The Writer’s Block: An Interview with Holly Black

hollyTake a journey with us down an imaginary road leading to a land of faeries, goblins, and creepy dolls and you will find the amazing Holly Black. Holly’s work includes The Spiderwick Chronicles and the Newberry Honor winning Doll Bones. Now lock the doors, sit back and enjoy the scariest installment to the Writer’s Block series (ok, it’s not really scary, but I think you will enjoy it).

Middle Grade Mafia: I love to ask successful authors how they got their start. Could you share your story of finding a publisher for Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale?

Holly Black: Sure! It took me around six years to write Tithe and during that time, I’d become friends with Tony DiTerlizzi. He’d been moving from gaming illustrations to picture books and was working with Simon & Schuster. When I finished Tithe, Tony liked the book enough (and was kind enough) to show it to his editor at S&S, Kevin Lewis. At that time, I wasn’t sure that Tithe was a YA book. Up until then, I had been thinking of it as an adult novel; it was a librarian friend who first pointed out that it could be not just about a teenage character, but for teenagers. Anyway, Kevin liked the book and wound up acquiring it, launching me into the world of children’s publishing.

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MGM: When developing a story, how do you take it from concept to first draft? Do you develop the world and characters, map out plot points, or write where the story takes you?

HB: I have a pretty messy and revision-heavy process. I often write a little bit even before I have fully fleshed out idea, so for me that initial burst of writing is to see where the idea goes. Then I sit down and plan out the rest of the book/series quite loosely. Sometimes this involves brainstorming with friends, sometimes it means going off somewhere quietly and writing notes to myself; often, it involves both. Then I write until I feel like the book isn’t quite working — and I have to go back and revise before I move on again. I’ve tried just pushing through the first draft, but I don’t find that I can. When something is wrong, my fingers itch to fix it and I can’t make sense of what I’m writing without it being fixed. I wish I had a different process, but so far I haven’t managed to change mine significantly.

MGM: A few of your books were collaborative titles. How does this work? Have you ever had a difference in opinion in the plot? If so, how was this resolved?

HB: I really love collaborating, because it’s the closest thing to the making-up-stories-together fun I had with my friends as a kid. Each of my collaborations has been different and worked in a different way, but in each one of the great values was our disagreements.

When you have to explain why you love something and you have your collaborator arguing for something they love, you have to find a third way. That third way has to do things that BOTH of you love. And because of it, that third way is often better than either of the two initial ways were, but without the collaboration, you might never have found it.

MGM: Your work leans to the darker, scarier side of children’s literature. For you, what is the line for writing in this genre for the middle grade audience?

HB: For me, writing middle grade is about remembering what I was doing when I was the age I am writing about — remembering what I was afraid of, what I was aware of, what I was personally dealing with, and what I loved to read about, and then being pretty honest about that in my work. I don’t know actually where the line is and I think it probably depends on the needs of book and the market more than on the writer. In terms of scariness, I am easily frightened! But I think how scary one of my books is to readers depends a lot on what they’re afraid of — I’ve had people tell me that Doll Bones is too terrifying to read or not scary at all depending on how they feel about dolls. What I avoid, personally, in my middle grade writing, is bleakness. I always want the supernatural world to give readers a sense of wonder as well as fear.

Lately, I have been thinking about how bizarre it is how so much of the conversation that surrounds children’s books is about the extremes. I’ve been asked a lot what the worst/most perverted/most violent/most sophisticated thing one can “get away” with is, but I don’t think that’s something we should be worrying about as writers.

MGM: The Spiderwick Chronicles was made into a feature film. First off, how cool was that? Also, to what degree were you involved in the process?

HB: It was a little like walking around in my own head and a little like walking around in Tony’s head. It was surreal and amazing. Tony and I actually got to be pretty involved; we got to give notes on the screenplay, talk to the production people and visit the set. I mean, obviously, when a film is being made, it’s the director, the producers and the screenwriter who are executing their vision of the work they’re adapting, but they were all very generous and respectful to us.

MGM: You mention that you were a daydreamer as a child. Are there pieces of your youth in your stories?

HB: Definitely. As a writer, I think we mine our childhoods, our lives, our friends, and our interests all the time. For instance, in Doll Bones, there’s so much of me in wanting to continue to tell stories with my friends when they wanted to stop — and also my love of exploring the world after dark. And in Tithe, a lot of the landscape is the landscape of my childhood. There’s a lot of me in everything I write.

MGM: You mention that your son has a secret door. If you had a secret door that would take you anywhere, where would that lead?

HB: Actually, it’s the house that has a secret door. It goes to the library and it appears to be a bookshelf. When my son is a little older, though, I would love to make or get one of those faerie doors for his room.

If I had a door that would go anywhere, I would like it to lead to a little room with a desk where I could go to work or sleep, but no matter how long I spent there, no time would pass in the regular world. That would be amazing!

Thank you, Holly for taking giving us an insight into your work and your process. I think we all wish we could have a secret door.

To keep up with Holly and learn more about her books, visit her website and follow her on Twitter.


One Comment

  1. I use a really similar and messy revision “process” (can hardly dignify mine with that word). I’ve never been able to bang or barge my way thru a first draft, but instead always slip back and make changes as I go. Thanks for being so articulate about something so difficult to pin down!

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