Interview: Sarah Jean Horwitz

Hey there, Sarah! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new novel, THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE. Before we get to the new book, would you care to share a bit about yourself and your previous books?

Hello! Thanks so much for having me. I’m a middle grade fantasy author. My first two books, THE WINGSNATCHERS and THE CROOKED CASTLE, are steampunk adventure books about a magician’s apprentice named Carmer and a one-winged fairy princess called Grit who solve magical mysteries together. My most recent novel is THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE, which just came out in early October from Algonquin Young Readers. 

And what is this new book of yours all about?

THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE is about a young girl, Clementine Morcerous, who has been raised since birth to be an Evil Overlord. When her father, the current Dark Lord, succumbs to a witch’s curse, Clementine must take over his official evildoing duties much sooner than expected and try to find a cure for the curse. The problem is, Clementine isn’t even sure she wants to carry out all the required Dastardly Deeds that Dark Lords are supposed to do. As she take her first steps out of the sheltered world she’s grown up in, Clementine starts to question the family legacy she’s trying so hard to save. 

I’m curious to hear what it was like for you to write outside of the Carmer and Grit universe, where you were for your first two novels. Scary? Exciting? A relief? All of the above and more?

It was very exciting to write outside of the Carmer and Grit universe. I was very energized by the opportunity to explore new characters, a new story world, and a fresh voice with Clementine. I’ll always miss my first imaginary kids, but I was glad of the opportunity for a fresh start! 

Can you tell us about the gestation for Clementine’s story? Where did the initial idea and inspiration for it come from? How did it develop from there?

As strange as it sounds, I have two babies to thank for the idea for THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE. The first is my friend Brooke’s niece, whom she nicknamed “the Dark Lord.” Ha! I’m sure little Fallyn will appreciate that when she’s older. The second is my old high school English teacher’s daughter, whose name is…Clementine! Yup. A few years ago, I was playing with baby Clementine with some friends, and we were trying to get her to make the sounds of her toy farm animals. We’d say, “What sound does the pig make, Clem? Does the pig go ‘oink oink’? Does the cow go ‘moo’?” But Clementine just sat there stoney-faced, not humoring us at all, which I thought was so funny. And so I put on this scary voice and said something like, “The animals say nothing. All of the animals are silent. They are always silent.” And everyone cracked up laughing, and I remembered Brooke’s nickname for her niece, and it occurred to me that The Dark Lord Clementine and Her Silent Farm would be such a fun title for a book. So it started this sort of running joke with my friends, but then I started thinking…what if it really was a book? And the whole idea spiraled from there. 

Amazing. And just goes to show that stories really can come from anywhere and anything! And speaking of humor — there were moments in this book where you really seemed to let your silly side come out to play. Was it a conscious choice to do so? Or did that come about naturally, as a necessity for the story?

The humorous tone and dark humor in the book came very naturally right away. I think that started from the contrast that’s inherent in the title – whoever heard of a Dark Lord named Clementine?! And then as I kept writing, I thought the humor was a good way to temper some of the more serious and emotional elements in the book. I hope I struck that balance in a way that serves the story. 

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE?

I hope they can see that opening one’s heart to love and friendship and new experiences is always worth it, even if you get hurt sometimes. I hope they also see how liberating it can be to follow your heart and be true to yourself. 

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE to their classroom libraries?

In this moment in particular, I think it’s more important than ever to examine how evil becomes normalized, and how it has always embedded itself in our institutions. We learn from a very young age to take the suffering of others as a give-in. When the oppression and pain of others is built into a system that benefits us, just as Clementine benefits from being a Dark Lord’s daughter, it can be easy to turn a blind eye, or to accept this as just “the way things are.” But just as Clementine realizes that her status quo situation is not normal, so can we. Books are one of the most powerful tools we have to foster empathy for others and explore the complexities of right and wrong in a safe way (with plenty of unicorns and magic!), and I hope THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE does that in some small way. 

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

Readers can find me online at www.sarahjeanhorwitz.com, where they can read more about me and check out some extras for all of my books, like Pinterest boards and playlists, as well as some guides to the world of Carmer and Grit. I’m also on Twitter @sunshineJHwitz, on Instagram @sunshineJH or on Facebook @SarahJeanBooks.

Sarah Jean Horwitz grew up in suburban New Jersey, next door to a cemetery and down the street from an abandoned fairy-tale theme park, which probably explains a lot. She attended Emerson College in Boston, MA as a film student, where she discovered her love of writing in her first screenwriting class.

Volunteering with the Boston Teen Author Festival sparked her interest in writing for children and young adults, and Sarah began writing the book that would become her debut novel, THE WINGSNATCHERS, in late 2012. A handful of odd jobs and a few continental US states later, this first book in the CARMER AND GRIT series was published by Algonquin Young Readers in 2017. THE WINGSNATCHERS was a Spring 2017 Kid’s Indie Next pick and a Junior Library Guild selection. THE CROOKED CASTLE, the second book in the series, was released in April 2018. Her most recent book is the standalone middle grade fantasy THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE.

Sarah’s other passions include feminism, extensive thematic playlists, improvisational movement, tattoos, and circus arts. She currently works as an administrative assistant and lives with her partner near Cambridge, MA.

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