We’re so pleased to welcome author Alysa Wishingrad to MUF, here to talk about her new middlegrade novel, THE VERDIGRIS PAWN. She tells us about the book, what the title means, and more about her career and journey to kidlit author.
THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Beau has been raised isolated and alone. And despite the harsh and judgmental treatment he gets from his father, Beau has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects, and how hated and feared their family is. This all changes when he meets Cressi, a young servant, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land – especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for payment of their families taxes.
This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But in order to restore fairness and equality to the Land, he must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a board game similar to chess!) But when you’re reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done. This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places.
MUF: What does the title mean?
AW: The title refers to the key game piece in Fist, in which either the king must knock the verdigris pawn off the board, or the pawn will unseat the king. As for Verdigris, it’s an alchemical reaction that turns copper and brass a beautiful blue-ish green color when it oxidizes. A great example that we can all call to mind is the Statue of Liberty. Just as the pawn in fist can be transformed into the king, Beau, Cressi and Nate, my three central characters, all also go through life-changing transformations.
MUF: This is your debut kidlit novel. What career path led you to write a book? Why MG?
AW: I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was constantly telling and writing stories as a kid. I graduated college with a degree in playwriting and moved back to NYC with the intention of writing plays. But life and work, and a measure of insecurity about my words, got in the way. I followed another career path for about 15 years, but writing would not leave me alone. It was when I moved up to the country to raise my kids that I got back to it.
As for why I write MG, simply put, I love this age. I think MG readers are truly some of the smartest and open people there are. It’s this beautiful knife’s edge time between childhood and the teen years, before the cynicism and deep seeded doubts can take hold. It’s a time of realizing you have a voice and striving to use it. This is fertile terrain both for telling stories and for learning about ourselves.
MUF: You say that your novel is, a “new take on the classic middle grade books we all grew up with.” Can you speak more to that?
AW: There’s a very classic feel to this story, to the way it’s constructed, and I think in the writing as well. It might bring to mind classic fantasies such as the Chronicles of Prydain and Diana Wynn Jones’s work. But while it nods to those stories, it also poses questions that are urgently relevant to our world while challenging some deeply held cultural assumptions.
One of the themes the story explores is who gets to write history, and how is it even possible to tell the entire story from all sides. I like to think that the book will encourage readers to examine issues around power; what does it mean to have it, how can you claim your power when you feel powerless, and can power be wielded to enhance rather than sacrifice the greater good.
MUF: Speaking of classics, what are a few of your favorite classic MG titles?
AW: I used to get lost in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers books for hours on end– oh, how I wanted to have little people living in the walls of my house. I loved how resourceful they were, how clever and united as a family they were, especially through all the very hard times they faced
This one I mention with a caveat that I haven’t re-read it in a very long time, and I’m sure there are elements that do not hold up today, but E.B. White’s Stuart Little was another book I re-read so many times. I loved that here was this mouse who was unconditionally welcomed into the family. That no one questioned that he was different was a picture of the world as it ought to be. And then somehow he aged at twice the rate of his sibling and was ready to go off and explore the world long before they were. There was so much hope and inspiration in that story for me. The blending of the world as we know it with the potential for the fantastical is still the terrain I like to explore as a writer.
MUF: What new MG book(s) do you love?
AW: Oh gosh! How much time do we have?
I have been blown away by so many of my fellow 2021 debuts – but I’ll just stick to the fantasy titles for now since that’s where my heart lives.
Root Magic by Eden Royce is gorgeous, magical historical fiction.
The Gilded Girl by Alyssa Colman is a wonderful magical retelling of The Little Princess with a social conscious.
I love the infusion of mythology with adventure in Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne.
And last but not least, The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis, which will be out in September, is a lyrical and fantastic examination of grief, love and life.
MUF: Can you tell us one thing you learned while writing The Verdigris Pawn?
AW: I learned that white paging a book (starting over from the blank page) is nothing to fear. In fact, it’s incredibly liberating. Sometimes beginning anew is the best way to get to the heart of a story.
I had a meeting early on with my editors to address some issues on how the story was rolling out. The longer we talked the more I realized that I couldn’t patch it, I couldn’t revise my way to a fix. So, I metaphorically balled the book up into a giant 375 page wad, threw it over my shoulder and started over.
The arc of the story has always been the same, but how it rolled out changed – and so very much for the better!
That experience of doing what I once thought of as the unthinkable has made me more daring, and freer as a writer.
Thank you so much for having me, I’ve loved chatting with you!
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