Writing is a passion. Publishing is a business.


Interview with DIANE ZAHLER

Diane Zahler is the author of four middle-grade fairy-tale retellings: The Thirteenth Princess, A True Princess, Princess of the Wild Swans, and Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters. She has also written two nonfiction books for older readers, The Black Death and Than Shwe’s Burma, and an incalculable quantity of textbook materials for elementary and high school students. She’s made her home in Seattle, Morgantown, Ithaca, Solana Beach, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Belgium, but now lives with her husband and dog in an old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. She really likes chocolate.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a fabulous middle grade adventure story that I can’t tell you about, because I’m doing it for a job I’m working on. It’s in galleys and I’m sworn to secrecy. So instead I’ll say I’m just finishing Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES, which is brilliantly written. I can’t remember when I last read something that made me stop every few pages and just marvel over a turn of phrase or the construction of a paragraph.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write, so I can’t really answer that. My earliest memories of reading combined joy in the work itself with a burning desire to write something as wonderful.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

There’s not much I don’t love about it. For me, being struck with an idea is almost magical, and the early stages of writing, when nearly anything is possible, are wonderful. Later, the challenge of figuring out where a story is going and how best to get it there can be frustrating, but I still find it enjoyable. I don’t love getting stuck at points in the narrative, but even the difficulties of working out what seems not to be right in a story is a fascinating challenge. I’ve never been a writer who agonizes over writing (though my husband, who has to listen to me moan and complain, might disagree!).

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I’m not sure I have a process. I like to have my day’s work in my head before I put words on paper. So often I’ll figure out what I’m going to write while I’m driving somewhere, or walking on the treadmill. Then, after I’ve finished my other writing (usually textbook materials), I’ll open the manuscript I’m working on, read the previous day’s work, revise it if it needs it (and it always needs it!), and then write what I’ve been mulling over all day. (Reading this over, it seems like I could have a better process. But somehow it works for me.)

What are your passions?

Reading. Writing. Chocolate. Belgian beer. Travel. Chocolate. My husband and son. My new(ish) rescue dog, Flora. Did I say chocolate?

What inspires you?

Travel, more than anything else. If I’m in a place that’s unusual or marvelous in some way – lost in the maze of Venice’s canals, wandering through an ancient Irish graveyard, paddling a canoe along the moon trail of a Maine evening – I file it away in my head to pull out when I’m thinking about what I want to write next.

Why middle reader?

The books that meant the most to me and that I remember most clearly are the ones that I read when I was a middle-grader myself. I write for that girl, as well as for the kids who are my readers today. I can’t imagine anything better than having my books affect a reader the way the books I read at that age affected me.

Why fantasy?

That middle-grade reader in my head always loved fantasy best. That’s not to say it’s all I loved to read, but books by Edward Eager, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Susan Cooper, E. Nesbit – those were the ones I returned to again and again.

Why fairy tale retellings?

Fairy tales focus on such universal feelings and fears – the feeling of powerlessness, the fears of being left behind, of being lost, of losing parents…the stories have meaning for just about everyone. And most people are familiar with them. So the idea of taking these well-known stories and doing something different and new with them was really intriguing to me.


The title actually came first. I had a contract for two books, one that I’d finished and one called “Title to Come.” My editor and I had lunch, and we were tossing ideas back and forth. She was the one who came up with “Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters,” and immediately that struck a chord with me. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do with it, but by the time I was ready to write, there was a story in my mind to tell.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I tell aspiring authors three things: read as much as you can, write as much as you can, and be persistent. Reading in the genre and at the age level you want to write will help you figure out how to write in that genre and for that age group. Writing – well, it’s a craft, and practice is the only thing that will make you better at it. Every published author has drawers or files of manuscripts that never saw the light of day. Those are part of our practice. Each failed story or manuscript makes us better writers. And persistence – and sometimes a thick skin – is absolutely necessary. Often publication is the result of luck and timing, your story hitting an editor’s desk at the instant that editor is looking for something like what you’ve written. But that happy moment can take years to come about. DON’T GIVE UP!

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

Did I mention that I am a huge fan of chocolate?