An interview with Ishta Mercurio, author of the picture book, Small World, and co-author of the non-fiction picture book, Bite into Bloodsuckers. Hear about her favourite first lines, her love of characters that push the boundaries of expectations, and her penchant for telling truths through metaphors. 20 minutes.
Read the full transcript:
[1:05] Interview with Ishta Mercurio
CA: Have you found a difference before and after Small World was published in terms of how you feel about your work?
IM: Yes and no. … when Small World had just come out, I felt an intense pressure to meet a certain bar. … And for a period of time it was stifling ….
[2:25] CA: Have you ever based the story on the news?
IM: …. I am working on a story right now that is inspired by the news… but you probably wouldn’t know that once this book’s done. You won’t be able to tell what news story triggered it.
[3:25] CA: …. Have you ever written anything that was inspired by other stories?
IM: Yes. … And for a long time it was really bad because it was clearly derivative. … I just let it sit for a while until I figured out how to make it into my own story.
[4:05] CA: Do you ever do object studies or have your stories included memorable objects?
IM: Yeah that happened in Small World a lot .. Nanda … notices patterns in nature …like swirls and spirals and the … fractal pattern in snowflakes. … I do whole school visits just about the shape progression in that book….
[4:55] CA: Do you have a favorite first line?
IM: Yes…. Small World opens with this line: When Nanda was born, the whole of the world was wrapped in the circle of her mother’s arms. Safe, warm, small. …And the story comes back around to that line. …Before I wrote Small World, my favorite first line was MT Anderson’s first line in his book Feed…. And the first line is: We went to the moon to have fun but the moon turned out to completely suck. And there’s just so much packed in there… The best first lines are dense, where the first line is actually the kernel of what the entire book is about.
[6:55] CA: Do you have any favourite settings?
IM: … I love reading historical fiction, and what I love about reading historical fiction is the details. … I like settings that are historical. And I like settings that are unlike where I am. … I also like fantasy settings …. I used to wish that I could escape to Narnia….
[9:00] CA: Do you have any favorite fictional characters?
… My favorite characters are characters who are smart and who are willing to put everything on the line for what they believe is right. … from the Harry Potter series, Snape was my favorite character. Snape and Dumbledore. … Characters who are harder to get to know… those are the characters that I like the most.
[11:50] CA: And do you have a favorite POV to write from?
IM: I don’t. It depends on the story and what the story needs. …. I think especially for spooky stories, sometimes first-person POV can be really great because the reader only knows what the character knows. But sometimes the best way to introduce tension is to let the reader know something that the character doesn’t know, and for that you need third person. … Try it different ways. … Always, always experiment. … I think a lot of people come to writing as a career with the idea that they’re going to write something and then someone will publish it. And like that revision process that happens in the middle, there’s no understanding that that process is 90% of the process. …
[14:50] CA: Do you find that you edit yourself while you draft? …
IM: Oh yes, I edit myself while I draft. Absolutely….. But then once I’ve put the comments in the margins, then I can move on …
[15:35] CA: …Have you ever written a monster?
IM: Yes. I mean, it was a person. I think the worst monsters are people…. We all know deep in our hearts that monsters aren’t actually real. But people are real. And people do bad things, real bad things. …
[16:10] CA: Did you tell stories around a campfire as a kid …?
IM: … One year when I was seven, my parents sent me on one of those like overnight summer camps. And I hated it so much… As a grown up I’ve told my kids scary stories around the campfire.
[17:35] CA: Do you have a favorite scary story or scary movie?
IM: … yes. … “The green ribbon.” It’s a story about a girl who has this green ribbon around her neck and she never takes it off. And then one day she does take it off. … listeners, you need to check that story out. … I can’t do scary movies. … But before I had kids,… my favorite scary movie was “The Candyman.”… A recent horror movie that, again, I tried to watch is… “Get Out” … Horror — I can’t handle it. …
[19:05] CA: Do you have any phobias?
IM: … I have some low-level … structural anxieties. … like in the kitchen, the cupboards that are on the wall, I just worry that the nails and screws holding them up are not quite up to the task. … sometimes you’ll go to like a friend’s house and you’ll be cooking in the kitchen, and you’ll open the kitchen cupboard and it’ll just be like packed with like full bags of flour … I can’t handle it. … seeing something that juts out from the wall and is that loaded down just …makes me sweat.
[20:35] CA: …Do you collect anything?
IM: Yes, everything. … I collect rocks. … And I have a collection of key chains. … They have personal significance to me… I would love to have an old maps collection, of like actual legitimately antique maps. …, those ancient maps are also super expensive. So I don’t collect them yet. When I write the next Twilight, I will….
[22:05] Ishta Mercurio introduces herself
IM: My name is Ishta Mercurio. And I write books for kids…I have done all kinds of different things throughout my life. I’ve been a barista; I’ve worked with autistic kids; I’ve gone door-to-door for an environmental action group; I have been an actor. And I learned that that’s okay. …I embrace this wacky creative life of doing all kinds of different things, and writing all kinds of different things for all kinds of different people. And the one thing that is constant is that the characters that I write are characters who live outside the box and tend to live outside the norm and push the boundaries of what’s expected of people who look like them or sound like them. And so I try to write stories about kids who do things unexpected.
[23:50] Find out more about Ishta Mercurio
You can hear more creative writing advice from Ishta Mercurio on Cabin Tales Episode 3.5: “Author Interviews about Inspiration”; on Episode 4.5: “Author Interviews about Plotting”; on Episode 7.5: “Author Interviews about Endings” and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. You can find out more about Ishta Mercurio and her books from her website at IshtaMercurio.com.
[24:55] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the novelist Raquel Rivera, who joins us from Montreal. Thanks for listening.
Music on the podcast is from “Stories of the Old Mansion” by Akashic Records, provided by Jamendo (Standard license for online use).
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Visit the Cabin Tales home page.
Ishta Mercurio lives and writes in Brampton, Ontario, where she serves as the Chairman of the Board for The FOLD Foundation, a non-profit that promotes underrepresented voices in Canadian literature. Her picture book debut, Small World, illustrated by Jen Corace, won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for the Canadian region. Find Ishta online at www.ishtamercurio.com.