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.

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

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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.

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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.