Interview with Christine Brodien-Jones – Author of The Owl Keeper

Christine Brodien-Jones dropped by the virtual offices to talk about her debut novel, The Owl Keeper, which hits stores April 13.  I love the cover with the fluffy owl perched on a branch with the moon shining behind it, so of course the book was quickly added to my wish list.  I was excited when Christine stopped by, because I know she’s ramping up for the big release day next week!

Describe yourself in 140 characters or less.

Having grown up an only child who lived inside her head much of the time, I still tend to be dreamy and inward.  I’ve always had a deep passion for reading (nothing beats the smell of musty old books!) and, of course, for writing.  I guess you could say traveling, another of my passions, defines me as well; I never tire of exploring the unknown (by foot, kayak or sailboat) and traveling to distant corners of places like Argentina or Spain.  I’m reserved, quietly determined (I am, after all, a Taurus!), at times solitary, given to flights of the imagination, a summer person, a wanderer whenever possible.

Can you tell us a little about your novel, The Owl Keeper?

The setting for THE OWL KEEPER is a world very like our own, at an unknown time in the future when the government’s reckless experiments with weather have caused a major climactic and social shift. The totalitarian High Echelon keeps a sharp eye on the populace, having banned books and shut down museums, libraries and universities.

Max Unger, the unlikely hero of the book, is sickly, timid and allergic to the sun.  He lives in a world without friends, without books, without light—a world where you follow the rules or else you might end up in Children’s Prison.  Stuck in the house all day, he sneaks outdoors at night, where he communes with an owl beneath an ancient tree.

When the first chapter opens, Max’s only friend is this lone silver owl.  What’s kept Max sane is this owl and his memories of stories told to him by his Gran about the silver owls and the world before the Great Destruction.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a mysterious girl named Rose appears and turns his orderly life on its head.  I always knew that Max’s story would be a journey, a quest of some sort. When his world falls apart, he flees with Rose into the forest, the last place in the world Max wants to go, heading north to a frozen no-man’s land.  Tracked by sinister creatures, they travel in search of the elusive Owl Keeper—who may or may not be real.

How did you come up with the concept and the characters for the story?

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of what the world might be like in the future. “On the Beach,” a 1950s film about the world after a nuclear explosion, had a profound effect on me when I was young, along with John Wyndham’s novel THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. I’d also experienced living in Spain under the dictator Francisco Franco: a government not unlike the High Echelon.

I started THE OWL KEEPER in November 2001, when the world felt particularly felt bleak and grim.  I wanted to write a story about hope.  Around that time I was struck by an article in The New York Times that described children who are unable to tolerate ultraviolet light.   I also saw a film called “The Others,” a Gothic tale about a brother and sister who are fatally allergic to sunlight. I was intrigued by this idea and decided to give my book’s hero an aversion to the sun.

I began to imagine a young boy in a forest, standing beneath an old gnarled tree. Every night, before falling asleep, I’d see him—with mist swirling and a black rushing river and an owl up in the tree. I knew this boy loved this owl, and he loved the darkness too, but he was afraid. I was drawn to the mystery surrounding the boy, the owl, the forest. All I knew was, the boy was keeping a secret – a dangerous secret – and his world was about to fall apart.

The character of Rose somehow sprang full-blown out of the forest onto the page: impulsive and wild, driving Max crazy with her bossiness and radical ideas, no doubt inspired by one of my unconventional childhood heroines, like Pippi Longstocking or Meg Murry.  The insectile Dr. Tredegar popped up out of nowhere, and Einstein I realized had been a minor character in a novel I’d written earlier and never published.  The character of Mrs. Crumlin is loosely based on a real person (I’m not telling who!).

Have you learned anything about yourself through your characters?

Hmm, intriguing question.  I grew quite attached to Max as the story evolved, I think because he had this endearing quality of innocence.   He also proved to be a true friend.  And, although he lives in the dark, he carries this special light within him.  I think I learned from Max the value of courage in the face of terrible odds; the power of friendship; and what it means to persist and not give up.  Max’s unwavering love for his owl is inspiring, as is his determination to keep alive the memory of his Gran and her magical stories.

What has been the most challenging aspect of writing the book?

It me took a long time to weave together the disparate elements of this futuristic world I’d set into motion.  I had lots of great ideas, but some of them were floating in space, totally unconnected to the book or to each other.  Certain things I had to let go, and other aspects of the book I had to clarify in much greater detail.  With help from my Random House editor, Krista Marino, I pulled together all the loose strands and devised an overarching framework that made sense.

My other challenge was transforming Max from a somewhat shy, timid, sickly loner to a boy who reclaims his courage and carries on against all odds.  Again, my editor was on hand to suggest ways to breathe life into Max, and to create a sympathetic character with whom readers could connect.  By the end I realized more than ever that, even in a novel, every sentence counts.  And details matter. 

Can you share your experiences finding a publisher? What was the process like?

For many years I wrote adult short stories, and newspaper/magazine articles. Two events set me in another direction: reading stories out loud to my two young sons and a children’s literature course I took in graduate school. I rediscovered the astonishing world of children’s books and decided to write the kinds of stories I’d loved as a child. My first novel, THE DREAMKEEPERS (Macmillan/ Bradbury Press), I’d sent directly to the editor, without an agent.  Back in the early 1990s, some publishing companies were still using typewriters!  And there was no promoting your book online, because the Internet was in its infancy.  Hard to imagine now.

After Dreamkeepers came out in 1992, I worked as a teacher and then an online editor; it was a struggle to find time to write.  Up until a few years ago I was sending out manuscripts without an agent – and often getting personal letters from editors back.  Many editors expressed interest, but nothing sold.  My husband Peter and I started talking about setting up our own publishing company.

Then everything changed when, in 2006, Peter urged me to quit working and write full-time.  It seemed risky, a now-or-never leap.  I’d kept hearing about an agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency named Stephen Fraser and I recognized his name.  He’d been one of the editors who ‘d personally written to me about a manuscript! Having left HarperCollins, he was now an agent.  Serendipity!  As it turned out, he loved THE OWL KEEPER and promised to find a home for it.  A few months later he sold the book to Random House.

I’d like to mention one aspect of the publishing world that has totally changed for the better: the way books are being publicized, reviewed, talked about, blogged about, tweeted about, and kept alive in so many unique ways on the Internet.  A real sea change has taken place in recent years, with young readers having more access to authors and books than ever before, and the extensive networking that’s taking place among writers and all throughout the publishing world.

How did you feel the first time you saw the cover for the book? Did you have any input into the final cover design?

I remember I was in Buenos Aires when my editor emailed the cover to ask what I thought of it.  I was stunned, because it was so incredibly beautiful.  I thought the owl was perfect, and mirrored the image inside my head when I wrote the book.  The cover captured the ethereal quality of the owl as well as the dark, mysterious tone of the book.  Fernando Juarez is the artist, and I’ve been in touch with him since (he lives in Spain) to let him know how much I love this cover.

I should add that there are also wonderful illustrations inside the book, at each chapter heading, done by a British artist, Maggie Kneen.  They remind me somewhat of Mervyn Peake’s illustrations for the Gormenghast trilogy, though her work is less dark and more magical-looking. 

What’s the most gratifying aspect of having your book published?

Knowing that, hey, guess what, it’s never too late!  THE OWL KEEPER comes out nearly two decades after my first novel, THE DREAMKEEPERS, which floors me every time I think about it.  People say to me ‘you never gave up,’ but it was never a question of giving up.  After all, I wasn’t about to stop writing.  The hard part was finding the time to do it.  And I’m proud to have survived all those years of rejections and frustration over not having enough time and not getting published. The process of finding a home for THE OWL KEEPER has been incredible, and it amazes me that so many people believe in this book.

Who was your biggest supporter while you were working on the book?

There wasn’t just one – there are too many to count!  My husband Peter, who helped with the ending and to whom the book is dedicated. My incredible agent Stephen Fraser of The Jennifer De Chiara Agency who believed in THE OWL KEEPER from day one.  My brilliant editor, Krista Marino, senior editor at Random House/Delacorte Press, who took me under her wing and helped improve the book in every way imaginable.  And my mentors: authors Pat Lowery Collins and Jo Ann Stover and the loyal members of my longtime critique group.  (I could go on…!)

Can you share some of your favorite books when you were a kid?

As a child I spent hours reading books – on the back porch, up in a tree, under the covers with a flashlight!   The Red, Yellow and Blue Fairy Tale books; Hans Christian Andersen’s THE SNOW QUEEN; LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott; PIPPI LONGSTOCKING by Astrid Lindgren; Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME; KNIGHT’S CASTLE, MAGIC BY THE LAKE and all of Edward Eager’s time-travel books; Margot Benary-Isbert’s THE WICKED ENCHANTMENT (now, sadly, out of print). In middle school I gravitated toward Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, Daphne Du Maurier’s REBECCA, and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury and H. P. Lovecraft. 

What are you working on next?

My next novel will be an adventure-fantasy set in Morocco, in the Sahara Desert, which Random House/Delacorte Press is also publishing. Its heroine is Zagora, who’s tough and impulsive and a knock-your-socks-off kind of character in an unpredictable world. 

Spring is coming – what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?

That’s easy!  Blueberry-cheesecake!   (:  

Thanks again for participating!

Thanks for inviting me, Julie, it’s been fun! 

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If you are interested in learning more about Christine, you can visit her website here.  She will also be making some appearances, so you can even meet her and tell her how awesome you think her book is! Her schedule is listed below.  Here is all of the information you need to run out and grab a copy of the book:

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (April 13, 2010)

Format: Hardcover

ISBN:  978-0385738149

Product description (from Amazon):

Maxwell Unger has always loved the night. He used to do brave things like go tramping through the forest with his gran after dark. He loved the stories she told him about the world before the Destruction—about nature, and books, and the silver owls. His favorite story, though, was about the Owl Keeper.

According to Max’s gran, in times of darkness the Owl Keeper would appear to unite owls and sages against the powers of the dark. Gran is gone now, and so are her stories of how the world used to be. Max is no longer brave. The forest is dangerous, the books Gran had saved have been destroyed, and the silver owls are extinct. At least that’s what the High Echelon says. But Max knows better.

Maxwell Unger has a secret. And when a mysterious girl comes to town, he might just have to start being brave again.
The time of the Owl Keeper, Gran would say, is coming soon.

AUTHOR APPEARANCES:

CHRISTINE BRODIEN-JONES – THE OWL KEEPER

AUTHOR EVENTS:

1. Launch Party & Book-signing: Saturday April 17, 2010

Wavepaint Design & Gallery (http://www.wavepaint.com/)

4 Market Street

Ipswich, MA

BOOK READING FROM 4-5PM

Patrick Doud (THE HUNT FOR THE EYE OF OGIN), Christine Brodien-Jones (THE OWL KEEPER) and Pat Lowery Collins (HIDDEN VOICES) read from their newest middle grade and young adult books. ARTISTS’ RECEPTION FROM 5-7PM

Reception to meet the talented illustrators and authors of the current exhibition. Mary Jane Begin, Pat Lowery Collins, Ed Emberley, Jamie Harper, Jarrett Krosoczka, Kristina Lindborg, Tom Palance, Julia Purinton, and Andy J. Smith currently have original work on display.

2. Danvers Literary Festival: Saturday May 8, 2010

http://danversliteraryfestival.wordpress.com/

Peabody Institute Library

15 Sylvan St.

Danvers, MA 01923

BOOK READING 10:00AM

Christine Brodien-Jones (THE OWL KEEPER) and Patrick Doud (THE HUNT FOR THE EYE OF OGIN) will be reading from and discussing their books for kids ages ten and up

3. Wings, Waves & Woods: Friday May 21, 2010

The Pearson Legacy Gallery

13 Dow Road

Deer Isle, Maine

Christine Brodien-Jones will sign copies of her book THE OWL KEEPER, a fantasy for ages ten and up

4. Celebration of the Sea Festival: Saturday June 5, 2010

Eastern Point Day School

8 Farrington Ave.

Gloucester, MA 01930

5. Winslow House Bookstock Festival: Saturday October 9, 2010

http://winslowhouse.org/blog/tag/bookstock/

634 Careswell Street

Marshfield, MA 02050-5623

(781) 837-5753