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Author Interview: Beth Bernobich on her YA novel Fox and Phoenix

September 26th, 2011 (09:04 am)

current location: The Victorian Dollhouse
current mood: tired
current music: None

Hello, dear readers! Today I surface from the land of trying desperately to meet various deadlines (including Sirens, eep!) long enough to bring you an interview with Beth Bernobich (beth_bernobich), author of the upcoming YA novel Fox and Phoenix. I got to read an early draft of this, and I loved it! It's releasing on 13 October.

Beth in her own words:

"I am a writer. I am also a person who likes to reinvent herself, sometimes in several directions at once. Some of these directions include a year of studying German at Heidelberg Universität, writing speculative fiction, learning karate, and battling the intricacies of software engineering. My obsessions include coffee, curry, and writing about men (and women) without shirts."

1. Fox and Phoenix started out life as a short story in an anthology (Magic in the Mirrorstone: Tales of Fantasy). Could you tell us a bit about the story and how you came to expand its universe into a novel?

"Pig, Crane, Fox" is structured around the old fairy tale about the prince who must perform three impossible tasks in order to win the hand of the princess. In this story, however, the main character isn't a prince. He's a street rat named Kai, and he's more interested in the money than any snobby princess. He and his street gang friends figure out how to crash the contest and get past the first two tasks. Then the princess gives Kai the third task--to fulfill her heart's desire. Kai wins the contest and the money, but in ways he most definitely didn't expect.

After I wrote the short story, several readers told me they wanted to hear more about Kai and his friends. When I thought about it, I realized they were right. Here is a kid who wins his heart's desire, and a princess who wins hers. What comes next after the fairy-tale ending? What if their heart's desire is a dangerous thing?

So I sat down to noodle about what happened next. A couple of things were already in place. Lóng City, where Kai lives, is a small mountain kingdom. More were mentioned in the short story, so I named the region the Seventy Kingdoms. And the Phoenix Empire was already large and wealthy. It was an easy step from there to making the empire hungry to expand its borders. Once the plot fell into place, I knew how to fill in the details.

2. You also write adult novels. What's it like, switching between tones and registers--and juggling so many projects at once?

It helps that each series is very different in tone and register, actually. The difference has nothing to do with YA vs. adult, but the characters themselves.

See, before I can write a story, I have to know the voice and tone for that story. Getting it just right takes some time and maybe a few false starts, but once I'm anchored in the world and the characters, I can slip into the tone without a lot of trouble. So when I write about Kai, I know how he thinks and talks. He cares about his friends and his mother. He also likes to snark. All that determines what he thinks about and how he expresses himself. Ilse from Passion Play is almost the same age as Kai, but her background is so very different, there's no mistaking her story for his. Even when I add in more viewpoints to Ilse's story, the theme of the books, and the characters themselves, are so different from Kai and his friends, that I have no trouble going between the two. It's almost like switching radio channels.

At some point, I'd like to write a YA book that riffs off Mansfield Park, but with polyamory and folk magic. The tone there would be closer to my River of Souls books, but definitely YA in focus. That's when I'll likely have more trouble switching between projects, but we'll see how it goes. *g*

3. Like me, you spent a year studying in Germany when you were an undergraduate student. Mir fehlt Deutschland! What's your favorite memory from that time?

I have so many wonderful memories of that year, but here's one that always comes back to me. My friend Diane and I decided to take a weekend away from our studies to travel. It was December and the day before my birthday. We landed in a small town we had picked out and spent some time wandering through the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) and eating grilled wurst we bought from a street vendor. Eventually we headed toward the youth hostel.

Except the directions we had didn't quite match the streets. After a while, it started to snow, and we hurried, thinking that we would never make it to the hostel before the 7PM curfew. We were still shy with our German, and everyone we passed seemed in too much of a hurry to ask for directions. Finally, with the sky darkening and our backpacks getting heavier and heavier, we paused to review our useless map. A couple fresh-faced boys came by, walking slowly. "Excuse me," we said in our slow, careful German. "Could you tell us where the youth hostel is?"

They all looked at each other. One of them grinned and pointed down the street. "Right there."

We blinked. Indeed, there it was, a miniature fairy-tale castle, all luminous white and turreted, with snow swirling all about it in the falling dusk. It really did look magical.

(Postscript: we had the girls' room to ourselves. Dinner was delivered by dumbwaiter, and when the innkeeper saw our passports, and that my birthday was the next day, she cooked us an extra large breakfast on the house.)

4. Do you have any recommendations for multicultural novels that don't get a lot of press (or that most people haven't heard of)?

Nnedi Okorafor is getting attention, but I think we can't mention her name often enough. I just finished her adult novel Who Fears Death, which is simply amazing. Right away, I plunged into her YA novel, Akata Witch, which is equally amazing in its own way, and I'm sure I will end up buying all her other books. Everyone else should too.

5. What can readers expect from you in the future? Will you be writing more books in the world of Fox and Phoenix?

My next few books are from my River of Souls fantasy series from Tor Books. Queen's Hunt comes out next year in July. Allegiance, which comes out the following year, ends the trilogy, but there's a fourth stand-alone book, The Edge of the Empire, which tells the story of Ilse and Raul in a previous lifetime.

Once those are done, yes, I want to write more books about Kai and the Seventy Kingdoms. I have detailed notes for a possible sequel to Fox and Phoenix, which I'm calling The Phoenix War. And just recently, I had the glimmer of an idea for a story told from Kai's son's point of view.

6. Do you have a favorite recipe you'd like to share?

Yes! I love all kinds of food, but one recipe that I love for chilly autumn days is Chicken and Sausage Cassoulet. It's easy to make, it tastes great, and the leftovers are also delicious. I discovered it when I was teaching my son how to cook.


5 chicken drumsticks
1 pound turkey sausage
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 can diced tomatoes
2 cans cannellini beans (white kidney beans), drained
2 teaspoons basil
2 teaspoons oregano
2 tablespoons parsley
olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
2 bay leaves

Brown the drumsticks in a large skillet with olive oil, then set them aside in a large bowl.
Brown the sausage and add that to the same bowl.
Add the chicken broth and wine to the skillet and simmer until the liquid reduces to half.
Pour the liquid over the chicken and sausage.
Add beans, onion, garlic, carrots, celery, and spices into your crockpot and stir thoroughly.
Layer the drumsticks and sausage on top of this mixture.
Pour the liquid on top of all this.
Cook on *high* for 3 hours or *low* for 6 hours.

7. Pick a question you would like to be asked and answer it.

Okay, I have one. What's the hardest part about writing for me?

Getting it right. I love research, and I love exploring new-to-me worlds and languages and cultures, whether those are based strictly on the real world or entirely new worlds that Fred-the-Plot-Guy (my muse) dropped on my head.

But fantasy doesn't mean you just make stuff up. You have to make it plausible, which means research. And if you're writing alternate history (which I do), you need to research what did happen, deep enough that you can convince readers about what might have happened. And if you do draw inspiration from real-world history and languages and cultures, you need to be thorough. Get the names right. Get the allusions right. Get everything right, or as right as you can. Double-check your sources. Then check again.

What often keeps me awake at night is the nagging suspicion that I didn't check my research enough, or that I missed something vital. Once, when I was proofreading my Middle High German magic language for Passion Play, and cursing diacriticals, I wondered if I should stick to the so-called easy stuff. (Whatever that is.) But then I thought, no, I write--and read--fantasy because I want to discover the new. So no matter how often I stress about getting things wrong, I keep on with the new and the different. I do more research. I try to learn from my mistakes, and aim to write a better book. Because that's what makes it all worthwhile.

You can learn more about Beth and her books at her website. I also highly recommend checking out her free short story, "Pig, Crane, Fox," to get a taste of Kai and his world.


Posted by: Sherwood Smith (sartorias)
Posted at: September 26th, 2011 01:55 pm (UTC)

Loved this! Thanks, Shveta!

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