Saturday, May 12, 2012

Her Story: Alethea Kontis

It's been a while since I interviewed another writer on the blog, but I think you'll agree that the author here today is worth the wait. I met Alethea Kontis at the mega event at Nora Roberts' bookstore, where we were both signing. The organizers put Alethea at the beginning of the line and they couldn't have made a better choice: she charmed each and every person, right from the start. She is a bundle of magical energy, and she's here today to tell us about her amazing life and her new YA novel, ENCHANTED, just released.

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I was born into a family of storytellers, but I didn't start writing things down until I was forced to do so for class assignments (usually poetry) when I was about eight years old. Right about that same time I started my career as a child actress as well. I had a big imagination, but I was never one of those kids with pie-in-the sky dreams like being a princess... I came into that later in life.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

In hindsight, I think I was influenced by 1.) my anglophile Nana (my Greek grandmother) and all the English nursery songs she used to sing to my little sister and me by 2.) the Goops books by Gelett Burgess, and 3.) the giant tome of unexpurgated Grimm and Andersen tales gifted to me by my Memere (the French grandmother).

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

Oh, wow. I have no idea -- I'm a total omnivore. I can tell you I'm not a fan of hipster "literature" that is pretentious just for the sake of being pretentious. When I speak to one of those authors, I tell them that I write CRAP. For KIDS. And I am proud as hell.

Tell us about your book.

All the fairy tales you ever knew (and many you don't) actually originated from one very large storytelling family: the Woodcutters. ENCHANTED is the story of Sunday Woodcutter, the youngest daughter, and her unlikely friendship with a frog that turns out to be a prince her father despises.

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

The idea for Enchanted began as a contest challenge in my writers group (Codex Writers). Our stories had to be inspired by at least one of four "seeds": "Fundevogel (The Foundling)," "The Princess and the Pea," the Irish legend of CĂș Chulainn, and the nursery rhyme "There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe." I couldn't choose between them, so I chose them well as all every other fairy tale and nursery rhyme that was suggested.
In the five years it's taken me to put Enchanted on the shelves, I've thrown myself into fairy tale research. It's fascinating how many common themes run through them, and how the Italians, French, Germans, Dutch, British, and Americans all have unique takes on them. Further still, it's interesting how the various countries choose to retell these stories on both the big and small screens.

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

You know, writers tell all these stories about the day they decided to give up writing. I have never had that day. In the 1948 film The Red Shoes, Lermontov asks Victoria Page why she wants to dance. She asks him in return why he wants to live. "I don't know exactly why," says Lermontov, "but I must." "That's my answer too," says Vicky. This answer sums up my feelings about my writing completely.

I was the most inspired...when I was younger, I think. I had the luxury of time on my side, and I could completely lose myself in a project without worrying about how and where and when and for whom the project would be completed. I had no parameters, no box, no deadlines. A few years ago, I worked on a collage artwork piece that completely subsumed me. I was lost in the paint and magazines and scissors, and when I was done my life felt strange and quiet. I know this power is still within me, wild and unrestrained and perhaps a little more mature now, but it's there. And every time I sit down to write, I raise the odds of tapping into it.

Wouldn't that motivate you? J

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber. Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal (but read Shades of Milk and Honey first). Triggers by Robert J. Sawyer. And I have a gorgeous ARC of The Reckoning by Alma Katsu right on the top of my TBR pile.

What have you read that, surprisingly, didn’t grab you?

I hate to mention this, but I had to put down Jessica Shirvington's Embrace. I think I would have loved it if I hadn't JUST finished Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I was still obsessed with Prague and Chimera to enjoy anything else about Angels.

I've also been really annoyed lately at the prevalence of YA books that seem to end in the middle of the story just because the author has signed a five-book contract with whatever publisher. I think that's fabulous (heck, I'm jealous), but that doesn't give anyone a blank check to write a book that doesn't come to a satisfying conclusion. [/soapbox]

Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers?

My path to publication was "get a job in the book industry and then stay there for a decade." You learn all kinds of dos and don’ts that way by watching others do them (and cringing in sympathy).  I sold my first book without officially submitting it (someone else did--I'm lucky my name was on it). I have threatened to kill an editor, accidentally (the email wasn't supposed to go to her), and it magically didn't ruin our friendship. I fell in love with my agent when she said, "I love your aura," while peering at me over her sunglasses at lunch. I fell in love with my editor at Harcourt the moment she randomly quoted Sophie Hatter from Howl's Moving Castle (the book, not the movie. Gah). Just like in dating--there is someone out there for everyone. You just have to keep looking until you find them.

My tip to aspiring writers is to stop trying so hard. The only magic spell is putting your butt in the chair and writing. You are welcome to have hobbies, and to like (or despise) certain foods, and to play games and have pets and children and crazy family members and lives. So many people in this industry turn publishing into a game, with all the dressing up in suits and pitching and querying and riding in elevators. I have found that if you 1.) put yourself out there and 2.) are the best YOU that you can be, the editor and agent you are meant to have will find you.

Possibly even more than one.

What is the most surprisingly thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?

The most surprising thing I've learned is that being comfortable scared me to death. There I was, living happily by myself in my little house with a big garden in Tennessee. I had a decent day job at a book wholesaler, I worked on writing books in the evening (and watching marathon stints of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who). I had zero debt, no one I was responsible for, and no one who was responsible for me. Apart from the deadly storms every April, life was pretty much perfect.

And then one day my heart was seized by a ghostly hand and a thought echoed in my head: You are going to die alone in Tennessee, just like Andre Norton.

Now, I loved Miss Andre. She lived about a mile or so from my house in Murfreesboro. I used to visit her at her library and bring her book catalogs, and we would scoot around in desk chairs and she would show me different books I might find interesting or talk about some old piece of writing she'd just found. We corresponded by proper snail mail, too--she sent me cards on every holiday you could think of.  But she was all alone in that house (with a personal assistant), and after she sold the library she moved in with a couple of friends (who then started this giant war over what to do with all that writing she kept finding). My heart broke the day she passed away.

Maybe it was Miss Andre poking my soul or maybe it was my own fear of mundanity, but I didn't want to settle into a life and effectively die at 33. So I quit my job, packed my bags, and moved in with a friend in Pennsylvania (in, like, a 24-hour period). Within three months I had a Fairy Godboyfriend and two teenage daughters and sold my first novel. I had the makings of a very decent career in a very new life.

Make no mistake, I do miss Tennessee. I miss my friends. I miss my little house with the big garden. I cried for a very long time after I left. But I wouldn't trade the life I have now for anything. I only wish I'd had the presence of mind to throw myself out of my comfort zone when I was...say...nineteen, instead!

New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a goddess, a force of nature, and a mess. She’s known for screwing up the alphabet, scolding vampire hunters, turning garden gnomes into mad scientists, and making sense out of fairy tales.Alethea is the co-author of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter Companion, and penned the AlphaOops series of picture books. She has done multiple collaborations with Eisner winning artist J.K. Lee, including The Wonderland Alphabet,The Umbrella of Fun, and the illustrated Twitter serial“Diary of a Mad Scientist Garden Gnome.”Her debut YA fairy tale novel, Enchanted, was published by HMH (Harcourt Books) in May 2012.You can visit her here.


  1. What a fantastic interview! Every writer just starting out should read this. Your positive outlook, motivation, your heart and just the sheer love of writing come through with every single word.
    I'm a little bit jealous of you never having wondered about giving up the writing. I'm a little ashamed to admit that--at times--I have. And then when I think it through, I realize I never really meant to give up on WRITING. Just the business end of it. :-) It never fails that when I sit back down and start writing what I love (not what critiques/judges have told me to do) that I fall in love all over again.
    I know exactly what you mean about the YA books that just end. Because they think you'll come back for the second one. I haven't gone back to the second one for most of them (Except Hunger Games). It reminds me of that quote in Gattaca after Vincent beats Anton in the swimming race, and asked how he did it, he says: "This is how I did it Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back." I feel like so many authors are trying to save the better parts of their stories for their swim back. Hey! There might NOT be a swim back. Finish your books. You don't have to finish the series, but at least finish the book.
    Good luck to you on your new release, Alethea! May it hit every bestseller list. :-)
    As always, it's nice to be in the presence of a princess.

  2. Kim, you are WONDERFUL. Thank you! *hugs* And I'll agree...sometimes I'd like to give up the "celebrity" portion of writing where I have to live in front of the world. We can't *just* be writers anymore, these days. Despite that, I have had a TON of fun meeting people at conventions and walking through New York City dressed like a Ren Faire and making a complete ass of myself on YouTube.

    Also, 50 points to Gryffindor for quoting GATTACA! Loren Dean was one of my favorite things about that film.

  3. I always knew the death of Andre Norton rocked Alethea's world. I never realized how much it changed her life. It's not easy to leave the comfort zone.

  4. What a great interview!!! You know, I feel the same way about books that don't really end. Yes, I get there will be a sequel but honestly, does there HAVE to be a sequel/series for every damn story? Jeez! Give me some happy endings already! ;-) (And yes, I'm super jealous of those authors with multi-book deals too.)

    Alethea, I was sooo comforted by what you said about not trying too hard. It's interesting how easy it is to become drawn into the competitive side of this business. But you're right - just like relationships, it will all work out when it's supposed to. You rock my socks! Big smoochies!

    *Kerri is dying because her copy of Enchanted was sent to her work office and she's been away from work for the last week. Might just have to sneak in this weekend to grab it.