Debut author Adam Shaughnessy shares his writing journey in penning The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib, a mystery full of plot twists and plenty of mythology. Despite the title of his novel, Adam appears to have told the entire truth and is not a fibber. Although this cannot be verified.
1) Norse gods and other mythic beings and creatures populate your very exciting mystery adventure. How did you decide to focus in on chiefly Norse mythology for this book?
For years, I’ve had an enrichment business where I visit schools, after-schools, and other organizations with story-based enrichment programs. Many of the stories I work with involve mythology. So I’ve been thoughtful for some time about how many amazing mythologies exist around the world and how few of those mythologies get presented to kids, either through school or through popular culture. When I started my programs about fifteen years ago, kids were basically introduced to Greek and Roman myths (that’s changed a little since then, but not too much). I focused on other world myths, including Norse mythology, in my programs to help diversify kids’ exposure. So Norse myths have been on my radar for a while.
When I decided to novelize my storytelling and write the book that eventually became The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB, I looked at all the different mythologies I’d worked with over the years in order to decide which set of myths to focus on. In the end, I couldn’t resist the Norse myths. Part of the reason for that decision was thematic—I knew that the book’s plot would revolve around something called The Unbelievable FIB and Norse mythology boasts one of the best liars out there, Loki. But, really, I focused on Norse mythology for the simple reason it’s awesome. The settings are fantastic. The cosmology of the myths is based on the premise that there’s a giant tree so large that it holds the worlds of the gods, of people, and of the dead in its branches. And the characters that populate those worlds are both wicked and wonderful—often at the same time. Plus they have Ratatosk, the talking insult squirrel, and I don’t think characters get any better than that! So Norse mythology was too tempting of a playground not to go there and play.
2) Mr. Fox is a very intriguing character who lives in a magical henhouse. How did you come up with this idea for the henhouse?
Mister Fox introduces himself as a detective who investigates mysteries that involve myth and magic. I wanted his house, the headquarters of his detective agency, to be memorable. Since I knew I was dealing with mythology in the book, I thought about the most magical structures I remembered from the myths I had read. Baba Yaga’s house sprang immediately to mind.
It’s funny, though—I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea. I knew I wanted to focus on Norse mythology for the book’s main plot. I was worried about trying to add Russian mythology into the mix, too.
At the time I was thinking about all this and working out the book’s plot, I was also still doing my enrichment programs. Those programs utilized the character Mister Fox (though in a slightly different form). I built a lot of props for my programs, and I remember standing in a craft store one day with the idea of building a detective’s briefcase for Mister Fox. I had an old black leather case at home. But while I was at the store I came across a wooden briefcase. I got the idea that Mister Fox’s briefcase should be magical… maybe made from wood from a witch’s house. I saw the image of the briefcase in my head immediately—mysterious lights seeping through the cracks between splintered planks of wood. And that briefcase would copy the design of Mister Fox’s house.
Just like that I was back to Baba Yaga and the idea of the Henhouse, which gets its name from Baba Yaga’s odd ideas about mobile home construction (her house travels by chicken foot). It may sound like an odd process, but one of the things I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I do well when I approach a story as more than just words on a page. Plotting takes on a whole new dimension if I build something related to the story—it gets my brain working in different ways!
3) Without giving anything away, The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib, involves some red herrings, buried clues, puzzles and other classical mystery elements. What did you learn about mystery writing from this experience?
First of all, I gained a whole new appreciation for mysteries. We all know that reading is an interactive experience. It starts with the writer, but it doesn’t end there. The reader creates the story, too. Through interpretation and imagination, the reader adds things of her or his own. That interactivity is one of the things I like best about sharing stories. Mysteries, I found, really enhance that dynamic. This is especially true of fair play stories, where the clues to solving the mystery are there for the reader to find. Suddenly the book becomes a game that the author and reader play together. I LOVE that! Until I wrote the book, I hadn’t thought about mysteries in that way.
Also, I like how mystery writing forces the author to think very carefully about how much information she or he gives out, and how soon. All writers have to do that, really, but I think it’s especially important in writing a mystery. You can’t be too vague or too obvious with your clues.
4) The main character, Pru, is grieving for her deceased father; we learn about him slowly and Pru’s grieving is handled deftly. Did it take you a while to figure out how to deal with this sort of backstory, in a way that wouldn’t interrupt the tone of your novel?
Yes! I’m someone who works out a plot by writing. I don’t start with an outline. I go right into the first draft. And in my very first draft of FIB (which had a very different narrative voice) I explicitly state that though Pru’s father is dead, this story is not about that. And I honestly believed that statement when I wrote the first draft! Then I finished the draft, got my first glimpse of the true shape of the story, and realized I was an idiot. That, in fact, the story was very much about Pru’s dad’s death and how Pru feels about the loss. And, yes, it was a long process to figure out how to incorporate that plot line, how much weight to give it, and when. It was trial and error. I don’t think I was at all happy with it until around the third or fourth draft.
5) A certain talking squirrel is one of my favorite characters. He has some great and creative insults later in the book. Did his personality evolve over time or did his wisecracking ways come to you right away?
Ratatosk, the talking insult squirrel, is one of my favorites, too! He’s a character in Norse myths, though he gets very little mention in the stories and nothing is said about his personality. That seemed like a huge oversight to me. He’s a talking insult squirrel. That’s star material, as far as I’m concerned. So I always knew Ratatosk would have a role in my book and because of that, I figured out his personality pretty early on in the process.
It did take a little work. Because the myths don’t develop the character, I had to figure out who he was, what he was like, and how he communicated. All we get in the myths is a passing reference to the fact that he carries insults from a dragon at the base of Yggdrasil (the world tree) to an eagle at the top. I imagined that it would be frustrating for poor Ratatosk to have the unique status as the world’s only talking squirrel but to be forced to only carry messages for others—to never get to speak his own thoughts, or really be heard. So he’s a bit of a show off when he talks—always using as many words as he can and always picking the fanciest words he can think of. Of course, I also had to account for the fact that Ratatosk has spent eons carrying insults. That kind of thing is bound to rub off on a squirrel. So he’s a little abrasive at first. Really, though, he has a heart of gold!
6) ABE, Pru’s new friend and sidekick is gifted with puzzles. Is this something you are personally good at as well?
Good at? Um… yes? Okay, that’s a fib. But I like puzzles—a lot. As with the mystery element, I think the inclusion of puzzles in the book adds another opportunity for interactivity. Riddles and puzzles give the reader something to play with. I hinted at this earlier, but I suppose it deserves a greater emphasis because it’s really important to me: I love any opportunity to blend story and play. I think both those things are hugely important for children (and adults, but we’re talking about children’s literature here). I’ve carried that belief with me through two decades of working with and now writing for children, and I suspect (and hope!) that I will continue to carry it with me for many years to come.
7) The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib wraps up to a satisfying conclusion, and yet the reader is left with the feeling that the 11 year-old protagonist Prudence Potts will tackle many more mythic mysteries and adventures in the future. In fact, a sequel is planned. When you wrote this novel did you have a series in mind for it?
I did. And this brings us back to your first question, which is a nice bit of symmetry. There are so many wonderful collections of myths out there from all around the world. I think a detective agency that investigates the actions of mythological beings could be a neat vehicle through which to explore those mythological realms. I am, of course, biased.
8) Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your book?
Writers like to play with conventions, I think. We like to turn them inside-out and see what makes them tick. One of the things I like the most about The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB is that it plays with a very popular convention we see in stories for children—the idea that you have to believe in magic to experience it. In FIB, it’s the people who aren’t sure what they believe who can experience magic. It’s the uncertain people, the people with an open mind. It works in the context of the book (I hope!) as a magical system. But it also speaks to something I’m very thoughtful about these days as I go through life—the need to not be so certain about our own ideas and beliefs that we lose the ability to listen to the ideas of others or to see things from their perspective. I hope that also resonates with my readers.
Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page.