Today I welcome writer M.A. Larson to The Hiding Spot to talk a bit about his new middle grade novel, Pennyroyal Academy, his various jobs (including writing for a cartoons you know and love!), his unique writing process, and more.
I love that, in Pennyroyal Academy, it’s princesses that are the kingdom’s lead defense against witches and dragons. As a bookseller who often has young girls asking for books about strong princesses, I find this premise very exciting. Can you speak about your decision to make princesses the rescuers and the princes backup?
It’s a long, eight-year story of how that decision came to be, so I’ll try to give you the short answer. When I first came up with this idea, it was for an animated series called Princess Boot Camp. We developed the show for a while, but nothing came of it, so I decided to turn it into a book. At that time, I was just sort of researching princess culture and trying to think of ideas of where to take the story. I read a book called The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim, which looks at how the Grimm’s Fairy Tales work in the adolescent mind from a psychological and developmental perspective. Seeing those old familiar stories analyzed in this way made me realize that their darker elements were not only interesting, they were essential. I began to reframe my story for an older audience and to strip away the parody elements. I knew I wanted to attack the stereotype of the helpless princess trapped in a tower waiting for a prince, and I still had the spine of a military-style training academy for princesses left from the original idea, so naturally those princesses would need an enemy, and that enemy would have to be dark and frightening. Witcheswere the natural choice. Then it was just a process of refining this princess/witch conflict until I hit upon the angle that only a princess has the attributes necessary to defeat a witch. They are the last line of defense for the innocent people in this Grimm’s Fairy Tale world. It felt a bit like a Western in that sense, and it made the princess into quite a heroic figure.
Tell me a little bit about your writing process: Do you outline? Start at the beginning? The middle?The end?
I’m sort of all over the shop on this one. When I’m writing a film or television script, the structure is so important that I wouldn’t know how to do it without heavily outlining. You have two hours for a movie, which is roughly 120 pages, or you have twenty-two minutes for TV with commercials. You have to fit your story into that mold, so structure is everything. And yet, I know many screenwriters who just start writing and see what happens. My outline for Pennyroyal Academy was complex and massive, around thirty pages single-spaced. It was color coded for characters, objects, themes, and plotlines so I could track them chapter by chapter. I couldn’t really tell you why, but I’m in the middle of the sequel now and I am doing it in an entirely different way. I know where I want to characters to end up, and I’m starting each writing day saying, “Okay, what needs to happen in this chapter?” It’s pretty uncomfortable for me as a staunch outliner, but fun little subplots keep forming that I wasn’t really expecting. So I’m kind of enjoying flying blind a little bit. As for where do I start, I always try to think of the big, “what does this mean for the world?” ending, and then the story becomes following the characters’ journey from the beginning to that end point.
What jobs did you have on your way to becoming a published author? Is there a certain work experience that has shaped your writing or provided inspiration?
So many jobs! I’ve been working since I was fifteen. My first job was at an amusement park in Minnesota, then Circuit City and AMC Theaters and Honeybaked Ham and even Victoria’s Secret (I applied for jobs in every store in the mall near my college and they were the first to call me back). Then I bartended for awhile, and finally got a job as an assistant to a legendary film director called Mike Nichols. I worked with him for years and got to be involved with Angels in America for HBO, “Spamalot!” and other plays on Broadway, and CLOSER for Columbia Pictures. It was an amazing experience, and I’ll never forget hearing piano and singing coming from Mike’s office during the writing of “Spamalot!” followed by roaring laughter as he and Eric Idle and John du Prez devised the lyrics. And that job allowed me to meet so many incredible writers, like Tom Stoppard and Patrick Marber and Emma Thompson and Tony Kushner and Buck Henry, that it only made me want to be a professional writer that much more. After I moved to Los Angeles, I was fortunate to get a job writing for an animated children’s show at Cartoon Network, and I never looked back. That’s why Pennyroyal Academy was originally going to be an animated series. Writing for animation, you are required to generate so many scripts and so many ideas and take so many notes from so many executives that you quickly learn to not be too precious with your work. I also learned that rejection is just a thing that happens – a lot – and you have to be prepared to move on to the next idea without letting it depress you.
If you had to pick a favorite word, what would it be and why?
This is probably a bit of a cheat answer, but I really like “inconceivable.” The Princess Bride is one of my all-time favorite stories, and I can’t hear that word without thinking of Vizzini, and then I automatically smile. And if hearing a word can automatically make you smile, how can it not be a favorite?
My blog is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. Who, what, or where can be credited as your personal escape from reality?
You took the best answer! But after books, it’s got to be the movies. There’s nothing quite like that strange feeling of disorientation when you come out of a movie theater after being completely lost in something for two hours. A good, rich, immersive film, like There Will Be Blood or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,is my favorite place to hide out.
What can readers look forward to next?
I’m in the midst of writing the follow-up to Pennyroyal Academy right now. I also story-edited and wrote part of the next season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which should air early next year. And beyond that I have a whole slew of ideas for more books of all ages.
M.A. Larson (www.malarson.com) is a film and television writer who lives with his wife, daughter, and two dogs in a canyon in California. Larson has written for Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney UK, Discovery Kids Channel, The Hub, and Nickelodeon. As a writer on the cult sensation “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”, he has been a guest at “brony” fan conventions from Paris, France to Dallas, Texas. Pennyroyal Academy is his first novel.
Pennyroyal Academy: Seeking bold, courageous youths to become
tomorrow'sprincesses and knights….Come one, come all!
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Blog Tour Schedule:
October 15, 2014: The Hiding Spot
October 17, 2014: The Book Cellar
October 20, 2014: Alice Marvels
October 23, 2014: Icey Books
October 27, 2014: Novel Novice
October 29, 2014: Literary Rambles
Nov. 4, 2014: Nerdy Book Club