What I like about “books about books” is that there’s a lot of potential for reflections about fiction, about characters’ agency, about why we read and why we write stories. This book did just that, on top of an intriguing and sometimes a little dark plot.
I want to thank author Tara Gilboy so much for agreeing to this interview, and thank you to Jolly Fish Press for sending me the ARC through Netgalley!
Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Gracie Freeman is living a normal life, but she is haunted by the fact that she is actually a character from a story, an unpublished fairy tale she’s never read. When she was a baby, her parents learned that she was supposed to die in the story, and with the help of a magic book, took her out of the story, and into the outside world, where she could be safe.
But Gracie longs to know what the story says about her. Despite her mother’s warnings, Gracie seeks out the story’s author, setting in motion a chain of events that draws herself, her mother, and other former storybook characters back into the forgotten tale. Inside the story, Gracie struggles to navigate the blurred boundary between who she really is and the surprising things the author wrote about her. As the story moves toward its deadly climax, Gracie realizes she’ll have to face a dark truth and figure out her own fairy tale ending.
Silvia: How would you pitch your story to someone who hasn’t read the blurb?
Tara Gilboy: Thank you so much for having me today! Unwritten is a middle grade novel about a girl who lives in the real world but is actually a fairy tale character whose parents took her out of the story-world when she was a baby, so she could escape the fate of what was written about her. When she seeks out the story’s author, that fate – and the story’s villain — soon catch up with her.
S: Tell us a little bit about the main characters of Unwritten.
TG: The main character of Unwritten is Gracie, and she is a flawed character, which is perhaps why I love her so much. She can be stubborn, and she has a bit of a temper, but she’s also passionate and determined. When her mom refuses to tell her about the story written about her, she takes matters into her own hands. Walter is also a character from the story Gracie was born in. He is quieter than Gracie, and a bit kinder and more insightful, but he can also be stubborn in his own way. He’s less willing to believe in the “magic” of the story world, and is always looking for a scientific explanation. But I think he helps keep Gracie grounded. Both characters are fiercely loyal to one another.
S: What inspired you to write “a story within a story”, so to speak?
TG: You know, it’s interesting, because the idea for this novel didn’t start with it being a “story within a story.” It started with the idea of being on the run from someone. I kept having this recurring dream about being forced to flee in the middle of the night, and packing all my things in the car before some sort of supernatural entity caught up with me. I started playing around with this idea and doing some freewriting about shaping it into a story. What would these characters be running from? That idea kind of gradually evolved into the “story within a story,” which quickly became much more complicated than I had anticipated, with questions about fate and free will. I always smile to myself when readers mention the book being short and simple because there were many, many drafts that were extremely long and confusing while I figured this stuff out.
S: This is your debut. Have you always wanted to become a writer?
TG: Oh, yes, for as long as I can remember. I’ve wanted to write pretty much since I learned to read, and I still have some of the stories I wrote in elementary school. My mom recently gave me a letter I wrote to a publisher when I was in third grade, asking if I could write books for their series. (Apparently she never mailed it!) Unfortunately, until I was in my twenties, I had never actually met a writer, and so writing started to seem like this kind of “impossible dream.” Then in college, I took some creative writing classes, published a couple short stories, and worked as an editor at a literary journal, and I realized: “Hey, I can really do this!”
S: Do your characters sometimes take their destiny on their own hands or do you always have complete control over what you write?
TG: Oh my goodness, my characters ALWAYS take their destiny in their own hands. I am horrible at outlining because if I plan out everything in the story ahead of time, when I sit down to write, everything feels a bit “forced,” as if I am trying to make my characters do things that don’t feel natural for them. I actually just wrote a scene the other day, where at the end of it, a character had done something that took me completely by surprise, and when I had finished the scene, I kind of sat there thinking “Wow. I had no idea that was going to happen when I sat down to write.” But it took the story in a new and wonderful direction I had not anticipated, and was much better than what I had initially planned.
S: What are your favorite stories to read about? How do they inspire you in your own work?
TG: I feel like this changes all the time depending on my mood. Sometimes I go through periods where I am reading a lot of historical fiction, or ghost stories, or classics, or fantasy…. One thing that is consistent, though, is that middle grade and young adult are my absolute favorite books to read – I rarely read adult novels anymore. I feel like in middle grade and young adult novels, the stories are condensed into their essential elements – there’s no room to let the story digress and go off on tangents – so the focus is on telling a good story, which is something that is really important to me. I always start off my writing day by reading: reading books I love keeps me inspired. I’m working on another fantasy right now and reading a lot of Harry Potter to keep myself inspired. I think JK Rowling is a genius at both developing character and creating exciting plots.
S: How did your experiences as a writer influence you when writing the character of Gertrude Winters?
TG: Gertrude’s character is interesting to me because I was so reluctant to bring her into the book in a major way, and I’m not sure why. My critique partners kept telling me in draft after draft that I needed to reveal more of who she is and explain why she had written the story she did. I think in the initial drafts, I really didn’t know why Gertrude wrote the story, or perhaps I was hesitant to really start examining my own creative process through her. I think in some ways Gertrude’s writing process is really an exaggeration of the writing process of many writers. We all kind of “write behind our backs,” so to speak, where we draw on things in our own lives, or repeatedly explore themes that are important to us, sometimes subconsciously. My critique partners have pointed out that a lot of my work explores relationships between mothers and daughters, something that I never set out to do intentionally, but comes up again and again in my writing. Gertrude, I think, takes this tendency even further, basing her characters on people she knows, and drawing on her own experiences in a huge way as she shapes her stories. And, of course, one thing that I have in common with Gertrude is that I love writing villains – they are such interesting characters!
S: I think the way you talked about heroes and villains in this book was brilliant. What do you hope your young readers take away from it?
TG: Thank you so much! This idea of heroes and villains is something that evolved in later drafts, and it is SO important to me. I am so concerned lately by this kind of “call out culture” that is so prevalent on social media right now. Any time someone makes a mistake, or does or says something bad, that mistake can immediately be made public, and more and more, I’ve been seeing people labeled as either “good” or “bad,” without compassion or consideration for “why” the person might have done the things they did. Everyone makes mistakes – we don’t say or do the right things all the time, but the important thing is being able to learn from those mistakes, move on, and try to do better next time. People are so much more complex than the labels we ascribe to them. Heroes often do bad things, and villains are capable of doing good. I hope readers will be inspired from my book to offer compassion and forgiveness when others make mistakes, and consider the whole person, rather than simply the mistake.