1.) Tell your readers something interesting about yourself AND/OR your favorite character.
I have a master’s degree in medieval musicology, and I taught music history for over fifteen years. That was the main reason I wrote Trouble at the Scriptorium. I wanted to share the fascinating topic of medieval music with kids.
2.) What was your favorite book as a tween? Tell us about it and how it affected you as a person.
When I was in middle school, my favorite book was My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier, the Newbery-award-winning novel about a boy whose brother is killed in the American Revolution. It’s a devastating book, but somehow also filled with love, adventure, longing, curiosity, and all sorts of other emotions that kids are going through just before they hit their teens. I’m sure I read it ten times, and I cried every time.
I think that book taught me two essential things: that a fictional character can be completely real to a reader, and that the most intense emotions can be expressed with the written word.
3.) Tell us about the genre you have chosen to write for. Why do write specifically for them?
I chose the mystery genre because it seemed like a fun way to teach about medieval church music, the crafting of books in the Middle Ages, the feudal system, etc., without the book seeming like it was teaching! My hope is that the reader will get so caught up in the characters and plot that the details about medieval life will be an integral part of an exciting experience.
4.) Tell us about your new book. How did it come about and share your favorite excerpt/scene.
Trouble at the Scriptorium takes place in thirteenth-century England, in a feudal castle north of London. In the opening scene, the main character, a servant boy named Harley, has just been visiting his uncle, the choirmaster at the local monastery. Harley tries to impress the castle guard, Martin, by telling him about the new book of Gregorian chant he’s just seen:
Harley squinted at the figure of a man on horseback, silhouetted in the evening sun. The animal whinnied and stomped, and its broad-chested rider leaned forward, reaching a hand down toward the slender boy as if to scoop him up.
“Jump on, Harley. Your mother wants you back at the castle.”
“Oh, it’s you, Martin!” Relieved, Harley greeted his longtime friend Martin of Hibernia, chief castle guard. Martin was practically a father to Harley. His real dad was a traveling jester, gone for months or even a year at a time, entertaining in castles and fairs all over England.
As Harley mounted Courage, Martin’s dappled steed, he heard the muted sound of men singing behind the monastery wall. The music was confused and off-key. Harley wrinkled his nose. “Ew, listen to that. The monks usually sing great. But that sounds like they’re fighting, like half of them don’t know the right notes.”
The soldier shook his head. “I really couldn’t tell. Why do you always hang around the monastery, anyway? I know your uncle lives here, but you should be at home helping your mother at the castle and learning your father’s trade.”
“Who’s going to teach me to be a jester? My father’s never there, so I have to teach myself.” Blowing out his breath sharply, Harley swung himself up onto Courage’s rump. He was tired of Martin trying to keep him from the monastery. “At least the Brothers have a sense of humor, so I can practice amusing them.”
“Really? You’re sure that’s not a sin? What stories did you tell them today?”
“That’s not why I came today. I came to see the new book.” Harley’s voice shook with Courage’s constant hoof-beats against the rocky road. It felt like someone was banging on his chest as he spoke. He held on more tightly, pressing his ear to the middle of Martin’s back. He could feel the chainmail under the guard’s green wool uniform. “Don’t you want to know about the book?” Harley prodded.
“I really don’t care about books,” Martin shouted back over the rushing wind and clattering hooves. “I’ve never even held a book in my hand. My family sure couldn’t afford one. I think Lady Ursula owns one or two, and I’ve seen the Bible on the chapel altar, of course.”
Harley waited, knowing his friend could not resist a story. He watched the farmland pass as they rode, the wheat fields readied for a winter’s rest.
Sure enough, Martin gave in. “Okay, okay. Tell me about the book.”
“It’s a huge book with a leather binding, full of holy Gregorian chant.”
“Well, it would be, since it’s for the monks.”
Harley laughed and gave Martin’s back a playful punch. “No! It’s a special book. It’s illuminated.”
“Illuminated! It’s got real gold and colored painting on every page. Sir William paid for it. It’s dedicated to St. Ursula, Lady Ursula’s patron saint. They’re going to use it at her name-day celebration next week. It’s just amazing.”
“How nice for her, how nice for them. But that’s not much of a story. Whoa, boy!” Martin yanked Courage’s reins to the left, to avoid a hedgehog scurrying out of the bushes.
5.) How has writing affected your life? And what’s your favorite part of being a writer?
A few months ago, a resigned from my college teaching job in order to write fiction full-time. That should give you some idea of how important writing is in my life! I simply can’t stop writing, and I’m always buried in far more plot ideas than I could ever bring to fruition.
I love the creativity of writing, I love being responsible for my own productivity, and I love the communal spirit that writers have with each other online. I’m also proud to create a product; nothing gives me a kick like seeing a list of my publications or a page of my book covers.
6.) What advice can you give regarding the writing process?
My greatest advice is the old chestnut: Write every day. But I’d add that you have to finish things. It’s so tempting (and I’ve gone through periods of doing this) to keep starting new works without seeing any one of them to its end. It can be painful to fight through to the end sometime, but it’s absolutely necessary. If you don’t like it when you’re done, you can always revise it.
7.) Regarding publication and marketing, what advice can you offer aspiring writers?
Another old chestnuts: Don’t let rejections get you down. But don’t just put them out of your mind. Learn from them. Could you improve that story? Are you marketing to the wrong people? Are there some genres you have more success with than others? If you can’t seem to get an agent, should you start your query from scratch? Should you proceed without an agent for a while first?
Just keep questioning, every single day, about the writing itself and about the endless task of marketing. There’s always more to learn.
8.) How can your fans find, follow or friend you?
My website is http://anneejohnson.com/
And I tweet about my writing process and news as @AnneEJohnson.
Thanks for joining me today, Anne. Your books sound marvelous.