welcomes as our guest, Nancy Kunhardt Lodge. Nancy has a Masters degree and a Ph.D. in Renaissance art history. She has taught at Tufts, Boston, and American Universities and has written scholarly articles and delivered papers at Renaissance conferences in Italy and the U.S., among them the Frick Collection of Art, the Corcoran Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program.

Nancy is a member of SCBWI and the College Art Association and is the author of two middle grade novels, The Crystal Navigator and Mona Lisa's Ghost which is part of her Lucy Nightingale adventure series.

Norm: Good day Nancy and thanks for participating in our interview.

NKL: Hi, Norm, I’m delighted to be here. 

Norm: How long have you been writing? And how long did it take you to get your first major book contract?

NKL: I grew up surrounded by books. Early on, it was my grandmother, Dorothy Kunhardt’s books that I read. She wrote the best-selling book Pat the Bunny and many others. I was lucky to have another grandmother who read to me constantly; from Rose Macaulay to the fairy tales of Andrew Lang.

I used to read the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Web, (still my favorite book of all time,) The Little Princess, and all the Nancy Drew mysteries.

In high school, I read Chaucer and Dickens, but also the Gothic mysteries by Victoria Holt.

I started writing seriously when I was about fourteen, mostly short stories. Some were fictional, based on eccentric people: my piano teacher, a creepy, sadistic dentist, sailing. Others were fantasy, and these were inspired by fairy tales: princesses getting lost in the woods, a smart girl who saved her less smart brothers who had gotten themselves turned into birds by a witch. The ability to fly was always an important part of these stories.

I was a professor for twenty years, teaching and writing scholarly articles. I stopped teaching in 2010 to write fantasy novels that would inspire a love of art in children. Sorry, long answer. As far as a book contract is concerned, Scholastic was interested in my first book, The Crystal Navigator, but finally passed. So I haven’t had a contract yet.

Norm; What makes the appreciation of art come alive in a classroom and how can teachers foster this appreciation?

Nancy: Oh gosh, you like two-part questions. I think iconography is the most important part of teaching art. That is the story of who commissioned the artist to paint something and the study of hidden symbols that lurk in practically all paintings, even a Vase of Flowers.

Children have told me their favorite parts of the Crystal Navigator were Lucy’s conversations with the artists. I tried to bring the artists to life as people who have problems that they ask Lucy to solve for them.

For example, when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine ceiling, it was too dark for him to sculpt when he got home. Lucy suggests that he make himself a hat with a visor big enough to hold a candle, a hat sort of like a miner’s helmet. This is a fact. Michelangelo actually did make such a hat, and who’s to say a little girl didn’t suggest it? 

Norm; Why have you been attracted to writing YA fiction?

NKL: Actually, my books are geared toward a slightly younger, middle grade audience, but adults like them too. Nine to twelve years old is the golden age of reading, a time when a child is willing to believe in magic dogs and flying. I love visiting schools and talking to the kids about my books. They love it that my Corgi, Wilbur inspired me to write both books. He plays the part of the magical Corgi Wise One, Lucy’s guide, sort of like Virgil guided Dante through Inferno.

Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of the writing process particularly when it comes to writing MG fiction? 

NKL:That’s easy, plot. Coming up with a good story is very hard. If I can think of a problem or wish for the main character and a good ending, the middle is pretty easy. Dialogue is easy for me because I know my characters so well. Sometimes, I read a few pages from one of my books and I’ll think ‘who wrote that?’ I don’t remember writing that.’

Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?

NKL: Reading books by great writers like Ann Tyler, Flaubert, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, and of course, E.B. White is the most instructive way to learn how to construct a beautiful sentence without being flowery and sentimental, how to avoid using clichés, how to show rather than tell.

And destructive? Rules, definitely. There are so many rules laid down by the how to write books: never use adverbs, stay away from adjectives too, don’t begin a book with a dream, waking up, walking on a beach. The how to books with all their rules paralyzed me. Once I decided to forget them and allowed myself to write without following rules, my writing became much better. But I will say this. It takes practice to be a good writer. I had to teach myself not to get sidetracked with things that had nothing to do with the story. Every sentence must move the action along or the reader will get bored.

Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

NKL: Well, as I said, I grew up in a literary family on both sides. My maternal grandmother wrote children’s fiction. My father was a professor at Harvard Business School. He wrote books about ethics and economics. His father, Henry Cabot Lodge wrote about his experience in Viet Nam. And my great grandfather, George Cabot Lodge was a poet.

Norm: How did you develop the plot and characters for your latest tome, Mona Lisa's Ghost?

NKL: That was fun. In 2004 I read an article about the Louvre Museum’s plans to scan the Mona Lisa in order to measure the paint layers. I thought ‘what it was ludicrous and typical of art historians. But what a great starting point for a mystery.  A monstrous Spectrographic scanner zooms into the Mona Lisa and causes a ghastly molecule-destroying syndrome called zoom seizure.

The second inspiration was the fantastic landscape in the background of the Mona Lisa. It is truly a fantasy, where snow-capped mountains exist alongside a sunlit rippling lake. I thought how wonderful it would be to enter the painting at the horizon line so I made this one of Lucy’s adventures. Finally, Einstein’s idea of creating our own reality was the third inspiration. I hope everyone enjoys the mystery.

Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching this book?

NKL: My character, the eleven year old genius Sam has to have new inventions and he has a wide knowledge of physics, communications, Einstein, and he can read and speak Latin and Danish. So, I read articles about underground rivers, sound waves, how the telephone works, hence ‘faulty feedback loops.’ I like to think up interesting, fun things for him to invent, such as his program called Roving Tentacles, a digital, steerable telescope thingy and can go around corners and investigate or the Plasma Pinch, cloaking a person with plasma-like sound waves. If I hadn’t read mounds of articles on physics and science, I wouldn’t be able to write Sam’s character.

Norm: It is said that writers should write what they know. Were there any elements of Mona Lisa's Ghost that forced you to step out of your comfort zone, and if so, how did you approach this part of the writing?

NKL: That’s just the sort of rule I was talking about. I don’t agree with that at all. Ray Bradbury has never travelled to outer space; I have never flown on my own. The most important thing a writer can have is imagination. Einstein said facts will take you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere.

Norm: Are there vocabulary words or concepts in your book that may be new to readers? Define some of those.

NKL: Many, as you know. Some I make up, like the Rochester Cloak, Roving Tentacles, interstellar dust, laser tweezers, diode probe, para-axial computers, and occluding the optical pathways. These things are meant to be funny:

Sam’s tendency to explain every little thing to Lucy, which only makes her impatient. She wants to know what things will do, not how they work. I was lucky to have five sixth graders help me with plot and dialogue during the editing stage of Mona Lisa’s Ghost. They were immensely helpful identifying words they didn’t know, such as anomaly, entropy and grand larceny. I am pretty careful to have Lucy ask Sam to explain these words.

Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

Nancy:  I wanted to write a good mystery, funny and poignant, that enlighten without appearing to teach, so that people come away with a deeper understanding of who Leonardo was and what he intended when he painted the Mona Lisa. In addition, the message is trying looking beyond the surface of people and things, as Leonardo looked beyond Lisa’s physiognomy. He saw into her soul. Lucy judged Melissa because she looked frail and girly.

In fact, as she finds out, Melissa is training to be an expert, possibly Olympic swimmer. Wilbur’s Orbital Bells warned Lucy twice about the approach of a fraud and both times she ignored them. In the end, I think I did convey what Leonardo wanted to achieve in the Mona Lisa and what Wilbur was trying to teach Lucy.

Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing the book? As a follow up, did you learn anything from writing your books and what was it?

Nancy: The most difficult part was organizing all the layers so they made sense within the context of the story: the Konference, Orbital Bells, Queen Tove. Every time, I write I learn how to edit myself, i.e. when I get sidetracked and write something I think is hilarious but is completely irrelevant to the story. I wrote a whole chapter after Wilbur saves Lucy in which he plays the part of a doctor. I had fun with that, but it had to be cut.

Norm: When writing your book, did you ever have it in the back of your mind that you could turn it into a movie or television project? If so, who would you like to play the part of Lucy Nightingale and Sam Winter?

Nancy: Oh my Gosh, did I and do I ever! I think both books would make amazing movies. After seeing Paddington Bear, I know they could make a perfect Wilbur. My niece is a producer at Paramount Pictures and she is considering making it into a movie.

Because I’m an art historian, I write using images in my mind. I know exactly what Sam and Lucy look like. I based Sam on a brilliant cousin who was tall and angular and had scruffy white blond hair.

Lucy isn’t based on anyone. She’s what Sam calls a high frequency thinker. She has a long auburn braid and wears shirts with billowy sleeves, pants and knee high boots. She clips her gadgets to her belt. Wilbur is my Corgi, a black and white dog with a foxy head, short crooked legs, a barrel shaped middle and a furry behind. It’s pretty easy for me to think up characters. Sam’s parents are rocket scientists. Lucy’s mother is a literary agent, (I’ve gotten over 300 rejection letters,) and her father teaches Latin.

Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?

NKL:  I took a few liberties writing my non-fiction art historical articles, but if you mean breaking the rules, I learned after four years of trying to follow them, that they don’t have anything to do with writing well. Some rules I didn’t even understand. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Start at the end.” Huh? And Hemingway said, “Writing is sitting at a typewriter and bleeding.” I don’t consider it torture to write.

Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?

Nancy: Oh yes, they ought to pay their reader’s the respect of not speaking down to them and not cheating them by using cheap trick like ending with, “it was all a dream.” That infuriates me. My readers are intelligent and I write for intelligent kids. 

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?

NKL: MY WEBSITE  and I have a Crystal Navigator Facebook Page where I’ve posted all the letters children have sent.

If anyone wants to ask me a question at write me a letter they can send it to me at PO Box 170 West Newbury MA 01

Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)

Nancy: Yes, I’ve written a rough draft of The Gravity Thief. A child is lost, an evil mastermind sends his minions to steal a painting, and the world tilts off its axis.  What begins as a story about Lucy Nightingale and her best friend, Sam Winter hazardous quest to bring the child home soon becomes a race to save the world from extinction.

Norm: As this interview is coming to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your books, but nobody has?

Nancy:  Well, I think you’ve asked me every question I could possibly think of. I’ll tell you the question every child asks, “Will Wilbur be in your next book?”  My favorite question, and most children do ask it, is, “What other things have you written because I want I read them?” I can’t really think of a question I would like someone to ask, that hasn’t been asked already. Children view things so literally.

One girl asked, “In your next book, will you say what happened to Wilbur when Lucy left him in the woods? I mean, did he fold his house up and take it back to his planet? People want to know.” Another favorite comment was from a boy named Sam who said, “All I can say is thank God you didn’t make Wilbur die!” These are all about The Crystal Navigator.  

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors

NKL: Thank you for asking me, Norm. It’s been a pleasure.