Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Author Interview: Saundra Mitchell

Author Interview: Saundra Mitchell

This Carolina neighbor writes haunting books and short stories. But did you know she's also a longtime screenwriter? For all you aspiring writers, Saundra is especially passionate about helping teens tap their own creative writing talents.

Check out her books: Shadowed Summer, The Vespertine, and The Springsweet (due out in 2012). Then, come meet Saundra at YALLFest in November! We have a sneak introduction because she kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us:

We’re all excited that you’ll be at YALLFest! What made you decide to come?

A book festival in an incredibly historic U.S. city, packed to the gills with my favorite YA writers and pie? When Kami and Margie (authors of Beautiful Creatures) invited me, I couldn't say no. And if they hadn't invited me, I can't say that I wouldn't have crashed the party. It's just too much awesome in one place!

You had a long career as a screenwriter. What made you decide to write for teens?

Even when I was a screenwriter, I wrote for teens! I wrote for Dreaming Tree Films' teen filmmaking programs, including Book of Stories, On the Road, Fresh Films, and Girls in the Director's Chair. All of our programs brought the equipment, training and funding to creative teens, to help them make the short films they wanted to see.

For the first thirteen years, all the screenplays I wrote were based on the teens' own ideas. For the last three, I taught young screenwriters to prepare and revise their scripts, to get them ready for production.

When I finally decided to write a novel, YA was the perfect fit. I love teen stories, and I love the fact that YA can be anything. Science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, paranormal... the only limit is my imagination.

                                                                  The Vsepertine
The Vespertine is part historical fiction, part paranormal romance. How did you come up with the idea of mixing the two?

When I originally came up with the idea, all I had was "a girl who can see the future, but only at sunset." I tried the story out in a variety of times and locations, but it just wasn't working.

Then I happened to be watching a new adaptation of Wuthering Heights (the one with Tom Hardy,) with my best friend. The actor playing Hindley (Burn Gorman, from Torchwood,) was absolutely unhinged. He was so fascinating to watch. And I remember thinking, "Now, that's a guy who would lock his sister in an attic and leave her there to die."

Which is exactly how The Vespertine begins: with August van den Broek locking his sister Amelia in the attic and leaving her there to die. The Gilded Age was perfect, with spiritualism being so popular. As soon as I started writing it set in 1889, it clicked.

Do your books reflect your own experiences as a teenager?

Not really. My characters get to have a much more expansive and fantastic experience than I did. I grew up poor on the east side of town, and never went much of anywhere until I was an adult. I get to go places in my books that I only dreamed about as a teen; my characters get to do all kinds of things I never did. There are always bits of me in them, because the stories come out of my head and my fascinations—but Amelia manages to go to at least two dances in The Vespertine and I've never been to any.

Did you get along with your parents?

I was a teen; it was just me and my mom. She got annoyed when I didn't do the dishes. I got annoyed when she wanted me to socialize more. I don't remember any dramatic or brilliant fights, and she was always there when I needed her. We're still very close.

Who did you look up to as a teen?

I wanted to be Stephen King so desperately. Everything he said about writing as an act resonated with me in a big way. His stories, however fantastic, were always the truth. They were honest about the people in them, and the lives they lived. That's what I strive for in my books—to tell the truth.

                                                                 Shadowed Summer
Are your characters modeled after your own experiences growing up?

I think Iris from my first novel, Shadowed Summer, is much more like me than any of my other characters. Her family is not well off, neither was mine. Her father works nights, so did mine. I think I put a lot of my own journey from little kid to young woman into that book, more than any of the others. But even though Iris is like me, the things she does are all her. When I set out to write that story, I meant for it to be a paranormal romance. That's not what happened at all.

It appears that you like to write about mystical people/dark visions/ghosts/mystical powers...what attracts you to these possibilities?

Not to be too terribly morbid, but... we're all going to die someday. We all spend more time dead than we ever do alive. And something about that troubles my mind; I'm constantly working over what that means. If there's anything left of us besides the traces we make while we're here. If we go on. If there's something after us. If we were something before now. If we even understand what we really are, in a vast and endless universe.

Since it's unlikely I'll get a degree in astrophysics during my lifetime, and there's only one way to find out the actual answer to any of these questions, I explore them in my books with magic, ghosts, powers...

Which of your characters are you most like? Which one was the most difficult to create?

I'm really all of them—the good characters, and the bad characters. They all say things I want to say; do things I want to do. I feel like I'm most like Amelia, because she's changeable and uncertain. My best friend, however, thinks I'm most like Zora. She's more objective than I am, so I'd take her word for it!

The difficult ones... I always feel bad when I know that something terrible is going to happen to a particular character. I feel especially bad for Jack Rhame in Shadowed Summer. He lost the most and gained the least, and so it was hard to write him. I also felt pretty bad for Julian Birch in a forthcoming book. Once it comes out, you'll see why. Poor kid, honestly! I'm so mean!

(Click on any of Saundra's book titles to put them on hold at a CCPL branch near you.)

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