Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Author Interview: Christopher Mannino

School of Deaths is a new YA book that sounds promising. Here's the description:

Thrust into a world of men, can a timid girl find bravery as the first female Death? 

Thirteen-year-old Suzie Sarnio always believed the Grim Reaper was a fairy tale image of a skeleton with a scythe.  Now, forced to enter the College of Deaths, she finds herself training to bring souls from the Living World to the Hereafter. 

The task is demanding enough, but as the only female in the all-male College, she quickly becomes a target.  Attacked by both classmates and strangers, Suzie is alone in a world where even her teachers want her to fail.

Caught in the middle of a plot to overthrow the World of Deaths, Suzie must uncover the reason she’s been brought there: the first female Death in a million years.

Author Christopher Mannino explains how a stranded night in Cornwall lead to this novel. 

What inspired you to tell Suzie’s story?

The idea for School of Deaths emerged when I was finishing my graduate degree at Oxford University. I spent four months abroad, far from everyone I knew. Every week, I traveled somewhere I had never been before. I would climb castle ruins in Wales and visit cathedrals in England. One of my favorite trips was to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. After misjudging the time it’d take to get there, I became stranded. The tourist office was closed, and I couldn’t find a hostel. I walked from pub to pub asking if I could sleep above their bar. 

The next morning, having slept none, since I’d found a room over a noisy pub, I crept to Barras Nose before dawn. Barras Nose is a stone peninsula, or rocky outcropping jutting into the Celtic Sea, just north of Tintagel. Tintagel itself is a small island with castle ruins on its cliffs. Some believe it to be the birthplace of King Arthur. When I reached Barras Nose, the winds howled so fiercely that I had to crawl on all fours to keep from being blown into the ocean below. Then dawn broke. No other humans were in sight. I struggled to keep my balance, but watched the sun rise on the ruins of the ancient castle, listening to the thunder of waves pounding the fifty foot cliffs I clung to. Wind battered me with ferocity, and I imagined a character being buffeted by winds, completely alone. 

I love the idea of a female Grimm Reaper—honestly, it just never occurred to me that they were always men. When the idea struck, was that a eureka moment?

In all honesty, the protagonist was originally a boy. In the earliest draft, I modeled the main character loosely after myself, using my experiences abroad as a starting point. As I wrote, I wanted to increase her isolation even more. The idea of a female Reaper trapped in a world where she was the only girl really appealed to me, and the rest of the series suddenly took a completely new direction.

You teach high school — is that what drew you to the YA genre? Did you feel like there was a story missing for these kids?

The central idea of my story is one that’s far too familiar to many of my students- that school can be a rough place, filled with bullies. I wanted to emphasize how friends and personal strength can help overcome those problems. At the same time, it’s also a fantasy tale that encourages kids to read and imagine new places. With Common Core hitting the US Education system, and many kids becoming turned off to reading, I believe we have to do all we can to bring kids back to books.

Just like me, you have a background in theater (and a full time job in it as well). How do you feel that has informed your work as a novelist? 

On my blog, a while back, I wrote the following, about how theatre can help any writer.

As a full-time theatre teacher, and stage actor for over twenty years, I’ve been fortunate enough to pursue both of my greatest passions (writing and theatre) professionally. I’d like to share some tips on how theatre can help writers.

1.   Theatre in a non-linear process
If you don't have time to write a book from start to stop, you're not alone.  Part-time writers need to be able to write their story whenever they get a chance- picking up the story wherever they left off.  My advice: become an actor in a play.  The more shows you're in, the more you'll get used to thinking non-linearly.  Even if a play takes place in chronological order, you never practice a show like that.  You'll pick up in the middle, work one scene, then start a different scene.  You need to be able to keep the chronology of a play in mind when starting in the middle.  Eventually this skill becomes second-nature, and will allow you to pick up a draft in the middle with no trouble at all. 

2. Theatre builds dialogue skills
Have trouble writing believable dialogue?  Plays and musicals are nothing BUT dialogue.  You get used to language in a new way, by not just speaking it, but practicing speaking in different ways.  This builds skill at writing and using dialogue effectively in any setting.  Trying to incorporate appropriate methods of speaking into your characters voices can be very helpful. 

3. Theatre builds confidence
A number of authors at my publishing house Muse It Up have mentioned feeling hesitant about in-person events.  The image of a reclusive writer, afraid of the world, is perhaps overblown, but to be fair- writing is an insular process.  What better remedy to isolation than jumping onstage in front of strangers.  Sound terrifying?  In a way, it's not you up there at all.  Drama provides a "mask" - in that it's your character onstage, not you at all.  If I was asked to read a script onstage I feel fine, but if I was asked to tell my own story I might get nervous.  I reach into myself, and draw on that "mask" - becoming the character of myself.  It alleviates any nerves I might feel.

Now that School of Deaths is released, what’s next for you?

The journey for School of Deaths continues- the book will release in print this winter, and the sequel “Sword of Deaths” will release as an ebook this spring. I’ve started the third and final book in the series, which will be called “Daughter of Deaths.” After this series (“The Scythe Wielder’s Secret”), I intend to dive into other genres, including adult SF/Fantasy, Historical fiction, and perhaps playwriting.

Do you have any writing rituals?

During the summers (when I do most of my writing), if it’s nice weather, I like to take my laptop outside, sit on a bench, and turn my phone to the Pandora “film scores” station. With epic and stirring instrumental music playing in my ears, I let my fingers sing.

Where is your favorite place to write?

Either outdoors or in my home office, surrounded by books

What inspires you to write? 

To quote Douglas Adams: “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” It’s important to find inspiration and joy in all that we do, and ideas can come from everywhere and anywhere.

What 5 books are on your bookshelf right now?

Currently reading Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, next will read Dan Brown’s Inferno, Gregory Maguire’s Lost, and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregerine’s Home for Peculiar Children. If George R.R. Martin ever finishes the next Song of Ice and Fire book, that’ll jump up on the list. 

What do you recommend people see/read/hear?

I’d recommend anything by Hayao Miyazaki, whom I consider one of the greatest storytellers of our time. The last book I read that I absolutely adored was Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, and the most inspiring song I’ve listened to recently is “Adiemus” by Karl Jenkins.