Mette Ivie Harrison is the author of MIRA, MIRROR, THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND, THE PRINCESS AND THE BEAR, and THE PRINCESS AND THE SNOWBIRD. Her new novel, TRIS AND IZZIE, will be out in October with Egmont. She has a PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Princeton University, and she is a competitive triathlete who has competed in 3 Ironmans. She has five children and lives in Utah, where she knits during church and reads anytime she can get away with it.
What are you reading right now?
I spent several years reading 200-300 YA novels a year, trying to give myself a crash course in YA. I never read YA much as a teen, and I missed a lot of great books. But the last year, I've found myself turning more and more to mystery. I've been on an Elizabeth George junket. I tend to read everything in a series in one great big gulp, and then look around for more to read. I've also loved Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series, Robert Parker's books, Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries and her new series set after WWI. I was like this as a teen, when I spent one memorable summer tracking down every novel about Perry Mason ever written. That was after my Sherlock Holmes obsession, and before my Isaac Asimov obsession. My mom kept wondering if I wouldn't like to read something else for a change. Nope. I think this is the way that I learn. In a couple of years, I'll be done with mysteries and on to something else. I read about 10,000 romance novels as a later teen and I haven't read any romances for years.
What first sparked your interest in writing?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in Kindergarten, when I wrote my first children's story about a dragon. I still have it. I don't remember ever not wanting to be a writer, or not wanting to spend just about every waking moment experiencing story in one form or another. I did spend about six years getting a PhD in German literature, and I focused more on writing about story then than on creating my own. It was my final year of my degree, all the pressure of finishing my dissertation on me, that I went back to my own stories. I didn't intend to make a career of it then. I had heard too many stories about how impossible it is to make a living at writing. But I think I was mostly afraid, and it was only when all the other possible career choices blew up that I discovered courage because I had nothing left to lose.
What do you love the most about writing? The least?
I still love the first draft the most. Yes, it takes a kind of courage to stare at the blank page. And yes, I have to learn to turn off my internal editor every day anew. But I like playing with my own characters and my own world, making up my own rules, asking "what if?" My kids laugh at me now, because I have novel ideas all the time, and they know me well enough that when I talk about something I'm interested in appropriating for my own, I think about it in a real-life setting, and then say, "And I add magic."
I struggle with the professional business end of writing. Not accounting or anything like that. I was always good at math at school and I don't procrastinate most things. But I don't feel that I'm good at social interaction at events, or promoting myself. There is a part of me that is a little frustrated by the idea that writers are becoming entertainers, almost stand up comics. I got into this gig because I wanted to sit in my office and write stories about people, not travel around talking about my books. I have had to find ways that I do love to interact, so I write blogs about what I care about at the moment, whether it is triathlon or women characters on TV shows or parenting. I also love twitter.
Do you have a writing process?
I try to write about 4 hours a day, generally in the morning after my kids go to school. In the summer, this goes down to maybe 2-3 hours a day. I do have an office, but I can work almost anywhere if I'm rested enough. I have a pretty regular schedule of sleep, exercise, and eating. I also have 5 kids who run in and out of my office. I just work around that. I also try to set aside a few hours a day for reading. I believe that the more you read, the more intuitive the structure of a novel is to you. I have tried many times to outline a novel, but usually it works for about one chapter and then the outline is useless. I have started to try to write a first sentence to the next chapter before turning away from the computer for the day, so I don't start with nothing the next day.
The hardest thing about writing is dealing with fear. It doesn't ever go away, but I think I have learned to work around it. I don't often know where a story is going, except in some part of my unconscious that doesn't talk to the rest of me. I feel like I just sit down every day and let my characters tell me what they would do next. But it's also true that I try to have lots of surprises in each book and end a chapter with something that I myself didn't expect. Which is a hard thing to do, surprising yourself with your own writing.
What are your passions?
I love triathlon, and I am passionate about exercise and eating and health in general. I feel so angry when I hear people say that they just "can't" run or they weren't born athletic. I wasn't born athletic, either. But persistence in athletics, like persistence in writing has paid off for me. I feel passionate, too, about adults trying new things. This idea that when you get older, you've found already what you're going to be good at is bunk. I suppose as a writer, I am always reading and researching new things, so that is part of the reason why I believe this. But I didn't do my first triathlon until 34. Before that, I had only been running for one year. I have also learned how to play the piano fairly competently, as an adult.
What inspires you?
Oh, everything. There are story ideas all over. I tell people who ask me how I get my ideas that I am usually more concerned with pushing ideas away. I certainly don't write them down at night if I wake up with a dream. If it doesn't keep bugging me to write it, good. I have a long list of novels I want to get to and I'd rather it didn't get any longer.
I will say that I don't believe that writers ever come up with anything new. Maybe others are not as conscious of it as I am, but we steal all our ideas from other books or TV shows or people we know or stories in the newspaper. Then we make them completely our own if we do our job well. I started watching Dr. Who in the last year, fell in love with it, and then decided that I wanted to steal some of the story effects in the episodes I liked best. So I have a book I'm working on that came from that. And we also went to London (my two oldest daughters and I) to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing and I'm working on a book retelling that. And I have a book that's a retelling of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband called AN IDEAL BOYFRIEND.
Some things turn out well and some don't. I'm trying to learn that as a writer, my job isn't to judge which ones are good, but simply to let myself be a tool for the creativity that runs through me. Sounds zen, but it works for me.
I read fantasy a lot as a tween, but by the time I was 12, was firmly into adult fiction, reading classics and "worthy, great literature." I didn't get back to reading fantasy until I was in grad school. Then I would have to read the fantasy books in the library because I was afraid to check them out, paranoid that my professors would somehow be getting a list of my library books each week.
I have heard a lot of people say they just don't "get" fantasy. Well, there is a lot of fantasy out there. And it's very different. Maybe you really wouldn't like any fantasy, but I doubt it. If so, I think I feel sorry for you. Fantasy to me is just a way of talking about the same things as realistic fiction, but with the metaphor of fantasy. You can talk about feminism in a way you wouldn't be able to otherwise, or about how humans are really still animals, or about love triangles, or anything you want.
Why young adult?
I didn't really pick young adult. It picked me. By that, I mean that I simply wrote the stories I wanted to write, some with adult characters, some with young adult characters, and a lot of them are crossover and could be either one. I feel like I write in the seam between adult and young adult, and sometimes that means certain novels will never work for either target audience. MIRA, MIRROR is about a hundred year old mirror who wants to be human again. THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND was rejected by Viking because Prince George was "too old" and the "marriage plot" didn't work for YA. But it sold to another editor who saw it differently.
How was THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND born?
I originally wrote THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND as a retelling of the Princess and the Pea, but the princess came in, bedraggled and dripping water, and she had this hound with her that she wouldn't let anyone take from her. Then the story became a mystery about what was going on with the princess and the hound, told by the prince's point of view. I never intended for it to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, though I can see in retrospect how it was read that way. I thought of it when I sent it out as very dark and strange and probably unsellable. I wanted it to feel like a fairy tale retelling, but of a tale that no one could find in any book.
Can you tell us about your new book TRIS AND IZZIE?
TRIS AND IZZIE is a project I had in the back of my mind since 2002, when I quit my position teaching German at the university level and turned to writing full time. I thought about it off and on, but I could never see how I could do it. It felt like it was biting off too much. It took almost six years for me to get the courage to sit down and actually start the thing. And even then, I wrote about a hundred pages and put it aside for a couple of years. When my editor Ruth Katcher (at Egmont) was asking about what different projects I had lying around (she knows me well enough to know that there are always projects lying around), I mentioned this one to her and she instantly wanted to see it. Then I had to go back and rewrite it and figure out how to finish it. I think it took that ten year period for me to stop being intimidated by the subject matter and not take myself so seriously. It's the first book I've written that I think is actually funny.
The idea is that Izzie is a high school junior who has a perfect life. Her boyfriend is Mark King, basketball star, and the only thing that is wrong is that her best friend Branna doesn't have a boyfriend. So Izzie decides to mix up one of her mother's love philtres and give it to Branna and a suitable guy at school. Then this new boy shows up, Tristan, and he takes the philtre, but Mark is also reaching for it, so in an impulsive moment, Izzie grabs it and drinks it. So she is in love with the wrong guy completely and she feels like it isn't real. She fights her own feelings for a long time, and in the midst, there is a larger fantasy adventure where Tris and Izzie have to fight off an evil magic plot that could destroy the world. But it's heavy on romance, and my own experience of high school and having a boyfriend that I truly fell in love with and married later.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Just keep writing. There is no teacher better than experience. I wrote 20 novels before I got my first one published. I don't know anyone who has had so many rejections on so many books before being published. I continued to believe that I just wasn't good enough yet. And by good enough, I mean so good that an editor couldn't say no to me. Not just as good as what I see on the shelf. Those books are from authors who generally have an audience already. You have to be better than they are. I think that a lot of beginning authors keep honing their first "baby" thinking that they can make it better. It's not always true. A lot of the time, the problems in one book are just no soluble. So move on to another one. Keep learning and growing with each book you write.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?
I love Jane Austen and someday will figure out how to write my Jane Austen with magic book. Maybe. I also knit, crochet, and quilt and do other sorts of needlework. I remember taking a class from a female professor at Princeton and for the first time feeling comfortable bringing my knitting with me. We talked about the importance of needlework in novels by women. I thought about that for a long time afterward and eventually wrote an (still unpublished) academic essay about needlework and secret writing in Jane Austen's novels. One of the examples was Jane Fairfax's letters to her aunt, which are written crossways on the paper and hard to read. This made me immediately think of knitting and how women's literary messages are often hidden and can't be read except by other women who know the secret code.