Mette Ivie Harrison
What motivates you and gets you excited to write?
I am one of those people who likes to write first drafts. It is terrifying to write them, because I never outline and I honestly have no idea a lot of the time where they are going to end up. But the thrill for me as a writer is the same as it is for a reader: discovering a book for the first time. I recognize that subsequent drafts are easier, and I enjoy that process, as well—the tinkering with the words and making everything perfect—but I remain addicted to that first draft. That is what motivates me to write, to discover what happens next and who my characters really are, in the worst of straits.
When my children were much younger, I would write during nap time. I was a nap time Nazi. No one grew out of naps until kindergarten. It wasn’t allowed. I would wake the kids up really early and keep them up late, just to keep them on the same nap schedule. My whole life revolved around that because it mattered deeply to me. If I didn’t get writing in one day, I just felt a little empty. My writing group used to tease me sometimes that I would go away and write a novel, have a baby, and be back the next week as though it was all the normal course of things.
You write mainly juvenile fiction. How did that come about? Have you always written specifically for children?
I submitted my first novel for publication when I was fourteen. It was called Clarence, You’re an Angel, and was about a Miracle Whip-loving angel who got into trouble and ended up sending a couple of kids back in time to the Book of Mormon period. I sent it in to Deseret Book and got a very nice rejection letter saying they didn’t publish books that fictionalized heaven and angels. Well, that has changed, hasn’t it?
I then spent about ten years finishing college, getting married, finishing a Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton, and not having much time for anything else. I got a little tired of reading so closely for literary analysis, though, and went back to genre fiction for fun. After I quit teaching German at BYU, I spent about four years writing a new novel of one kind or another every three months on average. I wrote almost everything you can imagine and sort of waited to have something hit the fan telling me what I should focus on. Actually, that focusing part is still sometimes hard for me. I like writing like I like exercising. It makes me feel good and I do it every day as a habit. I feel strange if I go on vacation, which I don’t do often.
The Monster in Me, your first novel, was realistic fiction. Since then, you’ve mostly published fantasy. What has been your experience writing and publishing in each genre? Is the process similar?
I think the scenes of the dream world in that novel show some signs of my interest in the fantastic. My training is in German literature, where the Romantic influence is very strong and there is not much sense of a distinction between genre and more literary fiction. I have written a good number of realistic novels, but it turns out that the publishing world right now is very interested in fantasy, so what you see is simply the novels that I have published. I have a novel I deeply care about called Irongirl about a teen girl who does an Ironman, obviously a topic close to my heart. I’m hoping that will get published at some point. The world needs more novels with teen girls who are strong and athletic.
I will say that when I wrote the first bit of my first YA fantasy, which was The Stepmother’s Story, about Cinderella’s stepmother when she was a teenager, I brought it to my critique group and they told me that it was the best thing I’d ever written. That encouraged me to go on and write Mira, Mirror, and it was that book that first landed me my agent, not Monster. So perhaps there is something about me that makes me a better fantasy writer. I don’t know if I can see it myself. I love fantasy and science fiction. Not horror, though. I’m a bit squeamish (i.e., a lot).
I don’t know how different the process is for fantasy and realistic fiction. I think you always have to worry about worldbuilding, but in fantasy, you have to figure out tricky ways to make sure some important elements come up early on. Sometimes you write a first chapter just for that reason, so the magic comes out in a gripping way. But in the end, I believe even my fantasy novels are really about people, not about magic. It’s the question about “what if?” that interests me, in fantasy and science fiction. If only one thing changed in the world, how would people behave differently? If I write the way I want to write, it’s the characters who will stay with my readers, not the magic.
You were on a panel discussion at the Provo Children’s Book Festival a few years ago where you said after The Princess and the Bear came out that you wanted to call it something else, but your publisher wanted you to put “princess” in the title. What have been the biggest challenges and the best benefits of working with publishers? Has being LDS ever presented any unique challenges to getting your books published?
I thought the title of The Princess and the Bear should be The Hound and the Bear, since it is about, well, the hound from the first book, and the bear from the first book. But I tend to use rather literal titles. Technically, there is no princess in the book, but the hound was transformed for a time into a princess in the first book, so I guess it works. And boy, that first cover with the girl in a pretty dress sold a lot of copies. So why wouldn’t I want to sell more books? I am a bit of a contrary person, though, so I sometimes will find myself signing the book, “There is no princess in this book.”
I think the two big advantages to working with a publisher are first, the editor, who makes my book enormously better than it would have been alone; and second, the marketing department, including the cover art, which I have had tremendous luck with.
I have never had any problems being LDS. In fact, on a couple of occasions my editor has asked me to take out a few words I thought were fairly mild or scenes with some blood, just to make it super clean. People go around complaining about YA fiction being so edgy, or pushing boundaries on purpose, but I don’t see that. I have friends whose books are being banned, but the books are actually very moral, if you read them. They have controversial topics, but it is because my friends (Jo Knowles and Lauren Myracle, for example) care about teens and want to make sure that if they are in difficult situations, they feel there are people out there who understand and can help. The reality is that YA runs far behind adult fiction in terms of edginess. Just pick up some of the new fantasy writers getting attention in adults (Scott Lynch, for instance, or Terry Goodkind). I think they are fine writers, but talk about edgy.
You’re good friends with several other LDS writers. How did those friendships develop and how have they influenced your writing?
My sister married picture book writer Rick Walton when I was twelve, and he was beginning the path to publication in the children’s world. I watched him closely because I had wanted to be a writer since kindergarten. When I finished college and moved back to Utah, he invited me to join a writer’s group with Carol Lynch Williams and others. I wasn’t sure I wanted to publish in children’s at first. I was writing adult and children’s and across different genres. Rick also helped show me how to write query letters, invited me to conferences where I got an idea of what books were being published, and so on.
I think the first friendship that developed on my own was with Dave Wolverton, when he was the judge for Writers of the Future. I was a finalist one quarter and he really liked my story, though it wasn’t picked for publication. When he realized that I lived in the area, he called me on the phone and invited me to join a new writing group he was creating. That helped link me into a few other writers in the local area.
Also, I had been a huge Orson Scott Card fan in college, sneaking into the library at Princeton and reading his books there because I didn’t want to be caught checking them out. When I found out in 2002 that he was doing a workshop on the UVU campus, I decided to sign up. Who knew if he would ever do such a thing again? Even though I was pregnant and due the week of the workshop, I was determined to go. I remember the second night of the workshop, I was making some weird faces and Scott asked me what was wrong. I told him not to worry, I was just counting contractions. He stepped back and realized how pregnant I was, and asked when I was due. When I told him Friday, I’m pretty sure he thought I was crazy to be there. But it turned out that I wrote a story Wednesday (the first chapter of a novel, actually), had the baby Thursday morning, and went back on Friday with baby in tow. When he saw me walk into the room, he about collapsed in surprise. I think I impressed him with my fortitude, and hopefully with my writing. He has given me some great quotes for books and invited me out to teach with him at UVU.
Many of the other authors I know locally are through rockcanyonwriters, which is a listserv run by Rick Walton and it includes Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, Dan Wells, Jessica Day George, Anne Bowen, Nathan Hale, and on and on. There must be sixty of us. I also send out a bimonthly newsletter for all of us to librarians and booksellers. If you want to be on the list contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I also have gotten to know many authors through my agent, Barry Goldblatt. Shannon Hale shares the same agent.
Your upcoming novel Tris and Izzie is a retelling of the well-known story of Tristan and Isolde. You mention on your website that you love fairy tale retellings, and I can think of quite a few other LDS children’s writers who have also revisited familiar legends and fairy tales in their works—Jessica Day George’s Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow and Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl are just two that come to mind. What do you think it is about certain tales that impels you and other authors (both LDS and non-LDS) and readers to revisit them again and again?
In this particular case, Tris and Izzie is a chance for me to go back to my German Ph.D. roots. I had a bad experience and ended up leaving the field and sort of forsaking everything to do with German for a while. It’s taken me more than ten years to go back and remember what it was I loved about that, separate from the bad experience. Tristan und Isolde was the very first piece of German literature I read in college, in an Introduction to German Literature class taught by Scott Abbott at BYU in 1988. The book is dedicated to him for that reason. I don’t know how many people will appreciate the little touches in the book that are a tip of the hat to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version, but I worked in as many as I could. It’s a reworking of my life and my vision of myself, as well as a retelling of a fairytale. That may be part of the reason that people are drawn to them—because they are a way to weave in the child who listened first to the story, and then all those other versions of ourselves we remember, hearing the story anew as we grew older.
Do you have a favorite story that you hope to retell in the future?
I am also working on Zig and Hildy, which is a retelling of the Nibelungenlied, also from German literary history. I may do something by Hartmann von Aue as well. And I have that novel The Stepmother’s Story that I may get published some day.
Really, all novels are retellings. It’s just a question of how explicit it is. I have an essay about how all writers are thieves, and it’s true. We read a lot, mash up the stories in our heads, and then the bits come out in a different order. I think it’s immensely relieving as a writer when you realize that you don’t put in that much original stuff.
LDS writers are pretty well represented in the science fiction/fantasy mainstream. Do you think there’s any correlation between the gospel and legends and fantasy stories?
I think about that periodically. The only correlation I can think of is that Mormons don’t seem to think automatically of magic as being evil and witchcraft. We accept that it can be metaphorical. I think.
What do your five children think of their mom being a nationally recognized author? Do any of them write? If so, how do you encourage them in their writing?
Sometimes it turns out to be cool for them—mostly if their friends turn out to be fans of mine, and then they can offer them advance copies of upcoming books.
They also like the fact that I have an incredible library of new YA fiction in my house, and that I can recommend a book they will like at the drop of the hat, then go and get it for them downstairs.
Rick Walton told me once that he took his kids out to celebrate when he sold a book, so that they could realize that when they helped give him time to himself, they were working together with him. I’ve picked up that tradition and always take my kids out to celebrate when I get a new contract. And with as many teens as I have right now, they love to eat.
In addition to writing, you also enjoy competing in marathons and triathlons and have had several first place finishes. How did you get into competitive racing?
I met my husband on the swim team in high school, but I was never much good at it then. I swam five hours a day my senior year, but I never made state. So I sort of gave up the idea that I could be an athlete. I had a bad knee for years and couldn’t run. I had trouble walking, actually, if I went for too long.
About seven years ago, I was having trouble cycling and I went to a doctor who told me that I should run, starting very slowly, to strengthen my knee. I thought he was insane and just to prove it to him, I started very, very slowly. I ran a tenth of a mile the first day on a treadmill, two tenths the next day. I increased by a tenth of a mile for a couple of months until I could run six miles. Then I thought the doctor was a genius.
And I decided that I would run a marathon because who knew how long this running thing would last? I literally signed up for the marathon on Monday and ran it Saturday, with no real running training at all. I finished in 4:40 or something fairly respectable. It was an incredible feeling. I had no idea that I could do something like that, and if you had asked me before, I would have said that marathoners were crazy people.
I had to let myself heal a bit from all that running, so I signed up for an Olympic distance triathlon a few months later. I hadn’t been able to run more than a mile since the marathon, but I was able to run all of the 10k on the triathlon. I ended up finishing first place in my age group. I had never taken first place in a race in my life. It was the most amazing thing. It completely changed my view of myself and of the world. I stopped thinking about things in terms of being talented or not. I started believing in working hard a lot more. I love the rush of racing now. I love passing guys on bikes. What can I say? My competitive side has come out in full force and it’s a bit feminist. I also like doing really, really hard things just to prove that I can. I ran a fifty- mile ultramarathon last week, the fourth year in a row. It hurts, but I also think it is a great micro version of life. Focusing on the next telephone pole, getting to it, and then reassessing whether you can keep going or not—that’s the way life is a lot of the time.
You have an essay on your website about a particularly bad race and what you learned about failure. What failures have you experienced as a writer and what have you learned from them?
It wasn’t a bad race. It was one of the most important experiences in my life. I had trained hard for months to run a sub 3:30 marathon and ended up just pushing too hard. So I had to walk the last six miles of the race as everyone I knew passed me. But I was there, still going forward. I didn’t quit. And I didn’t tell myself that I wasn’t good enough. I have spent most of my life with insanely high goals for myself, getting a Ph.D. at twenty-four from Princeton, graduating from BYU in two years with a master’s and bachelor’s, raising five kids and having a career as a writer, and that race was this great chance for me to remember that I am not my accomplishments. I am me, no matter what I do or don’t do. I have value intrinsically, and I don’t have to prove myself to myself or to anyone else.
My failures as a writer? Well, those first four years of writing were pretty hard. I wrote twenty novels and they got rejected over and over and over again. I had succeeded in everything in my life without half trying, I think, and this was a big wall to come up against. Luckily, I had good friends in the business who reminded me it was perfectly normal. I also have a huge amount of energy and an endless love of fiction to keep me going. And maybe I’m a little bit crazy because what I like to do best in the world is to stay inside a dark little room in the basement and make up people and worlds to play with.
My first three books were all published by different publishers: Holiday House, then Viking, then Harper. For a while there it felt like I couldn’t get a second book published with the same publisher. I wrote them and rewrote them, but somehow I wasn’t seeing success. And it almost happened a fourth time. I sent in about four different novel manuscripts before I finally had an idea for a sequel to The Princess and the Hound and Harper sent me a contract to write it without a word seen. That was frightening, too—one of the hardest things in my life—to wake up every day, knowing that I might be writing the wrong book, and doing it anyway. And then my editor, Ruth Katcher, was let go just before The Princess and the Bear came out, and that was heart-wrenching. The business can be difficult sometimes.
Do you feel that writing helps you live your faith better? Does it give you opportunities to share your faith with others?
I guess I don’t really think of it that way. My writing is my way of describing the truth in a metaphorical way. The truth as I know it includes many aspects of my life and those have to come through in my writing in order for it to work on any level. I can’t stop that and I wouldn’t want to. I don’t see any need to preach about what I believe, though. Or to take it out, either. I think that is what I do as a parent, as a person, and as a member of the Church. I am trying to find the truth and to express it as best I can. I think I told someone once that the best missionary tool is people living the gospel conspicuously. I don’t feel any need to hide what I believe. One example of this is that I never feel obliged to carry a glass of soda or other drink around when my friends are drinking. I don’t drink. That’s all. No apologies. No attempts to make others feel better about their drinking, or to feel bad about it. That’s what I believe and that’s what I live. ❧