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Interview with Katherine Marsh, author of <em>Jepp, Who Defied The Stars</em>
One of my favourite books of 2012 was Jepp, Who Defied The Stars, by the amazing Katherine Marsh. And I wasn't alone in my love! Jepp was named a Wall Street Journal Best Children's book of 2012, and a 2012 New York Times Notable Children's Book! It received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, and trust me, the list goes on.
I truly, truly loved Jepp. I mean, I finished this book at 2:30am with my husband complaining next to me, hauling his pillow over his head to try and sleep. From the elegant prose to the rich cast of characters--every single one was fleshed out and whole, and fascinating--to the way the historical details of the setting were woven through the text without ever resorting to history lessons. Jepp is the story of a unique character that speaks to universally human truths. I recommend it!
Jepp, Who Defied The Stars
Is it written in the stars from the moment we are born? Or is it a bendable thing that we can shape with our own hands?
Jepp of Astraveld needs to know.
He left his countryside home on the empty promise of a stranger, only to become a captive in a luxurious prison: Coudenberg Palace, the royal court of the Spanish Infanta. Nobody warned Jepp that as a court dwarf, daily injustices would become his seemingly unshakable fate. If the humiliations were his alone, perhaps he could endure them; but it breaks Jepp's heart to see his friend Lia suffer.
After Jepp and Lia attempt a daring escape from the palace, Jepp is imprisoned again, alone in a cage. Now, spirited across Europe in a kidnapper's carriage, Jepp fears where his unfortunate stars may lead him. But he can't even begin to imagine the brilliant and eccentric new master—a man devoted to uncovering the secrets of the stars—who awaits him. Or the girl who will help him mend his heart and unearth the long-buried secrets of his past.
Masterfully written, grippingly paced, and inspired by real historical characters, Jepp, Who Defied the Stars is the tale of an extraordinary hero and his inspiring quest to become the master of his own destiny.
Katherine, welcome! Jepp is a truly unique story with an equally unique premise. Though the themes in the book around love and identity are universal, Jepp's own story is something special. What was the first spark that led you to telling this particular story?
I think writers should always pay attention to things that trouble them and one of things that always troubled me was my conflicted feelings about fate and free will. My mother believes in astrology and, during my childhood, she was frequently making predictions and scheduling life events (including even my SATs!) around the stars. As a result, I grew up with some real questions about fate and free will: Was my life written in the stars? Or, as the rational part of me claimed, was all this just bunk? How much are we the creations of our parents? How much is our destiny really our own?
When it came time to write my next book, I decided to try and tackle these questions. I began to immerse myself in the history of astrology and found myself drawn to the time when astrologers and astronomers were one and the same. One of the most colorful of these astronomer/ astrologers was the 16th century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe. He had a prosthetic nose, a beer-drinking moose, a futuristic castle with running water, and a dwarf, Jepp, who sat at his feet. As soon as I read about Jepp, I knew I had found the vehicle for my story. He's basically a footnote of history—very little is known about who he was or how he ended up serving Tycho, which gave me a lot of creative leeway. Also, since childhood, I've been mesmerized by the court dwarf portraits of the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez and felt inspired to try and tell a story based on them.
A beer-drinking moose! You so belong here on Pub Crawl! Every one of those details you've mentioned is fascinating: the world you paint in Jepp is vividly alive, and I loved the way you brought so many historical scenes to life without ever resorting to a history lesson. If you could be transported into one scene in the book, which would it be?
This is wonderful praise, thank you! History is people's lives and I think if you portray it as such, it shouldn't become a lesson. As to which scene I would love to be transported to, I think it would be Jepp's first night at Uraniborg, Brahe's futuristic castle. As Brahe's dwarf, Jepp is forced to sit at his master's feet during a lavish banquet and when he overhears Tycho and his scholars discussing their astronomical efforts it sounds fantastical to him, almost like magic. Later in the book, Jepp refers to science as "man's own magic" but he gets his very first hint of its revolutionary power under Tycho's table—the idea that man, and not just God, can understand the world and shape his own place in it. I love that moment, which to me represents the dawning of a new world.
Yes! I loved that scene—a glimpse of a new world, but Jepp still stuck at his master's feet (literally), in a power dynamic that's very old world. Stepping to the real world for a moment, tell us about your writing life—what's a typical writing day like for you, if there is one?
My writing time is actually very regimented in that I only have childcare between the hours of 8am and 2pm. Do I write that entire time? No. I check my email, I surf the web, I snack, I read snippets of other books that inspire me, I beat myself up for writing crap, I rewrite it some more. My output is slow. Some days I write a few pages. Others a paragraph. Others nothing at all.
This all sounds very familiar—especially the snacks. Speaking of reading, what are you reading right now?
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. I'm enjoying it immensely—both plot and language. It's a book that is crafted, which is my highest praise.
High praise indeed! If you could spend a night at the pub with any three authors (dead or alive), who would it be, and why?
Honestly, I I'd rather spend an evening with my favorite books than their authors (and while it's hard to settle on just three, The Master and Margarita, The Graveyard Book and Octavian Nothing are up there). Authors, being only human, are a disappointment. Their books are the best parts of themselves.
Whole casts of characters, I love it! Any last words of advice for aspiring writers?
Don't write to become a writer, write because you are one.
Today we're giving away a copy of Jepp, Who Defied The Stars! The contest is open internationally. To enter, just leave us a comment telling us whether you come down on the side of fate, or free will!
KATHERINE MARSH is the author of the Edgar Award winning The Night Tourist, and its sequel The Twilight Prisoner. She's also written for Rolling Stone magazine, is a Scorpio, and has taught high school English, where she was only occasionally mistaken for a student. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook or at her homepage. If you still want more, check out this interview on NPR with All Things Considered.