We're under the spell of Janet Fox's new middle grade novel The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, out now from Viking Children's. This book has already scooped up stars from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, and is a Junior Library Guild selection and an Indies Next pick -- wow!
Twelve-year-old Katherine Bateson believes in a logical explanation for everything. But even she can't make sense of the strange goings-on at Rookskill Castle, the drafty old Scottish castle-turned-school where she and her siblings have been sent to escape the London Blitz. What's making those mechanical shrieks at night? Why do the castle's walls seem to have a mind of their own? And who are the silent children who seem to haunt Rookskill's grounds?
Kat believes Lady Eleanor, who rules the castle, is harboring a Nazi spy. But when her classmates begin to vanish, one by one, Kat must face the truth about what the castle actually harbors - and what Lady Eleanor is - before it's too late.
Welcome, Janet! So tell us, what was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
I always struggle with my middles, and this novel was no exception. My problems are usually tied up with getting my character arc true, and deepening her arc. In this case, I had an epiphany during a weekend-long intensive with Donald Maass, in which he asked us to select a scene, write down the five things that happen in the scene, and then turn the last one around to its opposite. At that moment everything I'd been struggling with came into focus as I realized that Kat, my main character, needed to find the antagonist "beautiful" and "perfect" - the epitome of what she wanted to be herself. When I realized what had to happen in that scene I was then able to go back through Kat's development and structure the story so that things she did and things that happened to her all culminated in this scene.
What authors do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?
The book I pull out every time I need sentence-level inspiration is Kathi Appelt's The Underneath. I love the lyrical quality of her writing. It feels both magical and like a traditional fable. For plot, I'm a huge fan of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. It has a plot that races, yet feels true and emotional - which is probably the reason for its success. I keep a plot chart of that novel on my wall. And for character, I'll admit I'm a fan of JK Rowling's Harry Potter. She was able to take an 11-year-old boy through his entire adolescence, touching all the points of change in development through the lens of a magical world. And her secondary characters are just as rich and nuanced. It's clear she spent a lot of time developing all of her characters' backstories.
Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.
I have a trove of plot charts, both linear and free-association/bubble-style, of other books on my wall. I have several inspirational quotes posted, including my favorite from Tobin Anderson via Kathi: "Write what you think you can't." And I've begun to post, for whatever book I'm working on at the moment, a statement of the theme, boiled down to its simplest premise. Plus there are my magical weapons: my family pictures, my Vermont College and my agency mugs, things I've collected or that have come from family. These things keep me going. They have power.
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
It changed everything for me! First, I was no longer alone. I now have a tribe that speaks the same language, understands the same concerns. Second, I learned a TON. I was forced way outside my comfort zone, and then made to build a new one. I had a new vocabulary for what I was trying to do. And most importantly, I was encouraged to push myself and my writing, to try new things, to venture into realms I might never have thought to try. "Write what you think you can't."
What was special about your VCFA graduating class?
You are all my friends for life. Seriously - I've made friends for life. Plus, we had fun. And when we went through all the VCFA stages - beginner, middle, grad - we had each other's backs. We still do! I read every one of your books as they come out. (I love every one of your books!) I would relive that experience again and again if I could.
I heartily concur on all points! Kek kek kek!
What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
Don't focus on one thing the entire four semesters. I worked on four different books, several short stories, and my critical thesis. The critical thesis has been the subject of several published articles (I'm still hoping to frame a craft book around it.) My creative thesis became my second published YA. One of my stories appeared in a regional anthology. Be prepared to learn. Be prepared to push. Say yes. Read more than you think you can. Know that you'll make life-long friends, but that you will also cry, more than once (mostly in a good way.) You'll be exhausted but exhilarated. You'll be miserable but elated. Apply yourself and you will have a career.
Write what you think you can't.
Great advice, Janet. Thank you so much for visiting, and welcome to the world to The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle!
Janet Fox is the author of four previous books: the middle grade non-fiction Get Organized Without Losing It, and three YA historical novels, Faithful, Forgiven, and Sirens. She graduated from VCFA in Summer 2010, a member of the Thunder Badgers.
Visit her online at www.janetsfox.com.