"I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy and set off to save my family from impending ruin."
So opens Kat, Incorrigible (Atheneum 2011), the first in her series of middle-grade novels that are a lively mix of Jane Austen and Harry Potter. Recognized for its fiesty heroine and sharp writing, Kat, Incorrigible was a 2012 ALA/ALSC Notable Children’s Book in Fiction and made many lists, such as a Best of 2012 from Bank Street College.
Next up from Stephanie, Renegade Magic (Atheneum 2012) shared the further adventures of Kat. Kirkus Reviews recommended, "For readers who like their fantasy seasoned with feisty characters and nonstop action," and named it one of their New and Notable Books for 2012. And finally, this year's Stolen Magic (Atheneum 2013), which Stephanie opens with another golden line:
Part history, part fantasy, Stephanie's Kat books are set in 19th-century England. Kat is 12 years old and the fearless youngest sister of saintly (Kat would prefer "prissy") Elissa, brooding Angeline, and feckless Charles. Her mother was a witch, and Kat learns that not only does she have magical powers, but even more, she's a magical Guardian. However, she can only step up to the task if the secret order that ousted her mother comes to accept her. Sly Kat relies on her own wiles to boldly buck the system and help her siblings find love.
Question: Can you talk about your creative process and where the idea for your series came from? Did you have the three books visualized in your mind when you began? Or did one grow into two into three?
Stephanie Burgis: I don't outline my novels before I write, so I find out most plot developments as I go, traveling right along with my heroine. By partway through Kat, Incorrigible, though, I knew that one book would never be enough! Honestly, when I finished that first book, I felt that I could happily write another eight or nine standalone books in the series! Because I know Kat's adventures will never stop. However, my very smart agent suggested that I focus on just three books for the series, at least to begin with, so that was what I did – and I made sure to provide closure by the end of the third book for all the most important, overarching themes and storylines from all three books.
Q: It's hard enough writing one novel. How did you produce three titles that are strong enough to stand on their own and do it in just three years? Did you ever sleep? Was your office plastered with post-it notes?
SB: Ha! Well, luckily, although the books were published over the course of three years, I actually had four years to write them . . . but even so, the process involved a lot of scribbled notes in various notebooks (I have two different Moleskines that were JUST devoted to Kat and her family!), a whole bookcase full of Regency historical research, a ton of visits to various Regency museums around the UK . . . and a lot of love for the characters I was writing about.
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SB: Kat is, in many ways, the girl I would have loved to be! (And still would love to be, even now.) When I was 12, I was shy, quiet, and the oldest in my family. (Er, actually, I still am the oldest in my family. That part hasn't changed!) I've always been an anxious rule-follower, I still hate conflict, and as the oldest child, I grew up with the understanding that I was supposed to be "the responsible one."
Kat, on the other hand, is the youngest in her family, and she's NEVER afraid to speak her mind! She's not afraid of conflict, she throws herself into adventure, she never lets herself be stopped by the fear of social disapproval. She was sooo liberating to write! I can only hope that I absorbed a little bit of her courage and energy by writing in her voice for so long.
(And one quality that we absolutely share is a devotion to family. Like Kat, I grew up in a big, noisy, loving family, and the rule was always, definitely: family comes first!)
Q: You've clearly connected with young readers. My own daughter, for example, produced an elaborate book report on Kat, Incorrigible, complete with magic mirror (purchased from Walgreens' makeup department) and highwayman mask. What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?
SB: Oh, wow. I love hearing that! What I really see as my writing "mission" is to write fun, empowering, and exciting novels that feature girls who win their adventures through their courage and intelligence. There is SO MUCH pressure beamed at girls from all angles in our society, telling them that their overriding goal should be to look pretty/sexy, to appeal to boys, and to never offend anybody. I want my books to offer an opposing view!
Q: What do you hope readers take away from your books?
SB: Most of all, I want readers to have fun when they read my books. I want to transport them to a different world and, especially if their own world is not a happy place at the moment (as mine certainly wasn't when I first started writing the Kat books), I want to offer them a joyful escape. But, tied into that, I'd also love to leave them feeling charged up and empowered when they finish reading one of my novels.
Over and over again in the Kat books, Kat is told by powerful people that she ought to sit down and be quiet, that she's too unimportant to be taken seriously. But guess what? She ALWAYS wins in the end by speaking her truth, listening to her gut, caring for the people she loves, and following her own moral compass, even when it takes her to scary places. That, to me, is a really important message.
Q: What is your next project? How hard will it be to step away from Kat and her family and start something new? Or will you stay with Regency England?
SB: I would absolutely love to go back to Regency England again one day! I adore that period – and ohhhh, did it hurt to say goodbye to Kat and her family. Right now, though, I'm playing with two different projects – one novel set in 1930s America and one novel set in contemporary Wales. Of course, they both feature strong, adventurous girls, and they're both chock-full of magic. We'll just have to see which one strikes publishing gold first! Please wish me luck.