An interview with author Delia Sherman on her latest middle grade fantasy

imgres-1Congratulations to Delia Sherman on the recently published The Evil Wizard Smallbone, and thanks for joining us here at the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?
It began with a short story I wrote for an anthology called Troll’s Eye View, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The theme of the anthology was to retell a classic fairy tale — from the point of view of the villain. As I always do when I want to build a good, juicy fairy tale retelling, I went to Fairy Tales From Many Lands, a book I’ve had ever since I can remember. I’ve long wanted to retell the story of “The Wizard Outwitted,” a Russian fairy tale full of shapeshifting and trickery and wizard’s duels (because, I ask you, who doesn’t love a good wizard’s duel?), so I did that. In 3500 words. Which didn’t actually leave me room for the wizard’s duel. Or, indeed, many of the things I wanted to say. So I thought some more about Nick’s training and development and went to the Blue Hill Fair (the very same fair Wilbur attended with Fern in Charlotte’s Web), where I talked to a trapper about gray wolves and coyotes in Maine and to a pig-farmer about pigs, and it all came together somehow.

There’s quite a bit of shape-shifting in this novel, and the descriptions are so vivid. Did you research wolves and coyotes, for example, to capture them so well or perhaps you have observed or spent time with these animals?
It was all research. My terrible secret is that I’m horribly allergic to all animals, and can’t have one and breathe at the same time. Which is why I suppose I almost always end up putting animals in my books—they’re guaranteed to be hypoallergenic. But I digress. I read a lot about wolves and spiders and rats and coyotes (and some other animals that I ended up cutting out because the book was getting too long. Nick turned into a crow once. I was sorry to see that go.) But I think my best source ended up being nature video on You Tube, where I learned what a rat sees and what the fox says, pretty much first hand.

What was the hardest thing about writing about wizards?
Figuring out the magic. I didn’t want it to be “Alakazam, wave my hand, you’re a frog”-type magic. And I didn’t want it to be too formulaic and scientific. I wanted it to seem as if it could really work and still be mysterious and wonderful. So I read about folk magic (think horseshoes for luck and salt to keep evil away) and formal magic (pentagrams and chants) and mixed them with things I personally think are cool (books that talk back to you and magical snow-blowing).

What was the easiest thing writing about wizards?
Stuff that is magic as well as used to do magic, like Smallbone’s coat and hat, Fidelou’s pelt-cape, enchanted bookstores and talking books. I’m sure I borrowed many of them from folk lore, from old fairytales, from books I read as a kid and don’t even remember reading, but they all felt as if they just showed up when they were needed, demanding to be added. So I did.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A little bit of both. When pantsing leaves me without anywhere to go, I plot for awhile until I can see my way forward, and then I go back to making it up as I go along. That’s the first draft, though. For all other drafts (Evil Wizard took seven), I have to make a plan, or I just make things worse.

There are so many surprises and unexpected reveals. How did these plot twists come about?

Now that I come to think about it, it has to be fairytales again. You read enough of them, you realize that one of the patterns is this: The hero has an adventure, which leads to another adventure, which develops a side-quest, which gets him embroiled in another adventure altogether. I guess I’ve read so many fairy tales over the years that that kind of thinking is just part of the way my mind works.

How much were you aware of both following the wizard apprentice tale type and how much did you consciously deviate from it?
Well, I was working off a fairy tale, and I have seen Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and read The Sword in the Stone, although the Wart is not really Merlin’s apprentice. Setting the story in modern (more or less) Maine was a big deviation, as was Nick’s original complete lack of interest in being a wizard—or even believing that magic exists. I think what really happens when I retell a fairy story is that at some point the story I’m writing takes off from its roots and grows into something slightly different. Except for the wizard, the shape-changing, and the wizard’s duel, there are not really a lot of similarities between Nick’s story and the original.

This is set during a hardscrabble winter in New England, and it’s very cold and described so well. Is this a climate/area you know first-hand?
I began to write this story when I started staying at my friend’s house on the coast of Maine. I’ve never been there in winter, mind, but I’ve read books set there (also in Finland, which is very like Maine in many ways). I spent one of the coldest, darkest, and most uncomfortable years of my life in an inland town a long time ago, and I lived in Massachusetts for a long time, some of it in a house heated by a wood stove. So I do know plenty about snow, wind, cold, and even chopping wood.

Why did you write this book?
I haven’t the foggiest notion. All the time I was writing it, I kept thinking maybe I should be working on something else, that it wasn’t really the kind of book I write, that Nick was difficult and I don’t know anything about motorcycles or small towns (I grew up in New York City, after all). And yet, I kept working at it. I guess the real answer is that I’m a lot more like Nick than I thought.

The wizards in this novel are quite idiosyncratic. How did you come up with the idea for such a grumpy wizard (SmallBone) as well as his nemesis (Fidelou, the wolf wizard).
There are lots of grumpy wizards in literature. Even good wizards like Gandalf and Merlin and Dumbledore and Chrestomanci can be plenty crabby and short-tempered. Another thing wizards have in common is that they tend to be loners. You don’t read much about wizards with lots of friends and family (except in Harry Potter). So I just took that crabbiness to its logical extreme. Fidelou, on the other hand, is only interested in power. He wants it all, no matter what he has to do or who he has to hurt to get it. That, in my opinion, is what real evil is.

The main character, 12 year-old Nick Reynaud, can’t really read at the beginning of the novel. One of the main changes is that he learns to read and grow in confidence as well as security. How did the choice for Nick to be such a struggling reader come about?
Well, he says he can’t read; he can actually read perfectly well, and has a taste for science fiction and fantasy, just like his Mom. Still, I suspect he hasn’t read much until he gets to Evil Wizard books, partly because Uncle Gabe doesn’t have any books in the house and partly because he can’t see the point of the books he’s expected to read in school. He’s indignant when the bookshop gives him E-Z Spelz For Little Wizardz, but he reads it because he really, really wants to learn magic. I guess I believe that having a reason to read something is more motivating than just being told that it’s good for you.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the 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 and on her Facebook page.

Hillary Homzie
1 Comment
  1. Such a fun interview, Hillary and Delia!