Emily Whitman used to dream of a time travel camp to the past. Now she travels to different worlds as the author of YA novels. Thanks to her journeys, she knows how to greet a Greek god, share her trencher at a medieval banquet, and launch a peregrine falcon into the wind. Emily’s debut novel, Radiant Darkness, was praised for its “originality and flair” by BCCB and was a #1 IndieBound Pick. Her new novel, Wildwing, is a time-travel tale of romance, mistaken identity, and the wisdom of following your heart.
A native of Boulder, Colorado, Emily attended Harvard and U.C. Berkeley. She has taught at the Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference, written for educational publishers, worked in library reference, and faced a room of sixty for toddler storytime. Her passions include cooking, travel, ancient stones and libraries. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.
She will be teaching Private Lies on Friday and Paring it Down to the Truth on Saturday.
Q: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
A: That’s two different questions, so I’ll answer both. I first considered myself a writer the moment I could write. I was particularly proud of the fact that my poems rhymed and scanned; for a long time I felt this was more important than what they said. I won my high school creative writing award—I’ll never know if it was for my heart-wrenching sonnet cycle on breaking up with my boyfriend, or my pseudo-Broadway musical score featuring that timeless rhyme, “Every hen can keep her rooster hot, but my heart don’t need no booster shot.”
I first considered myself a writer who might actually get work out in the world about seven years ago. I’d left creative writing behind for a long stretch (academics, raising kids, working in libraries) and was dipping my toe back in the water. I took a class on writing personal memoir, joined a group of poets, and then started writing passages for educational publishers. That led to trying my hand at writing a novel, something I’d never expected to do.
Q: I realize that you write professionally, but have you always wanted to write fiction? What about the young adult audience and fantasy appeals to you?
A: I went to my first writing conference thinking I’d write picture books or early readers (I was leading library storytimes at that point, so I knew the audience). Writing conferences can be transformative! This one led me to realize that the story that really interested me was the Greek myth of Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess. In the myth she’s kidnapped by the lord of the underworld and forced to be his bride. I wondered what the story would look like if she were a strong young woman who fell in love and chose to run off to the underworld. That was a long way from a picture book! To tell the story that excited me, I had to start figuring out how to write a novel.
Why write for teens? Emotional honesty and intensity. High stakes—decisions really matter at that time in your life, and your protagonist’s decisions fuel your plot. There isn’t much extraneous material; even more than in most genres, every word needs to count. I could go on and on. It’s an exciting place to be writing right now, with great authors, vivid characters and passionate readers.
A: Time travel let my heroine, Addy, completely reinvent herself. She goes from being a bastard maid, excluded and scorned, to being mistaken for the girl arriving to marry the lord of the castle. How does that change who she is inside, as well as outside? Can she scramble to learn enough about this foreign world to convince everyone she belongs? (I loved Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival for that sense of complete displacement.) Addy can finally see her place and options in her own time from a radically different perspective. I love the sudden shift, the displacement, both as a way to see what my character does and as a story element.
Q: Why did you choose a Greek myth (Persephone and Demeter) as the basis for Radiant Darkness?
A: I wanted to write about the time when a girl is on the cusp of becoming a woman, when she’s breaking away from seeing herself as a child. There are all these complicated dynamics going on at once—relationships with friends, with the one you love, with your parents. That made me think of Persephone, the archetypal girl leaving childhood and her mother behind. Myths stay alive for thousands of years for a reason. There’s something fundamental and true at their heart. It’s slightly different for each of us, so we tell the story in our own way, but there’s a common core that gives it power.
What is your best tip for writers on how to build an alternate universe?
A: Use specific sense details to make it real, so your reader is seeing-smelling-touching-hearing-tasting it, falling so deep into the world you’ve created, it’s a jolt to look up from the page and leave it behind. That means the world you create needs to be consistent, so you’re never thrown out of the story-world by your conscious mind telling you something isn’t right.
Q: What is the hardest part of writing for you and how do you get past it?
A: Commitment! As in, committing myself to what kind of story this is going to be. I have a tendency to start something from many different angles. The trick for me is recognizing when the voice on the page is the right one, the alive one, and then just keep going with it. I’m really helped by deadlines, even if it’s just preparing five pages for a critique.
Q: What were your feelings when your first novel was accepted/when you first saw the cover?
A: The most fun was letting family and friends know. I remember a real shift in how I felt when I said, “I’m a writer.” Before, I’d felt tentative with the words, like I didn’t quite deserve the title; now it came much more easily. Looking back, though, I think I got similar boosts at many steps along this road: when I went to a conference with my first fifteen pages of the book and got positive feedback; when I decided to write a complete draft by the time that conference came the next year; when I had a critique with an editor who said he’d like to read more; when we both committed to the editing/revising process; when I held the book in my hand.
Q: What is your best advice for writers in 8 words or less.
A: Share writing with those who energize your work.
Q: What do you do when you’re not writing?
A: Simultaneously admire and curse the cat for batting the mouse off the computer desk yet again. Walk down the hill for an espresso. Check in with my kids at college, my parents in Boulder, my sisters, my friends. Eat incredible bread from Little T or Ken’s. Spend altogether too much time on crosswords. Dream of places to travel when time and funds find themselves in happy alignment. Avoid housework.
Q: What books are on your nightstand?
A: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Zombies vs. Unicorns. Saturday and Sunday NY Times Crosswords. The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing by Gigi Rosenberg. Entwined by Heather Dixon.
Q: What project are you working on next?
A: I tend to be a little secretive about my writing until it’s got a really firm root, so I’m going to respectfully decline to answer this at the moment. But stay tuned!