Ivy Hopper is a teen columnist who talks with authors and fans of books that are currently being read by today’s youth.
Hey girls! What a treat I have for you this week!
This week I sat down with author Daniel Kirk who wrote Elf Realm.
When Matt and his family move to a new housing development in Pennsylvania, they don’t realize that they’ve stumbled into the middle of massive upheaval in the Elf Realm. The living, tunnel-like Cord, or “low road,” through which the elves travel is dying. The invisible barriers between the elfin world and the human world have begun to disintegrate.
The far-flung elfin kingdoms differ greatly from one another. Some are gentle and peace-loving; others are eager for war. As dark factions look to seize control of the entire Elf Realm, apprentice mage Tuava-Li must defend her kingdom’s territory – even when that means cooperating with Matt, a human and the elves’ natural enemy. With the help of a troll named Tomtar, Matt and Tuava-Li struggle to keep the Elf Realms, and the human world alongside it, from certain destruction.
The Low Road is the first book in the Elf Realm trilogy.
Here is what author Daniel Kirk had to say to me:
Ivy: Where did the idea come from to write Elf Realm?
Daniel: Ivy, first of all I want to say thanks for this interview and your interest in my work. In answer to your question, I’ve written and illustrated over 30 picture books, and always wanted to try writing something longer. I like to challenge myself; it’s what I do for fun! My three kids always liked fantasy books, so for years I’d been thinking that someday I’d try writing something in that genre. I just had to wait for the right time and the right idea to come to me.
About five years ago, on our way out to my parents’ house in Ohio for Thanksgiving, we were listening to Philip Pullman’s “Golden Compass” as an audio book. At a certain point we took a break from the recording and started talking about all the deer we were seeing in the woods along the Pennsylvania roadside. We were in kind of a fantasy mood after listening to the audio book so we played a little game, imagining where the deer might be going. My daughter suggested that all of the deer might be on their way to a fairy wedding! “Aha,” I said to myself, and made a mental note of the idea.
I used the fairy wedding idea as a starting point for my book, and let the whole notion of an alternate fairy world sort of stew in my mind for a number of months. I began researching everything I could find about different fairy cultures and mythology. Then I started to write. The book began as a lighter, more comic novel, but I quickly discovered that it was turning into a darker, more complicated book. The fairy wedding turned from a cheerful, fanciful event into a disaster, and set a whole series of terrible consequences in motion.
Ivy: How long did it take you to write this?
Daniel: I worked on the first novel for about a year. When I was ready to submit it to a publisher, I had over a thousand pages! I ended up having to cut that down in size by about half.
Ivy: Who was your favorite character to write about?
Daniel: In Elf Realm I wanted to tell the story of what happens when a human family has a chance encounter with a world of elves, trolls and other fairy folk in the forest behind their home. There’s a boy and his sister, aged 14 and 9, and they’re the main human characters. The most important of the good elves are Tuava-Li, a young monk in training, and her older mentor and guide, the Mage. There’s also a princess named Asra, who keeps getting forced into marriages against her will.
Then there are a bunch of bad elves, including Prince Macta, who goes through the book series trying to marry Asra and cause problems for everyone else. Maybe it’s just me, but when I’m writing, I tend to like the bad characters. They give me a change to imagine I’m doing horrible things I’d never consider doing in real life.
Ivy: How did you come up with the characters in the book?
Daniel: I knew I needed gooof changes in their environment, there are both good and bad characters.
In Norse mythology there are light Elves and dark Elves, and traditionally the dark ones are causing trouble for the light ones as well as the humans they encounter. In my story, the boy and girl must face up to their own personal weaknesses and find their strength by dealing with what’s going on in the fairy realm. My research into fairy mythology around the world gave me plenty of good ideas for types of characters.
Ivy: How much of your real life do you put in your books?
Daniel: In writing “Elf Realm”, I tried to base my characters, their personalities and motivations, on people that I know or have read about. I tried to remember what it was like being fourteen, and how when you’re young you have secrets you want to keep from your parents, because you’re trying to figure out who you are and what you’re going to be. It’s because of keeping secrets that my hero, Matt, gets into so much trouble. His sister Becky is very timid about moving to the country because she’s grown up in the city and doesn’t like grass and trees and bugs and dirt. She soon finds out there are more important things to worry about than nature. I was a bit like both Becky and Matt when I was young!
Because I worry about our environment, and what damage we’re doing to our planet, I tried to address these concerns in my plot. As I wrote I was seeing a lot of news on TV and reading in the newspaper about global warming, and that influenced the direction of my story. Another subject that had an effect on my writing was terrorism. Many Americans are feeling threatened by people from other countries whose beliefs and ways of life are different than our own. People aren’t just worried about suicide bombers; they’re threatened by anybody who represents a different belief system.
My use of fairies and otherworldly beings is a way of talking about real-life fears. I also want to make points about politics and the way people should be very careful about mixing politics and business, and politics and religion. So my book isn’t just entertainment, but should make readers think about important things going on in the real world.
Ivy: Why did you decide to make this a trilogy?
Daniel: Book series are popular, and at the time I began writing “Elf Realm” many of the books I’d been reading to my kids were series. I thought it would be fun to tell a really epic story, like “Lord of the Rings” or “His Dark Materials”, where I could go into lots of detail in creating a new world, telling the stories of many characters over a longer period of time. I thought writing three books about the same characters would give me a chance to really explore that imaginary world and make it as rich and believable as possible. Each of the books has its own flavor and direction, but they all contribute to the big picture.
Ivy: Was it hard to make the crossover from picture book writing?
Daniel: Not at all, I’d wanted to do it for years! I thought it might be easier to write a novel, in a way, because writing a picture book is deceptively difficult. People think writing a picture book is easy. There are so few words in a picture book, and yet an author spends an incredible amount of time trying to get those few words just right. I thought there’d be less of that pickiness in writing a novel, but now I have discovered that it’s about the same. As an author you still have to really labor and agonize over every word and every sentence, correcting and changing things over and over. But your ideas and characters can be so much richer and complex; it’s worth the work.
Ivy: Why was this story such a passion for you to write?
Daniel: I see how my own children are going to have particular challenges growing up that I never had to face. Big changes are coming. Climate change is a reality. We live in a shrinking world where we are going to have to live side by side with people who are really different from us, and learn to get along. There are a lot of bad people controlling things in our world that don’t care about anything but money and their own greedy needs. We’re becoming less of a democracy and more of a corporate-controlled country, where money buys elections and our leaders are always lying about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
Today’s kids are going to have to be really strong, really moral, really committed to do what’s right, as they grow up and begin to take the reins of power. There’s a lot riding on how our kids turn out, and the choices they make; maybe the survival of humanity itself. I think that in some way, fantasy novels can give readers a chance to work out real life problems and issues from a deeper, more spiritual place. That’s what I wanted to get across in my books. The real work we must do begins deep inside, and fantasy books can help you get to the depths and plant some seeds there.
Ivy: How did you come up with the troll Agar?
Daniel: In the first book of the Elf Realm series there’s a cranky old Troll called Agar, who helps Matt with some medicine to heal the dangerous injury he gets to his foot while playing barefoot in a construction site. Agar is a bit of a wizard, but he’s also a thief and a hoarder, somebody who can’t throw anything away. The den where he lives and works is kind of an amazing mess. There are a few hoarders in my own family, so I understand the problem. After a while you have such clutter in your place that you have nowhere to live, and nobody can come visit you without the risk of getting crushed by falling junk.
Ivy: How did you go about bringing Agar to life?
Daniel: I spent a lot of time thinking about the kinds of junk this Troll might want to keep. I had to imagine what would fascinate him—shiny things, things he thought were valuable—dolls, jewels, bird wings, old envelopes and catalogs, bottle caps, string, marbles, pretty stones, things from the natural world as well as man-made things he would find interesting because they were different from what he was used to, living in the woods. I tried to imagine how the world would seem through his lonely old eyes, and how his own personal limitations make him do things that to us would seem very, very bad! Trolls and Elves don’t care much for humans, or respect the rights and privileges we take for granted.
Ivy: What process did you use to build the world of elves?
Daniel: There’s an old fairy myth that says that in ancient times, fairies and humans lived together. Then, because of warfare between us and fairy folk, “the Gods” had to separate us so that the fairies didn’t all get killed. It’s an ancient story, but it perfectly describes parallel universes. I decided that is how I wanted the world in my books to be broken up—the fairy realm and the human realm, separated by in invisible and delicate divide.
Other myths describe the ways in which fairies organize their society—there are special places for the arts, for politics, for religion and so on. So if you want to be a monk, you’d go to a special town, or village, to study what you needed to know. I put this in my books, too. There’s an invention of mine in the series called “the Cord”, which is an underground passage where fairy folk basically fly from place to place. I spent many hours thinking about how our world is much different than it was a hundred years ago because of roads, highways, cars and trucks and trains and airplanes. I thought that an easy, natural method of quick transportation would make far-flung places in the fairy realm easily accessible by anyone, and that would change the nature of their society.
So “world building” is a big part of a book series like this. I had to think of many things, many structures that I don’t ever get around to describing in the books, just so I have a believable base where the action can take place. The fairy folk I wrote about are very keyed into nature, and their technology is limited by their allergy to metal. They do their best to work around this problem, but in a way their limitation forces many of them to develop in other, more spiritual ways.
Ivy: Is it your intent to have the readers of this be cautious as they walk around the woods?
Daniel: Not cautious, but appreciative. There are hidden worlds all around us, if we have the eyes to see and appreciate what we find. Nature is resilient but also delicate, and we have to be careful not to hurt the worlds we visit, as well as the one we live in.
Ivy: What is about elves that made you want to write a book about them?
Daniel: Elves are really just a stand-in for people who are a little different than we are. They look and talk a little strangely, they believe in different gods, and have different habits, diets and behaviors, but for the most part, they’re just like we are. They have the same fears, passions and longings, but they act them out in different ways. One difference, though, is that my Elves are small—pretty much knee-high to a human. I did this because it’s said that when people stop believing in the mythic beings of their culture, their artistic depictions of those beings become, literally, smaller.
Ivy: What age were you hoping would read this book?
Daniel: A good fantasy should be good for all ages. I would hope that my “Elf Realm” series would be interesting to teens, but also to adults. That’s the way I wrote it! There are mature themes and important spiritual, social and cultural issues in there, for those who want to find them. These things are woven in and around a rousing story about a hero’s quest. There’s a little romance, a lot of self-discovery. Every reader who appreciates complex, interwoven plots, rich characters and a dark, menacing mood should love this book, in my opinion!
Ivy: Where did you get your character names?
Daniel: Most of the fairy character’s names come straight from Scandinavian and northern European languages and mythology. I spent a lot of time researching the meaning of names and words in Scandinavian culture. To us, the names might seem odd or difficult, but to be honest, I wouldn’t feel comfortable naming my Elves Michael, or Julia or Fred! On the other hand I could have just made up the names from my imagination, but I don’t like reading fantasy books where the character’s names seem totally fabricated just to sound weird or alien to our ears.
Ivy: How much research did you have to do for this book?
Daniel: I had to do more research than I expected; a fantasy is only believable if it’s grounded in reality. As I said, the names of my characters come from other cultures and mythology. Some of the fairy behavior, and the ways their world works, also come from traditional fairy tales. So there’s research into literature and history.
I had to call a wildlife preserve to talk to an expert about healing injured birds. For the second book, I had to spend a week exploring Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because I wanted to make the story take place there, and I wanted my locations to be accurate.
For the third book, which I’m working on now, I’m doing a lot of reading about the inside of the earth, both in reality and in mythology. I am also researching the North Pole, both for its wildlife and habitat. Doing research isn’t always easy or fun, but it helps you build settings and characters that are more real and believable than your imagination alone could create.
Ivy: What did your kids think of this book?
Daniel: I read the chapters of the first book as I was writing them to my son, Russell, when he was about twelve. He was a very good critic and it was helpful to try out language and different scenarios with him, as the template for an average young reader. I also used my own kids and their friends as models for the illustrations in the books, and I think they were kind of amused by the ways they turn into fairy folk in the pictures.
Ivy: What is your writing process?
Daniel: When you’re a writer, it’s kind of a 24/7 job. If you’re not actually writing, you’re thinking about your book and what you have to do to make it better, as well as what’s going to happen with the plot. Either that, or you’re reading other author’s books that you think might inspire you or teach you something, or doing research. I brainstorm about the book I’m working on while I am exercising in the morning, and when I’m lying in bed at night trying to go to sleep. I think about my writing when I’m driving my son to his guitar lessons, and when I’m waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store.
As to the structure of my day, I tend to write in the morning and paint in the afternoon. I like to write at the kitchen table on my laptop, and after my wife goes to work and son goes off to school it’s very quiet, I get to work. After lunch I go out to my studio to paint. I like to have a couple of different projects going at the same time, because it keeps life more interesting that way. In the evening I’ll go back and edit what I wrote that morning. That’s a typical day!
In terms of the actual writing process, I believe it is important to outline your plot before you ever begin writing, otherwise you go off on tangents that aren’t productive. I tend to write simply, at first, and then add descriptions and details and more colorful language as I go back and revise my work. Later I go back and simplify it all again! Dialog is sometimes very difficult, finding an authentic voice for your characters, so I’ll end up rewriting dialog scenes many times until I feel that they ring true.
Ivy: What is next for you as an author?
Daniel: I’ve got a few ideas for fantasy novels, and a few ideas for more realistic novels. You never know if your editors are going to like your work until they actually read it, so when I am finished with the third Elf Realm book I am going to have to spend some time working up outlines and writing chapters to see what happens. It could well be that I will be excited about a project and my editor won’t!
Just because I write something I like, does not mean it will ever get published. It’s an odd combination of market forces and editorial choices that determine what will eventually come out as a book. Right now, there’s still a market for fantasy, but I think it’s kind of on the wane in the reading public, and people can’t get enough of realistic school stories and romantic vampire tales. I don’t know what that will mean for my book ideas about dragons and fairies!
Ivy: How old were you when you started writing?
Daniel: I’ve always been fascinated by telling stories—my parents were puppeteers and as a kid I was always immersed in fairy tales, myths and legends, classic tales of all kinds. My first talent was for drawing. I loved monsters, and I spent my childhood years just drawing things from my imagination. Later I began writing and illustrating my own comic books, and by high school I discovered I had a real talent for writing. English was my favorite subject, and whenever I had an essay question to answer on a test, or a paper to write, or a book report, I was completely in my element.
Ivy: What do you want readers to leave Elf Realm with?
Daniel: For years I have been interested in mythology, and the way that individuals play out the roles from classic mythic and religious stories, without ever knowing that’s what they’re doing. I want kids and adults who read my work to realize that they’re on their own heroic journey, a quest without a set goal or destination, positioned between two great mysteries, birth and death. There are many important things to work for, to accomplish, to realize about life, and there’s so little time to spend on that journey of understanding and discovery.
I’d like my readers to look at their own lives, think about the power they have to change the way their society works, to understand that it’s up to them to bring more joy, more love, more compassion, more hard work and commitment to the world and all of the people here in need. In “Elf Realm” my characters are kind of swept into something bigger than themselves, and they have to learn how to be big enough to fulfill their potential as people. That’s what I hope we all can do!
Ivy: What is your website address?
Ivy: Anything else that you want to comment on?
Daniel: Just to thank you for your interest in my work, Ivy, and I hope that your readers will check out “Elf Realm”. Reading has always been a very important part of my life, and I am always finding new books and new authors whose work deserves to be read, savored, and loved. Good luck, everyone, with your own search!
Ivy: Daniel, thank you so much for sitting down with me to chat about your trilogy.
Talk to you next week girls!
You can always contact me via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org