AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Victoria Holmes, Part 2
Last week, Therese and Kathleen had the very great pleasure of interviewing editor/author Victoria Holmes. Victoria is the guiding force behind the wildly popular WARRIORS fantasy series, has written four books for young adults . . . and her list of projects is growing. Below is Part Two of our chat.
REMINDER: Victoria has graciously agreed to answer your questions in the comment area. Authors who wish to break into the YA market segment won't want to miss this opportunity; neither will WARRIOR fans!
Q: With four books under your belt, how have you evolved as a writer?
VH: I love doing research – how can anyone not love learning new things? – but I did far too much prior to writing RIDER, and ended up trying to bend the plot to accommodate everything I had learned about Georgian candlesticks. For subsequent books, I read a couple of general accounts of each historical period before planning the story in as much detail as I could, and then went back to do more detailed research to fill in any gaps. I hope that my pacing has improved – some of the sentences in RIDER take forever to come to an end! – and I’ve stopped worrying so much about the life histories of peripheral characters. I came up with names, ages and occupations for every single person in the village of Roseby in RIDER, which seems like a waste of energy when some of them wander onto the page for only the briefest moment. The one thing I haven’t improved on is my reluctance to write happy endings – in the initial synopsis for my next book, I left my heroine bereft of all family members, standing in the ashes of her burning home. My editor pointed out gently that I should probably leave her with some grain of hope for the future…
Q: This may be a ridiculous question since you have so many projects going, but do you get writer’s block? How do you overcome it?
VH: Oh yes! Many’s the time when I have sat glaring at my computer screen, trying to figure out what should come next. Not in terms of action (see above), but in terms of how to say it. I get into terrible frustrated tangles in my head – the words are going to appear on the page sometime, so why not now? Then I read an interview with a hugely successful author who said that her mantra is “Don’t get it right, get it written”. And that is the truest thing about writing I have ever discovered. When I get stuck, I force myself to stop wrangling over the precise selection and order of words and just write down what is meant to happen, like “Nora ran across the bog, jumping from tussock to tussock”. That might not be right but at least it’s written, and I tell myself I can always go back and rewrite it more prettily later on. And you know what? Nine times out of ten, when I read the script over I can’t even spot the bits that were just “written”.
And for those times when I can’t even just get it written, I storm away from my computer and make furious cookies or clean the house from top to bottom, so that in the end going back to my keyboard seems like a nice thing to do.
Q: What are some of your literary influences?
VH: I don’t think I could pinpoint one particular writer or genre that has influenced the way I write now. I grew up on my mother’s books from her childhood – lots of pony stories and masses and masses of Enid Blyton, who may be less fashionable now but whatever you say about her gender politics, she was a tremendous storyteller. The book that sticks most in my imagination is TALES OF THE PUNJAB, a collection of Indian folklore translated by Flora Annie Steel in 1894. These stories were so vivid, exploding with color and movement and a powerful sense of location, as well as the tiniest details of human behavior. When my sister Kate read RIDER IN THE DARK, she said afterward that it reminded her of TALES OF THE PUNJAB which I took as the biggest compliment! I still read voraciously and visit my local library at least once a week to restock because I could never afford my habit if I had to buy every book I wanted to read. I love thriller writers such as Kathy Reichs and Karin Slaughter because they show me how to weave an intricate plot around believable and sympathetic characterization. Diana Gabaldon’s extraordinary Cross Stitch series (Outlander in U.S. markets) has taught me that I’ll never be able to write historical fiction as well as she does, and anything by Jacqueline Wilson is an object-lesson in how to communicate with young readers about the most torturous subject matter. The only topic I wouldn’t read for pleasure is straight romance – this won’t be a surprise to the Warriors readers who should know by now that the only romance I allow in the stories has to be doomed from the start!
Q: Tell us about your latest release. What’s next for you?
VH: The fourth book in the historical horse series (catchy series title, no?!) is set in the south-west English county of Devon during the English Civil War. As well as seeing how this far-reaching and interminable conflict affected ordinary people, I want to explore the theme of witchcraft as well. My heroine’s grandmother Willow is a “wise woman”, who knows about the healing properties of plants and herbs and is consulted by the local people when they get sick. At the time, this sort of knowledge was barely distinguishable from black magic in many people’s minds, and I want to show how this affects my young heroine, Holly. It doesn’t matter whether Willow is a conventional sort of witch or not – to be honest, I don’t even know myself – but what is important is how people react to Holly, and how she feels about carrying on her grandmother’s legacy of healing. One of my big personal preoccupations is the concept of faith, and the consequences of believing in something; if Holly believes she is capable of black magic, does that mean bad things will happen? This is a theme I love exploring in Warriors, too; Cloudtail is my archetypal “good atheist”, a brave and loyal warrior who doesn’t believe in StarClan, while Tigerstar is the “bad believer”, a cat who has absolute faith in the existence of his warrior ancestors but uses their tenets for evil purposes.
As for what I’ll do after Holly’s story, this hasn’t been set in stone yet, at least as far as my personal writing is concerned. I keep telling myself I should write something set in the present day because I wouldn’t need to spend so long reading historical tomes, but I find historical moments and artifacts far more inspiring than most things I encounter in everyday life. I would love to go even further back in time, to when famous standing stone monuments like Stonehenge were first built. I am bewitched by standing stones and would relish the chance to breathe fictitious life into the personalities behind these constructions.
I have a much clearer idea about what comes next in my editorial box of tricks. Erin Hunter has titles commissioned all the way to Fall 2010, which I try not to think about too much because it makes me scared. What if I run out of stories in 2008? Cats and horses aside, Working Partners has a constant stream of new projects in which I can dip my toes, so I don’t imagine I’ll give up creating stories or editing for a long, long time yet.
Now we’ll open the floor to some readers:
Sophie, age 9: Why are you writing about different girls in different times instead of staying with one girl’s story?
VH: When these books were first commissioned, the publisher specifically asked for “stand alone” stories, which means that each book is self-contained and the characters don’t appear in other books. This seemed like a great idea at first because it enabled me to explore more than one historical period and create four entirely separate heroines. Because I spend my editing life working on series, I liked the thought of finishing with one set of characters and locations at the end of a book and moving on to a new set for the next story. However, I didn’t realize how attached I would get to each of my heroines, and I have found it really hard to let them go at the end of a book and conjure up a different girl. I miss (RIDER IN THE DARK) Nell the most because I think there was quite a lot of my own character in her personality, although I share (HORSE FROM THE SEA) Nora’s shyness and feelings of clumsiness at crowded parties. It has also been quite difficult to forget all my historical research for one period in order to make room for the next lot. I get scared that there is only a limited amount of room in my brain, and it might be taken up with details about Georgian candlesticks when I need to squeeze in some information about English Civil War uniforms.
So I guess the answer is that I write stand alone stories because that was what I agreed with the publisher, but in the future I’d love to write at least two or three books about the same set of characters because it would save having to say goodbye to them too soon.
Q: I really liked Nell (RIDER IN THE DARK). Are we going to get more stories about her?
VH: I’d love to write more about Nell because she was my first heroine and I feel as if I got to know her very well over the year that I carried her around in my head. But these books were always intended to be one-off stories, so unless a publisher asks for a spin-off, I’m afraid the rest of Nell and Jamie’s adventures will happen out of sight.
Q: How come HEART OF FIRE had both a sad and a happy ending?
VH: This is a great question! And I’ll let you into a secret: I really struggle to write happy endings. None of my books end with “happy ever after”, and in the book that I’m currently working on, my editor pointed out that every single person who matters to my heroine ends up dead. I had to rewrite the storyline so that at least one of them survived, otherwise her future would have been very bleak indeed. In HEART OF FIRE, I wanted Firebird to triumph in the show-jumping competition because she is a truly exceptional little horse with the heart of a lion. But at the same time, there was no way Jonathan could come back to live with Maddie and her family because of the terrible lie he had told. He needed to go off and forge his own life to regain some self-respect, but I think we can be sure that he never forgot the friendships he forged at Sefton Park.
Q: Are you going to write books about other animals?
VH: I can’t say too much about this because I’m currently developing an Erin Hunter series featuring a completely different animal than cats or horses, and it’s in the very early stages so it’s all a bit hush-hush right now. As far as my own books are concerned, I think I’d like to write exclusively about people for at least one series, because I’m running out of new phrases to describe horses!
Sarah, age 10: I really liked your book set in Ireland (HORSE FROM THE SEA). Are you going to write more books from there? Are all your books going to be in England?
VH: Thank you, I love HORSE FROM THE SEA too. I would love to write more books set in sixteenth-century Ireland because it is an exceptionally beautiful country and a very interesting period in history, when the English were trying to break the spirit of this proud and unusual nation. My best friend Joe is Irish and HORSE FROM THE SEA was my tribute to him and his ancestors who suffered so much from the conquerors sent over by Elizabeth I. However, I have no plans for more stories set in Ireland right now. My next book is set in the county of Devon in south-west England, another place that is very important to me. For my historical stories, I write about places that mean a lot to me and have lots of interesting history attached to them, which is why I’ve set these books in Ireland and England. But I’d love to write about Scotland and Wales, too!
Q: Why do you like writing stories about horses?
VH: Because I love horses so much, I guess! I was very lucky because I grew up on a farm with plenty of grazing for ponies, plus my mum loves horses too. I rode before I could walk (well, there are photos of me as a baby perched in my mum’s lap on her big paint horse Dobbin), and had my first pony, a palomino Welsh pony called Perky, when I was eight. It’s always easiest to write about things you know well, and horses fall right into that category for me. There are also so many different types of horse – show-jumpers, racehorses, heavy horses – that it seems like I could write stories forever about them and never run out of ideas.
Q: Will you write books about boys and horses?
VH: I think the answer is that I already do. There are strong male characters in all of my books who are as closely involved in the horse action as my heroine, even though Jose needed riding lessons from Nora in HORSE FROM THE SEA! I don’t believe that girls are any better at riding than boys, nor do they feel more strongly about the horses that they meet, but more girls read horse stories than boys so it makes sense to have a heroine rather than a hero at the centre of the action.
Riley, age 10: Are Jamie and Nell (characters in RIDER IN THE DARK) secretly in love?
VH: Well, I think they’re a bit young to be properly in love (they’re both fifteen), but they are certainly very good friends. And, even more importantly, they live at a time when it would have been very difficult for them to be boyfriend and girlfriend because Nell is the daughter of the lord of the manor while Jamie is a lowly stable lad. Social class was very rigid back then and there was no way a young lady like Nell could have married a servant! Nowadays, social structure is less rigid but there are other things that get in the way of relationships, like culture or the color of your skin.
Q: How do you think up names for your horses?
VH: It’s the best part of writing my books! I used to invent whole yards of imaginary ponies when I was a child, and I still find notebooks in the attic full of made-up names and descriptions, right down to the sort of bridle the horse would be ridden in. Sometimes I use horses and ponies that I have met in real life, although I’m starting to run out of those now. The name of the horse from RIDER IN THE DARK, Oriel, actually means a type of window but I thought it sounded like a perfect name for a beautiful dark brown horse. Lir in HORSE FROM THE SEA is named after the Irish god of the sea, which seemed appropriate. In HEART OF FIRE, Firebird is named after a high-spirited Arab mare I used to ride. In my next book, the Dartmoor ponies have simpler names like Bracken and Myrtle (which is a type of plant) because my heroine has named them after things she sees around her on the moor. Sometimes I get completely stuck for a name, and then I just ask the nearest person for ideas. And thinking up names for the cats in Warriors is way, way harder because we have to use natural things and it’s very hard not to be repetitive.
Q: What should I do if I want to write books?
VH: Read everything you can, from the back of cereal packets to the dustiest books in your school library. You have to figure out what sort of stories you’d like to write for yourself, and what sorts of writing don’t appeal to you at all. Then just write! Poems, short stories, letters, articles for your school newspaper, anything at all. I didn’t know that I wanted to concentrate on children’s fiction until long after I had left school, but I learned a lot from writing for the school magazine, writing competitions and even essays when I was at college. Writing for a living can be tough, dull and lonely so you need to get lots of practice at working your way out of writer’s block without having to abandon your keyboard altogether. I love writing letters and e-mails and find it’s a great way to warm up before I tackle the next chunk of a manuscript. Plus I like to think that someone will publish all my letters when I’m really famous and make a fortune!
Thank you, Victoria, for the fantastic interview!
All of Victoria Holmes titles are available at online and brick booksellers everywhere. Heart of Fire releases October 1, 2006.