Interview by Brock Eastman
Featuring A Plague of Unicorns
Have you ever heard read a book by Jane Yolen? There’s a good chance you have. The author of over 350 books and recipient of countless awards you’ve likely picked up or seen a Jane Yolen book while browsing your local bookstore. She’s been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century. I’m honored to have had the chance to sit down and talk about her recent Zondervan release; A Plague of Unicorns.
Brock: Jane, thanks for taking the time to share about A Plague of Unicorns with us. Can you first start with how you came up with the idea for the novel?
Jane: The prosaic answer is that I was introduced to editor Kim Childress at the Texas Library Assn. Meeting two years ago and she said she was a big fan and would love to do a book with me. I knew ZonderKidz, but wasn't sure I had something that might work for them. But then I remembered a short story I'd published years ago in a book of mine called Here There be Unicorns. And when I told her [Kim] a bit about it, and how I thought it could be made into a middle grade novel, her eyes lit up. She asked to see the story and some idea of how I would turn it into a novel.
The deeper answer: I have been fascinated by unicorns since a child. One of my first published poems was in my college magazine about unicorns. So to be asked to go back to engage, enlarge, and be enveloped one again in unicorns was a gift.
Brock: She’ll probably be embarrassed I’m sharing this, but she’s my sister so it’s a brother’s right. When my sister was in grade school her room was decked out in unicorns for a good while, statues, bedspread, poster, curtains. Who are the main characters in the story?
Jane: James, heir to the dukedom of Callanshire, who's father has not come back from the Holy Lands and is presumed hurt, imprisoned, or dead. He is a child who asks questions, though he seems rather more interested in asking questions than listening to the answers. His sister Alexandria who--for the medieval times--is a mighty strong young woman. And then there are the various monks and abbots who all stand for various minds of teachers.
Brock: Jane, would you share one fact about each main character that no one else knows?
Jane: James is rather like me at that age, and rather like my middle child, my son Adam. Alexandria is named after my oldest granddaughter Glendon Alexandria Callan-Piatt. I have the abbot's cider recipe but didn't put it in the book, nor will I give it out.
Brock: A cider recipe you’re withholding. We’ll see if we can’t get it from you some time in the future. In three sentences what A Plague of Unicorns about?
Jane: It is about unlikely heroes, faith and trust, learning to listen to answers--though they may come from some of the oddest places--and about how kindness towards an enemy or a presumed enemy can often overcome even the meanest of them.
Brock: How do you believe this story relates to the lives of readers?
Jane: Every reader brings a bit of themselves (their baggage if you will) to a story. And what they take out is unique to them. So that is something you will have to ask them, not me.
Brock: Fair answer. What is your preferred genre to write for?
Jane: Depends which day you ask. Right now it's poetry and fantasy because that's what I'm working on.
Brock: Any certain research required for A Plague of Unicorns, or was it all from your imagination?
Jane: As I had already written a number of short stories, poems, and even a novel (The Transfigured Hart) about unicorns, I didn't need to do a lot of research about them. Medieval abbeys/monasteries however. . .the summer I was working on the book I was in Scotland and visited a few ruins. It helped me visualize them.
Brock: I’m sure that was fun and added more depth to the writing. Why did you choose to tell the story from this perspective?
Jane: I tell the story that wants telling. In this case, it's about a younger brother/older sister (as I was to my brother Steve). But with sixty novels out, I have written from both boys’ and girls’ points of view.
Brock: Is it difficult to be accurate to a Biblical perspective when writing fantasy fiction?
Jane: The unicorn is seen in Christian terms as an avatar of Christ: pure, able to heal (with its horn), and in many of the stories killed and then resurrected in a garden. (See the unicorn tapestries.) But I decided to make them an inexplicable force of nature in this book, which the monks cannot conquer until it is done with gentle persuasion and a kind of love.
Brock: Now let’s switch gears and learn about you as an author. Where do you like to write?
Jane: Downstairs in my house, surrounded by photos of my children and grandchildren.
Brock: Are you a full-time or part-time author/writer?
Jane: More than full time. After all I have more than 350 books out!
Brock: How long does it usually take you to write a single book?
Jane: As long as it takes. I once wrote a picture book in three days, including all the revisions. But my picture book OWL MOON took fifteen years to write.
Brock: When you write do you outline the entire story before starting, or do you write as you go and let the characters take control of the story?
Jane: There are two kinds of writers--outliners, and those of us who fly into the midst. Of course in this book [A Plague of Unicorns] I already had an outline, the published short story. But I had to let quite a bit of it go!
Brock: It sounds like you prefer to ‘fly into the midst.’ When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
Jane: As a child I was always writing. I thought I would be a poet for my heart and a journalist like my dad to make a living. I was a lousy journalist.
Brock: What was your favorite book as a teen or child?
Jane: I was such a constant reader, it continually changed. But some of my favorites were The Colour Fairy Books by Andrew Lang, any version of the King Arthur story, The Secret Garden, Little Women, James Thurber’s Thirteen Clocks, The Story of Ferdinand, and any horse and dog book.
Brock: What are your hopes for your future as an author?
Jane: I am about to turn 76. I still have many stories in me. I hope I can live long enough to write most of them.
Brock: Now for some lightning round questions. Coke or Pepsi?
Jane: Mineral water.
Brock: Soft shell or hard shell tacos?
Jane: Don't like tacos.
Brock: Favorite place to vacation?
Brock: Favorite season?
Brock: Do you have a particular drink or food you consume when you write?
Jane: British decaf tea and dried dates.
Brock: Favorite color?
Brock: Do you listen to music while you write?
Jane: Never. I am so musical, it would drive the story's rhythms rather than letting the story do that.
Author website: JaneYolen.com
Author Twitter: @JaneYolen