Interview: Sarah Jean Horwitz

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I’m very excited to welcome Sarah Jean Horwitz to the #MGBookVillage! It’s especially awesome to have her here today, as it’s the release day of her second novel. That book — the lovely cover of which is above — is THE CROOKED CASTLE, the second installment in her CARMER AND GRIT series.

In the interview below, I talk to Sarah about the new book, her experience writing a sequel, world-building, writing from research, flying circuses, and more. Give it a read, and then go get your hands on THE CROOKED CASTLE!

~ Jarrett

. . .

Sarah — thanks so much for stopping by the MG Book Village on your big day! First things first: can you tell us a bit about the new book?

THE CROOKED CASTLE follows the adventures of Carmer, a tinkerer and former magician’s apprentice, and Grit, a (literally) fiery faerie princess, as they hit the road together after becoming friends in the first book. Their travels take them to Driftside City, an airship manufacturing hub, where they become entangled in a mystery involving a high profile airship accident, a famous flying circus, and of course, faerie magic!

Whoa! Sounds like a blast! What was the experience of writing a sequel like for you? Was it different from writing your first book? Were there ways in which it was easier? Harder?

I think the middle grade fantasy author MarcyKate Connolly put it best when she said, “Second books are strange beasts.” For those of us writing in a series, book two is easier in some ways; the world and the major characters are usually already in place. It’s great fun to play in the same sandbox you’ve been enjoying for a while – and now with some new toys!

But second books are also harder. There are new expectations from your publisher, your readers, and yourself. This was the first book I ever wrote with a deadline from a publisher, and I definitely felt the pressure of that working experience! And just as you’ve changed since the first book, so have your characters. They’ve grown with you, and any new adventure they tackle has to reflect that growth.

You do a lot of great world-building in your books. Do you have any tips or insights for writers working on vividly, thoroughly building worlds of their own? 

One of the greatest pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received was from my college screenwriting mentor, Eric Bogosian, who always told me to make my writing “sexy.” Ha! He didn’t actually mean sexy in the traditional sense – he just meant that every scene in the story should be as cool, vivid, and engaging as possible. This sounds obvious, of course – why wouldn’t you make your story as awesome as possible? – but I’ve definitely caught myself coasting along in a unnecessarily bland scene before.

You can say, “Grit walked down the hallway of the palace.” But isn’t it so much cooler if you mention that the walls are in a cave, encrusted with layers and layers of shells and coral, and that occasionally Grit thinks she sees a blinking eyeball embedded in the rock? So much sexier!

It helps, of course, to build a story world that lends itself well to vivid imagery and lots of sensory details to begin with. That’s why I gravitate to stories with magic, circus, theatre, distinctive natural environments, and the like. If you think it’s cool, chances are, that enthusiasm will show in your writing, and readers will enjoy it as well.

Do you have authors who are favorite world-builders? Or is there a fictional world that is your favorite?

I read the original Mistborn trilogy last year, so I’ve got to tip the hat to Brandon Sanderson’s meticulous world-building and magic system. That level of internal logic and attention to detail isn’t something I necessarily even want in every story (and I certainly don’t write that way!) but it’s just so darn impressive.

I also grew up on Harry Potter, and it remains one of my favorite worlds to this day, as much for the things that don’t make any sense as for the things that do. I don’t mind some arbitrary or contradictory elements in a story world as much as some people do. The real world is full of them! I also enjoy that it would be possible to lead a fairly uneventful life within the Harry Potter world, if one was so inclined. I’ll pass on being the hero of the story, but being able to Apparate to work in the morning? Sign me up.

In addition to the magic and all the fantastical elements, your work contains real-world technology and inventions. Do you do any research for that? How is writing from research different for you than writing fully from your imagination? Does one appeal to you more than the other?

Anyone who knows me is aware that I know absolutely nothing about math or science – so naturally, I created a main character who is not only great at those things, but wants to be an inventor! The first book revolved around the invention and distribution of electric light, and I did a fair bit of research about dynamos, early power stations, and facilities like the Menlo Park laboratory, which is often credited with being the first research and development facility of its kind. Anyone who has called the villain from THE WINGSNATCHERS “Evil Thomas Edison” isn’t far off the mark! I also researched stage magic history to create the routines in the magic competition – though I pumped them up with faeric magic, of course!

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For THE CROOKED CASTLE, I researched airships, airplanes, and early flight in general. For a while, I probably knew more about The Hindenburg than is strictly necessary, and I am now the proud owner of such exciting titles as “American Airship Bases.” I did less research for the circus element of the book, Rinka Tinka’s Roving Wonder Show, which I’m slightly embarrassed about, because I was taking circus arts classes while I was writing it! There are definitely a few details in the book that I look at now and sort of groan at, now that I’ve been actually doing circus for a bit.

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From Sarah: “I got the idea for the Roving Wonder Show’s floating criers from this photo – it’s just so funny looking, and it made me think, ‘What if she really just lifted off, right then and there?’ I often search Pinterest for a bit of visual stimulation as I write a story, but in this case I was directly inspired by something I found there.” (See below for more about Sarah’s Pinterest board…)

I do have fun with the research, and I definitely use it to inform the story, but at the end of the day, I always keep two things in mind, and I hope readers do as well. Firstly, the book takes place in an alternate universe; their steam technology is much more advanced than the real 1880s-early 1900s, as are their developments in flight. (For example, manned ornithopters – devices that fly by the flapping of wings, like birds – have never had much success in the real world, but in THE CROOKED CASTLE people are able to fly them quite expertly.) Secondly, it’s a fantasy! Faerie magic is at work in both books, and that’s always going to interfere with what we’d normally consider possible.

Okay — about that circus. That flying circus, to be exact. I can’t wait to visit it in The Crooked Castle! Can you tell us where the idea and/or inspiration for that part of the story came from?

Flying circuses were totally a thing! And not just because of Monty Python. 😉 Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920s and into the thirties, and of course, air shows are still popular today. Stunt pilots would tour either alone or in groups and perform tricks or try to break various records.

To create Rinka Tinka’s Roving Wonder show, I took the idea of a flying circus for planes and applied it to other aircraft – airships, balloons, ornithopters, etc. And it wouldn’t be a Carmer and Grit adventure if there wasn’t at least a little faerie magic involved…

What’s next for you? Can we expect more from the Carmer and Grit universe? Something else entirely?

I would love to write more in the Carmer and Grit universe – I’ve definitely got one or two more adventures in mind for them! But as of right now, there are no plans set in stone.

I’m currently working on a different middle grade fantasy set in a fairytale-inspired world with a bit of a dark comedic twist. It’s about the daughter of an evil overlord who’s starting to realize she’d rather not take up the family business of dastardly deeds! I’m having great fun writing it. Fingers crossed that it completes the journey to finished book.

. . .

Want to see what else made its way onto Sarah’s CARMER AND GRIT Pinterest board? Click here to check it out!

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Sarah Jean Horwitz is the author of the middle grade fantasy series CARMER AND GRIT. She loves storytelling in all its forms and holds a B.A. in Visual & Media Arts with a concentration in screenwriting from Emerson College. Her other passions include feminism, circus arts, extensive thematic playlists, tattoos, and making people eat their vegetables. She works as an administrative assistant and lives with her partner near Cambridge, MA. 

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