October 06, 2015

Lisa Papademetriou

Interview by
The Author's Note at the beginning of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic reveals author Lisa Papademetriou's inspiration for this sparkling novel—a beautiful book in her own life. We contacted the author to find out more about this personal back story, the universal language of storytelling and more.
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For two girls on opposite ends of the world, adventure begins with a mysterious book.

In Georgia, Kai is staying with her great-aunt and finds a gorgeous, ornate book called The Exquisite Corpse. Its pages are almost completely blank, but it soon begins to share its secrets. In Pakistan, Leila finds a copy of The Exquisite Corpse as well. As A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic unfolds, told by a mysterious omniscient narrator, the two girls discover that their books are connected—and that together they’re spinning a truly magical tale.

What inspired this book?
This book was inspired by my very own magic book! When I was 10 years old, my German grandmother gave me a book of fairy tales. She explained that this book was a gift to her from her father, my great-grandfather, who had bought it from a bookstore in France during World War I because he wanted his daughter to learn English. The stories are beautifully illustrated and told, and as I read it and re-read them, I realized that I wanted to write stories when I grew up. I knew that this book was magical, and that it was meant for me—look at how far it had traveled and how long, just to reach me.

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic is about two girls on opposite sides of the world who are linked by a magic book and a series of mysterious events. It’s about the way the past and present intersect, tying together people and events. And the nugget of that story is right there, in a book I got when I was 10 years old.

Kai and Leila’s stories are delivered by a very assertive omniscient narrator. (“In the gutter, Kai saw a squashed frog that had dried to leather in the Texas heat. I like to call that road jerky.”) Why did you choose this narrative style?
A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic is a book about a book. The Exquisite Corpse is the magical book that ties two girls—one in Texas and one in Pakistan—together. But The Exquisite Corpse is, itself, a character. It has a goal in mind. It wants the girls to connect, and—in some cases—it even writes directly to them. It is a book with a particular voice, and I wanted that voice to be distinct.

The narrator of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic is the voice of The Exquisite Corpse. The same voice addresses both the characters and the reader. There are even a few places in which the voice talks about itself. For example, page 210: “Of course, the book knew the ending. But it was a very intelligent book, and knew that the best stories only give enough information to keep the reader interested. It wasn’t about to start explaining too much. Instead, it let Kai wonder.”

Even reading that makes me giggle. That book has some serious attitude!

There’s something very untrustworthy about magic items, especially magic books. As much as it could hold wonders, a magical book could turn out to be, oh, you know, a Horcrux. But that’s the risk of any type of magic, isn’t it? It could be sinister or kind, and often characters don’t know until the end. How do you think kids implicitly understand that magic is worth the risk?
(Awkward, embarrassed pause as I google “Horcrux.”) Interesting! “A powerful object in which a wizard has hidden part of his/ her soul in a bid for immortality.” That sounds a lot like . . . books. Arguably, every book ever written is an attempt at immortality, an attempt to connect to people beyond the depth and scope of our limited lives. This is a really interesting question.

Yes, magic is risky, but the danger is part of the appeal. I think that kids understand that—often—magic is highly influenced by the user. Someone who attempts to use magic for selfish or poorly-thought-out ends is likely to encounter danger. Someone with a kind heart and good intentions is likelier to have a good outcome, or is at least likelier to escape harm. Kids understand that intentions matter.

What is your connection to Pakistan, and what has been the most surprising or enjoyable part of getting to know Pakistani culture?
My husband is from Pakistan, and my in-laws have welcomed me into their big, vibrant family. My daughter is 7, and she identifies very strongly with her Pakistani heritage, as well as her American heritage. I think most people don’t understand how colorful and joyful Pakistani culture can be. The typical news images we see are nothing like what I experience when I go there: colorful clothing, dancing, incredible music, delicious food and a lively art scene. These are the things I wanted to reflect in my book.

If you were co-writing a book with anyone in the world, who would you choose, and what would you write about?
Wow! GREAT QUESTION! I have been very lucky to co-write with James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, and I really enjoyed those experiences. Collaborating is wonderful, because it mitigates the isolation and self-doubt that writing alone can cause. But anyone in the world?

I think I’d like to work with Amy Poehler—something really smart and hilarious, set in middle school. Or maybe a crazy feel-good musical with Cyndi Lauper. I love Cyndi Lauper.

What do you love most about writing for young readers?
I don’t really think of young readers as being terribly different from older readers, except that they feel the books more. When I tell a joke, there are people who say, “That’s funny,” and there are people who laugh. Grown-ups will read a book and say, “That’s well-written” or “That’s moving.” Young readers will cry or giggle or screech or gasp. They’re the ideal audience, really, and they are far more intelligent than most adults realize.

What are you working on next?
I just finished a first draft of my next novel, which is tentatively titled Apartment 1986. It’s about a girl who skips school for a week to visit the art museums along New York City’s Museum Mile. It’s the usual Lisa Papademetriou mix of funny and sad and slightly weird. I’m excited about it!


Author photo credit Ellen Augarten.

Get the Book

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic

By Lisa Papademetriou
ISBN 9780062371218

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