Fantastic Fantasy: A discussion with author Ellen Jensen Abbott


Ellen Jensen Abbott

We at the Mixed Up Files are thrilled to have fantasy author, ELLEN JENSEN ABBOTT, stop by for an interview. Her first book, WATERSMEET, came out in 2009 and the second in the series, THE CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER, hit the shelves just weeks ago. Please join me in welcoming Ellen to our cyber-home! (*wild applause here*)

Hi Ellen! Congratulations on the recent release of THE CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER! Please tell our audience a bit about your trilogy and how it came to be.

Hi! Thanks and glad to be here. Like a lot of writers, I often have a character come to me first, and that was true in this case. The first image I had was of my main character, Abisina. I knew what she looked like—dark skin and hair, light eyes—and I knew that she was an outcast, but that was all. As I started to explore why she was outcast, the entire world began to weave itself together. The trilogy deals with the events in the world that led to the outcasting of whole groups of folk and to the healing of this break—or I hope it will deal with the healing of the break. I’m in the middle of the third book, and right now, no one wants to be healed!

The Centaur's Daughter

Ha! Darn those stubborn characters! Haven’t they read your outline??? Speaking of, outlining an entire trilogy sounds like a huge amount of work. How closely have you stuck to your original? Did you find you had to make some changes once you were up to your elbows in writing?

I stuck fairly close to my original concepts until the third book. As I said above, the characters in the third book are not cooperating and everything is up in the air. (Do I sound nervous?? Excuse me while I gnaw on my finger nails!) Of course there are always changes as you get to know your characters. I tried to put Abisina into a love triangle in The Centaur’s Daughter and she wanted no part of it. The guy I had intended to catch her attention was just too creepy, and she was happy with who she was with! Even now as “everything is up in the air” the broad outlines are intact, but it’s in the details where it gets messy. It’s easy to outline a chapter in a few sentences, but when you actually start to elaborate you discover all the ways that your general idea could play out. In addition, in writing sequels, you are affected by decisions you made years ago. For example, I created my fairy race with specific qualities and values; just because I need them to play a specific role in book three, I can’t change who they are. I have to work within the confines I established—which means, if I’ve made it difficult for myself, I only have myself to blame!

Oh, man, don’t you hate it when that happens? In THE CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER, your main character, Abisina, is a shape-shifter. Besides that obvious difference, how are you and Abisina different? How are you alike?

You’re right that I have never suddenly turned into a centaur, though as I teen, I could relate to that feeling of who is this person I am becoming? Whose body am I living in? Abisina and I are both pretty intense, but I like to think I can kick back a little better than she can. (Of course, I’m not trying to save a nation. Kicking back can’t be that easy when there is a herd of centaurs after you!) She appreciates humor in others, but I am more likely to crack a joke. And while she is an excellent archer, the only time I’ve ever shot an arrow was in PE in 9th grade.

We’re alike in that we both really value the concept of home and family, and at times, both of us have had to search for the home we wanted. I had written most of my first book, before I discovered that similarity! It was there all the time; I just wasn’t looking for it.

First book in the Series: WATERSMEET

Very interesting. Also, Absinia is not a high school English teacher, like you are;) Have you ever taught a class or unit on fantasy? If so, what do you think fantasy offers readers that other genres don’t?

I’ve taught a lot of fantasy/science fiction. I taught en elective for 11th and 12th graders looking at Science Fiction dystopias, including books by Ursula Le Guin, Verner Vinge, Isaac Asimov and Robert Sawyer. Dystopic fiction is fascinating because the societies that turn so bad usually started out as a society crafted to be a utopia. They allow readers to talk about what went wrong—where greed, egotism, religious fanaticism, classism, etc. can take us as humans. By the same token, these novels allow us to discuss what would constitute a Utopia for us which asks students to articulate what social values they cherish.

I’ve also taught the Odyssey to ninth graders—if the Cyclops and Calypso and Circe aren’t fantasy characters, I don’t know fantasy! Aside from being just a really kick-butt story, the Odyssey also is about what it means to be a hero, to be loyal, to be adrift in the world and longing for home.

I’ve always wondered why more fantasy isn’t taught. Essentially, it’s The Giver, 1984, Animal Farm, a few short stories by Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” that appear on a lot of curricula along with folklore and mythology. I think the genre has a lot more to offer!

Absolutely. So, if you were to teach a middle school class on fantasy, what books would you use and why?

I would begin with folktales/fairy tales from around the world. It’s so interesting to see the same motifs come up again and again: the three brothers, the orphaned girl, the tests of bravery and pureness of heart. Equally interesting are the myriad of differences reflecting the cultures the stories are from. The same animal can be good or evil depending on where in the world you are. All fantasy writers today are responding to these early myths and stories, so I would then look at how different characters from early myths show up again in books like the Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, the Artemis Fowl series, and Harry Potter. I would also include more modern dystopias like Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Fanny Billingsley’s Chime and Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia trilogy would also be great in a middle school classroom. And then…oh! I could go on and on! But that would at least get me to Christmas!

Switching gears now, please tell us – if one of your characters in The CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER could come to life and stay a week in your house who would you choose and why?

Wow! That is so hard! It would be fun to hang out with Findlay, Abisina’s love interest, because he’s easy going and funny—and easy on the eyes! Elodie, Abisina’s best friend, would be a nice guest because she tends to look on the bright side; I could use her humor when I’m grading papers and trying to make a book deadline. I would love to have Rueshlan come. He’s Abisina’s shape-shifting father and he’s heroic in terms of both his physical attributes and his character. I really admire him and would love to get to know him better. Hoysta, the dwarf, is a dear, but I’d have to keep her out of the kitchen! No smoked moles for me! I guess, Haret the dwarf would be the one I would most want to have, though. He is the one who gives it straight to Abisina; she always knows where she stands with him, and those kinds of friends are invaluable.

Agreed. Anyone who would be barred at the door?

Aside from all the creatures like trolls, minotaurs, and leviathan birds, I would rather not have the Fairy Mother come to stay. She’s just too imperious, too commanding to be a good house-guest. And I would have nowhere to put her huge fairy guards!

Ellen, thanks so much for talking with us here at the Mixed Up Files. We can’t wait to dive deeper into this fascinating world you’ve created!

Readers: what fantasy stories would you like to see taught/read in schools?

Find out more about Ellen Jensen Abbott and her fantasy trilogy here

Beverly Patt