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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Interview With Author Hannah Sternberg

I had the chance to ask Hannah Sternberg, author of Queens of All Earth, a few questions.  Check it out:
The Book Heist: Where did you get your ideas for Queens of All Earth?
HS: Queens of All the Earth is inspired by one of my favorite novels, A Room with a View by E. M. Forster. The events of my story are loosely based on Forster’s book, though I did end up changing a lot as I dove into the little world I was creating for my version. I first read A Room with a View when I was 14, and just like the heroine I was emerging from childhood and beginning to understand that one day I’d have to direct my own life’s adventures, even if it sometimes pitted me against some of my most trusted mentors, even my parents. Plus, the romance and beauty of the setting swept me away. That book had a profound effect not just on my imagination, but on how I came to understand life. It might be a slim little romantic novel, but sometimes books are bigger than they seem!
The Book Heist: Have you ever been to Barcelona?
HS: Yes; in fact, I started writing Queens of All the Earth while I was in Barcelona for a weeklong vacation. That year, I participated in a college study abroad program in London. It was the first time I had ever been outside the United States, and while I’d always been obsessed with British culture, almost as soon as I got there, I was overwhelmed with homesickness. I spent much of that year learning about myself and adulthood, in addition to trying to see the sights like any college exchange student. My Barcelona trip was especially stressful at first because I’m usually a very meticulous, cautious person, and here I was plunging off to a country where I barely spoke the language, staying in a hostel room with a bunch of strangers, where everything–even the plumbing!–was unfamiliar. One of the friends I was traveling with was also a big fan of A Room with a View, and I felt comforted talking about how much fun it would be to retell the story, folding in our experiences in Barcelona. The idea calmed me down enough to finally start enjoying the trip, and in the late evenings when my friends went to bed, I started writing Queens of All the Earth in a little notepad I’d brought with me.
The Book Heist: What kind of research did you do for Queens of All Earth?
HS: Well, I finished the first draft of the novel in one month, directly after returning to my London dorm after my trip to Barcelona. So many of the most vivid descriptions of places in the book came directly from my memory. Over three years passed between writing the first draft and handing in my final revision to my editor at Bancroft, however, and when I had to revise major scenes, it became increasingly difficult to recall what I had seen with the strength I had before. In those times, I’d set up a collage of postcards I’d bought in Barcelona, many depicting the places described in the book, and I’d surround my computer with all these little tokens of my visit: ticket stubs, guidebooks, even old gift bags! It helped me remember what it felt like to be there. I did a little bit of research online just to confirm the dates and names of some of the landmarks I’d mentioned. But, like Olivia, I don’t feel like I’m really seeing a place unless I’ve read about its history, so I went into the manuscript armed with all the information I’d already stocked up on previous to the trip.
The Book Heist: Who do you relate to more: Miranda or Olivia?
HS: I think it’s inevitable that every character I write is a little piece of myself, because they all came from my imagination, and are colored by my way of observing the world. When I wrote the book, I definitely felt more like Miranda. I used to joke with my friends that Miranda was an amalgamation of everything that’s annoying about me, with none of the good bits. I’ve been told by those friends that’s an unfair assessment of myself, so I guess that means either I have an exceptional imagination or exceptional friends. Olivia started as a much more ambiguous character, and eventually she became the fragile, child-like version of me that has long since been wrapped up under layers of responsibility. Sometimes I try to peel them back just to see if I still recognize her.
The Book Heist: How long have you been writing?
HS: Oh, as long as I knew how! My mom, Libby Malin Sternberg, is an author too, and she’s always encouraged me. She’s my best writing teacher and my best friend. I’ve been writing so long, I can’t comprehend a life in which one doesn’t spend every available moment writing.
The Book Heist: What made you decide to write a YA novel?
HS: joke with my agent that I write young adult literature unwittingly, because I haven’t been an adult for very long. I didn’t intentionally set out to write a YA novel, but the themes and the age of the heroine naturally made it one. My publisher, Bruce, calls it “an adult novel for young adults.” I never tried to “write down” to my audience in terms of how I used language; instead, I hope that young adults will feel an affinity for Olivia, Greg and Miranda’s struggles and growth.
The Book Heist: What are some of your favorite novels and authors?
HS: E. M. Foster, clearly, the inspiration for this novel! I also admire the works of J. D. Salinger, and his portrayal of a nervous breakdown in Franny and Zooey was a huge inspiration for Olivia’s own psychological problems. I love the historical fiction of Louis Bayard and Mark Helprin, and their vibrant, emotional use of language. The poetry of E. E. Cummings figures prominently in the story, too; he, too, hugely influenced my perspective on life as I crawled out of my shell and into adulthood. Other favorites, in no particular order: Charlotte Bronte, Dorothy Parker, Umberto Eco, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, John Cheever, Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen. And, of course, my mom!

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