I had the absolute pleasure of talking with local writer Erin Keyser Horn for the January/February Double Issue that is out now. Erin is a Young Adult (YA) genre writer who currently resides in Elizabeth, Illinois with her husband and son. To date, Erin has published three (3) YA novels, with two more planned for release this year. I didn’t want anyone to miss out on our conversation, so I’ve posted it below. I hope you find Erin as awesome and delightful as I do!
When did you know that you were going to be a writer? Did you always have an inkling, or did you stumble upon it?
I was late to the writing party. Though I loved reading and writing as a kid, my plan was to become a biologist. All my personality quizzes and career assessment tests confirm that I have the mind of a scientist (which proves you can’t always trust a standardized test!). So I was a junior at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, getting my B.S. in Zoology, when I had the first idea for the story that would later become Eyes of Lightning. The idea kept growing and nagging me, though I tried to ignore it. During my senior year I had to take one elective, so on a whim I chose Creative Writing. I ended up loving the class. For our final project we had to write a fifteen-page short story. My teacher read it and said, “You could easily change this into a novel. I’ll be reading your books in Barnes & Noble someday.” That was the first time anyone encouraged me to be a writer. I remembered her words often, even as I finished my degree and worked as a vet assistant. A couple years later when my son was born, I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. I needed something I could work on from home, and writing was my solution. That was when I really got serious about writing.
Walk me through a typical day writing for you? What is your process? Do you have to set aside time and be disciplined, or do you work with more flexibility?
I wish I had a set schedule every day. However, between family, part-time jobs, and other obligations, every day is different. To make matters worse, I have a wide range of interests, and I’m easily distracted by new, shiny projects. I really have to set strict writing goals for myself or I’d never get anything done. I’ll tell myself, “Today I need to finish this chapter,” and “I want to complete this first draft in a month,” and “I’ll publish this book on November 15th.” Sometimes I’ll only write an hour a day, and sometimes I’ll write sixteen hours a day. Whatever it takes to meet those goals. I’m probably harder on myself than anyone else would be!
I love how you connected some local sites to your reading. Discuss how those areas inspired your writing. (in fact, I plan on heavily featuring the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation in our April Issue, the Green Issue. Maybe we’ll have to hook up again for that Issue!)
I grew up in Southern Illinois, and Eyes of Lightning was originally set in the Shawnee National Forest. But we moved to Elizabeth in 2009 when my husband got a job with the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF). That’s when I discovered the JDCF property Casper Bluff, which features a Thunderbird effigy mound. It was perfect for my story, exactly the boost it needed. Plus the area is gorgeous, so that always inspires nature scenes! I did a lot of research and eventually rewrote the story with a Galena setting. I love talking to people in the area about the books, especially when they tell me they’d never been to Casper Bluff until after they read EOL. If I can motivate people to spend time in nature, that’s a wonderful bonus for me. My second book, River’s Edge, takes place in Thomson, which was also perfect for the story I wanted to tell. It combines a beautiful setting with the real-life biology experiments conducted there by Iowa State University.
How/When did you decide that your books would be a series? Did you just have so much story to tell?
I had to learn a lot in the process of writing EOL. Several years ago I thought I could write it all in one book. Then I ended up plotting four books in the series. Now The Thunderbird Legacy will have three books in the series, because it’s better to have three great books than four “okay” books. It’s a fluid process as I constantly strive to learn more and improve with each book I write.
The writing process is very personal to each writer. Can you talk me through your character and story development? How do things come to you?
All my book ideas have started with a nature scene, which shows how important nature is to my writing. Then the main character comes next–who is she, and what makes her tick? I slowly add more characters and do charts for all of them. Sometimes the characters talk in my head for years before I start writing. I really want to know them inside and out. I also spend a lot of time researching mythology. Finally I get to the outline and the plot of the story. This is backwards–most authors work on plot first. Plot is my weakness. Fortunately, my editor, Ellie Ann, excels at plot. She makes sure my plot lines are strong enough and that the pacing doesn’t lag. I struggle through the first and second drafts of a novel, but I excel at the later drafts. This is when I focus on the sentence level and decide the best word usage. I try to use unique metaphors and lyrical language as often as possible.
I love your list of your favorite YA authors on your website. We share many of the same favorites! I think YA is such a great genre, often times overlooked due to the word youth. What are your thoughts on the importance of the YA genre?
A fellow Young Adult fan, yes! YA has grown so much in recent years, thanks to the success of The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, and several other popular books. Adults are starting to realize the wealth of YA. But I think it’s most important that writers provide authentic reading material for youth. The teen years are when we’re most likely to lose readers. As a librarian, I know how hard it is to get teens inside our doors. They’re incredibly busy with school, extracurricular activities, and relationships. But if we can hook them with a variety of reading options, maybe we can help them to become life-long readers. I love writing YA because the teenage years are such a pivotal time. The characters are brimming with conflict and making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. It already feels like their world is ending, whether the story is contemporary, fantasy, or dystopian. Add a tension-filled plot and you get something epic.
I’ve always thought that to be a good writer, you need to read a lot. In fact, I think JK Rowling may have said that same thing in an interview I saw. Where I am going with this is to ask about your personal experience with reading. Was there that one book out there that got you hooked? I always read a lot, but I remember my first obsession over a book: It was Little Women, and I stayed up all night to finish it. I was 11, and I couldn’t put it down. And thus began my love affair with the written word. Did you have a similar experience?
I did have a similar experience. I was about nine years old, and my Aunt Kim gave me Anne of Green Gables. To this day it remains my all-time favorite book. I’ve reread it so many times that the cover is falling off. I’m sure my love of nature-writing is inspired by L.M. Montgomery’s descriptions of Prince Edward Island. Most authors will tell you that reading is the most important thing you can do to become a better writer. You have to know what works and what doesn’t. And all authors have mentors to look up to. I love Montgomery for her descriptions and her characters, Maggie Stiefvater for her lyrical writing style, Francisco X. Stork for tackling religion and other controversial topics, and Madeleine L’Engle for writing about smart girls before it was cool to do so.
Reading is vital to me, in fact its precisely one of the reasons that I started SCOUT in the first place. It astounds and saddens me how little people read these days, particularly kids. Reading just doesn’t seem important to teenagers anymore. With your library experience, what are your thoughts on getting more kids interested in reading?
Kudos to you for starting SCOUT and promoting reading! I firmly believe that anyone can become an avid reader IF you find the type of reading material that fits best. Some kids prefer nonfiction over fiction, or graphic novels over traditional chapter books. My son is only eight years old, but I already spend a lot of time seeking good books. He’s picky, but he’ll devour a book if he likes it. He’s currently into The Boxcar Children and the Geronimo Stilton books. Series are great for kids, because they get comfortable with the characters and know what to expect. I recently got him hooked on audiobooks as well, which are perfect for car trips or when our eyes need a break. My husband and I set a “screen” limit–no more than an hour of computer/TV time a day for our son. If we have to wait somewhere, I give him a book instead of a video game. Librarians and teachers do their best to promote reading, but a lot of pressure falls on parents to instill good reading habits in our children. We must find ways to make reading enjoyable so they’ll WANT to do it. This becomes even more vital as our society turns to digital ways. But if your kid loves technology, use it to your advantage. Put audiobooks on your iPod, or enhanced ebooks on your tablet. There are countless ways to celebrate the written word; we just have to be willing to look for them.
I have seen you talk a bit about Noble Beast and Neverland on your website. Can you tell me more about this? What exactly is Noble Beast? How did you get involved?
Noble Beast is a publisher of enhanced ebooks. These ebooks merge the story with art, music, interactive maps, sound effects, and more. It’s literature for a digital age. I got involved because my editor, Ellie, is one of the producers at Noble Beast (she’s also an author. She’s a busy lady!). She asked me if I’d want to write a story for their new project, Noble Beast Classics. Of course I said yes! I chose one of my favorite classics, Peter Pan, with the intent of rewriting it as a dystopian London set one hundred years in the future. The kids don’t want to grow up . . . because something terrible happens to them at the age of sixteen. Noble Beast had several authors lined up to write different classics, but their Kickstarter to raise money didn’t reach its goal. I’m sure they’ll be back with a revised Kickstarter in the near future though. I’m not giving up hope that Peter Pan will someday be an enhanced ebook!
So…..what’s next for Erin Keyser Horn? Another series? Something new?
The River’s Edge sequel, River’s Deep, is slated to release in early June of 2014. Soul of Storm, the last book in The Thunderbird Legacy, should release in November of 2014. After that, I have several story ideas I want to pursue. It’s just a matter of which one beats out the rest!
What happened to the Writer’s Book Club? Is this going to start up again?? (fyi – this is a question for me personally more than it is for SCOUT, haha)
The previous members of the WBC all got too busy with other commitments. If I someday drum up enough interest, I would love to start it up again! 🙂