GARRET WEYR delights middle-grade readers with her novel, The Language of Spells (2018, Chronicle Kids). Previous publications include picture book, French Ducks in Venice (Candlewick, 2011), and YA titles from HMH Books for Young Readers, After the Moment (2009), Stay with Me (2007), The Kings are Already Here (2003), When I was Older (2002), My Heartbeat (2002), and, from Crown, Pretty Girls (1988).
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! It’s wonderful to share with our readers how a local author has successfully been published in PB, MG, and YA. What advice do you have for authors who write in more than one category?
GW: I think the next book starts when you get to the end of the book you’re working on. You get an idea. For example in The Language of Spells, there’s an enchanted cat and she has a huge backstory—there were seven enchanted cats in the first draft now there are only four—so the book I’m working on now has spun off from there. I don’t think of categories, I think of voices. Honor the character’s voice and the story will find its shape. Sometimes, the lines are fluid.
CVZ: How should a new writer approach agents when they’ve written books in various categories?
GW: The best way to look for an agent is find a book you really respond to, find out who that agent is, and contact them. You can call the publisher or check the author’s web page. Picture book is the hardest, it’s comically competitive. If the agent you contact doesn’t take you, most agents will refer you to someone if they think your book has merit.
GW: I got my first agent in the eighties when people were taking a bet on young writers. After that I had a ten- to twelve-year period where I couldn’t find my voice, my story. During that time I had various jobs.
CVZ: Are you a full-time writer now?
GW: Yes, and I’m chronically broke! And that’s OK with me. There are a lot of things I’m not good at, but I have a knack for sitting alone, getting things on a page, finding a story in it, and putting up with a lot of uncomfortableness.
CVZ: Such as the loneliness of writing?
GW: Oh no, I’m good at that—and I have dogs and a fourteen-pound cat! I mean the uncomfortableness of never knowing where my money is coming from. To me, it seems like a fair trade.
CVZ: Do you believe in writing every day?
GW: Having subscribed to the Graham Greene’s 350 words a day, I’ve gone eighty pages in the wrong directions, I now believe that walking away from something is also helpful. You should engage with your story every day. Especially if your time is constrained, you should visit your manuscript every day, because like with your relationships, they can die. Sometimes I ask my characters, “What do you need?”
CVZ: Do you think of your reader while you’re writing?
GW: No, I don’t. I think of my character and the story I’m trying to tell. This book, The Language of Spells, has changed me as a writer dramatically. Always before I was very preoccupied with how people think. The Language of Spells forced me out of my comfort zone into how people feel about things because Maggie is eleven and, while she does have some preoccupation with how she thinks and how people think, how she feels about things is still very important to her.
GW: Five years. This one was a really long time coming, it was a hard one for me.
CVZ: I love the black-and-white chapter heads images and gorgeous cover (of Grisha the dragon) by Katie Harnett.
GW: She’s amazing! She took part of her advance and sat herself down [where the book is set] at the Blaue Bar in Vienna. My favorite books include E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan and [Dr. P. L. Travers’s] Mary Poppins which also have black-and-white illustrations. The trappings of my story are old-fashioned.
CVZ: Is there a message in the story?
GW: That a disenfranchised group stays with us. We notice what we pay attention to. My theme as a writer is about the choices we make. I like the James Baldwin quote, “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” Some of those choices are about inattention, the difference between seeing and noticing. Maggie notices magic which is why she’s open to magic. I like the idea that magic is open to all of us, but you have to slow down to see it.
If you want to change the world, you’ll need to give up something important to you. I don’t think we should tell children that it’s easy to change social injustice that problem is chronic. You can change things, but it will cost you and only you can decide on the trade. Social responsibility requires a sacrifice.
CVZ: Any closing words of advice for writers?
GW: First, I want talk about the importance of reading. I’ve taught enough different graduate programs now to be horrified at how many people want to write but they don’t read. They want to write one of their critical essays on [Veronica Roth’s] Divergent—which I’m sure is a helpful book to read if you’re stuck in a layover. But, seriously? Come on, read George MacDonald. Read. I cannot stress this enough. And don’t read what’s easy. When I left my comfort level, that opened up a whole world for me.
Also, while we are in the age where too many books are being published, I do believe that everyone has a story and everyone’s story deserves a shot at being told. Whether or not you can figure out how to close the gap between what’s in your head and what’s on the page—and, believe me, I fail at this every day in my life—you need to try. If you don’t, then you’ll never know if your story can find its way into language like the expression, “Pray to God, but hammer away.”
BIO: Garret Weyr’s eight books have been banned, translated into a multitude of languages, and included in college curricula. She is a Printz honor award recipient and her short stories have been published in the Greensboro Review, the sadly missed Christopher Street, and the anthology Starry Eyed. She has taught Literature and Creative Writing at college and MFA programs. She has an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is a native of New York City and now lives in Venice, California.