists, often ones who were stereotyped as less capable or who were much more than it seemed on the surface. I guess then, it should have been no surprise to me that my debut effort drew on these things I loved most. Anne came out of my head strong and snarky and funny. And so I guess it seemed appropriate that she have this hidden power to change history that was going to really mess with her life.


EJA: I know your grandmother was Russian. How do you think her stories to you influenced this story?


You know, I figured someone would ask that first part at some point. The truth is, my grandmother was not particularly happy in Russia – she was one of twenty children (yes you read that right – small village, dirt poor, no TLC funding like the Duggar family!) and I think between the grinding poverty and the impending threat of pogroms it wasn’t exactly a cheery life. So her stories were mostly depressing or about great Tolstoy-esque love for men she couldn’t have. She did not like say, Anna Karenina, toss herself under a train, but she was honestly, wildly unhappy for most of her life. So if I’ve been influenced in terms of this novel, it’s been with an understanding of the Russian capacity for suffering and endurance.


EJA: What about the Romanov story captured you?


JP: Who doesn’t love the Romanov story? Seriously – power, fame, beauty, all crushed to nothing when the political tides turned. A brutal assassination. The whole evil Rasputin thing. And of course, those persistent rumors that perhaps Anastasia didn’t die with the rest of them. Even now, after it seems that DNA testing has proven that everyone has finally been found, the hope still lingers in a lot of people. Personally, I think it’s that Anastasia was just funny and snarky and irreverent and filled with great life. But there is something sort of mysterious and romantic about how people are so drawn to her. I’d like to say that with all my research, I figured out why people just can’t let her go, but I honestly don’t know. And maybe that’s okay, especially for my own story telling purposes. I do hope that I do her justice here in this little alternate history. And I have to say it was wonderful to be able to have the freedom to imagine what was going on in her head, what her dreams and desires were, and – in the world I’ve created fictionally – why she made the choices she did that resulted in her being not quite as dead as she was supposed to be.


EJA: What came to you first in this story—a character? A scene? A theme?


JP: Anne came to me first. In fact, I still have those first two typed pages. She was simply a voice on the page, actually. I had her stuck in a boring history class, with the football coach/teacher giving them a worksheet about the Romanovs but not teaching and her griping that she knew more than he did. There was no particular plot at that point, just this girl griping to her friend and talking about how she’d read Nicholas and Alexandra (which is a great biography of the Romanovs that I highly recommend) last summer when she’d been grounded and how she’d found the pack of her mom’s Marlboro’s even though she’d told her that she no longer smoked. And somehow from those two very thin pages, came this great, strong character and the roots of the Romanov idea. I honestly don’t remember when I decided that I was going to have Anne get powers that could change history, but somehow that’s what came next.


EJA: Is the process you describe typical of the way you write?


JP: That process has been pretty typical for me. Another book I’ve just finished began as a scene. The one I’m working on right now began with an idea for a character.


EJA: How does the fact that you teach high school influence your work as a young adult author?


JP: I guess it certainly does help that during most of my working life, I’ve never left high school! Which honestly is sort of strange since I was one of those kids who didn’t particularly like high school when I was a student. Mostly, I remember thinking that I had better things I could be doing. But I do hope that it has helped give me an ear and an eye for what is true to the high school experience – those layers of language and pop culture and just the sheer intensity of it all. I think the one thing that I see that never changes is that feeling that what’s happening to you is the most dramatic level of experience that anyone could possibly have. Falling in love is intense. Break ups are total devastation. Grades – for some kids – are life and death. Friendships – or lack thereof – pull on you so very hard. And as an author, I think it’s my job not only to attempt to reflect that world, but also to respect it. There’s a great word that really reflects this. It’s ‘verisimilitude’ which basically means trying to capture the sense of the real thing. And I work hard in my writing to attempt to make the emotions as real as possible.


EJA: Would you like to teach your book?


JP: At this moment, I would say no, I wouldn’t. I would honestly prefer for people to read it and either like it or dislike it, deconstruct it or just read it, all on their own. How weird would that be? To stand up and say, “Okay guys, let’s turn to page 165. What do you think I meant on that page?” That would seriously freak me out.


EJA: How much of your personality do you put into your characters?


Hmmm… You know, I’d like to say that my characters are totally their own people, but the truth is there’s probably bits and pieces of me – and other people I know or have met – in all of them. I heard someone say recently that your first novel is always to some degree autobiographical. I’m not sure I totally agree, but I will say that if you look into my characters, you’ll probably see my desire for second chances and my sense that losing someone you love really, really changes you.


EJA: Were you like Anne when you were in high school?


JP: I think she’s probably more gutsy than I was in high school, but she certainly does share my inner-observer and my habit of quipping when things get kind of scary. I was certainly conscious of creating her as a very strong character who could – if the going got rough – control her destiny as much as possible. Actually all the female characters in DA are like that, which wasn’t necessarily conscious on my part, but clearly also reflects my point of view on life and being female. But I do think I’ve tried to spread myself around in the story and not just inhabit any one character in particular.


EJA: How about now? Can you share something about your personal life—goals, dreams, hobbies?


JP: If you want a ton of random facts you can always check out the bio I’ve posted on or at our 2k9 website. But since you asked, I’m married, with one son and live in Texas, although I grew up in Chicago. I love movies and travel and bad reality television (I am seriously a TLC and Discovery Channel girl – all that biggest this, tiniest that, deadliest whatever). I devour books of all genres. I’d like to get myself to Ireland some day soon as well as bunch of other places, although I’m fairly well traveled when it comes to the US. As for goals and dreams, I’ve got many of them, but one of the biggest is about to be realized even as I type this answer – I’m about to be a published author of a young adult novel. Trust me when I say that this is a huge dream come true, and it’s been accomplished by that mysterious mixture of hard work, luck, and maybe a teensy bit of well-edited talent.


EJA: You mentioned several other works in progress. What are you working on now?


JP: I’m working on a lot of projects right now, including a story set here in Texas where I live. It’s another YA and pretty much a tale of football, faith, love, and the redemptive powers of a plate of pecan waffles and hash browns.


EJA: I know you are considering a sequel to Dreaming Anastasia. Can you tell us anything about that?


JP: If I’m lucky, I do hope to be able to write a sequel or two to Dreaming Anastasia. There are a lot of loose threads when the novel ends, and I’d like to be able to play with those some more, particularly the growing Anne/Ethan romance. Plus there are a number of other characters in Russian folklore I have my eye on, including rusalkas, which are these wonderfully malevolent Slavic mermaids.


EJA: Thanks so much, Joy, for chatting today! And good luck with the Dreaming Anastasia launch!


There will be another great chance to chat with Joy about Dreaming Anastasia! The Classof2k9 is hosting a live on-line chat with Joy on Thursday, September 3 at 8PM (CST), (9PM (EST), and 6PM (PST)). Just come to our blog at that time and we'll post a link to the chat.