Talking Dragons and Magic with Michelle Knudsen

by Amy Kraft on July 6, 2009

Michelle Knudsen is the author of the bestselling children’s book, Library Lion, about a lion that finds his way into the library. He is allowed to stay so long as he doesn’t break the rules, though soon everyone realizes that there are times for the rules to be broken.

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Michelle’s latest book is the fantastic young adult fantasy novel, The Dragon of Trelian. Calen, the mage’s apprentice, forms an unlikely friendship with Princess Meglynne. Even more unlikely is the connection Meg is forming with a dragon that she’s kept hiding. A tragedy may soon befall the kingdom of Trelian unless Meg, Calen, and the dragon can realize their abilities and rise up to stop it.

I loved this book. Not only do we get a great boy character, but Princess Meglynne is one of my favorite new girl characters alongside Katniss Everdeen. Also, The Dragon of Trelian is action packed. Right around page 355, I found myself disappointed that there were so few pages left, quite like the feeling I get when I’m at the 50 minute mark of a really great episode of Lost.

Michelle and I recently sat down for coffee and talked about dragons and rule-breaking.

There’s a theme in both book about rules and when to break them. Is this something you consciously write into your work?

No, but apparently unconsciously I write that into my work. I don’t even know if it was conscious in the first draft of Library Lion, beyond the obvious – there are rules in the library. I worked in a library while I was working on that. Part of my job as an evening supervisor was to determine when rules can be broken. It was a given that rules can be broken, that there were sometimes very good reasons to break the rules, like when you’re dealing with stressed out college students who desperately need to take home some reference book that’s not supposed to leave the library. My boss always put it as balancing the needs of the patron against the needs of the collection and how to serve everybody at once in the best possible way. That was something I thought about a lot on the job and whenever I think about libraries, so I think that came out.

In the novel it definitely wasn’t anywhere in the front of my head. I mean there are a lot of rules. Anytime you deal with magic as a writer, you’ve got to know what the rules of magic are. Obviously in any sort of structured society there’s going to be rules.

So interesting I never thought about that before. I guess that’s a big thing for me. But it also goes without saying in an adventure novel I think that rules will have to be broken. Your main character is very rule abiding and it’s not an interesting story. And then they would never be able to save the day. It’s impossible to save the day in any kind of way when you follow all the rules. 

Both of your books have evocative character names. What’s the secret to a good character name?

That’s a hard question. I don’t know if there’s an answer. Sometimes there’s a good reason for a character name. In Library Lion, Mr. McBee is the old-fashioned library guy and before computers when libraries would check out books with those cards that they’d stamp, there’s a kind of cards called McBee cards, and so I used that for his name thinking it was symbolic of his old-fashionedness. That was one of those names that worked out really well.

In The Dragon of Trelian, Serek did not have a name for three-fourths of the first draft. He was just S. I knew his name started with S, but I had no idea what it was. And I don’t know how I finally came up with it. I’m very careful because if I pick the wrong name, usually I’m stuck with it. Even if I know it’s the wrong name, it’s very hard to change it once I think of that as the right name. So he was just an initial.

Calen, I have no idea where that name came from. Sometimes they just feel right.

What’s the attraction to magic?

The first books that I ever loved growing up were fantasy. Well, not the very first books. The very first books were picture books about cats. But the next thing that I loved was fantasy.

I don’t think it’s true that all kids love books about magic but a lot of kids early on are able to enjoy books about magic in a way that when you get older it’s harder to suspend your disbelief. Not for everybody, obviously there are a lot of adult fantasy readers, but for kids I think there’s a wider audience for fantasy. All kids like to play pretend. All kids like to make up things that aren’t real in the real world, and I think magic is an offshoot of that. And it opens up so many possibilities. Things can happen in a fantasy novel that couldn’t happen in a realistic novel, which is one of the things I like about it.

You seem like a lovely person, but the slaarh are the stuff of nightmares. Where’s that darkness from?

What is the answer to that question? I guess I have hidden inner depths of evil that I can draw upon in the writing process.

I think part of having a good imagination, and all writers have to be good at pulling things out of their imagination in various ways, is that in addition to being able to imagine good things you have to be able to go the other way. I guess I just tried to think of what would scare me the most, what would make something really terrifying.

I have very vivid dreams and nightmares when I sleep so there’s a whole lot of nightmare images that are ready to be pulled for book writing. And probably other things that have scared me in my own reading, I think I file all that away in terms of what makes a monster scary. Also physical characteristics… the unevenness of them and the oiliness of them… there’s a lot of ways to make them icky and frightening.

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What was the inspiration for the human-dragon connection?

That’s another good question. I don’t know.

Do you have a dragon connection?

That’s privileged information. [laughing]

I wish I did. I know when I was really little I used to want to talk to animals. I think a lot of kids probably have that fantasy. You want to believe that you can have this connection with these creatures that you love and you know and they’re your friends but you can’t actually communicate with them so it’s this weird relationship.

I’m trying to remember how that developed in the story. I decided that I didn’t want the dragon to be anthropomorphized. He doesn’t talk. His brain doesn’t work exactly like a person’s brain does, and then I started to think if they’re going to have this relationship there has to be some way for them to relate to each other beyond just being human/animal buddies. It introduced a lot of problems because if you’re linked to this dragon in a deep way that you don’t understand it’s going to be very confusing. I liked the idea of them being able to share aspects of their personality and their strength.

Change was a big theme of this book while I was writing it. Meg struggling with how this relationship is changing her and how to hold on to herself during this process was something I was consciously exploring, and the link gave me a really good way to do that.

The Dragon of Trelian would make a great movie. Have you mentally cast it yet?

No, but that’s so much fun to think about. I would need to give that more thought. I’m sort of even afraid to answer. It’s like the name thing, I don’t want to fix anthing in my head. What if they then make the movie and it’s not the way I cast it?

What are the plans for sequels?

I am working on a sequel now. I’m thinking it’s going to be a trilogy.

In the next book, without giving too much away, there are some things left to be dealt with in this story that Meg and Calen and the other characters in the book are going to have to deal with. Meg is still adjusting to her dragon link. Calen goes to the Magistratum and is getting a new tattoo for his achievements. He’s going to be doing a lot more exploring of his magic and abilities. Also we’ll learn a lot more about how the mage structure and society works, because so far we’ve really only gotten to know Serek and Calen and haven’t seen the larger world of mages.

Do you have any picture books you’d recommend?

Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr. It’s an oldie. It was my first favorite picture book from when I was younger. They rereleased it several years ago in an anniversary edition. There are a lot of Mog stories but I am mostly partial to the original story of Mog, a forgetful cat, and her adventures. She’s so cat-like and it’s a small story but you feel so much for Mog.

Something by Leo Lionni, I can’t think of which one. It’s very hard to pick.

All right, I’m going to pick one that nobody ever picks which is T Is for Terrible by Peter McCarty, Peter McCarty of the Hondo and Fabian books, which are wonderful. This one’s about a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s sort of a small story but his art is amazing. It’s a self-reflective “why am I so terrible, would I be so terrible if I were pink?” There are pictures of him with all the other animals running away from him. And then at the end he sort of embraces “well, you know, I’m Tyrannosaurus Rex and I’m terrible” and he’s going to eat all of the other dinosaurs. It’s very clear in the art. It’s a weird book. I probably shouldn’t say that – weird in the most perfect way. I came across it in the store one day and fell in love with it and bought it and recommend it to people. It’s different. It’s a different approach.

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How about novel recommendations?

I’ve been recently reading a lot of Tamora Pierce. As far as middle grade fantasy goes, I’m a very big fan. I’m late coming to her books. I didn’t start in the correct place. I’m reading Page and Squire in that series which happens years after the Alanna books and I was told I should have read the Alanna books, too, so I’ll go back and read those.

I just read Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. It’s a dark book, but it’s amazingly beautiful. But dark. And weird. But good, for older readers. There’s a lot of serious, dark stuff in there.

[Michelle is currently getting her master’s degree at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.] Do you want to talk about what’s going on at VCFA and how it might be affecting your writing?

VCFA is wonderful and awesome and I just finished my second semester. I already feel like I’ve learned so much. I can see the changes that are happening in my writing.

It’s a low residency program; it’s a full two-year course. You are on campus for a 10-day residency at the start of the semester and then you’re assigned an adviser that you work with for the course of the semester and you send in packets of work roughly every month of creative writing and critical writing and a bibliography of what you’ve been reading and your reactions. All the advisors are published authors in children’s and young adult and wonderful teachers. There’s an online community where everyone talks to each other and recommends books, but it’s a very intense process because mostly you’re working on your own, which you also have to do as a writer. You get this directed feedback. In a way it’s like working with an editor, but it’s so focused on not just writing something that’s publishable but including how you approach your writing.

It’s hard to describe exactly how great the experience is but it’s great. Also, you meet all these other wonderful writers who are at all different stages. The classes are made up of people who have published lots of books, who have never published a book, who are right out of undergrad, who are grandmothers. There’s a huge diversity, which also adds to the experience.

So I’m working on an unrelated novel, not connected to Trelian at all, for slightly older readers and I’ve been watching it transform over the course of two semesters so far. It’s amazing and gratifying to be able to see your own work improve. I thought my first draft was okay and now I see that, no. No it wasn’t. But now it’s so much better and now I’m learning so many ways to make my writing stronger which is obviously really important to me.

And finally, if this were a Facebook quiz, which of your characters would you be most like?

I think Calen. There is some of Meg in me, but Calen’s brain works like mine does. He goes on and on and gets stuck in his own reasoning and wants to be brave but is often too cautious. It takes him a while to be person that he knows he can be and I identify with that. I think he’s probably the character that has more of my own personality. Out of all the books, really, I think he’s the closest.

For more, my interview with Michelle Knudsen continues on the Hooked on Phonics blog

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