It’s our pleasure here at the Mixed Up Files to interview the fabulously funny Jen Swann Downey, author of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS series. The second installment, SWORD IN THE STACKS, has just released from Sourcebooks Jaberwocky. After stumbling upon the secret society of time-traveling ninja librarians, Dorrie has finally joined Petrarch’s Library as an apprentice! One day, she’ll actually go on missions to rescue people whose words have gotten them into trouble. For now she’s taking some interesting classes:
• First and Last Aid: When Nobody Else is Coming
• Spears, Axes, and Cats: Throwing Objects with Precision and Flair
• Codes, Invisible Inks, and Smoke Signals: Keeping Secrets 101
But on a training mission to 1912 England, Dorrie finds herself dangerously close to a member of the Stronghold – the Library’s biggest enemy. This is her opportunity! Dorrie can spy on the enemy, find the missing key…and become a real Lybrarian!
But if she makes a mistake, Dorrie could lead their enemy right to the very place she’s trying to save…and everyone she cares about.
It’s been a couple of years since the Ninja Librarians first began their adventures. What was the genesis of the idea for this series? I think the seed for the series was planted when I saw the phrase “Petrarch’s Library” scrawled on a notebook I found in our never-very-organized, and always-very-clutterful house. Everyone in the family denied being the scrawler, but the phrase ignited my imagination, especially after I looked it up and found it associated with a collection of books that the 14th century humanist and poet, Petrarch, had carried around with him when he traveled on the back of a donkey. That made me laugh, because the phrase had suggested some sort of grand magnificent library. But then I thought, well, even a small collection of books IS a sort of imaginary grand magnificent place because each of the books is a doorway into a different world of ideas, and knowledge, and story.
Suddenly I was imagining “Petrarch’s Library” as a solid, if sprawling building, made out of library chambers from different times and places knitted together by magic into one incredible super-library.
Since I was a kid, I always had the feeling that librarians were masquerading at doing something mundane while actually doing something incredible, mysterious and magical. It seemed reasonable that the work of librarians who staffed the imaginary Petrarch’s Library would defend and protect the flow of information in shall we say, some additional warrior-ish direct action ways!
Dorrie and Marcus have hair-raising adventures in lots of locations throughout history. Tell us a little bit about your research process. You are so kind to dignify my flailing attempts at understanding and conveying history as “a research process”. : ) I love history. I’m quite sure I don’t do any justice to any standards of academic research, but I love rolling around in the past in any way I can. For these first two books, once I settled on a place and time that would figure in the story, I would spend far too much on used books from Amazon to get a general sense of the “wherein” and then do more particular research as I needed to know more. I stare at paintings and statues, read historians’ accounts, and most satisfyingly of all – read uninterpreted original source material. For instance, parts of SWORD IN THE STACKS take place in 1912 London. I loved reading newspapers from the era to get a feel for the time, and how various sectors of society felt about the suffrage question.
The overarching theme of these books seems to be freedom of speech, a very relevant issue-not just for libraries. What do you hope readers will take away from this series? Since I was a young kid, I’ve been awed by those who have spoken “truth to power” often at great cost to themselves. I am enjoying, through these fantasy adventures, posing questions about what exactly we mean by intellectual freedom, why it might have value, and what it means to uphold such a principle in every day life.
I hope readers who may not have thought about these things in a while, or lately, or ever, will join me in that questioning. About how for instance, a chasm can exist between theoretical support for the principle of intellectual freedom and the actions we take or don’t take when confronted with speech/writing we find dangerous, stupid, hurtful, or otherwise offensive. It’s tempting to ignore cases of censorship of viewpoints we don’t share, or viewpoints we actively disagree with.
What are some of the challenges to series writing? Are sequels easier than writing the first book? When I wrote the first book, I chose to devote a good deal of my efforts to world-building. I reveled in (and gnashed my teeth at!) the challenges of making the clear rich fantasy vision of the alternate world inside my head and heart come alive for readers. When I began the second, I felt both tantalized and scared by the fact that the world now existed. My new main job would be to create a compelling story for Dorris and the rest of the Library’s inhabitants to live out WITHIN that world, and I wasn’t sure I could come up with enough story! I felt like a kid who, determined to build a club-house, bends all will to the task, and after much effort succeeds in nailing on the last shingle, but then isn’t quite sure what to DO with the clubhouse!
As I began to imagine Dorris’s story for the second book, it was hard not to think about the possibility of a “disappointing” sequel, which generated Fear and Self-Consciousness. I don’t know about you, but those two cats do not fuel creative flow for me! I had to take back ownership of the book-writing somehow, and make it a creative act that wasn’t about pleasing others, but myself. Which sounds very vague. My specific strategy was to give myself a specific craft challenge. I was very aware of the flaws I perceived via hindsight in my first book, especially in terms of plotting. The task I set for myself was to do a better job of plotting. One that I could feel was an improvement over the plotting in book one, even a small improvement. That if I could do that, no matter what else I achieved or didn’t with the book, I could feel good about that. Somehow that really grounded and motivated me all at once.
You have an amazingly imaginative sense of humor. Please tell us about what kind of kid you were and how you grew to be such a wieldy wordsmith. Oh gosh. What kind of kid was I? I’m sure I was a trial to many neighbors and teachers. I was a big time pretend kid. I read a lot. A lot! But I was also loud and boisterous and a tree climber and a creek wader. I was an idiot. I had no sense of perspective. I always had a big plan: Bike to NYC, join the circus, run a restaurant out of our moldy basement. I lectured the older teens on the block about smoking. I reveled in attics, basements, garages, storm drains, and all the rest of the unclaimed territories in which new civilizations could be erected. I took to writing early, mostly for its usefulness in writing ransom notes. I wrote letters, indignant childhood diary entries, purple poetry, and yearning paeans to each person I fell in love with, but didn’t really write stories until I was deep into matron-hood.
What’s your favorite part of being a children’s author? Writing for people who still believe that anything is possible.
If you could travel back in time to when you were first beginning to write toward publication, what advice would you give yourself or aspiring writers? Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Don’t rush. When you’re sure that your manuscript is in stellar shape, and you’re positive that the very first agent, or second at least, will fall in instant love with it…STOP. Freeze your computer in a block of ice. Lock it in a safe and swallow the key. Hire a cadre of badgers to bury it in the forest (wrapped nicely in protective plastic, naturally) but DON’T SEND OUT THE MANUSCRIPT. Give yourself at least a month. Work on something else. Another story. A macrame project. Anything. But give yourself time to be able to see the manuscript anew. When you were sure that there was nothing left to improve. Then send it out, and good luck!
Do you have any exciting plans for this summer, or do you do most of your traveling in books? My exciting plans include excavating the garden out of the weeds (I should have it ready to go just in time for the first snowstorm), teaching the family’s new dog not to pull all the arms out of all the family sockets whenever during our walks he sees a squirrel, or a cat, or a popsicle stick, or anything really; and yes, exploring the Mongol Empire from my book-page origami airplane. You know…just in case Dorris and Marcus and Ebba have to maybe perhaps possibly visit there…..
And finally, what exactly are all seventeen uses for a flaming arrow? Or does one have to become a lybrarian to find out? We denizens of Petrarch’s Library believe in the free flow of useful information and would be more than happy to share:
The Seventeen Uses of a Flaming Arrow
1. Lighting surprise party birthday cake candles.
2. Severing a rope down which your enemy has only made it halfway down.
3. “Safely” igniting explosives.
4. Illuminating dark archive passages in an exhilarating manner.
5. Beginning a useful stampede at a royal ball.
6. Trimming the hedges.
7. Checking depth of fetid well into which one is about to spelunk.
8. Low-tech signal flare.
9. Simultaneously catching and cooking your supper.
10. Instant wound cauterizer.
11. Encouraging tediously bad actors to exit stage left.
12. Quickly disposing of outdated curtains.
13. Entertainment of small children or easily pleased adults.
14. Testing air quality in an underground cavern.
15. Keeping angry book-burners at bay.
16. Impromptu fondu maker.
17. The ultimate literary exclamation point. : )
We are giving away a hot-off-the-press copy of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: SWORD IN THE STACKS to one lucky winner! All you have to do is tell us an 18th use for a flaming arrow in the comments below!
Jen Swann Downey’s non-fiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publications. She is the author of the middle-grade novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND. Her second novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: SWORD IN THE STACKS is also now available from Sourcebooks. Jen divides her time between libraries and other places, and will never stop looking for lickable wallpaper.