I’m delighted to have Kersten Hamilton on my blog today. She’ll be answering questions about her YA novel TYGER TYGER, about her journey as a writer and about Saints, Celtic myths, Irish Travelers, Disney’s fairies--and true love. Be sure to visit Kersten’s website .
Pat: Hi Kersten, I have about a million questions for you, but before we get to those would you mind giving a quick overview of TYGER TYGER?
Kersten: Oh, no! I didn’t know you were going to ask for the dread ‘elevator pitch!’ That deceptively short, damnably difficult, clear and concise description of a book designed to leave editors and potential readers salivating with desire….
Well I don’t have one. I’m not very good at them either. So I am going to steal a line from your review: “Tyger Tyger is fast paced adventure with a backbone of myth and heart of romance.” Now, why can’t I think of really cool pitches like that? J
Pat: I’m right there with you when it comes to pitches. How about an easier question? One of the main settings in TYGER TYGER is Chicago. Was there any particular reason why you chose this setting?
Kersten: Isn’t there always a reason? The neighborhood Teagan lives in bled over into TYGER TYGER from a series of MG historical novels I wrote—CALEB PASCALE AND THE PECULIAR PEOPLE. When one of the characters was killed in a circus-on-circus rumble in the stockyards of Chicago, the logical place to lay him to rest was Rosehill Cemetery on North Ravenswood Avenue. The dearly departed could be carried to Rosehill along a spur of the railroad tracks, and lowered from the raised track into the cemetery by means of an elevator.
When I visited Rosehill to see the coffin elevator for myself, I not only fell in love with the cemetery (I adore old cemeteries. They are chock full of stories!) but the neighborhoods all around it.
The atmosphere of the place sprung instantly to mind when I thought of Teagan’s house. So, although the street on which Teagan lives is completely fictitious, it certainly intersects North Ravenswood Avenue somewhere in my mind.
Pat: TYGER TYGER’s main character, Teagan Wylltson, demonstrates amazing strength when faced with tough situations and decisions. Can you talk a bit about your life, and perseverance and finding strength as a writer?
Kersten: I have had to work very, very hard at my writing. My genetic jackpot includes dysgraphia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysgraphia#Dyslexic_dysgraphia
In school, I never managed anything higher than an F on spelling tests, no matter how long I studied or how hard I tried. I had no idea what my problem was in those days, and neither did anyone else. I just knew that school was misery. I made it to high school, but dropped out after the first semester of my sophomore year.
I spent the rest of what should have been my high school years having wild and educational adventures on my own. Then, Mark Hamilton, my own ‘Finn MacCumhaill’ came along. He definitely changed my plans—and in a very good way. Early in our marriage, Mark bought me typewriter with a spell checker. J
It is still difficult for me to get every word right, even with a computer. Mark has to read every word I write before I ship it off to the editor. And I don’t do book signings. My scrawled signature is bad enough, but writing a personal message in the book is impossible for me.
Pat: I’m familiar with the poem TYGER TYGER by William Blake. Did the poem in any way inspire your novel or do you have a personal fondness or connection to it? (Here’s a link to the poem http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~keith/poems/tyger.html )
Kersten: Yes and yes! The Tyger was one of the very first poems I memorized as a child. I have always loved poetry. Kipling, Tennyson, Whitman, Carroll, Blake...I devoured just about any book of poetry I could get my hands on. The Tyger fit the theme and mood of the whole story arc. It’s electric when that kind of connection happens!
Pat: One of the things I love about TYGER TYGER is that it takes off at a sprint and the pace never slows, but at the same time the novel’s back-story and details are complex. Does this fast paced style of writing come naturally to you or was this something you had to address in revisions? Any hints about adding detail and back-story without having a story’s pace lag?
Kersten: Zippy–speedo–whamerific is my default plot speed. I have to work on slowing it down. Stories are easier to tell if something is happening. During revision I focus on layering the story and increasing depth of the characters. I step into the skin of my viewpoint character first because that’s the person I want my readers to experience the world with. In Tyger Tyger the reader must learn everything, feel everything, be convinced of everything right along with Teagan if they are going to suspend disbelief and accept the goblin world. When I have my protagonist as near perfect as possible, I spend time in the skin of every other character in every single scene, making sure the emotional dynamic is right. I burn through emotional energy when I write, because I am trying to reach into my readers’ chest and grab their hearts. It can be exhausting to go into a painful scene again and again and again until you get it right from every possible angle.
Pat: TYGER TYGER seamlessly intertwines Christian saints and Celtic pre-history and myths. Do you think to a certain degree this reflects the history of Irish culture—or that of the Irish Travelers?
Kersten: I absolutely think so, and if I had time I would write a couple of books on it. I will try to give a little sense of it here.
The world of the pre-Christian era Celts was harsh and sometimes bloody, with wars between clans and occasionally human sacrifice.
But it was also wonderfully spiritual. The ancient Celts built no walls between the natural world and the supernatural, the secular and the sacred. Trees held a special place in the early Celtic understanding of the sacred. The destiny of a clan was twinned to the life of a particular tree. Warring clans tried to attacked and destroy their enemies’ tribal trees. Their concept of reality was twined with threeness.
The understanding of the sacred, the importance of trees, and the concept of threeness, became important bridges to Christianity. The Christianity which first found its way to Britan, however, was very different from the Christianity which was later forged in Rome.
Early Celtic Christianity traced its roots not through Augustine and Rome to the authority St. Peter, but through Aidan of Lindisfarne and Iona to the authority of St. John, the disciple who leaned his head against Jesus’ chest at the last supper.
In Britan this became an image of the believer listening for the heartbeat of God. The Celts had been listening for the heartbeat of the Creator of creation since before the dawn of time. They had little difficulty reconciling a God who was three–in–one with their own concept of the threeness. The tree upon which Christ was hung became a new sacred tree around which all clans could gather.
Early Celtic Christians believed that God was present with them as a friend to be talked to in every moment of life. They believed in a good creation. And they believed that the image of God was in every human being, waiting to be woken by the Holy Spirit.
St. Columba (521 –597) declared “My Druid is Christ, the son of God…”
The two views of Christianity in Britan—Celtic and Roman—clashed in 664 at a Synod of the Church Catholic. The Roman viewpoint won, and the Celtic beliefs were pushed aside.
But they were never completely vanquished. You can find them in the carvings of the Green Man (a goodly creature of creation!) on church pillars and benches, and in the writings of authors like George MacDonald.
Pat: Let’s put the serious questions aside for a minute. If the Sidhe in TYGER TYGER met a troop of Disney fairies in a dark alley what would happen? Would it play out differently if Finn were around?
Kersten: If the Sídhe met Flora, Fauna and Merriweather in a dark alley, the Sídhe wouldn’t stand a chance. Having learned their lesson from their tangle with Maleficent, the Terrific Trio would turn the Sídhe into hop–toads. The only point of discussion would be whether the toads should be pink or blue.
They wouldn’t really need Finn’s help. But they’d take the boyo home, make sure he had a good meal, and give him some sound, motherly advice about Teagan.
Sadly, the result would be far different with the modern crop of Disney fairies. Even Tink, who has spent too much time in the company of creatures called into existence not by a baby’s laugh but by the bleep of a cash register scanner, would be lost.
The foolish creatures would be instantly and irretrievably seduced by the Sídhe. They’d form a fairy gang for the sole purpose of selling cheap plastic toys, flashy fashion accessories, and unrealistic body images to every little girl in on the planet.
Finn would step into the Labyrinth, borrow Hoggle’s sprite spray, and take care o’ the lot of ’em with one spritz.
Pat: There are tons of frightening characters and creatures in TYGER TYGER—and some that are truly courageous and kind. One of the most horrifying characters to me was Ms. Skinner and the most wonderful was Mamieo. Did you base them on people you’ve met or are they purely conjured from thin air? Do you have any tips for creating characters?
Kersten: I don’t think a character can be conjured from air. At least I can’t do it. I need flesh and blood to work with. Ms. Skinner is based on several people I have known who abused their power. The first one probably made the deepest impression on me.
When I was about ten, I befriended an abused dog. He was in bad shape, but I nursed him back to health and named him Joe. He was my best buddy. But because I couldn’t afford a license the dogcatcher took him away. He was a scrap of a dog that had no chance of being adopted by anyone else. The dogcatcher told me I had two weeks to get enough money to buy Joe a license or he would be put down.
I worked as hard as I could, earning money any way I could think of. My family didn’t have enough money to keep food on the table. There was no one else to help me. I didn’t earn enough.
On the day they killed Joe, I was sitting on a rooftop wishing I was strong enough to fight the world and save him. Smart enough to have thought of some way to earn the money. But I wasn’t.
That dogcatcher who exercised power with no heart became my personal model of human evil. As I child I thought that the fight against that evil was hopeless. But I have lived longer now, and have seen a lot of things.
I think maybe, just maybe, if someone had told that man the right stories before he became a dogcatcher, he would have grown up to have a heart. Maybe I can use the only strength I have been given–telling stories—to fight for every Joe who will ever be by waking hearts.
I think wonderful characters spring from flesh and blood, too. But writers are more likely to use little slivers of their own soul rather than the stolen soul of a dogcatcher to animate them.
Pat: Let’s talk about true love. Several of the characters in the novel experience true love at first sight. Do you feel this is realistic? Can true love be denied? Is there a connection between fate and love? Can I pack any more into one question?
Kersten: : Yes, yes, and—I don’t believe in fate. I have always tried to understand life by listening to people’s stories. The longer they have lived, the better. You’d be surprised how many people who have been married 60+ years claim to have fallen in love at first sight.
But you have to listen to their whole story to understand: it’s not the love that is true, it’s the hearts of the people who fell into it. Can a true–hearted person love someone who is not true hearted? Yes. Can people’s hearts be broken by the world and become untrue? Yes.
Those people who fell in love at first sight continued in it purposefully, intentionally, and truly every day of their lives.
Pat: So what is it that makes Finn so darn sexy and irresistible?
Kersten: His courage and steadfastness of course. Oh, and his multi–megawatt smile doesn’t hurt, either.
Pat: When you were in high school which of your characters were you the most like: Teagan, Abbey, Raynor . . .
Kersten: I was a bit like Finn, fond of back alleys, vacant buildings and rooftops. Oh—and occasionally I did eat out of dumpsters.
Pat: I understand you are working on a sequel to TYGER TYGER. Can you tell us a bit about it? Will Teagan be the main character and are any of the secondary characters returning?
Kersten: The whole clan will be return for the second book of the Goblin Wars! How could I leave any of them out?
Pat: Here’s a topic that’s been floating around lj and various writing groups lately.
From the genres they write in, to the colors they use on their websites and what they wear to conventions, some writers actively work on branding themselves. Could you tell us a little bit about the other books you’ve had published and if you’ve made a conscious effort to brand yourself? Do you have any advice for writers about developing their public image? How important has image been to you and your career as a writer?
Kersten: Coordinate the colors of my convention wardrobe with the colors of my web page?!! I am doing exceedingly well if my socks match on any given day. My best career advice would be: do not take career advice from Kersten Hamilton.
You have probably heard that career writers should focus on one genre. Build a name, build a following. This seems to me to be good advice, and something you could wrap a brand around. But I have never managed to stick with one genre. My true love is story, in any and every form.
My next project, after book two of Goblin Wars, is an early MG steampunk series. After that, I’m going to pushing new horizons with a “Holes”-esque older MG dealing with suicide, Catholicism, immigration issues plus one undead school administrator. I will probably write a realistic picture book for the very young along the way—nitty-gritty for the itty-bitty if you will. Then, it is back to the YA world for the third book in the Goblin Wars trilogy...
How would I ever manage to fit all of that into a brand? But how could I ever give any of the awesome stories up? I will just have to settle for writing my heart out, and being held up as a cautionary tale to young writers everywhere.
Pat: Thank you so much for answering my questions. Would you be willing to stop by later and answer any additional question readers might have?
I would be happy to, Pat
Clarion Books will be releasing TYGER TYGER on November 15th of this year. I suggest you preorder it from your favorite local independent book store or online. I’m betting it’s going to be hard to find once November gets here. If you’d like to read more about TYGER TYGER here’s a link to Amazon’s listing http://www.amazon.com/Tyger-Goblin-Wars-Book/dp/0547330081 Check out Kersten’s picture books and middle grade stories while you’re there.