Thursday, 11 July 2013

French Fantasy for English Readers

Its been a hectic few weeks for Armadillo and the school library which is why the blog has been so quiet ... however these hectic few weeks have been productive ... a number of interviews have taken place, events have been attended and more, so there is plenty to fill the Blog over the coming Summer months and what better way to start than with an interview from two amazing French authors whose book, Oksa Pollock, is now published here in the UK and is an epic fantasy/reality not to be missed.

Read on to find out more about the authors and their creation...

My first question is: how did you meet and what made you decide to collaborate on writing a book?
Cendrine : We met 19 years ago through mutual friends. Since then, we’ve been the world’s best friends, like sisters, always available for one another through good and bad times.
Anne : We always wanted to write, we just (!) needed an idea to actually get started. We were such friends, it was unthinkable to write alone: Oksa would not exist if Cendrine or I weren’t part of it. Also, being two makes us faster, gets us further, and makes us braver…

How does the partnership of two authors work in practice, and does it involve arguments about the story and the characters?
Cendrine : Our partnership is based on one common principle: it doesn’t matter who does what, what matters is the end result!
For a more specific answer: we’ve worked on the plot, the outline and the characters profiles together. For each scene, we discuss the approach and the sequence of events. We each contribute our ideas depending on our preferences, our feelings and our imagination. Then Anne transcribes the discussion and tells the story. Then I bring my bit – Anne writes in black, I write in red, and we trade versions, we each review, add to and improve until we agree on everything. When the text is entirely black, we continue.
Anne : The point of working as a duo is that, at times, one of us has to discuss and defend her point of view to convince the other to add her ideas to the text, which forces us to think things through, question things in a way we wouldn’t if we each worked alone. And the huge upside of all this is the merger between what we each do best (but mum’s the word, it’s a secret recipe).

Where did Oksa’s name originate?  It is lovely and suits her character really well, being very unusual.
Anne : The name comes from my Ukrainian great aunt, whose name was Oksana. I’ve never met her, I only have a very small photograph of her, where she looks very determined and her head is braided around her head. So we named our young heroine Oksa, shortening it to fit her somewhat [explosive] character. ‘Oksa’ it strikes like lightening! And we gave Dragomira Oksana’s hairdo; inspiration comes from all sorts of unexpected sources…

When the book opens, the reader has the impression that Oksa is going to be an unusual but also fairly typical teenager – spoilt and grumpy, perhaps a little indulged, too.  Are first impressions very important to you when drawing characters?
Cendrine : What we really like to do is to introduce characters in a certain light, then let the reader discover who they really are and change their first impression. It’s so easy to pass final judgement on someone at first glance, and it’s unfortunate, first impressions can be so misleading.
Anne : What we like, when building our characters, is to bring the reader beyond appearances, both good and bad first impressions. No one is ever completely who they seem and it is this unknown part in everyone, with their contradictions and their secrets, which makes each one of us so interesting. Also we show our true personality through our actions, more than anything.

Dragomira, another wonderful name suggesting mystical fantasy, sounds like a wonderful grandmother.  Is she modelled on anyone or is she indeed the type of grandmother one of you would have liked to have?
Cendrine : Like Oksa, Dragomira is a name which really exists, even though the character herself is so wonderful, she is somewhat unreal.
Anne : My grandmothers, as Cendrine’s unfortunately, had very little in common with Oksa’s. I would have loved to have a gran like Dragomira of course. I am convinced that such eccentric and delightful women do exist in certain families, lucky families that they are!

In a story like Okas’s, which straddles reality and fantasy, is it important for you to create characters who are entirely believable?
Anne : We wanted a story where magic appears in reality, and not an adventure in a totally imaginary world. In the book, the characters and the situations are realistic; this is very important for us. It allows readers to project themselves more easily into the book. The characters are credible, they are in fact like the readers, and magic is secondary. In any case, it isn’t the solution to every problem by far. People can’t do everything they want – our characters live in reality, and we use it as a constraint, it’s much more interesting!
Cendrine : Once we’ve agreed this rule, you can then accept that magic is possible, and that in everyday life you can be encounter similar situations to those faced by Oksa and her family.

I think we are meant to love Pavel, Marie and Gus and strongly dislike Dr McGraw alongside.  Is it important to clearly distinguish between characters who are ultimately good and bad?
Cendrine : Let’s say this way of presenting characters is part of the plot itself, and our idea that you should not judge everything at first sight. “Good” characters also have their bad sides, and “evil” ones may have a moving side.
Anne : The oath sworn by the Gracious says: “In everyone, there is good and evil.” Readers will discover that the characters are more complex than they seem. External events in life turns us into who we are, along with the choices we made, our conscience and our own rules.

The story is complex, with numerous threads, exciting and fast-paced.  This is great for the reader, but did it pose a challenge to you as writers to keep track of everything?
Anne : Indeed! Having so many characters, and most of them so complex, requires some serious preparation! We’ve written the bio of each character (they each have their little file) and a very detailed family tree.
Cendrine : It’s the same for the creatures and magic (Granoks and powers): we have lists for everything, so we’re organised and set up to remember everything.

Did you have the story mapped out and planned before you sat down to write?
Cendrine : Yes, that was our very first task: build the outline, set out the key steps of the adventure, build the threads of the plot in parallel to allow them to meet at the right time, pick the ideal moment to unveil key bits of information…
Anne : We need to know where we are going before we set off. When writing we manage the reader’s perception and choose where to create suspense, and where to reveal.

Did you know how the characters would develop, and what their reactions would be to the changes that they undergo? 
Anne : Even if the outline is precisely defined from the start, we have to adapt to unexpected developments, especially with characters. It’s easy to plan a story, much less so to plan the psychological evolution of the people living it. This is a much more intimate aspect, which we need to build and decide on as we go along.
Cendrine : As an example, Oksa is evolving and we have to adapt to the person she’s growing into. You don’t do the same things at 13 you do when you’re older… she remains who she is deep down, of course, and her personality doesn’t change but she’s learning from her mistakes, from her ordeals and from her developing emotions. She’s growing up, like any teenager!

Has anyone compared the story to anything else they have read? To me it is a unique combination of the classic themes of heroine, evil and saving a world, but I am not sure what the literature for young adults is like in France?
Cendrine : Oksa has been compared to Harry Potter – that was unavoidable, even if there are major differences between these two heroes. We accept the connection, there are elements which are common to all fantasy books: magical powers, unusual creatures, a struggle between good and evil, a quest, an imaginary land…
Anne : We like to think of it as cooking: everyone has the same ingredients and the same recipe, and yet everyone will get to a different result. As far as books go, the same applies. Same basics but the authors personality, sensitivity, imagination and writing style make each plot a different story.
Cendrine : In France, since Harry Potter, there has been a real vogue for fantasy books in children’s and young adult literature, including a lot of stories about vampires, impossible love and the supernatural.

I understand that this is the first book in the series. Did you plan the whole series before you began, do you have a vision, or do you wait to see where the writing of each book takes you?
Cendrine : When we built the Oksa outline, we planned the whole of the 6 books.
 Anne : We do know the plot of the story till the end but we have to adapt to the unepxected, and options which we hadn’t thought of at the beginning. The end hasn’t changed, but how we get to it has! For example, the Tugdual character was supposed to remain a secondary character, but he has such a personality, such romantic potential that it was impossible to leave him in the dark – to such an extent that when Oksa’s adventures are finished, we’re planning a trilogy about him…

Are you both full-time writers, have you always written or do you have/have you had other jobs too?
Anne : For the last two years, yes, writing has indeed become my… er… job! But I’ve had many others in the past and fairly diverse:  I did project work in China, was a nurse’s aide, a public letter writer, a librarian (my favourite).
Cendrine : We’re unbelievably lucky and are now able to live from our writing. But, like Anne, I did many other jobs before being able to dedicate all my time to books: I was a sports teacher, did social work in deprived neighbourhoods, was a librarian…

Is there a strong market for children’s fiction in France and would you like to continue writing about strong heroines after Oksa?
Anne : Yes, fantasy is enormously popular in France. Maybe people need to get out, imagine a different world in today’s society, which is so tough and so demanding?
Cendrine : We’ve started a new series called Susan Hopper¸ still fantasy but no magic, the story of an orphan who is dealing with her origins. A very different environment from Oksa’s, much more gothic and intimate. Volume 1 came out in France in March this year and we’re planning the Tugdual Chronicles for 2014, after the publication of Oksa vol 6 in France next November. 

Do you think Oksa or Gus make good role models for young teens?
Anne : With the story of Oksa and the Runaways, we were trying to show that everyone has a role to play in life. For example, Gus has no power, but he lives with very powerful people, he feels like a loser, useless. But he’s key to the story, and sometimes he shows human qualities which are much more important than any magical power. As for Oksa, we wanted to show that her mistakes, her weaknesses, her doubts were unavoidable, even when you’re a  great magician like her. What’s important is to take responsibility for the consequences of one’s decisions and build something positive out of them…
Cendrine : Then, yes, both can be role models: you have to accept who you are, keep going and try to improve, and realise that needing other people doesn’t mean you’re weak – on the contrary!

There is a lot of history in the story, as well as fast-paced action. Will a historical novel be coming next, or is it just a useful device for this story?
Cendrine : We’re having great fun adding stories within the story, and some of these are based on actual facts, which defy the imagination! It allows us to understand the characters better and helps us to empathise with them. We love to tell life-stories, and take detours in the storyline to shed some light on the characters’ personalities.
Anne : A person’s past is often very helpful for us to understand them, in literature and in real life. Some people’s lives are so eventful, so unbelievable! As for the people around Oksa, I like the idea that each of them could have their own book. None of them are really secondary…

Do you have any literary role models?
Anne : Dozens, and in very different genres (except in fantasy lit, I read very little of this genre!). I am going to be terribly unfair and only list a few (may all the others forgive me): I especially like John Irving, Barbara Pym, Robert Goolrick, Iain Levison, Tom Sharpe, Jane Austen, Alan Bennett, Kate Atkinson, Dany Laferrière… and Chuck Palahniuk (the scariest!), among so many others. All authors who managed to take me elsewhere have mattered to me.
Cendrine : I’m not as compulsive a reader as Anne, but I have huge admiration for John Fante, Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman.

Do you have favourite books or authors who have been your inspiration, and how would you advise those who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Anne : We’ve always been very open about the fact that J.K. Rowling’s venture, with its difficult start, has been a source of encouragement for us. We thought: if she can get Harry Potter to exist, maybe we can get Oksa to exist, too? Her determination was an example to us.
Cendrine : Her determination, persistence, rigour, hard work, effort. Writing a book needs this, first and foremost. As for the rest, there is always a part of luck, or of magic, in all aspects of life – meeting the right people, seizing the moment…

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and give the readers of Armadillo some insight into Oksa Pollock and your work.

Thank you very much, Louise, for these very interesting questions! Some of them were a little unexpected, but we love that kind of surprise.
See you soon, we hope, here or elsewhere
Anne & Cendrine

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