About a year ago I had the privilege of interviewing Claire for her debut book, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. Cavendish quickly became one of my favorite books, and Claire one of my new favorite authors! I was so excited when I had the opportunity to interview Claire this year, this time with a new book, The Year of Shadows. And yes, it is another favorite 🙂 The best part about the interview? Well, it’s got a little bit of everything for our wonderful readers here at The Mixed-Up Files! Read on to find out more!
Olivia Stellatella is having a rough year.
Her mother left, her neglectful father — the maestro of a failing orchestra — has moved her and her grandmother into his dark, broken-down concert hall to save money, and her only friend is Igor, an ornery stray cat.
Just when she thinks life couldn’t get any weirder, she meets four ghosts who haunt the hall. They need Olivia’s help — if the hall is torn down, they’ll be stuck as ghosts forever, never able to move on.
Olivia has to do the impossible for her shadowy new friends: Save the concert hall. But helping the dead has powerful consequences for the living . . . and soon it’s not just the concert hall that needs saving.
For the writers:
Amie: The last time you were here you talked a bit about your inspiration for your first book, The Cavendish Home For Boys and Girls. What experiences did you draw upon for The Year of Shadows?
Claire: As I discussed at length on librarian Beth Shaum’s blog, I used to be a musician—and I loved it. It’s such a huge part of who I am that it influences all my writing. For example, in Cavendish, one of the main characters, Lawrence, is a pianist, and the protagonist, Victoria, often thinks about him and his music to help her get through some treacherous parts of the book. She even uses music to communicate with the Home itself. In The Year of Shadows, music plays a huge role: The story takes place at a symphony hall, and the main character’s father is an orchestra conductor. And Winterspell, my first YA novel due out next year, is a re-telling of the ballet The Nutcracker, and I’ve been obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s score from an early age. My experiences with music influence my work just by being a part of me, naturally bleeding into my writing.
Amie: Sounds like we have a lot in common as I’m also a musician!
Claire: Also, while I was drafting and revising The Year of Shadows, my mom was going through some pretty brutal cancer treatments. Obviously, this was a huge ordeal for her, but it was also an ordeal for me and my brother. We experienced some heavy emotions during that time—anger, fear, sadness. A lot of that made its way into The Year of Shadows, especially in how Olivia processes her mom’s abandonment, her father’s neglect, and her relationships with the ghosts.
And that’s what The Year of Shadows is really about: family. The family related to you by blood, and the family you create for yourself in the people around you.
Amie: As painful as your mother’s experience was for all of you, there was a lot of emotion in Year of Shadows and it’s obvious you used your situation to influence your writing. Who was your favorite character to write about and why? (I just adored the cat, Igor, because the dialog he exchanges with Olivia is just how I’d imagine a cat would speak!)
Claire: Igor was so fun to write! I must confess, though: I’m actually 100% a dog person. Shhh! Don’t tell Igor.
Amie: Ha! Me too. We love our fluffy little bichon 🙂
Claire: Besides Igor, I of course loved writing Olivia because it was so easy to get inside her head. She and I are alike in a lot of ways: We both tend to withdraw in times of emotional turmoil, and we both have a darker side that, if we’re not careful, can drag us down into horrible places. Thankfully, we’re also alike in that we have great support networks around us, offering a helping hand even when we don’t think we want one.
Amie: I liked Olivia’s broody character a lot. I knew girls just like her in high school. Olivia harbors a lot of hard feelings about her mom leaving. Do you think those feelings of anger propel her to make some of her choices with the ghosts?
Claire: Yes, in that Olivia struggles with dark thoughts and feelings in the wake of her mother’s abandonment. That event sets off a whole series of catastrophic events that leave Olivia feeling lost, broken, confused, and alone. She is desperate for some kind of control, and when the ghosts show up, they represent an opportunity to do just that—control a piece of her otherwise uncontrollable world. Olivia says as much: “If I could make sense of ghosts, if I could solve that, I could solve anything. Maybe if I figured out where this one puzzle piece went, I could find the rest of them and somehow put my life back together.” (The Year of Shadows, pg. 61)
In addition, Olivia is especially fascinated with the Big Ideas of loss, death, and the afterlife. She hasn’t experienced these things, but in the wake of her mom leaving, she turns her thoughts in that rather morbid direction—drawing strange pictures and wearing dark clothes—because it helps her process the unsettling emotions her current circumstances have created. When the ghosts show up, learning about them, spending time with them, and helping them are the perfect macabre outlets for her sorrow.
Amie: The Year of Shadows is your second book. Tell us how publishing your second book is different than your first.
Claire: The experiences were quite different, indeed. When I wrote Cavendish, it was with the hope, but not the knowledge, that it would be published. I wrote it quickly, sold it quickly, and it was in general a simpler story.
However, when I wrote The Year of Shadows, I knew that it would be published, and that added something new to the mix: fear. I felt a pressure (totally self-inflicted, by the way) that I hadn’t felt when writing Cavendish. I knew that people would be watching me this time, waiting, and wondering: “Will this be any good? Or is she a one-trick pony?” This anxiety didn’t affect the final product, but it certainly affected how I worked. In addition, The Year of Shadows is a more complex book—emotionally and structurally—so that was intimidating as well.
On a positive note, while I don’t think any author ever truly knows what he or she is doing all the time—there is always much to learn about the publishing industry—I felt, in a way, more confident this time around, even as I fretted about the dreaded “sophomore slump” syndrome. That confidence came from the friends I had made in the industry and the knowledge I had learned over the course of the first book’s publication. Although every book is different, and no two publishing experiences are the same, I believe that with each book comes a greater overall authorial strength. Each “book baby” helps you learn your craft more intimately and gain a better understanding of the industry. (Although, as I said: There’s always more to learn!)
For the teachers/librarians:
Amie: Olivia allows the ghosts who occupy Emerson Hall to possess her body. How do you think readers will react to that? Do you feel like you pushed the envelope with this plot point (either in a good way or a bad one)?
Claire: What a great question! And you know, the funny thing is, I never thought twice about the possession element. I guess that shows you how my brain works, mwahaha. 😉
In all seriousness, although no one during the drafting, revision, and production processes expressed concern at this plot point, I can see how it could be considered “pushing the envelope.” Olivia and Henry do indeed allow ghosts to possess their minds. The ghosts use the kids’ minds to relive their last moments and uncover what the ghosts’ anchors are. The idea of letting another being inhabit your mind is a troubling one. Not to mention the fact that the possession leaves Olivia and Henry with some pretty intense side effects—nausea, exhaustion, emotional fragility, mental stress. And not to mention the fact that, during possession, Olivia and Henry experience death—albeit someone else’s.
Although I wasn’t concerned about these plot points specifically, I’m always mindful of my audience when writing middle grade novels, and I try to write about intense topics in a way young readers can process without too much trouble. I’m also always mindful of the fact that young readers are, plain and simple, incredibly smart. Over the course of my career so far, they’ve asked me insightful questions and displayed tremendous maturity. So, while I do try to write these scarier scenes with a certain degree of discretion and tenderness (yes, tenderness, even in a scary scene!), I’m also confident that my young readers will process these scenes with intelligence and thoughtfulness.
And, one final note: I think the possession scenes, and the ghosts’ memories scenes, would be great ones for teachers and librarians to discuss with their students! They present some interesting questions about identity, sacrifice, and death itself.
Amie: I agree completely. I loved the possession scenes for precisely the reasons you describe. Self identity, sacrifice and even death are difficult for children to experience, but you’ve done a great job of touching on these themes in a sensitive way. I’ve compared Cavendish to Coraline. What would you consider to be some book comps for Year of Shadows?
Claire: Oh goodness, I’m terrible with comp titles! (Shameful, considering I was a librarian, albeit briefly.) I would say that the classic ghost stories by Betty Ren Wright and Mary Downing Hahn (The Dollhouse Murders, Wait Til Helen Comes) would be great readalikes, as well as Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po, another book that talks about death and loss. I would also recommend The Year of Shadows to fans of the lyrical, lovely Breadcrumbs by the even lovelier Anne Ursu (who, as it happens, blurbed The Year of Shadows!). Both books address issues of family, friendship, and feeling like an outsider.
For the parents:
Amie: Many families experience similar situations to Olivia and her dad (homelessness, divorce/separation, etc.) Do you have any advice on how parents can talk to their kids about these situations so they don’t have to suffer in silence like Olivia?
Claire: Another great question! You’re just chock full of them, Amie. 😉
Amie: They don’t call me the interview queen for nuttin! 😉
Claire: I’m not a parent myself, so it feels a bit disingenuous to offer advice to them, but I will say this, hearkening back to my earlier answer: Kids are so unbelievably smart. They are curious and they want to know. Withholding important information from them—reasons why a certain thing is happening, the cause of someone’s behavior, how you as a parent are feeling and the problems you are facing—can, I think, do more harm than good.
The Maestro withholds information from Olivia—the true financial circumstances of their family and of the orchestra, his thought process behind selling their home and moving them into Emerson Hall, why he and his wife fought so much in the months leading up to her leaving. He distances himself from Olivia in every way imaginable. He hardly sees her. What Olivia doesn’t at first realize is that he’s doing this because he thinks it will protect her. Better for her to hate him, he thinks, better to see him as this unreachable, formidable figure, than to see him at his most vulnerable. Better to not talk to her at all than open himself up to her and tell her the truth. He is afraid of his daughter—perhaps of how he will see himself through her eyes, and that he won’t like what he sees. So he ignores her instead.
This failure to communicate lies at the root of many relationship problems, but I think between parents and children, non-communication often stems from, on the parent’s side, a misguided determination to protect the child from difficult issues. There is some wisdom in that—but only to a point. There is also much potential danger in such a disconnect, evidenced in Olivia and the Maestro’s relationship. If he had sat her down from the beginning, answered her questions, not shrunk away from her accusations but accepted them and apologized; if he had explained to her what was happening, if he had given her the chance to see him, much of their trouble could have been avoided.
But then we wouldn’t have a story. 😉
For the readers:
Amie: I love how your books have strong female characters – why do you think that’s important for middle grade girls?
Claire: Middle grade girls are at that brief, strange point between childhood and adolescence, rife with transformation. They feel a lot of things during this transition—new things, scary things. They become exposed to a wider world and might experience any number of unfamiliar emotions in response. At this age, they become acutely aware of how they should look, how they should act, how they should dress, what they should feel, who they should like, what they should believe. There is a lot of should in a middle grade girl’s world. With that in mind, I like to write about girls who experience these feelings of should—Should I really be so angry? Should I swallow my anger at my father and just play nice?—and work past them to feelings of am. I am angry. I am lonely. I am unique. And that unique is not always palatable or tidy, but it is me, and I’m starting to become okay with that. That’s an invaluable concept, especially for girls at that vulnerable age.
Amie: I agree – it’s a fun and exciting time for these girls, which some approach with trepidation. It’s good for girls in this group to relate to someone, even characters in a book! Although Olivia is awesome in her own right, I felt like the unsung heros in The Year of Shadows were Mr. Worthington, Tillie, Jax and Frederick – the ghosts. Oh and of course, Henry. Tell me about your favorite hero in YOS and why.
Claire: Oh, I love this question! You bring up a great point that the protagonist of a story is not that story’s only hero. Often a story is peppered with heroes who may or may not get their chance in the spotlight. My favorite hero in The Year of Shadows is probably Mr. Worthington. He’s a fragile, reticent ghost, probably the most bizarre of the four, and may seem like a strange choice. But consider this: Even though he is literally falling apart due to his ghostly age, in danger of being pulled into Limbo at any moment, Mr. Worthington insists the other ghosts be helped first. He watches over Olivia like the father she needs and desperately misses. And, when we learn about Mr. Worthington’s past, we see him demonstrate a similar selflessness for a loved one—even though, again, it puts his own life at risk.
I just adored writing him, even though he doesn’t speak much. I love his fedora and business suit. I love his strange, wordless noises. I love how he creeps everyone out—but they love him anyway. I love how he loves Olivia like she is his own. In short: Mr. Worthington FTW!
Amie: Agreed! I felt like there were multiple villains (some intentional, others coincidental)—Olivia’s dad (the Maestro), Olivia’s mom, and the Shades. How was it to write multiple villains, trying to keep them in perspective not only to the reader but also to the characters in the story?
Claire: Interesting that you would count Olivia’s mom as one of the villains! And I agree with you on that point. After all, she left her daughter without a good-bye or any explanation, and though Olivia misses her mother deeply, that abandonment stings like an actual wound.
It was a challenge, weaving together the multiple storylines of The Year of Shadows. We have Olivia’s relationship with her father, her relationship with Henry, her trouble at school, saving the ghosts, saving the Hall, fighting the shades that haunt the Hall, the mystery of why Olivia’s mom left and where she is now—it’s a lot to juggle! But by keeping the focus on Olivia—always, Olivia—and crafting each storyline and villain so that by experiencing and conquering them, Olivia learned something about herself, I was able to keep the conflicts and stakes clear. Various storylines and villains took precedence when they needed to for that particular segment of Olivia’s development. I did keep in mind that the main villain here is really the Maestro (although his villainy is complex, and he is ultimately a sympathetic character), and I traced all other conflicts back to the main conflict between him and Olivia. They are the nucleus of this story.
Amie: Thanks for sharing a little about the crafting of your novel, Claire! It was great to have you back at The Mixed-Up Files. I’ve got my fingers crossed for another great book from you!
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Amie Borst is the co-author of Cinderskella, a twisted retelling of a fairy tale classic, debuting October 26th, 2013! She writes with her 13 year old daughter and they can be found on facebook and Amie’s blog.