Pen Friends ~ Today’s interview is such a treat! Debut YA Author, Hanna Howard, shares about her upcoming novel, IGNITE THE SUN and her beautiful (and somewhat painful) journey to becoming an author. Don’t miss the blurb to her novel. The premise is entirely captivating!
SP: Hi Hanna! I’m so excited to have you on the Spinning Pen to talk your upcoming debut, Ignite the Sun. But first, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you started writing?
Hey Nova! thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited for the chance to connect with you and your readers! A little bit about me: I’m an Oklahoma native who grew up with creativity modeled as vocation. My dad was a self-employed artist, and he always stressed to us kids (I have two younger brothers) that doing what you loved mattered more than making lots of money. So that was my foundation for work pursuits. I got a BA in English and Creative Writing from Oklahoma Baptist University, after which I started chasing a writing career while working odd jobs to pay the bills. I was a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, a plant-seller at a local landscape and nursery, a merchandiser for Scholastic Book Fairs, a composition tutor at a local community college, and eventually started my own Etsy shop painting ceramic mugs, which became my full time job. All along I was living the semi-impoverished, single bohemian writing life in a little condo with my dog and her cat, and it was really quite wonderful. In 2013 I started going to a new church, where I met and became good friends with the man who would eventually become my husband, in 2015 I signed with my agent and lost my dad to cancer, in 2017 I got married, and in 2019 signed a book contract with Blink/HC and found out I was pregnant. I sometimes shake my head a little ironically at the way life goes: I basically lived seven years of quiet, steady, uneventful working and publishing-pursuits, and then, right after I signed with my agent, was bombarded by a flood of massive life events which is still ongoing.
The abbreviated story of how I started writing is this: I grew up loving to read, but I only read about dogs, really (haha), so I thought I wanted to be a vet. This dream died in third grade when I learned vets had to put dogs to sleep, and the next year a new idea was presented to me: My fourth grade teacher, having watched me all year making books with rubber cement and wallpaper at her book-making station, told me on the last day of class that I should consider being a writer when I grew up. This I dismissed as a wacky idea, though. Fast forward to high school, during a conversation with my best friend, in which I confessed to her that I spent nearly every night before bed making up stories in my head. She suggested I start writing them down–start writing a book–and though I thought she was a little crazy, too (surelyIcouldn’t write a book??), I took her advice and started drafting my first novel. And I feel madly in love with the process. I spent the last two years of high school scratching down scenes in notebooks when I should have been paying attention in class, and then eventually transcribing them onto the Toshiba laptop I had been given for college. By the time I was choosing a college, I knew I needed to go somewhere with a Creative Writing program, because I had decided I wanted to be a writer for the rest of my life.
SP: Now, about your incredibly beautiful upcoming book, Ignite the Sun, which is open for pre-order and will come out in August this year (2020). Here is a blurb:
Once upon a time, there was something called the sun … In a kingdom ruled by a witch, the sun is just part of a legend about light-filled days of old. But now Siria Nightingale is headed to the heart of the darkness to try and restore the light—or lose everything trying.
Sixteen year-old Siria Nightingale has never seen the sun. That’s because Queen Iyzabel shrouded the kingdom in shadow upon her ascent to the throne, with claims it would protect her subjects from the dangerous light.
The darkness has always left Siria uneasy, and part of her still longs for the stories of the light-filled days she once listened to alongside her best friend Linden, told in secret by Linden’s grandfather. But Siria’s need to please her strict and demanding parents means embracing the dark and heading to the royal city—the very center of Queen Izybel’s power—for a chance at a coveted placement at court. And what Siria discovers at the Choosing Ball sends her on a quest toward the last vestiges of light, alongside a ragtag group of rebels who could help her restore the sun … or doom the kingdom to shadow forever.
SP: On your website, you wrote a heart-wrenching, beautiful post about how this story came about–readers– please read it HERE, you won’t be sorry. It wrecked me, but made me even more excited for this book. I won’t make you retell the whole story, but can you tell us more about your character and the world you created?
Ahhh, thank you so much! ❤ Yes, so the gist of the book’s backstory is that I drafted it during my first encounter with anxiety, depression, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. Because I myself was feeling trapped in the dark, cold of January, not to mention the dark, cold of my anxiety, I created a world that had been covered in magical darkness for fifteen years, and a protagonist (Siria) who had never before seen the sun. It was really ripe fruit for the picking, because I wanted nothing butsunshine myself at the time, and so it was not a stretch to pour my own desperate longing into a heroine who, as the book eventually reveals, actually needs the sun on a more fundamental, biological level than you and I do. And it seemed natural, therefore, that Siria’s experiences with this magical darkness should have an anxiety-like effect on her. So fear became her tragic flaw, and overcoming it a large part of her journey.
Additionally, I found it fascinating to worldbuild a place that had been without sunlight for fifteen years. I did a lot of research (insofar as you can with a completely fictional idea) to try and imagine what the results would be. A dead world, for starters, with most of the smaller plant life gone, and many of the trees either fallen or on their way to dying. Mental and physical health would suffer. Food production would be limited. And people themselves would gray and pale, no matter what their natural melanin. Everyone would look really sick and ghostly.
SP: Your writing journey, agent journey, and revision journey took years (because of your life story above). What kept you writing? How do you encourage other writers not to give up?
I mentioned my dad earlier, and I would be remiss not to emphasize his part in my perseverance. We had lots of conversations along the way, often tearful, despairing ones on my end, in which I declared that I would never get anywhere with this dream, and that I might as well chuck in the towel and find a better paying day job. After reminding me that I wouldn’t be able to give up writing even if I tried, he would usually tell me with unwavering confidence that he was certain it would happen for me one day. He believed our vocational passions–the work that makes us feel alive–to be God-given, and he always insisted that there was a reason I loved to write, and that I would know it in God’s good time. Then he would tell me the most practically important thing of all: “Okay, now get back to work. Write, girl, write!” It was his encouragement (along with the genetic stubbornness he gave me) that ultimately kept me going, I think.
I also made a clock, haha… I bought a cheap clock from a thrift store, and mod-podged a bunch of my rejections on its face, and hung it somewhere I could see it every day. And every day I would scowl up at those impersonal No-Thank-Yous, and think, “I’ll show you one day.” And somehow that was really inspiring to me. But I don’t know that everyone would find that tactic helpful…
When I meet new or discouraged writers, I try to emphasize just now important perseverance is. Because in this industry, it’s not necessarily the most dazzlingly gifted writers who succeed; it’s the ones who refuse to give up. A lot of the advice I read early on went something like this: “If you can give up, if you can stop writing, do it. It’ll be much easier for you in the long run. But if you can’t… then keep on writing, keep submitting, keep trying.” And I think ultimately what that means is that if writing is what makes your soul come alive, you won’t be able to stop, and nor should you. But you should also toughen your skin, because it’s not a nice industry, and it won’t always be fun. So a second piece of advice, after “never give up,” would be to always keep improving and growing and learning from your mistakes. Keep reading, keep striving to be a better writer, and above all, stay humble about the process. Don’t take things too personally. Always be willing to hear constructive criticism, to apply it, and then to get up and try again.
SP: Being on submission. What was it like for you?
Stressful! Haha! In the first week I had gone online to read every submission story I could find, and flip-flopped between wild hope that mine would be a dreamy six-figure success, and deep despair that the book wouldn’t sell at all, and that it would be years on submission before I realized I’d have to shelve it forever. After about a week of this mania, I realized I needed to give it up and stay off the internet, so I got back to work and tried not to worry too much about it. Some days I was more successful at this than others. In the end, of course, my book deal was neither of the extremes I had imagined. Two different Harper imprints wanted to acquire the book, which was wonderful, but lots of other editors had rejected it over the course of its five month process. So I was blessed with the middle-ground of selling the book without feeling too self-important. 😉
SP: In addition to writing, you paint gorgeous, inspiring mugs and sell them on Etsy, how do you balance writing and work?
Honestly, not super well! I am a terrible multi-tasker, and I usually want to be either painting mugs or writing–but not both. There were a few years while I was editing with my agent and doing mugs full time that I would take months to get edits back to her, because the need to paint mugs for income was so pressing I felt I couldn’t take long chunks of time to write. Now that I am married to someone with a “real” job, I’m lucky to have a bit more flexibility, so I can truly take whole months at a time to focus on writing if I need to, and know that I won’t starve to death. But having lived the alternative for so many years prior, I know that this is not always the case for writers, and I empathize with the struggle to balance jobs!
On a less mercenary note, I love being able to both paint and write for a living. Sometimes I am so tired of the mental gymnastics required by writing and editing that I just want to unplug my brain and brush strokes of color onto a mug and watch things come alive without so much thought. Other times, my body is exhausted by the production of physical things, and it’s a massive relief to sit down in the seclusion of my imagination and bring stories to life on the page. So it’s a fun mix of things, these two creative efforts!
SP: Can you tell us about your revision style? Do you perfect each chapter before moving on, or are you more developmental and then a final revision?
My natural tendency is to perfect one thing or one chapter at a time before moving chronologically along. But over time I’ve learned that this just isn’t very practical, because if the structure of the novel isn’t already what it needs to be, then it’s always possible you’ll have to change or delete one of the perfect sentences you spent so long polishing. So I’m learning to look more at the big picture, to edit for big changes (both in plot and character) before I get down to the fun work of making each sentence shiny. 🙂 But like I said, this is hard for me. I’m a detail person, so I still get lost in the joy of sentence perfection even while I’m trying to keep my focus on the big picture.
SP: I’m excited to see what a girl, who found the sun, will write next! Are you currently working on something new?
I have a number of projects that I’ve started and am sort of trying on right now! I love fairy tale retellings, and am a bit obsessed with Scotland, so I’m considering one that incorporates those two elements. But who knows! I sort of feel that writing books, like reading them, often happens when both you and the book are ready for each other. So it may be something totally different… 🙂
SP: What was the last book you read and loved?
Oooh. Well the last book I put on our “favorites” shelf in our house was Kelly Barnhill’s THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, which of course won the Newbery in 2017. It was utterly beautiful. And the last one before that was THE BIRD AND THE BLADE by Megan Bannen. Both books wrecked me in the best way.
SP: Now to lighten things up:
SP: Hanna is a — plotter/pantster? Natural pantser, adapted plotter! (I usually start out well with plotting and then leap into pantsing when I get too impatient to wait.
Early bird/night owl? Early bird, but only if I can get to bed early! My favorite time to write is at dawn (I loooove watching the sun come up while I write), but most nights I get to bed too late to make this feasible. But my brain and my social energy are both gone by about 8pm, so there’s no night owl in me at all. 🙂 Last minute / week early? Definitely last minute! My husband usually tells me we have to be somewhere about 15 minutes before we actually do, because he knows otherwise I’ll make us late.
Loves/dreads feedback? Both?? It’s really exciting for me to read feedback, because it feels like interacting with a reader, but I’m also usually terrified there will be some huge thing for me to fix, or something really negative. (Even though the really negative thing hasn’t happened to me but once or twice, with random meanies.)
Something always in your fridge? Milk! I can’t be without it. Cereal is a staple, but more importantly, TEA. And I refuse to drink my tea without a civilizing dollop of milk in it. 😉
Current dream vacation spot? I’m such a creature of habit, but I think I would always choose Scotland, no matter how many times I’ve been. (And the current count is three.) Last time my husband and I found this amazing Airbnb in the rural outskirts of Inverness, and it was so beautiful and isolated and SCOTTISH that I haven’t stopped dreaming about it since. But if it’s a place I’ve never been, I would love to visit Prince Edward Island and see Anne Shirley’s stomping grounds!
Would you rather fight with FIRE, ICE, or WIND? I’m inclined to say fire, just because heat and light are my jam, but it occurs to me that maybe a girl from Oklahoma would be better suited to wield wind? Did I mention I’m indecisive?? I’m going to go with wind, because I’m a pacifist, and it seems like fire would be too destructive too fast. I think I could fight with a little less death and agony if I used wind. 🙂
Current fictional crush? My top three have never yet been knocked off the podium: Harry Potter, for his saucy boldness and goodness, Aragorn for his integrity and sexy ranger roughness, and Prince Charmont for his noble heart and kindness.
Favorite childhood book? Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine!
Lion or Ant? Lion! Camel or Zebra? Zebra! Gardener or Fisherwoman? Gardener!
SP: Thanks so much for sharing with us, Hanna! We are eagerly anticipating your book!
You can pre-order/find Ignite the Sun HERE.
Add it on goodreads HERE
HH: Thank you so much for having me, Nova! I’ve had so much fun!!
SP: Hope you enjoyed this interview! *If you have an author you’d love to know more about, please let me know about him or her. If you’re an author interested in being interviewed, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nova, signing off!