Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Feature: Interview with Adrienne Kress

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Adrienne Kress is a Canadian writer and actor. Her first novel is Alex and the Ironic Gentleman which was published by Weinstein Books. Her upcoming book is Timothy and the Dragon's Gate which will be released in January 2009.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what made you decide to start writing Alex and the Wigpowder Treasure/Alex and The Ironic Gentleman?

I was initially inspired to write Alex while I was living in London, UK, specifically when I was taking a weekend break in the town of Bath. I’ve always had something on the go writing wise – plays, and I’ve always wanted to write a cozy mystery, but I’ve learned I am not very good at writing cozy mysteries. But I had never considered writing a children’s book before. I’m not sure if it was Bath that made me want to write that kind of book, or just the getting away from the city and having a chance to think. But suddenly the decision to write a children’s book just sort of happened while I was there as I was doing a lot of walking and thinking and stuff.

I am a huge children’s lit buff, total Harry Potterphile, and wrote my thesis in my last year of high school English comparing Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Let’s just say I have read many great books in the genre. And I suddenly thought to myself, “Well I bet I could write one of these books.” Not because it was easy, but because I knew the genre so well.

Well whatever inspired the initial decision, it was definitely Bath that inspired so many particular details about the book. The doorknob shop was based on a doorknob shop I passed on my walk, the bridge that Alex and her uncle live on is based on the bridge in Bath with all the shops on it (which in turn is based on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence Italy) and so on.

Then as I thought more about the structure of the novel, I decided that Alex was going to be a love letter, an homage, to all my favourite children’s books. So the first Act, up until Alex leaves on her adventure, I consider very Roald Dahl (to me the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society totally typify the sort of grotesque characters he liked to write). Then Alex’s journey to Port Cullis is Alice in Wonderland, where she meets some interesting characters in a forest and has miniature adventures where she needs to solve problems before moving on. Lewis Carroll made fun of the world of his time in Alice, and I try to do something similar with this section. Lord Poppinjay, for example, is a composite of all the bosses I had as a temp. The third Act, Port Cullis and onwards, is Peter Pan, at least the part with the pirates. It also owes a lot to Treasure Island. There are other authors I reference as well throughout the book: the chapters all begin with “In which . . .” which is a reference to A A Milne for example.

I just really love these books, they were a huge influence on me growing up, and I kind of wanted to say thank you to them with Alex.

What were some of the difficulties in writing the novel and getting it published?

The biggest challenge for me was actually just finishing the book. I’d never completed a novel before. I’d written plays and short stories. But I’d begun over a dozen different novels that never got past the first twenty pages. I honestly can’t tell you what made me not give up on Alex. Maybe it was a clarity of vision, I knew exactly where I was going, what I was going to write about. Maybe it was having a lot of free time. But it was a struggle. The train sequence took a month to write. The end of the novel from the treasure hunt onwards I had left unfinished due to serious writer’s block even when I submitted my work to agents. I was under the impression I’d have weeks to get that part done, and the time pressure would be incentive to finish. Not so. THE NEXT DAY I heard from an agent requesting the full. I finished that last section in three days.

As for getting it published. I am the sort of author that really one should never hold up as any kind of demonstration of the norm. My journey to publication was very very easy and quick, and that is simply not how it normally happens. Being an actress, I was very familiar with all the work that goes in getting an agent alone, let alone getting the opportunity to share your work with the world. So I expected a lot of grief and heartache, rejection, and months and months of not getting anywhere.

But like I said above, the day after I submitted my package to agents, I got a request for a full. Three months later, I was offered representation. A month after that Scholastic made an offer to buy the book.

Thus my story is pretty dull, and kind of unfair when compared with the hard work of some other very talented authors. I have a friend who worked for a decade before getting her three book deal with Harper Collins. Not that I’m complaining! I feel very lucky that everything happened the way that it did. But no one should look at my story and think, “Oh well if it’s that quick to get published I’ll give it a go.” It’s just not like that. It’s really hard, and really emotionally draining, and you have to really be passionate about your work and writing to want to pursue it. There is nothing easy about the publishing industry.

The book plays around with the text in some of the scenes, such as the initial fencing duel of Alex, or the song-and-dance number later in the novel. What made you come up with these techniques? Will we see more of such stuff in future books/stories?

It probably comes from my working with scripts so much. To me it didn’t seem like a neat unique idea, just a way of communicating certain more complex actions. I’m definitely not the first person who’s played with text on a page in novels. The musical number was really just written out how it would look in a theatrical script. The fencing sequence is a little fancier version of what a fight choreographer might write in her blocking notes. I also enjoy using ellipses to demonstrate the passage of time.

. . .

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like –

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There isn’t quite as much play with text on the page in Timothy, but that was simply because it wasn’t needed in the story. However I am quite a fan of using words to create actual pictures, and not just pictures in your mind, so you can expect to see the technique throughout my work.

Was writing for a YA market a conscious choice or was Alex and the Wigpowder Treasure simply a result of your "natural voice"?

I think already answered most of this question when I detailed above why I chose to write Alex, so I’m going to go on a slight tangent instead with this answer about writing for the “YA market”.

I never intended to write for a certain market, but rather for people like me who enjoyed to read books that are supposedly intended for children. I know we need to define books into genres for organizational purposes, but I really don’t believe that books are only meant for one certain type of person. When people defend seeing an animated movie, for example, like this: “I know it’s a kid’s movie, but it was still a lot of fun”, I get quite frustrated. To me if I like the movie, then it is an “Adrienne” movie. It’s not “meant for someone else, and I happen to like it”. No. If I like the book, then it was a book I was meant to read. It suited my tastes and sense of humour or whatever.

And yes, I am not so naïve as to say that there isn’t technique required in writing for different ages, but I never set out to write for children. I set out to write those kinds of books that I love that happen to be written ALSO for children.

I worry a bit about the way we categorise things in the publishing industry, because it leads to generalizations and assumptions about entire genres. “Romance” has had a bad rap for years, and there was a recent NY Times article about the stigma attached with writing “YA”. Like I already said, I understand why there are categories, and I am not sure how else you could organize the fiction section in a store, but there are fantastic books for all ages spread throughout all the genres out there. And I think some people can miss out on some really great stuff because of a simple label.

What's the story between the two different titles of your book? Which is the title you murmur to yourself when you sleep?

Like with Harry Potter, the different publishers wanted titles they thought most marketable to their audiences. Alex and the Ironic Gentleman was the title I gave it and the North Americans liked. The UK went with Alex and the Wigpowder Treasure. Which I like just as much. But neither can compare with the German title: Die halsüberkopfundkragendramatischabenteuerliche Katastrophenexpedition der Alex Morningside.

How did Weinstein Books end up being your American publisher?

My agent is responsible for selling my book around the world. When it came to the American rights, I was fortunate enough for Alex to go to auction with four different publishers bidding. Weinstein Books were very passionate about the book. They also are a small company with a big name, and it was a perfect mix of individual attention and big time promotion. The people I spoke with were also very nice and cool and really seemed to understand what I was doing with the book. I’ve been really happy with them.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books?

I’m a big fan of children’s lit, so I will always recommend the classics, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, the books of Roald Dahl. I also highly recommend The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster – it’s fairly well known, but not as much as some other children’s books out there. It is brilliant and so funny. I am a Harry Potterphile as well.

As for grown up books, well I am a huge Douglas Adams fan. I would recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and its sequels) to anyone and everyone.

Also, Shakespeare. Love Shakespeare. I get lines from Shakespeare struck in my head the same way people get songs.

Currently, which are you more actively pursuing: your acting or your writing career?

Neither. Or both. People never seem to believe me when I say that, but it’s the truth. Acting was never a hobby for me, it has been a passion of mine since I was very little. I crossed the ocean to study it. Been a drama major since I was 11. Writing has also been just as important, but I never thought it was possible for me to be published. It seemed beyond impossible so I really just wrote for myself and some plays that I could direct. Now that I know it is possible to be published, I am just as excited and passionate about it as the acting. Heck, if Stephen Fry can do it . . .

Does your acting experience help in your writing? Does it work vice versa? (Done any improv? Do you think you'll excel in a show such as Whose Line Is It Anyway?)

I definitely think acting helps with the writing. As an actor you spend a lot of time on character development, no matter how small the role. The more three dimensional a character can be for you to play, the easier it is. Also the more rewarding. That definitely seeps through into the writing world. Even the smallest of characters come to my mind fully formed with extensive back-story. That isn’t to say I have a JK Rowling like glossary of characters (that woman is awesome when it comes to detailed world/character building), but rather that for some reason in my head I already seem to know all about the characters I write. Some of the smallest characters in Alex are some of my favourites for how I know them that way.

Also having come from theatre, I see the scenes I write. I see a stage setting, and can place where everyone is in the scene, and where they move, what they are wearing. Having come from writing plays, where as a playwright you need to visualise the piece on a stage as you write it, this technique has really informed my novels. I think that is one of the reasons people often tell me it would make a good film or television series, because when writing it, I already see it in more theatrical terms.

And no, I would not excel in a show like Whose Line. That I am sure of. Comedic improvisation requires a whole set of skills and abilities that I am lacking. I have been on occasion (when forced to do such improv) an acceptable “straight man”, the person off of whom others tell jokes. The person who says “Who’s there?” after being told “Knock knock”. So if pressed I can handle myself in such a situation. But seriously, no. I wish I was, I love those kinds of shows. But . . . no.

Right now, which would you value more: an acting award or a writing award?

Again, what’s with the either/or situation? Both would be fantastic!

What has it been like touring conventions and promoting your book? Any anecdotes you'd like to share?

It’s been a lot of fun. I love meeting people, fellow authors, and especially readers. I’ve never really been on any sort of tour before, so to be flown to interesting cities and staying in some fabulous hotels has been a real treat. I have shared the stories of these events on my blog, in probably a bit too much detail, if people are interested in the nitty gritty.

As to any particular anecdotes . . . I suppose a really nice event was a panel in Austin, Texas that I was a part of with 8 other authors called “Not For Required Reading”. It was in a movie theatre where you could order food and drinks be brought right to you (yes that is very important to me), and consisted of the audience asking us some really silly questions. It was a very relaxed time and the event was standing room only (though I like to think it had all to do with me, I am pretty sure the fellow sitting two chairs down from me by the name of Sherman Alexie had more to do with it . . .). When we were going down the line introducing ourselves, someone suggested we read a bit from our books. Most of the authors had something ready, and I was totally shocked, having not prepared at all. So when they came to me I just said, “I didn’t realize we would be reading anything, so I thought I’d just flip open the book and read whatever bit I happen upon.” That got a lot of laughter, and then I did it! Very fun.

You currently have a writing gig at Hardcore Nerdity. Can you tell us how you got involved with them and what it's like?

Hardcore Nerdity is still in its infancy, having launched May 1 of this year. It’s a website devoted to all things nerd related – specifically genre. We cover everything, comics, movies, books, gaming. Everything. It’s really the pet project of Jonathan Llyr whom many will recognize as his former incarnation as an on air personality for Space the Imagination Station. He’s interviewed . . . everyone. And is truly the king of all geeks. He also happens to have been my director and producer of the Tempest Theatre Group which is where I met him.

It’s all about who you know baby.

But seriously, we bonded over our geekitude. And so I, along with the lovely (and soon to be published with Harper Collins author) Lesley Livingston, Rob Salem – television critic to the Toronto Star, Simon Evans, Casey Hudecki and a whole host of others have put together this awesome site. The main portion right now consists of a weekly podcast where John, Rob and Simon (and even occasionally yours truly) talk about the latest news in the geek world, followed by an interview from someone within it. Our inaugural podcast had John interviewing David Hayter, screenwriter for the first two X Men movies, who is now working on the much anticipated Watchmen film.

I am having a blast working on the site. I’m quite used to writing articles and reviews as I am a blogger in my own right and have no compunctions sharing my opinions. However I am a baby at interviewing people, so it’s been a steep learning curve. Of course John is a total veteran at it, so I am learning fast. It’s amazing doing interviews. Totally terrifying, but amazing.

Anything you can tell us about your upcoming book, Timothy and the Dragon's Gate? Will it be released simultaneously worldwide?

I always like to link people to my site where I have a very snazzy synopsis of Timothy all ready, so here: http://www.adriennekress.com/timothy.html

But in brief, it’s a story about a boy called Timothy Freshwater who finds himself in charge of a dragon trapped as a human. His job is to free the dragon by returning him to China to pass through the Dragon’s Gate by a certain date. Adventures of course ensue, Timothy is pursued by some maniacal taxi cabs, a ninja, and of course the commander of the Chinese pirate Fleet of the Nine Dragons – led by the Man in the Beige Linen Suit. Halfway through the book his story merges with the end of the first book and he and Alex get to adventure together. So no worries for those who are keen to see her again.

Any advice or aspiring authors?

There is a whole host of advice out there on the web of how to get published and scambusters and all that, so I won’t go into that here. I guess from me, I would start by saying “write”. Don’t ask permission. Don’t worry if you don’t think you are good enough. Don’t worry if you think what you are writing is too dark or weird. Or not dark or weird enough. The first step in writing is . . . writing. Too often we get bogged down in the other stuff, the after the book is finished stuff. To finish a book in the first place has got to be the greatest challenge, and the most important.

Also . . . read. Read tons of stuff. Read your genre, and read everything else. Read the classical stuff, read the ultra modern stuff. Read graphic novels and plays. Read Dickens and Shakespeare. Read Harry Potter and James and the Giant Peach. Understand this world of literature you are participating in, understand that there are so many levels and games to play with as a writer.

And don’t get snobby. Don’t turn your nose down at any other genre, be it literary, SF, YA, Romance, etc. Respect the craftsmanship it takes to write in general, and understand that each genre comes with its own set of challenges and advantages. Open your mind and realize that even if you don’t like a book, it doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad. And if it is truly bad, that there is still something to learn from that. Make your own decisions, and don’t follow trends.

I have tons of other more practical advice, about learning the rules and then forgetting them (as trite as that sounds, it is something I firmly believe in), about professionalism in the industry, and sucking it up and editing your “golden words”.

But the ones I listed here are the most important to me.

Be thoughtful.

Above all things, be thoughtful.

Who's your favorite actor/actress? Favorite muppet or cute furry animal?

I simply cannot tell you a single favourite actor/actress. There are so many that I adore. Recently though I did see The Dark Knight, and it totally confirmed my love for Gary Oldman – he is such a stunning actor, capable of disappearing into any role. So I guess I could list him. But honestly, there are simply too many to list. I am sorry.

The Muppet question is easy: Kermit. Without a doubt.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Well Timothy comes out in January ’09, and Hardcore Nerdity (www.hardcorenerdity.com) is building momentum and hopefully we’ll have an official launch in the fall.

Alexcomes out in paperback next week in the States (August 5th), so keep your eyes open for that.

And for any of you folks in the UK, I have a very short story in the upcoming Scholastic charity anthology for the National Year of Reading, called Wow 366. It contains 366 short stories (one for each day of this year), each 366 words long. Mine is called “The Portal”. Here is the Amazon.co.uk link for it:


I think that’s it for now. But if people want to keep up to date with my adventures, or lack thereof, they can visit my blog where I post frequently: www.ididntchoosethis.blogspot.com

And my website: www.adriennekress.com

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