Shannon Hale is a Newbery Honor-winning, New York Times bestseller-listed author of youth and fantasy fiction, most particularly Goose Girl and Princess Academy. This week sees the release of her latest novel Austenland, her first adult fiction novel. She is a returned missionary and lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and two under-three-years-old children.
[Interview questions by Melissa Fox]
How does your religion affect how you are perceived as a writer? Do people in the industry think of you as a “Mormon writer”?
Not really. I donâ€™t think many people know what Mormons are or what to think about it. Sometimes people are just plain rude about it, but thatâ€™s rare. For the most part, I donâ€™t think readers think two things about it.
Do you consider yourself a Mormon writer?
Not really. Iâ€™m a writer, and Iâ€™m LDS, and Iâ€™m a mom. I feel like lots of things. I donâ€™t feel like my religion dictates who I am or what I write.
Have you ever been pressured to do something/write something that’s against your standards? How did you deal with it?
Never. Iâ€™ve never been pressured to write anything at all, from either my publisher or from my church. Iâ€™m in the wonderful position to get to write what I want.
For a contemporary adult romance, I was surprised to find that there was no sex and very little swearing in Austenland. Why did you decide to keep the book so clean?
Bloomsbury [the publisher of Austenland] was never concerned about lack of sex or gratuitous language. I don’t know if other publishers would have been. I didn’t think the story needed it. Thereâ€™s no sex in [Jane] Austen novels, and I wanted to feel transplanted [to that world]. And itâ€™s more of a challenge, more rewarding to make something sexy without sex. Besides, I find it belittling to readers. I think smart readers want a story, first and foremost. Swearing is often a cop-out, too. The challenge is finding a better word. In one scene, I originally had the main character spray paint the word â€œassholeâ€ on the car of a guy who’d been a real jerk. In a later draft, I changed that to â€œshe-male.â€ I think you’ll agree, the latter was a much better choice.
Do you write about supernatural as a metaphor for divine (like C.S. Lewis), or are you just trying to make a good story? You also seem avoid any mention of a higher power (besides the earth in general). Is this because you are trying to appeal to a wider audience or because you are pressured by publishers, or some other reason?
I would argue that C.S. Lewis didnâ€™t write about supernatural as a metaphor for divine. He wrote stories, and what he believed naturally came through those stories. I donâ€™t think he intended to write allegory. I donâ€™t know that allegory ever works as a good form of storytelling. I try to find what a story needs, and in the Bayern books I really felt that adding awareness of a higher power or organized religion would detract from the story and not add. There was no reason for religion in Austenland. Thereâ€™s mention of a creator god and priests in Princess Academy. The main character in my new novel Book of a Thousand Days is very religious. Iâ€™m currently writing a contemporary book for adults with an LDS main character. It all depends on the story.
It seems to me that the LDS authors who aren’t writing for the Deseret Book/explicitly LDS crowd seem to gravitate towards science fiction/fantasy. Why do you think that is? What draws you to the genre?
Iâ€™ve often thought about this and I think there must be many reasons. One reason might be that fantasy and fairy tales universalize stories. Anyone is welcome in fantasy land.
What advice would you give LDS authors writing for the national market, or what do you wish you had known when you were just starting out?
Hmm. I donâ€™t know that the advice would be any different than for any other writer. I think it helps to know what you believe and be genuine in all you do. Stories forced to carry messages get heavy and die. Just find the best story for your storyteller self, tell it the truest way possible, and the reader will get what he or she needs out of it.
Do you read much LDS fiction? If not, why not? if so, do you have any particular favorites?
Iâ€™m a slow reader and have thousands of books waiting for me! Itâ€™s wonderful and frustrating. I donâ€™t read much fiction geared specifically toward an LDS market, though Iâ€™ve read many books by other LDS authors. There are so many talented writers out there, especially in the children and young adult literature. Iâ€™d name names, but Iâ€™m afraid Iâ€™d forget someone important!
Where do the unexplored countries lie, as far as LDS writing and writers? What could we be doing better, as a people?
Iâ€™m not prescriptive generally, I donâ€™t think I can answer that. As an individual, I hope to be aware of other people, to listen to the Spirit, to be a good mom.
Most of your books have female protagonists (except River Secrets, but even in that there are strong female characters). Do you consciously try to write stories with strong woman/girl characters? Why or why not?
I hope I donâ€™t cause offense when I say that I find that question so strange. Iâ€™ve been asked that question many times, but Iâ€™ve never been asked â€œdo you consciously try to write strong male characters?â€ It makes me wonder how this world views girls and womenÂmuch differently than I do, I guess. I only seek to write realistic characters, both male and female.
How do you juggle the demands of being a mother with the demands of being a writer?
Good one! That made me laugh. Ohâ€¦you were serious? I guess the best answer would be: my house is messy. Really, I try to put my kids and husband first and hope and pray that everything else works out.
Have you ever felt any disapproval from within the LDS community with your choice to become a full-time writer?
Never. Only immense support and admiration. It takes my breath away. Such wonderful people, such kindness! Though honestly, I canâ€™t claim to be a full-time writer. Iâ€™m a full time mama and I write on the side.