Debut author Laura Marx Fitzgerald is here at The Hiding Spot today to answer a few questions about her middle grade novel UNDER THE EGG, a novel that quickly became one of my new favorites! In addition to this interview, check out my review here!
UNDER THE EGG takes place in modern-day New York, but much of the mystery the protagonist, Theodora, unravels has its roots in history. How much of the history in the novel, particularly that of the Renaissance artist Raphael, is based in fact?
[Warning: This response contains spoilers!]
A lot! What inspired me to write UNDER THE EGG were the impossible-but-true stories I discovered in my research. For example, did you know you really can x-ray a painting at a hospital? An English man did just this in 2010 and found a portrait underneath believed to be worth five times the painting on top.
In regards to Raphael, the clues were born out of historical fact but stretched to morefictional conclusions. The jury is out on whether Raphael really married La Fornarina—and for some historians, if there really was a Fornarina. There is an abundance of circumstantial evidence that points to their love affair. And an x-ray really did uncover a ring on the wedding finger of the La Fornarina portrait.
Now, did they have a child together? Not that I know of. That part is pure fiction.
One of the reasons I so loved UNDER THE EGG was the portrayal of the young protagonists. Theo is a straight-talking, intelligent, mature 13-year old. Can you speak briefly about why you chose to make a 13-year old the protagonist of UNDER THE EGG, rather than an older character? That is, why was it important to you that a resilient 13-year old be the one to solve this great mystery that spans decades?
Did you have trouble writing any of your characters or specific scenes within the novel? Alternately, were any characters or scenes particularly easy to write?In short, marketing. Originally Theo was fourteen years old, the same age as Mattie Ross in TRUE GRIT. I loved that character and the entirely believable way she was mature and courageous beyond her years. I always saw Theo as her modern-day, urban equivalent.But everyone who read UNDER THE EGG felt strongly that the book was middle-grade at its heart. And in middle-grade, readers want to see characters who are closer to their own age. So I ratcheted Theo’s age down a smidge to just-turned-thirteen, going into eighth grade.But here’s the thing I love about modern-day mysteries: the Internet. With the Internet, anyone can uncover a mystery. Almost every single piece of research I conducted for this book is widely and freely available online: public domain books, newspaper articles, x-rays, chemistry, first-person narratives. What isn’t online can be found at libraries and research institutions, staffed by people who love tracking down information.Which means you don’t need a Harvard degree to track down a historical mystery. You just need a curious mind and a desire to known the truth—even if you’re only thirteen.
Theo was alternately the hardest and easiest character. Originally, I wanted her to talk and think like an eighty-year-old man. I felt that, if she’d spent so much time with her grandfather, somewhat isolated from her peers, she’d have picked up his mannerisms. But it was a fine line to tread, and usually Theo ended up sounding ingenuine, not like a kid at all.So I compromised by giving her a younger voice, with an outlook and expressions more like my own at her age. But as the book opens, I had her continually reference her grandfather’s many aphorisms. As she develops her own friendships and community, she depends on her grandfather’s advice less and less, and her voice becomes more her own.
Has the title changed or stayed relatively the same as your novel journeyed towards publication?
I submitted the original manuscript with the title UNDER THE EGG. Despite a renaming effort that yielded over a hundred other suggestions, we never found a name we liked better.
Many people dream of their ideal jobs while working somewhere less desirable to make ends meet, never realizing what great experience those jobs of necessity are for their future. What jobs did you have on your way to becoming a published author? Is there a certain work experience that has shaped your writing?
Before I was an author, I was a copywriter. This is the person who writes the words on the back of cereal boxes and those credit card slips that you throw directly into the garbage without reading.Being a copywriter was wonderful for discipline. You’re forced to be succinct, engaging, and on deadline. You’re always writing for a client, with their happiness in mind. If they want you to change a word, you change it.But as a copywriter, you come to see your writing as a product, designed to please the client at any cost. That’s been a hard thing to let go of. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m an equal partner with my publisher. I have the idea and the vision, but the publisher is an invaluable industry expert. Working together, you have your book’s best interest at heart. So when your editor makes a suggestion, unlike a client’s suggestion, you don’t have to take it.But you know your editor wants to see your book be a huge success, just like you. So you take those suggestions very, very seriously.
If you had to pick a favorite word, what would it be and why?
My blog is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. Who, what, or where can be credited as your personal escape from reality?
Books were my childhood refuge. When I was a little girl, my favorite way to spend a winter weekend was with a stack of books, a pile of pillows, and a blanket over the heating vent. The blanket would billow everytime the heat came on, and I would burrow down in my reading bubble and get lost in one story after another.Today I have less time to read and even less to take an entire afternoon for myself. But every so often, I will escape to a fantastic (and I mean that in the literal sense) Korean spa called Spa Castle in Queens. It’s four floors of pools, soaking tubs, saunas, and napping rooms, and a restaurant that serves a killer bi bim bap.While it sounds indulgent, the soothing environment, free of email and Twitter alerts, always brings an idea or solution to a knotty plot problem bubbling to the surface. So I prefer to think of it less as an escape as an essential writer’s retreat!