Earlier this week, the Epic Reads tour for Winter 2020 stopped at my local indie bookstore (shoutout to Anderson’s Bookshop!). Having attended a stop on their tour last spring–and loving it–I naturally had to check this one out as well.
What ensued was a lively and highly informative discussion between three YA authors: Evelyn Skye, Elana K. Arnold, and Mindy McGinnis. All three were insightful and authentic, each one brought a unique personality to the conversation, and all three ended up convincing me to purchase one of their books in the end. (My wallet is crying, but my heart is happy. Expect a book haul post sometime soon!)
I took some hasty and frantic notes throughout the entire thing; I’ve attempted to cobble them together here into a comprehensive description of the event. Here’s what went down:
Note: While I did my best to take accurate notes, I fully acknowledge that I may have some mis-quotes or errors in this post. All such errors are wholly my own fault, and I apologize in advance for any you might come across!
The Authors and Their Books
Evelyn Skye (Cloak of Shadows)
If I had to choose two words to describe Evelyn, they would be “sweet” and “enthusiastic.” Everything about her came off as excited about all of her stories and genuinely friendly. Seriously, she carries a copy of her first book to all the events she does and has every single person she meets–everyone she signs a book for–sign her book as well. That’s the kind of person she is.
– Her most recent work is the second book in a series involving ninjas, people who turn into animals, and a lot about relationships–she described it as “a story about friendship, at its heart,” focusing on all types of love (familial, platonic, and romantic) and what happens when you break those bonds.
– She is a pantser in the truest sense of the word: she barely plans and often only starts with a kernel of an idea. The concept for the first book in this series, Circle of Shadows, literally started out with her thinking, “This book is going to be purple.” She had a vividly imagined, dreamy sort of fable with lots of mist and a woman and a baby…and, though lots of revisions happened, she was very pleasantly surprised when the cover design ended up being purple, without any input from her!
– Those revisions have nothing on her first book, which took literally 12 rounds of major, substantial revisions and rewrites. Or her most recent book, the sequel to Circle of Shadows, which she wrote, then was told that it was a good book but “the wrong sequel,” and had to completely throw out and start from scratch.
– While we are on the topic of dedication: prior to her first book’s publication, she wrote EIGHT whole books that weren’t published and was about to quit. She wanted to give up, but a friend of hers (who was also an author) told her she couldn’t quit. So she agreed to write one more book…and spite-wrote a crazy book about all the things she likes, like Russian history and pastries and other random components that shouldn’t work together…but that did the trick; that spite-story became The Crown’s Game.
– So, speaking of The Crown’s Game, that book was inspired by her degree in Russian literature. She got hooked on Russian Lit when she read The Brothers Karamazov in high school. In college, the Russian teachers were cool, so she wanted to major in it. Her dad told her she shouldn’t do it because “she would starve to death,” but her mom just said, “Evelyn will find a way.” Upon her graduation, though, her only job offer was from the CIA (which sounds cool, except it was basically just a desk job translating Russian newspapers), so she went to law school. After a few years as a lawyer, she decided she didn’t like that, either, and went on to her writing career. So, her mom was right: Evelyn did find a way.
– She considers herself to be someone who writes “fantasy for people who don’t really read fantasy.” Her goal is to create fantasy stories that you can unwind with at the end of the day, without the heavy complex politics that fill a lot of fantasy books.
– Evelyn cares about historical accuracy. A lot. She was upset the first time she saw the cover design for her first book, because that the design of the crown on it was based on a building that didn’t exist at the time period her book was set in. She wrote to the designers to ask about it, and they tried some alternatives with buildings that did exist then, but none of them really worked (she described one of them as looking like a “Russian tax collector’s office”). Finally, she agreed they could use the original design, and she wrote an author’s note about the anachronism.
– While many authors root their characters in their own personality, some of her characters are more aspirational than reflective of herself–the girl she wants to be, not the girl she is. That’s why she has some total badass characters: because she wants to be that person.
Elana K. Arnold (Red Hood)
What struck me most about Elana was how powerful and insightful so many of her comments were, while still remaining down-to-earth. Her books are all rooted in some pretty deep, dark places, including trauma and anger (more on that later), but she spoke with a mix of excellent metaphors and straight-up bluntness, which ended up being highly effective. Also, lots of commentary on rape, shame, feminism, and periods. Lots and lots of periods.
– Some fun-but-weird background for her book: In November, three and a half years ago, she and her family were in Yosemite, outside on an ice rink surrounded by trees. While ice skating under the full moon, and having just gotten her period, she suddenly realized that werewolves and periods both cycle with the moon. She had an idea, then, that there should be a girl who hunts werewolves on the full moon. That concept became Red Hood.
– When she first looked up that idea–certain that someone else had already come up with it–she couldn’t find anything like it. She did see stories of women who became werewolves on their periods (read: the woman becomes a monster…and you thought PMS was bad!), but not women who hunted them.
– Another thing she found in her research was, no matter how far back you went in time, when there was a man accused of being a werewolf, there was always a witch blamed for it. This, she pointed out, was a fairly obvious parallel to/metaphor for rape culture.
– People told her when she was younger–I kid you not–that she couldn’t go in a stallion’s stable while menstruating because the stallion would be driven wild and mount her and break her neck. Again, I present to you…the patriarchy.
– In general, when writing, she doesn’t plot that much and will figure things out as she goes, but since the menstrual cycle is such a big part of her book and its plot, she had to be a lot stricter in pacing to match that 28-day pattern. And to find ways to fill the weeks between each action-packed period section.
– As one would expect, the story was inspired by Red Riding Hood stories. In particular, though, there was one version of it where Red Riding Hood woke up and found herself in bed with the wolf. She told him she had to go to the bathroom, hoping it would allow her to escape, and he told her to just go right there. So she specified that she needed to poop, at which point he told her she could go out to the woods. Which she did and, of course, used as her excuse to run away. Again, there is this theme of men being disgusted by certain aspects of women’s bodily functions and of women weaponizing that shame to get what they need.
– She noted that, in fairytales, the survivors are often beautiful, lucky, and clever. And it is unfortunate, but that holds true even in modern history–her Jewish grandparents survived the Holocaust largely because they were “beautiful,” which in that context meant Aryan-passing.
– All of her characters are based in some way on herself. And, she claims, usually the worst parts of herself.
– Her biggest piece of advice for writers was that every book has one thing in common: an ending. You can’t revise until you reach the end. If you revise the first 30 pages obsessively but never go on to anything else, then you run the risk of getting to the end of the book and realizing that you don’t even need those 30 pages anymore. And if you revised them obsessively only to have to eventually cut them later, basically, “you’re just petting a dead cat. You’re picking fleas off a corpse.” The metaphor is grim but painfully fitting (and Mindy wants it on a poster).
– On a similar note: never save things for the hypothetical next book! For one thing, you could die before you get a chance to write it, and then it will never get used. But also, you simply can’t do what’s next until you finish what you already have.
– One of her upcoming projects is a middle-grade book entitled The House That Wasn’t There, “a gently magical exploration of the spaces between us.” It features, among other things, teleporting kittens and a taxidermied opossum named Mort. (You better believe I will be ALL OVER this one when it comes out.)
Mindy McGinnis (Be Not Far From Me)
Mindy was quirky, with a dark sense of humor and plenty of sarcasm alongside a genuinely interesting personality. I thought I would start out her section with a couple of her most notable quotes from the evening:
- “One of the first questions I get is always, Have you ever killed someone. We’re not gonna answer that.”
- “What’s it like in my head? Basically it’s the Beetlejuice soundtrack.”
- “If I text you and you don’t answer in 15 minutes, in my book, you are dead!”
- “I majored in English Literature and Philosophy of Religion, so I’m really good at explaining episodes of LOST.”
- “My grandfather told me to never go into the garden while I was menstruating because the pickles would wilt. I thought that was hilarious.”
- “They’d tell me, ‘Mindy, you’re so smart.’ Yep, that’s why I’m working at Walmart.”
– The entire story of Be Not Far From Me is a girl trying to survive after getting lost in the woods. She doesn’t even have her socks or shoes, because when she got lost, she had taken them off so that she could pee in the woods. She is literally by herself with nothing but the clothes on her back.
– The concept for the book was inspired by a time about 3 years ago when she almost got lost in the forest with her then-boyfriend. They went down a trail, and there was a spur they could do, but there were no indications as to how long it would be. It was getting dark, so she objected at first, but she ultimately agreed because she “was supposed to work on ‘being nicer.’” Long story short, it got dark and scary and they made it out but was terrifying. The first thing the guy said, to his credit, was “I’m sorry.” Mindy’s response was, “It’s okay, because I got an idea for a book!” Anyway, now he is just another ex, but it’s still a good story.
– A lot of the survivalist aspects in the book are made up from her own personal experience. Having grown up in rural Ohio, where knowing how to survive in the woods was important, this is the most personal of all the books she has written.
– Like many authors, her friends will say they see her in certain characters she writes–usually protagonists–but she wants people to remember that she is also the bad guy! (Personally, I was surprised nobody turned this into a Billie Eilish reference…)
– Like Evelyn and Elana, she isn’t a huge plotter; her endings often surprise her. Sometimes, as she is writing, all she can think is, “This sucks,” but it works out in the end.
– Mindy was a librarian for 14 years and had written 5 unpublished books before she got picked up by Katherine Tegan Books.
– Speaking of things that suck: the first draft of one of her books, The Female of the Species, was written when she was just 19, and it was bad. 14 years later, her publisher asked her for an idea for her next book, and she suggested that premise, thinking it would be easy to just use her old draft. The idea sold…but when she went back and read the original, she realized she needed to trash and rewrite the whole thing anyway. She kindly requests that that draft be destroyed after her death and not placed in a museum or anything, because it is just awful.
– Here’s a fun story: she was at a conference when she got the email with the cover for her first book...and she didn’t like it, because she knew based on her library experience that teens wouldn’t read it. She replied to her editor with a 10-bullet-point list of all the cover trends and different things that should be considered for this book. The thing is, her editor was out of town…and so the email went straight to Katherine Tegan herself. Lucky for Mindy, Katherine’s response was actually, “You’re right,” and she went and talked with marketing about it. Since then, Mindy now gets to see ALL of the mock-ups for her book covers and choose the one she likes best, which is pretty uncommon for most authors.
While I highlighted most of their answers to audience questions above, a couple of them make more sense side-by-side than as individual narratives. Here are their responses to a few of the questions…
Evelyn – a Japanese story about a boy who is born out of a peach! She used to listen to a cassette tape as a kid that sang a song about this boy.
Elana – either The Little Mermaid (specifically the version where she turns into seafoam at the end) or the Italian version of The Sun and the Moon (which is actually a really messed up, Sleeping Beauty-esque story that involves a lot of rape and ends with the girl marrying her rapist, with the moral of “good things come to those who wait”)
Mindy – The Bremen Town Musicians, a story about a bunch of animals whose owners want to get rid of them, so they head out to some random town where they want to become musicians. Along the way, they stop at an abandoned house, fight off some thieves, and end up just living in this house together. And they never go to Bremen Town to be musicians. (Sad? Kind of. It’s a German story, man.)
Coolest thing you learned during your research?
Evelyn – maybe not a fun fact or anything, but food was a really fun part. Eating the food you’re going to write about is part of your research, too!
Elana – though she got to research wolves, covens, and many variations on “Red Hood” stories, one of her favorite fun facts was that women don’t actually sync up their menstrual cycles when they live close together. Totally a myth. If anything, they’re more likely to diverge and shift out of sync, because there is an evolutionary advantage to always having at least one female who is not bleeding/is able to reproduce.
Mindy – look, Mindy looks up a lot of weird stuff. She gets targeted ads for bizarre BDSM masks and other very odd things as a result of her sketchy search history. But in terms of an actual story, there’s this device-apparatus-thing she came up with in the sequel to Not a Drop to Drink (she wouldn’t describe it in details for us because ~spoilers~). She tried to Google the concept to see if it would work but didn’t find anything. So she called a friend who is a doctor to ask her–and she got confirmation that, yes, this device is messed-up but scientifically feasible.
You’ve all written quite a few books. What’s changed about your writing process?
Evelyn – she has finally found that she doesn’t really get writer’s block anymore. Instead, she treats it like a job you just show up for even when it is hard, knowing that it is fine to write lots and lots of crap because at least you are writing something, and you will have to edit it eventually anyway! The goal is for her to show up consistently…but still on her own terms; she is now able to forgive herself if she has to take a break when she feels burned out. More interestingly, she feels like she has developed a sense for whether or not something is good, which makes her a lot better at self-editing and deciding which ideas are worth running with.
Elana – First, over time it has gotten easier to know that, no matter how stuck she might feel in her writing, she WILL solve the problem of each book as she writes it. On a bigger note, she said that she can now see what she is working with. She gave the example of how, when you live in a place with a lot of clay, you’ll get a lot of potters, or when you live in a place with a lot of sand, you’ll get a lot of glassblowers. People work with the material they are surrounded with. And, in her words, “I live in a place with a lot of trauma, fear, embodied female shame…that is a lot of the material for my YA.” But, while her first few books were about embodied female shame, she had another realization, which informed her much-angrier recent works: “When you drink the whole well of shame, it refills with crystalline rage. The inversion of shame is anger.”
Mindy – with no formal background or degree in writing–she says that she learned to write by reading–Mindy has a sort of imposter syndrome these days. When she sits down to write, she now finds herself worrying: “What if I can’t this time? What if whatever magical thing let me write my first couple books is gone now and won’t come back?” (Of course, she needn’t worry, because clearly she is great at what she does, but that’s just how imposter syndrome works, y’all.) Also, she is less caught up in the non-essential parts of writing, like her social media accounts. She knows what is important for her writing and what isn’t, and said that the rest will just slough off.
Got any cool stories about the cover for your most recent book?
Evelyn – The artist was chosen because he was known for being good at doing monochrome landscapes, an effect which worked really well for these covers. She did have to have a conversation, though, about the fact that she did not want any characters’ faces to appear on covers because she wants her readers to be able to imagine them.
Elana – At first, she wanted the cover of Red Hood to be a girl running through the woods at night, with blood running down her bare leg. In her mind, it would be cool because it would look like she had been attacked, but then when you started reading you would realize it was actually menstrual blood. Well…her cover designers ended up changing that, but they did leave blood as part of the design. She still likes to think that she has the first book with menstrual blood on the cover.
Mindy – The book is a Rorschach print and literally has a skull hidden in it. How cool is that??
How do you feel about deadlines?
Evelyn – she likes to be known as the sort of person who meets deadlines consistently, even though she doesn’t like them.
Elana – Similar to Evelyn, she feels a need for the validation that comes with reliably meeting deadlines, but she doesn’t like them much either. As she put it, “They don’t call it a funline. It’s a deadline.”
Mindy – she knows she can write fast and is prone to procrastination, and her editor does, too. He checks up on her pretty regularly, as a result, to make sure she’s still making progress.
I would like to end with this line from Elana, for all the readers, writers, and aspiring authors out there:
“You are already a storyteller…You are a human, and you are full of stories.”
That’s all for now!
Have you read any of these authors’ books? Met any of them before? Planning on checking any of them out soon now? Let me know in the comments!
Until next time,