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An Author Joins Us: Rachel Hartman Tells Us All About Writing, Seraphina, and more!

June 19, 2012

We’re all eagerly awaiting the July 10th arrival of Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina in bookstores and libraries. Today we have a true inside look at the author and her book, complete with a special introduction from her editor.

Rachel Hartman had already rewritten Seraphina twice before it got to me. It had previously been sold to another publishing house, but when that editor left, Rachel’s agent, fearful that the book would lose its way, bought the manuscript back and shopped it again. I will always be grateful that he thought to send it to me. 

I was immediately struck by the exquisite beauty of Rachel’s prose and the complexity and nuance of her characters. Here was a writer with a capital “W.” The world she had created was rich and detailed and had the most fascinating depiction of dragons, mathematically minded creatures that view love as a disease and humans as mildly intelligent cockroaches. The story was about a girl growing up in a household where her father seemed distant, and her stepmother tried hard but didn’t understand. At the heart of the story was the girl’s struggle to come to terms with herself and her heritage, for her great secret was that she was a half-breed, a monster in the eyes of her people.

 In a phone call with Rachel before she agreed to sign with Random House, I told her I was in love with the world and with the main character, but that the story itself, largely domestic in nature, didn’t seem big enough to fill this incredibly original world she’d created. To her credit, Rachel took that as a challenge. 

Several outlines and many drafts later, the Seraphina that will go on sale on July 10th was born. That half-breed girl is just the same, but now she’s at court, at the center of trouble that threatens not only the peace between humans and dragons but also her life.

I’m immensely proud of the book and of its brilliant—and patient—Writer.

 -Jim Thomas, Editor-at-Large, Random House Books for Young Readers

When did I become a writer?

Like everything I do, I came to writing backwards. I believe the usual order is to write first, and then, once you’ve written enough, you are a writer. I, on the other hand, decided I was a writer when I was eleven years old. A beloved teacher liked one of my poems and wrote in the corner of the page: Rachel, you’re a real writer! I liked her way of thinking and adopted the title at once. Mrs. C. would not have lied to me, surely?

It’s not that I didn’t write—I wrote a lot, especially as a teenager, scrawling out fantasy novels longhand in spiral notebooks—but since I was already a writer (in my own mind), there seemed no urgency to finishing or publishing anything. I enjoyed being with books, so I spent my twenties working in bookstores; I made comic books, which technically involves writing, although it’s very different than novel writing. I felt like I didn’t have time to write; I was busy. I told myself that life was long and that surely a stretch of time would open up at some point.

It’s lucky Mrs. C. hadn’t said, Rachel, you’re a real procrastinator! I didn’t need any encouragement there.

When I was thirty-one, I had a baby and moved to a foreign country, and suddenly the passage of time began to weigh on me. If I really hoped to write a book, I should get started. It seemed like the opening I’d been waiting for; I was home with my son anyway. I set what I believed was a ridiculously easy goal: have a book out by the time I was thirty-six. Five years. No sweat. It would be that simple.

You probably saw this coming: it wasn’t simple. I had grossly underestimated how many hours a day babies take up. They are small in space but large in time.

I wrote by finding time wherever I could. It was a matter of noticing the low places in my day where it pooled, or looking under furniture to see where crumbs of it collected. I discovered that I could jot down notes while my lad pontificated to himself in his high chair, or organize scenes in my mind while changing a diaper. My son’s naps provided long, lovely stretches—fifteen or twenty minutes—when I could sit at the computer and let my fingers fly.

More than discipline, it took bullheaded stubbornness, something I’m apparently quite gifted with. I emailed a chapter each month to my sisters. Toward the end of the first draft, I could sometimes crank out two. It was slow going, but it didn’t feel slow because my days were full. I never stood still; writing filled all the gaps.

My son stopped napping in October 2005. I remember because my work time evaporated, to my distress. He didn’t gradually phase out his nap, or take one every other day, or anything sensible like that. No, he stopped one day and he never napped again. I should have known that’s how it would be; whenever I looked into his grey eyes, I saw my own stubbornness looking back.

I had become so adept at locating stray bits of time, however, that I knew at once where to find a whole, unused pile of it. It was just a matter of steeling myself to what had to be done.

I started getting up extra early. It was torture at first; I had never been a morning person. Luckily, I wasn’t a night person either, so I was willing and able to go to sleep at ten. I acclimated to the schedule, but I probably would have kept waking early even if it had remained difficult because I had discovered a secret. The early morning was unexpectedly wondrous. Time was different then, sweet and unused, and it was all mine. I got to wake up at my own pace; I got a whole hour where I was no one’s mother, where I was a writer and nothing else.

Whatever my earlier illusions may have been, I became a writer when I started leaping out of bed before the alarm went off, eager to make the next sentence happen. I became a writer in the eerie, early hours, where time stretches out luxuriously, as if it, too, is waiting for the coffee to kick in. Sometimes it seemed to stop altogether. I would pause and think, This is it. This moment, now, is the entire reason to do this, and it is enough.

Those were the moments that sustained me when the road got challenging again—and it inevitably did. I wrote Seraphina four times, each with a different plot, over eight years; I’ve had my share of setbacks and bad luck, enough to stretch even my stubbornness to its limits. I don’t do this for the hypothetical future rewards. I can’t. They might never happen, and this work is too difficult to do on speculation. The work must be its own reward. I love it in the moment, and love is never a waste of time.

My son just turned nine. I will turn forty the day before Seraphina comes out. If someone had walked up to me at the beginning of this journey and said, “You’re going to be forty before this thing comes out, you know that?” I hope I would have replied in the words of comic artist Pam Bliss: “How old will I be if I don’t do it?”

And to whet your appetite, here are a few early reviews of Seraphina: 

For forty years, an uneasy peace has existed between humans and dragons, who can contract themselves into human form, often to work as scholars in the world of Goredd.  Seraphina, a gifted musician just hired as assistant to the court music master, has a secret that could doom both her and her father. She tries to keep a low profile but, is drawn into the investigation of the murder of a royal prince that looks suspiciously like a dragon-like attack. Because she has a dragon teacher, her knowledge of dragons is useful to Krigs, Captain of the Guard. She falls in love with him even though he is engaged to the Princess of the Realm, Seraphina’s student and also friend. I loved this book. The characters were complex and the world was original and richly developed. I have read a lot of fantasy books with dragons but, this one has a very unusual twist. Hopefully this author will write more novels in the future and I look forward to eagerly devouring them. – Pam Stilp, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

An imaginative, fresh take on dragon mythology, “Seraphina” sets itself apart from other YA fantasy novels by putting dragons and humans on almost equal footing. The friction between the two species, each with their own extensive culture, arts, and histories but only recently living in peace together, also creates a compelling and fascinating main character: Seraphina’s greatest secret, that she is part-dragon, gives her the ability to appreciate and understand both humans and dragons in a unique way. The discovery that this new peace between the two sides might be shakier than anyone guessed shoves Seraphina to the helm of the story. I can’t wait for the sequel! – Rebecca Waesch, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

I just read Seraphina by Rachel Hartman and WOW! I just loved it. What a breathtaking and mature debut! I entered my review for Indie Bound, and Shannon and I are still figuring out how to give it special attention. It already has lots of support in our office, and after our kid’s meeting today, it sounds like we aren’t the only fans! We’re going to be featuring it, along with dragon books of the stores’ choosing in July. Thanks! – Maggie, Books Inc, San Francisco, CA

The woman can write! It’s driving me nuts that I can’t talk to “my” readers about the plot until they’ve gotten a chance to read it. It’s like when I was blessed enough (thank you retired Houghton Mifflin rep.) to get into the press screening of the first Lord of the Rings Movie. I was amazed and awed and NO ONE had seen it yet and I had to wait two entire weeks until I could go and see it again with my friends. Seraphina is like that. I’m already telling people about it and they’re going to get it once it’s published…which isn’t until July 10 and sure seems like a long wait. Please feel free to forward this on to the author. SHE ROCKS, and I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next. – Bonnie, Alexander Book Co, San Francisco, CA

Many thanks to Rachel Hartman and her editor, Jim Thomas, for joining us at RAoR today, and congratulations on the upcoming publication of Seraphina.

Please share your thoughts in our comment section.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2012 10:22 am

    Loved Seraphina and her world, but especially the original concept of dragons. Who knew they were so smart?

  2. June 19, 2012 11:32 am

    So looking forward to this!

    I can relate to the writing with young ones. When my boys were babes I held to three writing sessions a week. Some lasted hours, some only minutes. It was slow going but it kept me working.

    And hooray for Mrs. C. and all teachers who find what a child needs and encourages her along this way.

  3. Christine permalink
    June 19, 2012 12:35 pm

    Love SERAPHINA and have fallen in love with Rachel Hartman all over again from this beautifully written post.

  4. June 19, 2012 1:18 pm

    Seraphina is such a wonderful book, and I have a bookish crush on Orma. I love that the dragons are so logical. 😀


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