Talking Dragons with Eileen Mueller
On my blog today, is New Zealand middle grade/YA writer Eileen Mueller (left). Congratulations on being a finalist on the Sir Julius Vogel Award ballot in not one but two categories: youth novel, and best new talent.
There are always great New Zealand writers on the list, so it’s an honour to be shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel awards. I’m absolutely thrilled and still smiling!
Your shortlisted work for the youth novel category is Dragon’s Realm (Fairy Tale Factory), a You-Say-Which-Way interactive novel. What exactly does that mean? Tell us about the writing process for a book of this nature.
In Dragons Realm, a You Say Which Way adventure, you choose what happens in your story. At the end of each chapter, there are links to take you to the next exciting scene. You meet cool sidekicks and have adventures with dragons, monsters and magic. But there’s a catch – the school bullies are after you—and you must outwit them.
Writing interactive fiction is fun—I explore Dragons’ Realm, telling many different stories where YOU are the main character. My challenge is to make each story meaningful and come up with satisfying endings. There are 22 endings in Dragon’s Realm, and I loved writing every one of them!
Do you die? Not if you make wise choices! And if you do die, you just go back and choose differently! After all, YOU say which way the story goes.
During the writing process, I made best friends with a huge spreadsheet that kept track of all the possible story paths and the outcomes of each choice. At the end of each story, there was a golden moment where I leaped up and shouted, “I’m done, I’m done, I’ve finished a story!”
Then my spreadsheet would call out, “No you’re not! There’s more to write! Get back to work!”
And I’d obediently go back to the keyboard to have more fun in Dragons’ Realm.
Usually writers have to discard many ideas, only focussing on one. But writing interactive fiction is addictive, because you use as many ideas as you want. Right now, I’m working on Mystic Portal, travelling through world portals by magic carpet, mountain bike, camel, turtle and dolphin. It’s a blast!
The Dragons Realm cover is gorgeous. Did you have any input into the artwork?
Thank you, yes, I did. The Fairytale Factory came up with various dragons and landscapes, and I chose the ones I liked best. Their branding is very strong, with the same frame on all their You Say Which Way covers, which helps readers recognise their books in stores and online. They’re great to work with, I love being part of their team.
I notice dragons appear on a number of your book covers. They’re a popular meme, made more so by writers like JRR Tolkien (The Hobbit) Matthew Reilly (The Great Zoo of China) and GR Martin (Game of Thrones). How consistent is the dragon mythology in literature and how important is it to you to stick to that known mythology?
The role of dragons in mythology is constantly evolving. Dragons were once portrayed as princess-snaffling beasts that sat on huge mounds of treasure and devoured knights by the dozen. Anne McCaffery changed that. Her dragons were genetically engineered on another planet by humans fleeing earth. She explored the deep bond between dragons and humans. I loved these books as a teenager, so it was natural to write about dragons too.
There are many books about people that shape-shift into dragons or have dragon powers. I’ve chosen more traditional dragons in my stories—although they do turn up in strange places—and the bond between dragons and humans is always key to the plot.
In Dragon Tales, a dragonet pops out of the toilet, a math dragon appears in a boy’s desk at school, and a hungry dragon lurks under the bed. There are also dragons who are bullied for being different, and kids who escape their sickbeds to visit dragons in a secret world.
In Attack on Dragons Realm, when monsters attack, three teenage friends have to separate to train as a dragon rider, a wizard and a warrior. To save their families, they endure tough training and overcome their darkest fears.
Attack on Dragons’ Realm is an interactive book, with one beginning, one end and three interwoven middles that can be read independently—you choose which order you read them in. It’s the prequel to Dragons Realm, but both stand alone.
Fangtastic Dragon Jokes is a light-hearted look at the silly side of dragons. In Attack on Dragons Realm, Alfonso keeps making really bad jokes about dragons, so my kids and I started making up our own silly dragon jokes. I tested them on young readers … and a book was born! That’s now led me and other authors to inventing dragon limericks… watch this space!
Ezaara—Rider of Fire, the first book I ever wrote, is a coming of age young adult novel, and won the SpecFicNZ Going Global contest in 2013. Ezaara imprints with a dragon, becoming the rider of the Queen of Dragons’ Realm. She finds forbidden love, unknowingly throws her family into danger, and struggles to lead the realm against ferocious tharuks, bent on destroying Dragons’ Realm.
I wrote Ezaara seven years ago, when I first started out. Although I had an offer to publish Ezaara, I knew my writing could be stronger. Now, I’m rewriting the entire book! No mean task—the initial draft was 223,000 words! The 16th version (four years ago) was 146,000 words. I’m determined that the final (17th draft) will be well under 100,000! Lets’ see how it goes!
Readers of the other Dragons’ Realm books will recognise some characters and dragons in Ezaara—to be published in late 2016 with more Riders of Fire books to follow.
A disgruntled dragon has incinerated your book case and sadly only five books survive. Which books do you hope they’ll be and why?
I’d hope my e-reader survived!
Seriously, I’d choose omnibus volumes of everything by Anne McCaffrey, Sherwood Smith (amazing world building, politics and characters I love), Shannon Hale (especially her YA stuff), Brandon Sanderson (I love that guy!), Juliet Marillier (loved her YA Shadowfell series), Christopher Paolini (hey, you know, dragons…), Sophie Jordan’s Firelight novels (a mean YA paranormal dragon-shifter series) and everything by Veronica Roth. Oops, that’s more than five and there are many more on my list! And Into the Mist, because, you know, who wouldn’t want to be with Taine McKenna? Even my husband thinks he’s awesome!
I’d also tame the disgruntled dragon and teach it a love of reading. Maybe it would heat me a cup of hot chocolate and toast my marshmallows so we could feast together while we read—and write. And, of course, we’d go on lots of cool adventures with kids.
What else do you write? What other manuscripts do you have waiting in the wings?
I’m always writing and never have enough time to get all my ideas into books. Currently these books are on my ‘to publish’ shelf (working titles only):
Mystic Portal, another You Say Which Way adventure – mountain biking through portals into other worlds (Fairytale Factory, July 2016)
Black Belt Bailey – a martial arts story for kids.
A YA paranormal romance.
Ezaara (Phantom Feather Press, Dec 2016) and the Riders of Fire series (3-4 YA books)
There are many many more on my ‘to write’ shelf…
For several years, you were the convenor of a major literary festival for children. How important is it for authors to engage with their audience? Did your experience with the festival influence your own writing in any way?
I loved managing Wellington’s Storylines Family Day, bringing together thousands of kids with authors, illustrators and performers, for a day of fun.
My favourite activity was authors telling impromptu stories with kids’ input, illustrated by artists on the spot. The authors and illustrators were always terrified! But afterwards, they all said it was the most fun they’d had in ages – the kids, authors and the artists!
It’s vital to meet kids and find out what they love, and enjoy laughing and celebrating what you create together—because the reader creates a world inspired by what we writers suggest.
I guess this is one reason I write interactive fiction—kids get to choose what they want to do in my worlds. I love that!
You’ve done some collaborative writing with YA specialist AJ Ponder and placed first equal in the New Zealand Society of Authors’ NorthWrite Collaboration literary contest in 2013. How is the collaborative writing process different? Do you have a preference?
I love working with AJ Ponder.
We participated in a collaborative writing panel at the NZ National Sci-Fi Fantasy convention in 2014, and after hearing the other panelists’ stories, we realised how lucky we were!!! There are nightmares happening out there in the collaborative arena. We’ve been very lucky!
Our method? We brainstorm, bouncing ideas off one another until we have a plot and characters we love. We listen to each other. We discard anything we don’t agree on. We’re honest, editing and re-editing each other’s work until we can’t tell which words are whose. Of course, we pull our hair out and laugh a lot along the way…
Our winning story, Ahi Kā, combined a Shakespearean sonnet, Māori mythology, and themes of indigenous land rights in a fantasy piece about a boy and girl, Manaaki and Ahi, being chased by demons and hell hounds.
We also co-wrote Clean Up, a short story in Lost in the Museum, the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Best collected work. That was fun because the story interwove elements from every other story in the anthology.
I hear you are a reluctant horror writer. Tell us more…
When I asked if I could submit to a horror anthology, I was sent five stories from the collection so I could match the tone. As I read them, I was terrified. They were so scary! I knew I couldn’t possibly write anything that terrified me so much—until I read a hilarious scary, story by New Zealand author Paul Mannering…
…so I tried a dark humorous story. It got accepted for Baby Teeth and I was hooked! I now have 5 short stories in 3 horror anthologies and another couple lurking under the bed… or in my wardrobe… waiting to bite unsuspecting passers-by. Watch out!
As writers, our personal experiences influence our work, so some of my protagonists in my young adult work are also affected by loss, but much more subtly, and only in pale shades, rather than the dark themes explored in Call of the Sea.
What would be your single most helpful piece of advice for emerging writers?
Does this count as a single piece of advice?
If the going gets tough, keep writing… wash, rinse, repeat, then write more.
Form a critique group with other writers and be honest about each other’s work. Become each others’ tribe.
I love my tribe—made up of three groups:
Monkey Lab—a critique group that require a constant supply of bananas, scratch their armpits voraciously and always get up to high jinks.
Clarke’s Critique Group—more civilised, with scrambled eggs and endless rounds of herbal tea.
The team at the Fairytale Factory, who, although they’re my publishers, are always keen to bounce ideas around.
So my last piece of advice is to love your tribe and feed them well—whether it’s bananas, scrambled eggs, or fine fiction, they all need something substantial to devour.
Er… no, that is more than a single piece of advice, but whatever you’re doing, it seems to be working. Thanks for dropping by, Eileen.
Thank you for interviewing me.
Readers can test drive my free books here: