Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Apocalypse Now: Interview with STORYBOUND Author Marissa Burt

When Una Fairchild stumbles upon a mysterious book buried deep in the basement of her school library, she thinks nothing of opening the cover and diving in. But instead of paging through a regular novel, Una suddenly finds herself Written In to the land of Story—a world filled with Heroes and Villains and fairy-tale characters.
But not everything in Story is as magical as it seems. Una must figure out why she has been Written In—and fast—before anyone else discovers her secret. Together with her new friend Peter and a talking cat named Sam, Una digs deep into Story's shadowy past. She quickly realizes that she is tied to the world in ways she never could have imagined—and it might be up to her to save it.

I was so excited to meet up with and get to know Marissa Burt, partly because she's a local (for me!) author and partly because I love a good Middle Grade fantasy--especially one that plays on fairy tales of old.

Marissa, Tell us a little bit about how and why you got into writing. Was it something you always did, something you always wanted to do? And more specifically, were you always drawn to writing Middle Grade?

As far back as I can remember, I have always loved to read. I suppose anyone who is passionate about books has toyed with the idea of writing, and in high school I wrote my fair share of angst-riddled poetry, short stories, and my first attempt at fiction - which happened as I sat in the back of chemistry class scratching out a story on notebook paper with a fountain pen. Seriously. (To my once-upon-a-time classmates: thank you for being so nice to me). I still have it rolled up somewhere, although it will never, never be read by any eyes but my own - ha! I'm also a chronic journaler - ever since my mom handed me my first pink lock-and-key diary back in elementary school. Now I prefer a nice black sketchbook where I can paste in photographs and don't have to write in the lines. 

I began to write STORYBOUND, my second novel if you count my chemistry-tale, after my first son was born. At that time I realized that none of my dreams would just magically happen. With the added responsibilities that come with children as well as a narrowing of free-time, I discovered that I had to make space for creative pursuits. I think middle-grade was a natural fit. Those were the books where I first discovered my own personal taste in reading, and I love how middle-grade novels let you weave the fantastical elements of childhood and explore grown up themes as well. 

Your debut, STORYBOUND, visits a world in which well-known stories--and their heroes and villains--prepare to be immortalized on the page. How did you become inspired to write this story? Are you an avid reader of fantasy yourself?

I love so many different genres of books, but my favorites are the ones that let you escape to another world, something fantasy novels do especially well. Ever since I discovered the shelf with fairy lore and folktales in the school library, I have been caught up in the enchantment of imaginary worlds and the adventures that take place in them. In my opinion, the mark of a good book is one that so immerses you in the story that you are a little sad to say goodbye to the characters when you reach the last page. In fact, I often imagined the characters carrying on with their adventures, even after the readers were out of the picture. That idea grew into the land of Story, a place where characters-in-training are preparing for tales of their own, and I wondered what would happen if a girl from the Readers' World fell into the character world.

The novel is chockful of imaginative worldbuilding. Were there particular tools you used to plan your world or did inspiration shine when least expected? What was the most fun part about creating this world? The hardest?

Good question! I think much of the world-building happened as I wrote different scenes. I do have a very sad little attempt at a map somewhere and a file full of character-interviews that helped me get a handle on their backstories. Other than that, much of the story developed organically, and it was fun to explore the world with my characters. I think the hardest part is knowing that there are districts in Story that won't get to be in the book! 

Una and Peter, your main characters, are so well-developed. They are smart, funny, flawed and, ultimately, so likeable. Peter's flippant confidence, in particular, drew me to his character arc. Do you draw upon your own traits or of people you know to help create your characters? How important is it to you that your characters grow from their experiences, developing strengths that counteract their weaknesses?

I suppose writers have all sorts of hidden inspirations for characters picked up from observing people, reading heaps of books, and thinking about why people do what they do. I think these all simmer under the surface and the pop out at just the right moment. When I started STORYBOUND, I sat down to "interview" each character. I like to think about the typical environmental things that might have impacted them: family of origin, education, culture, and personal preferences, that sort of thing. Then, as I get a better handle on each character's personality, I learn how they might speak or respond when confronted with the plot elements.

I loved how you made your characters three-dimensional. Even the villains have sympathetic motives for the things they do. Why did you decide you wanted your readers to see more than one side to a story, especially when it came to the traditional villains?

Thank you for this! It's quite tempting to make very clear-cut characters, but, as we all know, people are never so two-dimensional. I think middle-grade readers are just at that place where they start to discover the grey areas in the world around us, and I think fantasy provides rich soil for heroes that might not be so heroic and villains who might be a bit likable. George R. R. Martin does this particularly well, and I love reading books like his that acknowledge that people are a mixed up jumble of admirable qualities and heroic self-sacrificeand selfish folly and mean, hateful actions and many other things in between. Also, I think it's worth saying that villains aren't often born laughing evilly and plotting world domination. In STORYBOUND - as in real life - the backstory of each character is crucial to who they are in the moment and who they are becoming as the story progresses. 

Una gets quite a shock at the end of the story. How do you think your readers will react to this new side to her story?

I'm so curious to find out!

How about the fun stuff: do you have a favorite writing snack? Writing music? If you won an all-expenses paid writing retreat to anywhere, where would you go?

My husband gave me a big box of pumpkin spice cookies while I was working on STORYBOUND, and I love ice-cream, so pretty much any sweet treat is welcome when I'm writing! As far as writing music goes, I don't mind classical music or wordless songs (movie soundtracks are great!), but I only listen to music if I'm out somewhere and need to block out the noise. In fact, when I was working on STORYBOUND, I would go to a local Starbucks and consistently forget to bring music. The one album on my laptop at the time was piano Christmas music, so much of the novel was written to year-round Christmas tunes. 

Oooh, and then you tempt me with a writing retreat! My initial thought is PEI, because I am that in love with all things Anne (we went there for our honeymoon!) But then I would probably want to do more sight-seeing than writing. So my second thought would be Cannon Beach, Oregon, a long-time favorite. 

Because we're the Lucky 13s . . . do you have any superstitions or lucky charms that we should know about?

Hmmmm. I'm not a very superstitious person. When I was a little girl, I did take the not-stepping-on-a-crack very seriously, though, and I can still remember trying to take huge steps through the mall to avoid any cracks. My first book signing is on Friday the 13th (of April), so let's hope that's a good sign. :) 

I think it will be! Thanks so much for stopping by to chat with us, Marissa!

Find STORYBOUND today at your local bookstore or online at IndieBound, Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

And learn more about Marissa on her website, twitter, author videos, or on facebook.

Interview by Kristin Halbrook


  1. Awesome interview Kristin and Marissa. I love reading books to escape into a fantasy world. I just started Storybound last night and am loving it.

  2. Great interview and I can't wait to read this one, sounds like it's perfect for my daughter too!

  3. STORYBOUND sounds like a great MG book with lots of fun plot twists and turns. Congratulations, Marissa!

  4. wow! congratulations! i'm interested with the book as well. : )

  5. Thanks everyone and thanks for the great interview, Kristin!

    If you're interested Harper is offering STORYBOUND for free during the entire month of April. http://browseinside.harpercollinschildrens.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780062020529


    Also, I envy that nail polish in your header. Lucky clovers on the fingers = writing magic, no?