Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Interview With T. A. Barron -- Part I

T. A. Barron is the author of the popular and five-book epic, The Lost Years of Merlin, which is soon to become a movie, based on the first book. His books have been translated into eight languages, and he is the recipient of the 2011 De Grummond USM Medallion for his lifelong contribution to the field of Children's and YA literature, as well as numerous other awards, including 2005 Nautilus Book Award-Grand Prize Winner, for The Great Tree of Avalon trilogy (another series that follows The Lost Years of Merlin and the Merlin’s Dragon trilogy). He lives in Colorado with his wife and children. In addition to his YA novels, Barron has written picture books and nonfiction. His titles can be viewed and purchased at: .

Q. You have said that Merlin intrigued you because of a missing space in the legends about him. But there are missing spaces in stories of Arthur, Morgan La Fay, and Margawse, and the latter two also had magical powers. Why Merlin instead of one of the others?

A. Merlin is simply the most rich, amazing, wondrous character of all! He is, after all, the original wizard – the first mythic person who embodies the magic of nature. The more I have written
about him (now almost twenty years), the more compelling he becomes.

Here are the reasons why:

Let me start by saying that I've been fascinated with Merlin ever since my first year as a student at Oxford, when I sat in the shade of an ancient English oak tree and read T.H. White's Once and Future King. But even though I eventually named that oak “Merlin's Tree”, I had no idea that twenty years later I'd have the chance to weave another thread or two into the marvelous tapestry of myth about Merlin. Life is really more surprising than legend.

So why has Merlin persisted in our minds and hearts? Why have people been telling stories about him, adding to his legend, for over fifteen hundred years? Well, here's my theory. It's because Merlin stands for three basic ideals—ideals we need today, more than ever: universality, humility, and the sacredness of Nature.

First take universality. When you look at the original Celtic tales, Merlin's role was truly astounding. And unique. Despite all the chaos, warfare, plagues, and hardships of life in sixth century Britain, here came this wizard who actually succeeded in building bridges among people—Druids and Christians, nobles and peasants, archbishops and old gray wolves. And now, in our own time, when so many people are bent on tearing humanity apart, Merlin gives us
hope that we can still perhaps come together.

Then there is humility. There is always a tension in Merlin's legends between the light and dark sides in humanity. And in Merlin himself. That is why, in the Celtic tales, he was given a saintly mother and a demonic father. And that is why, in my own tales of Merlin, he often grapples with his own dark side, his own flaws. All this makes him a wiser, more compassionate person—and a truly remarkable mentor.

And finally—Merlin's wondrous connection with Nature. To him, the language of the river or the tree isn't so far from his own; the echoing call of a wolf is full of wisdom. Humanity has always yearned to connect with the cosmos, to belong to the universe as wholly as light belongs to the stars. Merlin reminds us of that yearning, and inspires us to explore it.

Much like Merlin, the mythic world of Avalon kindles some of our deepest longings. For it is a place that combines mortal and immortal, transitory and eternal. A place where all creatures, whether they walk or fly or swim or crawl, live together in harmony. And also, a place of hope amidst human suffering. The sort of place where Merlin himself might live—and where, through the magic of story, we all can live, for a time.

Q. Are you the screenwriter for the movie, The Lost Years of Merlin? If so, how does writing script appeal to you? If not, are you comfortable with how it is being handled?

A. Originally, my agent asked me if I wanted to write the script. I said no – because writing a script is quite different from writing a novel, and I want a movie script that is the absolute best. And that’s what we got from Simon Kinberg! He is a fabulous script writer and producer, whose recent credits include Sherlock Holmes, XMen 3, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In addition to being an accomplished script writer, Simon is as passionate about this project as I am – and equally respectful of Merlin. So I have had no difficulty at all in giving Simon the opportunity to bring this story to life on the big screen. It’s been a true delight to work together with him.

Q. Is there a projected date yet for the movie? In other words, is the screenplay finished and have the stars been picked?

A. No date yet. We are still in development, with a terrific script. Now we are going out to directors, an exciting stage. So we are making progress … but this is a bizarre process.

Q. You have spent nearly 20 years writing about Merlin and Merlin’s dragon, Basil. Do you think any future projects will captivate your imagination to the extent that Merlin did?

A. After finishing my trilogy, The Great Tree of Avalon, (which, I'm pleased to say, made the New York Times best seller lists), I began the final trilogy to complete my saga of Merlin and his worlds. The result is the new Merlin's Dragon trilogy, which reveals what really happened between the final scene of The Lost Years of Merlin saga and the opening of The Great Tree of
trilogy. Book I, titled Merlin's Dragon, follows the amazing adventures of a tiny little fellow named Basil... who has a future that is just as magical, heroic, and extraordinary as Merlin's. Though he has a very small body, he has a very big destiny! Book II, called MERLIN'S DRAGON: Doomraga's Revenge, continues his epic adventures. And Book III, titled MERLIN'S DRAGON: Ultimate Magic , will call on him to show the magic, power, and wisdom of the greatest dragon of all times—if he's going to save his beloved world of Avalon.

I am also delighted to announce an illustrated compendium volume, due in 2011, titled The Book of Merlin, which will reveal many secrets and back stories about more than 150 characters and places and magical objects found in all the Merlin books! Together, these two books will complete the 12-book saga of Merlin and his worlds. (And they cap off an 18-year creative process for me ... quite a journey.)

Tomorrow T. A. Barron discusses his writing process, his love of nature, advice for young writers, and the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, named after his mother, a woman who believed one person can make a difference.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

NorCal Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference

On Saturday, (April 26th) I attended the NorCal regional conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Rocklin. It was organized by Patricia Newman ( and Erin Dealey (, co-regional advisors, and the many helping hands always required in putting together events like this.

I’ll share a little about each speaker that I had the good fortune to listen to, narrowing it down to advice that meant the most to me. Consequently, this blog is going to be a bit longer than usual.

The keynote address was by Judy Sierra, an award winning children’s author whose current book, Wild About Books, is a New York Times #1 Children’s bestseller, and she has tons of award-winning books. (

Sierra advised the audience to: 1. Know your genre. 2. Know your audience. 3. Know yourself – how to manage your unconscious and intuition, the source of all your inspiration. She shared a lovely quote by Uri Shulevitz from his book, Writing with Pictures. It resonated with me, since among the books I’m revising, one is a picture book. Here is the paraphrased quote, as I can never scribble fast enough to get things down word for word. “A picture book is like a small theater…, the text is like a script…, every page is a new scene…, the page turn makes the pace.”

Following the address, there were four time slots for concurrent break-out sessions, two before lunch, two after. During lunch, editors, agents, and authors visited each table and chatted -- a really unique idea. (Our table was fortunate to get Mary Rodgers, Editor-in-Chief at Lerner Publishing: )

Each of the four break-out slots mentioned above offered three choices. I’ll share a bit from each of my choices – bits that were helpful to my concerns.

I. A Novelist’s Craft: Working Out a Plot: Speaker, Jeanne DuPrau, author of the City of Ember series. ( ) DuPrau is also the winner of the 2004 ALA Notable Book Award, among other awards.

DuPrau said a good beginning starts with some kind of trouble or a question or problem that has to be solve or answered. The middle has to keep the escalation building through complications, but the ending has to grow out of the beginning and address the questions raised at the beginning. All along the way, you can’t be rigid, and the story may change. But if you are true to the integrity of the story, an unexpected ending feels true and not a weird surprise.

II. TMI: Being You, Being Professional: Speaker, Brian Farrey, Acquisitions Editor for Flux, the young adult imprint of Llewelyn Worldwide. ( )

Farrey was full of good advice on setting up an “online presence”. First, have a professional email address (simply your name and dot whoever). Essentially, you are “building a brand”, which can sound depressing for someone who doesn’t know much about marketing, but he turned out to have such nuggets of wisdom, I was happy I sat in on that session.

Farrey's “no-no’s included: Don’t use your site as a personal journal, venting, sniping, gossiping, etc.; whatever you write will circulate for sure and be seen by everyone. Avoid attacks or feuds. Avoid an excess of negativity. Recognize the difference between raising important issues and wallowing in self-pity. Don’t tweet or blog in anger. “Think twice, tweet once.”

I particularly liked his advice on what you should do: Be regular about blogging or tweeting – daily, weekly or monthly, however often you think you can show up. Vary your content. Share good reads. Raise money for good causes. Visit other blogs and participate by commenting. Network. Get to know other writers and librarians. It’s about camaraderie, not just selling your books. Be a community member first and a promoter second, and remember to have fun.

III. Anatomy of a Synopsis: Again, Brian Farrey.

I was happy to hear Farrey say that, while query letters are important, good writing of the book is more important, as is a good synopsis. To write a good query, you do have to tailor it to the agent or editor. Since all queries include a short synopsis, here is Farrey’s advice for a query synopsis, and the longer full book synopsis:

Query synopsis -- One or two paragraphs, highlighting characters and conflict, focusing on the plot. Don’t mention theme or explain meaning; instead, give specific details in the plot: Who is the protagonist and what does he/she want? What obstacles stand in the way? How does he/she try to get around the obstacles? What complications arise from that? Pull your short query synopsis from the first 50 pages of the book to give a “taste” of the flavor of the book.

The full synopsis is one or two pages at the most and is a short version of the book, with a beginning, middle, and end. Again, avoid talking about journeys or themes or meanings. Give a short, specific paragraph to each of the following: The character and inciting incident (conflict #1), how character copes and new problem (conflict #2), how character copes and new problem (conflict #3 and climax), (maybe go up to conflict #4 and climax), and finally the resolution.

IV. The Many Revisions of the City of Ember: Again, Jeanne DuPrau.

DuPrau advises that the most important step is to see what isn’t working. If you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t fix it. It helps to put it aside for awhile so you can read it with fresh eyes.
Here are some things to look out for in your re-read:
1. Uneven storytelling. The tension doesn’t keep building; a “slumping” arc.
2. Lack of clarity at the start. Moving in too quickly confuses the reader about what is going on.
3. Bad basics. Poor spelling, syntax, etc.
4. Imprecise word choice. Choosing the right word is hard, so write “xxxx” and come back later with the right word.
5. Unnecessary stuff. Every incident or word, has to have a purpose.
6. Poor dialogue. a) Avoid dialogue when its only function is to give expository information. b) Don’t use distracting dialogue tags when “said” works fine.
7. Flat or inconsistent characters.
8. Absence of setting and context. It isn’t clear who is speaking, or when or where.
9. Implausibility. Would your characters really say…, do…, think that?
10.Boringness. The most fatal flaw.

The conference closed with a Question and Answer panel – all very helpful – and then it was over. Thank you Patricia and Erin and everyone else involved in making it such a satisfying day!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Not Quite the Last Thoughts on Spain, After all

We left Trasulfe (the little village near Monforte where we stay) Monday afternoon and enjoyed the leisurely drive to Santiago along a winding, well-marked and smooth highway. Neighbors had predicted rain, but it was actually a beautiful sunny day. Spring was blooming in earnest by the time we left: The hills were lush with purple heather, splotched with golden gorse; and the lemony-yellow broom was just starting to bloom in graceful strands.

Since our flight was to leave the next morning at a little after 9:00, we stayed overnight in a hotel near the airport. The rates for nice rooms are unbelievable inexpensive, and we prefer this way of exiting Galicia. (Driving those same winding roads in the dark in order to get to the airport in time is not a happy experience.)

As it turned out, our departure from Santiago was delayed due to technical difficulties -- long enough to miss all our connecting flights and have to reschedule them. We had traveled by American Airlines from Sacramento to Dallas and by Iberian from Dallas to Madrid and to Santiago. Retracing, once we reached Madrid, we were able to get new boarding passes for the flight from Madrid to Dallas at the Iberian counter, but we had to come back the following morning to get final boarding passes from Dallas to Sacramento, as American had already closed its counter. Two pieces of good news, though: 1) American and Iberian are sister airlines, so we didn't lose any money. 2) Iberian booked us a nice hotel room that included three elegantly presented meals and shuttle service to the hotel and back. There was no time to sightsee in Madrid, but we had an enjoyable last evening and a good night's sleep before setting out for home.

It was about 11:00 p.m. by the time we arrived in Sacramento, collected baggage and got home from the airport. Our dog was deliriously happy to see us (and vice versa). The next morning, though (yesterday), due to our lost day, my husband and I both had no time to idle away our jet lag. He had to get right to work early in the morning, and I had to prepare a lesson for my after-school art class.

Still, it's amazing how quickly one falls into routine. We had a wonderful holiday, but it's also good to be back into our ventures -- in my case, writing and art; in Rajan's case, designing and photography. The garden is a wonderful mess again. Wonderful because color is blossoming everywhere; a mess because the weeds are thriving again. The April art show is going well: the month is half over, and more than half of the kids' pictures have sold. I also had time to visit one of my favorite used bookstores and fall in love with two more books I immediately put on hold. (Will I ever get over my book addiction?)

There is still tons of mail (e and snail) to go through; and items in the news to catch up on. All of the news in Galicia was either in Spanish or Gallegan. Given the progress of our Spanish, we have been more or less out of the loop for a month --which could well explain why we came back so relaxed and rested.

But now vacation is over and there is much to do, like lining up some more good interviews and guest bloggers. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Last Thoughts On Galicia (Until We Get Home)

This is probably my last chance to blog about Galicia until we get home, as tomorrow we leave our village. We'll stay overnight in Santiago, as our plane leaves early in the morning Tuesday.

The cherry trees are blooming now. Forsythias, too, in brilliant yellow. White daisies are sprinkled across the meadows. The cuckoo has arrived. Spring has sprung here and the weather is gorgeous. Meanwhile, our friend Jacki from the Ourense area came up for two days to catch up on news and go to the Medieval Fair. Having grown up in the English countryside, she could identify many of the plants for me. What I thought were canterbury bells are sweet nettle. And the trees filled with billowing yellow (still blooming) are indeed mimosa. They are a form of acacia.

In the walkway next to the river in Monforte, the wysteria are putting out tiny bud clusters that by fall will hang in strands of pink and blue and white. And the swans are back -- two lovely white swans floating lazily among the geese and mallards where the town creek empties into the river. The river borders the park, which borders the free public parking lot next to the Colegio. The Colegio (visualize an accent mark over the e) is both a monastery and a school for ages 4-16. I would have thought it meant college, but here college is called la universidad.

This has been a lovely last week, full of visits with friends and fairs and excursions. The Medieval Fair was a treat. Performers were dressed in medieval costume and put on mini plays and skits at the various plazas leading up to the Parador. Streets were line with stalls that displayed artisans' crafts, local cheeses, honeys, licores, and meats. (That last item wasted on us, but they did look impressive.) A man juggled with swords. A procession of musicians went up and down streets. And many locals dressed in costume, too. We stopped at one point and went into the Centro, and the family at the table next to us were all dressed up. Two little boys had silvery material helmets, swords, and charcoal mustaches and beards, but when they smiled, both of them were missing their two front teeth. The family, of course, were not having wine, but we did, and it was served in clay bowls as of yore, by a waitress in costume.

Later in the week Rajan and I drove to the small pueblacita called Doade, which has two wineries, a cantina, and a resturant by the river. That was our "splurge" lunch this trip, and afterwards we went down to the bodega (wine cellar) and the proprietor told us all about his wines. Earlier that morning, we'd finally taken the tour of the wine museum in town, learning all about the Ribeira Sacra region (Sacred River Valley). These vines were first brought over in 2nd century by the Romans who first came to mine gold. These vineyards are grown on steep hillsides, terraced with drywalls and still are hand-tended. Once in Doade, we had an enhanced appreciation of the terraced hillsides we were viewing. We took pictures, but it's too hard to try to download them here, so when we get back, I'll probably post quite a few.

Meanwhile, yesterday we went to a place called Rectoral Castillo. It's now a privately-owned restaurant and hotel-- restored from what originally was the home of a noble who, childless, bequeathed it to the Church. In turn it became the home of a bishop. After the priest died, it fell into neglect. The current family bought it about 22 years ago and lovingly restored in the character of the original building. It's like a very unique Parador, except that it's privately-owned instead of part of the government-owned Parador system. It's just lovely. The grounds go on and on with patios and gardens and fountains and pools There's a round, white building that is a dovecote and a separate chapel (nobles had them in those days).

Today is "stay home" day. We are cooking meriendas (snacks) for our wonderful neighbors and doing the necessary cleaning and tidying before closing up the house until our fall visit. I know we'll both be daydreaming about it until our next trip. But for now, hasta la vista, Trasulfe, and pretty soon, hello plane!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Great Discovery

A great discovery we've made in Monforte de Lemos is the Centro do Vino da Riberira Sacra. It goes by the shorter name of Centro do Vino (with a tilde over the n), which is Gallegan for Centro de Vino (with no tilde).

Friends just call it "Centro". Centro has a unique concept: It offers a cafe-tapa bar (which is also a restaurant with a fixed menu that allows you to sample several of the tapas and desserts at a fixed price). Through a doorway, you enter a wine shop that offers a selection of wines from the many wineries of the Rebeira Sacra region (the region in these parts, and the name means "Sacred River" in Gallegan.) And the third offering is a museum upstairs with several guided tours during the day. The museum takes you through the history of wines in this region and their distinct characteristics. Several friends have recommended the tour, and we plan to take it either tomorrow or Thursday.

But today I want to mention the taperia's offerings: They are wonderful. My husband and I are vegetarians, with the exception that we do eat fish and seafood. In the course of this trip, we have sampled their smoked salmon on toast, their langostini (jumbo prawns) croquettes; their bacallao (cod) in tempura, and their pemientos (sweet peppers) with bonita tuna, and they are all indescribably delicious, as is the cafe con leche and their wines. We come in often, and today they threw in a remarkable cheesecake as a "gift". Galicians are gracious that way, and the spirit of giving is prevalent in cafes as well as among our neighbors, (who stop by with eggs, vegetables or wine from their cellars.)

It's hard to know how many people reading this will be coming to Galicia, Spain, but for those who do, and who come specifically to Monforte de Lemos, you can't have a richer tapa experience than to stop at Centro do Vino. After that, go next door to the wine shop, after taking the tour (which includes an English guide and is offered 6 times a day), and make your selection of wine. You will meet with graciousness at every turn.

Their Website:
For those who make it to Monforte: Their address and telephone number:
Rua do Comercio 6, Monforte de Lemos 27400, Lugo, Espania
Telefono: 982 105 303

For those perplexed by the word "do" in this context: "do" in Gallegan is the same as "del" in Spanish. And Rua (with an accent over the "u") is the Gallegan word for "street".

Hasta la vista, and more tomorrow about the Medieval Fair last Saturday.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Fabulous Sugar Doll Blogger Award

I had expected to blog a little more about Galicia today, but then received a pleasant surprise in today's e-mail: British Fantasy Writer Lia Keyes, founder of Scribblerati, and host of the Scribechat on Twitter, gave a friend, Rachnia Chhabria, The Fabulous Sugar Doll Blogger Award for her blog. In turn, Rachnia gave it to me and four others. And after fulfilling the requirements, (telling ten unusual things about myself), I, too, am to to pass it on to five others. Before I do either, let me just urge you to go to their blog sites, as you will get a good read in either place: and . I would also like to urge any and all to joing Scribblerati, as it's a good place to meet other authors and catch up on lots of writing news.

I'm going to reverse the above process, though. First, I'm going to name the five OTHER sites I would like to pass the award to, and THEN I'll tell the ten unusual things about myself.

Okay, the awards go to: Sandie Muncaster is the Blog Editor for Bumples Magazine at Bumples Magazine is a charming online magazine for families and children. Riley Carney is a marvellous author who only happens to be a teen-ager (as opposed to being a "teenage author"). She is a prolific, well-published writer who maintains an interesting blog and also promoting literacy one of her special projects. Nathan Bransford, an agent, has probably one of the most popular sites online. He is truly funny, and wonderfully informative about every aspect of what is going on in the publishing industry. One can only benefit from visiting his site. Rachel Dillon wrote the wonderful picture book, Through Endangered Eyes, which is becoming a part of a series, and she also is working on a young adult novel and covers a wide range of writing-related topics on her blog. Amy Tate has wonderful insights about the writing process and speaks from the heart. A trip to her site is like visiting a friend who understands the life of a writer.

Ten unusual things about myself? Well, I think they're unusual.

1. My mother was an opera singer, but not famously so.

2. Therefore, I know a smattering of opera French, Italian, and German, but can say nothing useful in any of those languages.

3. When I focused on writing, I started out wanting to write a grown up novel. But I seem to have settled into writing for children. They are just such a fun readership to write for.

4. It's quite possible that I haven't entirely grown up.

5. As long as a cold wind isn't blowing and there isn't lightning and thunder, I love rain and fog.

6. I can never leave a bookstore or a library empty-handed. Consequently, our basement looks like a used book store. So does our livingroom. And bedroom. And guest bedroom.

7. Although I love live opera, I hate it when someone -- the stage director, the choreographer, the constume designer, whoever -- decides to recast the drama and music in an odd setting like a black stage with lots of boxes, and with everyone wearing symbolically dark cloaks. I want the opera the composer had in mind: Costumes. Temples. Woodlands. Lakes. Boats. All of it.

8. I continue to love the Beattles.

9. My favorite dessert in the whole world is the almond-flavored Tarta de Santiago. My second favorite is one of my sisters-in-law's Squash Halva. Even chocolate pales in comparison.

10. Given that I LOVE chocolate, that tells you something about the Tarta and Halva.

So, there it is. Galicia will have to wait for tomorrow. But then, we are in "Que sera sera" land. Galicia has all the time in the world -- a contagious attitude, I might add. Hasta Manana.

PS: Visualize an accented a on sera, and a tilde on the n. I can normally do that in Word, but have never figured out how to do it on this blog. If anyone can tell me, please do!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Fiestas and Ferias

Between the fiestas (festivals) and ferias (fairs) time swiftly passes.

Last Saturday we went to the wine festival in Sober, a town south of our area that each year shows off local wineries with wines from the Ribeira Sacra region. Several booths were set up inside a covered area for wine tastings, while a small brass band played area favorites on a raised platform. They reminded me so much of the band (and the music) in the wonderful film, La Lengua de la Maripos (The Tongue of the Butterfly -- a story based in Galicia during the rise of Franco).

Outside the tasting area kiosks and booths lined streets, selling everything from South American jewelry to local Galician black pottery and copper wares for distilling the aquardiente every home is proud of sharing. Aguardiente is a home-made brandy that is sometimes flavored with herbs or coffee, but in its true state is quite similar to the grappa of Italy. (Locals can distill these for home use only; it's illegal to sell them unless by a commercial company; but locals make it and share it as part of their hospitality.)

Tomorrow, Monforte will have it's Feria Medevial (Medieval Fair). Meanwhile, Monforte and surrounding villages also have regular fairs the locals attend regularly. These are much like flea markets in the States, and you can buy anything from bread to plants to wallets to clothing, as well as the pottery and copperware mentioned above. In addition, a tented area is always set up with tables and benches where one can eat the favorite dish of Galicia, "pulpo". Pulpo is octopus. The Galician way of fixing it is to make an herbed stew. We've only tried it once, and it didn't click with us. But our neighbors go to fairs specifically to enjoy pulpo and socialize with friends from other villages.

In better weather, we would have gone to Ourense, a large city south of Monforet, on the way to Portugal, or to Lugo, one of our favorite cities in Galicia. Lugo is encircled by a magnificent Roman wall with, I think, 17 arches. It also has a Celtic past, and the name in fact goes back to the Celtic God of Light, Lugh. There's a museum with historical relics and some wonderful paintings. We'll probably visit both these places next time, but for now, the weather has kept us indoors a lot, either enjoying long lunches with friends or enjoying the books they've loaned us.

And we spend long intervals at our galeria window looking out on the ever-shifting scenery. The weather is such that the view is constantly changing and ever a vista of beauty.