Originally published in The Weekly Packet, September 12, 2013
Authors Among Us
Ellen Booraem: fantasy fiction writer
by Elke Dorr
As a young girl, Ellen Booraem resisted being cast as a writer by her parents and teachers. In fact, she so “resented being typecast,” that she even “felt a bit trapped” by the certainty with which everyone declared she would become a writer. Right out of college, however, the inescapable caught up with her as she landed her first writing job. Now her third novel for middle grade readers, Texting the Underworld, has been published and if past is prologue, then Booraem will garner as much praise and acclaim for this book as for her first two, Small Persons with Wings and The Unnameables, each of which was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, in addition to receiving numerous other awards.
A 20-year career in the newspaper industry preceded Booraem’s entrance into the world of fantasy fiction for middle school readers. Having worked as both a journalist and editor, she said in a recent interview that she “loved being an editor” for both Penobscot Bay Press and The Ellsworth American and admitted that it was “hard to leave newspaper work.” But a writer’s workshop she attended in Spring 2003 at a Bar Harbor library became the unexpected catalyst for change, prompting her to leave one career and plunge enthusiastically into another, albeit one that was filled with enormous uncertainty. “I was 52 at the time,” she said, and told herself, “If I’m ever going to do it, I gotta do it now.” With some money she had put aside, she ventured forth, giving herself five years to pursue her goal as a writer of fiction. In a remarkable coincidence even a writer of fantasy would be hard-pressed to pass off as believable, her first novel, The Unnameables, was published, she noted, “five years to the day” she quit her newspaper job.
At the time she began her second writing career, Booraem said, she “wanted to split in two,” an indication of just how difficult was her choice to leave newspaper work behind. Reflecting on her departure from the career she loved, she observed that if you want to write part time, your [day] job can’t be writing. “That’s the key,” she noted. That said, the third day after she had resigned from her job and at last was free to write whatever she wanted, she was struck, she said, by having “uprooted my life” and wondered, “Now what do I write about?”
Her indecision was a temporary condition, however, as she began what would become her daily writing routine. “I’m a procrastinator… [so] I set strict rules for myself,” she said, including “sitting down [every day] at nine o’clock.” She vowed to “have a thousand words by lunch,” and writes those words on her computer: “My brain engages when my fingers touch the keyboard,” she laughed. Another practice is talking to herself via the keyboard, asking herself questions “to solve problems when I’m stuck.”
For Booraem, one of the most challenging aspects of writing is developing the plot, while “characters come easily to me,” she said. It’s the fantastical, however, that seems an utterly magnetic force on Booraem. She’s admired and read fantasy for years, she said. And although she admits that it’s the need to balance the fantastical with the “human story” she sometimes still forgets when she’s writing, it’s clear she hasn’t neglected that element of her story. Her protagonist, Conor O’Neill, a timid, middle school boy afraid of spiders, has to contend with an imminent family death when an inexperienced, young Irish banshee appears. In the midst of the urgent and somber potential the banshee represents, however, Conor remains every bit the middle schooler, with middle school ideas, friends, interests, and fears, all of which help to ground the story in contemporary time and place, and to offer the critical human dimension that propels the fantastical.
As for the banshee, Ashling, she defies long-held notions of the legendary wraith as an old, frightening hag portending death. Ashling is, in fact, quite the contrary, an unschooled young banshee whose behavior, including reading old Trivial Pursuit game cards, frequently provides comic relief and surprise. Javier, another significant character in the book, is Conor’s “solemn and geeky” best friend and is not only tech-savvy but possesses a “wide-eyed idealism,” that is both refreshing and credible.
One aspect that has become part and parcel of Booraem’s work as a writer of fantasy is engaging in extensive research. In developing the character of the young banshee, for instance, she said she did “tons of research” into Celtic legends, as well as other cultural death deities. She also read about and visited Southie (South Boston), where her novel is set. Moreover, she read extensively about 5th century Ireland, all to “ground [the book] in fact,” a critical component in a fantasy that repeatedly requires the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Commenting on her writing style, Booraem said she loves “contrast and surprise,” admitting that she “finds it hard to write seriously. I have a sense of the absurd,” she confessed, explaining how the mundane collides with the supernatural again and again in her newest book. A cell phone connection to the underworld—reflected in the book’s title and plot—is but one reflection of that absurd, but ultimately focused sensibility.
When she’s not writing, Booraem thoroughly enjoys helping young writers at the elementary school in Brooklin and working with the Brooklin Youth Corps. She loves the fresh, unguarded ideas of young students and tells them that to be a writer, “you have to be a reader; you need to develop taste.” She also reminds them that rough drafts are supposed to be exactly that—rough. “They’re supposed to be terrible,” she tells them. But then she moves to what revisions are for, showing them letters from her editor, which prompted five major revisions of her first book. She also shows them her manuscript, covered with post-it notes, to emphasize her point about revisions.
Since Texting’s release August 15, Booraem has been engaged in a “blog tour,” promoting her book online. Once primarily the purview of the publisher, marketing books has now become a much more significant job for the writer than it once was, reflecting the dramatic changes the industry has undergone in recent years. Booraem said marketing “is difficult” for her, but added that she is, nevertheless, participating in 14 blogs, either by being interviewed or writing guest posts. She also belongs to group blogs, such as the Enchanted Inkpot, dedicated to works of middle grade writers of fantasy. The transformation of the industry has given Booraem, like many writers, cause for concern, she said. “I worry that the printed book will die,” and ultimately, of course, “how writers will make a living.”
For the time being, however, it’s clear that Booraem is already at work on an idea for a new book, one she’s somewhat reluctant to describe too fully as the idea is still in the gestational stage. Going back again historically, this time to an early American past in place of Texting’s Irish history, Booraem’s next book, she revealed, will involve a 17th century Abenaki girl. Fantasy interwoven with history, the mundane intermingled with the supernatural, patterns of contrast and surprise seasoned with a generous measure of comedy—all are becoming hallmarks in the Booraem fantasy fiction universe, a universe its creator seems enthusiastically on her way to enlarging. Though she would “love to be an artist or a musician,” Booraem confessed readily that even if she had another life to live, “I would not be anything other than a writer.”