Monday, June 20, 2016

Q&A with Ellen Prager

Ellen Prager is the author of the new middle-grade novel Stingray City, the third in a series for kids called Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians. Her other books include The Shark Rider and The Shark Whisperer. She is a marine scientist, freelance writer, and consultant, as well as the science advisor to the Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos Islands. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the settings and themes for this third book in your Tristan Hunt series?

A: Even while finishing the second book in the series, The Shark Rider, I was already thinking about book three; the locations and marine life I wanted to integrate into the story, and ideas for the plot.

Part of what I look for are wondrous natural settings that readers can potentially go to or learn more about online and that provide numerous undersea habitats to explore, some excellent sea creatures to feature as well as opportunities for humor. Both Monterey Bay where the book starts and Grand Cayman where the bulk of the story takes place fit my needs perfectly.

As for themes for the third book, in general I look for real-world important ocean issues and in this case chose two topics that have been in the news lately: the global problem of illegal fishing and how in some places in the world it is still legal to capture (or kill) wild dolphins and whales.

In addition, while in Grand Cayman doing location research for the book, I visited Stingray City with ocean advocate, painter, and scientist Guy Harvey.

He told me a story about how several years ago stingrays went missing from Stingray City. They had been tagged during an annual survey and were later discovered in a local marine park. The kidnapped stingrays were released and in Grand Cayman it is now illegal to capture or kill sharks and stingrays. For potential readers of Stingray City - that’s not a spoiler!

Q: As a marine scientist, can you say more about the issues you try to make young readers aware of in your Tristan Hunt books?

A: In addition to highlighting many of the absolutely amazing animals in the sea and marine habitats, I try to bring real-world ocean issues into the stories. These are serious problems that impact the ocean today and will continue to do so into the future.

Young readers can have a powerful voice now with their parents, peers, and teachers and they will have to tackle problems such as overfishing, marine pollution, coral reef destruction, climate change, and wildlife smuggling well into the future. 

Q: How did you initially come up with the idea for your character Tristan Hunt, and did you know from the beginning that you’d be writing a series about him?

A: When parents and educators starting asking me for an ocean-oriented book targeting middle graders (8 to 12 years old), I did my homework to see what kids that age like to read. The results were very clear - fun fiction and preferably a series!

With that in mind, I began writing the Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians series. The main characters, including Tristan, are based on some of the typical emotions and insecurities we all have, but that are especially heightened as a young teenager. I also added to these characters and others in the stories personality traits of people I know or have met. 

Q: You’ve written for various age groups. Does your writing process differ depending on the age of your reader?

A: Definitely! However, more than age, the real difference in my writing process comes if I am writing fiction (Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians series) versus non-fiction.

In every case I try to stay focused on my audience: What they are interested in? What can they relate to? And what level of understanding I am writing for.

In writing fiction, I enjoy being more creative and showcasing my sense of humor. I tend to use storytelling in both non-fiction and fiction, but I thoroughly enjoy being able to “make things up” while writing fiction and include sarcastic humor (my favorite part along with the adventures and sea creatures). I also like coming up with villains that have a humorous slant.

Some of the adventures the characters have or situations they find themselves in are loosely based on my own experiences.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m busy giving talks, visiting schools, and trying to find sponsors for some of my ocean education and outreach work that doesn’t fit traditional funding models for science. I’m also working on a book that may be the first in a new series for middle graders.

And I continue to work with Celebrity Cruises as the science advisor and consultant to their three ships in the Galapagos Islands (they recently purchased two small ships in addition to Celebrity Xpedition, which has been operating in the Galapagos for years).

I feel incredibly fortunate that I get to repeatedly go to the Galapagos and work with our local crew to showcase the amazing wonders of the islands in an environmental-award winning program.

I am also headlining some Caribbean cruises, which is a fantastic way to reach broad audiences and make ocean science understandable, relevant, and entertaining!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: While I am very proud of the traditional jobs I’ve had in science including doing research, teaching, and in administration, the response of young readers, parents, and educators to my middle grade fiction series has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

With a small publisher, getting the word out about the Tristan Hunt series has been difficult and it has yet to be profitable, but it remains a labor of love!

I look forward to continuing my efforts to find new and effective ways to bring ocean and earth science to people of all ages and make it relevant, engaging, and understandable!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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