Jane Yolen (Foiled, Curses! Foiled Again) is the author of over 300 books, including Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? Her books and stories have won an assortment of awards—including two Nebulas, a World Fantasy Award, a Caldecott Honor, the Golden Kite Award, two Christopher Medals, and a nomination for the National Book Award.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
One of your new projects is a pair of graphic novels called Foiled and Curses! Foiled Again. How did those first come about?
Years and years ago, I was a college fencer, and I had a fencing foil that, after I graduated from college, I had with me; you know, I took with me to my apartment in New York City. And I had a date in Grand Central Station with someone, carrying my fencing foil, and lost it in Grand Central Station. Years later, fast forward to a granddaughter who was taking fencing, and I tell her this story, and she said, “Oh, can you write a short story about that?” So I started to write a short story, and the short story stalled. Meanwhile, my agent had introduced me to a new, up-and-coming editor of graphic novels, who was starting the line for The MacMillan Group, and when I told him the plot of this aborted short story, he said, “Write up what you have, give me a proposal. I love it.” That’s how it started.
So what was the creative process? Did you write a script, were you involved with the artwork at all? How did that work?
Well, the first thing I did was to contact my friend Neil Gaiman [laughs] and said, “Send me a manuscript,” so then I would know what they look like. Because the process of writing and the look of the manuscript is as different from a novel manuscript as it would be from a play or a movie script. And I realized very quickly how interdisciplinarian it is. You have to work very closely with the artist. You have to tell the artist what’s in your head, how you see the finished book. And he [Mike Cavallaro] was someone who had already done a number of graphic novel projects and comics. And so, in a sense, he taught me a lot.
Could you give an example of a specific thing that the two of you worked out together?
Very often, I wanted a lot of close-ups, so that, at the beginning of Foiled and the beginning of Curses!, Foiled Again, we’re sort of close-up with Aliera, and she’s breaking that Fourth Wall, she’s looking out at the reader and saying, “This is who I am. This is what I think,” and he said, “We’ve got to get her moving; we’ve got to get her doing stuff, not just turning and cocking her head.”
In Foiled, why did you decide to make the character color-blind?
Just like the old Wizard of Oz, I wanted everything black and white, and then when she saw the faeries, a burst of color. As I was going through it the second or third time for the revisions, it occurred to me that it didn’t make much sense unless she was color-blind. Otherwise, why is she, who is really our eyes here, not seeing things in color, why is everything in black and blues and gray tones?
Was there any pushback on that? Or did everyone love the idea?
Nooooo. The editor thought that was great. And she was tough to please. She had me revise the book seven separate times. And the seventh time I sent it in, and I was waiting to hear from her, figuring it was going to be another seven times before we got there, I came home and there was a message on my answering machine, and it said, “Oh, Jane Yolen. Oh, Jane Yolen. You are sooo good. Sooo good.” And that’s how I knew that she had accepted the manuscript at last. And I kept the message for about a month and a half, until my oldest granddaughter, who was living with me at the time, dumped the message. [Laughs]
I used to listen to it when things weren’t going so well.
I thought Foiled did a really good job of portraying a contemporary American teenager, and you just mentioned that your granddaughter had been living with you: Is the character based on her at all or is it based on someone else you know?
It’s based somewhat on her younger sister, who is a fencer. Glendon, who was living with me at that time, was already out of college, so her younger sister was still in elementary school but with delusions of teenhood. So Maddison Jane, who was a fencer, was the one. The first book is dedicated to her.
In what ways do you think teenagers’ lives have changed since you first started writing?
Oh gosh, I first started writing in the sixties, so there’s a lot of change. It’s a lot more open, it’s about all sorts of things, including sexual matters. Including whatever there is, especially now that they can fill out everything on the pages of Facebook or whatever. There is absolutely no understanding of privacy or any sort of dividing line between what one thinks and what one says.
Do you think that young adult literature is doing a good job of keeping up with that reality?
Some of it. Some of it is still mired, like Stephenie Meyer, is still mired in, I’d say, the 1950s. Harry Potter, maybe the 1970s. But then there’s a lot of stuff that is really . . . Holly Black’s books are very definitely “now,” Francesca Lia Block definitely “now,” David Lubar definitely “now.” In the 1950s-60s, when I was growing up, in the first writing for young people, there were hardly any teenage books. And the ones that were out there were “sweet sixteen” kind of teenage books, which wasn’t anything really revelatory or hardhitting, and there weren’t any people of color who were great heroes in the books, there weren’t people of different gender choices in the books, there weren’t girls being the great heroes in the books. A lot of change has happened since then, which has also started its own counterchanges. There’s been a lot of backlash.
You mentioned that there’s been this backlash, and I saw that one of your books was burned on the front steps of the Kansas State Board of Education—
Yep, Kansas City, but that was a while ago. That was twenty years ago.
But what was the situation with that?
Well, it had a gay man in it who was one of the heroes. It was taken out—I think it was by the Fred Phelps people—and they took out my book; Magic Johnson’s book on AIDS; and a book about gay men and women in history, who had done important things in history, and they brought along the hibachi, put the hibachi on the steps of the Board of Education, took the books out of the library, and burned them.
You mentioned that was twenty years ago; does that sort of thing still happen?
Oh yeah, I mean we still have—especially with the Tea Party or the really right wing zealots of one kind or another who feel that the way that you protest is to not say, “I don’t want my child to read this,” but “I don’t want your child to read this either.” And that happens very often at the school board level where people go in, and they insist that books get taken out of the school library, and very often what happens is, they have a town meeting or they have an educational board meeting where people can come and vent, and then very often the book is returned to the shelf. But what happens afterward, someone from the administration, maybe the principal, maybe the superintendent of schools, comes to the teachers, the librarian and says, “Look, we spend a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of money on this process. Be a little more careful next time. So, okay, we won the battle, but don’t use that book again, don’t use books like that again. We’re not going to fight this battle for you next time,” is what they’re hearing.
When one of your books is being attacked like that, is there anything that you as an author can do?
You can write to the teacher or the librarian or the school in support. You can, if you live close by, go physically support them. You can write a piece for The Huffington Post or the New York Times or your local newspaper or go and get interviewed by their local newspapers. Put it out on Facebook or Twitter these days. Get other people, other authors, other illustrators, other readers, other librarians and teachers to show support. Make sure that the ALA, the American Library Association, knows about it, because they’ve got a huge and important committee on books that have been censored or banned.
I was thinking if someone burned one of my books, I just might go burn their house down.
[Laughs] Well, I’m enough of a Quaker not to want to do that. [More laughter] But I’m enough of a snark to want to go and say a lot.
You mentioned Harry Potter, and on Wikipedia, they quote a 2005 interview in which you said that Harry Potter seems somewhat reminiscent of your novel Wizard’s Hall, and that if J.K. Rowling would cut you a large check, you would cash it. So I was just wondering if she ever set you a check.
No, no, I’m pretty sure she never read my book. You know we were both using tropes, fantasy tropes: the wizard school, the pictures on the wall that move. I mean, I happen to have a hero whose name was Henry, not Harry. He also had a redheaded best friend and a girl who was also his best friend, though my girl was black, not white. And there was a wicked wizard who trying to destroy the school who used to have been a teacher in the school. But those are all fantasy tropes, and I was making a joke: It was in context of talking about how we all stand on the shoulders of giants. How we all borrow from the best, and we probably have borrowed from the same places. And I joked, and I said, “If she wants to cut me a rather large check, I would be absolutely pleased.”
Well, that context is mysteriously absent from the Wikipedia page, maybe someone should amend that.
Well, you know, never mind. It’s really pretty silly anyway.
But, I mean, that must just drive you crazy when people say, “Oh, J.K. Rowling, she was the one to think of the wizard school idea, and that’s why it was such a big success.”
There’s even a book that came out way before hers where children go off to a witch school or a wizard school by going on a mysterious train that comes in, that no one else can see except, you know, at a major British [station], I don’t know if it’s Victoria Station or Kings Cross. These things are out there. Diana Wynne Jones had a wizard school, for goodness sake, years before, the Chrestomanci books. This is not new. And it’s one thing for kids not to know it—it’s another thing for librarians to go, “Oh! This is new, oh my gosh, look at those wonderful, wonderful, funny names for candies.” I mean, have they not read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? It’s a very British thing to do.
Well, is it just the luck of the draw, do you think? Or why was Harry Potter so much more high profile than a lot of these other wizard school books?
You know, if we understood that, we’d all be gazillionaires. It was a phenomenon, and a phenomenon, by nature, cannot be expected, cannot be explained, and cannot be redone. Goodness knows, publicity departments and publishing companies have tried forever to make it happen. You can’t make a popular culture thing just happen.
Speaking of pop culture, Madonna, back in 2004, wrote a children’s book, and she explained her motivation as “I’m starting to read to my son, but I couldn’t believe how vapid and vacant and empty all the stories were. There’s, like, no lessons, there’s, like, no books about anything.”
Yes, so she wrote a series of vacuous and vacant books for children with morals that hit you over the head. Every star thinks that writing children’s books is easy, and for them, in some ways, it is, because, one, either they get someone to write it for them, or they write it themselves and it’s ghastly; and two, they can have a big sell-through at the beginning because it’s the star power that does that. But only a couple of the big-name stars have actually had books that backlisted well because they were actually well written. Julie Andrews had a couple. Alan Arkin had one, and Jamie Lee Cutis has had four or five picture books, children’s books, she takes quite seriously.
In this article, they quote you as saying, “I’ve been thinking about getting out my pointy bra and brushing up on my singing and dancing ’cause there’s no good pop music out there.”
Yeah, people are really going to pay a lot of good money to see me do that. [Laughter] Who knows, it could become an internet sensation. If Gangnam Style can be, why not me, right?
So I saw on your blog that you were recently in Minnesota to give a talk about religion in children’s books. What sort of things did you talk about?
I was asked to talk about religion in books. I was supposed to do it at a multi . . . church-synagogue-mosque kind of thing that they have every year and basically I was talking about books that I said—not that promulgated religion, not that sometimes even talked about religion, but talked about the numinous, talked about the moral underpinnings of society, books like The Giver by Lois Lowry. Book like War Horse, books that in any other context you could call religious, except that they’re not talking about how to worship in a particular way.
Well, I mean, one of the things that I really like about fantasy and science fiction is it seems to me that it does offer this sense of the numinous and the transcendent that I think is just—
—innate, but it doesn’t have the same sort of sectarian problems, or you know, the values can evolve more than it can with a traditional religious text.
Sometimes in science fiction, though, science becomes what religion is in some books, and sometimes there is a heavy moralistic flavor, especially in the earlier science fiction and earlier fantasy. I think though we have grown into wonderful storytelling that just absolutely can’t be beat these days. I think some of the stuff that’s coming out under the aegis of young adult fantasy, science fiction, these days just is stunning stuff.
I don’t know if you saw this: There was a news story where somebody sent an angry letter to fantasy author Scott Lynch, and this letter said, “Your characters are unrealistic stereotypes of political correctness. Real sea pirates were vicious rapists and murderers, and I’m sorry to say it was a man’s world, and it is unrealistic wish fulfillment for you and your readers to have so many female pirates.” And I saw in an interview that your first book was actually a nonfiction book about female pirates—Pirates in Petticoats—so I was wondering what you thought of that.
Yes, and I’ve written, so far, three and a half books with female pirates in them. Yeah, they were more of an anomaly. They were fewer female pirates than there were male pirates, but the greatest pirate was a female, Madam Ching, who had, I don’t know, twenty thousand boats, or maybe it was five thousand boats and twenty thousand men under her control in the China Seas in the nineteenth century. There were women pirates—it’s undeniable. Some of them were actual queens who had navies under their command; some of them were running pirate syndicates—Lady Killigrew in England did that; some came from a pirate family, that would have been Gráinne O’Malley in Ireland who actually had a sit-down with Elizabeth I who wanted her to give up her pirate ways.
Why do you think there’s just this general problem with people not understanding women in all these different roles throughout history?
Yes, well, because some of their roles were greatly hidden over the last three or four centuries. So the books that were written were not written about them, or the stories that were told were not about them, or people would say, “Well, this really didn’t happen,” and this person, for whatever reason, is saying this really didn’t happen. Yes, the majority of pirates in general were thieves and cutthroats and people who could not fit into a general community without causing mayhem. On the other hand, pirate boats, for the most part, were much more democratic than the English Navy. Most pirate boats, you could vote the captain out. You would get shares, large shares of the proceeds, divided pretty equally. When men came onto pirate ships, they would find articles that spelled out exactly what punishment is for, in some—it was punishment if you hurt any captains, it was punishment if you sexually abused any captain. This was all spelled out in the article.
I think speaking of women in unexpected roles like that, you also have a book called Queen’s Own Fool—could you just talk about that?
I was wandering around with my husband and, I think, some friends who had come to visit us in Scotland. We had gone to Stirling Castle to show them—Stirling Castle was slowly being tarted up, it had been pretty much a ruin—and it was slowly being brought back, and so whoever was the curator had started putting up little signages, and one said, “Mary Queen of Scots had three female jesters.” I was stunned. I didn’t know there were female jesters, much less Mary Queen of Scots had three of them. And it started me thinking about a novel about Mary Queen of Scots’ jesters, and I started researching it with a friend. We didn’t know very much about them. One was called Jardiniere, I remember, she was French. One was called La Folle, and one I can’t remember what [editor’s note: Governance], but they clearly were three different kinds, more or less, we decided, the three different kinds of fools that normally a royal personage would have. One would be the jester: the one who was allowed to say things that could puncture pomposity and could say things to the king or queen or the prince or whoever they were serving without fear of being taken out and having their throats slit. Other people couldn’t say those things. The second kind was very often a dwarf. Or somebody badly handicapped. For some reason, in the Middle Ages they found this sort of person extremely funny just because of how they looked and how strangely they acted. And then the third we decided would be a—because of whatever the name was and I’ve lost it right now—would be less of a fool and more of a teacher. Perhaps a tutor of some kind. But along the way, we discovered that there were a lot of people who had female fools. Queens especially would have female fools because they didn’t want to have males in their entourage.
You referred to the seven gaunt cows that currently afflict the publishing industry. Do you want to just talk about what you meant by that?
That’s based on the Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt interpreting the pharaoh’s dream. The pharaoh dreamed of seven beautiful cows, and then he dreamed that seven gaunt cows came and devoured the seven beautiful cows, and Joseph interpreted this to mean that right now we’re having seven years of plenty, but soon there will be seven years of famine. If we plan now and put away great stores of the excess that we have, when those years come, we will be ready for them. It’s a prophetic dream, he told the pharaoh, and that’s what they did. The problem for publishing now is that those seven or ten or twenty or however many years of enormous growth and enormous monetary rewards have basically come to an end, much of it due to really stupid business practices and the rise of the internet and the ebook and people downloading free books. And piracy.
Well, I guess I actually have the list that you gave of the seven gaunt cows here, maybe we can just run through them quickly.
Please do, because that’s such an old piece I don’t remember it.
So you said: multinational companies, Barnes & Noble, Thor Power Tool Amendment, zero dollars to school libraries, overproduction of books, television-driven merchandise, and the super-saturation of slush piles.
Right. And see, none of that says ebooks, but that’s been the last—you know, and piracy, that’s the last thing. Do you want me to go over those one at a time?
Or maybe pick one or two, if you’d like to elaborate on them.
Well, the multinational companies means more publishing in fewer hands. This means that they’re looking for a particular kind of book, one that’s going to sell very well, so the small, important, literary novel or the small, important book of poetry is not going to get published except maybe privately or in smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller copies with fewer and fewer outlets because of the big guys, and we’ve just seen now Random House and Penguin are about to amalgamate. They don’t allow, within their company—they don’t allow editors to go to an auction against one another for a particular new book. If one person in the company has turned down the book, it’s considered dead at that company. No one else is allowed to look at it. So there are fewer and fewer outlets for authors and illustrators and bookmakers. The slush pile has to do with the ease with which you can now, with a single tap of your finger, send out a manuscript to twenty places at the same time, and so everybody’s doing that. Instead of having your manuscript go to one place at a time, which takes about three or four or five months before you hear, it’s going to a lot of places at the same time. That seems to be good from the author’s point of view, but what actually it means for the editors is that they are getting, since a person can send it to twenty places at the same time, they’re getting everybody sending them one of the twenty manuscripts, so their piles of slush, of unsolicited manuscripts, is higher than ever. Their response to that has been—and slush means unsolicited, in other words, not from a known writer or a known agent or somebody’s mother’s best friend—that has meant that many publishers refuse to read any unsolicited slush manuscripts at all.
Given all the problems in publishing, how do you feel about your kids following you in the business?
My three children all write children’s books. My son Adam also writes adult books. I wish they’d get real jobs. [Laughter] Yeah, they all do it, and they all do something else, too. My daughter, Heidi, is also my PA, she organizes me. My son Adam is a professional musician, a web designer, a poker player, and a novelist. And he is also a composer and writes lyrics. My son Jason is an award-winning photographer but he also writes, he does—he illustrates children’s books with his photographs, but he also is writing magazine articles and is about to write his first book, along with his brother, sister, and me, for National Geographic.
Would you say to all the aspiring writers out there that they should develop a sideline in a more respectable field, like poker playing?
[Laughs] Yes. Or have rich parents.
You recently became the first woman to ever give the Andrew Lang Lecture at St. Andrews University. Can you tell us about that?
Well, Andrew Lang was an amazing late nineteenth, early twentieth century writer. He had written essays, he had written short stories, he had written poetry, novels. He even worked on a novel with H. Rider Haggard, who was a friend of his, but what he’s most famous for, it turned out, was a series of twelve books that he actually didn’t write. Those were the Coloured Fairy Books: The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Lilac Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, etc. The not-so-hidden secret was that it was really his wife who had done most of the retelling of the stories or the translation, and so it’s a cadre of other women who did it. He simply edited it and because he was a very well-known folklorist, they used his name to front the books. And he had an attachment with St. Andrews and Scotland. He’d gone to university there, he had been, I think, a, like a trustee there for a while, and he lived there. He lived at St. Andrews in the wintertime, summered in London, which is a very bizarre way of doing it actually. London is vastly too hot in the summer, St. Andrews is vastly too cold in winter. And there’s a street named after him, he’s buried in St. Andrews, etc. And after his death in 1912 they started a lecture series in his name. Each person who gave the lecture had to lecture on something that Andrew Lang was interested in, and since he was interested in everything, you know, historical things, poetic things, literary things, folkloric things, it was very easy to get people to do the lecture. And the lectures have been going on since 1927, not every year—there’ve only been twenty-two lectures—but they’ve included people like John Buchan who wrote The 39 Steps, a lot of academics, and in 1939, a month after I was born, the lecture was given by an Oxford don named J.R.R. Tolkien. He talked on fairy stories. He gave a very famous essay on fairy stories that was, for me, one of the iconic pieces that I read when I was first getting interested in folklore, and lo and behold, last spring they asked me if I would give the next Andrew Lang Lecture, and I had just finished doing an introduction for The Folio Society’s elegant, expensive, illustrated version of The Olive Fairy Book, and I was thrilled. They brought me over to give a lecture, and I was told I was the first woman, since 1927, to give a lecture.
What do you make of that, being the first? Did you have any thoughts about that?
I had a lot of thoughts about that. Like, do you know who you missed? Isak Dinesen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Angela Carter, and, you know, on and on and on, who’ve died. You also did not ask A.S Byatt or Marina Warner or Maria Tatar or any of the . . . Katharine Briggs, who died, great women of British folklore. I mean, it’s astonishing to me who they didn’t ask. That they asked me was a great honor, but the honor was all to me. I’m not sure I brought any honor to them.
It seems especially bizarre that, over the course of ninety years, they never ended up having a woman—especially given the fact that, as you said, his wife actually is the one that had written the books that he’s most famous for.
I did point this out in my lecture. I did also offer them some names that they might think of having, including Terri Windling, and Katherine Langrish, and Elizabeth Wein, and people like that.
Do you imagine that there’s someone who was just born who will grow up reading your lecture the way you grew up reading Tolkien’s?
Well, one could devoutly hope so.
All right, so that pretty much does it for our questions. So, just to wrap things up, are there any other new or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
Let’s see. I’m hoping that I’ll do a third Foiled book, probably called En Garde!, but they have not signed up for it yet. A lot depends on how well the second book does. I’m working on a Hansel and Gretel as twins in the Holocaust, it’s called The House of Candy. My son Adam and I are working on a trilogy for upper middle grade kids called The Seelie Wars and the first book, The Hostage Prince, will be out this fall. I have a book called Trash Mountain, which is a talking animal novel for kids about the war between the red squirrels and the gray squirrels, which is pretty brutal, actually. The war, that is. The gray squirrels can outfight and can have more babies than the red squirrels. They also carry a virus that doesn’t affect them, but kills the red squirrels. This is true. This is all true. This is why the red squirrels are dying out. But what they don’t know, the actual red—uh, gray squirrels are that there are black squirrels coming and they are bigger and feistier and can outfight and are not affected by the virus, so the grays will probably have their comeuppance at some point. Anyway, that was the basis for my writing the book, but it’s not about the actual war. It’s about talking animals.
Any short stories coming out, maybe in an anthology in February?
I am going to have a story in Oz Reimagined called “Blown Away,” which takes place in Kansas, a sort of reimagined Kansas in which, well, I’m not going to give it away. But it has circuses and freaks, a couple of people from a freak show, and not one but two twisters and a couple of surprises. Especially what happens to Toto.
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