August 20, 2012

Shannon Hale

A political princess
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Author Shannon Hale set the bar high for herself with the publication of Princess Academy in 2005. The fairy tale won a Newbery Honor, and countless fans were taken with the book’s heroine, Miri, and her home in Mount Eskel. Hale intended the novel to stand alone, but Miri, Britta and friends bubbled to the surface of her thoughts over time, and a new story took root.

In Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, Miri journeys to Asland and is caught up in a fledgling political movement. Her loyalties are tested as she tries to unite intellect and instinct and do right by her new friends, along with her home and family.

We contacted Hale at her home in Utah to ask a few questions about how the magic happens.

You originally thought Princess Academy would be a stand-alone story. How did you know you weren't done telling it? What prompted you to write a sequel?
It was one word: revolution. I thought I knew what Miri and her friends were up to after Princess Academy, but about three years ago that word popped into my mind and changed everything. I was so intrigued by the idea of it that I had to tell the story.?

Politics run deep throughout Palace of Stone. Issues of class, fairness and appearance vs. reality infuse the story. What (if anything) do you hope young readers will take away from this that might be useful when studying present-day events?
I hope they get whatever they need from the book. Stories have that wonderful elasticity to them, don't they? We can read about long ago, compare to our day and see things anew. I didn't write the story toward any particular moral or lesson. I tried to be as true to the characters and their story as I could with the hope that readers today could relate and allow the story to help them think through whatever questions they have.

Miri's letters home to Marda are short but bring us so much closer to Miri. Her heart, intelligence and humor come through in an intimate way, apart from all the action. Why did you decide to incorporate letters into the story?
Thank you! It was really one of those moments of grace that I can't plan for. Somewhere in those muggy fourth or fifth drafts, I depend on an idea to occur to me that will help make the story better. I wanted to hear Miri's voice more, I wanted her to be able to connect with home and family so far away and keep Mount Eskel real and present in the action. And then I wrote the words, "Dear Marda," and thought, "Ah-ha!" I had about four letters in one draft, my editor said, "I wouldn't mind more," and they ended up adding this extra layer and voice I was grateful for.

Adolescence is that wonderful time when we start to decide who, exactly, we are. So much of who we are is who we choose to be with. As part of growing up, Miri had to make that choice.

Why do most chapters open with a bit of verse or song?
Ay yi yi, the sticky situations writers get themselves into! In Princess Academy, singing was an important cultural exercise, so I started writing out bits of their songs to help create the setting. I naively thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a song at the beginning of each chapter that reflects the upcoming action in an interesting way?" It ended up being one of the most challenging parts of writing that book. I'd set a precedent so I had to do the same for Palace of Stone! I love them now and am glad I put in the sweat. In Palace of Stone, I was able to use not only songs but poems, plays, chants and mnemonic devices. Miri encounters such a bigger, more complicated world in the second book, and I wanted those verses to reflect that.

Miri loves Peder, but his seeming indifference leads her to infatuation with Timon, who may or may not be good for her. This theme occurs in so many ways in YA fiction; why do you think that is? Why did you want Miri to have two suitors?
I think the love triangle is a very effective tool for exploring romance and protracting romantic tension in any book. However, I never thought "love triangle" when I was writing Palace of Stone. A core question of this story is Miri's choice; Mount Eskel or Asland? Peder was her first love from her home, her childhood friend. I wanted her to meet someone who represented the excitement, passion, and complications of the capital city. I wanted the tension of her choice to be reflected in those closest to her. Adolescence is that wonderful time when we start to decide who, exactly, we are. So much of who we are is who we choose to be with. As part of growing up, Miri had to make that choice.

The magic in this book seems to say that where you come from holds great power. Linder can be a communication tool, but too much exposure can crowd the mind and be distracting. Where did the idea of linder first come from, and how did it grow over these two books?
Ooh, I love all your thoughts on the story. That's really beautiful. In Princess Academy, I knew I wanted the setting to be rustic or remote, in contrast with the royal errand placed on it. Once I decided mountaintop quarriers, the story really started to take shape. In researching quarrying, I learned how dangerous the profession was and how the deafening sounds made it impossible to hear warnings or commands. I wanted the villagers to have some talent that was all their own, and so this silent communication made sense. I enjoyed using quarry-speech to explore all those ideas of communication, balance, memory and kinship. For a second book, I knew I'd have to raise the stakes. As Miri grows, so does her power and influence. ?

Female friendships are important to the story, but often fraught with complications due to class or etiquette expectations. What can readers learn from Miri's use of diplomacy to improve relationships?
I think there's a real art to friendship. I think as a young girl, I would have liked to know that friendship is both vital and a struggle for everyone, but that one can learn how to be a better friend. There were tools that could help the earnest, lost little girl I was navigate those tricky relationships. I hope if anything from Miri's experiences resonates with readers, they might feel less alone and better equipped to be the kind of friend they'd like to have.

If Miri lived in the U.S. in the present day, her age notwithstanding, do you think she'd have a shot in politics?
Oh sure! Why not? She's got passion, a strong sense of justice and equality, and intelligence . . . wait, are those prerequisites for politics in the U.S.??

Fill in the blank: If I ruled the world, my first act would be ______.
To guarantee every child access to a good education.?

The skills Miri acquired in the first book are put to use in this one, and she ends up finding a way to fulfill several of her desires. Her future holds great potential, which begs the question: Might there be a volume three?
I was very secretive when writing Palace of Stone. For about a year, no one knew I was working on it besides my husband. But I feel less shy about it now. Yes, there will be a third. I want each book to stand alone. I'm not great at writing a traditional series, I think. But a question came up while writing Palace of Stone, and I soon realized that the answer was another book. And hopefully this one won't take me seven years to complete.?

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