Interview with Merrie Haskell, Author of Handbook for Dragon Slayers

Merrie Haskell dropped by the virtual offices this morning to chat up her latest MG release Handbook for Dragon Slayers.  Check out what she has to say about it.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Describe yourself in 140 characters or less.

@merriehaskell: author, library paraprofessional; obsessed with herbs, blacksmithing, office supplies, alternate universes, anthropology

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you tell us a little about Handbook for Dragon Slayers?

[Merrie Haskell] It’s a 12th century adventure story that takes place along the Rhine, in which a runaway princess with a clubfoot who joins forces with two dragon slayers-in-training; she runs into the Wild Hunt, an evil knight, and several dragons along the way.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How did you come up with the concept and the characters for the story?

[Merrie Haskell] The broadest part of the concept, a girl who writes a handbook for dragon slayers, actually came to me in drips and drabs over the years.  In college, for a history class, I had to read a wonderful book called A Handbook for William, which was a 9th century German woman’s advice for living at court for her son.  The concept of medieval handbooks actually became a bit of an obsession for me at that point.  How on earth do you make something like that exciting in a fiction book, though? Many years later, I ran across the concept of book curses–notices put at the beginning of books that promised dire consequences for book thieves (explored in an interesting book called Anathema: Medieval scribes and the history of book curses).  I’m not entirely sure when dragons wormed their way in there, other than dragons are so much fun.  When I learned Old English in college, the Anglo-Saxons were sort of obsessed with dragons–it was a big insult to call someone a dragon, because you were a hoarder of gold and treasure, the opposite of what a noble and valiant Anglo-Saxon should be.  Being a giver was important–a ring giver, a bread giver.  It’s so the opposite of how we look at dragons now.  So, these three concepts sort of came together, and I found myself scratching out a book curse:

Whosoever steals this book

shall burn in the

fiery conflagration of a DRAGON’S BREATH

and will ALSO LOSE THEIR NOSE

TO PUTREFACTION.

It is advised, therefore,

that you take your nose home intact,

and leave this handbook

for the study of proper DRAGON SLAYERS

It suddenly seemed very clear to me, that a handbook could be very interesting if it were for dragon slayers.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three words best describe Tilda?

[Merrie Haskell] This is actually something I do while I write: have the main characters and their key character traits written on post-its along my monitor.  Tilda’s said: RESILIENT. 

I would also add either "Dutiful/Rebellious" — this is her main conflict in the book, as she is duty-driven but rebelling against that.

And finally–"Intelligent."

[Manga Maniac Cafe] If Parz had a theme song, what would it be?

[Merrie Haskell] Great question!  I would say it’s probably "Good Life" by OneRepublic.  That song just reeks of Parz–a sort of easy happiness and optimism, combined with the joy of adventure and travel.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Name one thing Judith is never without.

[Merrie Haskell] A personal knife to use for eating.  You always had to bring your own knife to dinner in the Middle Ages.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three things will you never find in Tilda’s pockets?

[Merrie Haskell] Well, since she lived in an era in which pockets didn’t exist, this list is sort of endless!  But she has a few pouches and purses and things like that, so I’ll say she’d never carry embroidery needles, thread, or any sort of thimble.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is Judith’s greatest regret?

[Merrie Haskell] Judith loves animals, especially baby animals; she comes to regret being a dragon slayer pretty quickly when she realizes that baby dragons are affected!  Otherwise, though, she is not a girl who holds herself back except when prudence demands, so she doesn’t have too terribly many regrets.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What are your greatest creative influences?

[Merrie Haskell] I would say learning has the biggest influence on my creativity.  When I’m learning new things, I almost can’t stop the flow of story and character ideas–it just rains down.  The most perfect example of this was recently when I started to learn blacksmithing–knowing that I wanted to write about a blacksmith, of course.  I started seeing the world in the colors of heated metal. I would drive over bridges and think about the wealth of rebar embedded in the concrete beneath me.  I was on a long plane flight with a copy of The Art of Blacksmithing and started to read–in 30 seconds, I had a notebook open next to me as I scribbled scene idea after scene idea, just from reading about the details of the things I had learned in a more hands-on setting.  I think that’s my most perfect learning experience, doing followed up by theory. I am similarly stimulated when I travel or learn languages. I love going to a place and then reading about it in detail.  It feels backward–wouldn’t it be better to learn before you go somewhere?–but I think that gives me preconceptions that aren’t helpful for the stimulation of creativity.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three things do you need in order to write?

[Merrie Haskell] A reasonable night of sleep behind me, a writing tool (pen & paper or computer), and ideally, a notebook or a stack of notecards so I can document the things I don’t want to include in the manuscript.  I have been a creature of ritual and habit from time to time, but so often these things get in my way.  Deadlines which are attached to money have a way of clearing a lot of mental fluff from your process, I’ve found.  I occasionally worry that my process is still too dependent on peripheries (really, a computer AND a notebook?), but whenever I forget the notebook, the process suffers, so I think I really do need it. Jotting notes to myself on the computer helps me very little; the notes just get lost in the shuffle. Having that other thing to look at on the desk beside me while my book is still up on the screen is great. And if I need the physical act of writing with a pen to get me out of my typing-mode brain, it’s right there.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is the last book that you read that knocked your socks off?

[Merrie Haskell] I couldn’t put down WHEN WE WAKE by Karen Healey, which is about a girl that wakes up from a cryogenic sleep a hundred years after she died and has to deal with all the grief and loss of her old world.  I read most of it during my time on the elliptical trainer at the gym, and it’s incredibly awkward to be brought to tears on an elliptical machine. Other people tend to think you’re having an asthma attack or… who knows.  "Sorry, I’m just reading a very affecting book, go back to your treadmill!"

[Manga Maniac Cafe] If you had to pick one book that turned you on to reading, which would it be?

[Merrie Haskell] Without a question, it was Little House on the Prairie.  I was starting to read a lot already, but when I got that for Christmas in first grade, and it seemed like such a *large* and important book and then I read it all, all by myself, I not only realized how much I enjoyed reading, but I felt smart and capable (no one else was reading books that big in my first grade class).  The escape of reading and the increase to my self-worth? A combination impossible to escape.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

[Merrie Haskell] I like to read, of course.  I was a huge YA reader when I was a young adult, and never stopped reading YA along the way. I like TV–my Tumblr is pretty much reblogged gif sets from sitcoms and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and not much else.  Oh, and Revenge.  I dabble in a variety of hobbies, like the aforementioned blacksmithing, gardening, calligraphy, drawing…  

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How can readers connect with you?

[Merrie Haskell] I have a Facebook page, but most of the action is on Twitter (@merriehaskell) and my blog (blog.merriehaskell.com).  

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Thank you!

You can purchase Handbook for Dragon Slayers and The Princess Curse from your favorite bookseller or buy clicking the links below:

About the book:

When a runaway princess throws her lot in with a couple of would-be dragon slayers, before long she is facing down the Wild Hunt, befriending enchanted horses, battling fire-breathing dragons, and learning more about herself than she ever expected…

About the author

Merrie Haskell grew up half in North Carolina, half in Michigan. She wrote her first story at age seven, and she walked dogs after school to save for her first typewriter. She attended the University of Michigan, where she graduated from the Residential College with a degree in biological anthropology. She works in a library with over 7.5 million volumes.

Her first book, the Middle Grade historical fantasy The Princess Curse, was a Junior Library Guild selection. Her second book is Handbook for Dragon Slayers.  Her short fiction appears in Nature, Asimov’s, and various anthologies. Merrie lives in Saline, Michigan.