Saturday, January 26, 2008

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is the author of historical fiction for young adults.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am the type of reader who's always got about a dozen books going at the same time. But I also belong to a book group, and every month I have to drop everything else so I can get through the "assigned" reading in time. Our latest is Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter H√łeg, which reminded me so intensely of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights that when I described the plot to my daughter she thought I was talking about Pullman's book (a sort of darker, more violent and grown-up version set in our own world, and with a grown-up heroine).

But Smilla's an exception. Mostly I read children's fiction. This is partly because I think it informs my own work and partly because, well, I tend to prefer it. I'm in the middle of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1, The Pox Party (heck of a title!) by M.T. Anderson. This is a truly brilliant period crafting of the life of a young slave at the time of the American Revolution. Octavian is raised as a human experiment to try to discover whether blacks are as intelligent as whites (Octavian, it is clear, is considerably more intelligent than most of either race). I'm also in the middle of Corydon and the Island of Monsters by Tobias Druitt — a pen name disguising the mother-son writing team of Michael Dowling and Diane Purkiss. The Corydon books are based on Greek myth, but cast from the point of view of the underdogs — the outcasts, the so-called monsters, sphinx and minotaur and gorgon. I love the way this imaginative twist reframes familiar myth in a dark mirror.

Also in the children's fiction department, I guess, is manga — Japanese and Korean pulp fiction in comic book form, translated into English. This week's shopping trip supplied us with three Shakespeare plays in manga form — Romeo and Juliet (illustrated by Sonia Leong), Hamlet (illustrated by Emma Vieceli) and Richard III (illustrated by Patrick Warren). They are edited by Richard Appignanesi and published in a series called, you guessed it, Manga Shakespeare. They are just WONDERFUL. The text is heavily cut from the original Shakespeare but not altered. You'd normally do that to a play, and since these are so visual and interpretive — Romeo and Juliet is set in modern day Tokyo — I think of these as "performances" rather than definitive texts. They're a great introduction to Shakespeare for a young reader, and hugely entertaining for a hopeless Shakespeare aficionado (I read the last fifty pages of the Romeo and Juliet through a haze of tears).

Finally, I should mention some of the non-fiction I'm in the middle of: my annual dose of Ethiopian history. I'm reading both The Barefoot Emperor by Philip Marsden, a biography of the ambitious, tragic, crazed Tewodros II of Abyssinia in the 19th century, and The Ark of the Covenant by Roderick Grierson and Stuart Munro-Hay, which attempts to trace the Ark from its biblical origins to its supposed modern home in Aksum in northern Ethiopia. Most of my own books are set in sixth century Ethiopia, in the ancient kingdom of Aksum, and as well as maintaining an insatiable interest in the land and its fascinating millennia of history, I am always on the lookout for new story ideas.
Elizabeth Wein, on her books:
I write fiction for teens based on Arthurian legend and early African history. I was intrigued with archaeological and scholarly evidence suggesting there were major events going on in the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum at just about exactly the same time as the historic Arthur existed, so I've imagined a genial relationship between the two kingdoms. My young hero, Telemakos, is the son of an Ethiopian noblewoman and a British prince. My fifth book, The Empty Kingdom, will be published in April 2008. It is the second part of a duology called The Mark of Solomon. My previous books are The Winter Prince, A Coalition of Lions, The Sunbird and The Lion Hunter (which is the first half of The Mark of Solomon).

Visit Elizabeth Wein's website and her blog.

--Marshal Zeringue