Author Christina Soontornvat says she spent her childhood behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in Weatherford, Texas with her nose stuck in a book, never dreaming that one day she’d become an author. She studied engineering, then planned to be a science museum educator, but while expecting her first child, she found she had lots of stories to tell. And today, Christina’s first middle grade novel, The Changelings, debuts! It’s the story of Izzy and her sister Hen, who vanishes in the forest. Izzy discovers that Hen has been stolen away to the land of Faerie and it’s up to Izzy to bring her home.
Q: Congratulations, Christina! Where did you get the idea for The Changelings? What inspired you to write this story?
A: I have always been intrigued by the Changeling myth that tells how fairies steal human babies and swap them out with a shape-shifter to fool the parents. That myth prompted so many questions for me: What do the fairies do with the human babies they steal? Why would a Changeling agree to leave Faerie and go live with boring old humans? My book imagines some of the answers. I started writing it as a story for my two nieces. The first time I told them the premise — that the little sister is kidnapped by the Pied Piper and her older sister has to go rescue her — my younger niece got scared and started crying! But my older niece was hooked. She asked me to keep going and write the whole thing down. So I did. I am so glad she asked!
A: Oh, man, this is very hard for me because I feel like Izzy and the Changelings are real kids, and I love them all so much. But out of everyone, the Changeling girl, Dree, is extra near and dear to my heart. She looks different than all the others — her skin is translucent, so you can see straight through her. Dree is very self-conscious about this and longs to look “normal,” and she deals with her insecurities by being super sarcastic and catty to everyone. When she and Izzy first meet they are at each others’ throats. But by the end, they become so close. They risk their lives for each other. For me, those fierce friendships are a defining feature of the middle grade years. To this day, my dearest friends are the ones from my childhood.
Q: Is there a scene from the book that makes you tear up or laugh?
A: I have always loved the scene where the main character, Izzy, meets Lug (a Changeling) for the first time. Lug is so sweet and bighearted. He immediately considers Izzy to be a friend, but she is more than a little freaked out by him and by being in this strange new world. That dissonance made for a fun time writing the dialogue in the scene!
Q: Did you always want to be an author? Which books shaped and influenced you as a young reader, and today?
A: When I was growing up, I never dreamed that I would be an author. I always loved to read and tell stories, but for most of my young adulthood I was on track to be a mechanical engineer! I would get ideas for stories, but I would never write them down because I thought you had to be born with a certain talent to be a writer. When my first daughter was born, I realized just how fast time goes, and I decided that if I was ever going to do anything with writing I needed to get the courage and start.
When I was young, I loved reading fantasy. I gobbled up Roald Dahl, Tolkien, Susan Cooper, and the Narnia books, and also read tons of folktales and Greek myths. A fair amount of Calvin and Hobbes, too. I still tend to gravitate toward fantasy written for any age. The His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, the Seraphina books by Rachel Hartman, and The Magicians series by Lev Grossman are some of my favorites.
A: Having a routine is so important for me now, but when I started out I just wrote whenever I could get a scrap of time between caring for a newborn and working a full time job! My brain works best in the morning, so I usually try to write first thing in the day and save all my other work for after lunch.
My writing day usually goes like this: 1. Drop the kids off at school. 2. Play my book playlist really loud on my drive back home. 3. Pour a fresh cup of coffee and get to work! 4. Lunchtime hits and I’m totally wiped. Unless I’m on a deadline and then I pour more coffee and force myself to keep going!
Q: Describe your creative process.
A: I don’t usually start writing a book until I know the ending. I have to write my character toward that end, but I usually don’t know exactly how to get them there. That discovery of everything that happens in the middle is something I really love about drafting. My kids help me when I’m working on something new. I usually tell them a version of the book out loud while we’re driving. Speaking the story and hearing their reactions help me a) get excited about the project and b) pinpoint where the pacing needs work.
Q: You live in Austin, Texas. Tell us about the vibrant writing community there and how it’s helped you as a writer.
A: Our SCBWI chapter is comprised of the best humans on earth. Everyone — from newbies to NYT bestselling authors — is very active in the meetings and events, and so supportive of each other. I’ve turned to the more experienced writers for wisdom and advice countless times. If I didn’t have them to lean on I would be lost in this crazy, confusing world called publishing!
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I just turned in the sequel to The Changelings. Writing a book on deadline was really different and really, really hard. I’m giving myself about a week to rest my overtaxed brain cells and then I’m going to start my next project. It’s the story of a boy who escapes the jail he was born in, and must take shelter in a temple to hide from the watchful eyes of the warden’s daughter. It’s set in a city modeled after Bangkok, Thailand, so I am really excited about it.
Q: And now some fun questions! Where would we find you on a Sunday afternoon? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? And, do you have any pets?
A: Sundays I’m with the family, and because it’s usually sweltering in Austin we will probably be swimming. We have a few secret swimming holes that we love and I can’t tell you about. Sorry.
Green tea ice cream is my favorite. If you put adzuki beans and whipped cream on top you will be my best friend forever.
Tico is my only pet. He is a jaguar trapped in a tabby cat’s body.
Thank you Christina, for visiting with us today at the Mixed-Up Files! Please check out Christina’s website here for more info on her and The Changelings.
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Calli Be Gold (both Wendy Lamb Books) and the upcoming Makers Vs. Fakers (fall 2017 Aladdin Books). Find her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.