From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Eilis O’Neal

What inspired “The Wizard’s Calico Daughter”?

The title came to me first, but for a long time, I didn’t know what it meant. I had this image of a girl who had the coloration of a calico cat, and I had a vague idea that her mother might or might not have actually been a cat, but I didn’t know anything else. So the title sat in my notebook of random ideas for probably half a year. Then one day I was sitting around just mulling it over, and I suddenly knew that she lived all alone in this gray gabled house with her father. After that, the rest of the story came out really fast, but it was the house was what really clenched it for me.

If you had a room in the wizard’s house, what would you want in it?

Hah . . . That’s tough. But, if I had to pick, I think I’d pick the room with all the books in the world in it, even the ones that haven’t been written yet. Of course, then I might never leave it . . .

In both “The Wizard’s Calico Daughter” and your forthcoming YA fantasy novel The False Princess, the protagonists’ sixteenth birthdays mark important changes for them, particularly the time to go out into the world. What do you like most about writing teenagers? What is the most difficult part?

I liked writing about teenagers because that seems like the time when people are most changeable. When they’re making choices and starting to decide on who they really want to be. The False Princess particularly centers on a girl trying to figure out just who she is, and who she wants to become. I like that quality of sitting right on the edge of life, where you might tip off in a lot of different directions. One of the harder aspects of writing teenagers—especially if the setting is current—is getting the voice right. I’m very sensitive to books where the teenage voice sounds somehow false, and I really try to avoid that.

You also have several short stories and a YA fantasy novel published. Could you tell us about your writing processes for both forms? Did you find your short story experience was helpful in writing the novel?

For short stories, I either have an idea grab me and shake me around until I write it, or, as with this one, I have the germ of an idea floating around for a while that finally takes root. What’s frustrating is when I have an idea that seems really cool, but I can’t get it to transition into an actual story idea—my notebook is full of those, and trying to push one into becoming a full story rarely helps. For novels, I usually get the beginning and end worked out first, and then I have to go back and figure out the middle. I’m a terrible outliner—I’ve tried and I just can’t do it, and it’s hard for me to write a synopsis even when half the novel’s finished. Probably because, mainly, I write novels by feel. I know where I want to end up, but I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to get there. I like writing that way, because I sometimes surprise myself by coming up with something awesome that I really didn’t know was going to happen, but it can be terrifying, too.

As for how writing short stories and novels intertwine, one of the biggest things is that writing short stories has let me experiment with a lot of different voices. And that’s been very helpful for getting the various characters voices in a novel to sound unique.

In addition to The False Princess, what is next for you?

I’ve got a couple of other short stories that I’m excited about coming out soon. And I’m working on a new novel, though it’s still in the drafting phase.

Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.