Kathie: Hi Alysa! It’s my pleasure to spend some time with you today talking about your debut MG novel, THE VERDIGRIS PAWN, which will be released on July 13th by HarperCollins. I just finished it last night, and I have so much I want to know! Let’s start by asking you to tell our readers a little bit about it, please.
Alysa: Hi Kathie! It’s such a pleasure to be here with you, thank you so much for having me.
THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Raised isolated and alone, Beau has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects, and how hated and feared their family is.
This all changes when he meets Cressi, a young servant, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land – especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for payment of their family’s taxes.
This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure along with Nate, a runaway, as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But in order to restore fairness and equality to the Land, Beau must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a board game similar to chess!)
Although, when you’re reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done.
This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places.
Kathie: This was such a unique story, and felt like a mix between historical fiction and fantasy. I’d love to know if you had a time period in mind for when it was set, and what kind of research you did to help you create the setting and characters?
Alysa: I think the best way to describe the time period of THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is quasi-medieval. I was inspired to create a pre-industrial world that might look like something we recognize from history, but that also allowed me the space to play and not to be burdened by the need to be accurate. What was important to me was that the world feel both somehow familiar and new to the reader.
As for research, I love nothing more than getting lost for hours and days chasing down details about how people lived, what foods they ate, how medicines were made, what garments they wore. And sensory details are so important to me as well. The pre-industrial world did not smell or sound the same as it does now. I love digging around for those facts. While I always want to understand the big picture of a time period, fundamentally it’s the details of daily life that fascinate me most.
Many of my characters could, I think, live in any time period. There are always those who will have isolationist tendencies, and the power hungry have existed since time immemorial. But in building Himself, I dug deep to really understand how despots can come to power, how they maintain their hold, and what are the conditions that can lead to their downfall.
Kathie: Was there ever a point when you thought about telling the story from the perspective of a different character, and what was it about Beau that drew you to his side of the story?
Alysa: This was always Beau’s story from the very beginning. I was really taken with the idea of turning the trope of “the chosen one” on its head. What happens when the chosen one doesn’t want to be chosen? And further, do the privileged have the right to spurn their privilege because they either don’t want it or think themselves unworthy of it?
But mostly I fell in love with this boy, who, even though he’s woefully ignorant about the realities of life around him and who has been raised with such cold-hearted judgement, never lost his gentle and open heart.
And yet, Cressi’s voice and POV are so vital to this story. In many ways she’s the true heroine here, the driving force for change in Beau, Nate, and the Land. I loved spending time in her POV chapters and travelling along with her as she comes into her own power. I suppose if I could have told this in two books Cressi would absolutely have gotten her own volume!
Kathie: I really loved the character development, and how each of the three main characters went through tremendous growth and coming into their own as individuals; it felt like all three of them had been gone from the Manor for much longer than a few days. Is it hard to keep the details straight when so much happens in a short amount of time? Do you have to plot it carefully to keep track?
Alysa: Absolutely! There are several plot lines that all eventually converge, but until they do, I had to balance who knows what when along with what the reader knows.
I know several writers who have wonderfully organized systems of charts and graphs to keep track of timelines. I don’t do so well with charts. My method is a bit messier and involves writing out the story of the story by hand, diving into character notes, and keeping a lot of it in my head.
Once great advantage of having two parallel POVs was that I could read all of Beau’s chapters as one story, then read Cressi’s to make sure neither one was getting ahead of the other.
And yes, you’re right an awful lot happens to these characters and the Land over the course of a few short days. But as I think we’ve all seen in the last year, change really can happen overnight.
Kathie: What was one of your biggest challenges writing this story?
Alysa: Oh gosh, where to start? I’ll begin by saying that writing this book was not a speedy process, it took many years to get this story right and working.
But specifically, getting to know Beau was a challenge. I had made several assumptions about him, who he was and how he’d respond to certain situations. Yet the deeper I went the more he surprised and delighted me with his compassion, honesty, and willingness to learn. I in turn had to learn to listen and learn from him.
Building in the backstory was also a challenge. I needed to fold in the history of the Land and several of the characters without it feeling heavy handed or too expository. In so many ways telling this story was like making a bed. You smooth the sheet in one section only to realize that you’ve created a few wrinkles further down. But I hope the history and backstory enriches the reader’s experience.
Kathie: Did you have a favorite section to write?
Alysa: It’s not so much a section as an element. There are a great many things and people who are not what/who they appear to be in this story. Holding back the truth and letting it drop out ever so slowly was a great challenge, but also fantastically fun.
Oh! And developing the game of Fist also presented me with an incredible challenge.
Kathie: What’s one thing you’d like our readers to know about The Verdigris Pawn?
Alysa: I know some folks have been uncertain about how to pronounce Verdigris. I’m happy to say that you have two options, both of which are correct. You can pronounce it either VER-duh-grees, or VER-duh-gris.
And for those readers who might not know, verdigris is the chemical reaction that occurs when bronze and copper are oxidized. The Statue of Liberty is an example most everyone can call to mind.
Much like copper and bronze Beau, Cressi, Nate and the Land all get tested and transformed into something new over the course of the novel.
Kathie: Are you working on another writing project at the moment, and do you like short bursts of time or long uninterrupted stretches in which to write?
Alysa: I am working on two other books actually, neither of which I can say much about yet though.
I tend to work in phases. There are times where I can sit and work for hours on end, when the words just flow, and I know where I’m going. Other times, I have to break my day up into chunks and leave myself time to think and not think. I call that thinkutating— a mix of thinking and contemplating – meaning leaving space for the answers to come when you’re not looking for them.
Since both of my kids are fairly grown now, I can work pretty much uninterrupted – although my dogs have very strong opinions about how often I need to get up and go for a walk with them.
Kathie: Where can readers go to connect with you and find out more about your writing?
THE VERDIGRIS PAWN will be out July 13th – all the pre-order links are here on the HarperCollins page. And if anyone would like a signed pre-order and some pawn-ish swag (pawn-shaped stickers and bookmarks) they can order from either of my two of my favorite local Independent Booksellers:
Kathie: Thank you so much for talking with me today, Alysa. I’m so happy to know your book will be out in the world for young readers to enjoy very soon.
Alysa: It’s been such a delight chatting with you, thank you so much for having me, Kathie. And thank you for all you and Middle Grade Book Village do for readers, writers and lovers of Middle Grade Literature!
Alysa Wishingrad once had a whole different career working in theater, film and TV, but nothing could be better than building worlds for middle grade readers. When she’s not writing, she’s probably out walking the dogs or getting back to seeing as much theater as she possibly can. Alysa lives in the Hudson Valley of NY with her family, three cats, and two demanding dogs.
THE VERDIGRIS PAWN, her debut novel will be out July 13 from HarperCollins. Visit her at www.alysawishingrad.com.