Interview with Young Adult Book Author Annette Curtis Klause

Annette Curtis Klause is the author of novels such as ALIEN SECRETS (Delacorte, 1993), BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE (Delacorte, 1999), and THE SILVER KISS (Delacorte, 1990). This interview was conducted via email in December 2001.

What could you tell us about your childhood experiences as a writer?

Well, I was always writing, that I can say, and I still have some of those early tales.

For example, I have my very first book, GYPSY CAT. It was a chapter book about a cat owned by Gypsies (of course), and illustrated in clunky felt pen. I wrote it when I was about nine or ten. Just to show I must have always had ambitions to be a published author, I taped all the pages together on the left side, and made a front and back cover. (The tape is all yellow and crackly now.) On the back cover, I listed the names of the other books in the series--even though I hadn't written them. I did go on to write one other, but the rest of the series never came to be.

A couple of years later, when I started to write a book inspired by Jack London's novels WHITE FANG and CALL OF THE WILD, I gave it the same treatment with tape down the left side. It was called LONE WOLF. I never finished that one, though.

Teachers were very encouraging about my writing, and my parents were very supportive. My father even brought home an ancient typewriter for me to use.

I found it was a mistake to tell kids my age that I wrote, however. They just thought I was weird. The plays I wrote to put on for the class with my girlfriend made people laugh, but didn't earn me party invites; and after a student teacher let me read aloud my collected horror stories about THE BLOOD RIDDEN POOL OF SOLEN GOOM, the kids in my class actively tortured me in the school yard. I stopped sharing my writing so much after that.

Even so, a girl I knew as a young teen called me Shakespeare. I think it was supposed to be friendly teasing, but it really irritated me. I'm afraid I was an overly sensitive child.

What were you like as a teenager, writing and otherwise?

I still have a lot of the soppy love poems I wrote as a teenager. I cringe when I read them but, "He was cute, though," I say to myself, remembering the inspiration. I also have some journals and diaries I wrote. When I wasn't being smitten by unrequited love, I was trying to be witty and sophisticated. I realize how shallow I was when I read them and alternate between being embarrassed and laughing affectionately at myself. I actually kept a top ten of boys which I updated regularly. Thank God no one ever got hold of those things and used them against me.

Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis KlauseWhen I was fifteen, we moved from England to the United States. It was the sixties and I became terminally cool. I wore bell-bottom jeans and a head band, and walked around barefoot in the summer. That drove my parents nuts.

"Why don't you wear something nice?" my mother would say.

"But I'm saving you so much money," I'd reply.

The Amoeba, Aiden's friends in BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE were based on my group of friends known as The Blob. We used to go to free rock concerts in the park, and some of us would talk our way in free to pay concerts by flirting with the bouncers.

Could you tell us a bit about your path to publication?

Long, winding, and rocky. Ha! Ha!

Whew! Let me think. I won't count school magazines. Well, first I had some poetry published in small science fiction magazines and a couple in Cats Magazine (don't tell serious poets), then I had a lot of rejections for my fantasy and horror short stories, and finally the leader of my writing group talked me into writing a novel. "Annette, your short stories are not short," he told me. "You want to write a novel."

Gulp!

I fought that for a while because I couldn't imagine finishing a whole novel, but finally I gave in. I knew I wanted to write for teenagers, so I thought about what I was into when I was 14 or 15.

I remembered a sequence of poems I wrote after reading my first vampire book. It was called THE SAGA OF THE VAMPIRE and was about two vampire brothers feuding over a teenage girl. I dug out those poems (Yes, I still have them), and when I finished laughing at how bad they were, I stole from myself.

That was the beginnings of THE SILVER KISS, my first published novel.

My writing group teacher loved it so much, he asked his editor to read it, and she called me up! Wow! A real editor talked to me. But she had a serious criticism.

"You're really inside the head of the vampire," she said to me. "I can really feel where he's coming from. It's the teenage girl you need to work on. I don't know what that says about you."

I spent a year working on characterization and revising that book, then I sent it back to her. Sadly, she then didn't want to buy it for her imprint. But she had done me a big favor, nevertheless. The book was so much stronger.

I began sending it out and actually received personal letters, and another phone call! I knew I was on to something.

What finally happened was an editor from School Library Journal, (a magazine I had reviewed for, and had written some articles for) wrote to say he was now an editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, but would like to keep in touch. Editors like to hear from librarians what books kids are asking for. "Aha! Little does he know, but I have a manuscript," I thought. The rest is history.

You talk about the relationship between your work as a librarian and your writing on a page from Authors Among Us: Children's Writers Who Are Or Have Been Librarians. What jobs did you have before you became either a librarian or author? Did any of them teach you anything or introduce you to people who influence your work today?

Let's see. I was a waitress for a month and discovered that I hated being subservient and that Nuns don't tip much. It made me realize I should stay in college so I could do anything rather than that again.

In college I posed nude for art classes. It paid better than most student jobs. It taught me that it's pretty chilly in a "temporary" hut left over from WWII in the middle of winter when you're stark naked. I traveled with a kitchen timer and a space heater. The long poses gave me plenty of time to create poetry in my head.

The experience certainly helped me free myself from inhibitions and look at creativity in new ways. One teacher had me climbing bars up the wall (that studio used to be a gym) wearing a child's plastic GI helmet and flippers and nothing else, while he projected a rocket ship taking off on me and played at top volume the electronic version of Beethoven's 9th from the soundtrack to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. "Capture her movements! Capture her!" he cried to his students.

I pitied them, but I was having a great time.

For a while I had a job putting security strips down the spines of books in the Graduate library. The job was called "Stripper". It was funny when one of the supervisors called out, "We need five more strippers on the 4th floor." You should have seen people's faces as we filed out. I guess that taught me that language can deceive.

My resume looked very interesting for a while.

As a librarian and author, you must read a lot. What types of children's and young adult books do you enjoy most and why? Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

Actually, I find I am reading less, because much of my spare time is taken up by writing or writing related business. I miss it. I'm afraid I am very behind, so don't expect any hot tips. Thank goodness for books on tape.

I still try to read a little of everything in children's and YA books, although I must admit a preference for the strange and unusual. I enjoy the Lemony Snickett books, for instance, since they remind me of Edward Gorey, another favorite author and illustrator, and the Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey make me laugh out loud.

I love fantasy, of course. Two of my favorite fantasy writers for young people are Margaret Mahy and Diana Wynn Jones. I find both to be creative, intelligent, and skillful writers. I have just finished THE AMBER SPYGLASS by Philip Pullman. What a great end to the trilogy (HIS DARK MATERIALS), but so sad. I found the books to be wonderfully written, subversive and glorious. I am so grateful that he and his publisher give young people credit for intelligence.

I also enjoy science fiction, horror and suspense. I thought THE KILLER'S COUSIN by Nancy Werlin was a real page turner. I love a bit of romance mixed in with my fantasy and horror, which is why I like THE CHANGEOVER by Margaret Mahy and OWL IN LOVE by Patrice Kindl. I enjoy gore, so THIRSTY by M.T. ANDERSON was a hit with me. I've liked the books by Vivian van de Velde I've read because of her sense of humor, and I am jealous of her great titles--I want to steal them. I know there are tons of other books I could mention, and it would depend on the day and the mood I was in what I would come up with.

CYALR features a bibliography of recommended horror and suspense titles. Occasionally, we'll receive an e-mail from someone concerned that we're trying to recruit vampires (which we only do between dusk and dawn) or werewolves (which we only do on nights of a full moon)(yes, we're kidding). Have you encountered any resistance to the subject matter of your books, and if so, how have you responded to it?

Well, now and again at conferences or on speaking engagements someone will tell me that they hate any form of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Alien Secrets by Annette Curtis KlauseThey usually imply that it's because these genres are somehow inferior; I think it's because they have no imagination, poor things.

I just nod politely and agree that we all have different tastes. More often, someone will say, "I hate Science Fiction but I loved ALIEN SECRETS," or "I hate horror but I loved THE SILVER KISS."

So, I think of my books as being rather subversive; they point out to people that it only depends on the book in that genre that you happen to read. I have had no one say to me face to face that I am recruiting disciples of the devil, thankfully.

I'm a little worried about people who actually think that vampires and werewolves exist, and a writer could actually recruit them. It's nice to know that someone thinks I am that powerful but...give me a break, they are just metaphors I use for the human condition.

Have any of your books been banned or received any critical publicity, and if so, how did you respond to that?

My book THE SILVER KISS was pulled from the Sequoyah award ballot in one town in Oklahoma the year it was nominated. The award committee was furious. I won anyway—nyah nyah nyah, nyah nyah! I only found out after the fact, so I wasn't too worried. My book BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE was challenged in Greenville, South Carolina and La Porte, Texas.

Perhaps this has happened other places, too, but, these were instances where their local newspapers called me. I believe it was pulled from middle schools in Greenville, but the fight is still going on in Texas, and they have pulled my book from the middle school and high school until it's resolved. So it is like being censored.

As I have reported elsewhere, the woman who is trying to get BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE out of the schools in La Porte, Texas called me up at work to tell me it wasn't personal! That showed a great deal of either nerve or naivete on her part. I didn't know what to say at first.

What reactions to your work have you received from teens?

I will always remember my first fan letter in which a young lady said, "I, too, would surrender my neck to Simon."

"Yeah!" I thought. "Exactly."

I get letters from girls who have read my books over and over and over—what a wonderful compliment. I also get letters and e-mail from boys who are in love with Vivian—hah! and my writing group thought that was a girl book.

My husband does Internet searches on me and finds fan sites and great reviews by kids on school web pages. It's all very encouraging, and makes all the hard work worthwhile. A few girls who tracked me down by e-mail years ago still report in and tell me about their lives. I feel honored by that.

My big regret is I don't have time to answer letters very quickly. I feel guilty about that, since people took the time to write to me—but it's impossible! I don't want to send a form letter, but writing a personal letter takes time.

Two of your books are for older teenagers. It's not unusual to hear concern about the upper YA market. What do you see as its challenges and what ways would you suggest to face them?

The challenge is walking the fine line between truth and what the publishers, parents, and the more conservative librarians want to hear.

We all know that teen language is much spicier than some adults want to admit and they may experiment with some dangerous aspects of life as they find their place in the world. The challenge is to have characters that sound and act real without being accused of promoting promiscuity, bad language and rampant drug use.

I suppose balance is the answer—if one shows questionable behavior, sometimes it helps to also show the possible consequences. One can show real life behaviors considered negative as long as there is perspective in the narrative that implies this may not be the best way of handling things. I hate didactic books, though, so I am not suggesting writing moral tracts that justify illustrating lurid behavior, I only mean some subtle writing that makes it clear this is illustration not promotion. The language need only be implied ("He cursed", "She spat a foul word") many places, with a few actual swear words for effect here and there.

There is no need to include every curse word a teen may interject in conversation, as little as there is any need to include every "like", "ugh", and "Uh". (Unless you are trying to make a specific point about the character that is.)

On the other hand, some things like sexual feelings, are universally true in adolescence, and I am not about to ignore them or pretend there is something wrong. The feelings exist—it's what you do with them that counts. Sometimes people make unsound choices as they find their way, and I'm not about to condemn them for that, just show in some way what it meant for them so the reader can make an assessment.

What are the particular writing challenges of horror and sci fi stories? What suggestions do you have for writers? What appeals to you about these types of stories?

The challenge is to make over the top situations seem like they could actually happen. The way you go about this is to make all the things that surround the unusual events and situations as real as possible. Creepy stories are always more effective when they happen to believable people in everyday surroundings. Stories set in space work when the characters are normal people reacting in ways that you and I would.

I like those genres because I want to escape from the everyday world and explore possibilities. I find it much more fun to experience vicarious chills and explore the future in my mind. Why would I want to write about everyday life? I already live there. There is so much room for commenting on the human psyche when one writes horror. And in SF, one can have adventures and stretch one's perception of the universe all from a cozy chair-- the perfect way to adventure for a scaredy cat.

Of late, there's been some debate in the children's literature community about the importance or inappropriateness of stories that touch on violence or horrific themes. It's somewhat reminiscent of the withdrawal of monster movies from Hollywood after the attack on Pearl Harbor so many years ago. What is your take on this emotional dynamic as related to young adult literature?

Reading about violence and horror is a way for a person to not only clarify their stance on moral issues by exploring the alternatives (and in doing so give license to the antisocial creature within in a safe venue) but to exercise their responses to the terrible and be prepared for it in real life.

It is foolish to try and sanitize literature and the arts under some mistaken idea that one is protecting youth. Children and teens need to explore the dark side as a healthy part of growing.

If a child is protected from everything dreadful, he will have no coping mechanisms in place when finally confronted with disaster.

I don't mean that anything goes, however. I still think there are limits in what should be presented in children's literature based on a child's cognitive level and life experience. I don't want to traumatize young people. But I think they are capable of dealing with much more than some people give them credit for.

Do you have any interest in writing contemporary or historical realism?

I'm afraid every time I do, a fantastic element creeps in anyway. I just can't do it straight. The book I am writing now is historical, and has weird enough characters without going beyond reality, but I just had to insert a turn of the screw—can't help it.

For you, what is the hardest part of being a writer?

Actually writing.

What do you love about it?

Actually writing.

How is different for you to work on a novel now than it was at the beginning of your career? What have you learned over time and trial? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

I spot my mistakes quicker now when it comes to overwriting, grammar, and spelling. I don't have to look things up in a grammar book as often. But it's just as hard to drag that story kicking and screaming onto the page.

It all seems so clear in my head. If only they'd invent some magical machine that could lift those scenes whole from my brain. I have learned to recognize my weaknesses and watch out for them in rewrites. I am looser in the way I construct a book and skip back and forth a little more within chapters and fill in the gaps, although I still tend to write a book chronologically.

I now do first drafts right into the computer instead of doing a hand written first draft. I couldn't live without my computer. If I'd have had to type the final version of my first book, I probably would have given up in frustration and would have never been published. I can't think of anything within my control I would have done differently.

Is it possible to find bits of you in your characters? If so, which one(s) and which bit(s)?

There are bits of me in all my characters—after all, you write what you know the best. Zoe, in THE SILVER KISS, is the shy young teenager I was who found it hard to make friends, and took long walks alone and wrote poetry. Simon, the vampire in that same book, is the side of me that felt alienated and angry because of loneliness.

Puck in ALIEN SECRETS is the side of me as a child who would sometimes do impulsive, crazy things (scaring even myself) and agonize over it later—the girl with a mouth quicker than her brain. There's still a lot of that in me.

Vivian is me in my late teens—angry, seething, frustrated, horny. There was a baser creature inside me who would get loose from the shy girl and do things carnal and wicked—and revel in it.

Where do you work now? How is the space conducive to triggering your imagination?

Often I work in the little room lined with shelves, between the kitchen and the living room, which we laughingly call the breakfast nook, although we eat all our meals there, as the dining room is full of boxes of books and may always be.

I have an office upstairs with a PC, but my husband likes to use that one, so I work on my laptop, on a folding wooden table, in front of a window looking out on the back yard.

I am perfectly happy and cozy here in this corner; I can stare out into the changing seasons and dream. I have the table we eat on to my left and shelves to my right, and the coffee and refrigerator only a few steps away.

The cats take shifts on the table beside me sleeping or "helping". The only nuisance is having to clear off the table at mealtimes. Sometimes we eat between piles of books and magazines.

I do remove the cats, however.

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?

The usual—write, write, write; read, read, read. Pay attention to how your favorite writers do what they do. Trust an experienced writer or teacher to read your work and don't freak if they actually say something constructive. You'll get nowhere if all people say is, "isn't that lovely." Listen to what people say when they critique your work. If they say things you don't like, store the information away, anyway. Look back at it later when you have had time to cool. Sometimes you'll see that it makes sense after all, and you can apply that advice to your writing. Sometimes you realize they just didn't get it and you can toss the comment aside. Remember that no first draft is perfect, and you'll spend much of your time revising. Revising is good—at least you're not staring at a blank page.

What about adults interested in breaking into publishing?

Do your research. Look over your manuscript after reading THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk & White, if you have never read that book. Research the proper form in which to submit a manuscript and write a cover letter. There are many useful books on this at the library. Look at WRITER'S MARKET and LITERARY MARKET PLACE and publisher's catalogs to decide what publisher is the right one for your book, and what their requirements for submission are. There are many strict requirements these days. You want to find a publisher who publishes the type of thing you write, but hasn't marketed anything too similar in the last few years.

Join writing organizations like The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. You can get great market information from their newsletters as well as tips on writing. Go to writing conferences and network—if an editor can put a face on your name and remember a friendly conversation—you're ahead of the game. There's lots more stuff—read up on it, don't assume.

Are you interested in speaking to teacher/librarian groups or in school visits?

Yes, in moderation since I have a full-time job and still need time to write.

Is there anything you would like to add?

No, I am all out of thoughts.