SBBT: Day 3 Schedule
Children's Literacy Round-Up: June 19

SBBT: Kirsten Miller Interview

Today's Summer Blog Blast Tour guest is Kirsten Miller, author of Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City (review) and Kiki Strike: The Empress's Tomb (due out in October). The Kiki Strike books are about a band of intrepid young girls (they are 12 in the first book) who fight dangerous enemies and guard a hidden city beneath the streets of New York City.  Here, Kirsten discusses some of the inspirations for the books, and gives us just a few hints about what's coming in The Empress's Tomb. She also shares a fascinating ghost story. Read on! My questions are in bold.

Did you read a lot as a kid?

Oh yeah. I grew up in a very small town in the mountains of North Carolina, so there wasn’t much else to do. Fortunately, my parents had a fairly large library, and nothing was off-limits. So I transitioned to adult books early on. I went straight from Dr. Seuss to the Amityville Horror. It was only later (when I was in my early teens) that I went back and gobbled up all the children’s classics and realized what I’d been missing. Even today, if I’m looking for something to read for pleasure, I’ll pick up a YA book before just about anything else.

(However, I’ll admit that if video games were as fantastic back then as they are now, I would have spent a lot more time hunting for treasure and kicking bad guy butt as a kid.)

Tell me about a favorite and/or unusual place that you've read books (as a child or an adult)?

I often read in the bathtub, and I’m incredibly clumsy, so it’s never a good idea to loan me a book. Every single book I own has significant water damage. But I firmly believe that a well-worn book is a well-loved book. (At least that’s what I tell my friends after I’ve destroyed their books.)

When did you start writing? Or did you always write?

I’ve always written, I guess. A few years back, my parents moved house and shipped all of my childhood belongings to me. (Quite a cruel thing to do to someone who lives in a New York apartment.) I found all sorts of adventure stories that I’d written as a kid. Apparently I was obsessed with aliens and ghosts—surprise, surprise. As a college student I went through a terrible phase of writing morbid stories about my life’s trials and tribulations. Very dull stuff—especially given the fact that I haven’t experienced that many trials or tribulations. Oddly enough, I’ve now come full circle and am back to penning the same sort of tales I wrote when I was ten.

Have you thought about starting a blog of your own? Or are you content with Ananka's blog?

I’ve thought about writing a blog of my own, but as I’m sure you know it’s really hard work. I couldn’t possibly do two at once. Also, I find the stuff posted on “Ananka’s Diary” at far more interesting than anything I could write about myself. I really am fascinated by giant squid, Bigfoot-like creatures, and Japanese television, so I get a kick out of introducing kids (and adults) to them. And of course, it’s all fodder for writing more crazy books.

Where did you get the idea of writing about the Shadow City beneath New York?

I’ve always been a big fan of underground places. Whenever I visit a new city, I’ll hunt through the guidebooks for subterranean sites to visit. (They’re surprisingly common.) But I suppose my interest in forgotten worlds dates from my childhood. There were mines in the woods around my family’s house, and my sister and I used to play in them. They weren’t the dangerous underground variety, unfortunately, but rather large pits that had been dug in the nineteenth century. We felt as if we’d found the traces of lost society.  As far as we knew, we were the only ones who were aware of their existence.

As an adult, I became fascinated by New York history. In the course of my reading, I discovered that there are, in fact, tunnels beneath Manhattan. (Though not quite on the scale of the Shadow City.) Put two and two together and . . .

Ananka is the narrator of Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, even though she's more side-kick than main superhero. Do you identify with Ananka more than with Kiki yourself, because she's a writer/researcher? Or is this more a way to make keep Kiki mysterious?

Both. The book isn’t a “whodunit” in the classic sense—though it is a mystery. (I’ll argue that one to the death!) The mystery is the nature of Kiki Strike’s identity. Who is she? What makes her tick? Why has she formed the Irregulars, and what does she intend to do with them? So while Kiki was the first character to pop into my mind, I knew from the beginning that it would be difficult (if not impossible) for her to tell her own story.

That’s not to say that Ananka was invented as a means of addressing a narrative challenge. I do identify with her quite a bit. Kiki’s the cool, mysterious character most of us would like to be, but Ananka’s the sort of person we all have a chance of becoming. She’s the book’s true hero—its real “girl detective.” 

My favorite parts of the book are the little "spy handbook" sections, like "How to follow someone ... without getting caught" at the ends of the chapters. Did those come to you early in the writing process, or were they something that you added on later? Do you think that you'll ever publish a pure "spy handbook" with suggestions like these?

Ooooh—good idea! I love the idea of a spy handbook for girls. There are tons right now for boys, which doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?

The “how to” sidebars were one of the first ideas I had. I thought it would be cool to combine an adventure story with information that readers could use in the real world. Although they’re funny, they were also meant to underscore the book’s main messages, (doesn’t that sound grand), which are essentially:

1) There’s no excuse for boredom. The world is a fascinating place if you bother to pay attention.
2) It’s possible to be girly and dangerous.
3) Low expectations can be a blessing in disguise.
4) Always keep a roll of duct tape handy.

Were you ever a Girl Scout? (this question was suggested by a 12-year-old friend) If so, were you a rebellious Girl Scout?

Heehee. Yes, I was a Girl Scout. But I’ve always had problems with authority, (a trait I inherited from my mother, who shares much in common with Luz Lopez), so I didn’t last very long. I remember feeling quite disappointed that we were making (and selling) cookies instead of learning how to rock climb, survive in the woods, or track dangerous animals. (Which makes me sound like a tomboy, I guess. I really wasn’t. I’d have been the one doing all of that in lip gloss and fancy shoes.)

When you set out to write these books, were you deliberately looking to provide strong, action-oriented examples for middle school age girls, or is that just what came out?

Not long after I started writing the book, I saw a clip on CNN about a ten-year-old girl who’d been kidnapped while riding her bike. As she told it, a man had stopped her with “that boring old I lost my puppy dog story.” Of course she didn’t believe a word of it. So when it became clear that she couldn’t be fooled, the man forced her into his truck. The girl (I wish I could remember her name) proceeded to scream, shout, and beat the living hell out of him. (Judging by her smirk as she recounted the incident, the girl enjoyed herself thoroughly.) Eventually, the man figured he couldn’t kidnap such a pain in the butt and kicked her out of his truck.

That’s the kind of girl I wanted to portray. The world would be a much safer, more enjoyable place for girls if we knew when to mind our manners—and when not to.

I've heard a bit of feedback about the Kiki Strike books that although they are wonderful in terms of featuring strong girl characters, they aren't very boy-friendly. Did you think about that at all? Would you ever give male characters a stronger part to play in one of your books?

You know it’s funny—some of the most positive response I’ve gotten have been from males (young and old). And whenever I’ve read to groups of kids, the boys have been extremely enthusiastic and engaged. (As one boy put it, the book had “just the right number of explosions.”) If fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by boys’ reactions. When I was in middle school, my male classmates would have turned up their noses at any book with a girl on the cover. Talk about progress!

That having been said, there are boys in The Empress’s Tomb. (My favorite is a boy genius who lives in Central Park.) So to the fifth grade boy who once asked me if I thought “boys could make good Irregulars,” the answer, of course, is YES!

The six Irregulars are all quite different from one another, in both strengths and nationalities. Did they each appear to you, demanding to be written about? Or were you, in some cases, looking for particular traits, and you kind of went looking for the characters. Kiki, especially, is such a unique character that I wonder if she popped up in your mind first.

In many ways, the book is a love letter to New York, and I wanted the Irregulars to reflect the fascinating ethnic mix you find in the city. (As well as represent my favorite neighborhoods.) And I thought it would be interesting to see how six girls from different walks of life (rich, poor, royal, non-royal) would come together to fight the forces of evil.

Kiki was the first character to arrive, but the rest of the girls weren’t far behind. Some of them (namely Oona) demanded my attention more than others, but I found all six fascinating in their own ways. I knew I’d be spending a great deal of time with them, so each needed to be a person I was curious to learn more about. In the end, I guess I created my ideal group of friends.

It was neat seeing Oona get more of a central role in The Empress's Tomb. Did you know in the first book what her parentage was going to turn out to be?

(Hmm. Let’s see if I can answer this without giving too much away.) I’ve known Oona’s secret for quite some time. The plot of The Empress’s Tomb took shape as I was writing Kiki Strike, so it was easy to slip in a few clues about Oona’s background here and there. (In fact, there are clues about the other girls in the first book, too.)

In The Empress's Tomb, Ananka notes that "Any person who believes in ghosts has at least one good story to share." Do you have any real-world ghost stories? Or, have you ever personally tested out any of the methods in the "How to Summon a Poltergeist" section?

I haven’t tried my hand at impersonating a poltergeist yet—though I had a lot of fun writing that particular section. I have, however, seen a ghost. When I was quite young, my family lived in an old farmhouse, and until I was six, my sister and I shared a room. Unfortunately, my sister was already well on her way to becoming one of the biggest slobs in the known universe, and I eventually demanded my own clutter-free space. So my parents let me move to a small chamber at the back of the house that had previously been used for storage. A few days later, I was making my bed when I looked up to see an unfamiliar man leaning against my dresser. He wasn’t particularly frightening—in fact he seemed rather pleasant. As soon as I started screaming, he vanished.

That wasn’t the last time I saw him. Over the next few months, he randomly appeared in my bedroom. I’d be playing with my toys or reading a book, and I’d look up find him watching me. At first, my mother made light of the situation. But one day she came home and insisted that I move back into the room I had shared with my sister. As much as I hated to admit defeat, I didn’t argue. I later discovered that my mother had just been to see the woman who had sold my parents the house. She’d discovered that the woman’s husband had died in our house’s back bedroom. The woman showed my mother a picture. It was the same man I had described seeing in my room.

That’s a true story!

Are the giant squirrels in Empress based on real animals? Have you ever seen them?

Yes, the Black Giant Squirrels of Malaysia are very real. They have black and yellow fur, and they’re as big as cats (around three long feet, including tail), but their behavior is much like that of the squirrels you’d see in any American park.

I’ve always been intrigued by squirrels of all shapes and sizes. Few other species manage to inspire such love—or loathing. I’m always blown away by the number of anti-squirrel sites one can find on the Internet. There are people who seem to devote their entire lives to exposing squirrels as a menace to mankind.

People who know of my interest in squirrels will often send me videos or website links. I first saw a Black Giant Squirrel in one such video and immediately knew it would have a place in my book. Someday I’d like to see one in the wild.

You can ignore this one if you've already answered it for other blog tour participants, but: Will there be a third Kiki Strike book?

You’re the first person to ask so far. The answer is  . . . maybe.

We can only hope. The second book is, if anything, better than the first.