Shutta Crum is the author of William and the Witch's Riddle, a new novel for kids. Her many other books for kids include Thomas and the Dragon Queen and Mine!. She is a storyteller, librarian, teacher, and lecturer. Originally from Kentucky, she now lives in Michigan and Florida.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for William and the Witch’s Riddle?
A: Several years before I knew that William would exist as a manuscript, I’d started work on another novel, but only had the beginning. Then it stalled. There were two brothers stranded in a cottage at the top of a lonely peak.
I really loved those characters, perhaps because I have two brothers. My youngest brother is really attached to the elder one. In fact, my two brothers married two sisters. So I’d always wanted to write a story about two loving brothers.
After Thomas and the Dragon Queen made such a hit, my editor asked for another similar book. Now, I’d always seen Thomas as a “one-off” kind of book. But I realized she was right. I could write another—not a sequel and not using the same characters, but using a similar sensibility, mood, etc. And a new book must have a dragon as Thomas does.
Well, the dragon in Thomas is huge. For this book I wanted the opposite. Thus Squarmy was born—very tiny. I liked that! The dragon queen in Thomas lives in a cavern. I wanted Squarmy to live somewhere very different from Bridgoltha’s home.
My husband has a beard—I’ve never seen him without one! So one night it came to me, if Squarmy was miniscule he could live in an old guy’s beard. But when I got to working on Tuli’s character I realized that he needed to be a big part of the story and he couldn’t just be any “old guy.” So a Yana was born, as well.
And I needed a really bad antagonist. I’ve always loved tales of King Arthur, thus Morga a grand fae (from the ancient stories of Morgan le Fey) became my villain.
Things began to tumble together after that. And, of course, in all these kinds of take-offs from Western literature folk and fairy tales, things must happen in threes. So very early on I wrote the “riddle,” or chant.
Once I had that to guide me, I simply had to figure out how William would accomplish those three things—not easy! And I had to show him failing. Then, ultimately, a great deal had to be at stake if he failed. And what is the dearest thing to William’s heart—his little brother, Pinch.
Q: How do you think the book fits in with classic fairy tales, and how is it different?
A: I wasn’t sure, at first, how I could tether this to the cannon of children’s literature. Thomas and the Dragon Queen was a take-off on the classic knight rescuing a princess from a dragon theme—though with a twist!
But I knew I had to fit in a folk or fairy tale connection, because the earlier book did. So I did a lot of reading with the knowledge that I did not want to set the story directly into an old tale—I didn’t want to do a complete retelling. I just wanted it to peripherally be something most young readers would know about.
And since I had to get rid of the parents early on—this is a tale of two brothers—I didn’t want both parents killed. One could just be sleeping somewhere. So I hit upon Sleeping Beauty; only the plot of William happens many generations later. And because of Morga’s evilness she has endured all this time.
I am hoping there will be a third book in this “trilogy.” My editor currently has a manuscript based on The Three Billy Goats Gruff and a boy named Jack. Again, I am not interested in doing a retelling.
I think I am more curious about expanding the old tales into more—MORE. What if this happened? Or what if that happened? And what if it all happened in a different time or place?
So I don’t think of these books as retellings, or “fractured” tales. I think of them as the leap outward and the spot they have leaped from happens to be the tales of Western literature.
Q: What are some of your own favorite folk and fairy tales?
A: Interestingly, I’ve never really thought about whether I have a favorite. I’ve always loved reading the Brothers Grimm, and researching tales from other lands. (I own a number of collections of international folk & fairy tales.) But I can’t say as how I have a favorite, at least not of the traditional tales that Disney later co-opted.
I have always loved Beowulf—in its many versions, especially the Seamus Heaney retelling and the graphic novel version by Gareth Hinds. And I adore the old tales from Southern tradition; ghosts, bayous, pirates, monstrous alligators, and Jack tales, that sort of thing. I own a copy of A Treasury of Southern Folklore by Botkin that I do, indeed, treasure. Perhaps it is my Southern heritage?
Q: Do you usually know how your books will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?
A: I’ve found that if I don’t have some sort of ending in sight, the novel doesn’t get off the ground. That happened with the story of the two brothers I’d originally started years before and that I alluded to above. When I had an idea with an ending, I used my unused characters from that start to write William.
It happened again when I did Nanowrimo about five years ago. I decided to simply jump in with no plan and see what came out. I loved what I wrote, but as I had no vision for where it was going—I got to about 45,000 words and simply stopped. This first half was shelved for a long time.
Finally, last winter I wanted a new project, pulled it out and gave myself the task of finding an ending. Only then, once I could envision an ending, could I sit down and write the last half. That just got turned into my agent at the end of October of this year. So we’ll see what happens with it.
With my picture books, I’ve usually got a “whole” feeling about them. I visualize their shape and where they’re headed well before I begin to play with words, so I don’t have this problem with the shorter books.
But the novel does seem to need a goal, or an ending, toward which I am writing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t change direction as I work on it. I may do so, but find it isn’t always a 180˚ turn—it may just be a bit of a swerve from my original intention.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Well, it’s only been two weeks since I sent my agent the latest novel—the one I’d originally started during a Nanowrimo month. The working title for that is The Ferryman’s Apprentice. (Not one of the young fantasies with dragons.)
So at the moment, I am in that stage where I’m bored, I’m reading a lot, and I’m listening for voices (hah!) of new characters. I’m sure other writers can relate though my family may be thinking I’m going through a mentally unstable period.
And I’ve been tinkering . . . trying to find my way into a new project. For the last few years my process has been to write a new novel draft each winter. Then during the rest of the year I work on picture books and do the revisions to the novel.
This seems to work for me. I find winter a time to hunker down and lose myself in longer, and often less playful, tasks. Picture books are more playful, they seem to fit into spring and summer in a more natural way—and they can be laid aside to scamper out and smell the flowers without doing much harm to them.
I can’t leave a novel aside for too long . . . to do so increases the chances of it being abandoned. It is much more difficult to leap into a whole world I’ve created and have to reacquaint myself with it fresh each time. So with a novel, I need to stay in it—even if that is simply in my thoughts each day, or my dreams at night.
So where is all this listening and tinkering leading? Not sure. But at the moment I am hearing the voice of an old tree in my head, and a collective POV from a whole grove. Hah! Or maybe it’s just my desire to run out and howl at this beautiful “super” moon we’ve been gifted with this month. We’ll see . . .
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My website is full of goodies for writers. It’s at www.shutta.com. Under the “Writers” tab there are a number of articles I’ve written about writing for young readers, as well as some links to my handouts for various talks I’ve given.
I do workshops, presentations, and keynotes for conferences, schools and libraries. Information about my speaking gigs is also at my site. And folks can email me from there…
--Interview with Deborah Kalb