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Interview with Erin Hunter (Victoria Holmes) from Barnes and Noble booksellers.
BARNS AND NOBLES; MEET THE AUTHORS
This interview with Victoria Holmes (editor of the Warriors series) comes from "Meet the authors" at BarnesandNobles.com. It is available in audio and podcast format at their website, and Blizz has made a transcript for Warrior's Wish. Please do not reproduce this copy, as it took over three hours to write.
STEVE: Have you read the Warriors series by Erin Hunter? They've been very successful and the brain child of Erin Hunter, Erin is with us now. Erin, welcome.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Thank you so much it's great to be here.
STEVE: Now I read that Erin Hunter is inspired by the love of cats and the ferocity of the natural world, right?
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yes, that's pretty much it. I love all animals, but cats are particularly good to write about, because they are so beautiful and have so much grace and strength. And also, because they're kind of slinky and secretive it's not hard to imagine them having a really cool world when they're out of sight.
STEVE: So they lend themselves to all different sorts of things, easy to write about as characters.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Very easy indeed. I think if I was writing about dogs it would be a lot harder, they're much more transparent and you can't credit them with a great deal of intellect, you know? If they need a cookie, you know they need a cookie, if they need to go outside they need to go outside. Whereas cats are much more supercilious they seem more intelligent and there's always something going on behind their beautiful eyes. So yes, cats are great to write about.
STEVE: And you never feel as if your completely trusted by your cat.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Absolutely not. Your cat owns you, you serve your cat whereas your dog serves you.
STEVE: Tell me about the idea for this series; where did it come from?
VICTORIA HOLMES: It actually came from my publisher, harpercollins. About seven years ago they knew me as an editor for them, as well as I'd written books under my own name. And they asked for a book about cats, which I kind of thought well, you know why not, every writer dreams of being offered the chance to work on any book. [but] By the time I got halfway through the first story line it was pretty obvious that this was a series concept that could run and run and run and that my character had legs, as they say in [?]; four legs, and a beautiful tail. And so one book stretched to six, and then to stretched to nine and twelve, and then here we are celebrating the launch of the fifteenth (Warriors: Power of Three #3: Outcast) book.
STEVE: I read too though, that you didn't have those legs under you at the beginning right? Until you started to put together a back story
VICTORIA HOLMES: That's correct yes. I'd have rather written about horses or dogs, in all honesty. Much as I love cats, I just didn't feel the connection with them that I do for certain other animals. And for the first two books I will admit I didn't completely know what I was doing. [and] I had some great ides, and a great editorial team supporting me, but it was only when I came to the third book, Forest of Secrets and I can remember very clearly writing the prologue for that in which a senior character has a little memory flashback and we learn that she gave up her children for the sake of her career. She wanted to become the leader of the Clan, and to do that she couldn't be a nursing mother, so she had to give up her tiny kits. And in giving them up, and giving them to another Clan, one of them died of cold in the snow. So she lost her family, she had to tell all her Clanmates they had been killed by a badger (in the book, she says she had told the Clan they had been chased out by foxes). So she had to lie about them. And as I was writing this, and all the emotion was coming through about a mother giving up her children made me realize that I had the freedom to write about things because they were cats, that I couldn't do if they were humans. And that I could cover topics that normally wouldn't be covered in children's fiction.
STEVE: So it wasn't so much that you warmed up to the cats but that you realized cats could be used to tell the stories.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Absolutely. And now, I love my cats. When I'm plotting a story I dream that I'm one of them, and I dream that I'm in a forest, and I have friends and favorites among them. But yes, they serve me, and they serve the story well.
STEVE: Tell me about the themes since the themes are sometimes pretty mature.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yes well, I don't write for children. I think it would be very condescending to say "this is what children should read about". I write for people. I write things that I am interested in. And I was summed up in an interview I did last year as being obsessed with "death, religion and gangs" (see interview, Feral Attraction) which seemed a little harsh, and given that I did a twenty minute interview to reach that one pithy statement I thought that I perhaps had been quoted out of context. But I think everyone is interested in "death, religion and gangs", in social pressure, in what happens when you die and things like that.
STEVE: And I think kids know when they're being written down to, too.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yes, absolutely. My core audience would be 9 - 14, you have to obey market forces. Nothing pleases me more then when a whole family turns up to an event and says that you know, "the children started reading it and now the mum and dad do, and the grandparents do".
STEVE: Do you adjust language?
VICTORIA HOLMES: No.
STEVE: Not a bit.
VICTORIA HOLMES: No, I always when when people always say, "Oh are you ever going to write books for adults?" as if I'm going to graduate on to adult fiction. It doesn't work like that. It just so happens to be that my words are enjoyed by children.
STEVE: Right, right. I've talked to other writers who write predominantly with children in mind or for children. And they talk about how nice it is because young readers are so much more willing to accept things then older readers are. And I don;t think it's because they come with more of an imagination, but maybe they're just not hardened by experience.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yes. I think certainly my readers always amaze me with their maturity. We talk about death, we talk about what happens when people die. We try and we look for explanations. I never pretend to have all the answers, but I encourage people to think about the shades of gray. However I think my readers are incredibly on the ball when it comes to my books. At every event I'll have people talking about all the mistakes I've made, which is cool, you know that's okay. I have a lot of cats to keep an eye on and mistakes are bound to slip through.
STEVE: Right, and I guess that just tells you that you have attentive readers. Very attentive readers yes. You do a number of school events?
VICTORIA HOLMES: I do, yes.
STEVE: Those can be intimidating sometimes.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yes, I will admit it is easier preaching to the converted. At a book store event, everyone is there because they love warriors. They know who I am, I can just chat about the books and themes, and that is a very easy thing to do. At a school, you're faced with maybe only about a dozen children or in several cases, no children at all who've even heard of Warriors, and then you have to look for a way in. The way I approach that is we talk about Clans, and we set up our own Clan. So it doesn't have to be anything about cats. It can be about sports, or reading or playing, or yesterday we set up a Clan called "AlienClan" in which half of us were 'humaliens", a combination of earthlings and aliens, and the other half pure aliens. All about how we'd assimilate onto earth. And once children get that they understand a lot about what's in Warriors without having it force fed to them.
STEVE: Do you ever find that your readers tell you something about the books that you didn't realize?
VICTORIA HOLMES: Quite often they see things that I didn't expect them to see. I think it would be a little disingenuous to say "Gosh, I never realized that was in there". I do know what I'm writing. I think what does impress me is when they pick up the tiniest clues. Because I lay clues waaay ahead. We're building up to a massive revelation in two books time which readers have been anticipating for seven books now and they have guessed; a lot of them have guessed what it is. But I'm going to keep them waiting, I'm not going to confirm the precise details, so they're certainly way ahead of me on that.
STEVE: How far back do you plot ahead? I mean, how many books? Do you know, after the second or third book how the series are going to go?
VICTORIA HOLMES: Each series is published in a set of six books. So we're in the third series. And I never start writing book one of a series without knowing exactly what's going to happen. Both the overarching storyline of all six books and the six individual storylines that will fill each book. I don't neccesarily plan further then that. But as it happened when I started writing Power of Three which is the third series that we're on now, I did know that it would extend to fill twelve books, so I do know what's going to happen next.
STEVE: You will-- will you miss them?
VICTORIA HOLMES: Oh I don't want to sound like JK Rowling now and how she wept and felt bereft when she stopped writing Harry Potter. I'm very fortunate; I will have written 40 Warriors books by the time I stop. I can't imagine that far ahead. I've commissioned to write until 2016. I'm not thinking about that time yet
VICTORIA HOLMES: Oh, I don't want to sound like JK Rowling now and how she wept after she finished writing Harry Potter. I'm very fortunate that I will have written forty warriors books by the time I stop, and I can't even imagine that far ahead. I've been commissioned to write up to 2016 and I'm not thinking about that time.
STEVE: Okay, so you're not worried about that. But there's another series too coming from Erin Hunter.
VICTORIA HOLMES: There is, yes, book one of the Seekers series launched on May 24th, and this is a series about bears. Which arose when harpercollins asked me that they wanted to publish something about a different animal. And they actually said we'll let you write about dogs now. And, you know if you asked me five years ago I would have bitten of their hands, metaphorically. But I felt that dogs would be too similar to cats. They'd probably live, in a community not to similar to a Clan, they would fight. And the problem with dogs is that they fight to the death, whereas cats are very much scratch and run away. There's a lot of death in my books, but cats very, very, very rarely die in battle! And in fact it's part of the warrior code that you don't have to kill, to win a fight. And I didn't want to write about dogs because their would be too much death. And I wouldn't want to loose so many characters. I'm not being squeamish, it's just that one big battle and they'd all go.
STEVE: Yeah, think of the work!
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yes. And then they suggested that I write about horses. But the problem with horses is that at the first sign of danger they run away. So I needed characters who could leap bravely into battle. Then they suggested I write about dolphins, and I said that I can't tell dolphins well enough apart. It would be very difficult to distinguish. And also a dolphin fight would be a little bit underwhelming. So in some kind of desperation, harpercollins said generously, "What do you want to write about?" and I said, "North American Bears!"
STEVE: "I'm glad that you asked!"
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yeah, because I specifically wanted to write about a solitary animal. One that was purely wild, that didn't have a streak of domestisticity like cats. One that lived on it's own, and one that also faced greater environmental challenges. And then, when they said yes, I went and watched discovery channel for six months because I realized I knew nothing about bears. And from that idea Seekers was born.
STEVE: Now, when you think cats and bears, I mean I tend to go by gender. I think girls might be more attracted to books about cats and boys about bears but I know a young boy whose just driven by the Warriors books. So maybe it doesn't divide out that way at all.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Absolutely not. I think at the start, I still have girl readers. But now at my events it's pretty much fifty-fifty. Which is just fantastic. You know Warriors are not sentimental. I don't do romance. After the first series my readers did start clamoring for more romance, so I put it in sure, but it's always doomed. Cats fall in love with the wrong cats, or their lover will die hideously or go off with another cat. And so boys aren't put off. And girls relish conflict. You know a company of girls will have more conflict among them then a company of boys.
STEVE: I know that's true right, raising one of each. It certainly is true.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yeah, I think it's a myth to say that girls would shy away from violence.
STEVE: When you are sitting down to write, are you more plot orientated or character oriented? Because a lot of writers will put themselves in one category or another.
VICTORIA HOLMES: I think, as a children's writer, you must remember that a story must be plot driven. And my rule of thumb is that the story must move forward on every single page. So for me that's one page of script, one A4 sized page. And if the character speaking, or their action does not move the story forward in some way then that is a wasted page. However, my characters are hugely important, and because they are the core of the story, and because I'm very much writing from their perspective they are equally important. I'd have to sit on the fence on that.
STEVE: You would. Now when you come along and meet someone new do you think of them sort of as what kind of cat or bear you might be in your books?
VICTORIA HOLMES: Not in a million years. Never.
STEVE: See I would think there'd be a temptation to do that.
VICTORIA HOLMES: Yes. And actually because under my own name, Victoria Holmes, I do write books about people, people with horses. And I'm often asked, "do you put real people in your books?" Never. I couldn't know someone as well as the character I create in my own imagination. So my cats are not based on anyone.
STEVE: Tell me about your writing day. Do you write in a specific place? Are there things you need on your desk when you write, do you listen to music? What's it like?
VICTORIA HOLMES: No I can't listen to muisc because it affects my mood. So if I'm listening to something swirly and stormy then the cats rush into battle. And if I'm listening to something a bit more dreamy then they all start falling in love, which is disastrous as we know. No, I tend to have to work in silence. I would love to say that I have a beautiful writing room; some kind of garden but in fact I tend to write on my sofa with my laptop on my knees and my dog curled up beside me.
STEVE: And then becomes the work of Erin Hunter.
VICTORIA HOLMES: It does indeed.
STEVE: Nice to talk to you
VICTORIA HOLMES: And you. Thank you so much.