Saturday, February 13, 2016

INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET CHIAVETTA, AUTHOR OF THE ALCHEMIST'S THEMOREM


 Today, we're joined by Margaret Chiavetta, author of THE ALCHEMIST'S THEOREM, a novel that recently got this impressive Kirkus review:

"Chiavetta employs a gale-force imagination in conjuring her alchemical realm... While immersed in this crowd-pleasing adventure, young readers should marvel at Chiavetta’s Alice in Wonderland vibe, and adults should appreciate the sweeping mythos.” —Kirkus Reviews

1.      As an author myself, I’m always intrigued by other author’s bios. It seems as though your own journey to writing was long and winding (anthropologist, academic, etc.) Was the process of writing THE ALCHEMIST’S THEOREM long and winding as well? How long was Mendel’s story in your mind before it got down on the page?


The story of The Alchemist’s Theorem got in and out of my head relatively quickly, but I think that’s because of the long, winding journey. I was in my mid-twenties when the first universe exploded in my head. It was about angels and demons. For years that was the only story I had, and I was convinced it was the only story I would ever have. When I finally decided to take the plunge, change careers, and start my MFA in the fall of 2012 (at age 29) I spent the summer before with nothing to do but write. Due to the reprieve from career restlessness and doubts, there was an outbreak of universes and stories in my head. Having the time, focus, and inspiration was perfect for creative incubation. That’s when Mendel and Sir Duffy showed up. I wrote the first dozen pages, which I carried into the first year of my graduate program, but I didn’t work on it at all that year. I had so many stories I wanted to write, but I couldn’t decide which to pursue. Finally, a good friend told me the story I was most animated about was The Alchemist’s Theorem. That following summer I worked on it a little more, but during my second and final year I completed the first draft. After graduating spring 2014, I picked at it a little, until the beginning of 2015. I finally set the goal of finishing, crowdfunding, and publishing the book by the end of the year. And I did it!

2.      How did your scientific background contribute to the process of worldbuilding?


My background in science and animal behavior has been invaluable to me as a writer. People always laugh when I say this, but it’s true. Studying monkeys as closely as I did gave me real insights into the human condition. And isn’t that what stories are mostly about? Understanding ourselves better? I used to work on this island full of monkeys, and the researchers would always accidently refer to the monkeys as people. Everyone did it. Once I got to know how complex other species of animals are, and how layered their personalities are, it was second nature to build animal characters into the book. So not only did my experience and expertise help me develop my human characters, but the plant and animal characters as well. And when it comes to building the rest of the world, I mix and match attributes from all the different creatures I’ve learned about over the years.

3.      Independent publishing has been drawing a wider array of authors in recent years. What drew you to the independent platform?

First, I don’t like being told what to do. When I started looking into the writing industry I encountered a lot of directives. There is this linear, rigid, impossible process everyone must go through, and even then their chances are slim. Whenever people told me that I have to do something, otherwise I shouldn’t bother, my knee-jerk reply was always, “The hell I do!” Second, I think my time and effort is valuable, and I should be paid accordingly. The unchanging 15% royalty just isn’t enough for me. It used to make sense when the publisher did everything for the author, but these days a publisher won’t even look at your work unless your manuscript is finished, professionally edited, and you already have a platform/audience built around it. And then if they do take you on, you are expected to do a lot of your own marketing. Which brings me to the third reason: I have an inner entrepreneur. I get it from my father. If I’m expected to do that much work, I might as well try and do the whole thing myself.

4.      It sounds like the Kickstarter experience filled you with positive feelings and helped fuel your writing—please tell us all about it.

I put many long, grueling hours into planning, managing, and executing that Kickstarter last August. When I fantasized about it being successful, I imagined the campaign getting picked up by a good media outlet, and bringing in a ton of strangers to back me up. I was not only surprised but emotionally overwhelmed by the community of people I didn’t even realize had been there all this time, watching me, ready to support my creative ambitions. I grew up in a small farming community, the town of Brant. Half my backers came from that community. It definitely gave me, and still gives me, a ton of momentum that keeps me going. When I went home for Christmas I signed a bunch of copies of my book. It just warmed the cockles of my heart.

5.      What do you read for fun—are you a fantasy junkie? How did your reading background influence your writing?

I used to either avoid this question or straight up lie, but now that I am more confident as a writer I can answer honestly. I’m not a voracious reader, I never have been. Reading has always been difficult for me. I don’t know why exactly. I know that my father has a difficult time reading, too. I can blow through a book in a couple of days if the story grabs me, and grabs me fast, but when it doesn’t grab me, reading is a struggle. I don’t read a lot of fantasy either, especially high fantasy. I got nervous about this while writing The Alchemist’s Theorem since it’s considered a high fantasy book. I felt better though when I found out that Terry Pratchett didn’t read fantasy books. Apparently he felt he’d just be re-writing other peoples’ work if he did. When I got the idea for my book, though, I was binge-reading the Harry Potter books, and playing a ton of the video game Skyrim. And whilst in the process of finishing the book I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is a masterpiece. Because of my atypical reading practices combined with my alternate methods of consuming story (video games, TV, movies etc.) I think my writing has a pleasant undercurrent of quirkiness.

6.     
I love the idea of being able to step into a new environment where our perceived physical and mental faults are viewed as pluses. Do you believe we need to make a better effort to recognize autistic students’ gifts and abilities rather than focusing on the things they struggle to learn?

Yes. I have two nephews who are on the spectrum. They are amazing for so many reasons. But for whatever reason, people are always focusing on the aspects of who they are that don’t mesh well with our culture. The memoir written by Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump really helped me understand what it’s like inside the mind of spectrum kids. FangirlNation reviewed my book and really hit on what I was trying to do with Mendel:

"Chiavetta avoids showing autism as either an entirely crippling illness or a special gift in and of itself. Mendel has autism and he has to learn ways of coping with the world . . . It becomes one aspect of who he is, not the sole defining quality of an inquisitive and inventive young man.” —Fangirlnation

I think it is important to let spectrum characters be characters like any other.

7.      What drew you to the MG audience?


When I turned 12, life suddenly got really hard. Middle grade years are the hardest in my opinion, and I think that’s when we need the most help. Stories at that age kept me afloat.

8.      THE ALCHEMIST’S THEOREM is the first book in a series. How are you approaching the series? Did you have a complete outline from the beginning?

There are going to be four books in The Alchemist’s Theorem series, plus one prequel about Sir Esther and Sir Mostly’s adventures during the mistake. George R.R. Martin says that there are architects and there are gardeners. I am a gardener. I don’t create outlines. I know the main premise of every book, major events, twists, and how it’s all going to end, but the rest gets filled in when I write. If I ever get stuck I make sloppy bubble maps to help me arrange the plot. And once I see the scene in my head I can recall it like a movie clip. It’s really like having an alternate universe in my head that I can visit whenever I want.

9.      I find teachers are continually seeking read-alouds for their classroom. Did this in any way play into your word choice? (Babylump bushes, gargoyle vines, etc.) How important do you find humor to be when writing for this age group?

I didn’t know teachers seek read-alouds. The reason I use easier names is because I can’t stand complicated, hard-to-pronounce, made-up fantasy names. It’s part of the reason why I don’t like to read a lot of high fantasy. I like to take recognizable names and mix and match them.

Humor is very important. My science and monkey background taught me that we can stand a lot of stress if we have ways to counteract it. That’s why I wrote a fart into my story. Because farts are funny.

10.  Can you give us a hint or sneak peek as to what will happen in the next installment of THE ALCHEMIST’S THEOREM?

I’ve had a number of readers tell me they want the next one to be longer, and have more of everything. The next book will definitely be longer, dig deeper into the characters and mythos, and I will reveal a lot of the mystery from the first book. For example, I thought it was obvious what the creature from the mistake was, but apparently it is not. So readers will find out more about it in this next installment. But I will also be introducing all new mysteries (Mwhahaha). There is a new character and animal companion being added to the main characters, too, who I absolutely adore. And I’m stopping there. 

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THE ALCHEMIST'S THEOREM can be ordered wholesale through Ingram as well as Baker & Taylor.

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