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Interview: Jane Yolen by Kat Bittner
Review by Kat Bittner
Date: 31 January 2008

Links: Jane Yolen's Website / Show Official Info /

SFRevu: What's your next book coming out?

Jane Yolen: I just had a book come out called The Rose, which I wrote with Robert J. Harris. It's the fourth book of the Scottish Quartet or the Stuart Quartet. It's a historical novel. It takes place during the Clearances when the lairds cleared people off the land and put sheep on them so they could make more money.

In the spring I have a book coming out called Naming Liberty. It's a picture book for children on one side of the page and it's about the building of the Statue of Liberty on the other side. It's about a Jewish family coming from the Ukraine just like my family did. The pictures are absolutely exquisite.

SFRevu: Who is the artist for Liberty?

Jane: The artist for Liberty is a man named Jim Burke. He and I first worked together on a book that came out a couple years ago in 2003 -- I think it was for the Wright brother's centennial. It focused on my brother's flying machine and he and I have another two books coming. One is coming out this fall which is about Johnny Appleseed. Then I'm working on a Honus Wagner book called Shortstop. That he's gonna be illustrating.

I have three board books. You know, the baby books with the thick pages you can drop in the bath tub and it doesn't hurt them. And kids can chew on them. They are hippos in dress. One hippo, two hippos stumble and in the end it says, "And all the way into the wallop." The second one is called "Sad, Mad, Glad Hippos." So it's all about hippos in various emotional stages.

And then one is all about hippos in color so they are wearing different kinds of outfits. And the pictures again are absolutely very delicious. Very childlike.

You know what September 19 is? Talk Like a Pirate Day! I have a book called Sea Queens. It's about lady pirates.

SFRevu: Historical?

Jane: Yes, historical.

SFRevu: Were there a lot of them?

Jane: Yes, my very first book that I ever published was Pirates of Penzance, long out of print. Those were the days when you could make up dialogue. I've redone it and it's as historically accurate as you can get. There's a lot we don't know about these lady pirates, but it's as close as we can get.

I'm hoping in the fall Dragon's Harp will be coming out, which will be the fourth book in the Dragon series. The last Dragon book came out 20 years ago.

Photo of Jane Yolen with Drew Bittner

SFRevu: It's been awhile.

Jane: One of the problems is I don't write like that anymore. So I tried to reread the first three books because I don't remember them all that well. I took notes and then decided to try and write like that -- I couldn't. It turns out I'm 20 years older and I can't write like that anymore. I write differently. The fourth book starts out 15 minutes after the third book. If you read it and find there's a slight disconnect in the writing style, one hopes better, that's because I'm older.

SFRevu: One of the things that impresses me about your career is that you do so many different kinds of things.

Jane: I tell this to my writing students all the time: If you can only do one thing, you're a one trick pony, and you may do it very well, but that whole thing, that whole genre may dry up. Then what do you do? You're casting around hysterical because no one wants your stuff anymore because no one is publishing those kinds of books anymore. If you do a number of things already and one thing dries up, you've got all those other things you can do. I'm very lucky that way.

I've never had writer's block. Well, you can say for 20 years I didn't write a Myth Dragon book, but I was writing other things. So if I was in fact blocked on that it didn't matter because I had other things I was writing.

SFRevu: Sure, but there are other writers that are very very successful in one particular thing and then they try something else and it doesn't go as well. Like Stephen R. Donaldson, who went to mysteries and found he had a lot of Covenant fans, but not quite so many Donaldson fans.

Jane: It's gonna be very interesting to find out what J.K. Rowling will do next. Whether she'll simply give us The Silmarillion and forty books based on the Harry Potter universe. Or, whether she'll try something else and whether she'll be successful in whatever else she does. The one thing she can't do is have the expectation that the next books will sell as well as the Harry Potter. You just simply have to divorce yourself from that and move on.

SFRevu: That strikes me as something very hard to do. When the next book doesn't do as well, how personally do you take it as a writer?

Jane: For me, because my success went the other way, I started slow and built up, then in my 200th-something book I edited I had a runaway best seller. You're like, "All right, that's nice." Put the money away. Buy a car and move on.

But for someone who starts that way, like rock stars who at 16 or 17 become huge hits, they don't know what to do. They have no life. I think for your mental health's sake, moving slowly and getting two or three best-sellers is the way to go. Just simply because you're ready for it and you're mature.

I feel that nobody has ever touched Rowling before this kind of extreme success. The magnitude of what she did for writing is an astonishing commercial success. That's a combination of luck, fad, being in the right place at the right time. You cannot invent that. When it's there you just roll with it and keep going. Whatever you want to call it. If we knew what she did we'd all be doing it.

SFRevu: It spawned such a wave of imitators. Everyone wants to do the next Harry Potter. The publishers are looking for the next also.

Jane: The problem for me, as a real folklorist, is that I see them doing stuff based on tertiary material instead of going back to original material. They are not even going to the secondary material. They are going to the third and the fourth and the fifth material so that they are trying to repeat Harry Potter and not even go back to Tolkien. They should be going back to original materials: folklore, fairy lore, elf lore, old stories. They're not doing it. It gets to be a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy.

SFRevu: What were the original folktales that you got into as a child?

Jane: I personally read every single one of the Color Fairy books. The red fairy book, the green fairy book, the blue fairy book. Andrew Lang's. I also read Arthurian material. Anything I could get my hands on.

And I also learned enormous amounts of border ballads. I became a folk song singer so that I could sing reams of old British folklore. The older the better. I loved them. That stuff is as old as written word on our fingers. I would sing 42 verses of stuff.

SFRevu: I thought it was pretty good to know "Jabberwocky".

Jane: "Tamlin" must have god knows how many verses. Just wonderful stuff. There's a book by Sylvia Towneshead Warner called The Kingdoms of Elfin. She really has the amorality, and the nastiness, the "we don't care about humans" aspect of the Elvish society. When you get to the last 30 years of certainly American stuff, you get elves are cute and funny and fairies are sweet.

SFRevu: It seems that it's Disneyfication, that kids get their fairy tales from watching the Disney movies.

Jane: Watching the Disney movies, but also the Elf Quest, Richard & Wendy Peni. They get their elf stuff from there. Rather than going back. We're in sort of Shannara Land. Sort of Sha Na Na land rather than Tolkien. We're in Elf Quest rather than folklore. That was 20 years ago. Now we're in imitations of Elf Quest.

SFRevu: Faux Terry Brooks...

Jane: Exactly. I think that if you say to a child, "Do you know the Little Mermaid?", they know the movie. Which is nothing like the story by Anderson, who got his ideas about mermaids from stories his mother told him, all folktales.

SFRevu: You said you were doing a graphic novel.

Jane: I have two graphic novels I sold. One to DC. One with First Second. They bought a graphic novel called Foiled. It's about a modern high school girl who's a fencer. She goes on her first date after fencing and meets the boy at Grand Central Station. She's got her bag full of fencing equipment. Birds annoy her because birds get in through the doors. So she reaches into her bag and puts her mask on to keep her hair nice for this date. Suddenly she looks out and sees not a bird, but a small dragon. And they're in between all the gray and black commuters. There are these people with wonderful colorful outfits. She can see fairies. It turns out she's the last defender of the Sealy Court. But the boy she is dating is a glamored troll. Who's been glamored by the UnSealy Court to get her sword. Mike Cavallaro is doing the pictures for Foiled.

My granddaughter Madison is a fencer. So my daughter took photographs of her getting into her various things. Mike didn't have the information he needed to do it correctly and if you're going to have do something that's as technical as fencing. And a lot of the scenes are when she's in her fencing equipment or at her fencing school. We wanted to make sure that it's absolutely correct. There are different kinds of fencing. Not just foil, there's saber, there's different kinds of foil. Different things to get it right. Details are important.

The one for DC is called The Last Dragon. Rebecca Guay is going to do the pictures. Rebecca is a friend of mine so we had to work on this together. She did a lot of Magic cards. She's done children's books. She's done graphic novels. Her art's very romantic. Mike Cavallaro stuff is more comical art. Exaggerated triangular faces. It's wonderful to have them so different.

It's based on a novella of mine which I've expanded. I love the form. Because it's a combination I've been doing for years, both novel and picture books. I have many more words in mine than classic comics do. Mine is more novel than just graphic novel. And I think people have to be aware of that.

SFRevu: There are more venues now for more of a hybrid between comics and illustrated story books like Charles Vest.

Jane: I did two of his Book of Ballads. That's where I got my taste to do it. But I had to write to Neil to send me a script. I didn't know what they're supposed to look like. It was really helpful.

SFRevu: It seems like it opens a whole new area for you to work in.

Jane: Old dog, new tricks. This is my new trick.

SFRevu: Jane, thank you.

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