Blog, Interview, Interviews

Interview: Shanti Hershenson in conversation with Cailey Tin

We are delighted to share an interview of Shanti Hershenson in conversation with Cailey Tin. Shanti Herhenson is a teen author who has published a number of books, from science fiction novels to a book told in poetry.

Here, she discusses her creative writing process, how she overcame bullying by using writing as an outlet, becoming a social media star, marketing her own books, and making a name for herself in the publishing world.

Being a teenager is tough, but she wrote around all of these obstacles and that inspires so many aspiring young creators today.   

Shanti, thank you for taking the time to answer some burning questions. I’ve read that you’re in the process of publishing your thirteenth book, entitled The Bane of Angelfall Academy. Can you tell us what it’s about?

Sure! The Bane of Angelfall Academy follows a girl called Devan and her parents are both famous writers. She’s sent to a futuristic boarding school for the most talented authors, because her parents help fund the school, and it’s this nepotism thing. [Devan] loves to write, but with a lot of pressure to overcome, she feels like she’s not good at it. Then suddenly, characters from her book bleed into her reality and beg her to finish her story. Now she has to deal with this, along with navigating the student body and the twists and turns of the school. When her characters come to life, Devan realises that she has not only a novel to write, but a world to save. 

When you’re writing these characters, how do you write real humans that feel alive and resonate with you?

Any character that is three dimensional doesn’t exactly have to be well-rounded, but they need to have advantages and weaknesses, including positive and negative things about their personalities. I think we need to have their future in mind to shape these characters. Some of them have my feelings poured into them, but not all, because every character can’t be like me. I enjoy using character sheets sometimes, because even if some [information] will not be in the book, at least we know things that can be brought up if needed.  

Most of your books are fantasy and science fiction, which is your favourite genre. What makes you love this genre more than others?  

When I was a kid, I was introduced to many science fiction books. I loved the story of a cat who was a stowaway in space. The idea of technology and the future was something I was naturally drawn to. At an early age, I was introduced to Star Wars. My first books had robots that I loved. With fantasy, I enjoy exploring new worlds and escaping reality in any brand-new place.  

What is your favourite book that you wrote? Out of all the stories you’ve penned, have you ever gotten the feeling like, ‘If I could be known for any story, this is what I would want to be known for,’ and why? 

I have three books in mind. First would be The Bane of Angelfall Academy because of the plot points that were so difficult to tie together that I almost scrapped it, and I thought, ‘Man, this is my worst book.’ But during the editing process, I grew a love towards it. Otherwise, Neverdying is probably the best book I’ve published. It was a breakthrough for me when my writing improved and so did my storytelling skills. It felt like it was written by an adult, and I thought, ‘Did I actually write this? That’s crazy!’ The other book, not yet published, was what I wrote in winter, and I only have a few social media posts on it but it’s so good, it’ll probably come out in early 2024 because it’s a super long one to edit.  

Your novel told in poetry, entitled You Won’t Know Her Name, perfectly shared your struggles with bullying, and it tells your real-life story as the victim of incredibly harsh bullying, which included sensitive topics. How does your poetry process differ from writing novels? Especially with difficult topics?  

I did a thousand words of poetry every single day, which was about ten poems. They’re in chronological order that explain what happened [in my experience]. Some are more poetic while others are rough, but that’s okay, because the story is rough. That book was one of the hardest to write, not because the process was particularly challenging, nor because I struggled with writer’s block, but I always woke up telling myself, ‘Why are you writing this? This is a bad idea, just stop.’ That was my daily thought process, which was wrong.  

You’re such a strong advocate of anti-bullying. How was writing something that guided you with life’s challenges, as reflected in your poetry book? 

Poetry, and specifically shorter stories have been an outlet for my emotions. I write about things that upset and scare me, it’s a great way to lift a weight off of my chest, just getting it on paper. In the aftermath of being severely bullied, I really wanted to get the story out. I didn’t want to keep it in. Writing was a way I could process things, maybe share it with other people.

The situation was ridiculous and originally I wanted to write it as a novel, like a non-fiction of me going through the [bullying] events and sharing what I wish I could’ve said in those moments. I barely got through the second chapter. Another idea was a fiction, almost reminiscent story, and the other one was a standpoint of how I was surviving and coping afterwards. None of those ideas worked; my big problem was that I can’t use anyone’s names because I don’t want to get sued, nor call people out. I didn’t want to change the names because it felt less personal.

In the end, I realised poetry is perfect because it plays such a big role in my story, which was cool because it’s about poetry, and actually poetry. 

When I was checking out your other novels, what specifically stood out to me were the blurbs. Just how concise, well written, and closely woven to the story they are. When you’re beginning your story, do you already have a blurb in mind? Or does it flow to you naturally, how do you navigate that?   

Most of the time I don’t write the blurb until the halfway mark, which I did with my first book, Biome Lock, when it was time to promote it. But it really depends on the book, whether they’re challenging. Sometimes it takes multiple revisions and I let someone read through them. Other times it’s a first draft, then I’ll read it through and there is nothing to fix. With a few stories, my ideas completely change at the halfway mark. I have a weird writing process where sometimes I only know little plot points to piece together as the story goes on, then it slowly falls into place. 

What are some key aspects of storytelling that you really want to focus on in your work? Whether that be character development or plot points, what do you focus the most on?

I feel you can’t have a good book without strong characters. It needs to be a character-driven story, I’m more of a character writer myself because I need to focus on their journeys. I love a strong plot, but the most underrated and overshadowed thing is the setting. I’m a sucker for vivid locations, and I strive to focus on it more. 

How do you balance relationships, school, and all these other things with your passion for writing?  

I had to learn a ton of time management skills that I didn’t have before. Thankfully, I’m allowed to write on my school computer during homeroom. I do as much writing as I need at home, then I’ll do schoolwork. If I have lots of schoolwork, then I do thirty minutes of that and alternate it with writing. My goal is one thousand words a day, but lately I’ve been averaging two thousand words. Learning to switch from these two was a helpful, valuable skill.  

That sounds incredibly motivating. With all the passion you’ve been putting into writing, what was the exact moment where you felt like you wanted to be a writer? 

In elementary school, I thought that writing books when I was older would be cool, but I wrote short stories then while thinking, ‘Maybe when I’m an adult I could write a full-length novel.’ The time I discovered that I could make this a career as a teenager was in sixth grade, when I penned two novellas with a friend, and we self-published them through Amazon KDP. They didn’t sell well, so I returned to short stories thinking, ‘I can’t write a full book and become successful.’

But one day, my family and I were at the beach, it was getting dark, and I was wondering what to do because I was very bored. I thought of watching movies or playing video games, but it felt boring. I told my sister, ‘It would be cool to write a book and say that I made it, but what would I do though?’ Then I got the idea of teenagers stuck in these biomes and they couldn’t move, and over time, that became my current four books, one of the first in the series being Biome Lock. There was a crossover novel, so in total that would be five books.  

Who was your biggest inspiration when you began writing? Whether it be a popular author, famous person, close friend, anyone?

I always stop every time I get that question because it’s changed so much. There are authors of the books I’m currently reading, but then that would be such a long list. One of my inspirations is my younger self, particularly in fourth grade, because I was always creating stories. I love the idea of my younger self seeing me now and going, ‘Oh my gosh, we made it!’ Funnily enough, I’m currently working on a screenplay for school about a famous author who gets to meet her younger self. 

Let’s talk about book publishing and marketing‌. It’s filled with overwhelming things where we have to stop actually writing in order to market. Were there particular resources that helped you through it?

Sometimes marketing is harder than writing itself. When I began writing my book, I thought, ‘These have to be successful. As a teenager, I need to make a name for myself.’ I had moments where I’d stay up really late and wonder if my work would pay off one day. I read all these blog posts that gave me lists of markets before I needed them, and that was helpful.

I began posting on TikTok, and it blew up for me. Editing Biome Lock was a challenging editing process, and during it, I ended up writing a series of novellas that got published before it. With those books, I experimented with marketing tactics as I did giveaways, and from there I kept going. Now I have a concrete plan on what gets sales, what doesn’t, and the only way to make books successful is to keep trying new things.  

Sometimes the industry makes you want to focus on a specific type of book. How do you manage these expectations while still staying true to what you love writing?

If I’m writing something because other people want it, then it wouldn’t be as great. Fan service is awesome and I like putting little things in my book that readers suggest, but only when I agree with it. People push for mature scenes in my books all the time, but I ignore it because it isn’t my genuine work. I think people who write more mature books are cool, but I’m fifteen; I don’t want adults to read books that don’t stay true to my audience.

Some reviewers go, ‘When is it gonna get spicy?’ but it’s a young adult novel and I also need to stay true to myself. There’s a lot of pressure on authors to stay in one genre and stick to that, but I want to experiment with a variety of books, which means having more readers and reaching more people. I want to write books targeted to teens, then also kids, too.  

You’ve been consistent with social media posts, with over fifty thousand followers on TikTok. How do you continue doing something that can get extremely draining, and not let it affect your mental health?  

Tiktok is one of my biggest resources for marketing, but it’s also a struggle. For every one hundred comments that are nice and supportive, there’s a rude person. Although I don’t get that many hate comments, occasionally some are pretty mean. There was an incident where someone uploaded my TikTok for free in a compilation with other TikTok videos related to books and writing, but they misspelled something in the caption and everyone thought it was me who wrote it. They absolutely came for me! Luckily that’s all sorted out now. 

How do you convert negativity and experiences like this into art, and into your stories? 

I remind myself that every successful writer faces criticism. In every book signing, there are questions asked [regarding] how to deal with negative reviews, and every author’s answer varies. But for me, when the review is constructive, then I’ll apply it to my next book and forget about the first, because it’s already published after all. It’s also important to remember that people like different things, and sometimes they’re not even part of your target audience, so no book like yours would appeal to them. We have to focus on the positive people, and make their voices louder than the negative ones.  

Last question. This is such a cliché one, but seriously, what is the most valuable advice you could give another young, emerging author, specifically your younger self?  

Okay, I can get pretty corny and cliché about this too. Don’t let your age get in the way of your dreams. Don’t join the military when you’re ten years old, though! But for things like writing, you’re never too young or old to create a book. When you’re four, you can still scribble on paper, make a children’s book. A lot of kids that are twelve, thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen, you start discovering what they want to do. Sadly, many of them are told that they’re too young. But with enough practice, a thirteen-year-old can write better than an adult. A tip that goes along with this is try to write every day. If you miss one day or more, that’s totally fine, but just attempt to. Forming a routine trains your brain and helps you get into the author habit. You’re testing out new territory and improving with every passing sentence, so start early and be consistent. 

Shanti Hershenson’s first two novellas were published when she was in the sixth grade, although her writing journey started long before then. Ever since she could hold a pencil, marker, or crayon, she was creating stories. They started from pictures, mere scribbles, and eventually, turned into captivating tales.

She lives in California with her parents, sister, and furry friends. Besides writing, she enjoys skateboarding, Beyblading, free-running, falconry, and of course, reading.

She writes in a variety of genres, including Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction, although she mostly sticks to Sci-Fi.

She advocates for anti-bullying, and you may find her at open mic-nights, performing her spoken word poem Needles & Thorns, which is about the struggle of bullying in middle schools.

About Cailey:

Cailey Tin is a mixed-raced staff writer and podcast co-host at The Incandescent Review, and an interview editor at Paper Crane Journal. Her work was awarded by Spillwords Press and published in Fairfield Scribes, Globe Review, Alien Magazine, The Inflections, and more, under the pen name Cailey Tarriane. During her free time, she plays the piano or watches children’s shows with her dog.

PaperBound Magazine is an online magazine for the young, and the young at heart. We are dedicated to showcasing authors and illustrators for children’s and young adult fiction and we strive to deliver inspiring content, uplifting stories, and top tips for young and aspiring writers yet to burst on to the literary scene.

All our issues are completely free and run by volunteers, however if you would like to support PaperBound and the work we do, you can help us out by buying us a virtual book. We appreciate any support you can give us!

Don’t forget you can catch up with the latest issues of PaperBound Magazine here.

Blog, Interview, Interviews

Interview: Meg Grehan in conversation with Siobhán Parkinson

To celebrate today’s release of middle grade title The Lonely Book, we are excited to share an interview of author Meg Grehan in conversation with Siobhán Parkinson. This is a loving story about gender identity, family, and the magic of books.

Annie’s family is made of love.

When her moms open up their bookshop in the mornings, there is always a mysterious pile of books on the counter. By evening, every book has found its ideal reader. But one day there is a book on gender identity that doesn’t get bought. Who can its reader be, and why don’t they come?

 Days pass, and the book with no owner gets lonelier and lonelier. The bookshop is unhappy, its magic starts to go awry, and the moms are worried that the shop isn’t making enough money. Meanwhile, Annie’s sibling has become withdrawn.

Annie has a plan to save the shop, but is this all that’s worrying her sibling?

Meg, I was thinking about what a lovely – and intriguing – title ‘The Lonely Book’ is. And of course this new verse novel is not just about a book — it’s actually set in a bookshop. Which reminds me that the main character in your first book, The Space Between, worked in a bookshop. So it seems that you are drawn to the idea of bookshops, not just as places to visit as a customer, but as rather enchanting places to work in. Have you ever worked in a bookshop, or is it just a dream?

I love bookshops. When I found it harder to leave my house they were real sanctuaries to me, little homes away from my real home. If I could get home I was OK, and if I could get to a bookshop I was OK. I think bookshops are so special, so unlike anywhere else.

I did work in a bookshop! I was a bookseller and I did most of the ordering. It was very fun but a lot more stressful than I expected! I loved getting to talk to people about books, help them with their most specific and niche requests. I need a book about a sloth, I need a book about the high seas, I need a book about … I loved that! Getting to know people has always been easiest for me when it’s through books. I feel confident that I know and understand the world of books and it’s where I feel safest, so working in a bookshop was very special to me.

And of course in this story, the bookshop has a very special kind of magic. It is the bookshop itself that chooses certain books and makes sure that they find their ideal readers. Later in the story, when this one unattached book, the lonely book, doesn’t find its person for some time, the bookshop gets very agitated. How did you come up with such an extraordinary device?

When I worked in the bookshop I had a little desk down the back where I would unbox all the new books I’d ordered, put them on the system and get them ready for the shelves. There were a couple of instances when someone would come up and say, ‘Oh, I heard about this book, it’s about …’ and I would have that very book sitting right in front of me! They always reacted like it was magic, and I always kind of felt like it was. That’s what gave me the idea for a bookshop that works with its people, helps with some of the bookselling – though they still have to find the right readers, of course.

The idea of a magic bookshop works very well in a story that centres on such a young character. I mean Annie, who is about eight or nine? She is not exactly the main character (that is probably Annie’s older sibling, Charlie); but Annie is a main character in another sense, because the story is told from her point of view. That was an interesting decision. It is Charlie’s story, but it is told from Annie’s perspective. What made you think of telling it that way?

I agree that Charlie is really the main character, but for what I wanted to achieve with this book Annie made sense as the character whose point of view we follow. In my last book for children, The Deepest Breath, we followed Stevie as she discovered that she liked girls. It made sense to follow Stevie on that journey, as she was starting from the complete beginning. It’s the same with Annie: she doesn’t know anything about gender at the start of the story and it makes her the perfect character to learn and grow with.

Charlie is a little older, a teenager, and a book about them would be a YA (young adult) story. But I felt that this book needed to be middle-grade – for younger readers. Just like with The Deepest Breath, I wanted to introduce concepts gently and carefully and in a positive way, and following Annie allowed me to do that. It is also very much Charlie’s story, though, I love them so much and I do think we see a lot that goes on with them through Annie’s eyes.

Yes, I see what you mean. The central issue, which clarifies as the story opens up, is that Charlie is starting to realise that they are non-binary. That is a big idea to mediate through the thoughts and worries of a much younger child, but it works really well, doesn’t it? I suppose Annie’s openness to new ideas is something that comes naturally to her, as a child – when you are small, everything is new, and you maybe haven’t acquired too many prejudices. So that makes her an ideal narrator, would you agree?

I do agree! It’s what’s so amazing about children, isn’t it? They learn and learn and learn every day, they are so open and ready for new things and so, so brave.

I wrote The Deepest Breath and The Lonely Book for younger readers because they both deal with topics I don’t think are written about enough for children. Queer stories are for everyone, and I wanted to share some!

Annie might be very young and very open, but she does also suffer from anxiety. Her worries are a kind of subplot – she knows there is something bothering Charlotte; she knows her mothers are worried about something completely different – whether the bookshop is financially secure. And one reaction she has to these anxieties is that she finds very often she can’t speak. Can you tell us a bit about selective mutism and why you chose to explore it in this story?

Selective mutism is a type of anxiety disorder that means that sometimes you just can’t speak. I decided to write about it because I have it. In times of extreme stress I lose the ability to speak. For instance, during the height of the pandemic I couldn’t speak at all for almost a year. My speech slowly came back but it was quite scary. Generally it just manifests in little ways: like, in an argument, sometimes words just vanish for me. It feels like quite a betrayal because I have always considered words friends. Writing about it, however minor a subplot it may be, was really nice for me. It reminded me that words take many forms and I am never truly without them.

Using sign language to overcome mutism is a creative as well as a very loving response, and the whole family becomes involved. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Again, that comes from personal experience. For those months when I couldn’t speak my girlfriend and I learned sign language. We learned together and it was a very beautiful thing. It was her idea. We had tried a text-to-speech app but I didn’t like that, and we tried me writing things out, but it was such a slow process. Sign was the perfect answer. We loved learning it, we loved using it and I loved it so much that she learned it with me; and that made me feel so loved and respected and valued. And so that is why I wrote that into the story of The Lonely Book. It just seemed right.

The love that Annie and Charlie share with their two mothers is very strong, very warm, very sustaining. And emotionally very satisfying to read about. It is the core of the book, really. But I like how you don’t allow the fact that this family is united in love and togetherness to be an easy solution to their various anxieties. It’s important that they have each other, but it’s not enough to make all their worries disappear. Can you tell us a bit more about your thinking on this?

I am very lucky to be in a relationship for almost twelve years now with a warm, funny, kind and caring person. I am loved and cared for and supported beyond what I ever thought possible. But I still have my anxieties, my troubles, my worries and struggles. The love I receive and the love I give can soothe these worries, they can lessen the load, they can calm me when things get too much. But they cannot take them away.

It isn’t fair to expect a person, no matter who they are, to fix your problems or take away your struggles with just the power of love and togetherness. But it is OK to expect respect and love and tenderness, I think. That’s what this family do: they love and respect and care for each other because they are a family and this is what comes naturally to them. They don’t expect each other to fix everything for them, or expect themselves to be able to fix everything for the others.

This is what Annie is learning, you can’t fix everything for a person, even if you wish you could. But you can love them and support them and be there for them, and that can be just as powerful.

The Deepest Breath, which is also written for quite a young readership, is realistic, as was your first book, The Space Between, which is more for a YA audience. Then, with Baby Teeth, definitely YA, you plunged right into fantasy (almost horror), and that went down very well!

Do you think Baby Teeth opened up the way for the kind of magic realism we find in The Lonely Book? Maybe in the same way that centring the story on a younger child in The Deepest Breath might have inspired you to write The Lonely Book also for a young audience?

Maybe! I’ve never had any interest in categorising myself when it comes to writing. I am not a person who has a lot of ideas, I am not at all brimming with them and I rarely have to choose between them to decide what to write. Usually I have one idea and I sit with it for as long as it takes to form and grow and develop. Then I write it.

Same for me!

Beth (the main character in The Space Between) came to me first, then Stevie (The Deepest Breath), then Immy (Baby Teeth) and now Annie. Immy was the most self-indulgent for me (though it may seem to be Beth from The Space Between!) because I love horror, I love paranormal stories, I love the innate drama of vampires and the idea of many lives lived.

I also love not holding back when I write, letting myself be as over-the-top or dramatic or even maybe pretentious as I want to be and Immy let me do that. I very much wrote that book for myself and the fact that other people liked it too definitely made me much braver moving forward, which, yes, could have played a part in inspiring me to write about a magic bookshop.

All your books, Meg, are verse novels. Do you find that verse comes to you more naturally than prose? And do you find that audiences respond especially well to the poetic form?

It definitely comes more naturally to me. I have always, always loved poetry. My nana wrote poetry and she wrote a poem about me when I was little. I still have the book that it’s published in on my bookcase. I like to think she wrote me into the world of poetry.

What a gift!

Wasn’t it just?

I was also a drama kid. I performed poetry I loved and wrote and performed my own poetry. I’ve always read it, always written it, and always loved it. So when I learned that books could be poetry too, that I could write a whole story in a poetic form, a new world opened up to me. It just comes naturally to me, it makes me happy, it makes me feel free and brave and inspired.

I love verse a lot, and I do think people respond well to it, even if they don’t quite know what it is. I try quite hard to make my verse accessible and make it flow nicely so it isn’t too taxing to read and I think, or I hope rather, that readers feel that. I think people are often surprised by how much they like verse, it kind of delights me!

Yes, I see what you mean about how naturally it comes to you, but I’m still wondering if it was a conscious decision to use verse as a form and magic realism as a storytelling style in order to tackle a subject that some readers might find more difficult to think about if they encountered them in a realistic novel or one in prose?

Honestly, no, not really. I trust readers, I trust young readers. I think they can handle bigger ideas and concepts than we give them credit for.

I totally agree, Meg. I think that respect for young readers is what marks the best writers for children and young people.

So, the reason I chose verse is that that is what I love and how I write best, and I wanted to give this story it’s best chance at being good. And I chose magical realism or fabulism because it allowed me to tell the story I wanted to tell and because the idea excited me. I think it just worked out well that these choices helped me in telling the story as clearly and accessibly as I could.

And it all worked out pretty well perfectly! Thank you, Meg, for talking to me, and thank you for this wonderful book.

You can catch this interview in the back of The Lonely Book upon its paperback release from Little Island Books. We want to thank Little Island for giving us permission to publish this interview on our blog to celebrate this fantastic release!

PaperBound Magazine is an online magazine for the young, and the young at heart. We are dedicated to showcasing authors and illustrators for children’s and young adult fiction and we strive to deliver inspiring content, uplifting stories, and top tips for young and aspiring writers yet to burst on to the literary scene.

All our issues are completely free and run by volunteers, however if you would like to support PaperBound and the work we do, you can help us out by buying us a virtual book. We appreciate any support you can give us!

Don’t forget you can catch up with the latest issues of PaperBound Magazine here.