The Centaur's Daughter by Ellen Jensen Abbott (Marshall Cavendish, Sept 2011, for ages 12 and up)
Source: advanced reading copy from the author herself (thanks, Ellen!)
Synopsis (from the publisher and Indiebound): Abisina had found a home in Watersmeet, the community her father led until he was killed by the evil White Worm. But now, Watersmeet is as divided as the home she fled as an outcast. The land faces a new threat, and an uneasy alliance between the humans and the creatures will have to be formed to survive. If Abisina doesn't become the leader that Watersmeet needs, she may lose everything. But can she take her father's place? This powerful and moving fantasy deals with timely issues about identity, prejudice, and war. It is the sequel to Watersmeet, which was an IRA Young Adult Award Notable Book and a YALSA Teens'Top Ten nominee.
Why I liked it: I'm a big fan of Ellen's first book, Watersmeet, and this continues several years later. If you're looking for a fantasy with a strong female heroine, this is perfect. Abisina really comes into her own in this second book. She discovers something new about herself that will make you gasp. And throughout the book she struggles to control this new power. There's also more romance in this sequel.
Ellen lives right here in my home town! We met recently for breakfast at the bookstore. I'm honored to say I actually have been friends with her for a few years now. I really grilled her with these questions, though, and she was gracious about taking time out of her busy schedule (she's a high-school English teacher and a mom as well as a writer) to answer them in person. Thanks for doing this, Ellen!
When you were writing Watersmeet, did you already know you wanted to write a sequel? How about a third book? (Please tell us there's a third book!)
Yes. From the beginning, I had a story arc in mind. At first it was going to be four books, but now it's definitely a trilogy. The third book isn't titled yet, but it's been accepted and it's coming out probably in Fall 2013.
Was Watersmeet the first novel you ever wrote?
No, I wrote a book set 200 years later in that same world. At the SCBWI one-on-one conference, I met Margery Cuyler, who said, "It's not ready to be bought, but I want to see more. This feels like a sequel." I was already writing the book that became Watersmeet. I stayed in touch with Margery and when I submitted it to her two years later, she turned it over to Robin Benjamin, who became my editor.
Was it easier or harder to write The Centaur's Daughter?
In some ways it was easier. I had the world, the characters, the economy, the religion. But in a way I was also restricted by those decisions. For instance, I couldn't move a mountain range! I also created two very different communities and I sometimes wonder if the worlds are too disparate.
How much of the character of Abisina is really you?
Not much. Some of her deep psychological landscape is. The longing for home is mine. My parents split up when I was eleven. My dad was heroic to me. But he wasn't a centaur!
I can sense the influence of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in your books. Tell us a little more about that. And were there other fantasy authors you loved as a child?
I also loved A Wrinkle in Time and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books. And Lewis more than Tolkien. You should read The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller. Tolkien and Lewis were friends at Oxford and influenced each other. But Tolkien didn't like the Narnia books, partly because Narnia was polyglot. My theory is that as Americans, we are a polyglot society. We don't have just one mythology, like Norse. We have a lot of influences. I'm Western, yes, but there's no law that says I can't bring Chinese dragons into my books.
Do you have a writing group? How about beta readers?
Not a writing group, no. I do have a beta reader who's not a writer, but has a PhD in history. She's great. She's read both novels and made some good suggestions. I also have a 2K9 friend and we get together once a year for a writing retreat. In between we email each other with our goals. So it's more like a process partner than a writing partner. (At this point in the interview, Ellen stopped to write down the phrase "process partner" because she loved the sound of it. Once a writer, always a writer!)
How has being published changed your teaching life? Are your students suitably impressed?
Not really. Being edited certainly impacts my teaching. But being published hasn't changed my actual classroom moments. My students are incredibly supportive of me, but I feel I could be weaving rugs and they'd support me. I also have a supportive community of teen fans.
Tell us a little about your journey to publication with your first book, Watersmeet. Did you send out numerous queries? How long did it take you to get an agent and a book contract?
When Watersmeet was with Marshall Cavendish and the creative people all liked it and were just waiting for the marketing people to weigh in, a friend of mine told me now was the time to get an agent. I queried Ginger Knowlton (at Curtis Brown) and another agent. They both offered me representation the same day. I went with Ginger. But keep in mind, Watersmeet wasn't the first novel I wrote. With that first book, I queried 6 or 7 agents. Several asked for partials, but ultimately all of them rejected me.
What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
Read, of course! And write! Also, collect all the advice people give you and then pick what works for you. We each have our own way of doing things. All the process questions should be ways of filling your own toolbox.
Thanks, Ellen! I appreciate you taking the time to answer all of my questions. Note to anyone who lives in the Southeastern PA area: Ellen will be signing her new book at Chester County Book & Music Company tomorrow, Saturday October 15 at 2 pm! Come and meet her!
Readers, have any of you read Watersmeet or The Centaur's Daughter yet? If not, what YA fantasy novels have you read and loved recently? And do you think fantasy is still going strong?