Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Apocalypse Now: An Interview with Nikki Loftin, Author of THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY

Today we welcome Nikki Loftin to the Lucky 13s blog. Nikki’s debut middle-grade novel, THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY (Razorbill), hits bookstores today!

About the book (from IndieBound):
"A deliciously spooky middle-grade debut that's Coraline meets Hansel and Gretel.

Lorelei is bowled over by Splendid Academy--Principal Trapp encourages the students to run in the hallways, the classrooms are stocked with candy dishes, and the cafeteria serves lavish meals featuring all Lorelei's favorite foods. But the more time she spends at school, the more suspicious she becomes. Why are her classmates growing so chubby? And why do the teachers seem so sinister?

It's up to Lorelei and her new friend Andrew to figure out what secret this supposedly splendid school is hiding. What they discover chills their bones--and might even pick them clean!

Mix one part magic, one part mystery, and just a dash of Grimm, and you've got the recipe for a cozy-creepy read that kids will gobble up like candy.”

Hi, Nikki, and congratulations! What was your road to publication for this book like? How long did it take to find an agent and a publisher for THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY? 

Wow, "the road to publication." That makes it sound so straightforward, and like I knew where I was going or how to get there! Let me stop laughing at THAT idea. 

While The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy will be my debut novel, it wasn't the one that originally attracted my agent, Suzie Townsend. I signed with Suzie in 2009 on a funny middle-grade "boy book," and we were both certain that one would sell. But no such luck--we went through two rounds of submissions, and decided together to let it rest. Of course, while on submission with that novel, I was being a very good writer, working on my next novel, and the next. The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy is the fifth full-length manuscript I finished, and it sold relatively quickly! My editor told me it was the first manuscript to cross her desk when she was hired at Razorbill in January 2011, and I had an offer in a few weeks!    

Has THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY been the book’s title from the start?

Not even close! The working title was The Gingerbread School, since the story is loosely based on Hansel and Gretel, set in a charter school. By the time we sent it out, it was just Gingerbread. And when Razorbill bought it, one of their stipulations was that I be willing to change the (admittedly, not very exciting) title. Sure thing, I thought. How hard can finding a new title be? 

Little did I know, we would go through somewhere close to one hundred different titles before settling on The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy. I adore it! So glad we kept on hammering at it.  

There’s much talk these days about whether kids can handle the darker aspects of fairy tales. Did you worry that parts of THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY would be too harsh for kids? Did you back away from certain storylines, details, or events, fearing they’d be too gruesome?

An excellent question--I'll try to answer it without too many spoilers! When I began writing this book, I kept shying away from the darker parts of the mystery--forcing the story away from what it wanted to be (if that makes sense). And then one day, I was stuck. I had no idea where to go with the story. But I had learned in my previous novels that whenever I hit that sort of roadblock, I needed to back up and figure out where I had gone wrong. In the earliest draft of this book, the playground was not nearly as sinister. I called a friend when it dawned on me what crucial, um, ingredient was missing from the sand...and she convinced me to trust my instincts. I made the changes, and the rest of the story unfolded like magic. Scary, dark magic. 

As to whether I was worried about kids being too disturbed, well, I read my works-in-progress aloud to my own two children (who were seven and ten at the time). I figured if I was willing to read it to them right before bedtime, and they could handle it, it was probably not too harsh. I think adults sometimes forget how important stories are for kids--and not just light, whimsical ones. When my main characters overcome a truly powerful, even evil force? I hope that will be empowering for young readers. And very, very exciting. 

Are you a writer who plans a lot, or a seat-of-the-pants writer, or something in between? I liked, for instance, how the mother storyline and the school storyline were linked by the idea of bones, and I was wondering whether that link was there from the start of the writing process.

Thank you! (And thank you to my subconscious, for linking the bones storylines up. That connection was there from the beginning, actually.) Once upon a time, I was a seat-of-the-pants writer all the way. Sometimes, I still do that--it's fun and feels very organic. Usually, I write about ten to twenty thousand words, to see if the story is falling into place, or merits a whole novel-length treatment. Then, I'll go ahead and sketch out a rough outline, always leaving in some room for mystery at the end. In my experience, when I've known everything that was going to happen in a story before I wrote it, it came out predictable and canned. My subconscious is smarter than me! 

These days, when working with my editor, I tend to outline a bit more in advance, to save time in revisions. :) But I'm always amazed at how much of the intricate workings of plot is already present in even my very first drafts. I take no credit for it--my subconscious/muse does it for me. 

Weird fact: my writing process involves a startling number of naps. The faster I write, the more I have to sleep. I wonder if I can write off my sheets and pillows as a tax deduction?

What’s next? I saw that you had a two-book deal.

My next book is another fairy-tale re-imagining—I'm obsessed with fairy tales. This time I'm working with Hans Christian Andersen's tale of the Emperor and the Nightingale, except the "nightingale" in my story is a girl with special, strange abilities.

I can't say any more—it's still in the works! I think it will come out early in 2014, but release dates change all the time. We'll see. :) 

How do you plan to celebrate the day/week/month of your book’s release?

I'm thrilled to announce I'll have a book launch party at our local indie, Bookpeople, in Austin. I'll do giveaways, including small golden bowls of M&Ms for every child. (If you read the book you'll get it.) Then while they're sitting there, eating their candy, I'll read the section from the book that warns against it...and act very concerned and shocked that the poor, unsuspecting audience members have fallen into my sweet/sinister trap. 

Okay, I know. I'm having WAY too much fun with this. 

I'm also hoping to do another signing in my hometown, with appearances in the schools I attended. And I will definitely toast the launch day with the lovely champagne flutes my best critique partner/friend gave me when I signed the deal! 

And lastly—this is a Lucky 13s thing—do you have any superstitions or other luck-related habits, particularly with regard to writing?

Yes. I have to have chocolate within reach of my computer, or the novel in progress will be a complete failure. 

Or maybe that's just an addiction, not a superstition? Whatever. I'm sure TERRIBLE things would occur should I ever run out of chocolate, not that it's likely I ever will.  


Nikki Loftin is a writer and native Texan who lives just outside Austin, Texas, with her two boys, two dogs, a variable number of chickens, and one very patient husband. The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy is her first novel.

You can find Nikki at www.nikkiloftin.com.

This interview was conducted by Lucky13s member Elisabeth Dahl, whose debut MG novel, GENIE WISHES, will be published by Amulet Books in the spring of 2013 (www.elisabethdahl.com). The interview is part of an ongoing series of interviews with The Apocalypsies—YA, MG, and children's book authors debuting in 2012.


  1. Awesome interview. This sounds like a great book. I love fairy tale retellings.