Francess Lantz was the author of numerous titles, including the novels FADE FAR AWAY (HarperCollins, 1998), STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD (Random House, 1996)(which was made into a TV movie on the Disney Channel), and the YOU'RE THE ONE series. This interview was conducted via email in September 2000.
What kind of reader were you as a child? What were your favorite books?
I was a serious tomboy, so I liked non-fiction books like the Colby series (titles like Navy Frogmen) and True Stories of the FBI. I also loved scary books, like the Alfred Hitchcock short story anthologies. When I got older, I remember reading James Bond books, comics, and Mark Twain.
Who are some of your favorite authors today?
Betsy Byars, Daniel Pinkwater, S.E. Hinton — many more. Some favorite books are MAKE LEMONADE, THE GOATS, MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN, and TOM'S MIDNIGHT GARDEN (a diverse list!).
Did you begin writing early or were you a late bloomer? What inspired you to write for children and young adults?
I made up stories before I could write. All through childhood I wrote stories and illustrated them. They were usually bloody, violent, and disturbing. But I had a wonderful fifth grade teacher who encouraged me.
Then I got into music and began playing the guitar and writing songs.
I didn't come back to fiction writing until my rock career fizzled and I became a children's librarian. Suddenly, I was hanging around kids, reading kids books, and I thought, "Maybe I can do this!"
Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?
I started writing while I was still a librarian. I didn't know what I was doing. I wrote some picture books, a mystery, and fantasy novel. I sent them out and for 2 1/2 years I got rejection after rejection. But some of them were quite encouraging so I kept at it. Then I got smart and wrote about something I really knew about -- a 15 year old girl who wants to be a rock star. That was my first sale: GOOD ROCKIN' TONIGHT (Addison-Wesley, 1982).
What part of novel writing comes easiest to you? Plotting? Characterization? Theme?
I'm a good plotter -- or so my writing group tells me. I'm also good at thinking up the basic ideas for stories. I've always got an idea, or can come up with one fast. I think characterization is harder. Writing FADE FAR AWAY and STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD helped me go to the next level with my characterizations. Before that, all the main characters were really just versions of me.
Which of your characters do you feel closest to and why?
Fifteen-year-old Sienna in FADE FAR AWAY. The story was inspired by my father's death from cancer when I was fifteen. I drew on the real feelings I had at the time. So in some ways, Sienna is me and writing her story was very intense. But in other ways, she's very, very different from me, and for the first time in my writing career, I had that experience where I was almost channeling this girl, and she was telling me what she wanted to say and do in the story. It's was very exciting!
Which of them was the most difficult and why?
Sienna again. Because she was a very unhappy person, and a very frightened one. That's not me. So I had to get inside her head every day and learn what it's like to be unhappy and frightened. It wasn't fun, but it was so rewarding to get her story on paper.
Can you talk a bit about the art theme, how Sienna's father Hugh had abandoned his painting for his more critically acclaimed sculpture and how Sienna's work was criticized by her parents as "mere illustration?"
I suppose I deal with this issue in my own life. I've written fun, light novels like SPINACH WITH CHOCOLATE SAUCE and NEIGHBORS FROM OUTER SPACE, and I've also written "serious" novels. I struggle with the question of whether I should be writing more serious books. But they're hard, and you can't usually sell them without writing the whole thing. No guarantees! The light stuff is more fun, and easier, and I can usually sell it from an outline. So it's like a quick fix and very rewarding. So maybe I was writing about myself a little bit.
In STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD, you tell the story from the alternating viewpoints of Ariel and Megan. Alternating viewpoint is one of the most difficult tasks for an author to take on. How did you decide to take this tack? Did you ever consider telling the story from the perspective of one girl or the other?
I sold this book from an outline, and my plan was to write the book from Megan's point of view, the Earthly view. Then when I got ready to write, I realized Megan couldn't tell the whole story. I wanted/needed Ariel to have her say. My editor said, "Go for it." At first I just planned to put in three or four short Ariel chapters. But Ariel took over! She had a lot to say, and she was funny (she didn't mean to be, but she was). So her diary entries got longer and longer, and pretty soon the book was from both girls' POV.
What advice do you have for writers of multiple viewpoint stories. What should they consider?
You have to make sure you're continuing to move the story along. You don't want to tell the story from one POV and then retell it from the other character's viewpoint. And of course, it's easier if the characters are very different and have different perspectives to share with the reader. And they have to both be essential to the story. Otherwise, why not simply stick with one viewpoint?
STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD was recently made into a TV movie shown on the Disney Channel. Can you tell us a bit about how that came to be?
An independent producer, Ricka Fisher, read the book and took it to Disney. They passed on it. Meanwhile, my agent sent it to them, and a few more people read it. So it was brought up again at another production meeting, and this time it got the green light. They hired Chris Matheson, the screenwriter of "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," to write the script and they filmed it in Australia. I didn't learn any of this -- except that it had been optioned -- until 3 weeks before shooting began! Boy, was I thrilled!
Were there any differences between the book and TV version? What did you think of the show overall?
The first thing the producer told me was, "We stayed true to the spirit of your book." I thought, "Oh, no, that means they've changed everything!"
But they didn't. There was a lot the same, and they DID stay true to the theme. But there was plenty they changed -- like the whole surfing part of the story was changed to windsurfing because it was more photogenic!
And the ending was changed totally to make it more cinematic, more action packed, and to bring in more special effects.
I'm not complaining, though. The first time I saw it, all I could see were the changes. But the second time through, I saw it as an original movie, and I was really impressed. The actors are great, and it's funny.
They're still showing it on the Disney Channel about once a week. Check your TV Guide.
The year 2000 saw the debut of your YOU'RE THE ONE series. Can you tell us a bit about the premise of the series?
Each book is about a girl who has a hopeless crush on an unattainable idol -- and then actually gets to meet him and fall in love with him. The first book (LOVE SONG) is about a rock star, the second (LIGHT, CAMERA, LOVE) is an actor and the third (A ROYAL KISS) is (you guessed it) a European prince.
Kind of hokey, but I made a conscious effort to give each of the girls talents and interests of their own, and to make sure the boys fell for them because of their personalities and talents, not in spite of them. They were fun to write, and pre-teen girls love them.
What's it like to write for a series as opposed to a single title? What are the special challenges and rewards?
First, you have to write fast. I had a month each to write the YOU'RE THE ONE BOOKS. Second, you usually have to deal with a committee of editors, and everyone wants you to change something.
The good part is the money, and the fact that kids get really excited when they learn I've written a HARDY BOYS book or a SWEET VALLEY book. They don't discriminate like adults do. In fact, they usually get more excited about those books than my original novels because they've all heard of them.
You're particularly wonderful at creating a compelling voice for your characters. How do you find their voices?
I'm not sure! Sometimes I think the voice is just me. I imagine myself in the situation I've created for the characters. Or with Ariel and Sienna, it's a lot like acting. I pretend I'm an alien, or I'm a 15 year old with a famous, distant father. Then I start imagining myself in the plot. What would I say? What would I feel? It's fun because it's like acting but you don't have to get up in front of people and risk making a fool of yourself.
What are the greatest challenges to you as a children's and young adult book author?
Selling my next book! Every time I finish a book, I'm unemployed again. It's not like the "old days" when you found a publisher and they promoted you through your career. I've published with Avon, Troll, BBD, Random House, Aladdin, you name it. I'd like to stick with one publisher, but it never works out. And I hate the business stuff, like trying to get them to promote your book and they tell you they adore it, but they don't do anything, and then it doesn't sell and then they tell you they can't buy another because the first didn't sell. And then it goes out of print and they don't tell you and when you finally find out all the copies of the books have been destroyed. It's depressing. What do you love about it?
Coming up with the idea, writing a chapter that "works," seeing the book with my name of the spine, cashing a check that I earned by being creative, talking to kids at schools and seeing them excited about my books, and getting fan letters. It's all great!
What kinds of reactions to your work have you gotten from young readers?
All positive, I'm happy to say.
Teen girls were nuts for SOMEONE TO LOVE, my novel about adoption, and I'm so sad that it's gone out of print. They get sucked into FADE FAR AWAY really fast too.
And middle grade boys and girls always get excited about my funny books. And now, of course, because one of my books was made into a movie, they think I'm a celebrity.
What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?
Read, read, read. Also watch TV and movies. I learned so much about plotting from watching movies. Then sit down and write. I wrote all the time when I was a kid. It was fun for me. Really, that's all there is to it -- read and write constantly. You will get better and better, guaranteed.
What's up next for your fans?
I'm writing two sequels to STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD. The titles are STEPBABY FROM PLANET WEIRD and BLAST OFF TO PLANET WEIRD. I also have a short story coming out this spring in a YA anthology called ON THE FRINGE (Don Gallo, editor). And I'm writing a funny middle grade novel for Pleasant Company called LOVE WANTED: APPLY WITHIN.
I'm busy and loving it!