Thursday, April 08, 2004

Interview with Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted

Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, is very small, with sparkling eyes that seem to notice everything in case there might be something she might want to use in a book someday. Ella Enchanted was her first attempt to write a chapter book, after several picture books for younger children were turned down by publishers. “I was very much a rejected author. When a picture book I wrote was turned down and the editor asked me to expand it, I learned that I was really a novelist.”

Then her first novel began with the idea of the curse of obedience, which added a lot of life and texture to the traditional story of Cinderella. It also made the story much more appealing to modern readers, who are so used to the idea of independent women with a range of choices that they can find it hard to identify with a Cinderella who would allow herself to be commanded by her mean stepmother and stepsisters.

Once Ms. Levine had the idea of the curse, she had to develop a heroine who would respond to it. “Ella is braver than I am,” she told me. “I developed her to fit what I needed when I developed the curse of obedience, someone who could respond to it.” Because Ella must follow direct orders, she quickly learns to think very carefully about language. And so did Ms. Levine. “As a writer I had to be very careful about the commands I gave her. If someone ordered her to ‘be a good person’ it would be overly vague.” Playing with the language was part of what made writing about Ella fun. Every time Ella was ordered to do something, she looked for ways to bend the meaning of the words to give her as much power to decide how she would obey as possible. That may be why Ella became so interested in studying other languages, and so good at it.

Ms. Levine also enjoyed the way Ella’s thinking about the meaning of the words she said and heard helped her to make jokes, one of her qualities most admired by the more serious Prince Char. Ms. Levine said that she wished she could be as naturally funny as Ella. “Her humor comes from my mother and my husband. When I am writing and something funny comes out, I am the happiest person in the world.”

As she wrote the book, Ms. Levine found that it did not always work the way she thought it would. She solved one problem in telling the story with a little magic of her own. Because the story is told by Ella, and we can only find out what she sees, Ms. Levine had to find a way for Ella and the reader to learn about what was going on with the other characters when Ella was not there. That’s how she came up with the idea for the magical book. The problem of undoing the curse was almost as much of a challenge for her as it was for Ella. She took the advice of a writer friend to “overwrite it” -- just to write and write and write until the right answer appeared.

Ms. Levine has enjoyed hearing from readers, including one class that turned the book into an opera. One letter was from a girl who said that she does not resent doing chores as much any more because she recognizes that it is a choice. But Ms. Levine’s favorite letters are those that say “I was never a reader before, but now that I have read this book, I want to read more.”

Her next project will give us another new look at a famous character. This time it will be about Peter Pan’s fairy friend Tinkerbell and her world.

As Ms. Levine looks back on her first book, almost 10 years later, she is proudest of the concept of “big magic” and “small magic.” “I needed Ella to have a friend but I did not want the friend to be too powerful. And I wanted people to think about the way that all of us have so much big power that we don’t think about.” Clearly, both she and Ella understand that humor can be very big power. When I asked her to sign a copy of her book for my daughter, she wrote, “To Rachel – Don’t be TOO obedient!” For a moment, I thought about not giving it to Rachel. After all, what mother wants her daughter to disobey? But then I decided that it was a very good message, just like the story itself. And Rachel and I are both looking forward to big magic in Ms. Levine’s next book.

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