The following interview was conducted by Katie Zezulka, ARCC student in English 2281: A Writer’s Life, via email with author Anne Ursu. The Minnesota Writer Series brings accomplish Minnesota authors to the Cambridge campus to discuss their work and the craft of writing. Anne Ursu was selected as the 2015 visiting writer but the event was cancel due to illness.
by Katie Zezulka
Anne Ursu is the author of five middle-grade fantasies as well as two novels for adults. Her most recent book, “The Real Boy,” won the Horace Mann Upstanders Award and was on the longlist for the 2013 National Book Award. Breadcrumbs, a contemporary retelling of “The Snow Queen,” was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com, School Library Journal, Bulletin for Center of Children’s Books, and the Chicago Public Library. She is also the recipient of the 2013-2014 McKnight Fellowship in Children’s Literature.
Katie Zezulka: It seems that the first two books you wrote were aimed at an adult audience, but then you shifted to writing fantasy work for the middle grades. What caused such an abrupt switch? Is it sometimes difficult to choose words and explanations that are suitable for the audience intended and not stray onto topics too difficult?
Anne Ursu: I have always been very attached to kids’ books—I read voraciously when I was young. And I started reading them again as an adult and realized how sophisticated and fun they were, and I just sat down to try to write a kid’s fantasy just for fun. I ended up getting it published, and I realized that’s where I want to be. I don’t think about the audience at all when I write—I use whatever word is best. Kids learn words from reading books. And I’m never conscious of how difficult the topics are—if you look at kids fantasy the topics are incredibly difficult, and I think fantasy allows you to deal with really big ideas. I’ve actually found kids to be a much more open audience then adults—they haven’t decided what they like yet, and haven’t been susceptible to adult ideas of what books can and can’t do.
KZ: You seem to find inspiration in stories already told, “Breadcrumbs” was called a modern day retelling of “The Snow Queen,” and “The Real Boy” came to you while watching “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Is it concerning to write about classic tales that have been around for years? Do you ever fear that you won’t do the original story justice?
Anne Ursu: I got the idea for “Real Boy” while watching a marionette production of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” but it doesn’t have anything to do with that story. But I did use mythology in “The Shadow Thieves,” and of course “The Snow Queen” in “Breadcrumbs.” It’s not concerning at all because I’m trying to recast these stories in contemporary narratives. I don’t think about doing them justice; I think about using them to tell new stories.
KZ: You teach writing for children and young adults. As both a published author and a teacher, what do you think is the best advice you can give to someone hoping to go somewhere in this field?
Anne Ursu: Read. Read read read. Read lots and lots of current middle grade and YA. It’s really important that it’s current—narrative style has changed a lot since I was a kid.
KZ: Already being a teacher and a single mother, why was it so important for you to continue writing again after your move back to Minnesota?
Anne Ursu: I’m a writer! That’s what I do, and the only thing I know how to do. I see the teaching as part of the writing—it makes me a better writer, builds my community, exposes me to a ton of new ideas. But writing is the only thing I know how to do or want to do.
KZ: You write about how being the mother of a special needs child affected your writing, such as writing a book in which the hero struggled with the same condition as your son Dash. Have you considered writing books about other children with special needs conditions, or do you see your understanding of it as directly tied to your experiences with Dash?
Anne Ursu: I never know what I’m going to do. Right before I got the idea for “The Real Boy,” I swore I’d never write a high fantasy (a fantasy set in a completely other world) because it looked too hard. And then I did. Usually when you say you’re not going to do something, the universe smites you, and you end up doing it.
KZ: You have said that you struggled to find inspiration for a story when writing “The Real Boy.” Did you not struggle for ideas previous to that?
Anne Ursu: Oh, I always struggle. Since having a child, there is no free part of my brain anymore that can sit around and spin little tidbits into story ideas. It was fun while it lasted, but there’s no room in my brain anymore.
KZ: I’m finding that many literary journals don’t accept work from the fantasy genre. Given this, how did you get your foot in the door in the writing world?
Anne Ursu: Since I write for young readers, it’s not really a big deal. My adult books have a little element of magic in them but were mostly realistic. Still, I never wrote short stories, and so I actually started with writing novels. You absolutely can get your foot in the door just by writing books. At the same time, there are tons of magazines devoted to fantasy—you just have to look beyond the traditional literary journals. The idea of what is literary in the adult world is so constructed, and our Western conception of literary fiction is all about the cult of realism. But that’s very much a matter of our specific cultural development and who ends up making books canonical. The idea that a book that has magic in it is less serious or literary is really boring to me. This is why I like kids books better.
KZ: One of the complaints I have seen for the novel “Breadcrumbs,” is that Part 1 and Part 2 are too different in genre, pacing, and other things. How do you respond to this?
Anne Ursu: Well, no reader’s going to like every book. But I think adults have a tendency to want to categorize books in a way kids don’t. I think people are used to stories were the kid goes through the portal early on, and I wanted to spend a lot more time in Hazel’s ordinary world so we could see her need for her friend as well as the hole he left in her life. And since the book is really about Hazel figuring out how to function in the ordinary world I needed to set up a lot. But the parts are supposed to feel disjointed—that’s part of the point. My hope is that Hazel’s journey (emotional and actual) provides structure for the book.