Interview: Holly Black

Holly BlackAuthor Holly Black will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop.  She is the bestselling author of contemporary fantasy novels for teens and children.  Her first book, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, was published in 2002 by Simon & Schuster and received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and was included in the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults. Two other books share the same universe: Valiant (2005), and Ironside, the sequel to Tithe.  Valiant was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award for Young Readers and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Holly collaborated with Caldecott award-winning artist Tony DiTerlizzi to create the bestselling Spiderwick Chronicles: The Field GuideThe Seeing Stone, Lucinda’s Secret, The Ironwood Tree and The Wrath of Mulgarath, the last of which climbed to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. These were followed by the lavishly illustrated Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to The Fantastical World Around You, The Notebook for Fantastical Observations, and Care and Feeding of Sprites. To date, the books have been translated into 32 languages. The Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series also includes The Nixie’s Song, A Giant Problem and The Wyrm King.

The Spiderwick Chronicles were adapted into a film by Paramount Pictures in conjunction with Nickelodeon Films. Released in February 2008, the film stars Freddie Highmore and Sarah Bolger, with Mark Waters as the director.spiderwickfg

Holly frequently contributes to anthologies, and has co-edited three of them: Geektastic (with Cecil Castellucci, 2009), Zombies vs. Unicorns (with Justine Larbalestier, 2010), and Bordertown (with Ellen Kushner, 2011). Her first collection of short fiction, Poison Eaters and Other Stories, came out in 2010 from Small Beer Press. She has just finished the third book in her Eisner-nominated graphic novel series, The Good Neighbors, and is working on Red Glove, the second novel in The Curse Workers series; White Cat, the first in the series, came out in May 2010.

Holly lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Theo, in a house with a secret library.  For more about Holly Black, visit her website at or her blog at

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I don’t remember when I started writing, but I started being serious about it a year or two after I graduated from college–so probably around my mid-twenties. What I was doing wrong? Not finishing a lot of stuff, first of all. And second of all, not really understanding how plot worked.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

I figured out how to see the shape of stories, so that what happened in a book felt inevitable all the way through to the final conflict and resolution. I know that probably sounds really confusing, but in the beginning it was really hard to “see” beyond what my protagonist saw–maybe a tiny bit ahead in the story, but not very far. And as I have become a more experienced writer, I have become more able to “see” my story from a greater and greater distance, which means seeing more of it. Which led to it being easier to write and an overall better story.

What inspires you to write for teens and kids?

The books that I read when I was young were incredibly important to me–in part, because I was making big decisions about who I was going to become.

Tell me about Poison Eaters and Other Stories, and the experience of working with Small Beer Press.

poison eaters

Well, it was a really big thing for me to have a collection of shorts, because I finished a novel before I was able to successfully finish a short story. And I love collections; I really feel like they’re a way for a writer to let her hair down and experiment with kinds of stories that she might not normally. I was also really excited to work with Small Beer Press because not only do I admire what they do, but because Gavin [Grant] and Kelly [Link, the founders of Small Beer Press] are friends of mine.  I enjoyed working with them on choosing the stories, the cover and promotional materials.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

Read tons and tons of stuff, write tons and tons of stuff, be fearless in your writing, and learn to be a generous critiquer of other people’s work, because it will make you a better critiquer of your own.

Bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson has collected 750 rejection slips over the course of his career. How many rejections have you received on a single story? What is your philosophy about rejections?

I don’t save them. In fact, I’m not sure I have a philosophy about rejections except that they’re inevitable, they sting, and, in the end, they don’t matter.

You have a section called ‘Suggested Reading’ on your website, but it lists only fiction. Do you have any books/articles on writing that you recommend for developing writers or for those already deep into the industry? And when should writers stop reading ‘how-to’ and just get down to business?

I recommend fiction and in another part of my website, I have some folklore recommendations. I do like reading books on writing, but I don’t know that I agree with all of them, and I don’t think they’re necessary for every writer. I think reading fiction is way more important for learning craft.

Some books I have liked: Stephen King’s On Writing; Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife; Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel; and Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat.

Can you speak to the art of research? When is it too little, and when is it too much? What are some of the best sources overlooked by writers?

Well, the amount and kinds of research that each writer does is personal, both to the writer and the project. Some projects require a lot more research than others. It’s often hard to know when you’ve done enough. One of the most overlooked sources is the bibliography in the back of research books, especially secondary research materials. I have found lots of fantastic primary sources from looking at what showed up again and again in secondary sources. As for doing too much, the only measure I can think of that you’ve done too much research is when doing research has become an excuse not to write. And that’s personal too.

You have a wonderful art library on your website. How important is art to your inspiration? How do you use it in your stories?

My mother is a painter and so is my husband, so art is a big part of my life and really important to me. I always collect inspiration paintings and photographs for a project, because I feel like at the heart of every project for me is a feeling–and if I go off track, going back and looking at that art (or listening to a particular song) can ground me in the feeling that the book or story was meant to evoke.

What’s next on your writing horizon?doll bones

I have two books coming out this year. The first one is a middle grade novel, called DOLL BONES about three kids who go on a road trip to bury a doll that may or may not be haunted — and learn a lot about themselves and their friendship on the way.

The second is a YA novel, called THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN, about a girl who waked up after a party where everyone else has been killed or infected by monsters. She, along with her ex-boyfriend and one of the monsters, has to find a way to survive — even if that means being trapped in a quarantined monster city.

For more about the Odyssey Writing Workshop, visit


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