Skip to main content

Interview: November 2008

November 2008

Nancy Werlin is the author of seven novels for young adults, including DOUBLE HELIX, THE RULES OF SURVIVAL and the newly released IMPOSSIBLE, which combines romantic suspense and fantasy in a tale about a young woman who discovers that, as the result of a family curse, she must perform three seemingly impossible tasks in order to save her unborn daughter.
In this interview with's Chris Shanley-Dillman, Werlin explains how the plot arose from listening to "Scarborough Fair" --- a centuries-old ballad popularized by Simon & Garfunkel in the 1960s --- and discusses the metaphor behind the story's villainous Elfin Knight. She also talks about how this book thematically differs from many of today's YA novels, shares her thoughts on blessings and curses, and reveals details about her next manuscript, which was inspired by a song from the musical Wicked. How did you come up with the plot of IMPOSSIBLE?
Nancy Werlin: The general outlines of the plot are clearly suggested in the originating ballad, "Scarborough Fair" (a.k.a. The Elfin Knight). So even before I had characters or setting, motivations or theme, I knew there would be a girl who would need to perform (or try to perform) those three impossible tasks. As for the rest of the plot, well, I figured it out in the course of writing one draft after another. (I never outline in advance.)
TRC: At what point did you come up with the title?
NW: I’m terrible with titles. For a long time, the book was called “Untitled Scarborough Fair novel.” Then I called it “The Elfin Knight,” based on one line of versions of the originating ancient folk song. But that, too, was really only a working title, and eventually --- at the second draft stage, I think --- my editor, Lauri Hornik, suggested the title IMPOSSIBLE, based on the impossibility of the three tasks. And I thought: Yes, that’s it!
TRC: Your characters of Lucy, Zach, Soledad, Leo and Miranda are colorful and captivating. Do you have a favorite character?
NW: I love them all. It was pure joy to work with characters so warm and loyal and loving, so very much a family. Lucy is dearest to me, in her pragmatism and vulnerability, but I’ll note that there’s a particular moment that makes me adore Zach. It’s when he says, “We’ve formed the fellowship of the Ring when we should’ve all just gone on medication.” And then there was his duct tape marriage proposal. How much did I enjoy writing that scene? So romantic!
As to the parents --- Soledad, Leo and Miranda --- I only wish that every child had the benefit of love like theirs.
TRC: How are you similar to your likable and relatable main character, Lucy Scarborough? How are you different?
NW: I am practical and logical, like Lucy. Like her, I’ve been fortunate in my parents, and like her, I’ve had some extraordinary luck in my friendships, particularly in my wonderful women friends. I am not the slightest bit athletic, though! And I think that when I was Lucy’s age, my thoughts on love were much more like those of Lucy’s friend Sarah Hebert than like Lucy’s. I thought suffering was romantic; I was attracted to difficulty.
TRC: The relationship between Lucy and the boy next door, Zach, is so sweet and romantic. Did the inspiration for this come from an event in your own life? 
NW: Well…yes! I met my own true love, Jim McCoy, while I was writing IMPOSSIBLE. Though I had already written much of the first draft by that point, I am a writer whose work comes alive (and changes drastically) during revisions, and so the experience of being in love, of feeling an immediate rightness that was like nothing I’d ever felt before --- a rightness that incorporated an extraordinary friendship and trust into the romance as well --- marked the book very strongly.
By the way, Jim and I are getting married this month (November, 2008), and curious readers can check him out –-- he blogs for me! --– at this URL:
There will likely be wedding pictures!
TRC: Your character of the Elfin Knight is very creepy. What makes him the way he is? Has he ever crossed over from your imagination into your nightmares?
NW: I deliberately wrote the book in such a way that it is impossible to understand the Elfin Knight’s motivations completely. We are allowed in the book to see very little of his life and world. What we do learn is that he is obsessed and harbors a grudge over having been rejected by Fenella Scarborough, Lucy’s ancestress, hundreds of years ago. He calls that grudge “true love.”
It is, of course, control he wants, not love. He has magical abilities that aid him in exerting this control.
While the Elfin Knight is an imaginary creature, there are real people in this world who prey on others and call it love. They may not have magic, but there are other ways to exert control and ruin lives. The Elfin Knight is a metaphor for so-called lovers who want only to control.
TRC: When did your interest in the song "Scarborough Fair" begin? Have you heard any reaction from Paul Simon about this book? Do you know if he has seen it?
NW: My interest in the song began when I was a teenager and heard the Simon and Garfunkel version of the song for the first time. I loved it and listened to it often; I thought it was romantic then.
I began thinking about the ballad as the seed of a novel only 10 or 12 years ago; the full story of this is on my website here:
I have heard nothing from Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel! However, it needs to be said that the ballad does not belong to them; theirs was one version of it --- a wonderful version --- but only one. A good starting point for research on the history of the song, of which multiple versions (305, in fact) were collected by Francis Child, is on Wikipedia here:
TRC: Tell us about your research.
NW: I read all the versions of the "Scarborough Fair/Elfin Knight" song that I could find, and was greatly aided in this by my friend, the writer Franny Billingsley, who told me about Francis Child, the folklorist who originally collected the 305 different versions of the ballad. And then I thought about them and sifted through discussions of them, and thought some more. This book actually steeped in my imagination for over a decade. During that time, of course, I was reading fantasy, and particularly found that I loved “urban fantasy,” where our real world is integrated into the story alongside the magic. Influential novels were Diana Wynne Jones’s FIRE AND HEMLOCK and Pamela Dean’s TAM LIN, and to a lesser extent AN EARTHLY KNIGHT by Janet McNaughton. All of these (like IMPOSSIBLE) are inspired by a Child ballad, Tam Lin.
Good stuff on Tam Lin is also available on Wikipedia here:
Once I had the song in my mind, though, this novel actually stemmed far more from my imagination than from research.
TRC: Tell us more about the three tasks. How did you come up with the interesting solutions?
NW: The three tasks are as follows:
  1. Make me a shirt without needle or seam.
  2. Buy me an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand (i.e., between the sea and the edge of the sea)
  3. Sow that land using a goat’s horn and a single grain of corn.
Careful readers, by the way, will see where my tasks differ from the tasks in the ballad; in the Simon & Garfunkel “Scarborough Fair,” for example, the land must be reaped with a sickle of leather, and the shirt must be cambric. Also, their version says the land must be found, not bought. And there are some totally different tasks in yet other versions of the ballad.
The solutions. Well, like Lucy, I did not work entirely alone on solving these problems. I went to my friends, and my editor, and to other folks at Penguin one day over lunch, as well. The shirt solution came relatively easily, from my friend Kathleen Sweeney; the remaining tasks posted more difficult problems and several people had various pieces for me that I ended up patching together. There’s more about this in the acknowledgements to IMPOSSIBLE, but I’ll add that the aforementioned true love, Jim McCoy, actually found the land “between the salt water and the sea strand” for me.
TRC: You cleverly created the plot to include a diary, a letter and the love and loyalty of family and friends to assist Lucy in solving her tasks. How would the outcome have differed if Lucy hadn't had this help?
NW: I do not think Lucy could have succeeded without the help of her family and friends. I think that’s the central point of the book and I think it is its theme. You do not have to do everything alone. Ask for help.
In this, perhaps IMPOSSIBLE differs from most young adult novels. We YA writers are told early and often that our characters must solve their problems themselves. Dramatically, this is indeed often the “right” solution. But it seems to me that real life doesn’t always work that way, and this time, for this book, I very much wanted, even needed, to show another pattern, and to suggest that another path to success and personal strength would include reliance on others.
Did I have to sacrifice suspense for it? I don’t think so, but readers will be the ultimate judge.
TRC: In this riveting novel, you deal with some very tricky subjects, like mental illness and rape. How did you handle these issues with such tact and sensitivity?
NW: Thank you. I tried hard. I gave it all I could; all I had.
TRC: At any point during your writing were you uncomfortable with what you were writing? If so, how did you handle this?
NW: All of my books contain some stuff that is difficult to write. Good fiction is always going to be a mix of the light and the dark, and the process of putting myself into my characters’ hearts and minds and bodies and souls while they suffer is not an easy one. But it’s the only way to honestly depict their experience, and honesty is the only way to write books that have a prayer of reaching and moving readers, which is my goal.
A trick I sometimes use to coax myself through writing the darker scenes is the knowledge that I have of what is to come in the novel. So, as I wrote through the darkness, I knew I would have the pleasure, too, of writing that final scene of light and joy. I held it out before myself like a present as I wrote. I knew I would get there. I knew Lucy would get there. And my readers, as they read, will know instinctively that they will get there. I hope.
TRC: Your writing style invites the reader to delve deeply into the pages, so much so that one almost forgets you have written fiction. Were you professionally trained as a writer?
NW: Thank you! I have no professional training whatsoever. I did major in English at college, but took no writing courses (I was too scared and intimidated; my writing peers at college were awfully good).
However, I have been a voracious reader all my life. I believe that reading teaches writing. And I wanted from age 10 to be a writer of fiction; to create what I loved.
TRC: Do you believe in curses? What about blessings?
NW: I absolutely believe in blessings!
Curses, no. I don’t think anybody can direct evil toward you with ill-will alone. That said, I have a little superstition about this. Sometimes in life, somebody is a real problem to you and you find yourself wanting to ill-wish them. What I’ve tried to teach myself to do instead is to think of something wonderful that could happen to them that would, um, as a side effect, take them out of my way.
I had an experience with a terrible neighbor, for example. It was hard not to hate him for his behavior, and I won’t go into details about how nasty he was. My initial instinct was to wish for something rotten to happen to him. But then, I had another idea; I wished for him that he would fall in love, marry and therefore need to move away. And it actually happened. (A side comment: people who are happy are less likely to be miserable to others.) And now I do “well wishing,” not “ill wishing.”
Do I think this has any real power? No, not really. I am too much like Lucy --- too rational --- to believe that. But I know it makes me feel better. And that one time, it did happen...
TRC: This story could easily have been written for adult readers, yet you decided to make it a YA novel. Why did you choose to write for this audience?
NW: Being a YA writer was a decision I made a long time ago. I am always pleased to hear of adult readers, but it amuses me, too, when I hear things like, “It’s good enough to be adult fiction!” I want to respond: “Hello, and welcome to the world of young adult fiction today. Let me introduce you to writers who know how to tell a story, engage the reader, entertain, provoke thought, and make you want to re-read the book. We’re having a golden age, and you’re welcome to join us.”
More seriously, I remember when I was a teenager, a time when reading mattered to me more than anything else in life. When I read a book, and I loved it, I really loved it, and I would read and re-read it multiple times, press it on my friends…I felt passion. What writer would not aspire to engage readers in that way?
TRC: What advice can you give your readers challenged with their own "impossible" tasks?
NW: Believe in yourself, and in others as well. Ask for help. Stay true to yourself. And keep in mind that time changes all things, and that sometimes all you need to do, to get through, is keep taking one small step after another.
TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
NW: I’m working on another urban fantasy, with elves. This story is also inspired by a song, in this case, “For Good,” from the musical Wicked. This time I am not trying to tell a story based on song lyrics, however; the song instead provides emotional inspiration. What I want to do is to tell a story about the intensity of what friendship can be for women. You might say that IMPOSSIBLE was about true love; this book will be about true friendship. There is no title yet.
I can’t yet judge when this book will be done and published, but not before 2010.