MFT Guest: Erin Bow Guest Post and Giveaway of Plain Kate

Talking Cats, Robot Overlords, The Reach of Autobiography, and the Miracles of Fiction

I write YA fantasy and science fiction.  I write it for what strikes me as the only possible reason:  I like to read it.  I feel there are not enough books like LeGuin’s Earthsea, Beagle’s Last Unicorn, or McKinley’s Beauty in the world, and it is my ambition to write more of them. 

But writing F/SF does have some fringe benefits too.  One of them is that if you write about talking cats and the restless dead and our robot overlords, no one asks you  which parts are autobiographical. Which is good, because the answer is: it’s complicated. 

For instance, in the last few days, my writing has paused, as my emotional life has spun out of control  for reasons that I won’t get into here.  For the purposes of telling this story, you just need to know that ten days ago a familiar disaster began to roll up and crest over my family.  We guessed it was just a matter of time before that wave broke. 

While waiting to be smashed against the rocks, I wrote two chapters in which my character, Greta, was under unbearable stress, waiting for a terrible thing to happen to her. Finally I wrote the bit where it did happen, and at this point in my book, Greta is emotionally crushed, numb, and is not sure what to do next. Ah, Greta: I know the feeling.

Part of this is just the work-a-day miracle of fiction, the thing that allows us to write about, and read about, people other than ourselves, and be moved by their stories.  The mind builds the wheel of the plot, but the heart must turn it.  I feel fear and pain; I know how they feel. Greta feels fear and pain; I know how she feels; I create it on the page, and then (I hope) you know how she feels too.

Caption: Portrait of Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax, Crown Princess of the PanPolar Confederacy, and Blood Hostage to Prefecture Four: She’ll Feel Better Soon (actually a piece of art I bought entitled Jeune Fille Avec Fleurs, by Image Studios of Montreal.)

To make this work, my pain does not have to be the same as Greta’s, and neither does yours.  Neither does either of us need to be in pain right this moment, though it happens that I am.  The miracle is that I, the writer, can reach into the page with my life, and you, the reader, can reach out to the page with your life, and together we can conjure this new life, this fictional soul, Greta, and be moved along with her. 

So far, what I’m talking about is miraculous and mystical, but routine. I would bet (and hope) that the most jaded, plot-driven, hack writer out there (you know, me, on Tuesdays) has a drop or two of faith in fiction as miracle. 

But let me tell you what’s strange.  I outlined Children of Peace — Greta’s book — months ago.  I knew she was going to wait to be destroyed, and then be destroyed.  It was pure coincidence that the moment of my writing it corresponded so tellingly to the moment I felt it in my own life.

Another instance, more dramatic:  In Plain Kate, I wrote a story about the death of a sister by drowning and violence, and had nearly finished it when I lost my sister to drowning and violence.   

It was before Wendy died that I created Linay and his lost sister, built the whole wheel of a novel that spins around grief  — Linay’s for his sister, Drina’s for her mother, Kate’s for her father, on and on.  And yet I myself had never had cause to grieve in this way.  But having written the first two thirds of the book, built the wheel, I certainly found I had a lot of heart’s blood with which to turn it.  And yet, I didn’t write it autobiographically, or to expiate …  

Sometimes I have felt as if I conjure things in real life to put into books.  I do not mean I cause them; I feel no responsibility for them.  I do not even mean that I foreknow them or forefeel them, though that is closer.  What I mean (and now you should hand me my tinfoil hat) is that I was drawn to writing what I did — given that writing to do — because I was going to need it. 

Given by whom?  Ah, that’s not answerable.  My tradition coaches me to start talking about the Holy Spirit, but I’ve found that people back away when I start.  

This is not something I can write about with any authority or certainty.  It is not something I’ve studied deeply. (I should, for instance, go read Jung’s essay on Synchronicity, which Wendy thrust at me every time I got going on this theme, and which I’ve never finished.)  But it is something real: of that I’m convinced.  I have heard it reported too often, by too many different writers, to dismiss it easily.

And right now, today, while I wonder how to pick up the pieces and what to do, I also find my character numb and shut down.  I look at how her disaster has shattered the outline of the rest of the book: surely I need to throw that away, and find a new path.  I have begun to glimpse  the path of the book, and Greta’s path; it is beautiful and whole and exciting.  And so will my life be again, insha’Allah, someday soon. 

For writers and for readers, a take-away lesson:
-Readers, don’t ask writers where they get their ideas.  Seriously, you might get a glimpse of a whirling vortex of insanity that you need special training to handle.
-Writers, consider comedy.

BIO:  Erin Bow is the author of Plain Kate, a Russian-flavored fairytale novel for young adults, which happens to contain the least Disney-fied talking cat in all of literature. She lives in Kitchener Ontario, with her hubby (and fellow YA writer) James Bow, and their two little girls. Erin cooks, reads fairy tales, and is learning to play African drums.  Our robot overlords can’t make heads or tails of her. 

twitter:  @erinbowbooks

Description of Plain Kate:

In a market town by a looping river there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate ….Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden talismans are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade”: a dangerous nickname in a country where witches are hunted and burned in the square.For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate.Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the angry town, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes she can’t live shadowless forever — and that Linay’s designs are darker than she ever dreamed.

The Giveaway:

I’m giving one lucky person my ARC of the book (read only once and in perfect condition!)
Open to US/Canada only.
Must be 13 or older to enter
Ends July 5th, 2011

To Enter:

 Tell us, does your real life experiences make it into your fictional stories?  If you’re not a writer tell us what you think is one of the most relaxing things to do to clear your mind (driving, taking a bath, taking a walk… those are a few of mine, just to give you an idea.) Remember to leave contact info!

For the schedule and list of Giveaway for The Favorite Things event check out the schedule post.  And make sure you head over to My Bookish Ways to see what she has going on today as well!
Thanks for subscribing!


  1. I am trying to avoid complete fangirl squeeing here, but it is very difficult. In short: this is a beautiful post. Thank you, Erin.

    To answer the question, I’m not sure. Or rather, I’m sure that my real life experience does enter into it, but I think it does in ways that aren’t a simple one-to-one equation. (I’m also a very young writer, so I haven’t had time to think about these things a lot.) I do know that I knew sisterhood would be important to my main character, as it is to me. So maybe it comes across in the interests and assumptions I share with my characters.

    I did, awhile back, have the uncomfortable realization that I was acting a lot like one of my sillier characters. Ouch.

    Email is elvenjaneite at gmail dot com.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful guest post and giveaway! I only write every once in a while for fun and rarely finish anything, but the life experiences that I incorporate in what I write are generally the humorous ones (think ones with friends from marching band, school, and church youth group). Most of my characters are based off of friends, too.

    susanna DOT pyatt AT student DOT rcsnc DOT org

  3. im not a writer so the thing i do to relax are quite simple for example when i have everything i have to be done with i go to my living room, turn on the tv and just sit there drinking a beverage it actually feels quite nice

    thanks for the post

  4. Very interesting guest post! Plain Kate sounds like a fantasy of a different color, so to speak– it’s definitely going on by tbr list. :)

    I’ve never had something I wrote about actually occur in real life– which would be pretty eerie. But my main character is somewhat loosely based off of me: she’s a pianist at a boarding academy of the arts who laments that there aren’t exactly too many piano majors in the school marching band. When I got to high school and my friends all joined band, I sort of felt that way, like there wasn’t a place for my music or my instrument. My protagonist overcomes this in her school, with a great deal more snark than *I* could ever muster.
    Fiction is a lot like reality, I guess. Only better. :)

  5. I only write for fun, but when I do, I KNOW that my real-life experiences make it into my stories. Sometimes, I tweak dialogue, or create an alternate ending. Maybe it’s free therapy? Helping myself to analyze and understand? Either way, it happens.

  6. This post was amazing and the book sounds incredible too! I haven’t written in a while but my experiences do end up in my writing, even if it’s masked by something else. It’s odd how that works when I don’t even mean to. Sometimes there are things that are just too hard to write about. Then again, maybe it would make me feel better if I did include it in a story or two.


  7. Ooh, I’ve heard amazing things about Plain Kate and would love to read it! I’m not a writer, but to relax I like to do inane chores to clear my mind. Wash the dishes, weed the garden, etc. I know most people hate doing these things, but I find them to be very relaxing.

  8. I’m not a writer, so one of the best ways for me to relax and clear my mind is by sitting at the beach and watching the waves roll in and out. I could do this all day. Actually, I did do this all day yesterday and that is why I am sitting here brighter than a lobster lol. Next time I will remember the sunblock! Thank you for this great post and awesome giveaway. I have heard amazing things about this book so I would love to give it a read. Thanks for the chance!


  9. The most relaxing thing to clear my mind that I do is read a good book. It takes me away from whatever is bothering me, at least for a while. I also like to just get out and take a walk, it isn’t really relaxing because I walk pretty fast, but it does clear my mind.

    Barbed1951 at aol dot com

  10. I have a few things that I consider to be very relaxing. Cooking/baking, reading, watching food network or cleansing my mind with mindless cartoons (yes, I still watch Spongebob). Thanks for the giveaway!


    ilikethesebooksblog (at) gmail (dot) com

  11. I think everything I write has some part of me in it, I think.
    I used to live in Germany a while ago, and I remember I started writing a story about a girl who gets zapped back into medieval times and lives at a castle I’d visited there. I might pick it back up some day and find out what happens.

    Thanks for the amazing giveaway!

    debzbookshelf AT gmail DOT com

  12. To Erin Bow: I hope something happy occurs to you soon, it sounds like you need a smile. Lovely post and your books look great. :)

    When writing, my personal stuff rarely goes into my stories, but I recently wrote a short story about an abused and lonely girl who has few friends and lives just five miles from me. I have never been abused in my life, but I often feel lonely so I did put a lot of that into the story. I also gave the characters some quirks that my siblings have and a couple that I wish I possessed.


  13. Thank you for his wonderful giveaway. I am not a writer, but I would imagine that writers cannot help having some of their work colored by life experience. To clear my mind I go to my patio and read – that is my escape and unless I am reading a frustrating book, it will always relax me.


  14. Great question guys. I would answer both. I am a very amateur writer, haven’t completed much, but life experiences don’t make it much into my stories. Maybe it will the more I go, but one thing I take from my life is my weird sense of humor LOL!

    What I do to clear my head, I love to drive alone and have music playing. My iPod is a great friend LOL!

    Thank you guys for the interview and giveaway. The book sounds great, can’t wait :)

    drharleyquinn87 (at) gmail (dot) com

  15. whenever i’m stressed out or angry about something, i actually sit down and read, nothing else calms me down more, because when i read i really concentrate on the book. :) i also love to go on twitter or watch tv.

    starlightgirl678 at aol dot com

  16. The most relaxing thing I do to clear my mind would be my running, I love it! Some people think I’m nuts, but nothing beats heating up my muscles :) edysicecreamlover18ATgmailDOTcom I would love to read this novel :)

  17. What a great guest post. :) And thank you for the giveaway. I’ve been eyeing this book.

    Hmmm… most relaxing places to read – in a bubble bath and my second is snuggled in bed with my cats. :)



  18. It used to a lot, I wrote one story for when I was younger, and after thirty chapters took a hiatus. When I went back I realized I’d completely modelled the heroine after me, and put her in similar situations. Since then I’ve made a concious effort to seperate my life from my works.

    faefever25 at hotmail dot com

  19. I am not a writer but I would like to be. When I read a book I tend to loose myself in that book. Reading a book takes me into another world, to different peoples and different places. It takes me away from my normal life. It gives me an escape. I really enjoy reading for that reason. Please enter me in contest. I would love to read this book.

  20. I’m not a writer so what relaxes me is reading, yes, but also knitting and crocheting. So my favorite relaxation is listening to an audiobook while I’m knitting or crocheting! The best of both worlds:)
    Thanks for a great giveaway!
    jwitt33 at live dot com

  21. The thing that comes into my writing is dialogue. My family and friends are a funny cast of characters. I’d have a hard time re-creating some of the gems they’ve come up with.

    Thanks so much for the giveaway!!


    eliweibley AT gmail DOT com

  22. Lots of my life trickle into my stories…of course i alter the experiences and exaggerate them to make them better, but there are seeds of truth behind a lot of it

    hense1kk AT cmich DOT edu

  23. Wow, Erin, this is such a moving and personal post. Thank you for sharing it with us and for allowing us to have a glimpse into your writing, while not intentionally personal, eerily familiar to your own life. My heart goes out to you right now. May you come out of this difficult time with brighter eyes and a peaceful soul.

    *Not entering the giveaway – just wanted to comment on Erin’s post.

  24. Sometimes what I do relax myself is lay in bed and gather my thoughts. I always have a notebook and pen nearby, so whenever things come to mind I can jot it down. Sometimes I even “think’sleep”. I’m asleep but my mind is very much awake.


  25. All the time. Everything I write is me or something that relates to me, which is why it takes forever to write anything because I want to be able to relate to it and I’m picky. I’m also a “taker”. I’ll take someone else’s thought and opinions and spin it into my story. So, yeah, my life experiences are very present in my stories no matter how weird they get. I really should consider comedy, maybe tone down my sarcasm.

    lindadao2060 at yahoo dot com

  26. What relaxes me? Reading. Or sometimes, just vegging out online, not doing anything that requires too much thought. Also, taking bubble baths, spending time with my family, napping or venting to my best friend over queso and chips. :) Just depends on the day. Gotta go with what feels like it will work at the time.

    basicallyamazingbooks [at] gmail [dot] com

  27. I actually just started a project based on my own experiences in high school — and it’s coming to me more easily than anything else I’ve worked on. So yes, my life definitely makes it into my fiction =)

    Thanks for the giveaway!

    thebookishtypereviews AT gmail DOT com

  28. I usually tend to write about things that wouldn’t happen to me. However, I love listening to stories that my grandparents tell and turning them into story ideas. Real life experiences are really important, I just don’t have very many that I’d want to write a book about! Haha!
    Great giveaway!

  29. I like to put on my headphones, start some music, and just start surfing the net or something unnecessary on the computer.

    meredithfl at gmail dot com

  30. Erin – what a thoughtprovoking and touching post. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your take on the mind/heart alchemy in writing.

    I’m a fantasy and science fiction author too (, and I have also experienced what you describe as the “forefeeling” of things that emerge on the page. My experience of interacting with characters is that I am, well, channeling them, so to speak: I feel like I’m “going there,” both watching a movie from a spycam perspective, and also co-existing with them: hearing their thoughts, feeling their emotions. It is a very visceral experience. Usually only when a book is done can I see the deep resonances with my own life at the time.

    Well, however we get there, it is an interesting journey. And yes, I have considered comedy :) But I think my strengths lie elsewhere.

    Am looking forward to checking out your work. It’s lovely to ‘meet’ you here, and thanks to Candace, too, for hosting you.

  31. Oh yeah, my real life definitely bleeds into my fiction. One of my novels is based entirely on a “what if” of my life. The characters I tend to love (the strong ones) are the people I wish I could be sometimes.


    thewannabeknight at gmail dot com

  32. I definitely put a little bit of myself into everything I write, but only occasionally do I take actual conversations or situations that happened and use them. I’m actually much more likely to take a friend, create a character based on them, and throw them into a situation they might not like, just to see how it goes.

    tommygirl828 (at) gmail (dot) com

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