Friday, November 18, 2022

Q&A with Amy Herrick




Amy Herrick is the author of the new middle grade novel The Tiltersmith. It's a sequel to her middle grade novel The Time Fetch. Also a retired teacher, she lives in Brooklyn.


Q: What inspired you to write The Tiltersmith, and did you know when you wrote The Time Fetch that you’d return to your characters?


A: To answer this backwards: While I was writing The Time Fetch I don’t think I had any thoughts about returning to its characters or writing a sequel. It seemed dangerous and exhausting enough to simply find my way from a beginning to a middle and then the END of one book!


If someone had made me think about it, I would probably have said: “Of course, I won’t write a sequel. The best books are the ones that are whole and complete unto themselves, anyway. They stand alone. No sequel needed.”


But when The Time Fetch was finally and actually finished, I had a couple of experiences that shifted my feelings.


The first thing was that I started doing some readings and going into classrooms, and now and then some young person would ask me if I was writing a sequel. Now this seemed such a nice compliment of a question, I really couldn’t bring myself to snootily answer, “No. The really best books don’t need a sequel.” Instead, I found myself just standing there looking like a dork and saying, “Well, who knows?”


Of course, after a bit I realized the question wasn’t exactly a compliment anyway. It was just an expected thing in Young Readers world. Series books are definitely IN right now, but it got me thinking.


It was true that most of my very favorite books from when I was starting out as a reader were Stand Alone Books. But a lot of them were also a part of a series: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Little House on the Prairie; The Princess and the Goblins; Mary Poppins; A Wrinkle in Time; Little Women. There really was no very good reason why a Stand Alone story couldn’t have companions, I thought.


And meanwhile, an even more important thing was happening to me. I was beginning to miss my characters--Danton, Brigit, Edward, and Feenix. I had been living with them for six years or more (I’m a very slow writer) and life seemed awfully quiet without them. I often found myself imagining what was happening to them now.


And then I had an experience up in the woods in Prospect Park, an experience which gave me an idea I found I couldn’t let go of.


So, now to answer the first part of the question:


I was walking my dog one morning in the park. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful day, more late winter than early spring, grey and old brown leaf-colored. We were walking a path up high in the woods when my dog stopped. She was staring at another dog, a big brown mastiff standing still in the trees watching us.


I looked around quickly for any signs of an owner. People often walked their dogs on this path, but on that day there was no one else around. I called out gently to the fellow, asking him if he was lost, but at the sound of my voice he turned and disappeared into the underbrush. I was worried about him and asked the next couple of people I ran into if they had seen anyone looking for a lost dog.


Nobody had, but one of these people said it might have been the “ghost dog” who was something of a legend in the park. Apparently, he been living up in the woods on his own for some time. After that, we ran into this dog every now and then when we were out walking and when we did, I always tried to call him down. But he would only look at me sadly and lope away.


I began to think of him as an enchanted guardian of the woods and this thought led me to my first tries at The Tiltersmith. Although I made changes later on, in my beginning drafts Danton finds this very same dog in the woods.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of The Tiltersmith called it a book that “both resonates with current events and fits tonally alongside children’s fantasy classics.” What do you think of that description?


A: Oh, I love it. But, if I’d been able to jump ahead in time to read that review while I was working on those first tries at the book, it would have puzzled me.


Not the part about the “children’s fantasy classics.” That part I was full of ambitions about. The plan was to write a mythology-driven tale about a year when spring is very late in arriving and about the four Brooklyn kids who are suspicious that there’s something more sinister afoot than mere weather.


It was my hope to include many of my favorite elements from the old fantasies I grew up with—the deadpan, often funny, way in which those books sent magic bumping into our ordinary world, the painterly way nature and wonder are often invoked in their pages, the use of folklore and fairytales and mythology to drive the story along.


What I wasn’t planning on including was much about “current events.” But in writing a mythology-driven tale about a year when spring won’t come—a year right around now---it turned out it to be impossible to ignore the subject of climate change.


Q: So did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make any changes along the way?


A: There were many, many, many changes along the way. In the beginning I had in mind a contemporary story about four young people who find themselves drafted into a battle between the gods—one of those battles over who controls the seasons.


This book would take place at the Spring Equinox (The Time Fetch takes place at the Winter Solstice). I knew I would have plenty of material to draw upon since there are so many myths and folktales associated with this moment in the year.


It would ultimately make use of two semi-invented figures who would need to be rescued if spring is to return—Green Jack, the guardian of the woods, who is being held captive in Prospect Park, and The Bee Lady, who is being held captive deep in a world underground. Then, of course, there’s the Tiltersmith, who would dearly like to keep the Bee Lady all to himself.


The story stayed a contemporary one, and the four characters of Danton, Brigit, Edward, and Feenix remained steadfast throughout. But the nature of the demi-gods kept morphing of their own free will and the path of the story kept changing right under my typing fingertips.


This was because as I stopped to gaze out my window or listen to the news, it was impossible to avoid the recognition that our climate and seasons are dangerously shifting for real and they’re shifting because of us. No fairies or demi-gods needed. If there are going to be new and better stories to come, that will be in our very own hands.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: Well, I’m hoping, firstly, that readers will enjoy identifying some of the bits of old myths that found their way into this book. And maybe they might enjoy imagining themselves in some of these situations. What would they do if the treacherous Tiltersmith showed up in their gymnasium and suggested a game of Red Light, Green Light?


I’m also hoping that a reader will consider what Mr. Ross (the science teacher) says to his students—that our ancestors invented some of the ancient myths as a way to explain and predict the movements of the sun and the seasons, perhaps hoping to gain some control over the harshness and dangers of their environment.


We know that as they looked more and more closely at the patterns around them, the more they began to discover. Slowly, they invented math and astronomy and geology and, eventually, the scientific method. Then things really took off.


But now we’re facing a whole new set of dangers and revelations. We can see how much determination and ingenuity it’s going to take to keep the earth turning in good health. As a great fan of both the imagination and of science, I’m hoping that the book will be read as a pleasure and a warning and an encouragement to pay attention and to keep looking for answers.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a story for younger readers about a very inventive, entrepreneurial boy growing up around the time of the Great Depression. This is a departure for me since it has a historical setting and no fantasy.


The boy is always trying to come up with ways to make money—selling Mudpacks for Lovely Ladies, building a Traveling Flea Circus, training his beloved dog, Stinker, to track down lost items and escaped criminals. So far, most of his plans are not turning out as he imagined.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: For any interested grown-up readers out there: I have written two previous novels still floating around and meant for adults. They are not exactly fantasy novels, but lean toward the fantastical at times. You might find them in your local library or you could order them online:  

At the Sign of the Naked Waiter, HarperCollins, 1992

The Happiness Code, Viking Penguin, 2003


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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