Talking with Shannon Hale

By Barbara A. Ward and Terrell A. Young

Upper elementary school through high school

The creator of kindhearted princesses and magical worlds talks about the inspirations and challenges in her writing.

It may be the twenty-first century, but in the evocative literary landscape created by author Shannon Hale, the world is populated by a kindhearted princess who can communicate with animals, a forest maiden who knows the language of fire, and an unassuming spy who helps keep the peace between two kingdoms. This author envisioned the uniquely magical world of Bayern in
The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, and
River Secrets. Her deft handling of a reluctant princess resulted in a Newbery Honor Book citation for
Princess Academy, to the delight of her many readers.

Although Hale’s books have more to do with magic and romance than the edgy, realistic fiction often popular today, she has a sure hand when balancing fairy tales and realism and handling the all-too human cruelty that often lurks just beneath the surface. Drawing from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, she paints such detailed, loving pictures of her characters that readers close the final pages of her books and feel bereft, longing for more. To read a Shannon Hale book is to cherish its pages and want to pass it on to a friend, performing a literary introduction between kindred spirits. Interested in learning more about Hale and her books, we recently interviewed her via e-mail.

BAW & TAY: Your fans would probably be interested in knowing what you were like when you were growing up. Can you characterize and describe the young Shannon Hale?

HALE: I was lonely and misunderstood—like all of us, of course! I loved fantasy. I loved to make up stories in my head, imagine scenarios, daydream, read. I’m very social, and my life was always better when I had a couple of best friends I could count on and confide in. That was not always the case. And guys never liked me—I know that probably shocks you considering what a hottie I am now.

BAW & TAY: What were some of the fairy tales you read when you were growing up?

HALE: “The Goose Girl” was always my most favorite of the non-Disney fairy tales—I found it so intriguing and always wanted to know more. I also loved “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and “Snow White and Rose Red.”

BAW & TAY: What is it about fairy tales as a subject that intrigues you?

HALE: In part it’s their strangeness, their brevity, which the writer in me likes because I yearn to fill in the blanks. I’m fascinated by the horror, excited by the journey, and relieved by the hope in a happily-ever-after.

BAW & TAY: Some might argue that fairy tales are dated and irrelevant today, but clearly, they appeal to a wide audience. Why do you think they’re so popular?

HALE: These are archetypal tales that were passed down orally for hundreds of years. These are stories that we need, that we adapt to serve our current needs at will. They’re freakin’ awesome. They will never go away.

BAW & TAY: What are some of the challenges you faced when you novelized tales such as “The Goose Girl” or “Maid Maleen”?

HALE: When fleshing out a novel from a tale, things must change. With The Goose Girl, I wanted to stay as close to the skeleton of the original tale as I could. With
Book of a Thousand Days, I took inspiration from the story and then let the maid have her own story. Finding the balance between retelling a fairy tale and letting characters tell their own story is a constant question for me.

BAW & TAY: Could you describe how you craft a book from when an idea first comes to you to how you begin to make the characters and setting come alive?

HALE: I take copious notes. For example, I thought about and took notes on
Book of a Thousand Days for three years before starting in on the first draft. It takes awhile to germinate in my brain. Then I dump out a pathetic, weak, lame first draft to see where I stand. I do a significant amount of research to help build a realistic setting. Then I dive in on the real storytelling—the rewrites. Somewhere around draft twelve I usually find the story. I always hope that magically I’ll get there around draft two or three, but I never do.

BAW & TAY: Is there a special room, time, or ritual that you use to write?

HALE: I’m a mom of two small children. I grab whatever moments each day I can get and I wrangle them into writing time. I have a laptop so that I can be as flexible as possible. There’s no sense waiting for the muse in this house!

BAW & TAY: Has it gotten easier to write now that you are an established, published author?

HALE: Every book is its own unique challenge. I think I’ve refined my writing process somewhat since
The Goose Girl, but the book I’m writing now has been as difficult to write as that one was. Someone said, “You never learn how to write a novel, you only learn how to write the novel you’re writing.”

BAW & TAY: In your dedication for
Book of a Thousand Days, you mention rejection notes from other publishing houses. How many times was
The Goose Girl rejected before Bloomsbury accepted it? What enabled you to keep sending out a manuscript that was being rejected?

HALE: It was rejected (unread) innumerable times by agents, and read and rejected nine times by publishers. It was a very dark time. But I kept all my rejection letters (including the ones I got for a previous unpublished novel and all my short stories), and I laminated them into one long roll. I like to unfurl it at school visits. It’s immensely satisfying. And then I ask the kids why I didn’t give up—they have a lot better answers for that than I do.

BAW & TAY: What is next for Shannon Hale?

HALE: Ooh, maybe some hot chocolate and, if I’m lucky, a back massage. Kids are in bed, and I have an hour before I pass out! Oh, do you mean book-wise? I’ve been four pages away from finishing a second draft of a fourth Bayern book for about two weeks. I keep writing, and that elusive ending keeps getting further and further away. I’ve got a graphic novel coming out this year,
Rapunzel’s Revenge, which I promise will change your life, help you lose ten pounds, and solve the world’s oil crisis! Or else it will just rock your socks off. I co-wrote it with my husband, and the artist, Nate Hale, is an unequivocal genius. I’m superexcited for that. And also for my massage. My husband is a good, good man.

Sampling Hale

Book of a Thousand Days. 2007. 320p. Bloomsbury, $17.95 (9781599900513). Gr. 6–10.

Enna Burning. 2004. 336p. Bloomsbury, $17.95 (9781582348896); paper, $8.95 (9781582349060). Gr. 5–10.

The Goose Girl. 2003. 388p. Bloomsbury, $17.95 (9781582348438); paper, $8.95 (9781582349909). Also available in an audio edition from Full Cast Audio. Gr. 6–10.

Princess Academy. 2005. 250p. Bloomsbury, $16.95 (9781582349930); paper, $7.95 (9781599900735). Also available in an audio edition from Full Cast Audio. Gr. 5–8.

Rapunzel’s Revenge. By Shannon and Dean Hale. Illus. by Nathan Hale. August 2008. 144p. Bloomsbury, paper, $18.99 (9781599900704).

Gr. 5–8.

River Secrets. 2006. 304p. Bloomsbury, $17.95 (9781582349015). Gr. 5–9.

Barbara A. Ward and
Terrell A. Young are on the faculty at Washington State University.