Shelf Care Interview: Ally Carter

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by HMH Books for Young Readers.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Sarah Hunter talks with author Ally Carter about her latest novel, Winterborne Home for Mayhem and Mystery, the sequel to Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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SARAH HUNTER: Thanks so much for being here, Ally.

ALLY CARTER: Thank you so much for having me. It’s always a pleasure.

So tell us about Winterborne Home for Mayhem and Mystery.

Well, as you said in your lovely intro, it is the sequel to Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor, and these two books are my middle-grade debuts. It was a lot of fun to write something for younger kids and for an audience that just generally appreciates whimsy and fun and heightened circumstances and situations.

When I started exploring the middle-grade market, I was thinking, “Okay, if I were to write something a little bit younger than what I’ve been doing, what are the things about that age group and about that market that I enjoy the most?” And I think what I wanted to do was I wanted to go back to something kind of like what I had done with the early Gallagher Girls books. Somebody had told me if I were to publish Gallagher Girls today, especially books one through three, they would probably be published as middle grade. Because the market has just steadily moved a little bit older, and a little bit older, and a little bit older, since book one was published in, I think it was 2005 or 2006.

It was really important to me to find another setting where a bunch of ragtag group of kids can live together. But I didn’t want to do another boarding-school book, because I felt like everybody would just be like, “Why didn’t you do another Gallagher Girls book?” So I wanted to find a different kind of group-home type setting. That naturally that led me to orphanages, but I didn’t want to do just a regular orphanage; I needed to do something that was heightened.

I was actually watching Batman, when Bruce Wayne basically goes away and disappears for 10 years and then comes back after everybody thought he was dead, and I thought, “Okay, what happened to Wayne Manor during that time? Was it just sitting there with Alfred dusting stuff for 10 years, or what’s going on there?” And I thought, “What if I turned that house into an orphanage?” Then I got to thinking about, “Okay, and what if Bruce Wayne came back ready to take on the mantle of Batman, only a bunch of kids have moved into his house? And what if he didn’t tell anybody he was back, but these kids were the only ones who realize he’s alive?”

And that’s really where it all started. It was started with the house, and it started with the idea of this very, very famous billionaire who everybody assumes is dead. And especially these orphans, this group of kids, but especially one girl named April, who has been looking for her mother for 10 long years. And she is convinced that the literal key to finding her mother is somewhere within Winterborne House. So when she finds out that the Gabriel Winterborne is alive and well and living in the basement, she thinks, “There it is. That’s the key. This guy is going to help me find my mom.” Everything else in the entire series grew out of those two characters.

You clearly are writing a lot about spies, thieves, and secret identities. What’s the appeal of that for you personally? And why do you think that type of story is appealing to middle grade readers?

I have no idea why I keep going back to that. Everybody’s always like, “I’d like you to do your more award-y type book or a quieter type book.” I was born and raised on a farm, and they’re like, “We want you to do a girl who lives on a farm.” And I’m like, “Okay, but then what?” How do you make that more exciting than just, “I live on a farm and I do chores and sometimes I show cattle at the county fair?” And I think my mind always gravitates toward, “And then what?” And so I just always want to make stories a little bit bigger and have a little higher stakes.

I was working several years ago—back in the before times, when you could actually leave the house and go and sit in a coffee shop or someplace all day and write, I was doing that. I was on deadline for something. And I was talking to a friend and I said, “Oh, I got to go home but I have to remember to vary my route home.” And she’s like, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, when I’ve been out like this and I always leave about the same time and everything, I always take a different route because I heard one time that if you take the same route every day it makes you easier to kidnap.” And my friend asked, “Do you really think somebody is trying to kidnap you?” “No, but why make it easy on them if by the off chance that they are.” And she just died laughing. And she asked, “Do you do that because you write about spies?” And I had to think about it for a long time. And I realized, “No, I write about spies because I do that.” I’ve just always been wired that way.

So that’s why I’m drawn to it. Why kids are drawn to it, I think, because they too are in that mindset: Everything could be a secret passageway. Everything could be a secret identity. Everything could be a gadget or a gizmo. Is that a can of actual shaving cream or is that a canister that carries a prototype that starts WWIII? I don’t know! There is no way to tell for sure. I think that in that sense 12-year-olds and I are very much alike.

I heard once that the distinction between middle grade and YA is in YA you’re learning about yourself, and in middle grade you’re learning about the world that you live in. And if you’re just learning about the world that you live in, then there’s endless possibility for every object you look at or a new place to go to. You don’t know for sure whether that door leads somewhere special or is just a closet or a wardrobe. So that makes a lot of sense.

Exactly! I grew up obsessed with secret passageways. That’s the one thing that I think . . . I don’t know if there is an Ally Carter book that doesn’t have some sort of secret passageway. Probably with the Heist Society books, but they make their own secret passageways in and out of things. And so, yes, Embassy Row, secret passageways, Gallagher Academy, secret passageways, Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor, so many secret passageways. Even Not If I Save You First, they’re exploring the White House, that is in their world full of secret passageways. So it’s something that definitely is consistent in everything that I do.

So besides secret passageways what inspires your writing, just in general?

Just in general that. I always start with characters and world, and one question that I have to ask—for sure at the beginning of the process, but more than likely I ask it multiple times during the process—is, “What’s the worst that can happen?” It is always my job to mess these people’s lives in the most interesting way possible; if the worst thing that could possibly happen for you is to get stuck in a room with your mortal enemy, then that is what I’m going to do. And so, in a way, it’s my job to be as cruel as possible. But I think that is how you push people and that’s how you get your characters to grow.

Also, I need an immense amount of conflict when I write. And I really want there to always be plenty of gas in the tank, because I find that if a book runs out of conflict it’s like it stalls out going up a hill. And I’ve learned, too, that as soon as possible and as much as I can make it inherent in the concept of the book—the conflict, that is—the easier that book is going to be to write.

So, for example, with Winterborne, the conflict very much early on was Gabriel wanting to find out what happened to his family and to bring down the people who killed his parents. April just wants to find her mother. They each have what seem to be very different, separate goals, and they each seem to be what’s standing in each other’s way. In a way they’re very much antagonists for a lot of the books, but then they’re also very much allies because they realize that they’re the only people who actually really see the other, and they are becoming their own family. They have plenty of things, plenty of goals, plenty of external goals, but then with a whole host of both internal and external conflict to go along with that.

Tell me a little bit about how libraries have played a role in your reading or your writing life.

Oh my gosh. I was so incredibly lucky as a kid. I went to a very, very small, very rural public school. And we had the most amazing librarian when I was in elementary school. Her name is Joan Bennett. She was my librarian in first through fifth grade. And then when I went to middle school, Mrs. Bennett actually got moved from the elementary school to the high school. So by the time I got to high school, I got to have Mrs. Bennett as my librarian for ninth through twelfth grade. I was so incredibly lucky that all but three years of my education was with Joan Bennett as my librarian. And she is just the most kind, generous woman.

When I got out of school and was living in a very small town in southeast Kansas, a little town called Chanute, Kansas. It’s a tiny town, about 10,000 people. It has a Walmart and a small movie theater and a really, really great public library. And at the public librarian there was a woman named Susan Willis. And Susan and the rest of the staff at the library were very, very supportive of me in my writing. There was a little table tucked back behind the staircase and that was my table. I would go and I would sit there on my days off, like on a Saturday morning, I’d go and I’d sit and I’d write all day long. And they would just let me chill back there and do my thing. And they were just so, so kind and lovely.

And now, of course, as an author, I cannot even begin to express what libraries have meant to me and to my readership. I remember going early on in my career to things like ALA or TLA or something and feeling a little intimidated because I’m like, “I’m not the person who’s here because I won the Newbery.” I’m never going to be that person, and that’s fine! That is totally cool. But I’ll be like, “Why did they send me here? I don’t belong here.”

But then I realized that librarians don’t just support the books that win awards; librarians support the books because they know the kid who needs to have that book in their hands. And that I realized that the highest praise you can get from a librarian is, “Your books are never on my shelf.” And I started hearing that from librarians and seeing what that meant to them. And it meant so much to me.

When you’re not writing what do you like to read?

I love to read adult romance. That’s probably what I read the most of. Even though I know there’s so much phenomenal kid lit being published right now. I mean, just the golden age of children’s literature. But when I’m writing I try to read things that are different from what I’m writing, because otherwise it gets in my head and I’m like, “Oh, I’ll never be as good as this book, or what am I doing wrong?” So I like to read out of my genre.

I read a lot of adult romance, and I’ve actually started doing some screenwriting, so I read a lot of screenplays. In the past, I don’t know, five to 10 years, all of the major studios, especially this time of year actually, will put up all of their screenplays that they want to win big awards. They’ll just post them on their website. So if you go to the Sony website, you can find most of the Sony screenplays for that year and past years, and you can read so many amazing screenplays. And I really like that because even if you’re not a screenwriter you can look under the hood and see the bones of what they’ve done, which I find is really interesting from a craft standpoint.

Well, that’s it for this installment. Thanks again to Ally Carter for being here and talking about reading and writing and libraries and secret passageways, and to our sponsor, HMH Books For Young Readers.

About the Author:

When Sarah Hunter is not reading for her job as editor of the Books for Youth and Graphic Novels sections at Booklist, she's baking something tasty or planning trips to the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahBearHunter.

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