MWS: Shannon Hale

Shannon Hale is a Newbery Honor-winning, New York Times bestseller-listed author of youth and fantasy fiction, most particularly Goose Girl and Princess Academy. This week sees the release of her latest novel Austenland, her first adult fiction novel. She is a returned missionary and lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and two under-three-years-old children.

[Interview questions by Melissa Fox]

How does your religion affect how you are perceived as a writer? Do people in the industry think of you as a “Mormon writer”?

Not really. I don’t think many people know what Mormons are or what to think about it. Sometimes people are just plain rude about it, but that’s rare. For the most part, I don’t think readers think two things about it.

Do you consider yourself a Mormon writer?

Not really. I’m a writer, and I’m LDS, and I’m a mom. I feel like lots of things. I don’t feel like my religion dictates who I am or what I write.

Have you ever been pressured to do something/write something that’s against your standards? How did you deal with it?

Never. I’ve never been pressured to write anything at all, from either my publisher or from my church. I’m in the wonderful position to get to write what I want.

For a contemporary adult romance, I was surprised to find that there was no sex and very little swearing in Austenland. Why did you decide to keep the book so clean?

Bloomsbury [the publisher of Austenland] was never concerned about lack of sex or gratuitous language. I don’t know if other publishers would have been. I didn’t think the story needed it. There’s no sex in [Jane] Austen novels, and I wanted to feel transplanted [to that world]. And it’s more of a challenge, more rewarding to make something sexy without sex. Besides, I find it belittling to readers. I think smart readers want a story, first and foremost. Swearing is often a cop-out, too. The challenge is finding a better word. In one scene, I originally had the main character spray paint the word “asshole” on the car of a guy who’d been a real jerk. In a later draft, I changed that to “she-male.” I think you’ll agree, the latter was a much better choice.

Do you write about supernatural as a metaphor for divine (like C.S. Lewis), or are you just trying to make a good story? You also seem avoid any mention of a higher power (besides the earth in general). Is this because you are trying to appeal to a wider audience or because you are pressured by publishers, or some other reason?

I would argue that C.S. Lewis didn’t write about supernatural as a metaphor for divine. He wrote stories, and what he believed naturally came through those stories. I don’t think he intended to write allegory. I don’t know that allegory ever works as a good form of storytelling. I try to find what a story needs, and in the Bayern books I really felt that adding awareness of a higher power or organized religion would detract from the story and not add. There was no reason for religion in Austenland. There’s mention of a creator god and priests in Princess Academy. The main character in my new novel Book of a Thousand Days is very religious. I’m currently writing a contemporary book for adults with an LDS main character. It all depends on the story.

It seems to me that the LDS authors who aren’t writing for the Deseret Book/explicitly LDS crowd seem to gravitate towards science fiction/fantasy. Why do you think that is? What draws you to the genre?

I’ve often thought about this and I think there must be many reasons. One reason might be that fantasy and fairy tales universalize stories. Anyone is welcome in fantasy land.

What advice would you give LDS authors writing for the national market, or what do you wish you had known when you were just starting out?

Hmm. I don’t know that the advice would be any different than for any other writer. I think it helps to know what you believe and be genuine in all you do. Stories forced to carry messages get heavy and die. Just find the best story for your storyteller self, tell it the truest way possible, and the reader will get what he or she needs out of it.

Do you read much LDS fiction? If not, why not? if so, do you have any particular favorites?

I’m a slow reader and have thousands of books waiting for me! It’s wonderful and frustrating. I don’t read much fiction geared specifically toward an LDS market, though I’ve read many books by other LDS authors. There are so many talented writers out there, especially in the children and young adult literature. I’d name names, but I’m afraid I’d forget someone important!

Where do the unexplored countries lie, as far as LDS writing and writers? What could we be doing better, as a people?

I’m not prescriptive generally, I don’t think I can answer that. As an individual, I hope to be aware of other people, to listen to the Spirit, to be a good mom.

Most of your books have female protagonists (except River Secrets, but even in that there are strong female characters). Do you consciously try to write stories with strong woman/girl characters? Why or why not?

I hope I don’t cause offense when I say that I find that question so strange. I’ve been asked that question many times, but I’ve never been asked “do you consciously try to write strong male characters?” It makes me wonder how this world views girls and women­much differently than I do, I guess. I only seek to write realistic characters, both male and female.

How do you juggle the demands of being a mother with the demands of being a writer?

Good one! That made me laugh. Oh…you were serious? I guess the best answer would be: my house is messy. Really, I try to put my kids and husband first and hope and pray that everything else works out.

Have you ever felt any disapproval from within the LDS community with your choice to become a full-time writer?

Never. Only immense support and admiration. It takes my breath away. Such wonderful people, such kindness! Though honestly, I can’t claim to be a full-time writer. I’m a full time mama and I write on the side.

10 comments for “MWS: Shannon Hale

  1. Ugly Mahana
    May 28, 2007 at 9:03 am

    Thank you for posting this interview. It is interesting that in both this interview and the previous interview done in this series that the authors were quite obviously not self-conscious about either their writing or their mormonism. This is especially clear here, where Sis. Hale disclaims any attempt to write about explicity mormon themes. Instead, she says that she writes and, inasmuch as religion forms part of her identity, it comes out in her work. I tend to think that this is how any Great Mormon Author would develop. Great Mormon Fiction will be great because the author will apply the tools of the trade, not because of mormon themes only.

  2. jjohnsen
    May 28, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Great interview, thank you.

  3. Rose Green
    May 28, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    Yes, Mahana!

  4. Pam W.
    May 28, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    I’ve been looking forward to reading “Austenland” — I had no idea the author was LDS! I tend not to read much Mormon fiction per se. (I prefer Austen, of course.) So I’d say Shannon Hale is serving her audience well not by going after the LDS market but by writing good fiction.

    Thanks for the interview! And I agree with Mahana.

  5. Anita Wells
    May 29, 2007 at 12:01 am

    I don’t know if Shannon will look at this, but our family loves your books! My 8 and 10 year old daughters introduced us to Goosegirl first of all, and my husband and I have now read all of the others with the kids. Thank you for adding such wonderful literature to the world! My daughter is currently rereading Princess Academy for the umpteenth time. You have lots of fans out there!

  6. Jonathan Green
    May 30, 2007 at 6:47 am

    I understand that Shannon Hale is traveling at the moment, but if she were to check in on the conversation at some point, I wish she’d revisit the question about what advice she might have for authors. “Tell the story in the truest way possible” is a bit vague, and nine times out of ten will lead to a steaming pile of prose that no one besides the author would ever want to read. I’d like to hear how she went from writing that was true to the story, to writing that was true to the story and attractive to publishers and readers.

  7. Emily M.
    May 30, 2007 at 11:22 am

    The thing that most impresses me about Shannon, as I’ve read her website, is her amazing work ethic. She’s great at sticking to a daily writing quota, and she has the humility to keep revising till the words are just right. Many beginning writers lack both a work ethic and the humility to seek and apply good feedback (I speak as a novice writer who is just learning these things.). I agree that her advice to “tell the story in the truest way possible” is vague. Just reading about how she works, though, I suspect she might say something like: “write a draft. Get solid feedback. Rewrite the draft. Get more feedback. Rewrite it again.” and so forth. She talks on her site about how she was “the worst writer in her grad school classes.” That may be, though I doubt it. But she is the one with the work ethic, and it’s taken her far.

  8. May 30, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    “She’s great at sticking to a daily writing quota, and she has the humility to keep revising till the words are just right.”

    This is probably the single most common characteristic I have found across a huge breadth of writers–genre, literary fiction, biography, anything. Too many people–myself included–waste time rather than writing, waiting for the right moment, the moment of inspiration, reading another book or starting some other project as we wonder when the hook or argument or insight that will make the whole thing clear to us will magically descend from on high. As anyone who has written a dissertation or book or substantial article or anything will tell, that’s balderdash, or at least so extremely rare as to be practically balderdash. Writing, 99.99% of the time, is work. You sit down, and you write, and you write, and you write, until you have your pages or words for the day. If inspiration pushes you further, fantastic; go with it. But if inspiratation doesn’t come, keep plodding anyway: push through to the end. Then do it again tomorrow. And if you’ve reached the end of the book/article/dissertation/whatever, then start with the rewriting. For all but the crazy geniuses among us, that’s the only way to get something down on paper that someone else might actually find worth their time to read.

  9. June 1, 2007 at 8:32 am

    For those who are interested, a much more extensive interview with Shannon Hale, also conducted by my wife Melissa, is now online at Estella’s Revenge here.

  10. June 1, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Where can I sign up for the crazy genius thing?

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