Hi, everyone! Claire Caterer and Kit Grindstaff here again—aka the Lucky 13s Flame sisters. This is part II of our BURNING QUESTIONS post, started a couple of weeks back. We barely scratched the surface last time, so today we're exploring even more parallels between our books.
KIT: Claire, both of our books contain magical creatures. I loved Anglielle’s cast of centaurs, Elementals, and, um … salamanders! Tell us what inspired the choice for each, and their roles as Holly’s helpers or hinderers. Also, Áedán being a golden creature, hence another parallel between our books, I’d particularly love to hear a little about the folklore of salamanders, which I believe is quite rich.
CLAIRE: Well, who doesn’t love a centaur? I’ve always wanted to write about them because they’re strong and heroic, but a little bit dangerous too. They’re also the symbol of mine (and your!) astrological sign, which is rather cool.
The Fire Elementals were especially fun to write, because they’re so volatile and dramatic. Fire can be a savior or a destroyer, so they represent both sides for Holly. But the salamander Áedán is my favorite. Salamanders don't appear that often in fiction, and I liked the idea of Holly having a symbiotic friend—one who she is responsible for but who also acts as a protector.
The salamander does have a rich history. Aristotle described it as a poisonous, lizardlike creature that was so cold it was impervious to fire. But other sources called it a beast born of fire. Michael Maier, a 17th-century German alchemist, wrote that the salamander symbolizes sulphur in the alchemical process. It gives its life to grant power to the Philosopher’s Stone, just as Áedán helps Holly claim her own power in The Key & the Flame.
KIT: Fascinating. Alchemy has always intrigued me. On the subject of transmutation, the way ideas morph in the process of writing is something we touched on last time. I’ve been dying to dig more deeply into that question. Some ideas seem integral, as though they must have been there from the start, but actually they arrive en route—and some not till the last minute. Besides your title, was there anything like that for you in The Key & the Flame? Were the creatures all there from the outset, for example? And how about characters—any major changes from first to last draft?
CLAIRE: All of the creatures in the finished book were there from the beginning, though some were tweaked a little. I had created another creature that I really loved, but I cut it because the book was just getting too long. (It will show up in a future book, probably the fourth.)
Everett, the British boy who accompanies Holly and Ben to Anglielle, is a character who changed quite a bit over the course of the writing. His duplicity as well as his general loneliness and backstory evolved sometime after the first draft, and now it seems so plain to me that it was always there.
KIT: Right. That felt totally natural to me, and gave me a real “ooh” moment when I first realized he wasn’t quite as he seemed. I’m looking forward to finding out how that plays out in Book 2. And as to that other creature, roll on Book 4!
CLAIRE: It’s always good to have some extra stuff to work with in coming books! Now, some of your most memorable characters are Noodle and Pie—two of my favorites from The Flame in the Mist. Were they in the story from the beginning? How did they change from draft to the finished book?
KIT: The rats arrived straight away. They could communicate with Jemma from the word go—and her with them—but their communication was wordless until a fairly late draft, when Jemma begins to “hear” their messages as thought-impressions translated into words. Giving the rats a “voice” also made them seem more magical, though it’s actually her receptivity to their wisdom that’s shifted. Now I can’t imagine their “words” being absent.
CLAIRE: Oh, me either! It gives them so much depth.
KIT: Also, to begin with, they were common house—or castle—brown rats. Changing their fur to golden was literally a last-draft change—another touch that now seems totally obvious, since it reflects their alignment with the magical Light and its healing, transformative power.
CLAIRE: How did you come up with the notion of rats versus some other creature? The role they play for Jemma is interesting, considering the (unfair!) associations many people have with rodents.
KIT: I chose rats for two main reasons, both of which are pretty basic! First, they’re what one would find in a castle; and second, since as you say they’re generally reviled, I thought kids would get a kick out of their “ew” factor. Additional reasons: I wanted Jemma’s animal helpers to be down to earth, not fantasy creatures (telepathy notwithstanding!); rats are intelligent and quick, which they obviously needed to be; and lastly, they needed to be small enough to hide down bodices, or in pockets and hoods, yet substantial enough to have presence. Somehow, mice or cockroaches wouldn’t have cut it.
CLAIRE: Cockroaches ... talk about an “ew” factor!
KIT: As Noodle and Pie developed as characters, though—and I really do feel it was they who developed, not me who developed them!—their loyalty to Jemma and her mission made them far exceed what I initially envisioned for them as characters.
CLAIRE: I feel that way about Áedán too, that his loyalty is what defines him. Speaking of Jemma, both our plucky heroines have to uncover their power on their own to some degree. Can you talk about how Jemma evolved? Did you begin with the idea of a strong girl at the center of the novel?
KIT: I did, yes. My very first list of Jemma’s character traits included fire-red hair, aqua eyes, slight build—and a love of anagrams. Only later did her prophesied identity as the Fire One emerge, deepening the significance of her hair color, and making the last-minute decision about the book’s title seem so obvious. Also, to begin with, I had no idea that anagrams would be so crucial to Jemma’s mission.
Two of Jemma’s biggest flaws are that she’s “dreamy-headed,” as Nocturna describes her, and impetuous. Over time, I dug deeper to make them more consequential in her character arc. Other later-draft additions were her communication with animals other than rats, and the cloak and crystals, which help her magical powers evolve as she interacts with them. Another thing was her fear that the Mark on her back—the Mark of Mord that the Agromonds bear—means that she really is evil like them, after all. That tension didn’t exist until a fairly late draft. But it fed nicely into Jemma’s father’s statement that it’s the choices one makes that form character, not a happenstance birthmark.
So, over to Holly! Her pluck and curiosity really stay with me. Like Jemma, at the start of her story, Holly has no clue about her power—as you mentioned, she has to uncover it for herself. How did that develop over drafts, and what other aspects of Holly changed during writing—flaws, strong points—or, alternatively, did you conceive of her fully formed?
CLAIRE: Initially I thought of Holly as a better student than she ended up being. But as the brainstorming progressed, I realized that, while very intelligent, she’s too much of a dreamer and free spirit to be a great success in the regimented world of the classroom. And because so much of an eleven-year-old’s identity is tied to school, Holly has some insecurities to deal with, particularly since her brother is such a teacher’s pet. Holly needs to move into the alternate world of Anglielle to see what her strengths are—both magically and not—and to put those assets to good use.
And there I go, rambling on again. There’s so much more to say. Maybe we can continue this conversation later on my personal blog. Are you up for it, Flame Sister?
KIT: Sure! Love to. This has been fun.
CLAIRE: Until then! Thanks for answering my Burning Questions, Kit!
KIT: And thank you, Claire!
The Key & the Flame, available now from Margaret K. McElderry Books. You can connect with Claire on her website, Facebook, or Twitter pages, as well as on Goodreads.