Hi Danna! Can you tell us how the world of your novels was influenced by your interest in cephalopods (and while you’re at it, explain to people what cephalopods are)?
Cephalopods are the group of animals that includes octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus. I’ve been nuts about these critters since I was a little kid, and in high school my friends jokingly coined the word “Cephalopodiatrist” to describe me. Cephalopods don’t show up in all of my stories—but I do find them to be endless sources of inspiration. My novel Heart Set Free focuses on their speed, turning squid into underwater racehorses, while my short story Talk to Us (to be published in the anthology Suction Cup Dreams) takes a look at their intelligence, wondering how octopuses might eventually evolve sentience.
Does the mystery of the ocean enter into your novels?
Constantly. As a scientist, I’m fascinated by how much of the sea is still unexplored, how many marine species have yet to be discovered. As a writer, I love the symbolism of the sea as the subconscious mind, the source of our fears but also the strength to overcome them. It’s fun to weave these two perspectives together.
You finished the first draft of both your novels during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Do you have any advice for writers who would like to enter?
Do it! NaNoWriMo is a great way to kick yourself into getting that first draft out. And it’s a wonderful community—after my first NaNo in 2010, I ended up in a writing group that meets year round.
You work from home. Do you work in your pajamas?
I’m not actually a huge fan of pajamas—I like to get dressed in the morning—but I do appreciate being able to wear whatever I want. It’s a pleasant continuation of my previous life in academia. In other possibly surprising news, I LOVE being alone all day. I’m an introvert, and being around other people—even my favorite people—takes energy. If I lived by myself, I might feel differently, but I get to see my husband every morning and evening, and my two cats sometimes hang out with me when they’re not busy sleeping.
I’ve been writing since about the same age I went crazy about cephalopods, so it probably started with the authors of my childhood classics: Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Roald Dahl, Louis Sachar, Sid Fleischman, Patricia C. Wrede, Robin McKinley, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling . . . I could go on. I was a pretty voracious reader.
Why yes. Yes I do. I could probably fill up this whole interview with a list of my favorite books, but I’ll restrain myself. First, the classics: for fantasy, I never get tired of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. World-building, plot and character development, beautiful writing, even humor—LotR has it all. For sci-fi, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is fierce, meaningful, brilliant. Next, a couple of books that I read over and over again as a kid: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, the story of a bored kid learning to use his imagination, and Robert Siegel’s Whalesong, the mystical coming-of-age of a humpback whale. The worlds of these books are so wonderfully creative. I also love graphic novels; the two series that hooked me in high school were the Pinis’ Elfquest and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Elfquest is fine high fantasy; Sandman is simply spectacular.
I queried an agent about Heart Set Free for the first time in February and was promptly rejected. Of course I’d have preferred not to be, but I was so excited to have my first rejection letter that I printed it out and taped it to my office door. Then I went to the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop and got some excellent feedback to work on, so I didn’t send out another query until the end of May.
As for critiques, the most valuable thing for me to remember is that the reader’s reaction is always valid. Readers are telling me their own legitimate reactions to my work, so my goal is to accept those reactions, think about them for a while, and then decide if and how I want to change the work. I don’t always agree with my readers’ comments or make the changes that they suggest, but I know the manuscript has improved drastically as a result of their taking the time to give me feedback. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
Is there anything else you’d like to know about Danna? We’re always happy to answer your questions and comments!