It was my pleasure to interview Marisa Noelle, author of The Shadow Keepers and the upcoming series, The Unadjusteds. Both are Young Adult SF/F. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I do.
~ The Haunted Wordsmith
What is one book that you would recommend be on everyone’s reading list?
Argh! Always such a mean question! How can I choose just one?
Big breath…going in, I think what stands out for me is Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy. (Look, I got three in there!) It’s an upper middle grade novel, but when I picked it up as an adult I didn’t know that! It sweeps you away to magical places so effortlessly and I enjoyed it so much I forgot to analyse the writing. It’s one of those books that can appeal to all ages.
With a background in psychology and an interest in horror and thriller movies, what led you to write for children and young adults?
I have always adored horror books and movies (Not the slasher kind, more of the spooky, spine-tinglers). The odds always seemed so remote for the hero to survive, and yet they do (in most cases). So I think I was drawn to the idea of good triumphing over evil even when winning looks unlikely. Of course, in recent times, many movies are now left on cliff hangers or don’t have happy endings, which I find equally compelling. Secondly, the psychology of the criminal mind has always fascinated me. What makes a person decide to commit a crime (whatever that may be)? I first explored this in horror movies and then in a psychology degree. I’ll never forget learning about the concept of bystander non-intervention; there have been several cases of victims murdered with a vast audience and no one calls the police. It flabbergasted me that this could happen and I wanted to know why. (I do – but that’s a long explanation!).
So of course it follows that these areas which have engrossed me will be the subject for my novels. I love to delve into the deep and dark.
As for writing for young adults, there is only one very simple answer – I merely listen to the voice inside. I think, when I first became fascinated by the criminal mind, I was a teenager, so it’s that voice that now shapes my stories.
Inquiring minds want to know–You state that you love Ben & Jerry’s ice cream; what is your favorite flavor?
Haha! There are three and I can’t possible choose: Peanutbutter cup, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough & Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Obviously!
What is the best part about being a writing mentor?
The best part about being a mentor is watching my mentees grow. When they improve their writing under my direction and I see all the hard work they’ve put in to progressing, it’s the same as feeling like a proud parent. When they go on to shortlist in competitions or gain agents and publications, you feel that you hand a hand in their journey, that you helped them negotiate the nest, spread their wings and fly away. There is no feeling more rewarding. And even if none of that happens for them, you have made a friend for life and can cheer each other on in your journeys.
Your readers already know that you prefer to write anywhere that is quiet, but what other habits or methods helped create The Shadow Keeper?
I don’t think I have any particular methods. My writing friends tell me I write super fast, so maybe that’s my MO? In truth once I have the idea of what I want to write and have spent a couple of weeks plotting it out, I just sit down and write. I can get a first draft out in four weeks, if I’m lucky. I sue a spreadsheet to plot and develop my character bios. I always ask my characters for 5-10 life-defining memories. Whether these make it in the book doesn’t matter, but it helps me understand who my character is and what baggage they might be carrying that will affect their decisions. When I’m editing, I have a checklist (different for every novel) of the area I want to revise. This can be anything from fleshing out a secondary character to tightening a particular scene or looking for filter words.
I’m very driven, so every minute the kids are at school I am on my laptop writing, trying hard not to think about what I’ll do during the school holidays! When I’m in the zone, I often forget to eat lunch. As much as I love tea, most of the time a cup goes cold before it’s half drunk!
There are several sensitive subjects in The Shadow Keepers. Were you every cautioned not to have her mental health play such a key role?
I was never cautioned to reduce the role of mental health in The Shadow Keepers. It is a key component and one that I tend to explore often. I think that young people need to see themselves reflected in books more accurately, whether it’s a mental health condition, a skin colour, a learning difficulty or their gender identity or sexual orientation. And it’s important for the book to not be ABOUT the issue, but to include the issue. I’ve had an anxiety disorder and OCD for the last 20 years, so I feel very comfortable exploring these areas in my novels.
What drew you to create The Shadow Keepers and your upcoming trilogy, The Unadjusteds?
For The Shadow Keepers, the site of Brookwood hospital is ten minutes from where I live. It has since been turned into luxury apartments but there are rumours that the building is haunted by the old residents of the hospital. The idea of that fascinated me so I researched the history of the hospital and thought it would be a fantastic setting for a novel. My father also worked as an orderly in a very famous mental hospital in Boston during the Vienam war and the stories he told me about how the patients were treated and what constituted therapy were appalling. I think it’s then I had the idea to set something in a mental health hospital.
For The Unadjusteds, my inspiration came from a series of things. Part of my fascination with the human mind also spilled out to the human body and I studied Biology at A-level. There was a module on genetics and I quickly became engrossed in the subject. My brother became a genetic scientist and so we’d always had interesting discussions. When Dolly the Sheep was cloned in Scotland in 1996, this furthered my interest and I began to think about the possibilities of genetic enhancement. Designer babies are already possible. I wanted to write a novel that explored the ethical boundaries. How far do you go and where do you draw that line?
How long did it take The Shadow Keepers to be accepted for publication after you completed the manuscript? One thing that many writers and aspiring writers want to know, is how many rejections did you receive before it was accepted?
The Shadow Keepers was not a novel I queried widely and so didn’t have many rejections. I pitched it during DVpit on Twitter and the rest is history.
The Unadjusteds, however, has been through many, many rejections. Although I found my first agent relatively quickly (6 months) and received around 40 rejections, it never sold on sub. We sent it to publishers twice and it was rejected by everyone. (Hunger Games killed dystopian!)
When I found my second agent (6 months again and maybe 100 rejections) we re-drafted and sent it out on sub. At the same time I pitched it during Pitmad and that’s where it was picked up.
I am agentless again at the moment and have been querying an MG novel. I have sent over 200 queries. I’ve had 150 no responses/rejections, ten full requests and the rest are still considering.
Perseverance is the name of the game!
Is there any of you in your characters?
Always! In all of them. I don’t think I could write a character without a little of me leaking in somewhere. Sometimes they are also who I want to be!
What is one piece of advice that you would give all aspiring writers?
I mentioned it before. Perseverance. If you give up, you’ll never get anywhere. The rejections hurt. And you need a tribe to share it with who can support you. So keep going, and find your support network.
The Young Adult genre is currently experiencing growing pains as darker and more mature themes filter down from Adult Fiction, what do you see in the future of YA and Middle Grade literature?
I think that the industry is realizing children don’t need so much protection from true life events, and that books can introduce difficult themes at one step remove, so that kids can be aware of certain pitfalls and subconsciously prepare. Sheltering children only sets them up for a shock later in life. But obviously, all subjects need to be treated sensitively and with the appropriate language.
The future of children’s literature is hard to predict, but I expect that we will see more horror in MG (I was always sneaking Dean Koontz and Stephen King under the bed). There is a big shift to focus on to MG at the moment, but I hope that YA will swing back around; these things usually are cyclical. I think we will also see the emerging category of ‘teen’ books engage a better presence and perhaps even the re-emergence of new adult. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be able to identify with a book, and that means we need to cater to all ages.
Meet the Author
Marisa Noelle is the writer of MG & YA SFF & mental health novels. The Shadow Keepers is due out July 2019, The Unadjusteds in November 2019 & The Mermaid Chronicles – Secrets of the Deep at the end of 2019. When she’s not writing or reading or watching movies, she enjoys swimming. In the pool she likes to imagine she could be a mermaid and become part of some of her make-believe words. In the water, she can ignore the real world and focus on the plots of new novels and scenes. She lives in Woking, UK with her husband and three children.