••• Congratulations on your upcoming U.S. release of The Poison Diaries (July 20th). For our readers, here's the tempting excerpt:
In the right dose, everything is a poison. Even love . . . Jessamine Luxton has lived all her sixteen years in an isolated cottage near Alnwick Castle, with little company apart from the plants in her garden. Her father, Thomas, a feared and respected apothecary, has taught her much about the incredible powers of plants: that even the most innocent-looking weed can cure -- or kill. When Jessamine begins to fall in love with a mysterious boy who claims to communicate with plants, she is drawn into the dangerous world of the poison garden in a way she never could have imagined . . .
This book sounds positively to-die-for (sorry, couldn't help myself). The cover is beautiful and the topic is beyond intriguing. Plus, you got to work with the Duchess of Northumberland in writing the book. How did that come about?
The concept for the book was created by the Duchess. She’s known for creating spectacular public gardens, and she is also fascinated by the history of poisonous plants. She came up with the idea of a boy named Weed who could communicate with these plants. Balzer + Bray at HarperCollins Children’s Books was excited about developing a YA trilogy based on this idea, and they showed it to me to see what I thought I could do with it.
I developed a treatment for the book, and we had an initial conference call with the Duchess. After that they sent me to England to meet her and see Alnwick Castle and the poison garden there, which was really essential, because I ended up using many real locations in the book. It was a wonderful adventure!
Wow - HarperCollins contacted you, huh? How did you establish such a good relationship with the editors there?
I had already sold my middle grade series, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, to the Balzer + Bray imprint. So Donna Bray was already my editor, and we were having a great time working together on The Mysterious Howling, which is the first book in that series.
I won’t speak for Donna, so I can’t say with total certainty why she wanted me to have a go at The Poison Diaries; you’d have to ask her. I suspect it was because we were having so much fun doing a period piece set in England with the Incorrigibles.
You often hear authors complain that, once published, their editors encourage them to keep writing the same sort of book over and over again. This was the opposite experience. Donna asked me to go from funny middle-grade to sexy, gothic YA. What fun! I give her much credit for intuiting that I could do that.
Since we author ladies all have a bit of princess in us, we want to know: what was it like working with royalty?
Well, first of all, Jane Northumberland is just a delightful person, amazingly energetic, very down to earth and so passionate about this project. We spent two days together and during that time she was completely generous in wanting to tell me and show me everything she thought might be of interest about the gardens, the castle, the plants. I came home with books about the history of the castle and the gardens; the Duchess and her staff could not have been nicer.
After the trip I drafted the book at my home in New York, and then we went through the usual revision process, with Donna as my editor. I know that there were comments coming in from England as well, but as an author it would have been really difficult for me to try to juggle notes from different parties. So I left it up to Donna to find out what I needed to know and sort through it so that I was dealing with one set of notes. I thought it went pretty smoothly, given the number of people involved.
As I understand it, your male main character, Weed, can communicate with the deadly plants of the poison garden. What an incredible idea! What was it like trying to come up with plant thoughts? Can you give us an example of what Belladonna might say, for example, about folks who ask you to do blog interviews and donate swag?
Weed can communicate with plants, particularly the ones that have power to cure and to kill. The fact that I could wake up in the morning and say, “Today my job is to try to think from the point of view of a plant” is a sterling example of why it’s so cool to be an author!
It’s been very interesting to explore that concept, really. I’m a lifelong vegetarian and have always loved animals. In recent years there’s been a growing body of writing and thought about animal rights, and how for so long humans failed to see the complex societies and languages employed by animals. We tend to underestimate our fellow creatures. The notion that plants, too, are far more complex organisms than we may be able or willing to perceive is fascinating to me.
Belladonna would not waste her time chatting with you, I’m afraid! She’s too busy growing those delectable, deadly berries of hers.
This is not your first book by any means. You’ve published YA books since 2006, but your most recent series, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, has been very well received among middle grade readers. What's been the biggest difference between writing for MG and YA audiences? How have you managed to tap into an authentic voice for each age?
There are obvious differences and not so obvious. Middle grade readers are amazingly clever and broad-minded; your basic fifth grader is ready to grapple with lots of complex information and deep themes and has an absolutely killer sense of humor. And they’re not overly hormonal yet, so they’re still interested in everything, not just romance. It’s a magical moment, the pinnacle of childhood, in a way.
Teen readers are freshly plunged into the throes of adolescence, with intense focus on the mysteries of adulthood that are all of a sudden opening up before them: love, sexuality, sacrifice, loss, death.
These are broad generalities, of course, because every reader is unique. But writing both series at once has kind of foregrounded their differences for me. Incorrigibles is many things: a coming of age tale, a classic Pygmalion plot, a spoof of Victorian governess novels, a running in-joke on the nature of fiction, and so on. And it’s incredibly silly and full of slapstick, too, high comedy and low all mixed up. Whereas The Poison Diaries is very disciplined in tone, with an intimate, first-person narration, almost claustrophobic in its intensity. Longing and mortality are everywhere; so are themes of betrayal and the loss of innocence. Finding the voice for each book was just a question of doing what the story required.
Can you give a tip to aspiring authors out there: what one thing can all authors do that will immediately improve their writing?
Learn to read like a writer. Pay attention to how good novelists choose details, manage point of view, move time forward in a story, reveal character, handle dialogue, control the tone and rhythm of language, describe familiar things without using clichés. Everything you need to know is there in the excellent novels that have already been written. They’re the best teacher you could ever have, so read them! And set your standards as high as the best book you ever read.
You've gotten to travel to Europe, meet a Duchess, do voiceovers for your book trailers, and go on whirlwind book tours in the past couple of years. Is this anything like what you expected when you left Broadway and set out to be a published author ('cause it sounds more like the life of a starlet)?
You left out scooping the cat boxes and walking the dog. That’s really a better indication of what I do every day. That, and laundry, and driving my kids around and ordering take-out, because after a day of writing I’m often too zonked to cook anything more complicated than pasta, and they get sick of pasta.
Like most writers, I spend big chunks of my days lying about, moving words around on a screen. It can be very slothful and kind of boring, in a way. I did spend years acting and doing comedy improv, so I enjoy the shift in energy from that lazy, private, writer-on-the-couch mode to doing public readings and school visits and promotional stuff. I find it invigorating. Of course, one cannot write while being out and about all the time! So a balance must be found.
On the subject of the “starlet” lifestyle, though: one thing many aspiring writers may not realize is that being a published author is not the same thing as being a published-and-promoted author. And being published-and-promoted is not the same thing as being a best-selling author who can actually make a living from writing books. Plenty of your favorite authors teach or have jobs of some kind that support them. Plenty of books are published and never heard from again, and plenty of authors end up organizing and paying for all their own promotion. No matter where you are in your career, there’s always another rung on the ladder.
We know you've spent time as an actor and comedian. But what's the funniest thing you've had to do as an author?
This question makes me think of the wonderful Libba Bray donning a cow suit to make the trailer for “Going Bovine.” And that cow suit tells me that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what being an author could demand of a person.
I did howl on national television, to promote The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place (the series is about three children who were raised by wolves, so it involves a lot of howling). I was scheduled to appear on a segment on The Balancing Act, the Lifetime morning show, and right before we taped it I asked the host if she would mind howling with me on the air. She said, “Okay, but I’m not a very good howler.” Now, how did she know she wasn’t a good howler? When was the last time she howled? This is what I’m thinking as tape starts to roll. But we did it in one take, and there I am howling on TV in front of 96 million viewers. * sings * “…they can’t take away my dignity…”
BONUS QUESTION: You're stranded in a deserted OASIS and you can only have one poisonous plant with you; which one do you choose and why?
In a practical sense, I’d probably want to choose something with antibacterial and anesthetic properties, like cloves. And aloe would be very useful in case of sunburn. I should point out that both clove and aloe are usually thought of as harmless, but in high doses they are toxic. As is true of most medicinal herbs, whether they cure or kill depends entirely on the dose!
Thanks again Maryrose! You can follow her blog or chat with her on Twitter.
Check out the amazing book trailer and purchase The Poison Diaries at Amazon or Barnes & Noble:
CONTEST: Enter to win a signed copy of The Poison Diaries!
- For one entry: leave a comment for Maryrose in the comments section.
- For a second entry: tweet about the contest and leave a link to your tweet in the comments section.
The contest ends at midnight on July 23rd, stay tuned to see who wins!