I first met Sara at the SCBWI Westside Schmooze two years ago. Coordinators Lee and Rita had just announced Sara’s publishing deal for HARBINGER to the group and we all gave her a big applause and our hearty congratulations.
Since then, I’ve bumped into her at several SCBWI-related events, including last year’s Summer conference.
Sara is one of the most active members of SCBWI-L.A. It was no wonder that the bookstore was overflowing with well-wishers, friends, and fans during her book launch last February.
The book launch was just the start of a busy year for Sara. She’s gone on a book tour, and has been invited to speak at several writing conferences, including SCBWI-L.A.’s Writer’s Day and RWA’s Passion and Prose Conference.
Thankfully, Sara has agreed to let me pester her with questions, despite her busy schedule. Her star has definitely risen and I’m lucky to be a witness to her many successes.
If you haven’t heard of Sara and her awesome book HARBINGER, check out my review here.
Without further ado, I present the imaginative and awesome Sara Wilson Etienne.
Author’s Bio from her website sarawilsonetienne.com. You can also find her at holbrookacademy.com.
I used to dream of being a marine biologist but quickly realized that I love fantasy more than fact. Now I enjoy combining both to create stories that ask “What if?” I write in sunny California alongside my artist husband and my two dogs.
My favorite days are spent disappearing into different universes, whether it’s traveling with Dr. Who, popping into a parallel world with Diana Wynne Jones, writing my own stories, or just taking a nap.
Harbinger is my first novel.
Wanna say hi?
We’re waiting at email@example.com
1. What were your favorite books growing up?
I gravitated towards books that helped me understand the world and decide who I wanted to be in it. Daniel Pinkwater and Louis Sachar made fun of the seeming arbitrary rules of the adult world, and somehow made nonsensical sense of them. Madeleine L’Engle mixed science and magic. Tamora Pierce created women warriors. Roald Dahl gave power to the powerless.
I’ve always loved books that showed me what the world can be, rather than what it is.
2. When did you know you were going to be a writer? What prompted you to take your writing seriously?
I always loved telling stories and, of course, loved to read…but for a long time it didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer. In college, I focused on biology, but I took creative writing and literature classes whenever I could fit them in around my science classes. My senior year in college, I needed to do a thesis project. I should’ve done some sort of field research, but instead I decided to write a book. What started out as a picture book about ecotourism quickly became a novel. (One that thankfully has never been published.)
Writing that changed everything. It was as if the world suddenly made sense to me. I loved writing and it felt right. From that point on, I looked on writing as a serious career.
3. Why do you think YA is so popular? Would you ever consider writing a book in another genre—a middle grade book, or picture book for instance?
People often read YA during a time in their lives when they’re looking for proof that they fit somewhere in the world. That there are other people like them. That there is more to life than high school. That, in effect, makes the YA genre full of powerful stories that have the ability to shape lives, show people choices they’ve never thought of, and perspectives they’ve never experienced.
And though my voice is currently tuned into YA, I’d definitely like to write for other genres. I love picture books…I think they’re a perfect format for some of the most extraordinary stories. I’ve studied them and tried my hand at writing them, but picture books are incredibly difficult to get right. Still, I know that someday I’ll have just the right story to tell!
4. What inspired you to write Harbinger?
My original inspiration was my college campus in Bar Harbor, Maine. After I graduated and moved to California, I just couldn’t get that place out of my head. All pine trees and rocky shores and storm waves crashing. There was this old house on campus where we used to hang out at night. The winding staircases, crazy passageways, and castle-like turrets were so creepy and beautiful. There was definitely a story in that place there and I set out to tell it.
5. Where did you get the (awesome) idea to use tarot cards in your novel?
I’m glad you liked them! The tarot cards snuck into a later draft. It’s hard to find a compelling way to deal with prophecies without just feeding your character information. So I was looking for some way other than diary entries or whispered warnings to tip Faye off.
And here comes the lesson about randomness and paying attention: A friend of mine gave me a business card they’d found that was based on a playing card. I thought it was such a cool idea and because my book at the time was called “The Harbinger” my mind immediately went to tarot cards. I cajoled my husband to make me business cards based on the Two of Swords, but with a Harbinger twist. As soon as I saw the result, I knew it was the perfect melding. And a great story device. Not to mention that tarot cards were a craze during the exact time that M.H.’s diary was written. So it was too good to pass up!
6. What is one personality trait that you share with your main character, Faye?
Her fear and pain. While I was writing Faye, I was dealing with my own doubts about myself as a writer and some difficult health problems. These manifested themselves in Faye originally as migraines (which I also suffered from) and then later as frightening visions.
Telling stories is a way that we make sense of our own lives. Giving ourselves powerful protagonists and satisfying endings give us the hope that we too can overcome our challenges. For me, writing was the best way of working through my own pain.
7. Tell us about your path to publication.
Well…writing the book and getting it published took me a full ten years. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote Harbinger countless times. Teaching myself to write–how to put together a novel–as I went. I got notes from my critique groups, went to conferences, met my agent at one, then rewrote my book a few more times, and finally sold it! Thinking back, I was pretty single-minded about the whole thing. Writing is the only career that’s ever felt really right, so I just kept on keeping on!
8. What’s your typical day as a writer like? Do you have any writing-related rituals or quirks?
I like to write from late morning to early afternoon. Recently, I’ve been walking to a nearby café and that has the wonderful side benefit of letting me “prewrite” my scenes…visualizing moments that I think will bring the scene to life. When I finally sit down with my coffee and scone, I can dive into my work.
I also like to write to the Battlestar Galatica soundtrack. It has great tension and build-up, but is background enough for me to work. But for the most part, I try to stay flexible with my habits, so I don’t get hung up if I have to write at home or at a different time of day.
9. Where do you get your story ideas?
I get my ideas from the world around me: overheard conversations, news stories, places I travel. Over the course of years I pair up certain ideas in my head, they grow into stories and worlds. When I sit down to finally begin working on a book, I start with writing a synopsis or a vague outline. And go from there. I’m a huge rewriter, so I usually stumble through the beginning of my stories over and over until I hit the right tone or feel or world.
10. What is the coolest thing about being a published author?
I got insanely excited about having my book on library shelves. The library was my treasure trove growing up and the idea that readers will be discovering and checking out Harbinger for years to come gives my goosebumps!
11. If you could have any job in the world (aside from being an author), what would it be?
A very bored scientist. Or lawyer. I’m pretty sure there are parallel-universe Sara’s out there doing those things right now. But I doubt they’re very happy.
12. Are you currently working on any other projects?
I’m working on a new book currently titled Unworthy with the same editor at Penguin/Putnam. It’ll be out Winter 2014. It’s a totally new world, with new characters, and, though I loved Harbinger, it’s been fun creating new stories!
13. You did an amazing job promoting your book. How did you come up with these ideas, and would you consider using the same promotional strategies for your next book?
Thanks! It was a lot of fun (and a lot of work) to create pieces of Harbinger outside the page. I have a hunch that each book requires its own approach.
The Harbinger inspired art, (which you can see at: http://holbrookacademy.com/sketchbook.php)
worked well because my main character, Faye, was an artist. It made sense on a lot of levels. Same thing with the creepy institutional nature of the Holbrook website and brochures. But I’m sure that as I start thinking of Unworthy in terms of promotion, it will have its own fun bits of inspiration.
One thing I’ll definitely do is another book trailer. It was super fun to see Harbinger come to life. You can see it here:
14. What advice would you like to give to writers on the road to publication?
Butt-in-chair. The only thing that makes someone a writer is writing.
Though…balancing it with the opposite is vital too. Don’t forget to get out of your writing cave sometimes and talk to other people who are doing what you’re doing. Writers conferences, critique groups, coffee shops, anything that reminds you that there’s a whole world of readers and writers out there who will be thrilled to get their hands on your story.
15. What would you like to say to your young readers? Is there any advice that you would like to give them?
Find stories you love, let yourself live there for a while, then explore new ones. Don’t let yourself get sucked into the idea that you only like to read fantasy or mysteries or contemporary romance. A great story is a great story. Let stories open up the world for you, not narrow down.
Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Sara!
Tune in this Friday for the final installment of this month’s Spotlight Week. I’ll be giving away a copy of HARBINGER!
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