Morgan Keyes grew up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Minnesota, accompanied by parents, a brother, a dog, and a cat. Also, there were books. Lots and lots of books. She started to keep a journal for a second-grade English class and never stopped. Journal entries turned into short stories, short stories turned into novels. In between, there were a lot of haikus and cinquains. Morgan now lives near Washington, D.C. And her debut novel, a young adult fantasy Darkbeast is out from McElderry. In between trips to the Natural History Museum and National Gallery of Art, she reads, travels, writes, wrestles with cats and reads. Because there are still books. Lots and lots of books. She can be found on Goodreads, Twitter and via her website at MorganKeyes.com.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in speculative fiction come from?
Morgan Keyes: I have always been interested in spec fic, starting with fairy tales, going on to The Hobbit. My first novel was a sequel to The Hobbit written over spring break of 7th grade with my best friend. Except I didn’t finish it.
SFFWRTCHT: What was the most difficult thing for you about writing Middle Grade fiction instead of “adult” fiction?
MK: With kids, everything has to be fast, fast, fast. No time for lyrical descriptions. But I refused to change vocabulary!
SFFWRTCHT: Ha! A sequel to The Hobbit? You were bold and ambitious, huh? Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?
MK: Bold, ambitious, or dumb. Seriously, we each chose a character and wrote ourselves into the story. Fanfic…with horribly, melodramatic plots, and unbelievable characters. My character was Altariel, a glamorous orphan of the streets! As for influences, Tolkien, of course, and early on, Katherine Kurtz, Patricia McKillip, Orson Scott Card. I used to roleplay Kurtz’s Deryni novels. And I loved McCaffrey’s early dragon books. And Forgotten Beasts of Eld! I recently re-read Earthsea and was amazed to find The Tombs of Atuan to be my favorite. (Hated it as a kid! Thought it boring.)
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have a favorite genre, or do you like to write in them all?
MK: I skip around from traditional fantasy to romance to contemporary – but some is under other names. My book before Darkbeast was a steamy romance. Publisher decided a ‘nym was a good idea, for MG readers.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
MK: I wrote through high school, college, law school, lawyering. I thought I needed to sell by writing short stories…Sold one for peanuts, but always, always worked on a novel. It was my retreat from being a lawyer! But we’re all storytellers. I just spent two weeks babysitting nephews and making up stories every bedtime!
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
MK: I took one writing class with Nancy Kress, but mostly I learned by reading. Analyzing what I thought worked, trying things in stories, even if they failed, but experimenting. Not a lot of formal learning!
SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels? When was your first pro-sale?
MK: My first story sale was 1998; my first novel sale was 1999.
SFFWRTCHT: Darkbeast was fabulous! It’s the story of Keara, who runs away from home rather than kill her best friend & companion, Caw, a darkbeast. This violates tradition and offends the gods, so she finds herself hunted by Inquisitors and hiding with a group of traveling performers. I can’t wait for the next one in the series. When is it coming out and what is it called?
ML: ::blush:: Darkbeast Rebellion will be in stores 9/24/13. Just finished galley edits today! It’s always fun to read galleys — so much time has passed since I WROTE the book! It all feels new again!
SFFWRTCHT: What’s a Darkbeast and where’d the idea for the Darkbeast book come from?
MK: A darkbeast is a special animal bonded to a child — it teaches and absolves sins and comforts, and when the child turns 12, s/he kills the darkbeast! Except for our hero, Keara. She runs away with hers!
SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novel take to write?
MK: Darkbeast started as a short story, published about ten years ago. I decided to write the novel about four years ago. It took about three months to write, and another three months to revise. Then off to my agent, fingers crossed…The sequel took a bit longer to write (more loose ends to tuck in) — about ten months total.
SFFWRTCHT: Which came first: world, plot, character?
MK: World first, then character, then plot. I knew about the “darkbeast” concept, then built the religion…After that, I realized Keara would be the perfect person to express the story, and I fleshed out the plot. Plots always come to last to me. ::sad sigh::
SFFWRTCHT: How many books do you envision? Just the two?
MK: I hope for more than two, but we’ll see. My publisher is fighting with Barnes & Noble now which cuts into book sales, making future books more difficult to pitch!
SFFWRTCHT: I read it as if Caw is the hero. Caw being Keara’s darkbeast.
MK: In many ways, Caw is the hero, but he doesn’t have full agency to act. He has to get Keara to act. They’re “co-heroes.”
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about travelers? Who are they and what do they do?
MK: They’re road-actors, sort of like the Commedia del’Arte. But with a religious bent, like the morality plays. I drew on my experience as a stage manager to create them.
SFFWRTCHT: Very cool. Did gypsies inspire them? That’s what it reminded me of? And Rosencrantz & Gildenstern.
MK: A bit of the Roma, a bit of Shakespeare. Some Italian Commedia…And better food than any of them had!
SFFWRTCHT: Religion is an important part of your story’s world. They have a pantheon of gods. Tell us a bit about that please.
MK: In my first fantasy series, I had 1000 gods. That got to be a bit…challenging to track (a god of PBJ sandwiches?) Especially when the gods produced synesthesia in two characters, so I had to track sensations, too. So, this time, I stuck with 12. Some are like Greek/Roman gods, but others are unique to my world. They lived in the past, but they’re still very active in people’s lives — sort of like God was to medieval folk…And, of course, to some folk today!
MK: I outline lightly — a few sentences for each chapter of the book. If things evolve, I go with the flow, but I definitely know the ending when I start writing.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write `til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
MK: I write full-time now, so I can write in blocks. Usually, four to five hours per day when I’m putting down new words. I track my husband’s work schedule – M-F one week, then M-Th the next, take weekends off. I schedule by “chapter”, noting on my calendar my goal for each day, so that I know when books will be done.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?
MK: When I’m home, I write in silence. When I’m at a retreat, I write to repetitious instrumental music (white noise!) I write using Scrivener, on a Mac. (My iMac crashed Hard and died two days ago. I’m using my MacBook Pro now.) Once I’m through drafting, I switch to Word, so that I’m compatible with my editors’ systems. It’s a great system – I just have to leave myself a reminder on the Scriv file once it’s no longer most-current!
SFFWRTCHT: How much research do you do when writing? Before, after, during? )
MK: I mostly do “spot research” when I need specific information (e.g., how does a raven sleep?) Otherwise, as a former librarian, I get too caught up in research and never write! Oh – my other major ritual is a GIANT pot of tea — caffeine for the a.m., herbal for the p.m.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
MK: Best advice: Writers write. No moaning and complaining and wishing and sighing – Just do it! Worst advice: Read and follow fill-in-the-blank advice blogs. Read them, yes, but find what works for you!
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
MK: Next up is Darkbeast Rebellion – out on 9/24/13. I’m toying with another middle grade fantasy set in a giant library, where the librarians are the only people in the world born without magic.
SFFWRTCHT That’s interesting. It’s like the opposite of Jim Hines’ Libriomancer where the Librarians kind of have the magic.
MK: Yes, but they both have librarian heroes. Libriomancer is great! I love the idea and the execution! I loved the creativity of the idea, and the celebration of genre. ::grin:: We’ll see if I can bring it to fruition!