I’m thrilled to welcome Cory Leonardo to the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors to chat about her new novel, The Hedgehog of Oz. As a HUGE fan of all things OZ, I was especially excited to read this book. I was also keen to learn how she came up with the idea and if she was at all nervous about taking a trip down the yellow brick road.
Tell us about The Hedgehog of Oz.
I’d love to! The Hedgehog of Oz is a story about a hedgehog named Marcel who convinces himself that his beloved owner Dorothy no longer loves him, so he runs away during a picnic at the park. He instantly regrets it. Lost Marcel finds his way to the abandoned balcony of the old Emerald City Theater where he and two comical chickens spend their days eating popcorn and candy and where he’s constantly tortured by the Saturday matinee: The Wizard of Oz, his and Dorothy’s favorite movie. But when the animals are found out, all of a sudden, Marcel is boxed-up and kicked to the countryside where he finds himself in an all-too-similar plot. He lands in Mousekinland. He meets Scamp, a spitfire of a mouse who’s trying to prove her smarts to everyone (while brandishing a sling-shooter); Ingot, a grumpy old squirrel without a heart; scared baby raccoon Tuffy, lost and afraid in the forest. There’s Oona the Luna moth to guide him; Toto, well, Toto is actually a fairly useless cocoon; there are awful seagulls, terrible rats, and an owl named Wickedwing stalking their every move. And then there’s home. And what home is. Is it the place you live? Or the people you live with?
How did you come up with the idea?
Marcel came to me first. I was watching a movie with my daughter and one of the side characters was the sweetest (if a little bumbling) character I’d seen in a long time. I instantly wanted to write a book with a character like that. I knew he’d need characters unlike him to balance the story, so I found a loud, brave mouse and a crotchety old squirrel. The problem was, I had no plot. I’d done some extensive research on the Wizard of Oz for a historical novel I began eons ago and had, at one time, used its characters as archetypes. One day it clicked. THIS was the book that was begging for Oz magic. Once I realized that, the book seemed to write itself!
Have you read many of the Oz books? If yes, which one is your favorite?
I’ve actually only read the first!
Did you feel intimidated or anxious about writing a story that takes place in OZ?
Maybe I should have? But with such a classic story there’s a lot of reassurance in knowing the bones of it are good. And sort of like my first book where I took classic poems and reworked them, I absolutely adore exploring beautiful art deeply, tearing it apart, and then playing with the pieces.
Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!
Oh yes. There are definitely pieces of people I know in them. My spunky 8-year-old niece came to mind a lot when writing Scamp. But I’ll pluck personalities, ways of speech, quirks, and hang-ups from anywhere. I love stealing TV personalities. There’s an awful lot of Betty White in Bertie Plopky in The Simple Art of Flying/Call Me Alastair.
How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?
I’m a big believer in drawing on the well of your life experiences. It’s the only well you know deeply. I write a lot about animals because I grew up with a veterinarian mom. I love to write beautiful settings because I live for a good walk in the woods. But the deepest experiences I draw on are feelings. Anxiety, love, wonder, frustration, feeling small, dreaming big . . . I think it’s diving to the deepest part of the well, the human condition, that ends up connecting with the reader in the most intimate way.
What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing?
I actually didn’t read a ton of different books as a kid! We didn’t have many at home (the ones we did, I read a million times though), and I went to a tiny private school without a library. Once a week we trekked to the public library, but I tended to borrow the same books over and over again because it was overwhelming and unfortunately, no one was feeding us a list of books to try. The ones that stick with me the most are the few read aloud by parents and teachers: Narnia and Little House. Once I got to middle school, I found my “thing.” The Babysitter’s Club was EVERYTHING. I’m not sure how much my childhood reading influences my writing other than my desire to create a world that makes readers want to melt right into it, just as every good book does.
What are you working on now?
Oh, lordy. A beast of a book that I think is trying to murder me? I sort of determined that before I started to write some of the more contemporary tales I’ve got swimming in my head, I wanted to cap off my animal characters, at least for a bit. This one is more of a gothic fantasy that jumps back and forth in time and has a missing prince, an unlikely hero of a girl, and magic, some of which has brought a few stuffed animals to life. If you don’t hear from me for a while, you know the book has succeeded in its diabolical murder plan.
What person, place or experience has most impacted your writing life?
Pitch Wars! Definitely. Being edited and mentored (by the brave Cindy Balwin and Amanda Rawson Hill–the best!) at that level of skill gave me an education that’s hard to get from craft books. You don’t know where your blind spots are until you’ve got a few pros pointing them out.
How long was your road to publishing and what happened along the way?
Long. I’d determined NOT to be a writer in college. I managed to avoid every creative writing course offered . . . and I have an English degree. It was too scary. I should’ve realized that the things you run from generally come looking for you in time. I stayed home with my kids, and when I got to the point where I needed to rethink careers, writing kept niggling the back of my mind. I tried to shut it up for a good eight years, even while researching everything about the business, the craft, writing in multiple genres, reading all the children’s books I never did as a kid, and querying picture books. The first novel I finished (there were many others I didn’t) was my Pitch Wars novel. And the rest is history. It was about ten years from start to seeing my book on shelves.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
This can change on any given day, but one thing I’m currently reminding myself is that while I am a writer, being a writer isn’t the total of me. There’s something about this business that can suck the soul from your chest at every stage–published or not. There’s always a height you haven’t reached, a book you haven’t written, meaning you haven’t found in it. Everytime you sit down to write, take off that weighty backpack of fear, guilt, pressure, and comparison, and give it a good kick. Write for the pleasure of writing. That pleasure will find its way into your work. That pleasure will attract people’s notice. And don’t neglect a good walk.
Everybody has a comfort food they turn to when they are feeling down or need an emotional hug. Do you have a comfort book?
When I need to be reminded of the beauty and importance of a good story, or when I just need to sigh and look with wonder on the world, I will always pick up a Kate DiCamillo book. She’s a master.
Thank you for spending time with us at the MUF Files. It has been great getting to know you. I loved The Hedgehog of Oz and hope more adventures are coming our way.
To learn more about Cory Leonardo, please visit her website.