In the spirit of Halloween, today on Angelic Muse we venture into the spooky world created by author Mark Steensland, in his debut middle-grade novel, Behind the Bookcase.
To start us off, here's the short review I posted on Amazon.com:
"I received an advance reader's copy of this book from the author for my birthday, and what a great surprise! This is exactly the kind of book I loved as a kid: secret passages into other worlds, mysterious characters (who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?), a sinister setting, and a talking cat. And since I was a scaredy-cat (still am, truth be told), I love that this book is creepy without being nightmare-worthy for kids. A great read-aloud choice, at Halloween or any time!"
And Mark graciously agreed to be interviewed, and to give away a signed copy of his book to one lucky winner (see the end of this interview for how to win a copy for yourself)! But first, a little background:
Author Mark Steensland was born and raised in California. He self-published his first book while in fourth grade, and has been telling stories ever since -- some of them true. He has also written, directed, and produced numerous award-winning films that have played in festivals around the world. He currently lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, with his wife, their three children, a dog, and a cat he is fairly certain is not Balthazat.
You may also want to go check out Mark's radio interview that aired on NPR-affiliate WQLN, hosted by Kim Young. It's especially recommended for writers aspiring to publication, since his manuscript ultimately found a happy home at Random House!
Onward to our interview!
ARJ: I listened to your radio interview and I laughed when I heard you talk about overuse of the word "just" in your manuscript. That's one of my tics as well. What other kinds of things did you discover about yourself and your writing quirks?
I have a whole list of repeated words. My guess is that it stems mostly from my struggling to emphasize things and choosing the first word that comes to mind. The truth is that I probably don’t need to emphasize so much within the sentence as within the story itself. There are far better ways of making things important than word choice. Pacing and placement come to mind, for instance. But those things take time to develop.
ARJ: So true that it's easy to get caught up in small details like word choice, and lose sight of the overall picture.
What are some of your favorite kids' books, both as a kid and to read to your own children?
I was absolutely hooked on the “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” series when I was younger. I’ve been re-reading them since early this past summer and that’s been quite an experience. They are very clearly from a different time, but I still enjoyed them a lot, much more than “The Hardy Boys.” I loved the “Narnia” chronicles when I was young. I also adored “The Hobbit” and I’ve been having great fun re-reading that with my boys. Last October, we read “Something Wicked This Way Comes” together, which never ceases to amaze me.
But I’ve also really enjoyed having them tell me about good books to read. My kids read “Hatchet” and raved about it, so I read it. They were right. It is a great book. My daughter is a sophomore in high school now and she just read “To Kill A Mockingbird.” So I re-read that to be able to help her with all of her assignments around that book. It’s so much fun to think about how all these great books are available to us whenever we want and that they can still speak so clearly across so many generations.
ARJ: I love The Hatchet, and all Gary Paulsen's books. And even though I was a scaredy-kid, I also loved ghost story collections like "Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery".
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
Yes, I can. I’m very excited about it. Many people assume that I’m writing a sequel or follow-up to “Behind the Bookcase,” but that’s not planned at this stage. I suppose we’ll have to see what sort of reaction the book gets, first. But my next book, which I have already sold to my editor at Random House, is a middle-grade called “The Redemption Game.” It’s told by a man to his son about when he was a child and an adventure he had with his father. His father was once the world’s greatest magician and ran a traveling carnival of magicians. An evil magician turned the whole carnival into a deck of cards and the father went into hiding after this because he was accused of their disappearance. But then he told his son that he needed his help to find this evil magician and free his friends from the deck. So they go on a sort of road-trip.
The other element of the book that is very important is that I wanted to do something different with magic. So I’ve envisioned magic as a gift with a limited lifespan.That is, if you have the gift of magic, once you use it, it’s gone. Small or simple tricks use only a little bit of magic, but big tricks use lots of magic. And one of the things this man has been hiding from is the idea that he might not have enough magic to save his friends from this deck of cards. So they must find other magicians to help them. The book itself is designed like a deck of cards. It has 52 chapters and each chapter is another card in the deck--another part of the carnival that has been transformed.
ARJ: That sounds really cool--especially since you've spent time figuring out the visual aspect of the story. Just curious: did you reserve film rights for Behind the Bookcase, or are you content with your role as an author in this case?
I did reserve the performance rights. We went out early with the manuscript and got some interest from a few companies, but nothing firm. We’re going out again with it soon and we’ll see what happens. I think there are lots of ways to make a film out of it that could be really interesting.
ARJ: Good luck with that! In the book, you did a great job with character-building and world-building--does one come easier to you than the other?
I don’t think anything worthwhile is easy. That’s part of what makes it valuable. When I started writing “Behind the Bookcase,” I had been writing mostly screenplays for a very long time. So the early draft was very thin in terms of internal characterization. This was one of the first things the editor pointed out to me. The characters did a lot on the page, but there wasn’t much description of their internal state. That’s because you never write internal states in screenplays.
This also means that the world building part was easier in the sense that I was thinking very visually and so composing those parts of the novel were closer to what I had been doing. I had two editors on the book and both of them were very patient with me as I worked to get back in the groove of getting inside the heads of the characters. The editor with whom I am working on “The Redemption Game” really got me in the right place to approach that story so that the character elements were in the foreground from the very beginning. I’m anxious to see how she thinks I did.
ARJ: I'll be anxious to check out The Redemption Game as well! Thanks so much for giving us some insights into your book and writing process, Mark.
Now you probably all want to know how to enter to win a signed copy of Behind the Bookcase!
No hoops to jump through, no math required to tally your entries--just leave a comment below.
You must leave an email address (feel free to disguise it from bots, like emailaddy (at) gmail (dot) com), and only one entry per person please. Winner will be randomly chosen with a random-number generator. Email will be used to contact the winner only; you will not be added to any kind of list.
Entries close at midnight Pacific Standard Time on October 29th (I'll use the time stamp to determine the cutoff) and the winner will be announced on Angelic Muse on October 31, Halloween!
And yes--this giveaway is open internationally!
Good luck! And don't forget to go here for another entry!