credit — Michael Magras
We’re excited to have Diane Magras on here today to talk about her new release. Let’s start with learning a bit more about you, and then we’ll talk more about Shadow Beasts.
Did you have any childhood dreams for when you became an adult? If so, did they come true?
I’ve always wanted to be an author, so the publication of my first book, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, was the fulfillment of that dream. I’d been telling stories for most of my life—beginning with the re-telling I treated my father to every time he attempted to read me a bedtime story—and wrote my first novel when I was in 7th grade. Seeing kids that age reading my books and finding fulfillment in them in an addition to that dream, one I didn’t expect when I was young.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would ask my younger self to write down ten things that she loves about herself, things that she’s proud of, and save that piece of paper to look at each year as she grows up. When you’re young, the world is wide open. The creative juices are flowing and you feel ready for anything. That’s a wonderful time in a kid’s life, and the enthusiasm they can muster about themselves would help a future self immensely.
Did you love to read as a child? Can you tell us some favorite books?
I’ve been quite an avid reader all my life. As a young child, I loved any story of magic and monsters (friendly monsters ideally, though). When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, my favorite book was No Flying in the House by Betty Brock (I adored the idea of being able to fly, but I especially loved Gloria, the tiny white dog, who spoke and took care of the protagonist and was her beloved friend). When I was little older, my favorite book was The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. The opening scenes on Will Stanton’s farm were so much like my own life in a rural place, and the magic and lore drew me in entirely. (I still think the climax in the woods with the hunt is one of the best scenes of its kind.) The Dark is Rising also inspired me to start writing longer and longer stories, which led to my first novel!
What was an early experience where you learned that written language had power?
I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that written language held power! I grew up in a remote, isolated place, and books—written language—made me feel so much bigger than my surroundings. Movies felt more distant to me and seemed out of reach of my own life; written language, however, was a direct link, and utterly real. That’s probably because the story was all in my own mind, a dialogue between me and the author.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I seriously thought about this as a career when I wrote my first novel in 7th grade. My English teacher, Ms. Plourde, had challenged to write a full-length novel (she’d read many of my stories), telling me that there were other people my age who had published books. It felt truly possible to me at that moment.
Have you had any careers besides writing?
I didn’t publish anything until many, many years later. I realized in college that it was nearly impossible to make a living from writing alone, and so I sought other work that could sustain me—yet not rob my imagination—while I wrote my novels in the mornings and evenings on weekends. I’ve worked in fundraising for most of my career, writing the stories of programs that I care about for letters and grant proposals. For almost two decades, I’ve been doing that for a nonprofit that brings books and discussion to marginalized communities around my state. I still have that day job (there’s no way I could make a living from writing alone, unfortunately), but I do love being involved in that kind of work.
Why do you write?
I write because it gives me a chance to escape from the world and create a world where I can do anything: model what I wish my world would be, conjure a fantasy world, meet amazing kids and watch them struggle and experience joy. But also, just to tell a story. That instinct has never left me.
It’s always nice to get to know a little about an author’s personality. So we asked Diane to answer a few fun questions about her writing habits.
What do you drink while writing?
Usually, it’s a nice cuppa. I am very big on strong black tea, and right now am a wee bit obsessed with the tea I’m buying from the Hebrides in Scotland (a special treat)!
Do you have any special things around your desk that help inspire you when you write?
I have quite a few things like that: four beautiful paper castles that my son designed and built; an incredible birthday card that looks like stained glass (he designed and created that for me this year); a pewter quaich from Scotland (a two-handed drinking bowl, meant to signify affection), which was a gift from my husband; and a small Lego sculpture with a golden flag that sits on a note: “Go Mommy!” When my son was in 3rd grade, he wrote that note and made that trophy for me to encourage me while I was working on my first book.
art by Vivienne To
And now that we know about more about Diane, let’s find out about more about her wonderful book, Shadow Beasts.
What inspired you to create this story and the unusual problem Nora faces?
I came up with the premise—near-invincible monsters that destroy human beings with their venom—as a response, in part, to the environmental degradation I was seeing around the world at the time. In one of my brainstorming moments, I asked: “What if the earth spawned something that would get back at people for all the horrible things we’ve done to it?” I wanted to make my monsters nearly invincible, so they’re shadow beasts—creatures that transform from solid to shadow in less than a second, and then back again when they’re beside their prey. Only kids can defeat them—my monsters falter before children, for reasons no one knows—and they turn into mist when they’re destroyed. My protagonist, Nora Kemp, came to mind right away: a rural girl on a sheep farm who was immune to the shadow beasts’ venom and wanted to train to fight them, but who was kept home by her father instead. I wanted to create a portrait of a kid who really struggled with that: knowing that she could be a hero, but being held back by someone she loved until much later.
Your book has been compared to Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee. In what ways is it similar? And how is it different?
It has a similar fast pace and techno-fantasy vibe. And they both feature a conspiracy. The themes are different, though, and there’s a lot of pure evil in Dragon Pearl (which works really well for the story); Secret of the Shadow Beasts, though, looks at how bad choices from the past can fester within a society, and how individual people can make huge mistakes, but still try to do good. None of my characters—monsters included—are purely evil. And our fantasy cultures are quite different: Yoon Ha Lee’s is layered with Korean mythology, while my story has a Scottish tinge.
Did you base your characters on anyone you know?
Nora is based a little on bit me, actually! I was like her in many ways when I was her age: She has a huge imagination and a lot of talent, but is bullied for being different and weird, and doesn’t have a lot of friends. One friend sustains her, though, through their mutual love of gaming. I didn’t game much as a kid, but these days, I’m a casual gamer, so I totally get that part of her world now! And, like Nora, I knit strange caps (not as strange as hers, though) and I always need a cuppa (black tea with a splash of milk).
Have you had any experiences like those of your book character? I hope you haven’t any encounters with Shadow Beasts? But please let us know if you have.
Nora has memories of playing chasing games with her dogs. I was very close to my childhood dogs, and I based much of Nora’s knowledge of dog behavior on things I’d seen. In fact, when she screams voice commands at the Lupus umbrae, the wolf-like shadow beasts, she’s doing something that I’ve done with aggressive dogs!
After a scary encounter, Nora has to decide whether to find ways to make her life safer or step out or to take actions that might prove even more dangerous. How did you give your character the determination she needs to make her life-changing decisions?
This ties in with that psychological burden that Nora’s been carrying: wanting to train to fight the shadow beasts, then being prevented to by her beloved father. He told her that she wasn’t “that kind of person,” the right kind of person to be a knight, as they’re called—which she interpreted as meaning that she wasn’t good enough. She’s been carrying that belief for years—from age seven to 12—and so when she’s offered the chance to become a young knight, it seems like a wish come true. It’s something she longed for, lost (deservedly, she felt), and then regained because she’s worthy after all. Once she’s at Noye’s Hill, the headquarters and training grounds, she’s determined to be the brave young person that she’d always wanted to be, so that plays a big part in her decisions afterward.
But she’s also still a bit unsure of herself; that blow, of being told by her father that she wasn’t good enough, has stayed with her. Little kindnesses and signs of confidence from others—like her senior knight, Amar—make a huge difference.
Do you have any advice for readers on how to face similar situations when they’re afraid?
I think the biggest parallel that readers might have with what Nora encountered was going to a new place where they don’t know anyone, like a new school or a summer camp. And that’s hard, and scary, especially when you feel that you’re totally different from everyone around you. I want those kids who are struggling with that to remember what they’re good at, and remember to value themselves. I hope they also realize that we’re all alone at some point in our lives until we find the people who will value us. And we will. Those people are out there. Just keep looking, and be yourself, and be proud of who are you.
What is your favorite part of the book?
That’s really hard. I love the battle scenes, the emotional bonding scenes, the discoveries, and humor. But I’ll talk about the chat scenes, because I love those too. For one, they were a lot of fun to write. They are literally the chat between Nora and her gaming friend Wilfred, which take place on Warriors of the Frozen Bog, the video game they play together. Nora is at Noye’s Hill, the headquarters, and she’s not supposed to have any possessions, but sneaks in Warriors of the Frozen Bog on a remote player. This allows her to remain connected to home through her contact with Wilfred. They were best friends, but he was always on top, being older, being cool, and having been a competitive gamer for a long time. Nora mattered to him, but he was kind of her mentor. When she becomes a knight, though, she’s suddenly far more important than Wilfred ever was or could be, and he struggles with that. And so their relationship strains. I really enjoyed showing that though a video game chat, and especially the last chat, after they’ve argued horribly, when Nora shares something incredibly vulnerable.
What do you hope readers will take away from the story?
While I hope that readers take away a fun, exciting story with characters who stay in their minds for a long time, I also I hope they think about questions in their own lives—about environmental threats in their areas and the truth behind history. I also hope they realize that you never know what kind of burden someone else is carrying. Near the end of this book, some of my characters share stories about their burdens. You may never hear those stories in real life, but everyone has one.
Please tell us about your other books.
My other two books are The Mad Wolf’s Daughter and its companion novel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. They follow a girl named Drest through an adventure in medieval Scotland. In the first book, after her war-band family has been captured and taken to a castle to be hanged, she sets off to rescue them through a dangerous and unfamiliar landscape, hauling along an injured enemy knight to trade for her beloved brothers and father. In the second, she’s being chased by the same knights who captured her family, because someone’s framed her for a murder, and she has to decide if she’ll run away forever, or find a way to defeat this threat. They’re both fast-paced adventures with medieval insults, lots of swordplay (Drest carried a massive sword during both books), a colorful war-band of her brothers and father, and two traveling companions who become found family for her—the wounded knight and the quirky son of a so-called witch.
Can you share what you’re working on now?
I can’t share specifics until I’m done, but I can share that there’s a lot of warmth in what I’m working on now. Warmth, tension, and vivid characters you’d want to know in real life: I always love that combination in a middle grade novel!Shadow
I’m sure we’ll all be eagerly awaiting the next book once we finish Shadow Beasts! Thanks so much for joining us, Diane. And we look forward to seeing what you come up with next.