Bill Chats with Kate Milford

Kate Milford

Kate Milford’s recent novel The Broken Lands is set in the same universe as her earlier The Boneshaker, though it involves different characters and takes place some years earlier. The Boneshaker made it onto my top ten list for 2010, and The Broken Lands appears set to repeat that feat for 2012 (read my reviews). Recently, Kate took some valuable time out of her schedule to answer some questions for us. I hope you’ll enjoy learning more about Kate’s wonderful stories. Leave a comment for a chance to receive a copy of The Boneshaker,  The Broken Lands, and their companion novella The Kairos Mechanism. 

Bill Capossere: What made you decide to stay in the same world as The Boneshaker but move your setting back in time and to a different physical setting? Do you have plans to join the storylines more fully and directly?

Kate Milford: My big master plan is to write a trilogy pitting Natalie against Jack, when he attempts to take Arcane for his own personal Hell. I have that series plotted out from beginning to end, including two prequels like The Broken Lands that alternate with Natalie’s stories, each of which sets up the next stage of Natalie and Jack’s story. So yes, in the grand plan The Broken Lands and The Boneshaker set up the big story to come — but then because I also know that world, Natalie’s world, the roamers’ world, inside and out, I’m constantly getting ideas about books about characters in that world. I know what they’re all up to at different points in history, and they’re all wildly interesting to me. So even if I hadn’t intended The Broken Lands to set up the next piece, I probably would’ve stayed with that world, anyway. Also, Brooklyn is home, and the history of the building of the bridge is one of my favorite bits of history. As soon as I realized it was creating a crossroads, I knew Jack would want to try and take it.

Bill: One of the aspects of both The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands that I love is the way you incorporate folktale elements, the tales of Jack Hellcoal, the mythology surrounding crossroads, etc. When did you pick up your interest in such stories and what draws you to them? It’s a testament to the writing that it’s impossible to know what aspects are simple “retellings” of actual tales and what is wholly invented. Can you give us any sense of how you work through that?

Kate: That’s a good question. I’ve always loved history and I’ve always loved fantasy. I guess the folklore piece came into it while I was writing The Boneshaker. I’m trying to remember now how I first came across the Jack tales, but it must’ve been right around the time I started getting interested in oddball Americana, roadside attractions, big empty spaces and lonely roads. I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland and I went to school in upstate New York before I moved to NYC, and I have a deep love for rural places, small towns, old things. There’s something about the folklore I’m drawn to that appeals to me on the same level.

On the other hand, at the moment, at least, I don’t actually enjoy retellings of fairy and folk tales all that much. I don’t even like using outlines that I’ve written, so the idea of using another tale as an outline in any sense isn’t appealing to me at all, and I guess that’s how I think it would feel. (And I don’t know if I’ll always feel this way, but it’s how I feel right now.) This is not knocking those who love retellings, either reading them or writing them — fairy tales and folklore survive because they tell universal stories that have real utility and address real concerns, and there are some amazing, gorgeous, beautiful retellings on shelves right now. But I’m more drawn to books like Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm, which approach the retelling of folklore in what I think is a particularly unique way — they allow the folktales to propel the story, and inform the world and the characters, but those books tell stories of their own.

I like for the folktales in my stories to do what they do for us in our lives, which is to provide a framework for understanding the world, the dangers in it, and the obligations we have while we pass through it when we’re actively thinking about them and telling them, and a sort of current of magical thought and wonder in our subconscious when we aren’t. I don’t mind having my characters tell the stories, because that’s what stories are there for — for people to tell, to learn from, to use as warnings and entertainment. And again, I may change my mind later, but that’s how I feel at the moment, so I guess that’s how I approach working folklore into my stories.

Bill: There’s an interesting presentation of two types of characters in the story. One type is a “roamer,” whose name seems self-explanatory — a life that would seem to carry with it a kind of perpetual loneliness or isolation. On the other hand, we have characters who have somehow had separation/isolation thrust upon them — their parents have died, for example — but find their way into being part of a created family. And while the bridge is the “crossroads” of the story, it could also be said that it acts as the symbol of how people bridge the gaps between them, how they make connections despite events or possibly even despite themselves. Is that a fair characterization of your story and if so, can you speak to that aspect a bit?

Kate: I love that characterization! And I definitely love writing about families — I know it’s a weird statement to make, given the fact that both Sam and Jin are nominally orphans, but I’m also not into the orphan hero thing. As I was writing both of them, I really didn’t feel like I was writing lost, orphaned children. I felt like I was writing kids with different kinds of families, and hopefully it comes across that those families are terribly important to them, and help them not to have to save the world alone. And the success of their endeavor definitely hinges on their ability to bridge the gap between the two of them, especially Jin’s willingness to allow that gulf to be crossed.

As for the roamers — I also think there’s an element of wanderlust to them, a sense of travel and rootlessness simply for the joy of finding new places. Or, at least, for some of them (I’m thinking of Tesserian in particular). For the roamers, I think maybe the crossroads are all possibility, all promise. On the other hand, others of them clearly dream of finding a haven. Even Jack and Walker and Bones are looking for a place to find their own homestead, a place where those like them can create a community, and possibly a bizarre sort of family of their own.

Bill: Your books are listed as Young Adult (age 12 and up) though they clearly have appeal beyond that age range. You deal with a lot of darkness in them — there are brutal murders, a traumatic past, and random deaths. Do you think about the age range as you compose those scenes and where do you fall in the ages-old debate about what kids can “handle” with regard to such scenes in terms of detail and topic? Has your editor ever pointed to a scene and asked you to tone down the detail or, on the flip side, thought you’d “vagued it up” a bit too much to protect younger readers? I ask this even as my ten-year-old son is up at 12:11 a.m. because he’s “engrossed” in The Broken Lands.

Kate: I’m so glad he’s enjoying it, and that you enjoyed it enough to share with him! The dreadful truth is, I honestly don’t think about age range as I’m writing. I go back afterward and try and check my more morbid impulses and cut back on the profanity — I have a bad habit of letting the adult characters use the language I think they’d use, and sometimes I do have to rein them in a bit. But oddly, given the dark stuff that goes on, that’s about the only thing I actively try and put a lid on. I don’t set out to be over the top, or sensational, or anything like that, but when the story demands a moment of darkness — not to hint at spoilery stuff, but I’m thinking here of Hawks — I’m mainly concerned with making sure it’s not gratuitous or overly descriptive. I don’t want to revel in it, but I do imagine myself to be writing stories that take place in our world, not some alternative place where, for instance, adults don’t swear and bad things don’t happen. And sometimes, the scariest creatures in the world are ordinary people, hence, for instance, Jin’s past and what happens at the Reverend Dram.

Jin’s past — actually, I was very cautious with that. I wanted the truth to be there for those who were ready to find it, but I did craft the conversation so the details about the foot binding would be grim enough for younger readers to latch onto as the terrible thing that happened to her. And when I got my first set of notes from my editor about the manuscript, I went straight to that section holding my breath. But so far I’ve never been asked to tone it down, not even then. I have been asked to be more specific about lots of things to clear up details, but those are usually plot points or explanations of things I made too confusing, not dark stuff.

As for what kids can handle — I think they already think the stakes are life-and-death, and I think many of them are staring down darker stuff than I ever had to deal with when I was young. The world is scary. It just is, and anyone who says it isn’t is wearing wool over his or her eyes. Heck, I’m 35 and the world scares me. On the other hand, although I do love creepy and uncanny things and I like a good scare now and then, I don’t actively want to throw overly dark and traumatic stuff at kids — that isn’t my goal when I set out. But I do want to tell good stories and sometimes, in those stories as in the actual world, bad things happen, adults make awful choices, people are selfish or violent or irrational. But the world is also a beautiful place, with good people, brave people, and kind people. There’s always a way out of the dark, and I always want hope to counteract the grimness in what I write.

Bill: Another part of your craft I really admire is the way your secondary characters feel fully formed despite their lack of page time. I’m thinking of Ilana or the pharmacist for example. In many books, these sorts of characters often feel as if they exist merely as plot points, that they have no existence beyond those few lines they offer up and no purpose but to deliver those lines. But many of the secondary characters both in The Broken Lands and The Boneshaker feel as if they just wandered into this story on their way from one part of their life to another. One feels that the pharmacist has his own story; he’s not merely a prop in Sam and Jin’s. How much effort do you put into your secondary characters? Do some characters ever “surprise” you by moving up a rung or two from minor to major as you write them?

Kate: Thank you for saying that. I do get very attached to every character in the book. I’ve heard people say that every villain is the hero of his own story, and I totally believe that — but I also believe it about the secondary characters. I fall in love with every one of them a little bit. By the time I’m done with a book, I’m already figuring out what they were up to a few years ago, what they might be up to a few years down the line, who else I’ve written about that they might have run into. I’m never done with any of them. That’s half of why I wound up starting the novellas — I always want to know what my characters are up to when we’re not looking, and then I want to tell those stories, too. From this book, I’m already itching to write more about Ilana Ponzi and Jim Hawks and the young tough, Mike. Uncle Liao is a major character in one of my next books, The Left-Handed Fate, which takes place in 1812 and comes out in 2014 from Holt

As for whether they ever surprise me by, shall we say, leveling up — oh, man, yeah they do. All the time. I’ll give you an example from The Broken Lands: Jin was supposed to be a supporting character. This was supposed to be a book about Sam. And while I really hope he holds his own alongside Jin, I think it pretty clearly wound up being their story, rather than his story. The second I realized I was writing stuff from her point of view, though, I knew I was in trouble. Then I actually did have to do some work to make sure that he got an equal part of the adventure. Even now, I’m not sure it doesn’t sort of morph into Jin’s story, in which Sam plays a big part. What do you think?

Bill:  From this reader’s perspective, I’d say it starts out firmly as Sam’s story, but soon becomes their shared story. And the novel is all the richer for it. I have the same question about your villains, who are wonderfully memorable. How do you go about devising your bad guys? Do you ever find yourself more interested in them than your protagonists?

Kate: I don’t think I ever quite become more interested in them — at least, I haven’t yet — but I’m nearly always as interested in them as in the protagonists. In The Boneshaker, I had Limberleg in mind before I had Natalie, who then really and truly had to become someone, even as I was writing her, who could stand up to him. I love villains. I like when they have a sense of humor, and flaws, and I like getting to know them so that I can really understand what the protagonist is up against, and really understand the stakes. When I can’t find the villain for a project, or I think the villain’s weak, that’s a bigger problem for me than any plot hole I’ve ever encountered. Plot holes I can fix. If the villain’s weak, it’s as big a problem (for me, at least) as having a weak protagonist. I lose half of what drives everything forward. So I do spend just about as much time thinking about and writing the villains as anyone else. And I think about what they were up to before, and what I want to do with them next… I never want to let them go any more than I want to let anyone else in the books go.

Bill: A few general questions. First, would you say any particular authors have influenced you and if so, who and in what way? (Ray Bradbury seemed an inspiration, at least for The Boneshaker. Was that true? How did you feel about his recent passing?)

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray BradburyKate: I first encountered Something Wicked This Way Comes on audio, driving back and forth to work (I was working at a Williams-Sonoma in New Jersey), and I was hooked. I loved it so much. I read it for myself later, and I loved it even more. Yes, Bradbury was a huge influence. The Libyan Sibyl in The Boneshaker who told fortunes through laughter and quoted Edgar Allen Poe was my tribute to Ray. I collect old mass market paperbacks of his books. I go rooting through every used bookstore I find in search of them. The other books I think that were super important to me in figuring out what stories I wanted to tell are Susan Cooper, Phillip Pullman, John Bellairs, Ellen Raskin, E.T.A. Hoffmann… those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Bill: What fantasy authors, if any, have you read lately? Any recommendations? What sort of reading do you do outside the genre?

book review The Face in the Frost John Bellairs

Kate: Oh, I just read John BellairsThe Face in the Frost and it was AWESOME. I read the ANTHONY MONDAY and JOHNNY DIXON and LEWIS BARNAVELT books as a kid and adored them — they seemed so terrifying to me back then — but The Face in the Frost is brilliant and a bit more grown up, for whatever that’s worth. I love Jeff VanderMeer’s AMBERGRIS books; I love Neal Stephenson; I adore Cat Valente’s The Girl Who Navigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I love M. John Harrison’s VIRICONIUM and Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road… outside fantasy… well, my husband feeds me a steady diet of sci fi and Patrick O’Brian and if I don’t get to the book he thinks I should be reading quickly enough, he reads it to me on road trips (notably, we read Chris Moriarty’s SPIN novels that way, as well as HORATIO HORNBLOWER and Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE novels). And of course, I read for research all the flipping time. I love my research.

The Girl Who Navigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Bill: Finally, a question I always like to ask is if you can recall for us one or two of those magical moments of response to a particular scene in a book or two — those sort of “shiver moments” that make one fall in love with the magic of reading all over again or that we carry with us for years afterward.

Kate: Oooh! Well, just recently I read The Giver for the first time, and it was a wild experience. I read it all at once, lying on the beach on a beautiful day. About ten pages in I had to get up and move my towel out of the sun, because I knew I was going to forget to put sunscreen on. I didn’t move again until it was over, and then I took a breath and it was a hiccuppy breath and I knew I was going to start crying, so I got up and went inside and worked hard at not crying for about ten minutes, and then I got out my computer and made up some mindless work for myself that kept me busy for about the next two hours so I could stop thinking about the book. Then I didn’t stop thinking about it for about the next two weeks, but at least I didn’t feel like crying anymore. It was weird and wrenching and awesome and devastating.

The Giver by Lois LowryI should probably have picked a more uplifting moment — it was uplifting and wonderful in its own way too, of course. It’s an amazing book. But it demolished me that day.

Bill: Thank you, Kate, for taking the time to respond to these questions!

Kate: You’re so very welcome! Thank you for thinking of me, and for reading the books and loving them enough to share. :)

One commenter will receive a copy of The BoneshakerThe Broken Lands, and The Kairos Mechanism


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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

8 comments

  1. SandyG265 /

    I seem to have missed Kate’s books. I’ll have to add them to my TBR list.

  2. Gotta read these! Thanks, Bill!

  3. April V. /

    I loved The Boneshaker even though it was nothing like I expected it to be. I’ve already got The Broken Lands on my TBR list.

    And now I have to find out what Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris is!

  4. Interesting interview. I have Boneshaker on my list, I’ll have to add Broken Lands as well. And there were a couple of other authors mentioned I haven’t heard of. I’ll have to check them out. Thanks, Kate for taking time to do the interview.

  5. I own The Boneshaker and The Kairos Mechanism both in ebook form, why not have the three in paper? I’ve loved both books; Kairos even more than Boneshaker, since Kate packed so many great details into such a short book.

    I love this interview. I like to read about how authors work with their creative process, how they research and how the actual writing goes. It’s fantastic to see how Kate talks about her characters growing out of her control -something Neil Gaiman also has talked about-, and reassuring, as it’s happened to me.

    An insightful interview, that also gives us glimpses of other parts of her work.

    And, of course, now I just cannot wait for The Left-Handed Fate and the rest of her books to be published…

  6. [Checking the Notify by e-mail box, just in case. Hadn’t noticed it…]

  7. Apologies for being so late on this one. Evidently this is one of mine.

    Vincente, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks. Please contact me (Tim) with your choice and a US address.

    • Hi Tim, I contacted you via the form above, but I thought I’d leave it here, too: I don’t live in the US, so please roll the die again and choose another winner! Thanks!

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