An interview with award-winning author Mira Bartók

"You have to go after a story or an essay like a pit bull with a piece of raw meat, and you cannot stop. You cannot let anyone get in your way."
By Rebekah L. Fraser | Published: August 22, 2018


Are you passionate about books, authors and writing? Sign up for our weekly newsletter, full of tips, reviews, and more.

Mira Bartók

Mira Bartók. Photo by Doug Plavin

Writers often look for a GPS to guide their way from obscurity to success. Author/illustrator Mira Bartók has enjoyed the kind of success many of us only dream may be ours. Her memoir, The Memory Palace, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2012. In 2015, with only a quarter of the first book written, Bartók found her middle-grade novel series, The Wonderling, in the midst of a bidding war that resulted in a six-figure advance from Candlewick Press and a seven-figure movie deal. It would seem that she put herself in the path of luck, and in so doing discovered “an invisible map of songs” (to steal a phrase from The Wonderling: Songcatcher, which came out in 2017).

Yet to follow Bartók’s career is to travel a circuitous route. The child of a single mother with schizophrenia, Bartók eventually had to distance herself from home and take a pseudonym for safety reasons. She enjoyed relative success as a writer/illustrator of multicultural books for children before a car accident left her with a traumatic brain injury. How did this artist go from tragedy to success? We spoke at length about her process, the trajectory of her career, and her advice for hopeful writers at all stages of their careers.

Before your success with The Memory Palace, you wrote nonfiction titles for children and translated picture books. What was the first work of fiction you published?

In 1998, I published an illustrated book of folk tales I had collected while I was in Norway. These were stories that were told orally by Sámi (Lapp) elders in the village. I wrote them down and illustrated them. They’re only published in Norway; I haven’t yet tried to publish it in the U.S. At some point, I might. It’s called Fox Has Its Day; Tales from the Far Far North.

After The Memory Palace, you wrote a book about wonder but put it in a drawer. Are there other books you wrote and cloistered? Do you envision publishing any of these someday?

I have the first chunk of a novel. It’s a literary thriller that’s set mostly in Norway and Svalbard. It was the first novel I tried to write, but it was clear that my brain wasn’t ready to take on a novel after my car accident, so I went to short stories and essays. I don’t know if I’ll finish it. I have so many other things I want to do.

I have a book of short stories that I’m slowly working on. At some point, I want to take a year and finish it. I published a handful of little “storyettes” from that collection in The Massachusetts Review before The Wonderling came out. Those are for adults. I have very little fiction published. Most of what I’ve published is nonfiction.

I have a book I’m collaborating with my friend Jedediah Berry on called The Forgotten Island. That might be the next project after this. Then I [started] a trilogy called The Echoers, but it seemed so daunting. The Wonderling was going to be my practice book. Sometimes that’s a good tactic. If you say this is going to be the great American novel, that’s a setup for disaster. It takes the pressure off if you just say “it’s for practice. It’s not real.”

How did the sales process differ between The Memory Palace and The Wonderling?

What was similar is my good fortune of having people interested and having more than one publisher interested right away. With The Memory Palace, I had a complete manuscript. I would never advise anyone to put out a partial memoir or a partial novel unless they have street cred or are kind of famous already. With The Wonderling, I only had like 100 pages. It was an insane set of circumstances. My agent thought she could sell it. She had interest right away. I talked to several editors. An auction was set. Two weeks before the auction, she had a meeting with these Hollywood agents about another client’s project. They happened to see my drawing of [main character] Arthur on her laptop, asked to see the manuscript, read it overnight, and then four days later, there’s a bidding war in Hollywood over it. It was crazy; this stuff doesn’t happen.

But [children’s book author/illustrator] Jane Yolen talks about putting yourself in the path of luck. For me, that meant making the right decision about who I wanted as an agent. I had another agent before that was not right for me. She was a nice person, but she only did nonfiction, and she wasn’t in New York. She didn’t do fiction. She didn’t do children’s books. She hated her job. All these things were red flags, and I ignored them. For fiction, I want a New York agent, personally. When I found a different agent, my good fortunes began.

Did you have a say in who would direct or write the movie? Will you have any say in casting choices?

It’s two Fox studios collaborating. Fox Studios are the money people. The production company is Working Title Films.

I did say that I wanted a strong confirmation from Stephen Daldry [to direct]. They’ve asked my opinion on just about everything from music to actors. I gave the screenwriter notes about the book, what will be in Book II, things to look out for and make sure to include in the first movie, because these things will be important in the second book, too.

The book is going to be a Broadway musical. How did that come about? How involved are you in the process of developing the story for the stage?

They bought the rights to do several movies and a musical theater production for Broadway and the London stage. The theatrical part of the contract is what held it up for a year. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. If the first [film] does well, great, they’ll do another. The reason we wanted Daldry is he has experience with musical theater and the London stage as well as film, and that was really important to everyone.

Hollywood is very fickle. That said, I have had constant, really great contact. I’ve developed really great relationships with these people over the last two years. I email people; I hear back from Fox studio heads within [between] two minutes and two hours.

Once we have a script that everyone’s happy with, then the director will look at his schedule and start talking to actors. I was brought in on conversations about this stuff early on. I gave my input. A) It doesn’t mean those people are available, and B) it doesn’t mean they’ll listen to me. But they’ve asked my opinion about music, composers, they asked about the kind of music I’ve heard. I’ve been really happy with them.

You have a different agent for the book than for the movie?

I’ve got two movie agents, I’ve got a literary agent, I’ve got a literary lawyer, an entertainment lawyer, I had to get an accountant and a bookkeeper. Because you can’t screw around. I had to take it seriously.

How does the financial process work?

I got a chunk of money in about a year, and over half went to taxes. The advance for the movie (they didn’t option it; they bought the rights) – they pay that amount within 10 days of shooting the film, so that probably won’t come for another couple of years. I have a pretty good contract thanks to my movie agent at CAA and the entertainment lawyer. I get a percentage of plushy animals, video games. I just hope to god they don’t do a Happy Meal, but there you go.

I feel like you have to assume nothing’s ever gonna happen anyway. Once I see the movie happening in a physical way – you know they’re really casting it, they’re starting to shoot, I’ll go on the set – then it’ll seem a little more real to me. Until then, I really have to just focus on the book.

You’ve said your writing process starts with drawing. Is this the case for all of your work, or just for The Wonderling?

Sometimes I just hear the first line. I have a folder of really good first lines. Sometimes I just get an image in my head, a really striking image. Sometimes it’s a sketch. Sometimes I just get some very strong story idea from walking in the woods or experiencing something profound in a museum. Often, like 90 percent of the time, my first ideas come from a very visual source, whether it’s something that’s a strong image in my head, or something I see, or something I draw.

In the case of The Wonderling, I was making sketches, but I was also re-reading and listening to audiobooks by Dickens. So that was going on as well as all these things in the real world – the refugee crisis, the horrible stuff that was going on pre-election and post-election. The state of affairs feels very much like the worst of the industrial revolution during Dickens time. It’s a confluence of things.

How else do you get yourself in the state of creative flow?

I always walk, and I don’t like to walk with people. I find they annoy me if I’m walking in the morning. It’s different in the afternoon. If it’s after 3:00, I’m totally up for a walk. But the morning is my thinking time. If I’m drawing, it’s a little different, but if I’m writing I don’t want to see anyone. When I was a gallery artist, and I was not in the writing world, and I lived in an artist building, I’d have lunch with people. I was always looking at people’s work, and there was this great exchange with other artists.

Writing, you don’t want anyone around – at least I don’t. It takes much more intense concentration from a part of my brain that was damaged from my accident. It’s also a much more introverted activity. I have to start Book II [this year]. I’ll keep my commitments and see a couple people, but I don’t want to see anyone for weeks.

My best way to dig in is to get up, go on a walk, read during breakfast – things that either are related to what I’m doing research-wise or will inspire me for the project I’m working on. I go on a walk and think and write in my head, and then I come back, and I work. But when I did an even better job focusing, when I was not on social media, I would come back from my walk and play my violin for like half an hour.

I think that, because I’ve let music go for the last year, that probably will be a very good thing to do, because my little creature, my main character, is going to start taking music lessons in Book II, so he’s learning about music himself. So I thought that would be a good opportunity to get back into that.

How do you develop your characters?

I think there’s so much about cause and effect. So you have this main character. I knew there was going to be a villain. It’s just an organic process. Originally, I thought, “Miss Carbunkle,” my villain in Book I, “is going to be the bad, evil headmistress. Very two-dimensional. I’ll just use her as a tool.”

Then I realized, “Ahh! She really needs to have a backstory. You need to have a little empathy for her eventually. Damn. I guess I have to write a three-dimensional character against my will, and that’s a better idea. It makes the book richer.”

Some characters pop up because you need another character to carry the plot to another point, or as an obstacle, or as a helper. In this book, if you look at the classic Joseph Campbell mythic hero’s journey, this book – without my [intending] it – I think it falls into those sort of classic tropes – the reluctant hero. Someone comes along and offers the character the quest. At first, the character refuses the quest but eventually accepts it. Different characters he meets along the way kind of fit those archetypes, and I just didn’t realize it.

Part of my character development, I think, comes from reading a ton of myths and folktales and having taught those subjects as well. I taught for years at the Field Museum of Natural History, and I taught about indigenous cultures through their stories.

I think one of the hardest things is having some of your characters transform a little, grow. What causes that? They’re offered choices. Arthur meets his little friend Trinket, and she offers him a way out of this horrible orphanage. In my first draft, he goes “Oh yeah, let’s go. Come on!” Well, it’s more poignant that he goes, “No. I don’t think I could leave. I don’t think I could do that. It’s too scary.” He has to see his place in a deeper way after Trinket shows him the wonders of the greater world. He has to see how he will always be stuck there and how horrible it is. But he doesn’t escape right away. I’ve been criticized for that, but I stick to it.

I think it makes it more humanistic and more real because if you think about people in abusive relationships…

They stay! They stay way too long. Yeah, so I think in some ways, my book is very realistic.

It seems as though in the last two chapters, you are setting up the reader for what’s to come in Book II. Can we expect to see more of Quintus as a detective? Will he find Goblin and Squee? And will more be made of Belisha’s idea that the sky is an invisible map of songs?

There are a lot of clues that I’ve been dropping [in Book I], some very subtle. Yes, you will see Quintus. He plays a big role. A couple minor characters will play a larger role. The man with white gloves is basically a psychopath, and he will play a really huge role in Book II. There are other little clues, like in Pinecone’s house, around the big oak table, there’s this ancient language of trees carved along the edge. You will find out more about that.

So you really had to outline both books before you started writing.

I wrote a synopsis for three books. When you write a synopsis, it’s like, “Yeah, maybe this will happen.” Because things change, but you write it to get the book deal. Every publisher I talked to said it should be two books. So it became two books. I have the beginning, and I have the ending. I always write the beginning and ending. I know how everything ends. It’s the middle that’s the problem. The challenge with Book II is that it was initially meant to be three books. I have to merge those two, and I’m not sure how I’ll do that yet. I guess I’ll figure that out because I’ve got to dig in really soon.

You say you know the ending. Does it ever change? I wrote my first novel and knew the beginning and knew the ending. I always said, “Nothing is precious; I will do whatever it takes to serve the story, but I will NOT change the ending.” Then I hired an editor, and she suggested I change the ending. In the context of her notes, I find that it makes sense. I think I am gonna change the ending.

UH-OH! It’s a slippery slope.

Well, not change the ending, but end it sooner.

Well, that’s different, Rebekah. Ending it sooner is different than changing the ending.

The thing is, [I knew] Arthur saves the day, [but] I didn’t realize he would need to return to that horrible place of his origin in order to save the day. I was trying to write a chapter where he would have to make a choice; what would he do? It was an early draft. I had kid readers. It’s their input that made me change the setting. They said, all of them: “Oh my gosh, what’s gonna happen to the groundlings at the orphanage? He’s gonna help them, right?”

You think about your reader, especially writing for kids. In a first draft, I don’t think about my reader at all. I don’t care about my reader until I’m digging into another draft. This was the point where I had to. With middle-grade kids, you can even kill off some characters; it’s fine that they get lost in the shuffle, and you never see them again. We all know some bad things happen, but in this case, it would be so upsetting for kids. Every kid told me they really had to find out that these creatures would be OK in the end. That’s not to say that the groundlings in Gloomintown are okay. I have to wrestle with that in Book II. But those characters you don’t get to know as well. You spend less time there than you do in the beginning of the book; plus, there’s the hero’s return. It kind of all makes sense in the grand, mythic cycle of things. It makes sense to have him return.

So, I didn’t really change my ending; I just changed the setting of it. Initially, he was going to stop Miss Carbunkle’s horrible plot to destroy all the music in the world, and that was going to happen in a factory in Gloomintown. But why would the factory be there anyway? It makes much more sense to have the factory at the orphanage. And it raises the emotional stakes for him to realize he’s not just saving music, he’s saving friends. So you always have to go for the deeper emotional story.

That’s great advice. What else would you tell aspiring writers who are just dipping their toes in the world of fiction? How can they become stronger writers?

To be a good writer and get somewhere, I think it takes pretty much two things.

  1. You have to be a really incredible reader. I can’t say that enough. You have to read all kinds of things and really think about them and take them apart. Ask why are they working. Challenge your assumptions and get outside your comfort zone.
  2. You have to be obsessed. If I’m not working on something – either writing or drawing – for more than two weeks, I am just a pain in the ass to be around. You have to be compulsive; you have to be obsessed. You have to go after a story or an essay like a pit bull with a piece of raw meat, and you cannot stop. You cannot let anyone get in your way. You have to be ruthless. If you don’t wake up and you’re not annoyed that you have all these emails; you have these social engagements; you have all these things to do – if you’re not annoyed with that because you’d rather be writing, then something’s wrong with you. That’s my feeling.

The thing is, for me, my drawing has so much to do with my writing, I can’t ignore it. I have to hone my skills. You have to feed your writing, and that means doing other things that inspire you. If you’re only reading and writing, that can turn you into a very boring writer. But you also have to show up at your desk on a daily basis.

Writers are often told to write what they know. How did you bring that concept into play in The Wonderling?

That’s a ridiculous bit of advice. I never think anyone should just write what they know. They should write what they’re curious about, period. That “writing about what you know” never made sense to me. It’s silly. It’s based on years of realism being the thing that people have elevated to some ridiculous level.

Yes, there are things that I know in my book. The Wonderling is definitely influenced by everything from being bullied a little when I was kid to watching other kids be bullied and feeling empathetic toward them and trying to help them, to my dreams, and other things that I know. But there’s so much that I was curious about, so I researched that stuff. I think the nature of story is, “What if?” What if is mostly what you don’t know. If you write just what you know, then you leave out speculative fiction, science fiction, and epic fantasy.

That’s awesome. I’ve found that beta readers will look at my work, which tends to be very dark, and they’ll be concerned that it happened to me.

It comes down to: does something sound authentic? Can you suspend your disbelief? You can write about anything if you’re really good at it.

What advice would you offer more advanced writers, who are dedicated to the craft, are writing the stories that burn within them, maybe have a novel or two in a drawer and want to get their work published?

I think community is really important. I’ve had a writing group for a while, and we all share information. Community can mean different things. Some people find it online. The times when I’ve had the greatest opportunities is when I’ve put myself out there. I think the first time I really put myself in a position to be with editors and agents was when I went to Bread Loaf [Writers’ Conference]. Before that, I only had published two little essays. One was at a very small press, the other was at Kenyon Review, and it got a notable in the Best American Essays series. But I didn’t have any writing community; I didn’t even know it was a good thing to get in the Best American Essays series; I didn’t even know what that was. The first thing I did was apply to Bread Loaf. Some of those people I’m still in touch with. Some of those people are still my readers. In the early days, I would go to AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] conferences. Now I go to smaller conferences that are more specific to my interests.

The first step is to apply for something. And then you get in, and that’s pretty awesome. Other people are also trying to get their work published, and you meet editors and agents and so forth, and that leads to the next thing and the next thing, and so forth. Getting into a writing group where people are at your level or better is a good thing. If you spend all your time trying to be better than everyone, it just doesn’t raise the bar. Raise the bar for yourself. Apply for residencies, fellowships. Put yourself in the path of luck.

 

—Rebekah L. Fraser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in trade and consumer publications throughout North America. Fraser is currently seeking representation for her first novel and developing her second book, an environmental romance. Fraser connects with other writers at conferences and residencies (Vermont Studio Center), through her writing group, and through the literary reading and talk-back event she created for local authors in southern Connecticut.