This week's Interrogation Room suspect is Nikki Loftin, author of middle grade debut The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy. It's getting rave reviews already! Kirkus calls it an "irresistible contemporary fairy tale," and Publishers Weekly praised it as "smart, fresh, and thoroughly modern." Though most people will have to wait until August 21 to enjoy it, one lucky winner in our ARC giveaway contest will get a sneak peek.
About The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy (Razorbill, $16.99, Ages 8 - 12)
When Lorelei's old school mysteriously burns down, a new one appears practically overnight: Splendid Academy. Rock-climbing walls on the playground and golden bowls of candy on every desk? Gourmet meals in the cafeteria, served by waiters? Optional homework and two recess periods a day? It's every kids's dream. But Lorelei and her new friend Andrew are pretty sure it's too good to be true. Together they uncover a sinister mystery, one with their teacher, the beautiful Ms. Morrigan, at the very center. Then Andrew disappears. Lorelei has to save him, even if that means facing a past she'd like to forget – and taking on a teacher who's a real witch. What Lorelei and Andrew discover chills their bones – and might even pick them clean!
Nikki seems far too sweet to be very sinister -- so we decided to go easy on this suspect, especially since she's giving away an ARC of her debut...but she might not be so lucky next time!
Kristen Kittscher: Creepy teachers. A school where homework is optional and candy bowls are at every desk. A mysterious fire, and one girl racing to find a friend who has disappeared. I can't wait to read The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy. Can you tell us a little about why you wanted to write this story and how you came up with the idea?
Nikki Loftin: I’d love to say that I jogged over to Ideas R Us and picked up a whole case of Great Story Ideas on special… but the truth is, the idea came to me the way most of mine do: with an interesting “what if?”
I was talking to my husband at lunch one day, and I started going off on how much I’d loved scary stories when I was a kid. We both bemoaned the way fairy tales have been cleaned up for modern picture books. I mean, come on, at evening story times for our sons, I’d had to ad lib the death of the first two of the Three Little Pigs AND the demise of the Gingerbread Man, since those parts of the stories had obviously been too harsh for the current crop of kids to stomach. Whatever. I started riffing on how kids needed stories like Hansel and Gretel, but brought up to date… and then I left my husband rather abruptly at the restaurant and raced home to start writing.
Kristen: The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy is part fantasy, part mystery, and part fairytale. What a wonderful combination! Since our focus here on the blog is mysteries, we're curious: what did you find the most challenging about constructing your mystery plot and how did you overcome those challenges?
Nikki: I have to admit, I had no idea I was writing a mystery. And my first draft showed it! My first readers, my agent, and even my editor had me go back in and layer the mysterious aspects in. I’ll be the first to admit, those elements of (very frightening) surprise are my favorite parts of the book!
I found it difficult to allow the mysteries to be as dark as they needed to be, but one particular friend helped me see that I needed to trust the story – and myself – and go farther, darker. And my editor, who is a genius, was able to show me where and when to deepen those mysterious elements. Without her, this would just be a fun adventure story! But I think it’s a lot more now.
Kristen: Did you have any favorite mysteries (or books with mystery elements) as a kid? If not, what are some of your favorite middle-grade reads that you think might appeal to mystery lovers?
Nikki: Ha! I was in LOVE with Trixie Belden (a series of books written like Nancy Drew, but with a slightly more modern and relatable main character, in my opinion). I’m not sure if she’d hold up today – I lost my entire set of the books in a move, so I can’t go re-read them to check!
But some of the most interesting mysteries I’ve read recently are Michael Buckley’s super fun The Sisters Grimm series and Lizzie Foley’s Remarkable (the title undersells this book – it’s THAT good!). My sons (both middle-grade-aged readers) recommend Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage (at the TP of my TBR pile!), the 39 Clues series, and (a classic) Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Kristen: As a fellow first-time author, I know the journey to publication can be a long one -- and that it often takes a veritable army of supporters. What (and who) helped you along the way? Any regrets or mistakes you'd like to share to help out aspiring writers?
Nikki: What helped me most are my gray hairs. No, seriously! A few years ago, I was working at a good job, but one that took every bit of spare time and ounce of energy I had. I was raising two sons, married to an incredible man, and had a great life. But I kept thinking about what I had wanted twenty years before, what I had dreamed of -- being a writer. One day, I looked in the mirror, and saw something that shocked me. There I was, closing in on forty, but still the same girl inside, with the same dream… only now I had gray hair. I could see myself twenty years down the road, with white hair and the same dream, if I didn’t act.
I resolved not to put off my dream any longer. Now I finish about three or four novel-length manuscripts a year. Hey! I’m not getting any younger, and I have a lot of stories to tell.
Of course, my husband makes it possible by keeping the light bill paid, and not minding when I burn dinner a dozen times a month when the muse comes calling. And my sons are my first and best listeners/readers. They jump off the school bus and pester me to read them my work-in-progress. Great motivation!
Also, writer friends I’ve made in real life, like the awe-inspiring and deeply lovely Cynthia Leitich Smith, critique partners/lifelines like Shelli Cornelison and Lindsey Schiebe, and groups like the Apocalypsies, Austin SCBWI, and Verla Kay’s Blueboarders, all make up a small part of my own army of writer friends. I would be lost without them!
My advice to writers starting out is to read, surround yourself with people who love to read and write, and write as much as you can, as well as you can.
Kristen: What's next for you?
Nikki: I’m expecting an editorial letter any day now for the book my editor and I just decided will be my next, and probably will be released in early 2014. It’s the book of my heart, if you know what that means, so I’m thrilled. Nightingale’s Nest will be another fairy tale re-imagining, this time of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” one of the lesser-known major fairy tales. (There’s no princess for Disney to feature.) This book deals with some disturbing themes, and is more magical realism than straight-up fantasy. But who knows? It could be a mystery by the time edits are complete!
Kristen: What writing secret will you reveal only under the harsh lights of The Interrogation Room?
Nikki: Um… that Lindt Extra Dark Orange chocolate bars are the secret to writing three or four manuscripts a year? Yeah, it’s true.
We'll stock up! Thanks so much for coming in for questioning, Nikki. We're all looking forward to August 21, when The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy comes out. In the meantime, thanks for giving away an ARC to one lucky winner!
Nikki lives with her Scottish photographer husband just outside Austin, Texas, surrounded by dogs, chickens, and, small, loud boys. You can visit her online at www.nikkiloftin.com and find out more about her debut at www.SplendidAcademy.com.
This interrogation was conducted by Sleuths, Spies, and Alibis "Detective" Kristen Kittscher, author of upcoming middle grade mystery debut THE WIG IN THE WINDOW (Harper Children's, Summer 2013)