Friday, December 5, 2008

Meet Elise Broach, author of Masterpiece

Not long ago I read and reviewed Masterpiece by Elise Broach. It is a terrific book for young readers and you can read my review here. I was so impressed by the book that I decided that I wanted to talk to the author. Here is an interview that I had with her:

1. How did you get the idea for Masterpiece?
I actually started Masterpiece in the 1980s, when I was a graduate student in the history Ph.D. program at Yale, living in an apartment in New Haven. Late at night, I accidentally dropped one of my contact lenses down the bathroom sink. I spent over an hour trying to fish it out, and I kept fantasizing about how great it would be to have some tiny creature capable of going down the drain and retrieving it for me. I finally found the contact, and then, after midnight, sat down at my desk and wrote the first three chapters of the story. I didn't return to it for over twenty years!

2. In Masterpiece one of the main characters is a beetle. Why did you choose this particular animal?
I like beetles. There are so many different kinds. They're small and fairly harmless, you see them everywhere, and they don't have the scary associations of insects that sting or bite. Plus, they're exremely resourceful and hardy, and they can live inside houses without being part of an infestation. Really, a beetle was the perfect insect for the purposes of the story!

3. Do you have an interest in/fondness for art?
I've always been interested in art. When I was little, I loved to draw and paint. In college, I took lots of art history classes. Now, as an adult, one of my favorite things to do is visiting art museums with my family or friends.

4. Is Durer one of your favorite artists, and if not why did you pick his work to be at the center of Masterpiece?
I knew Durer's work from my art history classes, but he wasn't one of my favorite artists until I spent so much time thinking about him while writing Masterpiece. For the plot to work, I needed an artist whose drawings were almost magically detailed and tiny, so delicate they could plausibly have been created by a beetle. Durer was an expert at pen-and-ink drawings, had completed several miniatures, and was renowned for the incredible level of detail in his work. In personality, he was melancholy and had quite a sad life, but was beloved by his friends and very generous to them, so he seemed a good fit for the story that way too.

5. James is a rather lonely little boy. Is his loneliness something you identify with?
I'm not sure I identify with his loneliness as much as sympathize with it. I've known so many people like James, who stand off to the side of things and never quite get the attention they deserve, who are great observers of life but not necessarily full participants in it. James is exactly the kind of child who would notice Marvin, and whose life would be most changed by a friendship with him.

6. On your website you say that you identify with Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. In what way?
Oh, I'm not sure that's very original! Anyone who has read that wonderful book probably most identifies with the character of Elizabeth. I guess apart from superficial things, like the fact that I love to read and am interested in other people's lives, I'd say that, like Elizabeth, I am pretty opinionated and independent, but never take myself too seriously.

7. Which do you prefer, writing a picture book or a novel?
They're very different experiences. A picture book is more immediately satisfying, because I can usually write the first draft in one sitting. It may take months and months of noodling to get it right, but it's very rewarding to finish a story in a few hours: to see the whole thing, complete, on paper. By contrast, a novel is a Herculean labor at some level, at least for me. There's always a point at which I wonder if I can pull it off (usually right in the middle!). But when I finish a novel, and have peopled an entire world and watched it change and deepen over time--and even surprise me--that is tremendously fulfilling.

8. Do you read a lot of children’s literature?
Yes! All the time. I love to read. It used to be my guilty pleasure, but now that I write for a living, I can convince myself it's justified.

9. Where do you write and do you have a schedule for writing?
I usually write in an alcove of my bedroom, in front of a window overlooking the woods. My desk is an old library table, with all of my favorite children's books on the shelf at my knees. But I also write in coffeeshops, libraries, while I'm waiting in the car to pick up my kids from some activity or other. When you have a busy life, you have to fit it in wherever possible. I don't have a schedule for writing, and certainly don't write every day. I tend to work very hard in spurts, and then need a lot of thinking time in between.

10. If you were to write a work of historical fiction which period in history would it be based in?
That is a very interesting question. I think it would be really hard for me to write historical fiction, even though I have a background in history... or maybe BECAUSE I have a background in history. I'd be so concerned about getting every single detail right--what wood were the floors made of then? What did people eat for breakfast and how did it vary by social class?--that I'm afraid it would be crippling to the story. But there are so many periods in history that fascinate me. I love Elizabethan England, which played such a big part in my first novel, Shakespeare's Secret.

To find out more about Elise please visit her website.

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