Diane Zahler is the author of The Thirteenth Princess, an enchanting retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale. Diane stopped by the virtual offices to discuss her book, and to give us few tidbits about her next project.
Describe yourself in 140 characters or less.
Writer, reader, wife, mother, lover of travel, movies, chocolate, and dogs
Can you tell us a little about your debut novel, The Thirteenth Princess?
The Thirteenth Princess is a novel for middle-grade readers. In it, a queen gives birth to twelve beautiful daughters, but their father wants only a son. When the thirteenth princess, Zita, is born, her mother dies, and her father, broken-hearted, sends her to be raised belowstairs with the servants. Zita is twelve when she begins to notice that her sisters are disappearing at night and returning exhausted. The only clue she can find is their shoes, worn through each night. The princesses become ill, and Zita and her friends, Breckin the stable boy and Babette the witch, seek to learn where they are going and how to save them.
How did you come up with the concept and the characters for the story?
The Thirteenth Princess is based on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The original story is very short and has little detail, giving me the freedom to create characters and settings of my own. I invented a thirteenth princess because I wanted a girl to be the hero of the tale. Readers might find it interesting that every character in the story has a name that reflects some aspect of their personality – Zita, for example, is the patron saint of servants and also means “seeker,” and Breckin, who is red-haired and freckled, means “freckled.”
Were you a fan of fairy tales as a child? What is your favorite?
I loved fairy tales and fantasy. I read all the Andrew Lang fairy tale collections — the Yellow Book of Fairy Tales, the Red Book, the Blue Book – if there had been a Puce or Vermillion Book, I’d have read those! “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” was always one of my favorite stories.
Have you learned anything about yourself through your characters?
When writing The Thirteenth Princess, I reacquainted myself with the girl I had been when I first discovered fairy tales. That girl craved magic in her own life and found it in the books she read. I realized that the longing for magic has never really left me. Now, though, I can find magic not only in the books I read but in the books I write.
What has been the most challenging aspect of writing the book? Was it difficult to re-imagine the 12 Dancing Princesses to fit in with how you visualized the story?
At the time I was writing The Thirteenth Princess, I was also writing textbook lessons fulltime. It was a challenge to find both the time and the imaginative energy to write fiction. When I wrote, though, the words and images flowed freely; writing the book was invigorating, not difficult at all.
Can you share your experiences finding a publisher? What was the process like?
I had previously worked in children’s book publishing, so I still knew some editors from those days. I sent the manuscript directly to editors, without using an agent, and it struck a chord with an editor from HarperCollins. The Thirteenth Princess was not the first novel for young readers I’d written, though – my previous three novels had been turned down many, many times. So the process was one of great frustration and persistence – but it ended happily!
What’s the most gratifying aspect of having your book published?
The emails I’ve received from kids who have read and loved the book are incredibly gratifying. They notice details that I haven’t even noticed myself! Their enthusiasm and appreciation are amazing.
Who was your biggest supporter while you were working on The Thirteenth Princess?
My husband, Phil Sicker, read every word and made many excellent suggestions for changes and improvements. And his encouragement made it possible for me to face rejection and keep sending the story out.
What are some books you loved when you were growing up?
There are so many! I worked in the children’s room of a public library through high school and college, so I kept reading children’s books long after I left childhood. Fantasy books I loved include the Narnia series, all the books by Edward Eager and E. Nesbit, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster, The Wonderful O by James Thurber, The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall, Ursula Leguins’ Wizard of Earthsea books. Realistic fiction I read and reread include All-of-a-Kind Family by Theodore Taylor, The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg, the Henry Huggins and Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I’m probably leaving out dozens.
Can you share a few details about your next project?
I’ve finished a second fairy-tale novel called A True Princess. It’s based loosely on “The Princess and the Pea,” but it also includes ferocious wolves, heroic falcons, evil elves, a magical jewel, and an ancient Norse god. Watch for it next February! And I’m hard at work on a third novel, also based on a fairy tale.
Thanks!! I can hardly wait to read A True Princess!
You can learn more about Diane and her books at her website, and The Thirteenth Princess is available at bookstores and libraries now.