Friday, September 14, 2018

Exclusive Interview with YA Icon Sherryl Jordan

As promised, I'm back with an exclusive interview!  Sherryl Jordan answers my questions about her latest novel, The Anger of Angels and her process. 

You have encouraged aspiring authors to “write with joy” and shared that history was your favourite subject in school.  Like many of your novels, The Anger of Angels reflects your love for historical fiction.  What others elements in this story were a joy to bring to life?

I love writing about people who struggle against prejudice or oppression, so it was wonderful to walk alongside Raffaele as he grew and overcame his challenges – helped by Giovanna, of course. One of the things that fascinates me about Medieval (and in this book, Renaissance) times, is why people who were different in some way, either physically or by the way they lived, were suspected of demon-possession or witchcraft. Such wrongful judgements make for great story-telling, as the subjects of the prejudice are forced to develop profound mental and spiritual strength in order to overcome. I also love writing about the rare people who are not prejudiced, and do not see the differences but only those inner strengths.

It was, therefore, an immense joy to bring all the characters to life, but especially Raffaele and Giovanna. But I did not do that on my own; characters have an astonishing power to bring themselves to life, and to do and say things that are wholly unexpected. For example, I never intended a young man to be in the story at all; in my planning of it, Giovanna acted wholly alone in her journey to the prince. But early in the writing, when Giovanna was in the upper gallery watching her father’s fateful play unfold, a young man came up the stairs… and there he was, as much a surprise to me as he was to Giovanna. And once he was there, I didn’t have the heart to kick him out. Sometimes I think that stories exist long before I see them, and the characters are their own people, doing their own thing, saying their own words, working out their own destinies; and I just trot along behind, eagerly recording everything they do. It’s almost like seeing a movie for the first time, and setting it all down. That, in writing, is the greatest joy of all: receiving the gift.

What does the time-line for The Anger of Angels look like from its inception in embryo to its birth as a published book?  Was it one of your unpublished novels you reworked or a new idea you fleshed out recently?

I have never reworked any of the old unpublished novels; they were all destroyed long ago. The Anger of Angels was begun in 2012. Over the next four years it went through many drafts, each one taking several months. In between drafts I wrote five other books, four of which were rejected by publishers. The Anger of Angels also was rejected by several publishers, and by the end of 2016 I was convinced it was no good. In fact, I was convinced I had altogether lost my ability to write. Then a friend read The Anger of Angels, and offered some astute and excellent criticism, prompting me to work on the book one final time. Soon after that another friend mentioned Walker Books to me… and the rest, as they say, is history!

Did The Anger of Angels have any alternate / working titles you can disclose?

Originally I called the book The Jester’s Daughter; then, when the jester had performed his play, I decided to use the title he had used, since his play, and my book, are both about battles against evil and oppression.      

I grew up reading your books as a middle-grader and teen.  I’ve re-read your books recently as an adult and they hold up remarkably well!  Winter of Fire haunts me in a great way, and I recommend The Raging Quiet so often to teens.  Does one of your stories or a particular character stay with you above all the others?  Or perhaps there’s one that is a nagging muse that urged you to return to historical fiction? 

While I’m writing, the characters of that particular story are as real and alive to me as my own friends. Also, their world is as real as this world – sometimes more so. Since finishing The Anger of Angels I’ve written another book, and now those characters are in the foreground of my imagination. I feel very blessed to work with amazing and courageous book people. In a way, they lend me courage as I face various challenges in my own life. Each book is very much a part of the time in which it is written, and often in a strange and sometimes unsettling way, what my characters go through echoes what I am facing in my own life. I don’t mean in physical things, but in emotional ways. For example, when I was planning to write Winter of Fire, I was diagnosed with Occupational Overuse Syndrome, and my hands were almost paralysed from nerve and muscle damage caused by too much typing. I had seen a medical specialist who told me I would never write again. But I had Elsha’s story to write, and she was a young woman of great strength and mental fortitude, who fought against slavery and enormous oppression. She stood with me while I struggled to write again, and we were warriors together in our battles against the impossible.

Each main character in every book has been a gift to me, in one way or another, and helped me in my own life.  As for characters nagging me …  Yes, occasionally a new character lurks on the edges of my mind, demanding my attention, and muttering about journeys or grievances or hopes or battles that eventually might be shaped, between us, into a story.  My last character appeared to me with a letter “T” branded onto his face; he was a thief from Medieval times, who had been unjustly branded with his crime when he was a small child. His inner hurts and fierce rage against injustice swept me immediately into his story. But his story also came from the trials and tribulations of someone I love, and much of my book character’s inward suffering was drawn from what I had seen in real life.

For those who have read the book:

Which scene did you write (or envision) first? (as often this is not the scene that ends up coming first.) What idea-fragment saw the birth of this story?

I love this question! The Anger of Angels was sparked by a real event. In 2011 a French satirical weekly newspaper published cartoons that were offensive to Muslims, and this resulted in outrage and killings. At about the same time a film about Islam was released, with a similar violent outcome. These events forced me to think about freedom of speech, and whether it should be an irrevocable right, or a privilege to be exercised with discretion, and sometimes withheld.

Two famous quotations struck me deeply:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” - Voltaire

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” - Mark Twain

The Anger of Angels is the book that came out of my inner battle to decide whether or not Voltaire was correct.  The book is not my answer, but my questions. I still am not decided.

As to the scene that first inspired the actual story: as I thought about writing a story based on those questions, I knew I needed a character who, in ancient times, was permitted true freedom of speech. I remembered that jesters were permitted such freedom; a jester could say daring and dangerous things even to a king, and be tolerated, though anyone else saying such things would have been executed. Jesters held a unique place in their world. Remembering this, I saw (in my mind, very powerfully)  a jester performing a play, saying words that were deeply offensive to a powerful ruler, sparking a violent retaliation; then I saw the jester’s daughter travelling to the heart of danger, to put things right. And so The Anger of Angels was born.

Where did the word-count land for the finished book and how does this compare to the draft manuscript you produced for the story?

An interesting question. Never in my life have I worried about word count for a novel; the books have always been as long as they needed to be. However, things were different for The Anger of Angels. The finished book was originally 101,000 words, and as Walker Books have a limit of 80,000 words for their novels, I cut out a lot, including the final eight chapters. I then had room to add in a few new scenes, and develop the world and characters a bit more. I worked with a wonderful editor who was totally in tune with the story and the people in it, and had some superb ideas and suggestions, so the new scenes were a joy to write. However, it was a grief to drop those final eight chapters, which I love, and which I plan to turn into the first part of a sequel. Those deleted chapters are concerned mainly with Raffaele’s  discovery of his birth family (already subtly introduced in The Anger of Angels), and the full realisation of his extraordinary abilities and mental powers. And, of course, his developing relationship with Giovanna.

Can you briefly describe any characters (or scenes) that were axed in the interests of clarity, pacing or length?

Too much to discuss, here! But also mostly answered after the question about word count. I think that every manuscript, under the guidance of a good editor, has parts that need deleting or altering. Although the final eight chapters of The Anger of Angels were deleted, there were new scenes added, at my editor’s suggestions, which enriched the story and the characters, giving deeper meaning and clarity. Writing a book is like painting a mural on a wall; it’s impossible to see the whole thing, including errors, without stepping a long way back. An editor sees the story from this distance, and a good editor – such as I had for this story – instinctively knows what is needed, where it is needed. Amazingly, often the suggested ideas leap into my mind and slip into the story as easily as if they were always meant to be there. I think of an editor as being like a midwife, easing the birth of a new dream into the world. In the end the book is the result of teamwork: it holds the talents of writer, editor, proof-readers, publisher, marketing team, cover designer, and doubtless many others I’m not aware of. We all share the same dream – to deliver a new story to the hands and hearts of readers.

Thank you!

Reviews of Books by Sherryl Jordan on SK:

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