This is part of a series of interviews with New Mexico children’s writers in honor of the 2012 centennial.

kersten hamiltonKersten Hamilton writes picture books, middle grade, and YA. Her most recent book is In the Forests of the Night (Clarion, 2011), number two in her series, The Goblin Wars. A brief encapsulation: Irish mythology lands smack in the middle of the present day, and Teagan Wylltson is one of YA fantasy’s smartest heroines.

Welcome, Kersten! You can put your wings over there in the corner.

Your book Police Officers on Patrol is a great example of a picture book with rhythm, a nice balance of variation and repetition, and an economy of wording that gets the story across and gives plenty of room to let the illustrations do their work. What are your thoughts on picture book creation, and do you secretly long for the days of yore when you could write a 3000-word picture book and your friends at SCBWI meetings wouldn’t laugh?

I’m so glad you like Police Officers on Patrol! I loved writing that book. I pitched it to my publisher as “nitty-gritty for the itty bitty”, a cop show format of three storylines all resolved in 138 words.

Writing picture books is like blazing a path through the wilderness that stretches between oral tradition and the written word. Your audience is comprised of sophisticated thinkers and story connoisseurs who lack only reading skills. Learning to track those letters across the page is one of the most difficult things they will ever do. Picture book writers have the ability to make that work worthwhile.

Whenever I sell a picture book, my novelist self sends my picture book self a box of truffles and congratulations. Hurray! (I tell myself) This book will capture wild toddlers and transform them into civilized readers!

I’ll answer the 3000 word picture book issue with your next question…

How do you whittle down the text of a picture book, knowing that it has to be a certain length? Or is it less a whittling process than a building process?

I’m a whittle–upper. When I am writing for the very young, I use repetition, rhythm and meter and that naturally limits the length of the book.

But when I picture storybooks, they sometimes bulge beyond their bounds. I had a lovely 2000 word picture book that was simply too long to sell. When I sat down to make it publishable I accidentally added 70,000 words. Since I am a whittle-upper, I couldn’t take them out again. I had to sell it as a YA novel. (So that’s the secret…)

Who are some of your favorite writers, both in the fantasy genre and in other genres?

I indulge in time travel. It says so right on the front of my business card: Kersten Hamilton, Author–Adventurer. Time Travel, Goblin Hunting and Paranormal Investigations. I can only travel into the future at one second per second, but the past is an open book. I’ve met people like Shakespeare, George MacDonald, Charles Williams…there is always someone new and exciting to discover in the past.

If you answered Tolkien or Lewis as part of your answer to the last question, you anticipated this one: Tolkien and Lewis loom over the landscape of quest fantasy, as well as that of certain domains of literary and historical scholarship. What it is about their work that still holds sway over readers today?

Well, I didn’t list them but I love them both.(Half-credit for The Chained Library. Darn.)What still holds sway over readers? They baptized imaginations. On purpose. What does that mean? Kerry L. Dearborn writes of C.S. Lewis’ own experience of having his imagination baptized by a book: “Rather than leading him into an escape from reality, it washed away blinding scales and gave him a new vision of reality. Rather than providing mere ornamentation for a life which for him held no lasting significance, it led him to sense the enduring goodness at the heart of all things. Instead of feeding his sense of being alone in the vastness of the universe, Phantastes began to draw him out of himself to feel a fundamental connection with all of creation.”

I love George MacDonald more than I love Lewis and Tolkien put together.

Lewis’s wrote: “I know nothing that gives me such a feeling of spiritual healing of being washed as to read MacDonald.”

Yeah. Me, too.

Suddenly I want to rush out and read The Princess and the Goblin. Wait a second…goblins…

When you let out your inner Inkie and attend MythCon, are you there as a reader and a writer? That may sound a little dumb, but I mean, do you go specifically thinking that you’ll get some nuggets or research for a project?

Both! I went to mingle and marvel at professors and other folk who love the same things I love—and are much, much smarter than I am. As I wandered the hotel halls, I had a certain project in mind that I am not nearly smart enough and certainly not educated enough to write. I’m going to write it anyway.

Your teen novels are based on Irish mythology. Why Irish?

Because it suits my pseudo Celtic worldview: I do not separate the natural from the supernatural.

What do you think of the myth craze in YA fiction these days?

I enjoy it…when the books are well thought out and executed. And hate it when they are tripe.

Do you wonder if readers go and read the original myths after reading a fictionalized version? How can I say this without sounding like, well, a librarian: Do you think that readers should read the originals as well?

I know that some of my readers do, and it thrills me. I am working to connect them with the flow of literature through time. I want them thinking, hmmm. Why did she choose this instead of that? Why did she change this little piece?

My end goal to inspire future writers to who go on to write wonderful books…that I then get to read.

The professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s bookselling great-uncle): If you had to start a bookstore with 5 books, what would they be? These aren’t necessarily your 5 favorite desert-island-style books, but the 5 books you’d most like the world to read.

Considering my answer to the last question, I think I’d better choose books that have spawned many, many stories in the past—because they would have to seed a whole bookstore of books for me to read!

1. The Bible. The single most influential book in Western literature. You won’t understand Chaucer or Spencer or Tolkien without it.

2. A collection of Fairy Tales from every tribe and nation. We gather our cultural wisdom and preserve it in fairy tales.

3. A collection Myths and Legends from every people and place. We explore our beliefs about ourselves and our environment in myth and legend.

4. The Jungle Book by Kipling. I just like Kipling. Have you ever tried it?

5. Where the Wild Things Are – what other picture book would be so at home on an imaginary island?

Since this is part of a series on NM writers, what are some of your favorite books set in NM? Favorite NM writers, children’s or adult?

I’m going to stick to dead people because we have many wonderful writers living in and writing about NM today. I don’t want to be embarrassed by forgetting anyone.

The top of my list would be Tony Hillerman. Tony was one of the greatest gentlemen I have ever had the honor to know. I want to be him when I grow up.

Jack Williamson. The Dean of Science Fiction. He came to NM on a covered wagon, and took his readers on spaceships to the stars!

Lew Wallace. Okay, Ben Hur wasn’t that great, but how many states can claim that their Governor neglected his duties in order to write a best selling novel while in office? Yep. We are the only one.

You are known for saying incredibly intelligent things in interviews. Say something incredibly intelligent about, I don’t know, Aristotle.

Gah! You are tweaking me because I accused Aristotle of dabbling his skeletal fingers in our YA literature on Uma’s blog, aren’t you? (Important note: I do not tweak my guests, virtual or otherwise.)

Plus, I have never heard anyone claim that I say intelligent things in interviews. Mostly I hear them say, “Er…you promised me that interview by 5 p.m. today. It’s 4:45. Have you started on it yet?”

Thank you for having me on your blog today, Rebecca!

Thanks for being here! Read Uma Krishnaswami’s interview with Kersten here, and another interview with Kersten at The Enchanted Inkpot (where you will see more incredibly intelligent responses).

Image of Kersten Hamilton courtesy of Rio Rancho Public Library and ALA Graphics (and, of course, Kersten Hamilton).