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Author Anne Elisabeth Stengl
Anne Elisabeth Stengl is the author of some of today's greatest pieces of Christian fantasy. She won the Christy award for the first novel in her Tales of the Goldstone Wood series, Heartless. Currently she is working on the fifth tale in this series.
I was recently given the opportunity to interview Ms. Stengl for Teen Ink.
Rachel- Tell us about yourself.
Anne Elisabeth Stengl- Hello! I am Anne Elisabeth, a lover of Fairy Tales, cats, Sri Lankan teas, classical piano, fuzzy socks, and classic literature.
My debut novel, Heartless, was released in summer of 2010 and since went on to win the Christy Award for Debut Novel . . . an honor that took me completely by surprise and which I still don't quite believe happened (My husband put the trophy in a glass case in the living room as living proof. Could be a fake though, right?).
I met my handsome husband, the ever-dashing Rohan de Silva, at fencing class, where I was researching for certain scenes in Heartless. I “stabbed” him at a tournament, we fell in love, and were married within seven months. Rohan has introduced me to the glories of Sri Lankan tea (see above), and I have introduced him to cats. We have a current cat-count of four: Molly Boots, Minerva Louise, Lord Marmaduke Chuffnell, and Monster (who looks like and is named for the cat character in Heartless.)
My second novel, Veiled Rose, released this last July (2011), and the third book in the series, Moonblood, is coming out April 2012. Very much looking forward to sharing it with my readers!
RH- How did you first become interested in writing?
AES- I have been interested in writing for as long as I can remember. My mother, Jill Stengl, was a professional novelist and has 16 novels and novellas to her credit. So I grew up scribbling on the backs of discarded manuscript pages and watching her develop her career. Professional writing always seemed a very possible achievement. I have since then learned just how difficult a writing career is (and gained that much more respect for my mother!). But I learned a lot simply from watching her at work, and was definitely inspired to try my own hand at the craft.
My first "novel" was a three-page saga about a magnificent golden stallion who magnificently ruled over a magnificent herd in the west, and eventually won a magnificent triumph at . . . some race. Probably the Kentucky Derby. It wasn't the most brilliant thing ever put on paper (I was 7!). But I enjoyed myself, and the rest is history.
RH- For someone who has never read your books before, how would you describe them?
AES- I write fantasy adventure novels in the classic Fairy Tale style. I hope my stories will remind readers of such authors as C. S. Lewis, Edith Nesbit, George MacDonald, and more, yet also offer a fresh and interesting take on classic Fairy Tale tropes. Heartless, for instance, is a familiar storyline about a princess, a prince, and a dragon. But the series of events my Princess Una experiences is unusual, even surprising, within the classic framework.
I try to incorporate plenty of familiar Fairy Tale elements in each of my novels; and readers with some literary training will recognize influences, not only from Grimm, but also from Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare, Coleridge, and other classic sources. Yet the style is straightforward and keeps up (I hope) a fun pace!
RH- What inspired your Tales of the Goldstone Wood series?
AES- The series as a whole I have been working on since I was about seventeen. I envisioned a large story made up of many smaller stories. The Tales of Goldstone Wood (contracted for 6 total books at present) creates a big scale, "epic" tale, but each book has its own individual plot.
I am very inspired by authors such as Robin McKinley, Shannon Hale, Patricia C. Wrede, and the like, who have each created very different worlds with strong characters within a context of familiar Fairy Tale. I wanted to add a spiritual twist as well. I believe the best books always have something to communicate to the reader beyond the basic plot. Each of my stories has an active plot on one level, then a more thoughtful spiritual plot going on several layers deeper. They give the reader more with each reading. You'll want to go back and re-read Heartless after reading Veiled Rose because you'll get much more out of it. And ideally you'll want to re-read both of them after Moonblood as well!
RH- Are you a fan of fantasy yourself?
AES- I love the fantasy genre. It has been my favorite from the time I first read Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia to my more recent discovery of and passion for Sir Terry Pratchett's quirky, uproarious, and thoughtful Disc World series. My favorite fantasy author is probably C.S. Lewis. I think he understood in a deep yet simple manner what Fairy Tales are for and how they can be used to communicate truth in profound ways. The great thing about Fairy Tales is the way they put you outside of reality and force you to look at reality from a new perspective. Truth that might be dimmed to the point of unnoticeability in an everyday setting suddenly becomes clear and new and wonderful! Lewis was also startlingly prolific and varied in his work, as seen from his wonderful Narnia stories, to the tragic Till We Have Faces, to the exciting Space Trilogy.
RH- I can see from your blog, that you seem to like myths and legends; what is your favorite and why?
AES- Hmmm, that's a tough question. I love the legends of St. George, from the early tales set in the Far East to his European incarnation immortalized in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen. Classic hero vs. dragon archetypes simply can't be beaten! I also enjoy the legend of Cupid and Psyche and various incarnations of that tale such as "The Lady and the Lion," "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and down to the almost unrecognizable variation that is "Beauty and the Beast." (All of which are Fairy Tales . . . so you know I'll love them!)
RH- What has been your favorite book to write, or character to create?
AES- My favorite book to write is always the one I just finished! Since I wrote Heartless, each book I've written has been harder than the one before. I think that's a good thing . . . hopefully a sign that I'm growing as an author! But it also means that the writing process itself is not always a great deal of fun. But I just love finishing! Especially when I am approaching the climax and seeing all the various threads spinning together into a complete picture. Right now, I'm very excited by the project I just finished and submitted to my editors, Starflower, which is coming out October 2012. It was a LOT of work to write, but by God's grace, the result is worth the effort.
My favorite character is probably Sir Eanrin of Rudiobus, romantic bard, heroic knight, and shape-shifting cat. He has a bit-part in Heartless, and only a cameo in Veiled Rose. But by Book 3, Moonblood, he begins to take a more dominant role, and Book 4, Starflower, is largely his story. I am a cat person (obviously!), so I love writing this very cattish character, but also developing the "human" side of him. He is immortal, so he has difficulty relating to mortals and often is impatient with them. But he's a character who grows.
RH- Who/what are some of your favorite authors/books?
AES- Oooh, so many choices! I read a lot of fantasy, particularly YA fantasy. I'll list some of my favorites below:
C.S. Lewis--The Chronicles of Narnia, Perelandra, The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces
Terry Pratchett--Anything Disc World, especially Guards! Guards! and also his wonderful alternate-history, Nation.
Diana Wynne Jones--Howl's Moving Castle, The Dalemark Quartet, Fire and Hemlock
Robin McKinley--Beauty, Rose Daughter, The Hero and the Crown
Shannon Hale--The Goose Girl, Book of a Thousand Days
Peter S. Beagle--The Last Unicorn
So there's a bunch of fantasy authors for you! I also read and enjoy the classics, including Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, a little (a very little) Thomas Hardy . . . many of the Victorians. I also enjoy a good Shakespeare play now and then, most recently, Richard III. I prefer to see Shakespeare on stage, but his monologues cannot be beaten, whether read privately or performed for a crowd.
RH- Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
AES- Oh, everywhere! Anything at all can prove an inspiration. Most often it's reading other books. You cannot become a good storyteller if you are not immersed in good storytelling. But I have also been keenly inspired by sermons, by music, by life circumstances. I found myself fostering feral kittens last summer, and was surprised by how much of that experience made its way into the drafting of Starflower, even though there isn't a single kitten in the novel! Often I find inspiration simply by brainstorming with my mother or with my husband. Inspiration can come from any source and at any time. I try to keep myself challenged with academic reading on theology, history, literature, even a smattering of science here and there. It's important to keep growing intellectually if you want to grow creatively.
Ultimately, the secret source of my inspiration, however, is prayer. I spend a lot of time in prayer over each project. If there is one thing I have learned in the last few years of my career, it's the fact that I need God's strength to accomplish anything. My talent will take me only so far before I run out of energy or ideas. But God is sufficient to supply my needs, and I know that He has a plan for my work.
RH- What new projects are you currently working on?
AES- Currently I am working on Book 5 in the Tales of Goldstone Wood, which is untitled as yet (Toying around with calling it Dragonwitch, but not sure). It is a unique project for me, unlike any other I have tackled in that it has more of an ensemble cast than I have ever written before. Many characters and storylines weaving in and out of each other. It's definitely a challenge, but I am learning to really love it as I go along.
RH- What has been the best advice a fellow author has ever given you?
AES- Read, read, read. And write, write, write. Then read some more. Then rewrite. That's basically the writing life, summed up in a nutshell!
RH- What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
AES- Exactly what you read above! If you want to develop your craft, you cannot spend too much time reading other writers’ works. And reading a variety, not just in the genres you enjoy most. I highly recommend delving into the classics, from Shakespeare to William Golding, from Jane Austen to Richard Adams. There are so many different styles and approaches, and who knows which author might prove the key inspiration for your current work? Don't limit your reading to that which is easy or comfortable for you. Always challenge yourself. This is something I have to work on myself . . . especially since most of my reading time these days is "right before bed" reading when I don’t tend to want an intellectual challenge! But that challenge is important; if that means carving out time where you didn't before (sometimes, even into writing time!), do it. Good reading is that important.
The same goes for your writing. Don't fall back on the same tricks and twists that you've always done before. You'll never grow that way, or if you do, you will grow very slowly. Keep challenging yourself, tackling themes and stories and styles that are perhaps a little bigger than you are currently capable of doing. You'll learn as you go. "Write what you know" is a decent rule . . . after all, you need to put the truth of yourself and your own experience into each project. But don't limit yourself to what you know. Write what you don't know as well so that you can learn about it!
And pray. A lot. Bathing every project in prayer is more important than you can imagine. It's something I have come to realize especially while drafting my current project. Pray that you are writing for God's glory, not your own, and that He will reveal the truth of the story, enabling you to write something fun and entertaining that still reflects what you truly believe.