Authors on the Verge: Meet Sarah Rees Brennan, young adult novelist

Sarah Rees Brennan
Sarah Rees Brennan

This week, we have Sarah Rees Brennan. Sarah was born and raised in Ireland by the sea, where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic) but she chose to read books under her desk in class instead. She lived briefly in New York and somehow survived in spite of her habit of hitching lifts in fire engines. She began working on The Demon’s Lexicon while doing library work in Surrey, England. Since then she has returned to Ireland to write and use as a home base for future adventures. Her Irish is still woeful, but she feels the books under the desk were worth it.

Here’s a little bit about THE DEMON’S LEXICON, which comes out on June 2, 2009 (tomorrow!).

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

THE DEMON’S LEXICON is about two brothers, Nick and Alan, who are on the run from magicians.   The magicians have control of demons, who steal people’s bodies, control animals, and change the weather. Nick and Alan pretty much just have swords and guns, and neighbors who wonder what all the freaky noises are about.   Then a boy with a demon’s mark and a girl with trouble written all over her arrive on their doorstep, the magicians deliver a very disturbing message, and from the back alleys of London to the woods of the English countryside, the chase is on: they have to hunt the magicians who have always hunted them.

Now let’s start the interview. When you received your offer, what happened?

Lay on the kitchen floor with the phone clutched in my hand. ‘You should go to bed,’ my agent said, and hung up. I lay there and watched for a few hours as the sky changed to morning. I was totally in shock.  Then I stood up, it hit, and I called my parents laughing and crying at once. ‘Who is that on the phone?’ I heard my mother ask my father. ‘It’s Sarah,’ he said. ‘…I think she’s having some kind of seizure?’

So now that you have a contract, what’s it like to be on the other side-on the verge of publication? What does it feel like to be official?

I’m not sure that I do feel official yet. I would be crushed but not surprised by a note from the publishers saying ‘You have been Punk’d! Love, Simon & Schuster.’ But I think when I see the book in shops, well then, um, I just hope the people in the shop won’t think I’m having a seizure.

Tell us a little bit about your path to publication.

I’ve been writing stories since I was five, and finished my first book when I was seven – it was about ponies and ninjas, my two favourite things at the time. Starting this young meant my family’s response to the book deal was ‘Took you long enough…’   I always wanted to be published but uh, I think when I was seven I assumed that someone was just going to arrive in a chariot to collect the manuscript and shower me with gold dust. When I was twenty-one and the chariot had not yet arrived, I moved to New York to do a publishing internship, where I learned a lot about how the business works, and when my visa expired I moved to England.  My plan when I’d finished and revised The Demon’s Lexicon was to submit it to a carefully chosen list of agents, but I kept reading Kristin Nelson’s blog and one late night in a fit of insanity, I queried her – and only her. I was ridiculously lucky, and she took me on. She’s so ridiculously awesome, I secretly believe she has super powers.

And here’s our favorite question. How many rejections did you receive in general (not just for this book) before you landed your first major publishing contract?

0-10

Tell us about one of your most heart-breaking rejections and about one of your best.

When I was seventeen, I received a long letter telling me that the most important thing I had to do was stop writing fantasy, because it didn’t sell and wasn’t really worthwhile: that it was a waste for a writer with talent. I’m really glad the book I wrote at seventeen didn’t get published, and I’m even more glad I didn’t listen to another word of the letter.     Heart-breaking are the little dry, impersonal notes: it’s horrible for all writers to get form rejections! And yet of course we all get them. Everything’s easier once the rejections start getting personal, guys!

How long did it take to sell your books, from putting the first words on the page to receiving an offer?

6 months – 1 year

Prior to selling your books, you were …

Working a part-time job unrelated to writing

Now that you’ve sold some books, you plan to …

Other

What are some of the new things you worry about now that you have a contract?

Oh, earning out. I regularly get into a tizzy that the book won’t do well, and then I won’t get to write more books, and what if it’s all my fault because I didn’t do enough promotion, or what if people just don’t like the book? Then I start to resemble an agitated penguin, and my friends smack me around the head and tell me to take a deep breath.

If you’ve already begun or have finished the editorial process with your publisher, let you us know what that’s been like.

My editor sent me back my manuscript, decorated prettily with many-coloured Post-Its. It looked like Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour Manuscript. My father opened it for me since I was in the countryside writing with friends, read the first line and said ‘Sarah, your editor’s written you this lovely letter!’ and I told him, ‘Oh, Dad. It’s all downhill from there.’  It was a really good, in-depth edit, and once I had OD’d on tea and despair for a day I got started on it, and it’s a much better book now. I think my editor may have super powers as well.

Describe a typical day in your writing life.

I get up, make my first cup of tea, and check through the internet for any news. Then depending on whether the news is good or bad, I make either my second cup or my first pot of tea, consult my chapter plan, which is always mysteriously crumpled up under my bed, and start writing. Throughout the day I administer tea as necessary – and in cases of real emergency, I apply cupcakes.

Describe an Ah-ha moment you might have had that influenced your writing in a positive way.

I remember two people discussing a story of mine, and one of them pointed out that we couldn’t rely on the point-of-view character. That honestly hadn’t occurred to me until that day, not properly: it started an enduring fascination with unreliable points of view, and the little hints you can give to show the point of view character’s perspective on the world is not the only one possible. Every book can be like a mystery, as well as whatever else it is. The possibilities are endless!

What is one of the biggest myths in children’s book publishing that you wish aspiring writers would just forget about?

That there is any one path to success. There are a million different paths, and I think stressing out looking for the one true key to being published is bad for people. Plenty of other stuff to be stressed out about in the crazy world of publishing!

Any inspiring quotes you live by?

Well… I try to aspire to this one, but I don’t know if I manage it at all.  ‘Tell me a story. In this century, and moment, of mania, Tell me a story. Make it a story of great distances, and starlight… Tell me a story of deep delight.’ – Robert Penn Warren.   I also like Oscar Wilde’s ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.’

Any advice for aspiring authors?

Plan things out. Even a rough sketch of things to come really helps me, and I didn’t do it for years because I thought it’d tie my hands. Also, it helps for when you get bored half-way through writing the book and start to have crazy thoughts, like ‘What if I introduced ninjas? Or ponies? Or… ninja ponies!’

Aside from WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS<—shameless plug, are there any other books on craft you recommend?

Does JRR Tolkien’s ‘On Fairytales’ count? I think it’s one of the best and most inspiring books out there for readers and writers of fantasy.

Finally, Snoop wants to know: It would be nice if other people asked ‘Who is that woman walking down this random Irish street?

She has the fire in her eyes of a genius! Also very good hair.’  Failing that, if I was asked to pick one superpower, it would be invisibility. Lots of people say flying, but I like to wear dresses a lot, so you can see how that would end badly. And I could use invisibility to fight crime.

This concludes our interview with our latest author Sarah Rees Brennan. We wish her much success with her debut novel THE DEMON’S LEXICON.

To see what Sarah is up to these days, visit her blog at www.livejournal.com/users/mistful or her website at www.sarahreesbrennan.com.

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