The Good Story Podcast

Episode 6: Gail Carson Levine, Historical and Fantasy Author

Episode Summary

Historical and fantasy author Gail Carson Levine shares thoughts on the writing process, world-building, and her latest book.

Episode Notes

Historical and fantasy author Gail Carson Levine shares thoughts on the writing process, world-building, and her latest book.



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Episode Transcription

Mary: Hello, this is Mary Kole and the Good Story podcast, helping writers craft a good story. With me, you will hear from thought leaders related to writing and sometimes not about topics important to writers of all categories and ability levels. Here is to telling a good story.


Thank you so much for joining me. This is Mary Kole with the Good Story podcast. With me, I have the wonderful Gail Carson Levine who has joined me today to talk a little bit about her fantasy writing, her historical writing, and a new release called "A Ceiling Made of Eggshells" which is coming out from HarperCollins this May 12th and has already received starred reviews in Kirkus and PW. Fabulous having you. Would you mind telling us a little bit yourself for our listeners, Gail?


Gail: Hi. Well, I'll be happy to. Ceiling will be my 25th book for kids. My first is the one that I'm best known for and that was "Ella Enchanted". That was my debut book after 9 years of pretty solid rejection; I mean almost entirely solid rejection. Most of my books are fantasy novels for kids. I have two books about four kids about writing. One is "Writing Magic" and the other is called "Writer to Writer" which is based on my blog, which is all about writing and which, if listeners are interested, can be found on my website, which is easily called So I think that's me.


Mary: Fabulous. "Ella Enchanted" just had a follow up after a number of years called "Ogre Enchanted". Is that right?


Gail: Yes, yes. I always wanted to do something with "Beauty and the Beast" which is one of my favorite fairy tales, but there's something about it that bothers me a lot and that is that the Beast is in this awful situation that he is a beast. He can only stop being a beast if someone agrees to marry him. He's a beggar. Even though he's never presented that way, he is a beggar because he's a beast. Beauty, when she shows up, is lovely, is kind, is sweet, and she agrees to marry him. But what if she had been none of those things or what if she had been all of those things but he just didn't like her that much? He would have faced the awful choice between marrying somebody he didn't like or remaining a beast forever. I wanted to deal with that in a retelling. It was sort of in the back of my mind for years.


Finally, I found a variant because every fairy tale has several variants of "Beauty and the Beast" and this one is called "The False Prince and the True". In this one, the Beast is a beautiful, young woman who's been turned into an ugly old crone, and there is a prince who...not a prince. He's a man. He's a guy. He gets into an argument with the prince, and he punches the prince. He's on the point of losing his life, being executed when the old woman comes along and says, "I'll save you from this if you'll marry me." He makes that choice first, he recoils but then he decides, "Well, okay," and he says he'll marry her.


I think that gave me the opportunity to address this with a female heroine, and I didn't make her an old lady because I'm an old lady. The idea that an old lady would be so hideous and horrible troubled me, so I turned her into an ogre. She has to find someone to marry her. The circumstances eventually get to something similar to the situation in the fairy tale, but I wanted her to be very aware of the consequences of making the choice. She has some possibilities that she doesn't like at all.


And so I fooled around with that but it also enabled me to go back to characters from "Ella Enchanted". In particular, Ella's father is in there quite a lot and I had fun with that. Also, I turned her into an ogre, the kind of ogres that are in "Ella Enchanted" and she is at least half-ogre. She's hungry all the time and people she loves looked delicious to her and she's fighting it. I had to resist because otherwise, it would not be good for Ella—the impulse to humanize the ogres. They're ogres, and they're terrible.


Mary: This has been a really interesting window into how you approach story, and that is something that I really wanted to talk to you about in terms of Ceiling, which is your newest release coming out which is not a fantasy so we don't have this sort of fairy tale lens into the story. We don't have a twist that you were working on on something that's well-known. You're actually operating in 15th-century Spain, which is not well-known at all for a lot of readers. Can you tell me what your entry point into that story was?


Gail: Well, it was all my research. I read a ton about the period, about what was happening to the Jews in Spain because it culminates in their expulsion which took place in 1492. But, in some ways, this was entering...I mean, in many ways, actually most ways, this was entering a world that was strange to me than any of the worlds of fantasy because the worlds of fantasy come from me. They're not that unfamiliar. I have lived a little bit in those worlds. This was a different world, and some of the things just blew me away.


In 15th-century Spain and earlier, priests and monks, and not just one, bunches of them, would go into synagogues overtime during services and harangue the congregants about eternal damnation and, in the synagogues, try to get them to convert. I was blown away by that.


Another element that I had to read a few times from different sources before I understood it is that, in Medieval Spain, the Jews were considered very literally the property of the King and Queen. It was a strange kind of slavery because they can move around, they can do the kind of work that they wanted to do, but the Kings and Queens considered them theirs. They were their Jews. For instance, there was a law in one part of Spain a little bit earlier that, if a Jew was injured or killed, the compensation went to the monarchs, not either to the victim or the victim's family, because the monarchs would be considered to have taken the loss because they would lose the value of the labor of that Jew very much like a slaveholder in the Antebellum South that, if something happened to a slave, that was the property of the owner and the property owner was the one that got compensated.


Mary: It's like a depreciating tax asset rather than a person.


Gail: Exactly, exactly. And speaking of taxes, everybody who wasn't noble or a cleric was taxed to the max, and the Jews were taxed most of all. The taxes of the Jews went directly to the monarchs, and that was part of belonging to them. Whereas other people paid taxes tied to the church or paid the nobles whose land they lived on. This was a really foreign world.


Mary: And you decided to research. I loved reading your author note for this particular project because you did talk about what it's like to write historical, what it was like to plunge into this particular world, and how you came to the character of Paloma who you write beautifully there, that you sort of wished she was or have imagined her to be almost like an ancestor of yours that you never knew. That was your passion for exploring this particular time period, this particular space. How did you decide on this world? Did you trace family lineage back to 15th-century Spain or how did you land in that particular time, that particular space?


Gail: Yeah, I always knew that my father is half Sephardic. Sephardic Jews are Jews who ancestrally were kicked out of Spain, Jews from Iberia. It could have been Spain. It could have been Portugal. In my case, it was Spain. I always knew that, even though my father was an orphan and was cut off from his roots, I knew that his first language was Spanish. Even though the family had lived outside of Spain when he was born for over 400 years, there was always that connection. I knew from a cousin that, from Spain, our ancestors had gone to the Kingdom of Naples, which was one of the few places in Europe that was willing at the time to take the Jews. And so they were in Naples where they were not allowed to stay that long. By 1540, all the Jews were out of Naples.


And then the only other place that was absolutely welcoming to the Jews was the Ottoman Empire, and so my ancestors went to Salonica, which was in the Ottoman Empire at the time and still was when my father was born in 1912. A few months later it became part of Greece. But in my research, I learned the kind of tribulations that followed the expulsion and how many people didn't make it. It seemed to me that only the most extraordinary in terms of guts and grit could have.


That's where Loma comes from. In the course of the book, the book ends right after the expulsion. It doesn't go into the Naples part or any of that, but in that earlier part, you see how this girl who was very traditional and is forced by the circumstances of her family. I don't mean they're poor. They're very wealthy but her grandfather becomes very attached to her. And because of that, she's put to the test many times before the expulsion. And so when it comes along, she is unusually prepared. That's how Loma formed. If she's not my ancestor, I think there had to have been somebody like her.


Mary: I love that you took that as sort of your approach. If I could please ask you to read, you start with a riff. You start the book with a quote that riffs on the well-known line about 1492. Do you happen to have the book nearby?


Gail: Yes, the book is near but I memorized it.


Mary: Of course. How do you welcome us into this world? You share something unexpected but I think will throw readers right at the beginning and make them intrigued. What is that?


Gail: Well, it just came to me one day and I think it's like a little shocker that sets off the tone. I've read it to kids a couple of times and I tell them that they know the first two lines. As I'm reading them, they look bored and then I get to the next two and they stop being bored.


"Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. And in the self-same year, it's true—Spain's King and Queen expelled the Jew."


Mary: Yes.


Gail: That's [inaudible 00:15:15] the book.


Mary: Yes. We have this historical period. We have this surprising, unexpected, for a lot of people, circumstance that you introduced right away. We have your entry into the story which is Paloma/Loma, a young girl that is part of this upper-crust Jewish family in Spain, and I know that we've talked a lot about the politics of that time. The reason that that was part of your research is because Loma's grandfather participates very actively at high levels of power in this entire...everything that happens from the King and Queen to what happens in the Jewish community. Can you tell us a little bit more about why it was so important for you to put a young girl? She dreams of having her own family, her desires are very community-oriented, family-oriented, a little bit quaint. Why put her into such a high-pressure, high-risk, very male power-oriented environment with her grandfather? Why was that sort of your way of telling Paloma's story and then the story of the Jews in this time period?


Gail: Well, two things. One is that it was very important to me not to write a 21st-century girl. I had that in mind from the beginning. Now, I couldn't write a 15th-century girl because it's so distant in the past that I'm sure I got it wrong, but I did my best to get a traditional girl whose voice and responses and thoughts are I don't think what would be going through the mind of a 21st-century girl. For example, Loma is very smart. Whenever she has a good idea though, she doesn't take credit for it. She gives credit to her dead grandmother, to God, to an absent family member but never to herself. That would be an example of her thought process.


And then I placed her in this family because her grandfather is exceedingly loosely based on a historical figure, Isaac Abarbanel, who was a courtier, [inaudible 00:17:45], seer, and a philosopher at that time. Because he was so situated, he was present for the events of the day, and I read a biography of him. I charted where he was at what times. In most of the things that happened, he was there. The historical figure was there. I substituted Loma's grandfather, and he becomes attached to Loma. He brings her along. She gets to be there at all these pivotal moments that lead up to the expulsion. She gets to meet the monarchs. She gets to form sort of a relationship with the oldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the infanta. She gets to see sites of the Christian world, the Jewish world, the kind of netherworld of recent converts to Christianity all because of the prominence of that family.


Mary: I love that choice because, like you said, you gave an unlikely character a very rare window to these very important events of the day which directly leads to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Now let's talk a little bit about research because you have mentioned it a few times and you make a very fair point that, in fantasy, you're making it all up. It's your world. You live in it. It comes from your mind, and so I would imagine that in certain circumstances it's almost easier to world-build when you have ultimate control. But, here, you are stepping into a completely different world. Like you said, you make the distinction between the 21st-century girl and the 15th-century girl. It's down to language. It's down to mindset. It's down to, "Are we community-oriented as we might have been in the 15th Century or individual-oriented as we might be today?"


When you have this idea and you knew this is the time period you wanted to traffic in, you mentioned that Isaac biography for example, how did you approach this big, big task of researching this, breaking it down? Where did you even start?


Gail: It's hard to remember but I knew that I came across a book by Jane S. Gerber called, I think, the "Sephardic Experience" or I don't remember the title but people can find it if they're interested, written for a more general audience. It's an overview of the period that the Jews were in Spain and then what became of them afterward. That book gave me an idea of what was going on. And then I grabbed my courage and both fists, and I tracked Jane S. Gerber down. I reached out to her. She was the kindest person in the world. She became my mentor. She's a professor emerita of Sephardic history at the City University of New York. She guided my reading. She also read the manuscript when I was done and questioned some things. She was absolutely great. She directed me.


I read most of the early classics on the period. That book after book after book, these tomes and many of them were not written for anybody but historians to read. I managed to read them because I just became increasingly fascinated and also understanding dawn very slowly. They would be terms that would be undefined that I would encounter again, and again, and again and eventually, without a glossary, I would figure out what they meant. It was a very slow, amazing process. I can't say how happy I was to learn all this. At the same time, this was a couple years ago, and there were stuff going on in the world that I wasn't happy about, I always thought no matter how bad the 21st Century is, the 15th was worse. But now we're in a time when one could say there's a real competition going on...


Mary: That's true.


Gail: ...that's awful. It was all fascinating. A lot of things were interesting. Most of the books that I read were by Jewish historians but I also read a book about slavery during the period. I read a biography of Queen Isabella. That was so interesting because, in the Jewish books, for example, a great deal was made of Jewish assistance to Ferdinand when he was courting Isabella because Jews believed and there's evidence to support it that Ferdinand was, I think, one-eighth Jewish. He had a Jewish ancestress. But in the biography of Isabella, the role of the Jews was just not mentioned at all. It's sort of like which part of the elephant is one looking at was that experience.


So the whole thing was fascinating. But one of the hardest parts was the aspect that I didn't find much in the history books, and that was the kind of detail—what did things smell like, what was it like to stand on a wharf when ships were leaving, and what was transportation like. Those kinds of daily detail are not what historians look at. That involved a lot sleuthing, and a lot of Googling, looking at images, reaching out to other kinds of historians, people who knew about ships. Reddit had an "ask a historian" site that helped me with the wharf activity and clued me in the paintings of the period, which is late middle ages, early renaissance, would show pictorially daily life. Those things were really helpful.


Mary: That's something I've been wondering about because you seem to get a base layer of knowledge for yourself, gain your footing in the time period, and then you read it seems like pretty widely but mostly historical tones, academic tones. You did try to read it sounds like pretty evenly across Jewish historians but also, hey, let's go over here and read about Queen Isabella. Maybe get a different perspective there. So then how do we translate the sheer volume of knowledge that you must have read into the practical application of writing fiction about it? And this I think is where some of your Reddit research, the historical forum, some of your pictorial research, what was your biggest concern as you were sort of turning the sheer volume of information into something you could use to tell a story?


Gail: My great concern was I didn't want to get it wrong. I felt like I had an obligation and early on I had about 80 pages. I looked around for somebody who could read them. Amy Ehrlich, who's a retired editor, was willing to read the 80 pages and she wrote back to me that the setting was very vague and not there. I emailed her back and I said, "I know. I don't know what to do. I am afraid." She wrote back to me and said, "Be a novelist." Cautiously and trying to do it as little as possible, which is very weird, I was a novelist, so I filled in some things. And then when I was writing the afterword, I look at afterword and other historical novels for kids. In every one, there was an apology to history for getting things wrong so I was like, "Oh, phew. Okay, I'll apologize, too." So I apologized as well.


Mary: So you were unapologetically a novelist who apologized a little bit.


Gail: Well, I had to be. I did as little as possible. I did as little making it up as I possibly could except of course I had to make up the characters.


Mary: So let's get to those. I've loved hearing about the research process and how you put together just the world of the story. That wharf scene, I think whatever Reddit did for you there, whatever direction they pointed you in, that's one of the most vivid ones for me. I could really put myself there and I loved reading it. Just the sensory details were phenomenal. But we need to have a character, right? No matter how great the world is and how great your depiction, we need to access it through the point of view. In this case, it's of Loma who gets to be this unlikely hero in a pretty high-powered world that she probably didn't intend to participate in. It allows her to be in the room where it happens, to borrow a quote from Hamilton of course, for some very, very important elements of the larger historical story that you wanted to tell.


So how did you reference again that beautiful part of your author where you say that she's a could-be, aspirational ancestor for you that you've sort of attached to for the story? How did you approach creating her character?


Gail: Oh, gee. Well, I wanted everything to be hard for her. I didn't want her to be brave. She's a kid who hates conflict. She gets very scared when there's any discord going on around her. Her family, they are financiers, and they were really good with math. I wanted her to endear herself to her grandfather. I made her really good at math and also compulsive about it. She counts constantly, which gets her out of a terrible fix early in the book. Those are some of the's hard to remember but those are some of the things that I did. Also, because she's so smart, she's a really keen observer, and that tends to be a quality of all my main characters. They notice things.


Mary: I think readers really appreciate the chance to be in an aware character, a character who does notice the world around them. But this brings me to an interesting point about Loma, which is she's not really in a position because of time, because of social mores to participate, and you have put her in a situation where she's privy to many important events, big events, high-stakes events but she's not necessarily the most proactive, which is a big writing challenge when you want to spotlight a character but they're not the hero. They're not running around time fixing everything. Paloma simply wasn't in the position to do that. She did sort of rise to many occasions but she isn't what I would traditionally think of as a very proactive, heroic character, and yet she leads us through the story just fine. So what was that like to write about?


Gail: Well, I did need...this was a time when girls and women stayed home. Even men, unless they were wealthy like that family, had very, very little agency. Throughout their lives, most people in the middle ages, they grew up in one place and didn't ever travel more than a mile or two from where they started. So I had to think of how to give her some agency and that's why I put her in that family. Giving a little bit away, I gave the grandfather spells, so he has what we would now know are minor strokes and she is alone on the road with him and she has to deal with it.


I set it up so that she would have opportunities to act, and I also set it up so that she would have opportunities to make mistakes because she says something really phenomenally stupid and ill-thought-out to the infanta.


Mary: Haven't we all when confronted with the monarchy?


Gail: How did what? Excuse me.


Mary: I just made a bad joke. I said, well, haven't we all when confronted with the monarchy? I just made a little faux pas. And she has to figure a way out of it, right?


Gail: Yeah, but she doesn't. She just gets in a lot of trouble over it. She's a real kid at that moment. It passes because it becomes understood, but it was one of those moments in writing when I thought of it and, boy, I was just so happy that that came to my mind.


Mary: I think you like to make things a little bit difficult for your characters.


Gail: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I like to make it very difficult. That's my job.


Mary: I love that. So, when we come to her as a character, another consideration of writing a historical is acknowledged it earlier but I want to come back to it. You have to sort of be the bridge between 15-century Spain, a 15-century girl and a 21st-century reader in a modern world with modern language, modern framework. Now, this is very easy reading. It doesn't come across like some of those research books that you mentioned that are written in a very academic style. You used terms throughout that are specific to the time period, but they always felt contextualized. The language isn't overly formal. How did you approach? I guess what I'm asking is, did you make any cheats in your writing style, your use of language, your voice because you did know that a 21st-century 10 or 11-year-old was going to be reading the end product?


Gail: No. Well, for one thing, I threw the reader in the deep end initially and my editor said to me the beginning is incomprehensible. So I did back up and it starts a little bit more gradually, which was needs an editor. But also I'm a 21st-century writer, so it all had to make sense to me and it was all filtered through my 21st-century understanding. I think that that very naturally came out 21st Century, you know?


Mary: This isn't your first historical. I have to say you have written also inspired by your family legacy, your father's story, "Dave at Night", set in New York City in the 1920, so a little bit closer to our frame of reference but still just other enough. Was the process of writing Paloma in the 15th Century similar to the process of writing your father growing up in the '20s?


Gail: No, that was entirely different. I mean I knew my father. So I had an idea of how he would have been as a child and how he would have responded to things, so I could reach that. My father had died at that point, and I was writing it...this is the first novel I wrote. I took a break to write Ella and then went back and revised it completely. But it was a book that took me 9 or 10 years to write. Piecemeal. And I wrote it again and again and again, and it started as a picture book. At first, I didn't do research and I made stuff up. And then when my editor asked me, she had rejected Dave but she asked me to go back to it and revise it. And then I went into all the history. And I had a friend who was born in 1907 who could fill in a lot of texture.


So, the kind of thing that I really struggled with in Ceiling was not a problem in Dave but it was pre-internet. I mean it's amazing to think that I did it now. So I went to the Tenement Museum in New York which was great. I looked at photographs of The New York Public Library. I called people up. I spoke to an expert on classic cars. It was very much cobbled together. But Dave's voice was pretty easy except that I remember somebody tell...I kept using the word great like we would today, and somebody said, "No, it would be swell." It was that kind of thing that I had to get right. Also, in both, in Dave and for Ceiling, I did read a little contemporaneous material. For Ceiling, there isn't much but there is a book that collected personal accounts of the time of which there were very few people. People weren't writing diaries. There were no newspapers.


Dave takes place during the Harlem Renaissance and so I read some poems, which you know that was a very literally time. I read a novel by Claude McKay, "Home to Harlem". I did that, too, and that helped with voice and understanding. That was a fun book to write. My father was a very joyous man who had this awful childhood, but his joy got into the book. I loved writing it.


Mary: You mentioned that in the author note for Ceiling as well just this joy that your father had. Is that something that just drives you to pursue and track down these stories as well?


Gail: Well, I may have reached the end of the line with my father's history although I'm still reading. But, yes, I don't know very much at all about my mother's parents. I love my mother but I disliked her family. They were quarreling. They were complainers. They were whiners. They were afraid of everything. My father was fun and my father's family was fun—cousins, his brothers, his half-brother and sister. They were all fun. There was something very appealing about them. I'm still connected with some of my cousins. I think that's one of the things that draw me back there.


Mary: Now there's something you mentioned that I didn't want to let slip through the cracks, especially for the writers listening because the beginning of a novel is one of the most dreaded Boogie Man in all of the fiction craft. We have to nail this thing. This is how a reader comes into the story. This determines whether a reader stays in the story. You mentioned editors are sort of emerging as pretty tough critics in this interview, but you mentioned your editor saying that the initial first chapter of Ceiling was incomprehensible which was probably a tough pill to swallow. But we talked about getting all this information, historical research, all of the contemporaneous reading that you did, getting the voice on the page, getting the character, introducing the world, the historical details. Of course we have to do this in fantasy world building as well, but what is your, I don't want to say formula but, your recipe let's say for a successful first chapter that gets us into a different world, whether it's fantasy, whether it's historical without also bogging the reader down in too much detail, a big info dump or not enough detail where they can't make heads or tails of the world that they've been thrust into?


Gail: I think the beginning is one of those things we really should not sweat in the first writing. I think we should start wherever we should start. I find that I start someplace and very often I go back to an earlier point because I've started at the wrong spot. I just don't think initially we should be precious about the first sentence, the first chapter, any of that because, as we write, we're going to discover where we should be starting. A lot of that can be fixed in revision and then we'll know the ending or what happens in the middle or what we discover that we need to set up earlier. It will help inform that beginning. So I think that we should just take that off the table of worries. Just start.


I took early on...before it was published, I found this wonderful class. The teacher is retired but it was a class given at the new school. It was an adult ed class, and it was a workshop in writing for kids. Bonnie Gabel, the teacher, would read probably three selections a week of people's work either from a picture book or a chapter of a novel. And everybody in the class...the class was enormous and many of the people were published. If it was a first chapter, they were constantly saying that the first chapter was stuff that the writer needed to know but the reader didn't so just keep that in mind for later. That was good advice and it also took the pressure off of me.


And then I want to say something else about what you said about the edits, the tough words from my editor. I'm used to it and I seek it out. It's not my first rodeo. Books that I've turned into my editor have been sometimes in great shape and sometimes not in great shape. Like, when I got the comment that the setting was vague, I kind of knew it and it just helped to hear it from somebody else. But when my editor said that the beginning was incomprehensible, my response to that generally is, "Oh, okay." And then my second response is, "Ah, can I fix it?" My third response is I start to get to work on it.


When I wrote "Fairest", "Fairest" was a mess when I turned it in. My current editor was the first novel of my niche. She edited it. It called forth from her a 32 single-spaced page edit of my work. That was tough. And things that were in it were things like, "This chapter can go," stuff like that. You know, I have to remember that the goal of all of us is the best book possible, and that's true for writers who are relying on critique buddies as well. We're all after the same thing, and it really doesn't pay to take anything personally. It's really just a waste of time.


Mary: I love what you're sharing. I think it sounds like take your work seriously, don't be afraid to do the work, be a novelist as was the advice received by you a little bit earlier in the interview, but also being kind to yourself especially when it comes to high-pressure things like the beginning of the novel. You can always go back. You can always go back and revise. No need to lose sleep over it right now. If something is stopping you, hop over it and keep going which I fundamentally agree with about beginnings. A lot of writers let themselves be stopped in otherwise counterproductive seasons of their writing lives by things that intimidate them like research for example.


You are a writing teacher, so this wisdom does not come from nowhere. You've written two writing books, "Writing Magic" and "Writer to Writer". These are geared toward young readers, but how do you approach teaching writers? A second part of that question, we also have a Patreon and our patron, Liz W., wants to know what are some writing teachers and writing reference, tools, or books that you yourself follow?


Gail: Well, I loved and I still love "Writing on Both Sides of the Brain" by Henriette Klauser. That one is not necessarily for writing fiction. It's really helpful for that critical voice that is very hard to stamp down. That was my go-to book at the beginning. Whenever I was too hard on myself, I would open that. I'm sure you're listeners know "Bird by Bird" and the late Lawrence Block; I think late. "Spider, Spin Me A Web" is a nice book about writing. I read the Natalie Goldberg books, two of them, which are...titles are fleeing.


Mary: I'll find them. I'll put together a list for you [crosstalk 00:48:18].


Gail: If people go to my website, there is a page for writers that I do list some references that I found very helpful.


Mary: And did these writing teachers help you as you became a writing teacher? How did you approach that?


Gail: Well, yeah, sure. I leaned both on my own experience of writing and discoveries that I made along the way, but I also leaned all the time on the kind of advice that I got that internalize, that I still hear while I write, that make me think about pacing, make me think about what people are saying to each other, and make me willing to cut. I am merciless cutter even though my books have gotten very long. I cut hundreds of pages from every book. All that is a part of my arsenal as I write. I have to say I've got the 10,000 hours and that helps.


Mary: Can you explain where that reference comes from?


Gail: Isn't it [inaudible 00:49:37]? No, it's Malcolm Gladwell.


Mary: It's Malcolm Gladwell. It is the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of active learning to master something, although I would argue that, with writing, with fiction craft, we never truly master it. We can just get further and further down the road, so your 10,000 hours...


Gail: Yeah, yeah. And, in terms of reference also, I look at things on usage all the time. I want to get it right. I lean on what usage websites...there's one Grammarly. I'm always Googling usage questions. I also have, which is expensive, so I don't know, but I have the OED Online, the Oxford English Dictionary. I use the thesaurus all the time. My favorite online thesaurus is Power Thesaurus.


Writing is humbling. One doesn't ever get least, for me, I never feel were right about mastery. Every book is different. Every book is its own challenge and so on.


Mary: Well, I really appreciate you letting me into your process, your thoughts, hearing about world-building from a historical and fantasy perspective, and giving me an early peek into "A Ceiling Made of Eggshells" which is your latest coming out, May 12th. I am happy to announce that I will be passing that advance review copy that Harper was so wonderful to furnish to me for this interview. I'll be passing it along to one lucky reader and running a giveaway with the launch of this interview. I just can't thank you enough for spending this time. I think that every answer you gave opened up maybe 10 avenues I would love to pursue but such is the hour we had and I can't thank you enough for joining me.


Gail: Well, thank you, Mary. And you were a really very interviewer. You ask great questions so thank you.


Mary: Well, the pleasure is all mine. This has been the incomparable Gail Carson Levine, my guest for today. I am Mary Kole with Good Story podcast and here is to a good story.


Thank you so much for joining us for the Good Story podcast. My name is Mary Kole. The Good Story podcast is made possible by my team—Abby Pickus, Amy Holland, Aimee Wilson, Jen Petro-Roy, Jenna Van Rooy, Kristen Overman, Paige Polzin, and audio and video wizardry from Steve Reiss. You can find us online at, I'm at and also find your writing partner at and here is to a good story.