Recently I finished reading Root Bound by Tanya Karen Gough and had to contact the author for an interview. I was so taken by the story, its unique premise, the engaging character of Emma and the humour of the Brownies.
Root Bound is a fast-paced, action fantasy novel about a young girl finding her place in the world through a series of adventures involving magical creatures, and a journey to the centre of the earth. Root Bound is both a topsy-turvy riff on traditional literary children’s fantasy and an allegorical coming-of-age tale.
Thank you to Tanya for participating in this interview.
In Root Bound, I was taken with how you describe buildings as alive, how they absorb life, grow roots and have the power to change lives. What inspired this concept? How does this work as a central theme in the book?
I’ve always been fascinated by places where reality and magic overlap. In Victorian children’s literature, you find them in nature, expressed as faery rings or mounds, dark holes in the ground or in trees, places that evoke the mystery of nature. Indoors, magic has traditionally lived in the shadows, behind doors, through the coats in the wardrobe. It’s harder to find those places in the modern age. Nature is getting harder to find, or it’s reduced to a little patch of grass down the block. Electricity means there are fewer shadows, fewer places for magic creatures to hide.
Root Bound grew out of the question: where has all the magic gone? Once I realized the series would be based on the elements (earth, water, fire and air), the specifics became clear to me. The first book is about finding one’s place in the world, finding one’s real and metaphorical roots, so it had to take place in the earth, and the buildings’ roots become a nice way to illustrate the connection. I also really like the idea that we are ultimately responsible for creating those roots, and we have the power to make them grow. We decide how much magic there is around us, and also whether that magic is good or bad.
What message are you making about bullying in Root Bound?
Bullying is complicated, though in Root Bound, it takes on a fairly simple form. The bullies are larger than life, clearly up to no good. And Emma fights them by standing up for herself. Standing her ground, so to speak. But she is quite young and inexperienced, and the world tends to be overly simplified at that age, too. The bullies stick around through all four of the books, though. You’ll see that the nature of their bullying changes, and Emma has to keep finding new ways to overcome them.
Do you consider Emma to be a role model for girls? Why or why not?
I don’t know if I think of her in terms of being a role model, per se. I get tired of a lot of the new “feminist” characters and the female heroines in modern action and fantasy. Both genres are still constructed for the male mentality. There’s a goal, and the hero has to do A, B and C to win. If there’s a strong woman nowadays, she’s usually a fighter. Or it’s still all about winning the handsome prince. I didn’t want that for Emma. Life is complicated and difficult, and if you’re a woman, it’s almost never linear. I want Emma’s experience to reflect that, so each of the books represents a different challenge as she grows up. I hope she inspires girls to ask questions about why her world isn’t all neatly packaged and easy to explain. We need to do a better job teaching our girls to ask how and why instead of expecting the world to offer them things in neat little packages.
Are the brownies based on mythical creatures?
They are! Brownies have a long and illustrious history, starting in Scottish and Northern English folklore. I’ve actually just published a history of the brownies on the Emma & the Elementals Blog.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Not grow up, I think. I never was very good at imagining my future. I’m still not very good at it. So far, I’ve been a teacher, owned a CD and video store, built a Shakespeare speciality catalogue that had customers in 42 countries around the world, and reinvented myself yet again as a web content manager. I kinda like not knowing what comes next.
What do you think makes a good story?
It starts with language for me. If it’s not well-written, I just can’t stick with it. The stories that move me the most have a strong emotional through line, and characters I understand, even if I don’t relate to them. I appreciate any story that takes me out of my present reality – and that usually requires a well developed fictional world.
Do you have any writing quirks?
I find it very difficult to write at home, probably because I did so much of my homework at the cafeteria and student union when I was in university. I also hand-write all my first drafts. A computer is fine if I’m writing for work, but I can’t write fiction that way. I need to feel an organic connection to the words – the shape of them, how they flow together, how they feel on the page. I can’t get that from a keyboard.
When did you know you were a writer?
I don’t think anyone ever knows they are a writer. I think people either write, or they don’t. I’ve been writing in one form or another all my life. I didn’t write fiction at all for many years, but I was learning new craft: content management forces one to think about words as discrete packages of information that can be moved around in various ways; marketing requires a very different sort of creativity, where you need to compress a very large idea into very few words; social media is a totally different way of communicating as well. So, even when I wasn’t Writing, I am always writing.
Why did you decide to self-publish Root Bound? What is the biggest challenge with self-publishing?
I started shopping an earlier draft of the book in late 2007, early 2008. I got a lot of great responses, but it was clear the book needed some more work. I took the feedback I received and did some rewrites, but by the time I was ready to start shopping the book again, the book market was in a tailspin. Agents were freaking out, and no one knew what was going to happen. I’d been through it all before with my CD store (which I closed shortly after Napster launched), and with the Shakespeare catalogue (which I closed shortly after YouTube and Netflix emerged). There wasn’t anything I could do. In the meantime, the recession was in full swing, and I moved to Toronto for work. By the time the dust settled (both for me and for the book industry), self-publishing had become remarkably easy to do. I didn’t want to spend any more time sending out queries and working through the agent process all over again. So I decided to do it myself.
Absolutely the biggest challenge for me has been getting the word out there. The problem with self-publishing being easy is that *everyone* is doing it now. There’s so much noise out there, and it’s very difficult to cut through the noise. I was lucky that most of the technical requirements were already part of my skill set, thanks to my job. I don’t know how non-technical writers figure all that stuff out.
How do you handle reviews?
So far, I haven’t really received any truly negative reviews at all, and I’m grateful for that. In a recent blog tour, one of the reviewers couldn’t get into the book, which I think is perfectly fair. She withdrew and was kind enough to feature the book on her blog with a straightforward excerpt instead of a review. I sent her a note thanking her doing that. In the same tour, I got two of my strongest complaints on the same day: one complained that my fantasy world was over-developed; the other complained that it wasn’t developed enough. I just posted the comments together on my blog. It was a pretty clear lesson that you just can’t please everyone.
What is your worst habit as a writer?
I have a hard time cutting unnecessary characters. There was one in Root Bound who just didn’t want to go. I argued with her for weeks. She wept, she begged. She made me feel terrible about it. Finally, I had to agree to give her a featured cameo in a later book just so I could get on with my writing.
Can you give us a taste of the next book in the series and when it will be released?
Sure! Book Two is called Water Works, and I hope to have it ready by Fall 2013. Water Works is about ways of thinking about the world. Things that were true in Book One may not be true in Book Two, or they may have changed because things change over time. Emma is now best friends with Reggie (the boy in the apartment down the hall in Book One), and she’ll have to save him again. And the stakes are higher now, because now she’s saving someone she actually cares about. Some of the characters from Book One return, but probably not the ones you’d expect. And because this book is about changing realities, she won’t be travelling in the classic Greek and Roman mythological world this time. She’s going some place less familiar. I’d like the reader to discover new worlds, too.
Tanya Karen Gough owned and published The Poor Yorick Shakespeare Catalogue from 1997-2007, earning a strong international customer base of world class academics and high school educators. Tanya was also a contributing editor for the Internet Shakespeare Editions at the University of Victoria (BC), audio advisor for the Sourcebooks Shakespeare textbook series, and theatre reviewer for Playshakespeare.com. Tanya grew up in New Hampshire and currently lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Check out her blog http://emmaseries.blogspot.com where you can find out more about her and her series.
You can also find her on twitter @emmaseries.