How did you start out as a writer, Shannon?
I always made up stories. I acted them out in mini-plays until fourth grade when I first started writing short stories and starting novels. The one constant dream in my life was to become an author.
What is your writing process like? How do you get your ideas, and how long does it take to finish a book? When and where do you write?
It really depends on the book. I might get book ideas daily and jot them down. I usually let them germinate for a year or so until the point when I’m ready to start a new book and select the idea that’s been yipping at me the loudest. Books usually take one to two years to write, sometimes over the course of many years as I set one project aside to finish another. I’m always working on two books at once so I never take a break. If my editor is reviewing one manuscript, I’m working on another one so I don’t waste any time. I write in my bedroom when my part-time babysitter is here to watch the kids while I work.
You have four children, including a set of twins. How do you balance your work, church, and family responsibilities with your writing?
It’s very, very, very hard. Sometimes I question my choice to be a writer too! But then the babysitter is sick and I miss a day of writing and I just don’t feel right. I do think I would go crazy if I didn’t get a chance to write out the stories in my head. I need this, and so I find a way. My family is always first, but cleaning/
You’ve received several awards for your work and are a New York Times best-selling author. What has been the most unexpected aspect of your success?
Receiving the Newbery Honor. Eight years later I’m still stunned by that honor and it still affects my career in a profound way. I feel so grateful. It was such an unexpected gift.
When writing, where do you seek inspiration?
If I’m stuck, reading something else always helps, some poetry, another book. Literature nudges that part of my brain and inspires me. But creation is constant. I’m not just writing when I’m sitting at my computer. All day long, whatever I’m doing, my brain is working over the story. Anything that happens during the day can suddenly spark a new idea or help me unstopper a problem.
Much of your work references or reimagines fairy tales and other well-known, well-loved stories. Can you describe how you move from a known story to one that may pay homage but stands completely on its own as well?
The truth is, all stories pay homage to what has come before. No story exists in a void. My process for retelling fairy tales really isn’t any different than when I make up something new. And often the story I think I’m going to tell when I start ends up quite different by the end. I do many drafts, expiring through writing, and try to follow what the story seems to need and not hold myself too strictly to simply retelling the same plot points of an old tale.
You have several successful series. What have you enjoyed about following characters over several books and what have you found challenging in that?
I’m kinda surprised that I have any series! I can only write the book in front of me. I always know what else might happen next but I didn’t think I’d be a series writer. And now I’m writing the third (and last) book in the Princess Academy series. Those are the only books that have followed the same main character across more than one book. I do grow attached to my characters and so writing a new book is like revisiting old friends. I want to hear more of their story as much as any reader. But I also get bored easily and feel a fire to keep exploring new things and challenging myself. I can’t let myself get complacent. I have to try as many different stories as I can, and so I can’t stick with any one series forever.
Your most recent book, Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends, is based on a world that you did not create. How did you approach that project?
That was fun. Somehow it was so much less pressure and it was more like play than work. Mattel and Little, Brown publishers approached me about the project and I really didn’t think I’d do it. I have so many other ideas for books, I didn’t think I wanted to write in someone else’s universe. But the concept of the story was so fun for me I honestly couldn’t help myself and began writing the book weeks before I’d signed a contract to do it officially.
Your novel Austenland was recently made into a motion picture for which you co-wrote the script. What was it like translating your work into a new medium?
I loved it. Writing a screenplay was a new kind of challenge that I relished. The best part of filmmaking for me is that it’s collaborative. I’m an extrovert in an introverted profession, so I enjoyed collaborating and sometimes talking to other adults!
Jerusha Hess and Stephenie Meyer also collaborated on the project. Can you tell us a bit about what that experience was like? How was it working in the typically boys’ club Hollywood scene on a project headed entirely by women? And specifically Mormon women?
We were far, far outside of Hollywood. Currently, it’s very rare to find a female written, produced, and directed movie in Hollywood. I admire Stephenie so much. She has earned a lot of clout through her successes and I appreciate that she chose to use that clout to support a first-time female director. Jerusha is just the best. She and Jared have worked on the fringes of Hollywood, live in Utah, and are just down-to-earth fantastic folks. I’m sure my experience making this movie was completely atypical. I was very lucky. And it all felt like a big family. When we were filming in England, we’d all go to church together on Sundays in a local family ward.
How does the gospel influence your writing and what you choose to write about?
I’m sure the gospel affects every aspect of my life. It’s hard to pull it apart and identify. What I believe is part of who I am. But I don’t consciously make storytelling choices based on the Church. I just try to live my life the best I can and become the person my Savior would want me to be. And I write the books I’d want to read.
How do you see your work as a writer helping to build the kingdom?
I used to struggle with that. I always wanted to write fantasy, since I was a little girl, and I remember being so stressed about it. Should I be writing realistic fiction conversion stories or something? But that kind of story just didn’t attract my writer self. I had to let go of that fear and follow the stories that seemed truest to me. I have no control over how my stories will be read and interpreted by the millions of people who might read them. I just have to stay true to the characters, the stories, and hope that when I release them out into the world they do good. Well-told novels can help a reader feel understood and not alone. Well-told novels can give readers a glimpse into people different than them and help them develop empathy. If that’s all novels do, for me, that’s enough.
As a writer, what do you read for inspiration? For enjoyment?
Everything. Every genre I can try. Well, nothing too scary or I can’t sleep at night.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read what you love, but read everything else too. Write every day. Do not expect to get it right your first draft. Or tenth. Do not expect to publish your first book. Write because you love it and you can’t help it and nothing else will make you happy. It’s too consuming of a hobby and too difficult a career to do it for any other reason.
What upcoming projects are you most excited about?
So many! My young adult superhero adventure sci-fi thriller (is that a new genre?) Dangerous comes out March 4, and I can’t wait for the early chapter book series The Princess in Black this fall. I co-wrote it with my husband and I just love working with him.
Is there anything else you would like to leave with our readers?
Be kind to each other and to yourselves! ❧