Interview: Author Hilary Wagner on the Value of Persistence and NIGHTSHADE CITY

If you’ve hung around Tartitude for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered today’s guest, middle grade and young adult author, Hilary Wagner. If not, you’re in for a treat. Hilary’s debut, Nightshade City — published by Holiday House — was blurbed by none other than Rick Riordan of Percy Jackson fame. She writes, works full-time as a technical trainer while raising two young children, and does it all with an infectious glee that’s guaranteed to make her a hit at book signings.

Jan: Welcome to Tartitude, Hilary, and congratulations on NIGHTSHADE CITY’s release. Now tell the truth: I’m the first to call you H-bomb, aren’t I? And you love your nickname so much you fought to have it on the book’s cover, right?

Hilary: Err…yes. Sure, whatever you say… *wonders why I agreed to do this interview* Ha, ha!

I find your story of how you came to authordom very inspiring. You are a visual artist with no formal training in writing; you were pregnant with your daughter when your husband challenged you to write the book you’d been thinking about for a while. Then, without a critique group, at a time when conventional wisdom said an animal story couldn’t possibly sell, you found your way to publication. Tell us about the journey. 

Well, I just decided one day to start writing and I never stopped. I was a big writer as a kid and after school I’d written things here and there, never even considering getting them published. Then, after telling my husband for years he should write, he told me, “I don’t want to write. Why don’t you do it?” So there started my passage into publishing. I love a good challenge and this did not disappoint! Number of agent rejections, 175. Truth be told, I was even rejected by my own agent!

Craig Virden (Nancy Gallt’s husband and former president of Random House Children’s Division) was the agent I’d been pining away for. I knew he was the one I wanted to represent me. We’d exchanged some lovely letters. He’d requested the full and made me laugh — a real charmer! This progression took about 6 months. Finally I got a letter back from him. My heart beat like a rabbit’s. It was yet another rejection, mind you, the nicest rejection anyone could ever get, but a rejection all the same. He said due to the current market woes and competition he just couldn’t take it on. You’d think I’d be crushed, but I wasn’t. He offered to read anything else I had “moldering” in my desk. So, instead of wallowing (which I’d become an expert at), I got to work that day on another MS I’d been wanting to finish. Then, about four weeks later, I got a phone call out of the blue. I didn’t recognize the area code, so normally I wouldn’t have answered it, but I just had this strange feeling. It was Craig Virden. He said he just couldn’t stop thinking about the book and no matter the market, etc, he wanted to take it on if I was still interested…uh…YES! So, long story short, that’s how I landed my agent. Sadly, a month later, Craig passed away. It was a heartbreaking blow to his family and the publishing community at large. He was one of those larger than life men that everyone knew and loved and one and all seemed to have a story about — a truly special person. Marietta Zacker stepped in pronto. She was dear friends with Craig and Nancy and had just started working with them as an agent. Despite her grief, she called me right away and let me know everything was okay and most of all do not worry. Shortly thereafter, I had a new agent. Can lightning strike twice? Marietta is kind and funny and pretty much brilliant! She gives me so much insight into the publishing industry and she’s as clever as a fox! She is my agent and my friend and I highly recommend her to anyone. She sold Nightshade City in less than two months.

Can you tell Tartitude’s readership what NIGHTSHADE CITY’s about?

From the book jacket:
Deep beneath a modern metropolis lies the Catacombs, a kingdom of remarkable rats of superior intellect. Following the Bloody Coup, the once peaceful democracy has become a dictatorship, ruled by decadent High Minister Killdeer and his vicious henchman Billycan, a former lab rat with a fondness for butchery.

Three young orphan rats — brothers Vincent and Victor and a clever female named Clover — join forces with Billycan’s archenemy, Juniper, and his maverick band of rebel rats as they plot to overthrow their oppressors and create a new city — Nightshade City. This impossible-to-put-down fantasy explores timeless themes of freedom, forgiveness, the bonds of family, and the power of love.

I adore the grisly humor which infuses this book and suspect many children would as well. Your voice seems confident about their ability to handle gritty reality. How so? Does initial feedback match your expectations?

Initial feedback on the book has been great, which clearly I’m super excited about! When I was a kid, I hated being talked down to. I remember thinking, how stupid do grownups think I am? You just can’t talk down to kids, especially these days. From news, TV shows, even video games, they do handle gritty subject matter — every day. Children are so much smarter and insightful than we sometimes give them credit for, so no spoon-feeding!

I’m not the first to find your characterization and word choice Dickensian. Are you a Dickens fan? Who would you consider your literary influences?

I don’t have any literary influences as far as other writers go — at least not that I’m aware of, though I do adore Dickens. I more write to the “feeling” of the book. I wanted Nightshade City to be classic. The kind of book a child would read on a cold winter day, all curled up on their favorite chair, complete with a mug of hot cocoa and even though Nightshade City takes place in the present time, I wanted readers to be swept away to another time and place — hopefully I accomplished that.

Your archvillain, Billycan, is deliciously savage and a worthy adversary for  your band of heroes. At the same time, he has a strong work ethic and a troubled past that render him almost sympathetic. I detect a certain fondness for this character in your writing. How you feel about Billycan? And do you think it’s important for a writer to appreciate their antagonist as much as their protagonist?

Oh, yes! You can’t have a novel about good vs. evil without a well developed villain. I’m very attached to Billycan. He’s a multi-layered character with much more to him than meets the eye, and to be honest, not just my favorite, but a lot of readers. I’m really taken aback by the overwhelming love of him — a creature so wicked and depraved! I was very surprised about that, but also very relieved. Let’s just say Billycan has a lot more to say in Book II.

You’ve already sold the sequel. Any publication date on this yet or hint about the plot? Will book two be the last in this series?

As far as plot, I don’t want to get too much into that, but like I said, it does involve Billycan — a lot! The projected publication date is October 2011, so one year from Nightshade City. It will be Book II of the Nightshade Chronicles, so yes, expect more — hopefully many more books in the series!

What are you working on at present?

Right now I’m working on a new animal fantasy. It’s something that has never been done before, so my publisher asked me not to talk about it, which I thought was really cool! All I can say is I’m doing loads of research and never in my life did I dream I’d learn so much about these creatures! Very exciting stuff!

If people want to learn more about you and your writing, where would you like them to reach you? 

Anything is fine! Website and Blog are best! 

Jan: In closing, I thought to quote from Oard, leader of the earthworm tribe of NIGHTSHADE CITY and one of my favorite characters. He spoke these words to members of a rat colony at a time of crisis. I think they’d inspire a frustrated writer immersed in their first draft:

“Forge through the soil!” he shouted. “Forget your training, no time for exactness, no need for symmetry. Momentum is the key. Our velocity cannot wane! Drill through, worms – drill through!”

Thank you for being here today, Hilary. And I’ll wish you many happy days of your own drilling in the future, even if part of me is terrified what you’ll do with that offer. 😉

Peeps, I know Hilary loves comments and questions, so if you care to leave one in the space below, she’ll pop back in to give you replies. In addition, I’ve embedded Hilary’s video which, in my opinion, does a great job of capturing the mood of the book. Enjoy.

13 thoughts on “Interview: Author Hilary Wagner on the Value of Persistence and NIGHTSHADE CITY

  1. Now I want to read it, even if it is for kids . . . I kept thinking of Watership Down, when someone lent that book to me and I thought it was a kid’s book, but I was wrong – I was so enthralled by the life of those rabbits . . . so why not rats?

    I have a question: Do you have an agent, or did you decide to go to your publishers directly? Or what was your publishing decision journey?

  2. Great interview Hilary and Jan!

    Kat, it’s like a kid’s version of Watership Down (but with rats, not bunnies). I loved the way Hilary’s writing didn’t talk down to the kids. She handled some rough subject matter, but in a very positive light. It’s a really difficult balancing act and Hilary pulled it off. I’m impressed, but Hilary is impressive. 😉

  3. Excellent interview!

    And you two have such great chemistry. Its great to know the story behind the story. I’m looking forward to reading Nightshade City.

  4. Tart!

    Thanks so much for having me on your blog! I was going to have my rats take a picture with a bag of oranges just for you, but they ate them all, claiming they were trying to avoid catching scurvy! The fibbers! 😉

    And Kat, my whole “agent story” is above! 🙂

    xoxo — Hilary

  5. The book sounds delightful! Hilary, are there any plans for a Kindle edition? I have already started clicking on the “I’d like to read this book on the Kindle” button!

  6. Thank you all for stopping by and commenting! I know how much it warms my heart to have people take the time. I can only imagine Hilary feels the same.

    Glinda, I’m pretty sure there are plans, but I’ll find out for sure for you if Hilary doesn’t pop back tomorrow.

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