An interview with Lena Coakley, author of young adult and middle-grade fantasy novels, including Witchlanders, Worlds of Ink and Shadow, and Wicked Nix. Hear about Lena’s love of worldbuilding, her ambition to write a sweeping Dickensian story, and her thoughts on daydreaming. 20 minutes.
Read the full transcript:
[1:10] Interview with Lena Coakley
CA: Are any of your stories based on your own childhood?
LC: I think they all are, whether I want them to be or not. … Rider’s mother had something akin to a mental illness… Wicked Nix is all about the need for a lonely person to find a family… I think it’s almost pointless to advise writers to write about their own lives because when you write, it’s going to come out. …
[2:20] CA: Do you keep a journal?
LC: I don’t. …. I just try to put it all into my writing.
[2:30] CA: Do you find that you get your best ideas from somewhere in particular?
LC: I find that I get ideas all the time… the trick is to sift through them and find the ones that you want to … live with for a year or more…
[3:00] CA: Do you have any recommendations to young writers for getting or organizing their ideas?
LC: I just daydream. … I think if you tell your yourself a story over and over again, and it continues to satisfy you, maybe it’s time to write it down. …
[4:00] CA: And do you have any favorite settings from fiction? …
LC: … I love fantasy, but the thing that actually sprang to mind was Wuthering Heights. …When writing Worlds of Ink and Shadow, I went to the parsonage, I walked on the moors….
[5:30] CA:. Are there any worldbuilding exercises that you would recommend to young writers?
LC: … The Science Fiction Writers of America has a great website which gives you a whole list of questions you can ask yourself when you’re writing a fantasy setting. … We’re all interconnected, and that’s true whether you are creating a setting that’s realistic or a fantasy setting. So kind of following those interconnections and see where they lead… just kind of thinking about this world, and daydreaming about it, and following those threads. …
[6:45] CA: And what about character exercises? …
LC: I do them if I’m having trouble. For Witchlanders in particular, … But generally if I’m not running into trouble with a character, then I just kind of discover them through the writing of the book.
[7:30] CA: Do you have a favorite fictional characters…?
LC: I was raised by my grandmother , and she read David Copperfield out loud to me. … I can’t really remember what she sounded like sounds like until I read that book. … I do love David Copperfield and his adventures.
[8:15] CA: Do you have advice for young writers stuck halfway in a story?
LC: Well, that was me … I wouldn’t know how to finish them. …All I can say is that what I did with Witchlanders was just decide that I was not going to put that book away. And it was ten years. … Just keep chipping away at it, and you’ll get that first book written …
[8:55] CA: Do you have a a favorite first line…/
LC: In my own work I think it would be Witchlanders: “Ryder woke to the sound of clattering bones.” … I also picked out another one from The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness: “The first thing you find out when your dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” …It gets the character across. But also … it raises questions in the reader’s mind that must be answered. …
[9:55] CA: And have you written a sequel?
LC: I have never written a sequel because I actually don’t love reading series books. … I want a new world. …
[10:20] CA: And have you ever written anything scary?
LC: …There’s a piece of short fiction I wrote called “Cold Spots” which was podcasted, which was kind of a horror piece. …There are some scary parts in Witchlanders….There’s a boy who goes through a cave full of spiders….It’s always nice to kind of go down that hole in your writing and kind of explore …discomfort….
[11:20] CA: …How much time do you typically spend drafting a story … and revising it?
LC: By the time I actually really get to the end it’s in pretty good shape because I’ve gone back and combed over so much. …
[12:15] CA: …Do you have advice to young writers on critiquing or forming critique groups?
LC: I formed a number of different critique groups over the years. … I think no one is going to be very good at critiquing when they start out. You’re learning how to critique just the way you’re learning how to write. But I think it’s been very valuable to me to learn how to self-edit, to look at other people’s work and kind of try to figure out … what the problems are.
[13:05] CA: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing a good story?
LC: …Honestly, it’s all kind of hard….
[13:40] CA: Do you have a favorite POV to write from?
LC: … I kind of started with third person, limited third person. … Right now I’m writing in first person. … But my ambition is to someday write a big sweeping omniscient story Dickensian story….
[14:50] CA: Do you have a regular writing practice?
LC: … I will definitely be writing by 9:00 AM with a cup of coffee, at least until one or two. …
CA: How long have you been working on the book that you’re working on now?
LC: … it’s been a couple of years.
[15:25] CA: Do you work on one project at a time?
LC: I do….
[16:10] CA: Do you read your work out loud at any point in your writing?
LC: … I always believe kind of right before a book goes to kind of final proofreading that I will do an out loud reading to myself, just read an entire novel. … You do find things you don’t find any other way, little mistakes, little duplications of words that you didn’t really notice.
[16:50] CA: What scared you as a kid?
LC: I think being alone, being in the dark, dark water. …. Those kind of big dark spaces where I didn’t know what was in there….
CA: Have you ever used those fears in any of your fictions?
LC: …There’s a lot of water … in the book I’m writing now, and maybe that is something I should try to explore….
[17:25] CA: Did you tell stories around a fire as a kid …?
LC: Not so much around a fire. But my dad was a theatre teacher … and I remember him reciting Shakespeare to me before bed and doing the comic roles. …. I just remember laughing and laughing at that when I was a kid.
[18:00] CA:. And you’re not the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, are you?
LC: No, I’m an only child…. I write about siblings all the time because I’m so interested in siblings. …
[19:00] CA: Have you ever had a crisis of confidence as a writer?
LC: I don’t like public speaking very much. …. The wonderful thing about writing is that if you don’t like it, and you don’t want to share it, you don’t have to. …
CA: And since you don’t like public speaking, I really have to give you extra thanks for taking part in this, because you speak so well. …
LC: Nice talking to you….Bye.
[20:00] Lena Coakley introduces herself
LC: Hello. My name is Lena Coakley. I live in Toronto. I’m the author of two young adult novels, Worlds of Ink and Shadow and Witchlanders. I’m also the author of Wicked Nix, my first middle-grade novel about a feral boy living in the woods who thinks he’s a fairy.
[20:35] Find out more about Lena Coakley
You can hear more creative writing advice from Lena Coakley on Cabin Tales Episode Five: “Squirm,” 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 Lena Coakley and her books from her website at LenaCoakley.com.
[21:40] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the illustrator and picture book author Farida Zaman. 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.
Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed—nothing was ever good enough to hand in! She has since published two YA novels, Worlds of Ink and Shadow and Witchlanders. Wicked Nix, her first book for middle-grade readers, was nominated for numerous awards. Find her online at www.lenacoakley.com.