Today I’m thrilled to introduce Brian Farrey’s new middle grade fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse. I’m particularly excited about this story it turns the fairy tale trope on it’s head: there is no handsome prince here, and the princess is both curious and capable. I chatted with Brian about everything from what’s on his bookshelf to writing tough topics.
Don’t forget to read to the end for your chance to win a copy of Brian’s gorgeous book!
JA: Which do you prefer, writing MG or writing YA?
BF: I don’t know that I prefer one to the other. I think my approach to writing each is fairly similar. The challenge is to always write in a way that is mindful of the targeted age range—more so with Middle Grade than anything else—but doesn’t talk down to the readers. With Middle Grade, you avoid some of the….saltier word choices that are available for YA. With either, I try to focus on ideas the various age ranges can relate to. I think that’s really important: writing in a way that’s relatable.
JA: The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is told from two very different points of view–Princess Jeniah and her soon-to-be-friend, commoner Aon Greenlaw. Can you talk a little bit about the challenge of creating two such different voices in one story?
BF: This is something I was conscious of in almost every draft. I wanted both girls to be drawing from their own pools of strength but I worried that would make them sound alike. It became important to temper that strength with their insecurities. For me, that’s where the characters began to sound and behave differently. Jeniah comes from a place of fear and Aon from a place of despair. So, I really tried to focus on making their voices come through in their vulnerabilities.
JA: Can you talk about which fairytales you enjoyed as a child and which ones might have inspired you to create the world where this story takes place?
BF: I grew up with the sanitized fairytales, not the original Grimm or Perrault texts which were much more gruesome and violent. So if there were stories I liked, it was because I was probably drawn to whatever humorous elements were added to make it more palatable. As I got older and explored the origins of the fairy tales and subsequently learned how dark they could be, I felt lied to. More than anything, I think writing this book came from a desire not to emulate the fairytales I knew growing up. Maybe I was rebelling against those sanitized lies? I dunno. But it was definitely a conscious choice to not be like the sugary versions and create the world of the Monarchy.
JA: You wear more than one hat, working both as a writer and as an editor. Putting on your editor hat for a moment, what trends do you see that might be of interest to our readers?
BF: I’m the acquiring editor for Free Spirit where I primarily acquire educational books for kids and teachers. It’s a whole new world in terms of the books I’m going after but I still keep a close eye on fiction for kids (even though I don’t acquire it anymore.) I’m really happy to see some fairly deep and complex themes showing in fiction of late, both for YA and MG. There’s still plenty of escapist books out there—lighter in tone and feel—and that’s great because people are always going to need that. But I’m enjoying seeing more books that will challenge readers with their complexity and subject matter. I enjoy picking up a beach read every so often and getting lost. But it’s important that I also keep my brain properly maintained with books that invite me to see other perspectives. I’m glad the selection of these books is widening.
JA: You’ve never shied away from tough subjects in your work. Can you talk about what inspires you tackle these subjects?
BF: Most often, I tackle these kinds of subjects because I’m trying to figure out how I feel about them. I’m not out to shove my opinions down others’ throats and I try really, really hard not to tell readers that THIS is how they should feel about a certain matter (but trying isn’t always succeeding….). Every book I’ve ever written is almost like a conversation I’m having with myself where I bring up points and counterpoints on a particular idea. A character in my book reaching a certain conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a conclusion that I, personally, have reached. If you take debate in school, one of the first things they teach you is how to argue a side you don’t believe in. It’s a step toward empathy. I think that’s what all writers are working toward. The most important thing about any story is that it’s going to (hopefully) expose young readers to new ideas and viewpoints. That’s so, so important and it’s why diversity has become such an important discussion point today. I firmly believe that we, as a society, need to make a better effort at not just understanding but also empathizing with one another. I’d like to think that books are a large part of that effort.
JA: What advice would you give to aspiring middle grade authors?
BF: Write what you love. Really, that’s so important. When I work with beginning novelists, I find so many of them are writing what they think will make them bajillionaires or beloved by the masses. They’re looking at the market, pointing to books that are popular, and trying too hard to emulate that. Thing is: somebody already did that. Writers should always be trying to do something new. I think imitating other artists is a great way to get started when you’re new. It can help you grasp the basics: syntax, style, pacing, etc. But at some point, you have to be present in your own work. Figure out what you love and write that.
JA: What are you working on next?
BF: I just turned in a new book to my editor. It’s still sort of formative so I don’t want to say too much about it. I will say that it springboards off some of the ideas in Dreadwillow Carse but it isn’t a sequel. Like I said before, my books are often about me trying to figure out how I feel about certain ideas. Dreadwillow Carse raised more questions for me than I had room to answer in one book. So this next book is me exploring some of the spillover questions. But the new book is set in the real world (although there’s an element of magical realism in it.)
JA: I love magical realism! Can’t wait to see what you come up with next. What’s on your bookshelf right now?
Right now, I’m on a nostalgia tour. I’m tracking down books I read as a kid (some of which, sadly, are out of print and hard to find but yay for the internet and used books…). I’m falling in love with these books all over again. I’m reading Veronica Ganz by Marilyn Sachs, Banana Twist by Florence Parry Heide, The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs, and Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day by Clifford B. Hicks. And, as always, at some point this summer I’ll re-read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin because I re-read it every year.
BF: It would be disingenuous to call a cat Meowzebub and have him be perfectly boring. When he was a kitten, he faked his own death just so he could catch me by surprise and pounce on me. That’s pretty devilish, right? Now, he’s seventeen and not interested in pouncing but he’s no less sly.
Thanks so much for having me! This was a lot of fun.
You’re very welcome, Brian! Thanks for joining us and best of luck with The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse.
Brian Farrey is the author of the Vengekeep Prophecies series and the Stonewall Honor Book With or Without You. He knows more than he probably should about Doctor Who. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his husband and their cat, Meowzebub.
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