An American teen in London, a Jack the Ripper copycat, and some supernatural “stuff” – that’s all we’re going to tell you about The Name of the Star, the latest book from bestselling author/besttweeting tweeter/litcon-runner Maureen Johnson.
Well, that’s a lie: we’ve got a lot more. Read below for our interview with Maureen: about her new book, her new crusade, and the London Tube.
You can purchase Name of the Star right here!
The first Shades of London book, The Name of the Star, is about to come out. It’s such a different type of book than you usually write. What got you started on it?
It started one day in London, when I was working on a book called The Last Little Blue Envelope. I was taking a historical tour of Westminster and I noticed the guide kept saying all the buildings were haunted. This struck me as an odd thing to do on a historical tour. By the second hour, I was really annoyed. I started thinking that if there were really all these ghosts knocking around all these buildings, they would be more regulated. In England, there’s a form for everything. There would be paperwork. There would be police . . .
The idea went from there. I sat down and started scrawling all of these notes crazily. I got pretty much the entire idea that day—not all the details, but all the basics happened in one afternoon.
The story is about a Jack the Ripper copycat: why him and not, say, Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz or another serial murderer? What’s particularly intriguing about the Jack case?
You’re the first person to ask me that. I usually have to offer this information on my own in a not very slick way. Because it IS weird that Jack the Ripper is this weirdly “acceptable” figure. He’s almost a cartoon character. But the reality is that he was a serial killer, and a very sick one at that (as if there were a different kind). The fifth crime scene in the Ripper killings is still considered one of the worst in English police history.
So why is Jack so popular after 123 years? There are currently about 100 active theories about who Jack was. And the fact is, none of these things can ever be confirmed, unless someone turns up a box with a load of evidence in it, including body parts. This is extremely unlikely. So whatever you read, the case has not been solved and likely never will be. Why work on an impossible case about a man (Jack was probably a man) who can’t be brought to justice, because he is dead? And if he is not dead, he is somewhere around 150-160 years old, and is probably not doing very much.
Yet, people are still working on the problem all the time, all over the world, because Jack the Ripper is the puzzle with no solution. And he was the first modern serial killer, the first pumped up by the press. The press worked very hard to make Jack scary . . . they even gave him his name. He was one of the first media celebrities.
Rory, your main character, goes to boarding school in England. How did you learn about the British boarding school experience, particularly since Rory seems to be quite a different type of outsider than those in your other books?
I have several friends who went to boarding schools in England. I tormented entertained them for hours asking incredibly detailed questions. It’s not like I tied them to a chair or anything and made them answer! *nervous laughter*
There’s some supernatural stuff too. (“Supernatural stuff” is my attempt not to spoil anyone with things you haven’t already said about the book.) Most of the rest of your fiction has been pretty real-world grounded: what was it like to branch into a type of writing where you have to make your own rules about your universe?
I’ve done one other supernatural book—Devilish. But this one has a larger world and more systems to take into account. I spent a lot of time before I started writing doing the groundwork: the research, the history, the systems. I worked for weeks on the background documents. It’s incredibly fun, but requires a lot of attention. But it’s the sort of thing I love to do.
You once told me that because of this book, you have a truckload of knowledge stored up about the London Tube. Do you have any fun facts to share?
*pushes glasses up nose* I do! I know a LOT about what’s under London. DO YOU KNOW there’s as much under London as there is above? Maybe more? Do you know the Thames was MOVED to put in the sewer system? Would you like to know more about the London sewer system? Do you know that London is built on top of MANY THOUSANDS OF YEARS WORTH of dead bodies? WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?
Come over! I’ll be boring at you! We’ll sit by the fire and I’ll tell you FACTS.
In addition to your Bestselling Authorness, you have become an Internet personality; you in fact won the Mashable Open Web award for Most Interesting Twitter User to Follow, and TIME magazine put you on its list of best 140 twitter feeds. What’s the secret, besides ENTHUSIASTIC and sporadic CAPITALIZATION?
I put this down to my entire LACK of a PLAN. I do stuff online because I like to do it, not because anyone makes me or because I think it’s good “marketing.” Whenever I hear the word “marketing,” I reach for my wand. I think it sucks when social media is used to just shove stuff in your face. There are enough mechanisms out there that are being used to try to cajole us into buying things. I think social media works when people actually interact and make things together. Things like, oh, I don’t know, the largest Harry Potter fan community in the world.
Where do you keep all the jars?
In my heart.
Let’s talk about #YASaves: When the Wall Street Journal published a piece that said that YA fiction was too dark and had few redeeming qualites, you and a lot of your writerly friends went on a hashtag campaign to change people’s minds. It trended worldwide and crops up often still. You’ve had buttons and T-Shirts made. Is this going to be a continuing activity for you? What’s next in the campaign?
It is going to be a continuing thing. I haven’t really even started the campaign yet in full—I’ve been on tour.
YA Saves is about promoting literacy, protecting books, and making readers and enriching lives . . . and I think the way to do that is for individuals to get involved. Everyone. I mean you. Literally you. Book challenges often slip by because no one in the school or town knows about them, or knows enough to oppose them (or realizes that there is a problem). There is so much that can be done just by spreading awareness. Really. You can protect books in your own town. You can keep the book on the shelf that someone else needs to read.
So I’m looking forward to being home for a few weeks so I can really concentrate on the campaign. If you don’t know, you can buy a YA Save t-shirt from DFTBA.com. 100% of my proceeds from this shirt go to Reading is Fundamental, so every time you buy one, you give actual money to a great organization. Plus, you will look AWESOME.
Remember, people all over America have tried to ban Harry Potter. Think of that, then go get a shirt.
A lot of people don’t realize that in addition to all your writing and Tweeting, you are a stellar conference organizer. You helped conceive, and fully organized and ran, Lit Day at LeakyCon 2011. Where did you learn to do this, and when will you share the secrets of time travel with the rest of our race?
I think this is rich coming from YOU, Melissa.
I’ll tell you the truth, and I’m not being funny here, I managed that out of love. I loved working on it. I love the HP community. I love these books. I love the people in Leaky. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
People often ask you for good writing advice and you often answer: what’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The worst? I’ve never gotten any really bad advice, but I see it online all the time. Well, I mean I see bad publishing advice all the time. But publishing is not writing. Publishing is a business.
*stares at the question* *chews hair*
Um. Bad advice. Um. I’m not going to repeat bad advice, because people might mistake it for GOOD advice.
How far along are you writing the second Shades of London? What can you tell us about it? How soon can I expect it in my hands? Well, WHERE IS IT??
It’s IN MY COMPUTER. The first draft has been in for about a month. I’m about to start the second draft, which for me is a huge process that involves breaking up the first draft with a jackhammer and reassembling the pieces. This draft will be done around Christmas. But it has a story and a title and everything. I think it might actually be more INTENSE than the first one. The story is continuous . . . this one picks up exactly where the last one left off, and the problems are actually much worse now. They will CONTINUE to get worse (I’ve started the third book as well).
But I’m not handing over the second one until everyone reads the first one. *waits* Are you reading?