Friday 12 June 2015

An interview with Stephanie Burgis

Stephanie Burgis's first novel, A Most Improper Magick, first caught my eye when  I was at the Templar offices, discussing the publication of my own first children's book, Frogspell.  I was invited to take any of their latest books that I fancied - and I definitely fancied that one. A regency adventure story with a large, impoverished family living in a vicarage, marriage proposals, step-mothers... and magic! Who could resist?

The book was as good as it looked, and I found myself swept away by the unladylike adventures of Kat Stephenson, a caught between her desire not to utterly disgrace her family or cause too much trouble to her sisters, and her burning need to pursue the (forbidden) magic she appeared to have inherited from her dead mother. Kat is a really engaging heroine - brave, clear-sighted, loyal and unconventional - and the other characters in her family are also lots of fun - the beloved father who somehow avoids all responsibility (reminiscent of Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice), the motherly and morally upright eldest sister, Elissa; Kat's middle sister, Angeline, who's a witch, and who does a fine line in older-sister bossiness; the feckless eldest, Charles; and Kat's dragon of a step-mother, always worried about What Society Will Think.

Somehow, though I knew they'd come out, I didn't get round to reading the second or third book in the Kat trilogy till recently. But in World Book Week I had a lot of travelling to do, and A Tangle of Magyck had been sitting on my kindle for at least a year, so I dived in. It was fabulous - better even than the first one - and I went straight on to A Reckless Magyck without pause for breath.

There are lots of reviews of this wonderful trilogy out there, all glowing, so rather than repeat them, I thought I'd introduce you to the author herself, who generously agreed to let me interview her. So, sit back and enjoy. I present... Stephanie Burgis!

 1. The Kat books are a wonderful mix of magic and regency England - Jane Austen meets Harry Potter. What gave you the idea of mixing two such separate worlds?

When I was a kid, my dad used to read books to me every night, and the two that made the biggest impression on me were The Lord of the Rings and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice! So I grew up as a massive fan of both adventure fantasy and Regency romantic comedies. Writing the Kat books was my way of mixing up my two favorite genres! Double the fun. :)

2. The best books about magic have new ideas about how magic works, its logic and methods, and yours is no exception. I love the idea of there being ordinary witchcraft, with spells, and then 'guardian magic' which seems to be much more powerful and more about 'thinking' and 'willing' what you want to happen. (It reminds me a little of Diana Wynne Jones' idea of the sort of magic enchanters do). Why did you decide to split your magic into these two different types and did you have to think carefully about how the two worked differently?

Thanks, Celia! I figured it all out a bit messily and imperfectly in the first draft of Book 1 (A Most Improper Magick) and then spent a long time working out all the details for myself after I'd finished that first draft. I even wrote myself a serious, scholarly document about all the distinctions between witchcraft and Guardian magic (I pretended that it was authored by one of Kat's nephews) just to get them all clear in my head! Then I went back and fixed everything in the book to make it all work in exactly the way I'd figured out. (And of course there's even a third type of magic introduced in the second book, which added to the complexity and the fun, for me!)

3. I love the way characters develop across the three stories, especially the bad ones. I'm thinking particularly of Kat's stepmother, who's a real dragon in the first book, but who gradually becomes someone who, while still annoyingly narrow-minded, is much more sympathetic -  you can see she is only trying to do her best in her own inimitable way. And even the awful Lady Fotherington is revealed to have her own heartache and twisted reasons for being so mean. Do you work out all the backstories of your characters and their good/bad sides right at the beginning or did you find yourself just wanting to explore them more as the series went on? 

I'm so glad you liked that! For me, it was just an organic part of the writing process. Kat is young and brash and we're seeing everything through her perspective, so of course in the beginning, the stepmother who does so much stuff that Kat doesn't like is presented as a real dragon. But as Kat gets older, she starts seeing Stepmama more clearly, and she starts getting insights into the complexity of the other people around her, too, even the ones whom she will never like. I don't tend to work out character backstories before I start writing them, though - I figure them out as I write, in an exploratory kind of way (and then go back to add foreshadowing, quite often! ;) ).

4. For me, some of the best bits of all three books are to be found in the relationships between the three sisters - Elissa, the motherly eldest, always looking after her younger sisters and always trying to be a proper young lady; the fiery and reckless middle sister, Angeline; and Kat, brave, eager, loving, trying to do her best but always getting into scrapes. Plus their feckless brother Charles. The family is so believable, with their surface spats and arguments and exasperation with each other but the real love and loyalty they all have underneath. Did you grow up in a big family? And did you consciously draw on that when writing the Stephenson family?

I do come from a big, close-knit family! So I was absolutely drawing on that loving family dynamic, even though my family is completely different. I'm one of three, not four, kids, and I'm the only girl in the family, as well as being the oldest rather than the youngest child, like Kat. So in real life, I'm much more like Elissa, the responsible, proper oldest daugher in the Stephenson family - but I loved getting to let go of all of that and write from Kat's much more fun point of view in these books!

5. I was incredibly impressed with the plotting of all three books - but especially the second one, set in Bath. The twists and turns had me gasping and the way all the threads come together at the end was (literally) explosive! Are you a careful plotter? Did you have file cards littering the floor? Or do you just have a vague plan and then set to?

I never plot books before I start writing them! I just get an idea for a beginning and GO, making everything more and more complicated and building more and more tension as the story goes on. (Which sometimes leads to some real hair-tearing when I get to the climax of a book and think: But there IS no way out of this! There always is in the end, though, I just need to think really hard.) The one thing I do, in terms of plotting, is to sit down and do some plot-related freewriting whenever I get stuck in the middle of a draft. I write out the big themes that are developing in the book so far, to see where they might need to go next, and I ask myself a lot of questions like: Why IS [X] following Kat? What does he/she really want? Etc. 

6. At the end of the third book, Kat meets a boy who, like her, has both witchcraft and Guardian power and has found ways to put them together. I loved this idea, and there was more than a hint that he and Kat might hit it off. I know that there's an extra Kat novella that you published as an ebook only, and I'm hoping the romantic interest is the same boy! (Please tell me it is!) How has the ebook done? Are you tempted to publish further unladylike adventures or are you busy working on a new project?

Ha! I can neither confirm nor deny who Kat's romantic interest is...but Courting Magic is (finally!) her own romance, as well as being a magical adventure, so I can promise that she DOES end up with someone who is perfect for her. :) I wrote the novella as a gift for all the readers who'd emailed me after reading the trilogy to ask who Kat herself would end up with, after she'd been so involved in managing all of her older siblings' romances. It was so much fun to write! It's gotten wonderful reader responses, too, which makes me very happy. I would love to write more novellas or short stories in the series, but honestly, it may be a while before I can. Those are really just-for-fun extras, for me - I love writing them, but I could never make a living from them, and of course as a professional writer, I really do need to focus on books that I can sell! My first adult historical fantasy novel, Masks and Shadows, will be coming out next year from Pyr Books in America, and I'm working now on a new MG fantasy novel (my dragons-and-chocolate novel!) which I'm hoping to sell soon. Please wish me luck!

Of course! Very best of luck, and I for one look forward to reading it. And now - I need to go and download Courting Magic!

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy for children as C.J. Busby. Her latest book is The Amber Crown.

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